Theoretical Issues of Gender in the Transition from Socialist Regimes

Article excerpt

The majority of studies on the economic and political reforms in Eastern and Central Europe have failed to explicitly consider how men and women are differently affected by the transition from command to market economies.(1) This failure is likely to have serious consequences for the economic and social well-being of women and children, who currently seem to be bearing a disproportionate share of the costs of adjustment.

This paper discusses the transition in a theoretical and analytical framework that explicitly deals with issues of gender. Such a discussion can deepen our understanding of the recent changes in the political sphere, the labor market, and in the domestic realm. It throws light on the ways in which current developments are related to the implicit and explicit view of the proper roles for men and women prevailing in different political regimes.

It is now documented in some detail that women's roles in Eastern and Central European countries have been reoriented toward the private sphere as their participation in the public sphere has become increasingly constrained. The hardships associated with the drop in national output and average earnings, experienced in all the economies of Eastern and Central Europe since 1989, and the associated increase in the rates of unemployment have not been "gender-neutral." The first part of this paper thus provides a brief overview of the impact on women's economic, political, and social positions based on recent empirical studies.

The main emphasis of the paper, however, is on providing a context for understanding how the current changes are perceived from different perspectives. It explores the background for the tensions between Western observers and the people in the Eastern and Central European countries who are struggling with the process of transition on a daily basis. There are, perhaps not surprisingly, serious disagreements about which social and labor market policies best represent and advance women's interests. The very notion that we can talk about a common interest among women may itself be a suspect idea. It seems that the different historical backgrounds and aspirations of women on the two sides make an East-West dialogue difficult.(2)

I will argue that the differences in perspective must be considered along three different dimensions. First, we can identify, within a given political regime, the articulation of two distinct views of women's nature: the essentialist and the social constructionist view.(3) Second, we can identify how these distinct views of gender relations have been articulated in the philosophical underpinnings of the two political regimes, the liberal democratic regimes in the West and the socialist regimes of Eastern and Central Europe.(4) Finally, we can examine and contrast how these views about gender have actually been articulated in social and institutional arrangements of gender relations in Western societies and in the communist countries, i.e., in what has been called the "historical experiment of really existing socialism" [Havelkova 1993, 63].

It is thus not the case that a given political regime determines - or is associated with - a certain gender perspective in a one-to-one relationship. We have to consider three dimensions of the question simultaneously to get an idea of how gender, political theory, and social reality are historically connected at certain points in time.

The liberal tradition embraces a gendered distinction between public and private spheres, and it prescribes different and complementary activities for men and women. In contrast, the socialist tradition articulates its position on gender relations, or the "Woman Question," in the historically determined framework of a sphere of production and a sphere of reproduction, where social reproduction is subordinate to and determined by the social relations of production.

Because different political ideologies are expressed in the social fabric of society, very similar beliefs about men's and women's natures are not articulated in the same way in the political, economic, and social institutions in the two kinds of regimes. …