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The liberation of women

Kristen R. Ghodsee (1970) is an award-winning Professor of Russian and East European Studies and a Member of the Graduate Group in Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her articles and essays have been translated into over twenty-five languages and have appeared in publications such as Dissent, Foreign Affairs, Jacobin, The Baffler, The New Republic, Quartz, NBC Think, The Lancet, Project Syndicate, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung, The Washington Post, and the New York Times. She is also the author of ten books, including: Second World, Second Sex: Socialist Women’s Activism and Global Solidarity during the Cold War (Duke University Press, 2019) and Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence (Bold Type Books, 2018 and 2020), which has already had fourteen international editions. Her latest book is Taking Stock of the Shock: Social Impacts of the 1989 Revolutions, co-authored with Mitchell A. Orenstein and published by Oxford University Press in 2021.

Photo credit by Elena Hmeleva

Did the capitalist unregulated labor and capital market during this pandemic bring to the surface all the anomalies of the capitalist economic system and raise again the question of its sustainability and justification?

KG: Without a doubt, the pandemic revealed how fragile and exploitative the capitalist economic system is, particularly to those who have traditionally been viewed as having primary responsibility for raising the next generation. Women across the world found out that the traditional nuclear family built on patriarchal gender roles is capitalism’s back up plan. In the absence of robust social safety nets, our societies expect women to be a reserve army of workers or caregivers depending on the needs of the market. Despite over fifty years of liberal feminist attempts to promote gender justice, the larger structural inequalities baked into the system persist. Women pay a heavy price in our growth-obsessed societies where the very real labor involved in bearing and raising the next generation of citizens is assigned no formal economic value. The coronavirus pandemic made it clear that economic and political elites benefit from an austerity-induced emaciated state because they can fully outsource (for free) the production of their future workers, consumers, and taxpayers to individual caregivers.         

In one of your co-authored texts I recently read that, the region’s high degree of vaccine skepticism and surging death rates do not reflect the lingering effects of decades of communist rule, but rather the decades-long social consequences of its collapse. Many countries in the region have not yet reversed the profound erosion of public trust that began after 1989. To what extent does this anti-civilization approach of the local peoples contribute to the disintegration of their societies and slow them down even more in integration?

KG: Yes, my co-author and I believe that the low level of public trust that distinguishes Eastern Europe is a legacy of the collapse of communism, the deep transitional recessions in many countries, and the failure of post-communist governments to mitigate the effects. While writing our recent book, Taking Stock of Shock: Social Consequences of the 1989 RevolutionsMitchell Orenstein and I explored Eastern Europeans’ lack of public trust using data from the World Values Survey and the Life in Transition Survey produced by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). We generally found that public trust was actually higher under communism. 

In most former communist countries, the World Values Survey reveals a persistent decline in the percentage of those surveyed who agree that “Most people can be trusted.” This decline was more pronounced in countries that suffered a deeper post-communist recession, and it did not reverse when economic growth finally returned. Instead, public trust continued to slide throughout the 1990s. In Bulgaria, between 1995 and 1998, some of the worst years of the transition recession, 23.7% of respondents had faith in their fellow citizens, compared to only 17.1% in 2017-20. In Romania, social trust fell from 17.9% to 12.1% in the same period. 

Even in Poland and the Czech Republic, which enjoyed better economic performance, trust fell during the post-communist transition. In 1989-92, 31.3% of Poles and 30.2% of Czechs believed that most people could be trusted. In 2017-20, that share was significantly lower – just 24.1% and 21.1%, respectively. And while social trust declined across Eastern Europe between 1991 and 2007, it actually increased in Western Europe, showing that this is not a general trend but a specific result of the transition to capitalism. This lack of public trust means a lack of social solidarity, which certainly contributes to societal disintegration. 

Capitalism skillfully uses all its instruments such as egoism, individualism, consumerism, mass consumption, cultural differences, customs and traditions, patriarchal prejudices and patriarchy in general, and chauvinism and sexism, in establishing the division of labor, pushing women into economic dependence, knowing that expects to raise a family. Something that has been prevalent for decades, both in culturally backward countries and in modern and advanced ones, favoring exclusively the masculinity logic of capital. Is the disappearance of this “statistical discrimination” of women in society closely linked to the disappearance of capitalism?

