The Feminist Curtain

PRAGUE: Sometimes I feel like a schizophrenic. When in the West, I criticize Western feminist ideas about Central Europe. At home, I refrain from such criticisms and go after the potent anti-feminist stereotypes of my homeland, the Czech Republic. My unpopularity, it seems, cuts two ways.

Thirty years ago, I participated in similar East/West debates. Back then, the issue was socialism, with Western university students imagining that salvation would somehow be found through street demonstrations and left-wing politics. Having experienced what a real socialism was all about, I could only disappoint them, shattering their illusions.

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Today, many Western feminists think in similar ways to those leftists of the 1960s. They apply broad generalizations to very different (and usually inappropriate) situations. Their overall effort may be useful, because it injects into Central European debates a diversity of ideas that is essential for people who once lived in the sterile atmosphere of a totalitarian regime, and where habits of conformity linger. But the lives of women in Western and Eastern Europe are far too different for Western feminist notions to be imported whole.

Many Western feminists cling to the belief that socialism's fall harmed women, or at least "threw them back" into the past. They deemed it a plus of the old regime that more women sat in socialist parliaments; that women received "free" medical care; that women held jobs once reserved for men; that the social situation of women was more stable. This is also an opinion held by some women in the Czech Republic, and even more often among women in those postcommunist societies where living standards nowadays seem lower today than under the Communists.

I try, of course, to convey to my Western colleagues the truths about the situation of women under Areal socialism. When I do, however, I only succeed (as before) in destroying illusions; ime the naive belief that a solution to the plight of women had been found in the now discarded socialist regimes.

Today's uncertainties make the past look rosier than it was. It is the lack of stability that is responsible for so many confused memories about socialism. The totalitarian state limited crime, or rather made it less visible. Corruption followed well established patterns and life seemed safer because it was more predictable. In a situation of seemingly ceaseless change and fluidity, it is not surprising that women identify stability and social guarantees with an all-powerful government.

The truth is that the position of women in the Czech Republic has changed since1989 B for the better and for the worse. The employment rate of women has decreased by about 3%; benefits to single mothers have been lowered; it has became more difficult to sue to collect alimony. There are fewer measures that actively promote the equality of women. And there has been a decrease in the number of women in politics.

It is easy to forget, however, that under socialism all political decisions -- important or not -- were taken in a Politburo packed with old men. Also, everyone now knows what "free" socialist medical care was really like; and as for jobs performed by women, they were very poorly paid. State paternalism, directed not only at women, inculcated a helplessness that can be blamed for many of our current difficulties.

While many appreciate the new horizons that have opened for them, a lingering ambivalence about their relationship to the paternalistic, totalitarian state remains. One hears frequent complaints by women that the new, democratic authorities are too weak to help or protect them effectively. It seems like a vicious circle.

A totalitarian state will never promote the sort of pluralist, democratic society that, by its nature, limits state power. A weak state, however, can be overrun by special interest groups, corruption, and crime, and so force citizens into self-defensive withdrawals into the very traditional structures that held women back in the past. Such a state cannot protect those unable to withstand competition, and cannot provide for their needs. So the temptation of the weak is to yearn for a strong state.

Nevertheless, in the Czech Republic's parliamentary elections of 1997, the majority of women voted for the ruling right-of-center parties. Through their ballots, they pronounced themselves in favor of continuing the processes of political democratization and the creation of a market economy. They expressed a preference for an efficient rather than a strong state. They seem willing to surrender some social guarantees in exchange for that efficiency and increased personal liberty.

It is to this readiness that Westerners, feminist or not, should pay attention. The decision by the majority of Central European women to decline state protection and accept competition is more important than determining whether or not women are proportionately represented on the boards of large banks or whether they fly in economy or business class.