Feminism in Central and Eastern Europe: Risks and Possibilities of American Engagement
Olsen, Frances Elisabeth, The Yale Law Journal
Alice described the Looking-glass House: "First, there's the room you can see through the glass-that's just the same as our drawing-room, only the things go the other way.... [T]he books are something like our books, only the words go the wrong way."(1) As the looking glass was hanging right over the fireplace, Alice could not see whether the Looking-glass House really had a fireplace with a fire in it, as their room did. "[Y]ou never can tell, you know, unless our fire smokes, and then smoke comes up in that room too -- but that may be only pretense, just to make it look as if they had a fire."(2) When she entered the Looking-glass House, the fireplace was the first thing Alice checked, and "she was quite pleased to find that there was a real [fire], blazing away as brightly as the one she had left behind."(3) But as she began looking about, she "noticed that what could be seen from the old room was quite common and uninteresting, but that all the rest was as different as possible."(4)
Some Western observers see the countries of Central and Eastern Europe much as Alice saw the Looking-glass House: The stodgy supporters of the status quo are the Communists; the local Catholic Church hierarchy extols the value of democracy; and every election results in a decrease in the number of women representatives in government.(5) Westerners often wonder whether the notion of women's equality, extolled by these governments for some forty-odd years,(6) was merely a pretense or whether, like the fireplace fire, it will turn out to have been blazing away brightly. They may wonder how much in these countries is actually "common and uninteresting" and how much of what was previously unseen may turn out to be "as different as possible." Like Alice, Westerners are likely to slip easily from the view that things in Central and Eastern Europe "go the other way" to the view that they "go the wrong way."
Europe was not separated by a looking glass, but by the "iron curtain" that Winston Churchill announced in 1946 had "descended across" Europe "[flrom Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic."(7) This "iron curtain" was thought to divide Europe between the advanced Western democracies and the more backward countries floundering under the shadow of the Soviet Union, referred to by Churchill as "these Eastern States of Europe."(8) This division of Europe into East and West mirrored the "Orientalist"(9) division of the world between the advanced West and the backward East, and reinforced the self-definition of Western Europe as modern and democratic.(10) In reality, of course, Switzerland did not allow women to vote,(11) and Spain was a fascist dictatorship.(12)
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the substantial changes in Central and Eastern Europe, the "iron curtain" is gone. Yet the division of Europe between East and West remains almost as stark as ever. The cultural and political condescension toward Eastern Europe during the Cold War era may be replaced by a similar condescension toward the countries in transition.(13) Although it might be argued that the changes since the transitions began in 1989 have made "the very idea of Eastern Europe, as a distinct geopolitical entity for focused academic analysis ... dubious and equivocal,"(14) habits of thought persist. Moreover, the legacy of the "iron curtain" provides many bases that link together the countries of the region.(15)
The situation of women throughout most of Central and Eastern Europe has in many respects worsened since the transition.(16) In most of the countries, unemployment is generally high and especially high among women.(17) Discrimination against women has increased as governments have failed to enforce existing antidiscrimination provisions(18) and some conservative and nationalist regimes have even promoted discriminatory policies to limit women's roles.(19) The transition to a market economy has precipitated a decline in social and public services, including sharp decreases in the availability of child care facilities.(20) Sexual abuse and domestic violence appear to be increasing, and little is being done to stop them.(21) Reproductive freedom has become a serious issue in a number of countries, with several governments proposing or enacting laws against abortion.(22) Prostitution is on the rise, and the working conditions of women and girls in prostitution are especially harsh and dangerous.(23)
As the wall carne down, Americans and Western Europeans began to flock to Central and Eastern Europe. These flocks included entrepreneurs of various kinds, opportunists, do-gooders, religious missionaries, and others, including feminists.(24) The feminists, not surprisingly, have been particularly interested in the role and status of women and how the transition affects that role and status. This Essay examines the situation of women in Central and Eastern Europe from a (West) European-American perspective, and explores the value and risks of this perspective and of American feminist work in Central and Eastern Europe in general. My goal is to improve communication and increase the effectiveness of the exchanges between women from the United States (and perhaps Western Europe)(25) and women from Central and Eastern Europe. While some of these gestures at global sisterhood have been productive,(26) the exchange has also been lopsided and inadvertently accompanied by a patronizing attitude that reduces its usefulness to women in Central and Eastern Europe and limits the value of the experience to women in the United States. This Essay seeks to understand and thus to decr-ease the factors that limit the effectiveness of efforts at international women's alliances. It addresses in a concrete context a number of issues that have received considerable theoretical attention: cultural imperialism, cultural relativism, international feminism, universalism, essentialism, and the possibilities of international feminist politics.(27)
Although Central and Eastern Europe has never been the focus of my work, or even of my international work, my associations with the region go back thirty years.(28) In 1967, 1 visited most of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe,(29) including a week-long study tour of Poland organized by the Danish Social Democrats. In the early spring of 1989, before the transition, I was in Hungary for a ten-day lecture tour.(30) I made several trips to Yugoslavia before the transition and in Croatia observed the referendum on independence held in May 1991. In addition, I have presented numerous lectures, consulted with academics and activists, and visited a wide variety of institutions in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and the former East Germany. I maintain close ties with the University of Berlin (Humboldt), where a program on feminist law I initiated and nurtured is now in its fourth year.(31) In the fall of 1996, I conducted a concentrated course on feminist legal theory at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, presented numerous additional lectures, gave interviews, and consulted with academics, politicians, judges, feminist activists, and others.
