WS3300 Women in Europe

Week 8 Women in Russia and Eastern Europe

Russian factory worker durning WWII.
From Picture Post What Russia's War Really Looks Like 1942

Helix - Social & Political History of Britain Record
Copyright of Hulton Getty Picture Collection


The Soviet Union lasted from 1917 to 1992. The political system was based on the leading role of the Communist Party and no alternative parties were allowed. The economic system was one of state ownership and central planning.
When Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party and effective leader of the Soviet Union in 1985, he began a programme of glasnost, democratization and perestroika in order to revive and modernize society, culture, political life and the economy. This involved greater freedom for citizens but the introduction of free market mechanisms led to significant economic dislocation.

Tasks for Students
Find out what 'glasnost', 'democratization' and 'perestroika' were.

Back to Russia

The conflicts that were revealed as a result of these policies eventually led to the end of the communist system of government and the break up of the Soviet system.
In Russia, the benefits of competitive elections, freedom of speech and religion, and foreign investment are balanced against economic dislocation, corruption among politicians and business people, and severly reduced living standards for many.

Eastern Europe
The other countries of Eastern Europe came under Soviet influence after WW2. While their political and economic systems were based on the Soviet model of Communist Party rule and central economic planning, most countries had more than one political party and significant sections of the economy in private ownership.
In 1989, people in many of the countries of Eastern Europe, inspired partly by Gorbachev's policies, called for political reform and genuine popular participation in politics. The socialist political systems were disbanded, competitive elections held and state owned enterprises privatised.
The most industrialized countries of eastern Europe have some of the same type of economic and political problems as Russia but not to the same extent or scale.

Women's Rights

After the Russian Revolution (1917) women got equal civil and political rights with men.
They also benefitted from civil marriage, accessible divorce, maternity rights and equal rights for married and unmarried mothers.
In 1920, legal abortion on demand was made available.

In the early period of Soviet history, there was an emphasis on building a new type of society, with new and egalitarian relations between men and women.
But after Stalin came to power in 1927, more traditional values were promoted and abortion, for example, was recriminalized in 1936.
Stalin died in 1953 and was followed by Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko and Gorbachev.
Soviet Constitution of 1977 said that equal rights for women guaranteed by ‘the creation of conditions enabling a woman to combine work with motherhood.’

‘Revolutionary change in the USSR has brought not a total rupture with the past, but a partial elimination and even reintegration of pre-revolutionary attitudes and patterns of behaviour.’
G Lapidus (1977) ‘Sexual Equality in Society Policy: a Developmental Perspective’, in D Atkinson et al Women in Russia, p. 116

Eastern Europe

Constitution of Czechoslovakia says ‘men and women are equal within the family, at work, and in the public activities.’

Polish constitution of 1952 established equal rights and equal pay.

"The Communist period, beginning in February 1948, affected the lives of women in new ways. On one hand, Communism gave Czech women equal status with men in all aspects of their lives, as stipulated in the constitution. On the other hand, it failed to bring about changes in people's thinking about gender roles that would help ground gender equality in the daily reality. Thus, Czech women under socialism ended up with the often mentioned "double burden" of full-time employment, household chores and child care. They were given the right and the obligation to be employed, unless on maternity leave, while retaining the full-time responsibility of caring for their children and households, even after their maternity leave was over and they returned to full-time employment."
'Czech Women and Higher Education' by Dagmar Kotlandova Koenig in Central Europe Review 27 September 1999

‘Given that state socialist countries posses both the ideological wherewithal and the degree of state penetration necessary to promote the cultural changes which are required if women are to be emancipated, there is every reason to suspect that considerations of preserving male power have prevented the necessary policies from being developed.’
J Lovenduski (1986) Women and European Politics p. 114

Women and Employment

Women 42% of labour force 1954
Women 48% of labour force 1975
Women formed a majority of those working in medicine, social services, commerce, banking, culture and education.
ILO (1980) Work and Family Life

Mid-70’s - women 46% of labour force (53% in agricultural sector, 42% in non-agriculture)
30% of women workers manual workers in state industries
30% of women workers civil servants and office workers
37% of women workers self-employed in private sector
ILO (1980) Work and Family Life

Women are majority of new unemployed and have lost right to extended parental leave

% of women in paid labour force has been dropping since 1980.
Survey of 1988 found that 75% of women workers would not stop paid work even if they could afford to, but 80% of these would like part-time or home-based jobs.
1994 Women 43% of those unemployed.
1992 33% of families with children were below the poverty line.
K Koncz (1996) ‘The Position of Women in the Hungarian Labour Market after the Regime Change’, Women’s History Review, 5/4.


