Feminism on the Rise Among Soviet Women

<i> Rinehart is a free-lance writer who lives in Moscow</i>

Klavdia Nicholasheva pulls a rake across the wet, mucky grass surrounding the Kremlin walls. A street cleaner on a tight schedule, she insists that she has no time for an interview. That is, until she hears the topic: women’s rights in the Soviet Union.

Indeed, Nicholasheva--who shovels snow in winter and sweeps roads, sidewalks and parking lots in less inclement weather--has a few things to say on the subject.

Though she describes her job as “difficult,” her complaints are not about the work she’s been doing for the last 34 years. It is living and social conditions that concern this 57-year-old mother of two, and--above all else--how difficult they make raising children.

Emerging Feminist Movement


Nicholasheva is not alone. Inflexible social policies, job and wage discrimination and the lack of day care are propelling the emerging feminist movement in the Soviet Union, where women make up 51% of the work force and 93% work or study full-time. And released from the political restraints of past generations--and free to speak their minds--women here are mobilizing like an army charging into war.

Some feel trapped in a Catch-22 situation, stretched by the demands of home and work. Others simply ache for relief from their extraordinary burdens. Consider this letter to the editor one Soviet woman wrote in response to an article about the Soviet woman’s lack of sexual appetite:

“Now tell me what kind of sex a run-down, 30-year-old woman can think of? Off to work in the morning, eight hours at work, shopping during lunch break. After work, another 1 1/2 or two hours in lineups. Then comes a second shift at home: cooking, washing, doing the dishes, looking after the child. By nighttime my feet collapse from fatigue. What kind of sex can I have on my mind, dear men? Naturally my husband sulks, but sees no need to help me--it’s all women’s business.

No Atypical Problem


“We live together with my mother, in a walk-through room. A child of 5 sleeps next to us. What intimacy can there be?”

The letter-writer’s problems are not atypical.

“I still don’t have an apartment,” Nicholasheva says, echoing a common complaint in this city where 22% of the population lives in communal housing. “And my salary--170 rubles (about $275) a month in warm weather, and 190 rubles a month in cold--is not enough. Everything is very expensive.”

Long lines and a two-hour wait are the norm for Muscovites who shop for food and additional time must be spent in the quest for scarce household goods, clothing and electrical appliances. Once home, it’s not unusual for an extended family to occupy a one-room flat and share cooking and bathroom facilities with other families. Such cramped living conditions do nothing to enhance the quality of life, complicated even more for women by the fact that Soviet men rarely share household and child-care responsibilities.

Though Nicholasheva’s children are grown and no longer in need of day care, she still considers it the Soviet woman’s No. 1 concern. “We are supposed to bring up good and clever children,” she says. “But (given the pressures) how can we?”

The work side of the equation is equally problematical. Because they are overburdened at home, women are considered less desirable employees than men and are rarely viewed as management material. In the heavily female textile industry, for example, women hold only 21% of management positions.

Job, Wage Discrimination

Still others complain of job and wage discrimination. Concentrated in job ghettos, they earn an average of 30% less than men and hold few management positions, despite the fact they hold 60% of all degrees and diplomas of higher education. In public education, 95% of all jobs are staffed by women but only 50% are school principals.


The situation is similar at the Academy of Sciences, where 50% of the employees are women. “We have the same education as the men, we publish the same amount of material and have the same qualifications. But only two of the 28 sector heads in the institute are women,” says Elena Kamenetskaya, a lawyer specializing in space law.

And they fare no better in politics. Alexandra Biryukova, the country’s highest-ranking female politician, is a deputy minister and non-voting “candidate member” of the Politburo, the top governing body, which has no female members.

Women currently make up 17% of those nominated for positions with the Congress of People’s Deputies, to be elected today. But their numbers will change this year under terms of a new constitutional system meant to increase Soviet citizens’ ability to participate in politics.

The Soviet Women’s Committee has been designated 75 seats in the new 2,500-member congress and though the proportion may be smaller than in previous congresses, “quality is better than quantity,” maintains Valeria Kalmyk, vice president of the women’s committee, an organization not unlike the National Organization for Women in the United States.

“Those 33% (chosen by the Communist Party) in the former parliament did not always represent the interests of women. Most often they didn’t speak out for women. We support the idea of an increasing quantity of women in political office, but this time we at least hope to win quality,” Kalmyk says.

