In a witty, irreverent op-ed piece that went viral, Kristen Ghodsee argued that women had better sex under socialism. The response was tremendous — clearly, she articulated something many women had sensed for years: the problem is with capitalism, not with us. Ghodsee, an acclaimed ethnographer and professor of Russian and East European Studies, spent years researching what happened to women in countries that transitioned from state socialism to capitalism. In her new book, Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence, she argues here that unregulated capitalism disproportionately harms women, and that we should learn from the past. By rejecting the bad and salvaging the good, we can adapt some socialist ideas to the 21st century and improve our lives. She tackles all aspects of a woman’s life – work, parenting, sex and relationships, citizenship, and leadership. Read an excerpt from chapter two, “What to Expect When You Are Expecting Exploitation: On Motherhood,” below.
Socialists have long understood that creating equity between men and women despite their biological sex differences requires collective forms of support for child rearing. By the mid-nineteenth century, as women flooded into the industrial labor force of Europe, socialists theorized that you could not build strong worker’s movements without the participation of women. The German feminist Lily Braun promoted the idea of a state-funded “maternity insurance” as early as 1897. In this scheme, working women would enjoy paid furloughs from their jobs both before and after delivery, with guarantees that their jobs would be held in their absence. It’s important to remember that as late as 1891, in Germany female industrial workers toiled for a minimum of sixty-five hours per week, even if they were with child. Under these circumstances, pregnant women and girls stayed at the assembly line until they gave birth, and if they had no husband or family to support them, they returned to work soon afterward. The infant and maternal mortality rate for working women was more than double that of middle-class women because of the harsh conditions.
Although British and American feminists wanted to support working mothers through nonstate charities, Braun proposed that funds for the maternity insurance be raised through a progressive income tax. The German government could then pay a woman’s wages for a fixed period before and after the birth of her child. Everyone would contribute to a special pot of money that new mothers could draw on, much like unemployment insurance or a state pension. Braun asserted that since society benefitted from children, it should help bear the costs of raising them. Children are future soldiers, workers, and taxpayers. They are a benefit to all, not just to the parents who bring them into the world (and some parents of teenagers might argue that they are more of a benefit to society than they are to their parents). This is especially true in ethnically homogenous states, where societies place a premium on preserving a particular national identity.
But Braun’s proposal was expensive. It required new taxes and would redistribute wealth to the working classes, an idea that many middle-class men and women opposed. Braun’s ideas also faced initial opposition from the Left. Because Braun was a reformer and believed that her maternity scheme could be implemented under capitalism, more radical German socialists like Clara Zetkin initially rejected her ideas, claiming they could only be realized under a socialist economy. Braun also favored communal living arrangements (communes) over state-funded nurseries and kindergartens, whereas Zetkin believed that housework and child care should be socialized. Nonetheless, Braun’s proposals, in watered down form at least, were passed into law as early as 1899. And by the Second International Conference of Socialist Women in 1910, Braun’s ideas were incorporated into the official socialist platform with the support of Clara Zetkin and the Russian Alexandra Kollontai.
The fourth point on the 1910 socialist platform laid the foundation for all subsequent socialist policies regarding state responsibilities toward women workers. Under the title “Social Protection and Provision for Motherhood and Infants,” the women of the Second International demanded an eight-hour working day. They proposed that pregnant women stop working (without previous notice) for eight weeks prior to the expected delivery date, and that women be granted a paid “motherhood insurance” of eight weeks if the child lived, which could be extended to thirteen weeks if the mother was willing and able to nurse the infant. Women would get a six-week leave for stillborn children, and all working women would enjoy these benefits, “including agricultural laborers, home workers and maid servants.” These policies would be paid for by the permanent establishment of a special maternity fund out of tax revenues.
Seven years later, Kollontai attempted to implement some of these policies in the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik revolution. Instead of burdening individual women with household chores and child care in addition to their industrial labor, the young Soviet state proposed to build kindergartens, crèches, children’s homes, and public cafeterias and laundries. By 1919, the Eighth Congress of the Communist Party handed Kollontai a mandate to expand her work for Soviet women, and she secured state commitments to expend the funds necessary to build a wide net- work of social services. The year 1919 also saw the creation of an organization called the Zhenotdel, the Women’s Section, which would oversee the work of implementing the radical program of social reform that would lead to women’s full emancipation.
But Soviet enthusiasm for women’s emancipation soon evaporated in the face of more pressing demographic, economic, and political concerns. After the country was devastated by the brutal years of the First World War, followed by the Civil War and the horrendous famine of 1921 and 1922, Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not have the funds to support Kollontai’s plan. Hundreds of thousands of war orphans roamed the major cities, plaguing residents with petty crime and theft. The state lacked the resources to care for them; children’s homes were overburdened and under- staffed. Liberalization of divorce laws meant that fathers abandoned their pregnant wives, and poor enforcement of child support and alimony laws meant that those men who had survived the First World War, the Civil War, and the famine routinely skipped out on their responsibilities. Working women couldn’t look after their children and hoped the state would step in and help, as Kollontai and the other women’s activists had promised. In 1920, the Soviet Union had also become the first country in Europe to legalize abortion on demand during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy. Birthrates plummeted as women sought to limit the size of their families. Eventually there was fear that the falling birthrate combined with the devastations of war and famine would derail the country’s plans for rapid modernization.