According to N Rimashevskaia, between 1959 and 1979 the percentage of women in employment went up from 70% to 84%.
From 1979 to 1989, the percentage went down from 84% to 80%.
Remember that these figures cover the whole of the Soviet Union. The rates of women's employment varies across republics with lower participation rates in the Central Asian republics.

In 1988-89, 54% of university students were women - but women were still under-represented in managerial jobs and often work at jobs below their professional qualifications.

With transition to market economy, 60 % of all workers made redundant are women and 80% of managers made redundant are women.

A separate labour market for women seems to be developing - with low wages, often part time and with poor working conditions.
'Perestroika and the Status of Women' in S Rai et al Women in the Face of Change 1992

Percentage of Employed Women and Men in 1992, 1994 and 1995

Year % of women employed % of women 30-49 employed % of men employed % of men 30-49 employed
1992 48.6 % 57.1 % 51.4 % 54.7 %
1994 47.2% 61.8% 52.8% 56.6%
1995 46.7% 62.4% 53.3% 57.4%

Elena Y. Meshcherkina Women in the Labor Market in Russia or

According to Elena Mezentseva of the Moscow Centre of Gender Research, women lost 15 to 17 percent of their standing in the highest-paying sectors since the start of reform.
e.g. the percentage of women in the banking sector dropped from 90 percent to 77 percent between 1990 and 1995.
In March of 1994, women's pay went from 70 percent of men's to as low as 40 percent.

'A knee-jerk sexism among employers forces women to accept less pay and less work. The reforms which freed up salaries from all kinds of limitations, except for those of the market, caused men's work to be more highly valued.'
Elena Mezentseva in The Russia Journal March 08-14, 1999

First Deputy Speaker Lyubov Sliska told a meeting in parliament in May 2000

"Women were the victims of the reform years. They have fallen into the most economically vulnerable groups of the population. Women form the majority among the unemployed, pensioners and among those who work in the state sector of the economy."
She went on to say that market reforms and high inflation had forced more women than men out of the workplace despite women often having a superior standard of education.
Reuters, MOSCOW, May 22, 2000

Economic Activity

Country % of women economically active 1990 % of men economically active 1990 % of women economically active 1995-7 % of men economically active 1995-7 % of workforce who are women 1995-7
Czech Republic 61% 74% 52% 71% 44%
Hungary 48% 68% 43% 60% 44%
Poland 57% 75% 50% 66% 46%
Russia 60% 76% 59% 74% 48%

United Nations Statistics Division

‘Soviet family policy therefore has involved an effort to superimpose new economic and civic responsibilities on the traditional housekeeping and childbearing functions of women, while lifting some of the burdens of the latter through the provision of public services. The overall goal has been to increase the size and productivity of the labour force without impairing the childbearing potential of women workers.’
G Lapidus (1977) ‘Sexual Equality in Society Policy: a Developmental Perspective’, in D Atkinson et al Women in Russia, p. 131

‘A centralized wage policy which consistently places a lower market value on labour in sectors of the economy with high concentration of females is inherently discriminatory.’
K Broschart (1992) ‘Women under Glasnost’, in S Arber and N Gilbert (eds) Women and Working Lives, p. 127

‘(Women) constitute a significant proportion of the poorest, most disadvantaged sectors of society; they form a majority of the unemployed and a minority of those being hired.’
M Molyneux (1994) ‘Women’s Rights and the International Context: Some Reflections on the Post-Communist States’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 23/2, p. 293

See also 'Male Economies and the Status of Women in the Post-Commnist Countries' by Suzanne LaFont

Women and Politics

The number of women in politics has been in decline since Communist times. During the last session of Supreme Soviet in 1989, women had 15 percent of seats - only five percent of the Supreme Soviet in 1990.
Brief revival of fortunes linked with the appearance of the Women of Russia movement - women won over 13% of seats in the State Duma in 1992. But in 1995 just one women's party registered for the elections, failing to surmount the five-percent barrier. And today only two women in the Federation Council, the upper house of representatives from each of Russia's 89 regions.
From The St. Petersburg Times December 17, 1999

Out of 450 seats in the Duma, women occupy only 29 compared with the Communist quota system when up to a third of deputies in the Supreme Soviet were women.
Reuters, MOSCOW, May 22, 2000

Women in Public Life

Country % of seats in parliament held by women 1987 % of seats in parliament held by women 1995 % of seats in parliament held by women 1999 % of ministers who are female 1994 % of ministers who are female 1998
Czech Republic no data 10% 15% 0 17%
Hungary 21% 11% 8% 0 5%
Poland 29% 13% 13% 7% 17%
Russia no data 13% 10% 0 8%

United Nations Statistics Division

Barbara Einhorn says that while it can be said that the level of female representation in Communist parliaments was both artificial and not very meaningful because the parliaments lacked real legislative power, it is still worrying that the proportion of women in the new parliaments of Eastern Europe averages less than 10%.