KG: Yes, capitalism uniquely exploits the unpaid labor of primary caregivers who raise the next generation of workers, taxpayers, and consumers. The Covid crisis has shown that when day care centers and schools close, it is mostly women who leave their jobs to come back and take care of the home. Even after decades of liberal feminism, society’s expectations have not changed: women are still expected to take care of the home and do this work for free. Yes, there are more female CEOs and in position of power, but on average women, especially those with children, still suffer from what is called statistical discrimination at work. Their salaries are lower because the perception is that they have more responsibility at home, so they are less reliable for the company. And in the case of a pandemic like Covid, when one spouse has to stay home, it makes sense that it would be the woman since she has a lower salary, on average. As a result, employers find that women are more likely to sacrifice, which encourages them to continue paying them less. The market cannot solve this vicious cycle, and capitalism is directly responsible for this persistent statistical discrimination. 

The great socialist revolutionary Thomas Sankara, or as he is also called, the African Che Guevara, once said “how he hears the roar of women’s silence, and feels the roar of their storm and the fury of their rebellion”, alluding to the exploitation of African women. And, “that there is no real social revolution without the liberation of women.” For, as he says, “women hold the other half of the sky equally, and that no revolution can triumph without the emancipation of women.” Therefore, can the women’s issue in capitalist society be improved today through a feminized social apparatus that bureaucratically manages women’s lives through polite clerks who make sporadic statements about women’s lives?

KG: Absolutely not. And women, particularly African women, have always been on the forefront of revolutionary struggles for national independence and alternatives to capitalism.  The Mozambican independence fighter Josina Machel (1945-1971) once explained that: “We women were even more oppressed than men and therefore we had the right as well as the will and the strength to fight! We insisted on our having military training and being given weapons!” The first president of Mozambique, Samora Machel (1933-1986), also explained that: “The antagonistic contradiction is not between women and men, but between women and the social order, between all exploited people, both women and men, and the social order…Therefore, just as there can be no revolution without the liberation of women, the struggle for women’s emancipation can’t succeed without the victory of the revolution.”

Women in countries like the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia enjoyed a high degree of rights almost a century ago, while today we are witnessing that in Russia and other former Soviet republics and in almost all ex-Yugoslav republics, the abolition of women’s rights is being practiced, while in political theory only declaratively speaks of their implementation. How did it come about that, after so much time, many women’s issues that had a constitutional character and were a pillar of building a socialist society must be brought up?

KG: After 1989 and throughout the 1990s, neoliberal reforms are imposed in Eastern Europe leading to the privatization or the liquidation of many industries in the former socialist countries. Massive unemployment coincides with brutal austerity as state budgets and social safety nets are slashed. During this time, women are deliberately being pushed out of the workforce and reimagined as primary caregivers. One of the ways that postsocialist states tried to reduce the number of unemployed was by saying that women should be homemakers, that their natural responsibility is just to be home, having babies, and cooking meals for their husbands. There are often deliberate government tactics to make it difficult for women to find jobs or to leave the labor force and return after the birth of a child. For example, some governments extended maternity leaves but stopped paying for them (or paid less than before). 

In a newly competitive society which values autonomy and individualism, women are rational economic actors, and make the decision to limit their fertility or forgo childbearing altogether. This, combined with higher mortality rates and outmigration, means that East European populations are shrinking rapidly. Indeed, the fastest shrinking populations in the world are in Eastern Europe, which causes a lot of national anxiety about demographic decline. Rather than blaming the economic system, politicians and nationalists prefer to blame women for being “selfish” and this has led to a backlash against women’s rights. The truth is that capitalism rewards selfishness, and young people are merely making rational decisions about how best to survive in a ruthless and unforgiving economic system with few social safety nets. 

