Feminism in Central and Eastern Europe: Risks and Possibilities of American Engagement

By Olsen, Frances Elisabeth | The Yale Law Journal, May 1997 | Go to article overview
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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.

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