Behind the Iron Curtain part 5 – Feminism

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.

I grew up in a household where a lot of the work was shared between both parents. There was division of labor between them, but it was never presented to me as the “right” thing to do. So while my mother has done indeed most of the washing, cleaning and cooking and my father has done the repairs around the house and the gardening and husbandry, I was never discouraged from doing anything on the basis that it is “unmanly”. And it was not uncommon for my father to do the dishes or cooking. Especially since my mother had higher ranking and better paid job than my father, so mostly when I was sick it was my father who took care of me (which was a lot).

Neither do I remember any such thing from school.

That is not to say that patriarchal ideas were not present or prevalent. They were both. Most party officials were old men, with all the baggage that carries with it. Thousand years of history cannot be denied or ignored, so the ideas about things proper and improper for a woman were still propagated and confirmed to the old stereotypes. It was expected that a woman takes care of the household while the man takes care of most of the income. It was expected tha men will do most of the leading and women will be mostly lead. There were jobs that were considered to be for men and jobs that were generally considered to be for women.

But, even in retrospect, I think a progress was made, and the regime did not approach the issue altogether falsely.

Firstly women were not officially discouraged from any job, with perhaps the exception of the army. Unfortunately the gender pay gap was there (and got further exacerbated after the fall of the iron curtain), but it was not uncommon to see women in leadership positions. Women were officially recognized as a big potential working force. The official stance was to encourage women to take on any job they wish and the regime boasted this officially and a great pride was taken in having the first woman astronaut for example etc. This of course had to work against the aforementioned cultural drag.

Secondly in media there was an effort made at making movies and TV series that either were centered around women, or at least contained some gender parity in both heroes and villains. One of the most popular TV series from my childhood that I remember had the main protagonist and one of the main villains both women. But of course here too was hindered by the enormous cultural inertia.

But the things the regime I think got definitively right (that I knew of at the time) were these two: maternity leave and divorce.

At the time of my life maternity leave was nearly three years and the regime took great pride in that. The reasoning was that taking care of the children is an important work for the society as a whole and should be recognized as such. Low or unpaid maternity leave in some western countries was always presented as one of the most backwards things.
Divorce was also legal and available pretty much on demand, even if it was not swift and there were legal loops to go through. The reasoning here was that to keep a woman in a marriage she does not wish to be in is a form of slavery and as such does not belong in modern society.

In retrospect I think the Iron curtain stopping more progress being made on this front was more in people’s heads than in the regime’s ideology.


  1. johnson catman says

    The reasoning here was that to keep a woman in a marriage she does not wish to be in is a form of slavery and as such does not belong in modern society.

    Unfortunately, for the US, control of women is a feature, not a bug. Compared to other countries, the US is not as “exceptional” as many people believe.

  2. says

    Don’t forget abortion rights
    While in West Germany we had to rely on illegal abortion and “weekend vacations” in the Netherlands, East Germany had legal abortion on demand for the first trimester.
    And to this day you can see differences between east and west Germany in terms of availability of and attitudes towards daycare. Because in west Germany it was a sign that a man had failed if his wife “had” to work. It’s basically the attitude that kept my in laws poor all their lives. Therefore, most childcare was 8-12 so the mother could clean and cook.

  3. Nightjar says

    I was going to ask about abortion but then saw Giliell already answered my question. I didn’t know that, it’s interesting. I guess religion really does have a lot to do with the restriction of abortion rights.

  4. voyager says

    Canada provides one year’s worth of maternity leave and now either parent is eligible. We also have access to funded abortion services, although women still need to pay for missed time at work and travel costs. This can be especially onerous for women in remote areas.

Leave a Reply