Women in the Soviet Union are fighting mad over conditions at work and at home and are demanding that candidates in the country’s new Western-style elections do something about it.
And some candidates, driven by an unprecedented need to attract voters, appear to be listening as complaints roll in over everything from length of working hours to the discomforts of Soviet-made brassieres.
But the obstacles that have prevented real improvements in conditions for women remain daunting. In fact, it seems certain that the new Congress of People’s Deputies, to be elected by the voters March 26, will contain a smaller proportion of women representatives than the outgoing Parliament, whose members were essentially Communist Party appointees.
On the face of it, Soviet women appear liberated in a way some of their Western counterparts might envy. They are permitted to hold jobs traditionally considered men’s work, and they get equal pay.
But, argues magazine editor Vitaly A. Korotich, “our women are the most exploited on Earth.”
‘Right to Dig Ditches’
“Yes, they have the right to dig ditches for equal pay. But that is not enough. Now we must fight so they have the right to stay at home,” Korotich, editor of the liberal weekly Ogonyok, said in an interview.
Maria Ikharlov, a candidate for the congress from Moscow, agrees. She is running on a platform that calls for eliminating night shifts for women and permitting them to work fewer hours than the average of 42 hours a week.
“In our Soviet society, everything at home falls on the woman,” said Ikharlov, 53. “She works long hours, she cooks, she cleans--and with almost none of the appliances you find in the West.
“Worst of all, she must stand in long lines every day to buy the food for dinner,” Ikharlov said. “Women cannot be expected to work so hard at home and in the factory.”
Ikharlov’s views may not sound radical to Western ears, but she fears they will not be accepted by Soviet voters. “I may not win. Some people think I’m just a pushy woman,” she said.
Indeed, competition is intense in the first multi-candidate national elections held since the earliest days of the Soviet state.
As part of a new and complex constitutional system meant to increase Soviet citizens’ ability to participate meaningfully in politics, 750 deputies will be elected to each of three chambers in the Congress of People’s Deputies. They, in turn, will elect about 450 of their members to a much-strengthened Supreme Soviet, which will become a full-time legislature with sweeping new powers.
A third of the 1,500 members of the last Supreme Soviet were women, chosen by the Communist Party under an officially secret but widely known policy of selecting candidates--all unopposed--according to preset proportions of women, youth, non-Communists, workers, farmers and intellectuals.
The intention then was to ensure a broad representation in the Supreme Soviet, but even the old institution’s own officials now describe it as “a rubber-stamp parliament.”
Under the competitive nominating system, however, only 20% of the candidates running in the country’s territorial constituencies are women. More women could join the congress under a system that reserves one-third of the seats for deputies elected by various national institutions; the Soviet Women’s Committee itself has been allocated 75 such seats.
Tough, Male Competition
Ikharlov, who is campaigning for one of the 100 seats allocated to labor unions, is hoping that her appeal to women workers will enable her to win against tough, male competition.
Nagime Aitkhozhin, a 42-year-old biologist, also is running on a women’s platform as a candidate for one of the Women’s Committee seats.
Solving what has become known as the “women’s question,” Aitkhozhin said, “is crucial for the health of the country’s women and children.” If elected, she plans to demand creation of a government commission to study the status of women in the Soviet Union as the first step toward practical solutions to women’s problems.
Such a demand might win acceptance from Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who himself believes that women’s needs must be taken into account as he attempts to reform Soviet society.
During a recent tour of the Ukraine, Gorbachev was seen on television repeatedly approaching women workers to ask about their problems both at the factory and at home.
Most Visible First Lady
At one stop his wife, Raisa, the most visible Soviet first lady ever, pulled a woman to the front to talk to her husband, saying women’s views were being under-represented. Her husband immediately gave the worker his attention.
Women’s complaints are not limited to exhausting work loads, however. The weekly newspaper Nedelya recently published a letter from one reader disturbed about the quality of Soviet-made brassieres.
“I’m just curious--who designs this garment?” she wrote. “Do they see real women? Could they please design brassieres so as not to pinch the wearer’s chest?”
It is an improvement even that Gorbachev has permitted the media to acknowledge that conditions for the country’s women are not perfect.
Only a decade ago, an official pamphlet titled “The Soviet Woman” proclaimed that the country’s women were all thrilled to be workers, mothers and homemakers rolled into one.
‘Broader World Outlook’
“A working woman has a broader world outlook; she is more energetic and self-disciplined, and therefore always finds time to help her children and is able to give them good advice,” said the pamphlet published by the Novosti Press Agency.
Today, officials concede that it just isn’t so.
According to a poll conducted by leading sociologist Tatyana Zaslavskaya, working mothers spend an average of just five minutes a day taking care of their children at home. While mothers work, children are cared for in state-owned day care centers.
Zaslavskaya took her figures straight to the Communist Party at a special national conference last summer and said women’s inability to find time to spend with their children was contributing directly to a rise in juvenile delinquency.
“A woman today feels guilty from all sides,” Olga Voronin of the Soviet Union’s Academy of Sciences wrote recently in the party newspaper Soviet Culture.
Feelings of Guilt
“She feels guilty before the state because she has a family and does not work to the full of her abilities. She also feels guilty because she works and does not give her family as much attention as necessary.”
The conflict has made the Soviet woman feel constantly pressured or “even on the verge of a nervous breakdown. This is very dangerous, not only for our present but also for our future,” Voronin wrote.
Many women hope that the election of candidates to the Congress of People’s Deputies will give them a chance to press their demands for better conditions.
“This problem must be solved for future Soviet women, and it is up to our elected officials to do something about it. It is something I will be thinking about when I vote,” said Tamara Grebenel, 63, a retired textile worker, who was reading candidates’ biographies posted on an outdoor bulletin board in her central Moscow neighborhood.
But even if the winning candidates have good intentions, solutions for women do not appear imminent.
Serious Hurdle for Women
For example, women who want to work fewer hours or stay at home altogether face a serious hurdle even if such legislation is introduced. They make up about 53% of the work force and are needed in Soviet factories. Their incomes also have become crucial to most Soviet families.
On top of that, Gorbachev’s attempt to reform the economic system requires increasing production, which makes it difficult to grant women fewer hours in the workplace.
Candidate Ikharlov recognizes the conflict in goals but is cautious in her response when asked how it can be resolved. A Communist Party member for 30 years, she has learned not to question and to be careful in her criticism.
“Our women understand that it is necessary to double the output of textiles,” she said. “And party discipline is something I have understood well all my life. It will be difficult to resolve.
“But,” she added, “it is time to say we have lived wrongly. It is time to start a new life for women and support it by material values.”