To Russian women, feminism looks like drudgery

March 19, 1995|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- After 75 years of exhausting liberation, Russian women are longing to put down their jackhammers and go back to their kitchens and children.

Western-style feminism is widely regarded with suspicion here, where women found drudgery instead of opportunity when communism opened the world of work to them. The emancipated Soviet woman was expected to lay bricks all day, then shop, cook, clean, and coddle her husband and children.

Today, she's ready for a little role reversal.

"Men should make the money," says Natalya Knaut, an athletic young woman who is studying to be a body-shaping coach. "Women should bear children and raise them."

Her twin sister, Vera, nods in agreement, as they walk together at a ferocious pace in bitter cold.

"Feminism!" says Vera.

"It was thought up by a sick mind. There is a natural division between men and women, and we should follow that natural division."

Their opinions are the norm. Women weary of Soviet-style life -- in which people were another nameless, shapeless raw material -- want something new.

"Society is expressing its opinion about where women should be," says Olga Lipovskaya at the Petersburg Center for Gender Studies. "And that's at home."

Lenin taught that capitalism depended on the oppression of women. Under capitalism, he wrote, "they are domestic slaves, crushed by the most petty, the darkest, the heaviest, the most dulling work in the kitchen and the single-handed care of the house and family in general."

Communism, he promised, would free them from exploitation and give them equal rights. And the Soviet Union insisted to its dying day that equality had been achieved. But there was always a difference between official words and Soviet reality.

Since the former Soviet Union desperately needed workers, the law required everyone to work or face the prospect of imprisonment. Day-care centers were cheap and ubiquitous, but someone still had to do the shopping, wash the clothes, scrub the floors and all that "dulling work in the kitchen."

That work fell to the women.

"On a deep level," Ms. Lipovskaya says, "the sex role stereotypes were not destroyed."

It's no wonder, she says, that Russian women think skeptically of feminism, or wonder what it means.

This has given sexual politics a peculiar resonance.

To get the attention of a female clerk, a Russian customer always shouts "Girl!"

A female train conductor, finding a male passenger trying to force open a door, says soothingly, "Touch it tenderly, as you would a woman."

Russian women drove tractors but almost never drove cars.

To this day, most men consider the idea of a woman driver hilarious or enraging.

A motoring columnist for a Moscow newspaper warns new drivers that men will routinely speed in front of a woman's car and slam on the brakes, hoping she'll run into them. She would be the one at fault, of course.

Tatyana Mitrofonova, a successful St. Petersburg architect, only recently felt capable of trying to drive. She is 44. "More and more women are studying driving," she says, steering hesitantly on the way to her driver's test, "but even now you rarely meet a woman driver."

At work but patronized

Women were allowed into many fields, but they were always patronized.

There is, for example, the case of Yelena Kondakova, a Russian cosmonaut, who has been orbiting on the Mir space station since early October.

Mrs. Kondakova, 37, is the flight engineer. But that is not what Valery Bogomolov, a space agency official, mentions when he comments on her work: "Yelena is a very sociable, benevolent and warm-hearted person. She even managed to create home '' comfort on the station."

More women than men are doctors -- a particularly low-paying job. More women than men are janitors -- or so it seems on snowy days, when the women are outside shoveling the sidewalks.

Women dominate the courts -- since to be a judge used to carry no prestige; in Soviet times everyone was found guilty.

Now, the government is encouraging women to spend more time at home.

But the goal is to ease the job crisis for men, not to help women. Indeed, during the near collapse of Russia's economy, women have lost their jobs in disproportionately large numbers, according to a new report issued by Human Rights Watch.

Discrimination encouraged

That report also suggests that rather than prohibiting sex discrimination, the government is encouraging it.

The researchers quote Russia's labor minister, Gennady Melikyan: "Why should we employ women when men are out of work? It's better that men work and women take care of children and do housework. I don't think women should work when men are doing nothing." Women, who are 53 percent of the population, now account for 60 percent of the unemployed.

Ms. Lipovskaya predicts that as women become poorer, they will begin to demand economic and political power.

"Life is changing," she says. "I think we'll soon be witnessing a war of the sexes."

Irina Khakamada is one of the women who already have power. After making a fortune in the computer software business, she became leader of a political faction in the Russian Parliament and has become an authoritative voice on the economy.

She, of course, does all the shopping, cooking and cleaning for her husband and son.

"Oh yes, I iron my husband's shirts in the morning," she says. "He might back me, but he doesn't do anything for himself at home. After all, this is Russia."

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