No one ever wanted women’s economic independence to come at the cost of motherhood, but this is what happened. As the demands on Soviet women’s time increased, they chose to delay or limit childbearing. Eventually, Stalin disbanded the Zhenotdel, declaring that the “woman question” had been solved. In 1936, he reversed most liberal policies, banned abortion, and reinstated the traditional family, on top of his sustained program of state terror and arbitrary purges. The rapidly industrializing Soviet state needed women to work, have babies, and do all of the care work the world’s first socialist state could not yet afford to pay for. Soviet women were far from emancipated, and Alexandra Kollontai spent most of her remaining years in diplomatic exile.
While the Soviet experiment failed, Braun’s ideas and the program of the socialist women in 1910 found fertile soil in the Scandinavian social democracies. The Danes introduced a two-week leave for working women as early as 1901, and by 1960 a universal, state-funded paid maternity leave was extended to all working women. In 1919, Finland passed maternity leave provisions for factory workers and professional women, and added job protections in 1922. Sweden introduced an unpaid maternity leave of four weeks as early as 1901, and by 1963, the government guaranteed women 180 days of job-protected maternity leave at 80 percent of their salaries. Compare this with the United States, which did not even pass a law outlawing discrimination against pregnant women until 1978. And American women didn’t have a federal law for job-protected unpaid leave until 1993. We still don’t have mandated paid maternity leave (but then again, we don’t have mandated paid sick leave either).
Eastern European countries also made early use of maternity leave provisions. Poland granted twelve weeks of fully paid maternity leave in 1924, but most countries introduced these provisions after World War II. These nations needed women to work because there was a shortage of male labor, but they had also invested heavily in women’s education and professional training and did not want to lose their expertise…. For example, the Czechoslovaks introduced the first maternity support policies in 1948, and by 1956 the Labor Code guaranteed women eighteen weeks of paid, job-protected leave. In Bulgaria, the 1971 constitution guaranteed women the right to maternity leaves. In 1973, Bulgarian women enjoyed a fully paid maternity leave of 120 days before and after the birth of the first child as well as an extra six months of leave paid at the national minimum wage. New mothers could also take unpaid leave until their child reached the age of three, when a place in a public kindergarten would be made available. Time on maternity leave counted as labor service toward a woman’s pension, and all leaves were job-protected. Later, an amended law allowed fathers and grandparents to take parental leave in the place of the mother. The Bulgarians covered for those on parental leave with the labor of new university graduates. (In Bulgaria, postsecondary education was free for students who agreed to complete a period of mandatory national service after earning their degrees. These internships allowed young people to get work experience and ensured that a parent’s job would be waiting when he or she returned from leave.)
The 1973 Bulgarian Politburo decision also included language about reeducating men to be more active in the home: “The reduction and alleviation of woman’s household work depends greatly on the common participation of the two spouses in the organization of family life. It is therefore imperative: a) to combat outdated views, habits, and attitudes as regards the allocation of work within the family; b) to prepare young men for the performance of household duties from childhood and adolescence both by the school and society and by the family.”
In the pages of the Bulgarian women’s magazine The Woman Today, editors published articles about men doing their fair share of the housework and encouraging men to be more active fathers to their children. In the Young Pioneers and the Komsomol, two gender-integrated youth organizations, boys and girls were socialized to treat each other as equals who both had important (albeit different) roles to play in building a socialist society. Where men did mandatory military service after secondary school, women’s reproductive labors counted as an equivalent form of national service. In the end, these policies failed to challenge traditional gender roles, but it is important to recognize that there were at least attempts to redefine ideas about masculinity and femininity. Indeed, specific state efforts to encourage men to be more active fathers and participate more in housework can be found as early as the 1950s in Eastern Germany and Czechoslovakia. However, in the face of male recalcitrance, governments focused their efforts instead on the socialization of housework and child care, hoping to expand the network of communal kitchens and public laundries throughout the country.
As early as 1817, the British utopian socialist Robert Owen had suggested that children over the age of three should be raised by local communities rather than in nuclear families, and this idea of the public provision of child care influenced all twentieth-century experiments with state socialism. In addition to maternity leaves, countries like Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, East Germany, and Yugoslavia invested state funds to expand the network of nursery schools (for children from birth to age three) and kindergartens (for children ages three to six) to support women’s continued labor force participation. Of course, the quality of these child care facilities was uneven across the region and often left much to be desired; children got sick with more communicable diseases, and caregivers were often overwhelmed by the demands of too many children (problems common in day care centers today). But as with so many things in the command economy, planners allocated resources inefficiently, and demand always exceeded supply. In my research in the archives of the Bulgarian Women’s Committee, for instance, I discovered many letters to the relevant ministries complaining about the lack of funds allocated for the crèches and kindergartens. Here again, the northern European countries of Sweden, Nor- way, Denmark, and Finland did much better. They invested state funds to build child care facilities to promote women’s full employment. By the end of the Cold War, Scandinavian female labor force participation rates were second only to those of women in the Eastern Bloc.
Excerpted from Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence by Kristen R. Ghodsee. Copyright © 2018. Available from Nation Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc. Purchase a copy on the Hatchette Book Group website here, or on Amazon here.
Read a two-part interview with Kristen R. Ghodsee here, and here, on Public Seminar.
Kristen R. Ghodsee is an award-winning author and ethnographer who has spent the last thirty years studying the lived experiences of socialism and post-socialism in Eastern Europe. She has written seven books on everyday life and the social, political, and economic upheavals following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Her articles and essays have appeared in publications such as Foreign Affairs, Dissent, Jacobin Magazine, Transitions Online, Eurozine, Aeon, The World Policy Journal, The Lancet, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.