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Life Under Communism Was No Liberation For Women

Blog Post | Wealth & Poverty

Life Under Communism Was No Liberation For Women

Nostalgic accounts of life under communism avoid the broader perspective of widespread oppression and economic failure.

Over the last few months, The New York Times has published a number of warm and nostalgic recollections of communism. Authors have opined about the supposed optimism, idealism, and moral authority of communism. Perhaps the most bizarre article so far claimed that women behind the Iron Curtain enjoyed greater sexual satisfaction and more independence than their Western counterparts (except, of course, when it came to freedom of thought, speech, religion, association, or movement).

I would have chosen to commemorate 100 years since the Bolshevik Revolution and the birth of the Soviet Union in a different way. Over 100,000,000 people have died or were killed while building socialism during the course of the 20th century. Call me crazy, but that staggering number of victims of communism seems to me more important than the somewhat dubious claim that Bulgarian comrades enjoyed more orgasms than women in the West. But as one Russian babushka said to another, suum cuique pulchrum est.

I am, however, intrigued by the striking similarities between the Times articles. To the greatest extent possible, they seem to avoid the broader perspective on life under communism (i.e., widespread oppression and economic failure). Instead, they focus on the experiences of individual people, some of whom never lived in communist countries in the first place.

In “When Communism Inspired Americans,” the author remembers her socialist parents and the life of the communist sympathizers in 1950s America. In “Thanks to Mom, the Marxist Revolutionary,” the author remembers his batty mother, who dragged him from one communist hellhole to another in search of a “real world” experience. In “‘Make It So’: ‘Star Trek’ and Its Debt to Revolutionary Socialism,” the author quotes Captain Picard, who explains to a cryogenically unfrozen businessman from the 20th century, “People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy.”

Speaking of hunger and infancy, here are some completely gratuitous eyewitness accounts of parents eating their own children during the man-made famine in Ukraine in the 1930s. Communism may have influenced science fiction writers, but real life in the USSR was no picnic.

“Where did all bread disappear, I do not really know, maybe they have taken it all abroad. The authorities have confiscated it, removed from the villages, loaded grain into the railway coaches and took it away someplace. They have searched the houses, taken away everything to the smallest thing. All the vegetable gardens, all the cellars were raked out and everything was taken away. Wealthy peasants were exiled into Siberia even before Holodomor during the ‘collectivization.’ Communists came, collected everything….People were laying everywhere as dead flies. The stench was awful. Many of our neighbors and acquaintances from our street died….Some were eating their own children. I would have never been able to eat my child. One of our neighbors came home when her husband, suffering from severe starvation, ate their own baby daughter. This woman went crazy.”

One has to wait until “Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism,” to meet an actual Eastern European. “Consider Ana Durcheva from Bulgaria,” the author writes, “who was 65 when I first met her in 2011. Having lived her first 43 years under Communism, she often complained that the new free market hindered Bulgarians’ ability to develop healthy amorous relationships. ‘Sure, some things were bad during that time, but my life was full of romance.'” Durcheva’s daughter, in contrast, works too much, “and when she comes home at night she is too tired to be with her husband.”

What are we to make of this? Are we merely to deduce that the life of a young and, apparently, attractive woman behind the Iron Curtain was not completely devoid of pleasure? No. The article is explicit in stating that “communist women enjoyed a degree of self-sufficiency that few Western women could have imagined.”

This is unadulterated rubbish. I grew up under communism, and here is what I recall.

First, all communist countries were run by men; female leaders, like Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir, would have been unthinkable. Women who rose to prominence, like Raisa Gorbachev and Elena Ceausescu, did so purely as appendages of their powerful husbands.

Second, the author concedes that “gender wage disparities and labor segregation persisted, and…the communists never fully reformed domestic patriarchy.” I would say so. In a typical Eastern European family, the woman, in addition to having a day job at a factory, was expected to clean the apartment, shop for food, cook dinner, and raise the children. The Western sexual revolution passed the communist bloc by, and ex-communist countries remain much more patriarchal than their Western counterparts to this day.

Third, communist societies were socially uber-conservative. As such, pornography and prostitution were strictly prohibited, divorces were discouraged and divorced people ostracized, and prophylactics and the pill were hard to obtain. (Think about it for one hot second. Why would economies unable to produce enough bread and toilet paper generate a plentiful and regular supply of condoms? This makes no sense!) The reason why we refer to communist countries as “totalitarian” is because the state wanted to control every aspect of human existence. Sexual autonomy was, well, autonomous. Being outside the control of the all-powerful state, it was treated with suspicion and suppressed.

But don’t take my word for it. You can still visit a few communist countries, including Cuba and North Korea, and compare the social status and empowerment of their women with those in the West. Had the esteemed editors of the Times done so, they would have, I hope, thought twice about publishing a series of pro-communist excreta.