The economic, social, health and educational care of women in socialist countries provided greater independence for women in society, and thus better participation in society and the opportunity to contribute to its construction. Can such empirical evidence from history today change the picture of the women’s issue in developed capitalist countries in the West, but also in less developed, post-socialist ones in the East, given the animosity towards everything that contains the prefix “socialist”?

KG: I hope so! Rights such as abortion, divorce, employment, education and (in some cases) access to contraception were already in place in the East before the West, although it was different in different countries. As early as the 1920s for abortion in the USSR, while in the West women were fighting for the right to vote, to divorce, to higher education and access to property and certain jobs. These feminist movements were generally not interested in the relationship between capitalism and gender inequality. The women’s movement was very different in the Eastern bloc. And the progress achieved in the West in the 1960s was intertwined with the East. And the Cold War helped: the U.S. was concerned about the number of women getting a higher education in Russia. I’m not saying that women in the West owe everything to women in the East, the latter also benefited from the Western feminist movement. But in terms of struggles, the civil rights movement and workers’ rights as well, the Eastern bloc indirectly helped the West, as shown by the work of the historians Mary Dudziak and Sandrine Kott.

A couple of years ago you published a book “Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence”, which in my opinion does not have a controversial title as many claim today, and which was translated in some ex socialist countries of Eastern Europe, which, among other things, talks about the sexual satisfaction of women in the dominant socialist system. How is this work interpreted in the West, having in mind the pharmaceutical model of sexology?

KG: Western sexology tends to be limited to Masters and Johnson’s four phases of sexual response theory, which approaches the subject from the angle of stimulation, which leads to what I would call the “pharamceuticalisation”, which consists of prescribing the right pill or to that you can buy and consume to address possible sexual disorders or dysfunctions. It doesn’t matter if this dysfunction is caused by your stress, your fatigue or by a bad relationship. The capitalist solution is to provide you with a pill, a toy or a dating app to help you find a new partner.

In the socialist regimes, especially in Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany, the approach to sexology was very different. Their first instinct was not to sell you things, but to understand the complexity of sexuality and the factors that influence it. My colleague Agnieszka Kościańska points to the fact that Western sexologists are often psychiatrists or physicians, whereas Eastern sexologists are also trained in philosophy and sociology. They conceive sexuality as a social phenomenon and, as a result, are more aware of the precarious grind that can be produced by contemporary capitalism. It is difficult to take care of our intimate relationships when we are subjected to precariousness. When you are exhausted, when you are anxious about money or fear of unemployment, when you are in a precarious situation and worried about your future, it is much harder to find the energy to maintain a fulfilling relationship.

Given that modern corporate feminism sleeps in the same bed with capitalism, because it is “trampled and infected by very limited bourgeois minds, and that bourgeois feminists today wave leftist flags and wave leftist flags without fully understanding the matter because they do not have  the potential to criticize one’s own privileges in society, and to reconsider one’s anachronistic beliefs, “says Italian-American feminist Camille Paglia. To what extent can such an usurpation of the space of feminism in the political framework be disastrous in terms of emancipation and the rights of women who belong to the working class and do not have this bourgeois protection mechanism in their hands?

KG: Nancy Fraser, Susan Faludi, and others have argued that Western feminism has been co-opted by the economic project of neoliberalism, with its fetishization of unfettered free markets, emaciated states, and dismantled social safety nets. In 2009, Fraser published a stunning critique of contemporary liberal feminism’s abandonment of social justice issues and its narrow focus on identity politics. The article, “Feminism, Capitalism, and the Cunning of History,” outlined how, “the dream of women’s emancipation [was] harnessed to the engine of capitalist accumulation.” Rather than challenging the structures of inequality that oppressed women, liberal feminists unwittingly paved the way for the expansion of an economic system that ultimately increased the wealth and power of patriarchal, capitalist elites. We need a feminist discourse that does not only work for a few elite women at the top of the income distribution, but struggles together with all working people (including men) for a more just, sustainable and equitable world. 

Interview was prepared and made by Gordan Stošević

Posted on January 1, 2022 by Il Grido del Popolo©

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