East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 6, No. 1, Winter 1998, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

Women in Ministry: From All Angles
Difficulties for Women in Russia Are On the Increase

Barbara Evans Clements

Editor's Note:  While the author did not participate in the Moscow women's conference, June 1997, her insights provide valuable background on the overall situation of women in Russia today.

The Soviet Union came to an end in December 1991.  Change has continued since then in Russia, with very mixed results.  In general, the news for women--farm workers and city-dwellers, Siberians and Muscovites--has not been good.  They have lost, or are in danger of losing, many of the benefits of the old Soviet system without gaining much from the new society.  Their basic problem--too many burdens and too few opportunities--has not changed at all.  In fact, for many individual women, it has only gotten worse.

The Feminization of Poverty
Women throughout Russia are suffering because the economy has continued to deteriorate.  A few people have benefited from the new entrepreneurial opportunities, but the great majority of the population has only seen life become more difficult.  Rampant inflation wiped out savings.  Government financing of such amenities as vacation hotels on the Black Sea has dried up.  There are fewer lines at the shops now, but this is mainly because most people cannot afford to buy the fancy imported goods for sale there.  Life is particularly hard for the millions of single, older women trying to survive on tiny pensions.  Meanwhile, national funding for social services, such as day care and medical clinics, has been cut, throwing responsibility for these programs onto local governments already struggling to make ends meet.

Discrimination Against Women
The economic collapse is also worsening discrimination against women.  Despite their history of participating in the labor force, despite their high levels of education and training, women have been much more likely to lose their jobs than men.  Russian statisticians estimate that more than 70 percent of those workers laid off in the current restructuring of government departments and factories are women.  Women are less likely than men to be admitted to retraining programs.  Some observers also have charged that many women still working have taken pay cuts and are now paid significantly less than men for the same work.  Nor are great opportunities available in the new enterprises opening up in Russia.  Only ten percent of the new business owners are women.  Foreign companies openly discriminate against women, particularly older ones, in hiring.1

Men in Power
Politically, men still dominate.  Boris Yeltsin's cabinet and the leaders of the opposition parties that so bitterly oppose him are all men.  In the earliest of the new legislatures established in Russia, the Baltics, Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, female representation was minuscule, no more than five percent.  As troubling was a widespread sense among Russia's citizens that women did not belong in politics.  People told pollsters that women had disgraced themselves by voting for the Party line in the old, rubber-stamp Soviet parliaments.  The fact that all the male delegates to those organizations had voted as they were told did not seem to disqualify men from office-holding.

The prejudice against women in power grew out of deeply held beliefs about women in Russian culture.  Before the revolution, Russians had believed that women should tend to their families and leave running society to men.  Men were rational and suited to the hurly-burly of politics; women were gentle and fulfilled when at home.  Communists had disputed these ideas, arguing instead that women should be involved in every aspect of society.  The Soviet government never provided the support women needed to make this vision a reality, and it never promoted women to the top of the Party.  But it had never renounced the idea that women should be equal either.  Once communism collapsed, the old ideas about the fundamental differences between women and men seemed to reassert themselves, strengthened now by the widespread disillusionment with communism's failures.  Rejection of communism led many women to reject notions of women's equality they associated with it, and turn inward, concentrating on their families.  As the economy worsened and the politicians fought with one another, this made a good deal of sense anyway.

Women Taking the Initiative
Some women have challenged the new discrimination, however, and they may hold the key to the future.  Tens of thousands of women have been setting up self-help groups, a very promising development in a nation where the leaders have long discouraged independent organizations.  There are religious societies, support groups for the unemployed, clubs for soldiers' wives, professional organizations for women in business or academics, neighborhood or city-wide associations promoting economic development or providing social services.  The Association of Small Towns promotes economic development by marketing local crafts, many of which are made by women.  The biggest of all these women-centered organizations is the Union of Women of Russia, the group that sponsored the new political party, Women of Russia.  It has concentrated on finding work for the unemployed as well as on establishing itself as a national umbrella organization that will put all the women's groups in touch with one another.

The situation of women in Russia today makes one ask, "Has the country really had a revolution?"  A new political system has yet to stabilize. Economic reform is ongoing, but slow, and its major effects to date have worsened women's lives.  Although communism, the Soviet Union's official system, has fallen into disgrace, no new belief system has emerged to take its place.  In the void old ideas about women are pushing back into prominence.  Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultranationalist member of Parliament, announced his solution to women's problems: Our party will find husbands for all unmarried women.2

Consequently the realities of women's lives in today's Russia are not pleasant ones.  Political freedom rings hollow when democratically elected leaders cannot solve the nation's problems any better than the communists could.  Most women are responding in a time-honored Russian way: They hunker down and take pride in coping with the demands of everyday life.  But a few are arguing that women should apply their abilities to the public world, should vote and run for office, should clean up Russia. The women of Russia are not so different from women all over the world. In their diversity of culture, perspective, and ability to cope, they are far more interesting than any simple image that might be created from myth or illusion. 

1. New York Times, 17 April 1994, 1; Nadezhda Os'minina, "Russia Is Masculine in Gender," Woman Worker, May 1993, 10-11; Yevgenia Albats, "Russia: Women on the Edge," Ms., March-April 1994, 12.

2. Albats, "Russia: Women on the Edge," 15.

Excerpt reprinted with permission from Reemerging Russia, Search for Identity, ed. by Max J. Okenfuss and Cheryl D. Roberts (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 107-13.

Dr. Barbara Evans Clements is professor of history at the University of Akron, Akron, OH. She completed a Ph.D. from Duke University in 1971. She is the author of Russia's Women:  Accommodation, Resistance, Transformation (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1991), and Bolshevik Women (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Mark Elliott, "Difficulties for Women in Russia Are On the Increase," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 6 (Winter 1998), 3-4.

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© 1998 Institute for East-West Christian Studies
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