Flexibility in Schedules

Even with their professional problems, 70% of Soviet women say they would not give up their jobs if their husbands earned three times as much money, Kalmyk notes. What women want, she says, is flexibility in their schedules, allowing them to “combine their duties differently at different times of life.”

Given part-time positions (none currently exists) or more flexible schedules, Soviet women say they would be willing to sacrifice pay and job prestige. “With flexible social policies,” Kalmyk believes, “it would be possible to combine all the roles a woman has.”


But if their lives appear difficult to Western observers, Soviet women point out their status has improved. Under Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership they now have the right to complain and, more important, to organize politically. In fact, the government has not only tolerated but encouraged the Soviet Women’s Committee.

“Ten years ago we did not speak about the real situation in the country, and about women’s issues in particular,” notes Nelya Ramazanova, editor of the English edition of Soviet Woman, the official publication of the Soviet Women’s Committee.

Now there are 240,000 Soviet Women’s Committee councils set up in the workplace or in communal buildings. Their purpose is to draw women into socially political activities and increase their role in government management.

In return, the committee is supporting Gorbachev’s goal of perestroika or economic restructuring, a policy aimed at solving the problems that make a woman’s life harder, notes Kalmyk. “If successful, we will have a separate flat for each family, there will be no lineups for food, there will be increasing consumer goods of better quality reducing the amount of time women must spend trying to get what she needs. That is why we lay great hopes on the success of perestroika .”

Founded during World War II as an “anti-fascist” organization, the committee has only recently assumed women’s rights as part of its mandate.

“Women’s councils used to be controlled from above,” Ramazanova explains. “We were not free to choose our activities and aims. Now it’s different,” she says referring to Gorbachev’s willingness to allow critical discussion of Soviet life. “The women’s committee decides what they want to do.”

Members are now working hard to ensure its 75 representatives will speak with one voice for women’s interests. An election platform of proposed legislation was hammered out at twice-weekly meetings. Kalmyk outlined six of them:

--To ensure, in this country where one-third of all marriages end in divorce, most often within the first year, that men be responsible economically and socially for their children’s welfare.

--To establish a system that would allow women to take paid time from work to upgrade their education or skills. (“Women should not have to spend additional hours away from the family to raise their skills,” Kalmyk noted.)

--To improve maternity leave benefits so women will not be forced to return to work early because of economic concerns.

--To improve women’s health services at a time when gynecological horror stories--including assembly line abortions without anesthetics and high infection rates from filthy maternity wards--are reducing both women’s desire and ability to bear children.

--To promote legislation protecting the environment. Soviets have been shocked to read reports of the growing number of birth defects attributed to pollution of the air, water and food.

--To work for the promotion of women to decision-making jobs.

While legislation may help, it will not solve some fundamental problems, observers agree.

Faced with the relentless grind of working, cooking, cleaning and lining up for groceries, a growing number of Soviet women are passing up motherhood in favor of survival. Recently released figures show at least twice as many women have abortions as give birth each year.

Labor Shortages

Already there are labor shortages in the Baltic and Russian industrialized areas as a result of the falling birthrate.

“Women’s problems are the problems of society,” notes Kalmyk.

“We don’t need 80 new constitutional laws for equality,” lawyer Kamenetskaya adds. “Instead we need education to change attitudes.”

Working from the ground up, the Soviet Women’s Committee has promoted changes in curriculum so that boys, as well as girls, will learn household and child-care skills. The committee also has encouraged the introduction of sex-education courses and special classes for adult males to prepare them to be fathers.

“We hope these courses will be available across the Soviet Union in a few years,” Ramazanova says. Both she and Kamenetskaya credit the Soviet media for bringing women’s issues to public attention in recent years and for creating an environment in which women can discuss their complaints with husbands and bosses.

Among the other solutions for reducing the Soviet women’s workload: changing men’s attitudes to make them more willing to share responsibilities at home. How that will be accomplished remains elusive.

Ramazanova believes there is little hope of such social change until the Soviet economy is strengthened. Men, she says, will simply not endure the same hardships as women to feed, clothe and care for their families. “We need more food so we don’t have to stand in lines,” she points out. “And prepared foods and electrical appliances for the kitchens.

Those things would lead to “more free time, and believe me, we would know how to use it,” says the full-time editor, wife and mother of two grown daughters. “When our lives are easier, we can occupy higher positions because we’ll have more energy. Now we have to prioritize where we direct our energy.”