Murdo Ritchie reviews the book, Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism and other Arguments for Economic Independence by Dr Kristen R. Ghodsee.
WHY WOMEN HAVE BETTER SEX UNDER SOCIALISM
“If women’s liberation is unthinkable without communism, then communism is unthinkable without women’s liberation.” Inessa Armand
The collapse of “socialism” in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union may have changed borders but it didn’t make the Earth move –at least for many women. The economic, personal and sexual changes that occurred, changed many women’s lives but not to their benefit according to this new book. The provocative cover title has two parts the first in large type joined by a conjunction to the second in smaller lettering. But the writer makes the case for understanding both in their inter-linked entirety. She is quite clear “unregulated capitalism is bad for women.” (p1) Most importantly, she makes clear that not all countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union were alike, despite the claims of hostile propaganda. The grimness of the Eastern bloc as portrayed by hostile forces often concealed many real gains for women. However it is still difficult to “generalize about the experiences of all state socialist countries in … before 1989. They all approached the woman question uniquely, even if they all started from a similar theoretical basis in the works of Bebel, Engels, or Kollontai.” (p.145) Many of these gains came into existence, partly as a continuation of the momentum of early Bolshevik leaders especially women, but out of economic necessity and war required women’s mobilisation to win. This progressively strengthened women’s leverage both during and after the Second World War. Yet, in no country at any time were they ever consciously promoted to advance women’s liberation or advancement. Indeed, the evidence suggests that they occurred more as unplanned, secondary effects than promoted as conscious policy.
Despite the pro-natalist policies that were eagerly pursued by elite groups, especially in the former Soviet Union, that attempted to make women produce more children, where women were rewarded by absurd medals for bearing more children, women still managed to make significant advances. Nevertheless, increased educational and employment opportunities, as well as rights to divorce for women, ran counter to these schemes. “Despite the shortcomings of the command economy, the socialist system promoted a culture in which women’s formal labour force participation was accepted and even celebrated. Before World War II, Eastern Bloc countries were deeply patriarchal, peasant societies with conservative gender relations emerging from religion and traditional culture.” (pp. 37-38) In a number of these countries women received little to no education and in some it was absurdly discriminatory. One of the first educational tasks of the Bolsheviks was to abolish the laws that required boys and girls to attend separate schools.
A PERFECT LABORATORY
Dr Ghodsee’s text attempts set Eastern Europe before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall and before and after the fall of Mikhail Gorbachov as “a perfect laboratory to investigate the effects of capitalism on women’s lives.” (p. 11) As an academic specialising in the transition to capitalism having lived for three years in Bulgaria and both sides of Germany she has enormous expertise in understanding the changes. Consequently, the book examines several themes not just the differences between each individual country either side of this temporal meridian, but also makes comparisons with the United States and countries of Western and Northern Europe as well as her own personal observations. Some reviewers have felt this a highly useful approach.1 Moreover, she also examines a number of important socialist thinkers on women’s issues including photographs with short summaries of their lives. The thinkers she outlines are Frederick Engels, August Bebel, George Bernard Shaw, French utopian Flora Tristan, German Social Democrats, Lily Braun, Clara Zetkin, and Rosa Luxemburg as well as Bolsheviks such as Nadezhda Krupskaya, Alexandra Kollontai, and Inessa Armand. Included also are Rumanian politician Ana Pauker, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, as well as Angela Davis and Bulgarian partisan Ejena Lagadinova.
Important to her analysis is how many policies facilitated the economic strengthening of women’s positions. The early Soviet republic was the first country in Europe to legalise abortion, it also ended the legal disabilities created by legitimacy and illegitimacy at birth, established civil marriage, made homosexuality legal, made divorce easier, criminalised rape within marriage as well as promoting female suffrage permitting women to stand for the Constituent Assembly. Furthermore, various attempts at crèches, nursery schools, adult education, methods of birth control and sex education, as well as different collective methods of living and child care, especially for orphans were attempted. Socialising domestic work by creating public laundries and cafeterias were all tried too. This is powerfully stated in the 1919 of the Programme Communist Party. Sadly these were often harmed by the need to divert resources to counter external military interventions, famines, people displacement and economic sanctions that were intended to strangle the worker’s state.