Women were active in the dissident movements before the collapse of communism

but seem to have been pushed aside in the new political parties.
Parties seem unwilling to put women near the top of their electoral lists and won't adopt quotas because associated with socialist era.
Cinderella goes to Market 1993

Contraception and Abortion

Abortion legalized 1956.
1989 proposal to ban abortion and impose penalties on women who had abortions not passed - but women seeking abortion had to get agreement of 2 doctors and attend counselling (often from Catholic Church).
J Regulska (1992) ‘Women and Power in Poland’ in J Bystydzienski (ed) Women Transforming Politics

Czech Republic
New abortion law introduced in 1993 - indirectly restricts choice because of cost (over 3.000 Kc, which is over half of average monthly pay and only slightly more than the monthly "minimum wage").
Many abortions are still carried on in poorly equipped facilities and women are often treated very rudely by the personnel of the hospital.
The Vicissitudes of Czech Feminism by Petra Hanáková

See also 'Abortion in Europe: the East-West Divide' by Evert Ketting

Abortion relegalized 1955.

See also 'Abortion in Russia'

Other Issues


Reproductive Issues
1970 Soviet women got paid maternity leave and paid breaks for nursing mothers
1981 Paid leave extended to one year after childbirth
1987 Paid leave extended to 10 weeks before and 18 months after childbirth plus 6 months unpaid leave.
1990 Paid maternity leave of 2 years plus one year unpaid.
1997 Women 15-49 barred from jobs considered harmful to health and reporductive function e.g. builders, crane drivers, tunnel workers.
Opposed by the Russian Consortium of Women's Non-Governmental Organizations - argued for freedom of choice and pointed out that these jobs well paid and carry rights to early retirement.


30% of first-degree murders are committed in families.
1 million children under the age of 15 are battered by their parents every year.
Over 50,000 leave home, and another 2,000 commit suicide.
It is estimated that at least 15,000 children live on the streets of Moscow.

Every year, some 15,000 Russian women are murdered by their partners.
Compare this with the 1,500 women who die every year of domestic violence in the U.S. - a country with almost twice the population of Russia.
The Russia Journal March 29 - April 04, 1999

In 1997, 4 million applications were made to the police concerning domestic violence.
Statistics from the Ministry of Interior Affairs in 1994 revealed that 14,000 women were killed by their husbands or partners.
Other unofficial statistics estimate that 75 percent of men have at some point or another hit their wives.
Denise Albrighton in The Russia Journal November 15-21, 1999

See also'Russia: Domestic Violence Persists' by Sophie Lambroschini

Sexual Harassment

"Sexual harassment is a serious problem in Russia," said Alexander Krautsin, a sociologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences, who recently conducted one of Russia's first empirical investigations on the problem in St. Petersburg. "According to our research, about one-third of women have been victims of sexual harassment."
The St. Petersburg Times March 9, 1999

Mail order brides

In 1991, there were only 17 US visas for Russian fiancees
In 1997, there were 1,012.

Human Trafficking

"Hundreds of thousands of women are sold into sexual slavery each year, victims of human trafficking rings that lure them abroad with promises of legitimate employment in the West. As many as 50,000 of these women come from Russia, where ravaged economies and a sagging labor market have forced many women to search for better opportunities abroad. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, more than 500,000 women from the former Soviet Union have been trafficked abroad in the past five years."
Galina Stolyarova 'Russia: With No Jobs At Home, Women Fall Victim To Trafficking' (Part 2)
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Eastern Europe

UNICEF Report 1999 'Women in Transition'
Women's health was fairly good across Eastern Europe in 1989 but now seems to be deteriorating, with a dramatic rise in sexually transmitted diseases and an increase in maternal mortality rates.
Violence against women is still a little-recognised issue across the region but is prevalent and worsening.
Without change, the report concludes, the alternative is bleak.

"It is critical that women act as agents of change in this process of linking political, social and economic reforms into a foundation for development. Women's participation is essential if the overall goals of transition - better standards of living and truly democratic societies - are to be achieved."
summarized in Lucy Ward, Guardian 23/9/99

Human Trafficking and Prostitution

Madeleine Rees, head of Bosnian office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bosnia says that local women's groups noticed a change in prostitution from about 1993.
Before that, predominantly local women involved - after that date almost exclusively women from Eastern Europe.
Connects this with the presence of the UN Protection Force followed by the Stabilisation Force (SFOR) - evidence that some members of international community involved in trafficking and many in using prostitutes.
Red Pepper August 2000

Tasks for Students
How do you explain the increase in violence against women since the collapse of socialist systems in Eastern Europe and Russia?