Part I of this Essay briefly examines the basic notion of "Central and Eastern Europe." Although perhaps an improvement on "Eastern Europe," the category nevertheless conceptualizes the region as different from and inferior to Western Europe. Like so many other oppressive constructions, however, the concept should be utilized at the same time that it is deconstructed. Part II considers the classic critiques of Western feminism and how they might apply to the activities of American feminists working in Central and Eastern Europe. While agreeing with many of these critiques, I argue that a number of bases for alliance among women exist and that forging such alliances is a particularly important feminist project. Part III examines some of the lessons that can be learned from Central and Eastern Europe and suggests that American women need to recognize that working abroad serves their own self-interest. By acknowledging as much, women can begin to counteract the hypocrisy and pervasive domination embedded in present concepts of international altruism. Part IV examines some of the ways in which women in Central and Eastern Europe can benefit and have benefitted from American feminist involvement. It challenges the ways in which antifeminist critics have attempted to portray nationally subordinated women as passive victims of Western feminist domination. The question is not what Americans can do to help, but rather whether and how women in Central and Eastern Europe can make use of American feminist involvement.
I. The Construction of "Eastern Europe"
and "Central and Eastern Europe"
One should interrogate the category "Central and Eastern Europe." Do the people in this geographic region have enough in common to be treated as a group? Or do their differences overshadow their commonalities? The countries of Central and Eastern Europe share at least two particularly important circumstances. First, the region was to a great extent treated as a unit by the United States throughout the Cold War. All the countries were at that time considered part of the Soviet Bloc and they are all now considered to be democracies, to one extent or another. Second, neoliberal economic policies currently play a crucial role in each of the countries.(32)
The idea that Europe consisted of a modern western portion and a less advanced and less civilized eastern portion is not a recent construction but one that arose during the Enlightenment. During the early Renaissance, Europe was considered to be divided between the barbarian Kingdoms of the North and the refined and cultured Italy in the South.(33) As Larry Wolff has shown, the idea of Eastern Europe was constructed during the eighteenth century "as a work of cultural creation, of intellectual artifice, of ideological self-interest and self-promotion."(34)
The cultural condescension that the Italian humanists had expressed toward the barbarian North was replaced with a similar condescension of the Enlightenment centers of Paris, Amsterdam, and London toward the backward countries of Eastern Europe.(35) An important question for those concerned with the people of Central and Eastern Europe is whether the West can overcome the constructions of the Cold War without resorting to the pattern of the Enlightenment: "the assumption of intellectual mastery by which Eastern Europe was made to offer itself up to the `gaze' of travelers ... to become an object of analysis for the Enlightenment."(36) Eastern Europe remains a battleground where Westerners fight their intellectual battles with one another. Can American feminists hope to break any of these patterns, or are they likely simply to continue them?
