Heroines under Control: Unexpected Portrayals of Women in the Organ of the Bulgarian Communist Party, 1944-1989

Article excerpt

This is a framing analysis of the news coverage of women's issues in the official newspaper of the Bulgarian Communist Party over three nonconsecutive years. At the start of the Communist regime, women were ideologically constructed as warriors and tearless mothers of lost sons, deserving of complete equality. In the 1960s, the emphasis unexpectedly shifted to fashion and beauty as part of the Party's pronatalist propaganda. The age of perestroika in the late 1980s deconstructed the "double burden" faced by women and suggested social policies to relieve it, while still maintaining that chores were women's work only. Throughout the decades, the ideal Bulgarian woman was seen as androgynous, combining masculine and feminine traits to both contribute to the country's industrialization and birth the next generation of male elites. The analysis shows how quasi-feminist policies offered women limited career fulfillment while maintaining oppressive expectations, such as having sons over daughters, being attractive, and shouldering all household chores.

Keywords Bulgaria, Communism, Eastern Europe, gender roles, ideology, news, women


For much of the second half of the 20th century, women in countries under Soviet influence were encouraged to feel and act as though they were fully equal to men. They were expected to gain power and financial independence by participating in the labor force; simultaneously, they were to continue having children without excessive investment in child rearing, thanks to free or subsidized day care (Clark & Clark, 1987; Fodor, 2002; Harsch, 2007; Rudd, 2000). These Marxist notions of ideal womanhood were reflected in 19th-century European socialists' desire for equality of results, expressed in full economic and social equality between the sexes (Rosenthal, 1979). By contrast, feminists of that era had been asking only for equality of opportunity, which was essentially legal equality within existing social structures. The Communist revolution in Russia (and later in the rest of Eastern Europe) aimed at equality of results and was thus "more audacious in its approach to gender than any revolution before or since" (Moghadam, 1995, p. 335). Lenin ranted against women's status as "domestic slaves" engaged in "petty housework" and "stultifying and crushing drudgery" (p. 336). This unusual stance for a male political leader was later criticized as nothing more than hypocritical political propaganda aimed at recruiting women for the Communist cause during the prerevolutionary years (e.g., Chatterjee, 2002).

Yet Communism deserves some credit for eroding local patriarchies in rural parts of Eastern Europe. For example, before 1945, 95% of women in Albania were illiterate and could not initiate divorce; by contrast, Albanian men could legally beat their wives and divorce them on the grounds of failure to bear a male child, a law which was no longer sanctioned after the installment of a Communist regime in Albania in 1945 (Falkingham & Gionca, 2001). In Central Asia, Communism had some success in banning the head-to-toe veil worn by women in the presence of unrelated men (Northrop, 2004). Even in the more progressive and mostly Christian Russia, the Communist regime had visible effects on the status of women by transforming the churchgoing baba, a term for an uneducated and subservient peasant woman, into a relatively educated and working comrade (Wood, 1997). Literacy for Bulgarian women was reported to be 47% in 1926 (Nestorova, 1996), and overall literacy in Bulgaria was 69% at the start of Communist schooling in 1945 (Darden & Grzymala-Busse, 2006), with an average of 6.5 years of schooling, which was lower for women (Ganzeboom & Nieuwbeerta, 1999). Communism had clearly positive effects: by the 1950s, the gender gap in educational attainment had closed, and the average years of schooling for both Bulgarian men and women had reached 13 by the 1970s (Ganzeboom & Nieuwbeerta, 1999). …