Alena Valterova, founder of Political party of Women and Mothers, points out that after the collapse of Communism, Czechoslovakian parliament passed laws permitting striptease before they debated new law on political parties.
Feminist Review, No 39, 1991

Traditional image of women in Poland dates from occupation and partition of C19th - portrays them as strong and heroic, able to cope with all burdens.
Anna Titkow, in R Morgan (1984) Sisterhood is Global

The Feminist Movement

There has been an enormous expansion of independent women's groups in Russia and Eastern Europe since the collapse of communism.
Many groups are concerned with mutual self help, others are academic and some are political.
1994 first helpline for women facing domestic violence established in Hungary.
Profem in the Czech Republic helps victims of trafficking.
In Russia, the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers opposes the Chechen war,
Some groups have had grants from Western organisations to do research and to set up services.
Contact with Western feminists has not always been comfortable. Sometimes they are patronising or act as if their own variety of feminism is the only valid one.

Jiøina Siklová says younger women are more open to feminist ideas than women in their 40s and 50s - those starting their careers fear greater discrimination as a result of free market and want to challenge sexism.
In 'Why Western Feminism Isn't Working in the Czech Republic' New Presence January 1998

Web Resources

Russian Feminism Resources
Network of East West Women (founded 1991)
Women's Agency and the Sexual Revolution in Russia by Anna Rotkirch 1997

State Discrimination Against Women in Russia, Human Rights Watch March 1995 7:5

A Rude Awakening for East European Women by Elisabeth Kulakowsk

New rules approved on equal treatment and discrimination in Poland

Selected Reading

Atkinson, D. et al (eds) (1977) Women in Russia
Buckley, M. (1988) Women & Ideology in the Soviet Union
Buckley, M. (ed) (1992) Perestroika and Soviet Women
Corrin, C. (ed) (1992) Women's Experience of Change in the Soviet Union, Central & E. Europe
Corrin, C. (ed) (1999) Gender and Identity in Central and Eastern Europe
Einhorn, B. (1993) Cinderella goes to Market: Citizenship, Gender and Women's Movements in East Central Europe
Finzel, E. (2003)'"Equality" for Women, Child Rearing and the State in the Fromer German Democratic Republic' Women’s Studies International Forum, 26:1, pp. 47 – 56.
Funk, N. and Mueller, M. (1993) Gender Politics and Post Communism
Gulcur, L. & Ilkkaracan, P. (2002) 'Migrant Sex-Workers from the Former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in Turkey' Women’s Studies International Forum, 25:4, pp. 411 – 421.
Heinen, J. (1992) 'Polish Democracy is Male-gendered' Women's Studies International Forum 15\1
Hrubos, I. (1994) 'Women in the Labour Market in Hungary' Women's Studies International Forum 17:2-3
Lapidius, G. (ed) (1982) Women, Work & Family in the Soviet Union
Koncz, K. (1996) 'The Position of Women in the Hungarian Labour Market after the regime change', Women's History Review, 5/4.
Lobodzinska, B. (2000) 'Polish Womens's Gender-Segregated Education and Employment' Women’s Studies International Forum, 23:1, pp. 49–71.
Mamonova, T. (1989) Russian Women's Studies: Essays on Sexism in Soviet Culture
Mamonova, T. (1994) Women's Glasnost vs Naglost 305.420947MAM
Millard, F. (1995) 'Women in Poland: the Impact of Post-Communist Transformation' Journal of Area Studies No 6
Molyneux, M. (1994) 'Women's Rights and the International Context: Some Reflections on the Post Communist States', Millennium, Journal of International Studies , 23/2.
Pilkington, H.(ed) (1996) Gender, Generation and Identity in Contemporary Russia
Posadskaya, A.(ed) (1994) Women in Russia: a New Era in Russian Feminism
Roman, D. (2001) 'Gendering Eastern Europe: Pre-Feminism, Prejudice and East-West Dialogues in Post-Communist Romania' Women’s Studies International Forum, 24:1, pp. 53–66.
Rueschemeyer, M. (ed) (1998) Women in the Politics of Post-Communist Eastern Europe
Siemienska, R. (1996) 'Gendered Perceptions: Women in the Labour Market in Poland', Women's History Review, 5/4.
Sperling, V. (1999) Organizing Women in Contemporary Russia: Engendering Transition
Wolchik, S. (1996) 'Czech and Slovak Women and Political Leadership' Women's History Review, 5/4
Zake, I. (2002)'Gendered POlitical Subjectivity in Post-Soviet Latvia' Women’s Studies International Forum, 25:6, pp. 631 – 640.

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