Illustration Karin Sunvisson

Illustration Karin Sunvisson

Reviews The revision of Herstory. Global state socialist women’s activism from a new perspective

Second World, Second Sex: Socialist Women’s Activism and Global Solidarity during the Cold War. Kristen Ghodsee. Duke University Press, 2019, 328 pages.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2019:3, pp 109-110
Published on on December 30, 2019

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Kristen Ghodsee gives a voice to state socialist women’s activism during the 1975 United Nations International Year of Women and the following United Nations Decade for Women 1975—1985. Underlining the importance of cooperation and solidarity among women activists from the Eastern Bloc and the Global South, she demonstrates how these powerful allies dominated the decade’s conferences and situated them on the international stage. This book provides a fascinating narrative of women’s socialist activism, including compelling oral histories, archival sources, and rich photographic illustrations. Two case studies focus on women’s activism in Bulgaria and Zambia. The former was the hub for socialist activists during the decade, while Zambia represented a country from the Global South whose women’s organization stayed in close contact with women from Eastern Europe.

In this stunning monograph, the reader is ushered into the Cold War period and can vividly see how superpower rivalry and machinations from both sides of the Iron Curtain informed the International Women’s Year and the subsequent UN Decade for Women. The author argues that superpower rivalry and “Second” and “Third” world women’s activists catalyzed changes in Western women’s rights. She argues that these allies helped attract attention to women’s issues in Western countries because they had to deal with accusations concerning the failure to ameliorate women’s lives at a time when women’s emancipation had become an index for social progress. The UN conferences on women represented another battlefield of the Cold War and “male leaders of all nations felt pressured to guarantee some form of women’s rights to prove the superiority of their ideological commitments, to demonstrate their modernity, or to keep up with the enemy.” (p. 242).

Women from the Eastern Bloc dominated the conference discussions, as well as their official proceedings. Eastern European states believed that they had “won” at the Mexico City conference (1975), as they did not allow Western countries to separate women’s issues from the broader context. The Americans wanted to focus specifically on “women’s issues” such as sexism and equality and avoid any discussions about economic systems, American foreign policy, or the problems of capitalism. But socialist women gained an advantage in setting the topics and goals of the conference, which ultimately included these larger political issues. The strong voice of women from the Eastern Bloc manifested at the Copenhagen conference (1980) when the official conference document stated that centrally planned economies were at the forefront regarding women’s rights. Finally, in Nairobi (1985), Bulgarian delegate Elena Lagadinova was elected General Rapporteur of the Conference, a major achievement for the country. In front of the world’s media, Lagadinova could present socialist advantages for women. Bulgarian emancipation “from above” including, for example, liberalization of the divorce law, women’s education and training, their participation in the labor force and social protection for single mothers.

Ghodsee argues that women from Eastern Europe actively participated in creating the UN Decade for Women that gave birth to the worldwide women’s movement. Also, funding from both sides of the Iron Curtain for women’s organizations in the Global South (Western countries contributed not only through state organizations, but also through nongovernmental ones), helped to create a global women’s movement. This book revives the experiences of socialist women whose past is so often erased because of prevalent stereotypes about socialist women as being puppets of male communist politicians. But it is not possible to evaluate socialist mass organizations from the viewpoint of Western feminism and its assumptions, expectations, and ideals of autonomous women’s organizing, especially from the perspective of liberal feminism, which tends to be universalistic and not attentive to cultural variation. This approach ignores the successful women’s activism that helped women pursue different interests in different contexts (such as increasing women’s literacy and numeracy in Zambia, where young girls had virtually no educational opportunities). Socialist activists “fought for women’s rights in their own way, using the rhetorical tools available to them within specific cultural and historical contexts.” (p. 25) Using the language of the Party and citing Lenin, Marx, and Engels, organizations could, on the pages of their magazines and publications, discuss problematics otherwise considered “bourgeois” — sexuality, single motherhood, premarital sex, or changing masculinity.

One of the biggest strengths of this book is also its weakness. First-person accounts are, on the one hand, impressive; on the other hand, they can be subjective and influenced by the vicissitudes of time. But Ghodsee is sensitive to these “perils of oral history” (p. 217), and wherever possible, she has verified information from the interviews in archives from around the world. Moreover, the author emphasizes the importance of these subjective accounts, and crucially, she has grasped the last opportunities to record the voices of this disappearing generation: “Although these women were not perfect, and we should be careful not to ignore the ways they might have been complicit with authoritarianism in their own countries, we must admit that women living in the state socialist countries benefited from progressive legislation and equal rights far earlier than women in the Western democracies.” (p. 20)

Ghodsee reveals how profound historical research can help with contemporary women’s issues, and not only in post-socialist countries. She demonstrates how telling the stories of socialist states and especially of their women activists allows us to reconsider the role of the state in solving women’s issues, challenging discrimination, and potentially rethinking contemporary feminism, its strategies and goals. During the Cold War, women from socialist countries saw international, political, and economic issues and matters of peace as being inseparable from women’s rights and equality. In contrast, today’s liberal feminists who concentrate on women’s autonomy may unwittingly support the economic system that fuels the power and health of three elites, and, as Ghodsee states, become “handmaiden[s] to neoliberalism” (p. 27).

This book presents a valuable addition to the literature about the socialist past, the history of women’s rights and activism, and the agency of socialist women. It should be required reading for any scholar or student interested in the reflection of current feminism. Traveling around three continents and gathering rich data, the author outlines directions for future research on state socialist women’s activism and reflects on the goals and nature of the feminist project, as well as state interventions to reduce inequality.≈


  • by Marie Láníková

    PhD candidate in Sociology at the Department of Sociology, Masaryk University, Brno. Her research focuses on the relationship between women’s organizations and expertise under state socialism in Czechoslovakia.

  • all contributors

Second World, Second Sex: Socialist Women’s Activism and Global Solidarity during the Cold War. Kristen Ghodsee. Duke University Press, 2019, 328 pages.