Superwomen & the Double Burden: Women's Experiences of Change in Central & Eastern Europe & the Former Soviet Union // Review

By Corrin, Chris | Resources for Feminist Research, Fall/Winter 1992 | Go to article overview

Superwomen & the Double Burden: Women's Experiences of Change in Central & Eastern Europe & the Former Soviet Union // Review


Corrin, Chris, Resources for Feminist Research


Numerous books and articles have been written about turning capitalism into socialism, and about the implications of this transition for the status of women. For obvious reasons, no comparable literature (either in terms of volume or theoretical sophistication) exists on the historically unprecedented transition from state socialism/communism back to capitalism that is currently underway in many countries in East Central Europe. Superwomen and the Double Burden is an excellent early attempt to remedy this gap in knowledge. While the period since the 1989 revolutionary upheavals in East Central Europe has been too short to come to any definitive conclusions about the nature of the new transition, and about its broader implications for the status of women, certain trends in key areas of women's experience are nonetheless quite clear. As in any revolutionary transition, there have been both continuities and discontinuities.

Superwomen and the Double Burden examines women's experience in the comparative contexts of Hungary, Poland and four states which no longer exist: the German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. Written by a collective of Western, expatriate and indigenous feminist scholars and activists, the book should finally put to rest the myth that women in state socialist societies were somehow "better off" than their Western counterparts. True, women in most of these countries (with the exception of Yugoslavia) had the highest rates of labour force participation in the world; state provisions for extended maternity leave and childcare were relatively generous (especially in the GDR); and access to abortion was quite easy. Women thus had a considerable degree of choice about their fertility, and when to return to work after childbirth. However, in most of the countries under review, and especially in the Soviet Union, the treatment of women having abortions or giving birth in state hospitals was quite appalling. The quality of state childcare facilities was also very poor. Low standards were manifested in such things as high rates of sickness among children, high child - to - care - giver ratios, and impersonal or over - regimented attitudes towards children by the predominantly female staff. Thus many parents were reluctant to place their children in state day care institutions, and with the possible exception of the GDR, the closure of many day care facilities in the post - communist period has created little controversy.

There was a significant gap between what was offered to women by the overtly patriarchal communist party - state and how such equality was experienced. As Hilary Pilkington so eloquently argues in her chapter on Russia and the former Soviet republics, "women's experience of the 'combination' of roles of mother and worker has not been a liberating one in which they might choose different life patterns involving either or both of these 'roles.' On the contrary, it has been an oppressive experience, obliging women to perform both roles with little help either from the state or their partners" (p. 191). The practical exigencies stemming from the double burden entailed by the official conceptualization of women as mothers and workers (without corresponding classification of men as workers and fathers), by the low priority assigned by the communist party - state to consumer goods and services, and by the overall poor working and living conditions, meant that many women in state socialist societies regarded their gainful employment more as a societal obligation than as a freely chosen route to their emancipation. Moreover, as Pilkington points has been of a nature which demands little personal out, the work itself "has been of a nature which demands little personal involvement and initiative. Women have been integrated into the labour force in a way that has allowed them to become ghettoized in low - pay, low - prestige areas of the economy traditionally referred to as the "non - productive" industries. …

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