Since 1920 Soviet law has (ostensibly) provided for total equality between men and women in the Soviet Union. This is the picture which the Soviet Union is currently trying to project, particularly at the United Nations and other international forums. The only occupations closed to women, its officials have declared, are those considered to be too "arduous" for women.
What is the true situation?
In 1965 about 60 percent of the women working at an ore enrichment plant in Eastern Siberia were involved in activities listed as "hard physical labor." At another plant women made up more than 70 percent of steel erectors and concrete workers. They are 55 percent of transport workers, 95 percent of crane operators and 97 percent of motor mechanics. Elderly women chip ice and sweep streets in the bleakest of winter mornings.
The foregoing picture by Christian Science Monitor correspondent David Willis, of Soviet women doing the same hard physical work as men, is not confined to one area such as this eastern part of Siberia. In the country as a whole, he wrote, one in every three construction workers is a woman, carrying bricks and mixing cement in sub-zero temperatures. In many factories in Moscow women carry the same heavy loads as men. 1 Gail Lapidus also wrote that in agriculture the overwhelming proportion of women is engaged in heavy manual labor while men move into the newly mechanized jobs. A similar situation, she found, prevailed in industry. 2
Thus the first lesson to be learned in a study of women in the Soviet Union is not to take any Soviet policy statement or statistic at face value. The same applies to any law or constitutional provision the Soviet Union displays to the world. Article 35 of the Soviet Constitution of 1977 proclaims the equal rights between men and women, but every statistic on women's wages compared to men's and on occupational segregation disclaims this provision.
Whenever a movement has been started, independent of the Communist Party or the state, to promote the rights of women, the organizers have been severely dealt with. The founders of the Leningrad women's paper Almanac: Women and Russia were forced into exile in 1980. 3 One of the most incisive recent articles on the problems women face in the Soviet Union and particularly in trying to get some attention for the women's movement in Russia entitled, "It's Time We Began with Ourselves," was written by Tatyana Mamonova , one of those exiled in 1980. 4
Gail Lapidus wrote in her landmark study of women in the Soviet Union