A peculiar quality of "Eastern Europe" is that many would like to opt out of it. This was one of the impulses behind the resurrection of the idea of "Middle Europe" or "Central Europe" in the 1980s. Yugoslavia, for example, could easily be said to belong neither to "Eastern Europe" nor to "Central Europe." A Yugoslav woman living in the United States complained in a 1995 publication that when she was asked to speak about women in Yugoslavia, she had to "position [her]self as East European, or devote the whole time allotted ... to explaining why this classification should not be taken for granted; that, in other words, Yugoslavia in its own eyes had not been an Eastern Bloc country."(37) In the United States, the right wing has always referred to the European countries inside the Iron Curtain as "Eastern Europe." There has been a complex debate going on for some years regarding the boundaries of "Eastern Europe" and the status of the category "Central Europe." In this Essay, I follow the terminology common among feminists and the American left and refer to the countries in transition as "Central and Eastern Europe." Whether one can call this less Orientalist (or demi-Orientalist) than Eastern Europe" is uncertain, but it at least avoids some of the associations with the right-wing use of "Eastern Europe."(38) Without denying the role any such terminology plays in constructing as well as studying the region, I would intend to acknowledge the many differences among the countries as well as the commonalities.
II. GENERAL CRITIQUES OF Western OR AMERICAN FEMINIST
IMPERIALISM AS APPLIED TO CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE
I do not presume to avoid the mistakes of my brethren and sisters and make Eastern Europe a subject of study rather than an object of construction. Rather, I propose to examine the role of women in the ongoing constructions of Eastern Europe, Central Europe, and Central and Eastern Europe. In this Part, I examine the standard critiques of Western feminism and compare the critique of European-American feminists by African-American feminists to the critique of Western feminists by Third World women. I then examine the applicability of the critique to Central and Eastern Europe.
A. General Critiques
Growing numbers of commentators question whether international collective activity can be effective when the kind of self-centered analysis suggested by the Looking-glass metaphor is so common, even among feminists and other progressive Americans.(39) White middle-class feminists have been criticized for trying to make themselves the measure of all things feminist.(40) Just as feminists accuse men of considering themselves the norm and constituting women as Other,(41) critics accuse American women of holding themselves up as the norm against which to compare Other women -- poor, nonwhite, foreign -- and usually finding these Others wanting.(42) To the extent that Westerners view Central and Eastern Europeans as Other, it is argued, they will never understand the region or be able to help its people.
The criticism leveled against Western feminists goes further. In the context of a world system dominated by the West, Western feminists are said to contribute to imperialism by assuming that all women must have similar interests and needs that transcend ethnic, class, and other differences.(43) Too often, feminists assume sisterhood simply on the basis of shared gender or a notion of the universal oppression of women as a group by men as a group. It is supposedly a crucial assumption of feminism that all women, across classes and cultures, somehow constitute a more or less homogeneous group that can be identified and used as a category for analysis prior to the process of analysis. Yet, in the words of one of the sharpest critics, "[t]here is ... no universal patriarchal framework ... [for feminist scholars] to counter and resist -- unless one posits an international male conspiracy or a monolithic, ahistorical power structure."(44)
Two of the charges frequently leveled against Western feminists are that they participate in the imperialism of the West in general and that they homogenize women by assuming that they can adequately represent all women. These two critiques can be in some senses sharply contrasted. Imperialism leads one to distinguish the self from the other, generally valorizing the self as more advanced, civilized, liberated, and so forth. Homogenization, however, leads one to see the similarities between all women, whether those similarities actually exist or not. Whether one emphasizes similarities or differences is always already a political question that depends upon the particular context and on political goals.
In the context of the Third World, feminists can inadvertently support imperialism if they allow the status of women to be used to justify imperialist projects. The protest of British feminists over the condition of women in India, where, for example, widows were forced or convinced to immolate themselves on the funeral pyre of their husband,(45) may have provided support to England's claim that it was civilizing that part of its Empire. American women express the same kind of fascination and horror toward the practice of infibulation, sometimes referred to benignly as female circumcision or more negatively as female genital mutilation (FGM). The right question about infibulation is not whether it is a good practice or a bad one: The mere fact that the practice in many regions may be in the control of women does not justify it any more than women plastic surgeons make breast augmentation surgery good operations in the United States. A more salient concern, too often overlooked, is whether Western feminists channel disproportionate Third World resources to this issue. Infibulation has probably taken on increased importance because of the American fascination with the practice.(46) African women who work against infibulation are more likely to receive positive attention from feminists in the West than are those who work against other manifestations of sexism that may be even more important to most African women, such as poverty or maternal mortality rates.(47) Perhaps maternal mortality rates will become a more fashionable issue as American women focus attention on the misallocation of medical care in the United States (48) and see a parallel with the lack of adequate prenatal care in many parts of Africa. In neither case, however, would the attention paid to the issue be likely to reflect its actual importance to African girls and women.
