Women and Socialism

BY:Doris Marquit| September 26, 2001

Speech given at the Women’s Equality Conference

When our
topic is "women and socialism," should we speak about the past
or the future? We Communists look to the future-socialism. And we have
theory (Marxism) as well as our own experiences in political work, to
draw on as we plan and one day bring about our socialism, our own socialist

Yet we also
have a past, something the founders of the first socialist societies did
not have; we have their experience. We must study it and learn from it.
"Early socialism" existed-in the Soviet Union for seventy-five
years, and for over forty years in the European socialist countries of
Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia,
and especially (for me) the German Democratic Republic. (I’ll speak only
of the European socialist countries here; other lessons remain to be learned
from attempts elsewhere). Each built its socialism on its own culture.
Since the history of women’s roles in each of these cultures was unique,
the policies these new socialist societies developed toward women differed,
and the lives of women within them differed even more, but there were
important common features.

These first
socialist societies accomplished much for women, and we can be proud.
None, however, was a utopia. Why and why not? My own experience suggests
to me some answers. My personal experience has been: living and teaching
in the German Democratic Republic for a total of two years, in 1978-79,
1981, and 1987; a summer at Moscow State University; and other visits
to the Soviet Union, Poland, and the GDR. I also spent thirty years teaching
women’s studies at the University of Minnesota, studying women’s issues
and feminist theory.

My conclusion
is that I would like my grandchildren and great grandchildren to grow
up in a socialist society-even in the "early socialism" I saw
in Europe, and even more in a later socialism we can build, our socialism.
But they will still have work to do-especially the women. They will have
work to do in society, in their political parties, in their unions, in
their families. These socialist women will have to continue their own

Now let me
summarize some past achievements in which we can take pride as socialists,
and suggest some areas where we as socialists can do better in the future.

The German
Democratic Republic was founded in 1949 (by German Communists and Social
Democrats with Soviet support) and for forty years provided an ongoing
contrast with the other Germany. After the West German takeover, when
the first German socialist state was terminated by the so-called reunification,
women were in the forefront of the widespread and rapidly growing, but
sadly belated, awareness of what had been lost.

The lives
of GDR women included career-92% held jobs outside their homes. Child
care was state run and funded, a full part of the public education system,
and unique even among socialist countries. In 1989, over 80% of children
under 3, and 95% of 3 to 6-year olds, were in modern, well-staffed day-care
facilities located conveniently in residential complexes or work sites.
Equal pay for equal work was guaranteed. An Equal Rights Amendment was
not needed: from the beginning the GDR Constitution (I quote from the
1974 version) read: "Men and women have equal rights and have the
same legal status in all spheres of social, state and personal life. The
promotion of women, particularly with regard to vocational qualification,
is a task of society and the state." Besides legal equality, the
GDR was advanced in some other aspects of theory: it was the first of
the socialist countries to eliminate the designation of homosexuality
as a psychological disorder. Gays and lesbians had full civil rights (although
social acceptance lagged.) Contraception and abortion were included as
part of universal free health care.

In the GDR
the term welfare did not exist, but social responsibility did. What in
the United States are seen as at best "entitlements" and at
worst as wasteful, character-destroying handouts were provisions by the
society as a whole for the general good. Family allowances, days off at
full pay for household tasks, the prized "baby year" (the option
for a mother of spending a year or more at home caring for an infant while
receiving 3/4 or even all of her usual paycheck), even special privileges
for large ("children-rich") families-all were taken for granted
and were a real material boon for women.

In 1990 virtually
all of these benefits disappeared. Reunification is acknowledged, across
almost the entire political spectrum, to have been a setback for German
women. Sudden unemployment in the former GDR hit women hardest; discrimination
was blatant-East German women were simply fired. A forced stampede, since
reunification, back to traditional childrearing within the family with
traditional maternal responsibility met wide acceptance, even (reflecting
a clear consciousness problem) among women. Many articles in U.S. academic
journals and feminist publications have detailed this loss. This has been
a breath of reason in the almost universal celebration in U.S. media of
how wonderful it is that the West won the Cold War. (Socialists have potential
allies here.)

