Drawing by Konstantin Maler
It would probably surprise no foreigner who has ever visited Russia that a 2004 Kinsey study described Russian society as existing in a “sexless sexism” in which, “on one side, gender/sex differences have been theoretically disregarded and politically underestimated,” but “on the other side, both public opinion and social practices have been extremely sexist, all empirical sex differences being taken as given by nature.”
What this means, in practice, is that Russians by and large adhere to relatively strict gender roles: women are expected to dress well and take care of themselves, want many babies, act as the centre of the household, and be very ladylike while men are expected to carry all the financial responsibility, protect the honour of their women, carry heavy loads and drive the car.
What does often surprise foreigners, however, is that women in Russia tend to uphold these gender roles as vociferously, if not more so, than their male counterparts. In a recent study by the Levada Centre, only 38 percent of both men and women supported “abstract egalitarianism” in domestic life; cooking, cleaning, raising children, etc. were overwhelmingly labelled as exclusively female; the only duty that was deemed exclusively male was going to war.
According to another opinion poll, 78 percent of both men and women believe a woman’s place is in the home. It’s worth noting here, however, that in a traditional Russian household, it is the woman who makes all decisions regarding finances and domestic issues (“The man is the head, but the woman is the neck” as the popular Russian saying goes).
More importantly, Russian women often visibly grimace at the word “feminism,” which is filled with negative connotations, such as sloppiness, laziness, aggression, and vulgarity. “These feminists, they act like men,” my friend Sveta always says with derision, echoing the thoughts of many other Russian women, “Why would I want to act like a man? I’m proud of being a woman.”
The obvious question here is: how did this intense aversion to feminism develop? The answer begins, as it often does, in the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1917, Russia became one of the first places in the world to give women the right to vote, and egalitarianism was promoted as one of the great ideals of the revolution.
Like many of those ideals, however, it was somewhat of an illusion. Women were still expected to take care of all the domestic duties, but now they had to take on the burden of labour as well. The appropriation of male responsibility unsurprisingly escalated after Russia lost 10 million men in World War II and another 18 million passed through the gulag.
The overwhelming load that women now had to carry was expressed in the rhyming Russian saying, “I’m both a horse and a bull, I’m both a woman and a man,” which echoes the complaints made by my mother and her friends when they used to tiredly grumble, “Before feminism, all you had to do was be a good wife and mother. Now you have to do everything.”
The iconic Soviet female, often portrayed in national leaflets with a sickle in one hand and a spoon in the other, was minimalistic and productive rather than glamorous. It’s no wonder then that with the fall of the Soviet Union, as psychologist Yulya Burlakova explains, Russian women welcomed a return to traditional gender roles and felt the urge to overcompensate for years of subjugated femininity.
There are a few lessons that one can glean from this foray into history. One is that before labelling a country as “backwards,” as Russia often is, it’s important to view it within its own historical context and to realize that one nation’s progress can be another nation’s retreat.
In this case, for feminists in the West, the battle for fairness has always been a linear one to be treated more like men, but for post-Soviet Russian women, the battle for fairness quickly became to be treated more like women.
But another lesson is perhaps a cautionary tale for what can happen when any cause, even one as noble and beneficial as feminism, is taken to an extreme. The concern, for example, that a woman ends up taking on both male and female responsibility is one that I often think of when seeing the familiar trope in American sitcoms and rom-coms in which a woman works a full-time job, takes care of the kids, completes domestic duties, and then tries to cajole her couch-submerged, tv-glued, “man-baby” of a husband to at least wash the dishes. Is this - the woman who does everything while the man sits and rests - the dream our feminist foremothers had in mind? I think not.
And then there’s another problematic trope in American pop culture: women are often touted as being “feminist” when they adopt traditionally masculine behaviour, such as burping, telling crass jokes, not wearing makeup or a bra, etc.
This means that often modern feminism actually winds up celebrating what it means to be a man, rather than what it means to be a woman.
I’m not suggesting we return to traditional gender roles. The beauty of feminism is that, first and foremost, it’s supposed to be about choice, and if you want to wear flats and order take-out and never get married, then that’s great.
But I do suggest that we stop acting like sacrificing a career in order to be a mother, or wearing heels, or expecting men to open doors for us, is somehow inherently anti-feminist. Because to truly live out the ideals of feminism, we have to celebrate all aspects of femininity, and that includes the traditional parts as well.
Diana Bruk is a Russian-American journalist based in New York.
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