Illustration Ragni Svensson

Illustration Ragni Svensson

Reviews Path dependency and gender norms. Governance and “doing gender”

Gendering postsocialism: old legacies and new hierarchies, Yulia Gradskova and Ildikó Asztalos Morell, Eds.. 2018. London ; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2019:1. Vol. XII. pp 80-82
Published on on March 26, 2019

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The volume Gendering Postsocialism, as its title suggests, offers a gendered account of the postsocialist transformations in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. While it contains snapshots of contemporary social phenomena, it also covers around 100 years of social history. If one may bitterly joke about it, it shows how indeed there is no such thing as “gender” in itself. On the contrary, gender is everywhere. Conceptions of gender roles inform not only social and economic policies and ideas of motherhood and access to housing and higher education and unemployed men’s coping strategies also all have gendered consequences. The history of the postsocialist region during the last century can be re-narrated as a series of gendered decisions with gendered impact on social actors’ life opportunities.

However, writing history is not the aim of the volume. Although in many respects its approach is historical in nature — the objects of study being embedded in a historical context — the objective of the volume is to give an interpretation of postsocialist social processes through the gender lens. More precisely, its main research question is how did gender norms evolve during the last decades in the region and how do structures, material conditions, and norms interact in shaping the meaning of being “men” and “women”. Furthermore, the very focus of the volume is to understand how past regimes impact on contemporary understandings of gender.

Thus, the central concept of the texts included in the volume is that of gender norms. Nevertheless, this is not a collection of surveys and qualitative analyses of population attitudes towards gender roles and norms, but is an attempt to identify the norms as they are reflected by social practices, institutions, cultural products, and discourses. This approach is based on the concept of “doing gender”, that is, the complex set of interactions between norms, social institutions, and practices.

The volume comprises fourteen chapters grouped into four larger sections. Together with its two editors, fifteen authors contributed to the texts covering in total ten countries (eleven with Japan as a host country of Russian migrant women), including Russia, Ukraine, Bosnia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Georgia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Lithuania and Poland. Of the fourteen chapters five are either comparative approaches or revolve around encounters between different cultures and countries. One text compares the Tadjik and Uzbek systems of education, while others provide analyses of power relations between Bosnian NGOs and their Swedish donors, Russia as a host country for care work migrants from Central Asian countries, or Roma women NGOs and the Hungarian state. The chapters are all the written versions of presentations given at a 2015 Congress in Japan.

In spite of the diverse methodologies applied by the authors — which is one of the strengths of the volume — all texts follow a similar pattern of acknowledging the historical paths of the phenomena that are being studied. One can only assume that the approach that embeds the analysis in a historical context linking present social problems to their antecedents and roots in the socialist and pre-socialist past is part of the editorial vision. All chapters share similar structures based on the assumption that contemporary social forms and cultural practices have evolved and can only be understood through the study of past evolutions of society. Lastly, beyond methodological diversity and editorial input a third positive aspect of the volume is its inductive approach to understanding particular social contexts and experiences. Individual chapters are rich in empirical material collected through interviews, oral histories, and analyses of official texts or already existing written documents. It is not pre-existing theories that guide the data analysis, but on the contrary, interpretations and theoretical models are built on the thorough and systematic analysis of the data. This methodological rigor leads to the fourth strength of the volume, namely that it succeeds in overcoming the homogenizing understanding of Eastern Europe struggling with similar legacies and similar contemporary problems. This I consider a very important theoretical and also in a way a political accomplishment given the risks for this region to become the absolute oriental “Other” of Western democracies.

The central thesis of all the chapters that make up the volume is that during the past decades we have been witnessing a powerful re-traditionalization of gender norms. Most studies included in the book argue that this is in fact a return to a pre-socialist set of norms and values, determined on the one hand by the ideological vacuum created by the dismissal of the socialist ideology and on the other by the neoliberal turn that most societies experienced, not just those in this part of the world. Nevertheless, as most studies point to, in spite of the volume’s title and assumptions widely shared by experts, the collapse of the socialist regime is not the single and most important turning point and cause of the changed trends.

While some texts tackle “classical” themes of gender studies — care work and the inequalities it generates, unequal access to education on its different levels, gender segregation in the labor market, the abortion debate, or motherhood — there are others that provide gendered interpretations of social facts and processes perhaps not typically seen as gendered: such as the value orientation of members of a society’s elite, power relations between the “East” and the “West”, men’s unemployment and their coping strategies, or the movie representations of certain professions.

It is a challenge to summarize thirteen country-focused case studies, thirteen thick descriptions of individual level choices and strategies, narratives and interpretations, or structural-level evolutions of educational opportunities. Nevertheless, here I would like to emphasize two focal points that seem to provide the explanatory framework for almost all of the chapters. In other words, all authors stress the importance of two “explanatory variables” in shaping present phenomena and gender norms. Although the researchers themselves do not use this concept, I would call the first one the “path dependency” approach and the second the normative effects of the neoliberal turn, which impacts contemporary societies on at least two levels. Let us insist on these two factors in the following.