The practice
was better than the theory, however, the deeds better than the understanding,
and gaps in consciousness had some unfortunate and unforeseen results.
Social policies had the one-sided goal of enabling women to combine motherhood
with employment, rather than offering incentives for responsible parenthood
that would encourage men to take an active role in parenting. It was seen
as self-evident and "natural" that women not only had a unique
role in reproduction but also bore primary (and almost exclusive hands-on)
responsibility for children, housework, and family. Surveys and time-budget
studies showed that women were in fact washing the dishes and changing
the diapers.

A gender-wage
gap existed in the GDR: women’s pay averaged 75% to 80% of men’s, largely
because of gender-specific career choices. (This gap is far less marked
than it was in West Germany and is actually less than that in the United
States today-but by socialist standards it is imperfect). Several jobs,
all with low pay, were held almost exclusively by women: stenotypist,
textile worker, caregiver of young children, certain retail salesworkers.
Some jobs were all male: plumber, fitter, control panel operative. Companies
preferred male applicants for apprentices in technical occupations, giving
as reasons: high dropout rate among women, physical demands of jobs, no
technical motivation and interest among women. The important role of tradition
was underestimated, such as attitudes toward family roles and appropriate
jobs for women. Half of the academic staff in GDR universities were women,
but the administrative pyramid was gender-skewed; few women held the highest-level
positions such as presidents, deans, and department heads.

Germany inherited a paternalistic and patriarchal equal-rights policy
rooted in social democratic and Communist labor movements that resulted
in continuing social inequality between men and women. Father State made
moms happy. Gender equality was official policy and loudly proclaimed.
Even Communist men could ignore social inequality and the power relations
resulting from division of labor. Men were almost entirely relieved of
responsibilities as fathers and husbands.

No independent
women’s movement existed in the GDR. The official women’s organization
was a peace and solidarity group (often an effective one), mobilizing
women to support broad political and social goals, not a women’s rights
organization. East German women had no experience organizing for their
own gender-specific rights. No theoretical discussions in their own organizations
had prepared them to define their own "family values." Vulnerable
to propaganda, lured by Western consumer goods, socialist women were unprepared
to fight for what they had. Their lives constricted to the domestic sphere
with no social support, disentitlement, unemployment, stunned at their
social losses-women of the former socialist Germany are left with regret
and recrimination.

I shall cite
one further testimony to the mixed achievements and legacy of socialist
societies. Margaret Randall is a friend of socialism and a fierce anticapitalist
and anti-imperialist. She lived for years in Cuba and Nicaragua (when
she returned to the United States, the George Bush administration tried
to deny her U.S. citizenship, and she became a historic immigration case).
Her verdict is that twentieth-century revolutions failed to "develop
a feminist agenda." Why? She recognizes that they all produced a
better life for women. She remembers living in Cuba with four children
and her relief at an assured job, health care, education, recreation,
culture-all free-and her delight at a society without a culture of violence
and drugs. She evokes the joy of Nicaraguan women at the government decree
forbidding degrading images of the female body in advertising. Yet she
believes socialists failed to understand the importance of feminism, some
aspects of race relations, cultural diversity, sexual difference, critical
thought, and certain individual freedoms. These failures risk leaving
people unwilling to defend revolutions they do not feel a part of. (And
Cuba, alone among the socialist countries, takes just pride in its Family

In summary,
it seems to me that the past-early socialist societies-shows us that it
is possible to integrate women into economic and public life, to give
women material and social support, and in general make women’s lives better,
happier, and more secure. Two important shortcomings in these societies
prevented women’s achievement of full social equality:
(1) underestimation of the importance of consciousness, the necessity
for both women and men to develop new understandings of gender roles.
(2) failure to permit and encourage independent women’s organizations.

What have
we learned? Women’s equality is not automatic, not an inevitable by-product
of any other form of social progress. We know this now, not only theoretically,
but from experience. Perhaps that knowledge is the most valuable legacy
of the early socialist societies for our topic-"women and socialism."

Comments (1)

Louisiana Boatman | November 20, 2011 at 8:13 PM

I think it is important for our society to take care of their families. It behooves every country to have free childcare for their citizens, and paid time off for mothers and their infant. It is so sad how we over look something so fundamental.

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