The feminist agenda may be similarly skewed in Central and Eastern Europe. For example, American feminists currently tend to focus considerable attention on domestic violence in Central and Eastern Europe in part because it is an especially important issue in the United States. Without denying that domestic violence is an important issue, it may be as useful to recognize the different roles that violence and poverty play in different countries. Addressing economic issues may do more to improve the lives of Central and Eastern European women and even to decrease the violence they suffer in their homes. Domestic violence cuts across economic lines, but increased economic distress leads to increased violence.(49)
To take another example, Western women often think in a simple, noncontextual way of how they would feel about having to cover their entire bodies and view the veil as a simple form of subordination of women.(50) If they were to focus instead on the complex combination of coercion and ideological instilling of desire that drives women to adopt the veil,(51) perhaps they would begin to recognize similar factors at play in women adopting uncomfortable, high- or even spike-heel shoes -- in part to look professional and obtain and retain employment, in part to feel elegant or "feminine" -- despite clear medical evidence of the health dangers of wearing such shoes.(52)
B. Feminists in Central and Eastern Europe
Small armies of feminists are marching into Central and Eastern Europe measuring women's unemployment, documenting violence against women and proposing laws to deal with it, examining abortion laws and studying women's struggles for reproductive freedom, and performing various other functions.(53) Some of these feminists come from Western Europe; many come from the United States.(54) An East German friend recently commented to me(55) that she knows of many American feminists who are conducting studies in Eastern Europe and are engaged in feminist activism there, but who do not seem to be "doing politics"(56) in the United States, and she wondered why. How would Americans feel, she mused, if Eastern Europeans began flocking to the United States to study our problems and to advise American women?
Without disputing the relevance of recognizing the historical specificity of' the situation of women in particular social and power networks, this Essay affirms the value and importance of feminist work in the context of Central and Eastern Europe. A patriarchal framework, while not universal, in fact underlies much of political thought animating Western political discourse. Throughout Europe and North America, at least, there is no need for men to conspire: Men identify with other men and notice and object more if a policy will hurt men than if it will hurt women.(57) This is institutional sexism, and it functions through conscious and unconscious discrimination; women must counter and resist it for the sake of a better world for all -- men and children, as well as women. A political alliance cannot be taken for granted or assumed on the basis of gender, but it can and should be forged through feminist political practice and analysis.
The same kinds of problems of exclusion and domination, misunderstanding and "essentialism" that have marked relations between African-American women and European-American women within the United States(58) reappear in the international context, with economic domination and cultural imperialism taking the place of racism. The rich literature and the growing body of political experience regarding feminist race relations" may facilitate understanding and alliance between American women and the women of Central and Eastern Europe.
One lesson from American feminist race relations is that there are twin dangers when any member of the dominant group (white women in the United States, Americans or Western Europeans in the context of Central and Eastern Europe) either fails to write about or chooses to write about the subordinated group."(60) American women must take account of Central and Eastern Europe to understand social change. American feminist analysis suffers from its insularity; American women should take greater responsibility for the policies of the American government and of other powerful policymakers.
Yet there is always the risk that writing about women in Central and Eastern Europe will amount to an act of appropriation and will be a misrepresentation. Such scholarship, especially by an American, may seem to "produce" a singular, monolithic image of "Central and Eastern European woman." Any effort to analyze or codify scholarship and knowledge about a group of women creates or makes use of categories that in turn affect the nature of the analysis.(61) These analytic categories are generally defined by feminist interests as articulated by Western women. Taking the West as a primary referent for the theory and practice of women in Central and Eastern Europe has obvious problems.
American feminist work in Central and Eastern Europe has in practice many of the problems identified in theory. In practice, United States feminists may constitute Central and Eastern European women as an "Other," validating the progressiveness of the United States.(62) (Central and Eastern Europe serves as the "Other" that Western Europe increasingly refuses to be.) In practice, American feminists may essentialize and homogenize Central and Eastern European women. Westerners tend to pay attention to a small number of women they come to know, often inviting the same small group of women to every conference and indirectly …
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Publication information: Article title: Feminism in Central and Eastern Europe: Risks and Possibilities of American Engagement. Contributors: Olsen, Frances Elisabeth - Author. Journal title: The Yale Law Journal. Volume: 106. Issue: 7 Publication date: May 1997. Page number: 2215+. © 2009 Yale University, School of Law. COPYRIGHT 1997 Gale Group.
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