The theory of path dependency is generally used in the understanding of the persistence and resilience of past patterns more or less independently of later evolutions of events or contexts. Given the gender focus of the volume, this path that sets the stage and somehow determines the future evolution of gender norms is twofold. On the one hand it refers to the impact of the socialist regimes in the region with their gender-equalizing projects, while on the other we learn that there is another set of norms and values that still impact today’s gender contracts, that is the pre-war traditional ideology. The ambivalent and contradictory socialist policy for women’s emancipation is well known; motivated by both pragmatic and ideological imperatives, women were pushed into the labor market as a means of erasing past inequalities and patriarchy. However, this pro-ject was coordinated from above by the equally paternalistic state that failed to provide real solutions for the double burden women were supposed to carry. As Barbara Einhorn puts it, while men were defined as producers, women’s roles as producers and reproducers was never really challenged.1

The socialist legacy in how today’s societies regard men and women and their social roles is influenced on many levels by the socialist gender-equality policies. First, the top-down approach and the identification of these objectives with the totalitarian states has made even women reject feminism and the idea of gender equality. Second, its failure to create genuine equality of opportunities is equally responsible for social actors’ turn to conservative values. In this respect, it is important to emphasize that by the end of the eighties, for example, patterns of labor market inequalities had become similar to those that characterized Western societies in terms of an employment gap, wage gap, and labor market and educational segregation. Third, it was not necessarily the collapse of communism that dramatically changed the normative trends, but according to some of the papers included in the volume it was rather the crises of communism emerging in the sixties and the seventies. Already two decades before its collapse, the socialist regime started to reconsider its previous policy to socialize care and household work. Faced with economic hardship, children’s education and household work were being relegated to women, and families were redefined as the primary sites for socialization, education, and the recreation of the producing selves.

The contradictory expectations towards women as caregivers and workers provide the larger context for today’s norms regulating intensive motherhood, a role that is omnipresent both in the region and elsewhere. The withdrawal of the state from the provision of care for the elderly has fueled the increasing demand for migrant care workers. While Russian society relies on women from Central Asian countries, the care chain is much more global, with Central and Eastern Europe featuring as sending countries. Two chapters deal with the situation of educational inequalities. One compares Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, claiming that in spite of roughly equal support and assistance received from international donors for their reforms, the socialist and pre-socialist culture and heritage shape the extent to which women have access to higher education. In a similar manner, technical studies in Hungary are male-dominated, a situation equally determined by past failures of the socialist regime and recent lack of adequate policies.

The inadequate tackling of the patriarchal gender order by socialism and the states’ perceived interference with people’s private lives made traditional, conservative values even more desirable and resilient. These norms have shaped women’s self-perceptions in the Czech oral histories conducted with older women and the meaning of homes as the site of women’s aspirations for harmony in Russia and probably elsewhere. Past trajectories of Eastern European societies have led to the emergence of “male democracies” from which women are more or less excluded and to the persistence of gender segregation in different sectors of the labor market such as the medical services.

Although the empirical data presented in some of the chapters suggest that the phenomenon that we call today re-traditiona-lization can be traced back before the nineties, the new regimes oriented towards liberal democracies and market economies are doubtfully responsible for the hegemony of the neoliberal ideo-logy that has an impact on gender norms on two levels. First, in terms of material possibilities, market fundamentalism, and the state’s lack of involvement in the re-production of human resources, families and especially women are expected to fill the gaps left by the state. This problem is raised by the papers that deal with issues of care for the elderly and for children. On the second level, the hegemony of the market can only be sustained through the ideology of the self-reliant and flexible self and its underlying techniques of governmentality of the self. These norms of full responsibility for one’s successes or failures have become almost completely internalized by unemployed men, as well as by mothers struggling with multiple tasks, by Russian women taking up hostess work in Japan, and sometimes even by female university graduates. It is rare for individuals to challenge or resist such neoliberal norms, even among those who fail to meet the social expectations.

I started this review by emphasizing as one of the volume’s strengths its challenging of the unitary, homogeneous image of Eastern Europe as the “Other” of the West whose specific culture determines the trajectories these societies have followed and will follow. Still, the chapters contribute to a representation of the postsocia-list world as a region where legacies and contemporary political processes shape people’s lives and shape women’s and men’s opportunities differently. Unfortunately, none of these seem to lead towards gender equality. ≈


Barbara Einhorn, Cinderella goes to market: citizenship, gender, and women’s movements in East Central Europe. (London, New York: Verso, 1993.)


  • by Réka Geambașu

    Senior lecturer at Babes-Bolyai University, Faculty of Sociology and Social Work, with a focus on the issues of gender and work, and on gender inequalities.

  • all contributors

Gendering postsocialism: old legacies and new hierarchies, Yulia Gradskova and Ildikó Asztalos Morell, Eds.. 2018. London ; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.