Ghodsee’s book, like many others, concentrates on the personality and writings of Alexandra Kollontai especially on linking her beliefs on a new sexual morality to the reform programme. By focussing on “celebrities,” common in many writings, tends to underplay the organised, institutional importance of Zhenotdel, the Women’s department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, in creating these changes. It was these institutional structures that mobilised many thousands of women to promote their own economic and social emancipation. There is no mention of the importance of the All-Russia Congress of Working Women in 1918 attended by over a thousand women. Or Inessa Armand’s editorship of Communist Woman (Kommunitska). As probably the prime driver of the changes, the massive resource difficulties it experienced deserve more mention. It ignores the propaganda trains and ships sent across Russia and the Soviet Union and that it was a major force in creating 125,000 literacy schools.
The material forces that weakened Soviet aspirations for women’s liberation were the main inhibiting pressure against women’s emancipation. But attempts at conciliating with hostile external forces as well as attempts to emulate bourgeois and petty bourgeois lifestyles within the ruling stratum also helped undermine the revolution’s achievements from within. As Trotsky observed, “guided by its conservative instinct, the bureaucracy has taken alarm at the ‘disintegration’ of the family. It began singing panegyrics to the family supper and the family laundry, that is, the household slavery of woman. To cap it all, the bureaucracy has restored criminal punishment for abortions, officially returning women to the status of pack animals. In complete contradiction with ABC of communism, the ruling caste has thus restored the most reactionary and benighted nucleus of the class system, i.e. the petty bourgeois family.”2
Zhenotdel was abolished in 1930, abortion rights were removed in 1936, though they were restored in 1955. In a critical response to the view in the re-organisation of Zhenotdel into the main party structures, A. Artiukhina, “During recent years, a large group of activists has grown in the city and countryside. In soviets alone 300,000 women are working. This army of activists has not developed spontaneously. Every woman in the soviets passed through the preparatory school of delegates’ meetings, through the school of special work among peasant and working class women. We now have in excess of 200,000 women in the party i.e. nearly 13½per cent of the party as a whole. … [T]hey were also involved in the Zhenotdel and delegates’ meetings. This can also be said of women activists in the trade-union, any notion that Zhenotdel somehow interfered in ‘serious’ work must be nipped in the bud.”3
The onset of the Second Five Year Plan (1932-1933), massively increased women’s participation in labour. It became ever more necessary to introduce crèches, kindergartens child care facilities as well as laundries and much else. After 1945, across eastern Europe, it is debatable how widely these facilities extended and how many women were affected. Ghodsee does tend to generalise these services’ availability; though it is doubtful that they reached the majority of the female population in some countries, especially in rural areas. But with growing urbanisation the pressures for these facilities increased. In East Germany with an historical legacy of a women’s movement they began to be recognised as essential rights. “Because the state required girls’ education and compelled women into the labour force, their fathers and husbands couldn’t force them to stay home. Women seized these opportunities for education and employment.” (p.38) Countries like Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, East Germany and Yugoslavia invested state funds to increase nursery schools and kindergartens. This was also allied to expanded maternity leave.
“CAREWORK SHOULD BE SOCIALISED”
Capitalism, with its competitive labour market, always puts at a disadvantage anyone who has care responsibilities especially for children, elderly relatives or disabled family members. This is because it is assumed to undermine economic availability due to its unpredictable nature in the personal or private sphere. It is mainly women who care. “The reason I think the book is controversial, “ says Dr Ghodsee, “is the idea that carework should be socialised.”4 This is an abomination to the capitalist class who see their wealth being eroded by such necessary costs while they can get women’s labour for free by the bourgeois family. Ghodsee cites former US President Richard Nixon’s reason for vetoing the Comprehensive Child Development Act in 1971, “For the Federal government to plunge headlong financially into supporting child development would commit the vast moral authority of the national government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family centred approach.”(pp. 71-72) Interestingly, the family centred approach disappears for whole chunks of the US middle class who send their children to that peculiar US institution the Summer Camp. In the UK the public school system i.e. private elite schools exist with many children only seeing their parents between term, and many others even more rarely than that.
