Feminism in Central and Eastern Europe: risks and possibilities of American engagement.

Author:Olsen, Frances Elisabeth

Alice described the Looking-glass House: "First, there's the room you can see through the glass-that's just the same as our drawing-room, only the things go the other way.... [T]he books are something like our books, only the words go the wrong way."(1) As the looking glass was hanging right over the fireplace, Alice could not see whether the Looking-glass House really had a fireplace with a fire in it, as their room did. "[Y]ou never can tell, you know, unless our fire smokes, and then smoke comes up in that room too -- but that may be only pretense, just to make it look as if they had a fire."(2) When she entered the Looking-glass House, the fireplace was the first thing Alice checked, and "she was quite pleased to find that there was a real [fire], blazing away as brightly as the one she had left behind."(3) But as she began looking about, she "noticed that what could be seen from the old room was quite common and uninteresting, but that all the rest was as different as possible."(4)

Some Western observers see the countries of Central and Eastern Europe much as Alice saw the Looking-glass House: The stodgy supporters of the status quo are the Communists; the local Catholic Church hierarchy extols the value of democracy; and every election results in a decrease in the number of women representatives in government.(5) Westerners often wonder whether the notion of women's equality, extolled by these governments for some forty-odd years,(6) was merely a pretense or whether, like the fireplace fire, it will turn out to have been blazing away brightly. They may wonder how much in these countries is actually "common and uninteresting" and how much of what was previously unseen may turn out to be "as different as possible." Like Alice, Westerners are likely to slip easily from the view that things in Central and Eastern Europe "go the other way" to the view that they "go the wrong way."

Europe was not separated by a looking glass, but by the "iron curtain" that Winston Churchill announced in 1946 had "descended across" Europe "[flrom Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic."(7) This "iron curtain" was thought to divide Europe between the advanced Western democracies and the more backward countries floundering under the shadow of the Soviet Union, referred to by Churchill as "these Eastern States of Europe."(8) This division of Europe into East and West mirrored the "Orientalist"(9) division of the world between the advanced West and the backward East, and reinforced the self-definition of Western Europe as modern and democratic.(10) In reality, of course, Switzerland did not allow women to vote,(11) and Spain was a fascist dictatorship.(12)

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the substantial changes in Central and Eastern Europe, the "iron curtain" is gone. Yet the division of Europe between East and West remains almost as stark as ever. The cultural and political condescension toward Eastern Europe during the Cold War era may be replaced by a similar condescension toward the countries in transition.(13) Although it might be argued that the changes since the transitions began in 1989 have made "the very idea of Eastern Europe, as a distinct geopolitical entity for focused academic analysis ... dubious and equivocal,"(14) habits of thought persist. Moreover, the legacy of the "iron curtain" provides many bases that link together the countries of the region.(15)

The situation of women throughout most of Central and Eastern Europe has in many respects worsened since the transition.(16) In most of the countries, unemployment is generally high and especially high among women.(17) Discrimination against women has increased as governments have failed to enforce existing antidiscrimination provisions(18) and some conservative and nationalist regimes have even promoted discriminatory policies to limit women's roles.(19) The transition to a market economy has precipitated a decline in social and public services, including sharp decreases in the availability of child care facilities.(20) Sexual abuse and domestic violence appear to be increasing, and little is being done to stop them.(21) Reproductive freedom has become a serious issue in a number of countries, with several governments proposing or enacting laws against abortion.(22) Prostitution is on the rise, and the working conditions of women and girls in prostitution are especially harsh and dangerous.(23)

As the wall carne down, Americans and Western Europeans began to flock to Central and Eastern Europe. These flocks included entrepreneurs of various kinds, opportunists, do-gooders, religious missionaries, and others, including feminists.(24) The feminists, not surprisingly, have been particularly interested in the role and status of women and how the transition affects that role and status. This Essay examines the situation of women in Central and Eastern Europe from a (West) European-American perspective, and explores the value and risks of this perspective and of American feminist work in Central and Eastern Europe in general. My goal is to improve communication and increase the effectiveness of the exchanges between women from the United States (and perhaps Western Europe)(25) and women from Central and Eastern Europe. While some of these gestures at global sisterhood have been productive,(26) the exchange has also been lopsided and inadvertently accompanied by a patronizing attitude that reduces its usefulness to women in Central and Eastern Europe and limits the value of the experience to women in the United States. This Essay seeks to understand and thus to decr-ease the factors that limit the effectiveness of efforts at international women's alliances. It addresses in a concrete context a number of issues that have received considerable theoretical attention: cultural imperialism, cultural relativism, international feminism, universalism, essentialism, and the possibilities of international feminist politics.(27)

Although Central and Eastern Europe has never been the focus of my work, or even of my international work, my associations with the region go back thirty years.(28) In 1967, 1 visited most of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe,(29) including a week-long study tour of Poland organized by the Danish Social Democrats. In the early spring of 1989, before the transition, I was in Hungary for a ten-day lecture tour.(30) I made several trips to Yugoslavia before the transition and in Croatia observed the referendum on independence held in May 1991. In addition, I have presented numerous lectures, consulted with academics and activists, and visited a wide variety of institutions in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and the former East Germany. I maintain close ties with the University of Berlin (Humboldt), where a program on feminist law I initiated and nurtured is now in its fourth year.(31) In the fall of 1996, I conducted a concentrated course on feminist legal theory at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, presented numerous additional lectures, gave interviews, and consulted with academics, politicians, judges, feminist activists, and others.

Part I of this Essay briefly examines the basic notion of "Central and Eastern Europe." Although perhaps an improvement on "Eastern Europe," the category nevertheless conceptualizes the region as different from and inferior to Western Europe. Like so many other oppressive constructions, however, the concept should be utilized at the same time that it is deconstructed. Part II considers the classic critiques of Western feminism and how they might apply to the activities of American feminists working in Central and Eastern Europe. While agreeing with many of these critiques, I argue that a number of bases for alliance among women exist and that forging such alliances is a particularly important feminist project. Part III examines some of the lessons that can be learned from Central and Eastern Europe and suggests that American women need to recognize that working abroad serves their own self-interest. By acknowledging as much, women can begin to counteract the hypocrisy and pervasive domination embedded in present concepts of international altruism. Part IV examines some of the ways in which women in Central and Eastern Europe can benefit and have benefitted from American feminist involvement. It challenges the ways in which antifeminist critics have attempted to portray nationally subordinated women as passive victims of Western feminist domination. The question is not what Americans can do to help, but rather whether and how women in Central and Eastern Europe can make use of American feminist involvement.

  1. The Construction of "Eastern Europe"

    and "Central and Eastern Europe"

    One should interrogate the category "Central and Eastern Europe." Do the people in this geographic region have enough in common to be treated as a group? Or do their differences overshadow their commonalities? The countries of Central and Eastern Europe share at least two particularly important circumstances. First, the region was to a great extent treated as a unit by the United States throughout the Cold War. All the countries were at that time considered part of the Soviet Bloc and they are all now considered to be democracies, to one extent or another. Second, neoliberal economic policies currently play a crucial role in each of the countries.(32)

    The idea that Europe consisted of a modern western portion and a less advanced and less civilized eastern portion is not a recent construction but one that arose during the Enlightenment. During the early Renaissance, Europe was considered to be divided between the barbarian Kingdoms of the North and the refined and cultured Italy in the South.(33) As Larry Wolff has shown, the idea of Eastern Europe was constructed during the eighteenth century "as a work of cultural creation, of intellectual artifice, of ideological self-interest and self-promotion."(34)


To continue reading