Russian women don’t see the point of feminism - and maybe they have a point.
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, to want many babies, to act as the center of the household, and to be very ladylike, while men are expected to carry all the financial responsibility, protect the honor 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 Center, only 38 percent of both men and women supported “abstract egalitarianism” in domestic life; cooking, cleaning, raising children, etc. were overwhelmingly labeled 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 labor 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.
Diana Bruk is a Russian-American journalist based in New York.
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