One of the strangest arguments made against comprehensive childcare is that it is a government conspiracy to indoctrinate children. Shortly after the Cuban revolution children were flown out of the island because their parents were told their children were going to be nationalised. The Catholic Church was one of the organisers of what was known as Operation Pedro Pan. Similar style panics can be found to have occurred after the Bolshevik revolution and after the Second World War in Eastern Europe. Trotsky answered this question in a theoretical manner, “The education of children has always and everywhere been connected with propaganda. … The only difference is that in bourgeois countries it is a question of injecting into the child respect for old institutions and ideas which are taken for granted. In the USSR it is a question of new ideas, and therefore the propaganda leaps to the eye. ‘Propaganda,’ in the evil sense of the word, is the name that people give to the defence and spread of such ideas as do not please them.”5 But, for most children, public childcare is where they will play, sing, dance and cry like the other children have done everywhere throughout history.
Although various attempts were made across Eastern Europe to encourage men to take greater responsibility in housework, these mainly influenced the young. But they were not entirely ineffective. Women’s strengthened economic position within the labour force produced a number of surprising results. The labour market still had gender segregated areas of employment. Women were in the majority in many professional careers such as medicine, teaching and law, but these became “devalued” sectors where a doctor would only receive two-thirds of the wages of a skilled factory or engineering worker. Nevertheless, more women went into traditionally male jobs like engineering and construction than could be found in the USA or Western Europe.
The institutional protections that many women had achieved such as education, greater employment opportunities, social support as carers and much else did increase the economic independence for women. This increased their power in the social sphere also. Women were in some countries more able to establish new households free from abusive or failed relationships. Professor Ingrid Sharp, an East German sexologist, is quoted observing that, “The fact that women instigated the majority of divorce proceedings was heralded as a sign of their emancipation. Unlike in the West, women were not forced by economic dependence to remain in marriages they no longer enjoyed.” (pp. 133-134) Ghodsee points out that West German women required their husband’s consent to work outside the home until 1957 and that family law stated their work outside the home should not interfere with their domestic responsibilities until 1977. (p. 66)
THE GREAT ORGASM WAR
These economic gains changed behaviour in the sexual arena too. Sharp called the differences in sexual responses between East and West German women The Great Orgasm War. “Hard statistics apparently confirmed the greater sexual responsiveness of Eastern women. A survey … reported that eighty per cent of Eastern women always experienced orgasm, compared to sixty three per cent of women in the West.”(p136) Similar or analogous studies across much of Eastern Europe returned like findings. The freeing of sexual relations from financial calculation appears to have allowed a more spontaneous enjoyment for both men and women.
Ghodsee occasionally writes about greater birth control in countries such as Bulgaria and East Germany. However, it is unclear exactly what she is writing about. In the Soviet Union, women never had oral contraception, instead condoms for men could be found but for women abortion served as the primary method. Women could frequently have had half-a-dozen terminations with each operation increasing the risk of infertility. I am unaware if other methods of contraception were available in the Soviet Union or overall availability across other Eastern European countries.
