Analysis

Women in Eastern Europe – societal norms or personal choices?

With International Women’s Day on 8 March, Vostok Cable turns to a controversial subject – whether feminism exists in Eastern Europe. Andrea Peycheva argues that whatever does exist should not be judged by Western standards.

A 1932 Soviet poster dedicated to the 8 March holiday. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

A 1932 Soviet poster dedicated to the 8 March holiday.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Feminist movements were rarely apparent in Eastern Europe and the concept of feminism has always been somewhat blurred. Women in Western Europe have much greater perception of this term. Perhaps this was men and women were and are equal in terms of education and employment in Eastern Europe. The lengthy years of communist rule took care of that – communism spread the idea of gender-equality. Women worked alongside men and their proportion in the workforce was almost half and half.

Being an Eastern European myself I have always been interested in women’s rights in this region. While conducting the research for this article I found that a woman’s situation seemed quite promising on the outside but on the inside it was full of restrictions and misunderstandings. Another thing that made an impression was the age of the information available – most of the materialI stumbled uponwas written in the early or mid-90s.

Eastern European women are portrayed in the academic literature as the big losers of the transition, regardless of their social or economic status. The term equality found its presence mainly in paid employment. Paid, because the work women did at home was considered unpaid. However, what most of our society today understands by equality is employment opportunities and education. Women in Eastern Europe have historically been equal to men in terms of participation in labour force and education. In Bulgaria, women accounted half of the workforce in 1989. By the mid-1970s nearly half of the Polish work force was made up by women. Many professions such as engineering, architecture and university teaching employed a considerable higher number of women than in the West. In many Polish households in the 1980s, women earned more than their husbands. And yet, somehow women of Eastern Europe were seen ‘behind’ their Western sisters.

There could be several reasons for this. First of all, Eastern European society tended to be more patriarchal as women were expected to devote themselves first to family and raising children. Others argue that women did not receive leadership positions in politics or society in general. But yet, opportunities for employment and education were unlimited and women were able to choose for themselves. Perhaps the way Eastern women were and are perceived is more due to their personal choices rather than societal expectations.

In fact, there was no discrimination of women in Eastern Europe at the workplace or at home. The idea that everyone is equal has rooted deeply into the Eastern European mindset and women were never deprived from having a professional and personal life at the same time or economic independence for that matter. Today, out of all jobs applications in Bulgaria, 80% are made by females and the chances an employer will hire a woman are very high. Industries such as PR and media are dominated by female presence. We see more and more women on leadership positions such as managers, directors or team leaders. On educational level women have always had full access to universities. Today the number of men and women in Bulgarian universities is equal. The amount of female and male students obtaining degrees in engineering and sciences is almost the same.

To sum up, women in Eastern Europe should not be judged by their country of origin or the political regimes they have experienced. It is more about a question of upbringing, perspective, internal believes and personal choices.

See also

Ulf Brunnbauer, From Equality Without Democracy To Democracy Without Equality? Women And Transition In Southeast Europe; South-East Europe Review 3/2000

Women in Poland – Overview; ‘Poland: A Country Study’ published by the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress; October 1992; Link: http://abt.cm/1ghotbR

Manpower Bulgaria, Link: http://bit.ly/M5U3yY

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