Conference reports Women about women. Discourses on both sides of the Iron Curtain

At the exact time that voices in the Swedish public debate increasingly questioned obstacles to women’s participation in professional work on an equal footing with men, the opposite tendency could be observed in Soviet Russian debates. Here an excerpt from a paper presented at the Aleksanteri Institute’s ninth annual conference.

Published on on February 24, 2010

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Conference papers

From a paper presented at the Aleksanteri Institute’s ninth annual conference, “Cold War: Interactions Reconsidered”, held in Helsinki fall 2009.

During the 1930s, Swedish liberal and social-democratic women’s movements had taken an interest in Soviet policies regarding women’s issues.

However, during the 1940s and 1950s, this interest waned for a variety of reasons. The political and cultural environment of the Cold War made it virtually impossible for either of the two opposing worlds to admit being influenced by the other. In Western discourses, the Soviet Union was characterized as a “totalitarian dictatorship” practicing “socialist oppression”, while, in the Soviet perspective, the West was guilty of “capitalist exploitation” and “imperialist warmongering”. In Sweden, the era’s hegemonic housewife ideal led to a loss of interest in the Soviet system as a model for gender relations: the post-war decade has been labeled the “genuine age of housewives”. Dominant discourses of gender difference rested heavily on the notion of a specific female talent for caring.

In the 1960s, several leading Swedish women’s movement’s magazines published articles about the USSR and the socialist states of Eastern Europe, stressing the importance of wage labor and the need for expanded public childcare — both necessary if women were to achieve economic independence. This renewed interest in the Soviet model probably tells us as much about what was going on in Sweden as it does about what happened in Soviet Russia at the time. Radical winds were blowing through Swedish society — it became fashionable to make reference to the experiences of the socialist countries, at least when it came to women’s emancipation. Interestingly, at the same time as the Swedish press increasingly advocated women’s participation in the labor market, referring, in the process, to the Soviet experience as something positive, even something of a role-model, voices were raised in Soviet-Russian media arguing that women with children should be allowed to stay at home. It started with women’s magazines publishing complaints about how difficult it was for women to combine sole responsibility for the home and children with fulltime wage labor. Housework that had previously been depicted as something that almost took care of itself became a topic of debate. Consequently, solutions totally new to the dominant Soviet discourse on women and work were beginning to be proposed in order to solve the problem of women’s dual burden.

In the influential Literaturnaya Gazeta’s new “Discussion club”, a lively debate began in 1967: “As long as women are forced to work for money they will have a double burden, regardless of any efforts to make men wash the nappies, scrub the floors and cook the dinner”, claimed an article by novelist Eduard Shim, entitled “Off to Work, Girls!”.

The title referred to a well-known poster from the World War II, depicting a young woman energetically taking hold of a wheelbarrow, heavily laden with bricks. The author claimed that after the tremendous war-time losses of workingage men, women had had no option; they had been forced to go out to work.

Now, in 1967, however, more than 20 years after the end of the war, the author asked himself whether it was really still necessary for women to push wheelbarrows, carry hods laden with mortar and lay pipes. Shim came up with a rather unusual conclusion by questioning women’s need to work at all: “The problem of woman’s heavy burden — considering that she has both home and work on her mind — will probably only really be solved when women no longer have to think about how to support themselves.” Thus, there were those who suddenly perceived female wage labor as outdated, claiming that a welldeveloped society could afford to pay for housework, or even make it possible for men to support their wives, partners and families.

The author suggested a rather radical solution in the Soviet Russian context, namely that women should stay at home. He also advanced an alternative, less provocative solution: that women’s workdays be shortened. This issue had been discussed for a long time in Sweden. But in contrast to Sweden, the length of the work-day for women had not been debated widely in Soviet Russia. Until the mid-1980s, it would remain a taboo subject at official levels; although, in everyday life, various strategies were employed to shorten the workday for women.

Did Shim’s proposal signal new trends in Soviet Russian gender politics, or should we, rather, regard it as wishful thinking? When the Literaturnaya Gazeta discussed the dual pressures of professional work and family life on women, the underlying assumption was that every woman was employed outside the home. In the late 1960s, a number of voices in Soviet Russian discussions of this issue began to express rather nostalgic attitudes, including men expressing their longing for a woman’s care at home. Letters to the editor from male readers in 1967 contained phrases like, “women are supposed to adorn the hearth of the home, like flowers adorn the meadow” or lamentations that “earlier a woman would surprise her husband with a tasty dish, nowadays she surprises him by not cooking anything at all”. At the exact time that voices in the Swedish public debate increasingly questioned obstacles to women’s participation in professional work on an equal footing with men, the opposite tendency could be observed in Soviet Russian debates. Nonetheless, for many years to come the discourse of the working mother continued to overshadow any “wishful thinking” about women taking care of men; the latter discourse only came with perestroika in the 1980s and continued into the 1990s and on. ≈