There was limited sex education in the east, though it may be fair to add this was also true for the west where it was regularly subjected to religiously based obstruction. There was no attempt to promote it as a self-actualising part of life. Homosexuality, was begrudgingly legal, but was frowned upon. There was no attempt to appreciate or celebrate a gay lifestyle. Shortages always dominated Soviet and Eastern European lifestyles. Initially essential items were restricted but as the fifties and sixties passed, it was various “luxuries” and life’s pleasures that were difficult to obtain. Little thought was often given to popular wishes for fashionable, sexy clothing, sex toys, films and literature. It was hardly surprising that some commentators placed the responsibility for the fall of the Berlin Wall on the US TV show Baywatch! Yet the “experiences of some of the state socialist countries in Eastern Europe suggests that there was something different about sexual relations under socialism, and that at least one significant factor is the social supports put in place to promote women’s economic independence. … In addition, to varying degrees, socialist states promoted the idea that sexuality should be disentangled from economic exchange.” (p. 148)
THE BUYING AND SELLING OF CARESSES
The aspirational motives of socialist thinkers created an enticing framework for the future of women, with their relationships with men and children. “The woman of the future society is socially and economically independent, she is free and on par with man and mistress of her destiny,” wrote August Bebel in Women and Socialism in 1910 expressing the aspirations of all communists. Further adding, “The sexual act must not be seen as something shameful or sinful but as something which natural as the other needs of [a] healthy organism such as hunger or thirst. Such phenomena cannot be judged as moral or immoral.” Or as Alexandra Kollontai phrased it, “As regards sexual relations, communist morality demands first of all an end to all relations based on a financial or other economic considerations. The buying and selling of caresses destroys the sense of equality between the sexes and thus undermines the basis of solidarity without which communist society cannot exist.” (p. 118)
Despite the media driven claims of enormous improvements in the quality of life for inhabitants of the former Eastern Bloc, Ghodesee reports differently. At a book event she pointed out that, “[in a] project called Social Impacts of Transition … we actually see quite clearly when we look at a variety of indicators of not only economic but also demographic and in terms of poverty rates, a lot of countries in Eastern Europe have not achieved the standards of living in 2018 that they had in 1990 when communism collapsed. This is a pretty well-kept secret but it’s pretty clear if you look at the data.”6
However, the changes have brought lots of unintended consequences. East German women were put out of work in massive numbers. Many, however, when they travelled to the West they brought with them heightened expectations. They thought it was normal to leave their children in crèches and kindergartens. The effect on women from the former west was impressive as one interviewee records in the book, “Thank God for those east German women. … [W]hen the east German women came over they were used to having crèches and kindergartens, and they demanded them.” (p70)
Although the writer’s aspirations are that policies beneficial to women can and should be adopted regardless of their origins in eastern or northern Europe, she fails to adequately explain why the level of hostility to basic childcare, ending sex discrimination, women’s liberation and much else is so vitriolic in capitalism. Is a stable synthesis of acceptable policies ever possible under capitalism? While it is unlikely that eastern Europe will ever return to modern day versions of the murderous regime of Joseph Stalin, it will be necessary for their new capitalist classes to find ever more reactionary ideologies and institutions to keep them in the privileges for which they feel now entitled by stifling women’s push for economic independence. Yet these, as well as demands for better sexual expression, have an unstoppable momentum that will increasingly conflict with attempts at imposing reaction as seen recently by women’s protests at restricting abortion rights in Poland. The same is also true for the US and western and northern Europe.
This book is a successful attempt at bringing together the political the economic, the social and the sexual as well as chronicling the resilience of women in fighting for their emancipation across the last century.
Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism and other Arguments for Economic Independence by Dr Kristen R. Ghodsee ( Vintage Books, paperback, June, 2019)
- Get Bookish, Dual Review: Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism with https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_5rf9SO12LA
- “Does the Soviet Government Still Follow the Principles Adopted Twenty Years Ago” in The Writings of Leon Trotsky (1937-38) p. 129.
- Arktiukhina, To The Highest Level, January 18th, 1930, Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. Abolition of Zhenotdel. http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1929-2/new-way-of-life/new-way-of-life-texts/9210-2/
- Kristen R. Ghodsee discusses her book, Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism, at Politics and Prose on 11/15/2018 on Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WrdisOZdsTo
- “Is Soviet Russia Fit to Recognise? Liberty Magazine, January 14th, 1933, cited in Women and the Family, Leon Trotsky Pathfinder Press, 1970.
- Kristen R. Ghodsee discusses her book, “Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism”, at Politics and Prose on 11/15/2018 on Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WrdisOZdsTo