On March 9, 2018, the Financial Times — not exactly a bastion of pro-socialist sentiment — had some nice things to say about Communism. In a special report on “Women in Technology,” FT discussed the reasons for large percentages of women in the tech sectors of Bulgaria and Romania.1 When examining the European data, it turned out that eight of the ten countries with the highest percentages of women working in technology were former state-socialist countries where “the Soviet legacy” of promoting women in math, science, and engineering had created a social environment conducive to women’s success in these fields, even three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Back in 2015, an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) health report revealed that six of the top ten countries with the highest percentage of female doctors were also on the other side of the former Iron Curtain.2 An astounding three-fourths of all doctors in Estonia were women, compared to only one-third of the doctors in the United States. Yet another report from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) found that, as compared to Western Europe, Eastern European countries had much higher percentages of women working in the fields of scientific research and development.3 As recently as 2012, two-thirds of judges in Russia were women.4 In all cases, the explanation for the disparity was the long history of state-socialist commitments to women’s education and employment. Despite decades of feminist activism in the West, women in the former socialist countries still enjoy greater access to jobs in prestigious economic sectors.
Despite the data, it’s still hard to have a conversation about what socialism might have gotten right. Two 2017 New York Times op-eds suggesting that twentieth-century Communism had done some good things for women were met with howls of outrage from Fox News and the troll armies of the alt-right.5 The historical memory of twentieth-century state socialism is so contested that many leftists — anarchists and democratic socialists alike — try to run from it, lest they look like apologists for Soviet horrors.6 Feminists, too, dismiss the achievements of women in the former Eastern Bloc because they were imposed from the top down and within a context of political autocracy.7 More importantly, state-socialist women rejected the basic premise of Western liberal feminism: men and women should be treated the same. Socialists always believed that men and women were equal, but different, and that the state had a strong role to play in ensuring that women’s reproductive biology did not disadvantage them.
During the early years of the Cold War, American leaders considered state-socialist promotion of women into the formal labor force evidence of Communism’s mutation of God-given gender roles and its “unnatural” (and therefore evil) designs on the destruction of the family. American women might have been mobilized into production during World War II, but as the historian Elaine Tyler May has shown, they were shoved back into the kitchen as soon as the soldiers returned.8 In contrast, Russia lost nearly 2 percent of its population in World War I and the Soviet Union lost a whopping 14 percent in World War II.9 The other countries of Eastern Europe also lost hundreds of thousands of their citizens in the Second World War (Poland topped five million casualties) and sustained massive destruction to property and infrastructure. They couldn’t afford to push women back into the kitchen.10 War deaths produced labor shortages that created opportunities for women, which did not disappear after the demographic imbalances were corrected. The preservation of women’s formal labor force participation — even in the face of precipitous declines in the birth rate — stemmed partially from an ideological commitment to women’s emancipation rooted in the core theories of socialism and to women’s own growing demands for economic independence from men. For example, in the late 1980s under Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet leaders considered ways to reduce women’s double burden of formal employment and family responsibilities. Researchers asked women in the USSR if they would stay home if their husbands could afford to support them; a full 80 percent said they preferred to work.11
The diverging policies of the two Germanys after 1949 also demonstrates how the East and West treated their women differently after the war. The West Germans returned to the traditional breadwinner/housewife model of the nuclear family (despite male labor shortages) whereas the East Germans required the formal employment of women to undermine the persistence of the patriarchal family.12 This commitment to women’s education and professional development characterized all socialist regimes to varying degrees. They also attempted to socialize women’s domestic work through the building of communal cafeterias, laundries, mending cooperatives, and childcare facilities. Moreover, Communist parties introduced radical revisions to family law: ensuring the equality of men and women, liberalizing divorce, equalizing the treatment of legitimate and illegitimate children, and (in most, but not all, countries) guaranteeing women’s reproductive rights.13
Did the state-socialist countries live up to their promises regarding women’s emancipation? Did women in Eastern Europe enjoy greater levels of emancipation compared to their counterparts in the West? These are the questions we discuss in this brief overview of the situation of women in the state-socialist countries of Eastern Europe before 1989. Despite the authoritarian nature of these regimes, we believe that those concerned with promoting gender equity can learn from the experiences of Eastern Europe, because their top-down solutions (while never living up to all of their promises) did promote social and cultural changes that allowed women to better balance their personal and professional lives compared to their counterparts in the advanced capitalist West.