Blog Post | Gender Equality

Lesson Plan: Astell and Wollstonecraft

In this lesson, students will learn about the lives and legacies of Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft, two feminist authors whose philosophical ideas helped form the basis for later movements for gender equality and female empowerment.

You can find a PDF of this lesson plan here.

Lesson Overview

Featured article: Heroes of Progress, Pt. 46: Astell and Wollstonecraft by Alexander C.R. Hammond

In this lesson, students will learn about the lives and legacies of Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft, two feminist authors whose philosophical ideas helped form the basis for later movements for gender equality and female empowerment.

Warm-Up

What do you know about Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft?
Before reading, watch this overview of Mary Astell’s life until 5:23 in the video. Then watch this three minute video about Mary Wollstonecraft.

In partners, small groups, or as a whole class, have students answer these questions:

  • What are three interesting facts you learned about Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft?
  • What is one question you have about each woman?

Questions for reading, writing, and discussion

Read the article, then answer the following questions:

  • Alexander C.R. Hammond writes that, “In the 17th and 18th centuries, Western European women were often poorly educated and had very little protection under the law.” What were some of the ways that Astell and Wollstonecraft suffered under this system? Cite at least two specific examples of the hardships these women faced, one for Astell and one for Wollstonecraft.
  • In the 1600s, women were not treated as equal partners in marriage. In her book Some Reflections upon Marriage, which two specific reforms did Astell propose to the institution of marriage?
  • Both Astell and Wollstonecraft advocated for better education for women. What were their proposals? What were the philosophical reasons for their positions?
Which education reforms did they seek?What philosophical arguments did they use to
support their positions?
Astell

Wollstonecraft

  • What was a key difference between Astell and Wollstonecraft concerning political reform?
  • Perform a thought experiment:
    • Imagine that Astell and Wollstonecraft were born in the year 2000. Many of the reforms Astell and Wollstonecraft worked. Such changes to education, marriage, and voting laws had been achieved by then. If they were alive today, what further changes to women’s lives do you think they would work for?

For each category below, write at least one reform that you think Astell and Wollstonecraft would seek to change in the 21st century

Current IssueWhat reforms do you think Astell and Wollstonecraft would propose to improve women’s lives today?
Gender pay gap

Lack of workplace accommodations for childbearing and childcare

Sexual harassment at school and work

Domestic violence

Extension Activity/Homework

Be a Contrarian.

Most people in the United States today see nothing radical about the proposals Astell and Wollstonecraft made during the 17th and 18th centuries. These two writers sought equal rights and opportunities for women in education, marriage, and political representation.

Imagine that you are a contemporary of Wollstonecraft living around the time of the French Revolution. You do not support her positions. Think critically and argue against her ideas. What philosophical, historical, biological, and/or religious reasons would you use to refute her calls for equality?

Write a Eulogy for Mary Astell or Mary Wollstonecraft

In addition to being first-rate intellectuals and writers, Astell and Wollstonecraft were both strong, independent women who persevered despite discrimination and personal setbacks.

After reading the article, write a eulogy, a short piece normally read at a memorial service or funeral, for either Mary Astell or Mary Wollstonecraft. Choose the person whose life resonates most with you. Your eulogy should honor and remember her life and accomplishments.

  • What were the challenges she faced and how did she meet them? • What did she achieve, both personally and professionally?
  • How does she inspire you to reach your goals?
  • What is her legacy?

Who Inspires You? Write a Letter to them.

The article says, “Astell and Wollstonecraft’s writings were unsuccessful in bringing about immediate reforms when they were published. The works of the two thinkers, however, provided the intellectual foundation for the suffragette and feminist movements, which started in the late 19th century and continue around the world to this day. Although they were considered radicals during their time, without their ideas it is unlikely that women’s rights would be as extensive today as they are.”

Who is a person who inspires you? It could be someone in your school or community, someone you follow on social media, or an activist, writer, or political leader. What does this person stand for? How does this person make their voice heard? Why does this person inspire you?

Write the person a letter sharing why you appreciate their activism and how they’ve inspired you.

Blog Post | Culture & Tolerance

1857 Had OnlyFans Too…

Some Women Were Jailed for Making So Much Money.

This was originally published on Pessimists Archive.

In the early days of photography enterprising women were selling sexy pics to men – just as they do today via Onlyfans today.

164 years ago an article titled ‘Abuse of Photography’ reported on a Paris police bust and arrest of two men and eight women for trading in ‘obscene photographs.’

The prosecutor stated the women were making so much money that fines were feckless and “would certainly be paid by their admirers” – so he sentenced the “more or less pretty” women to jail time. The story would appear in papers around the world.

Blog Post | Workforce Hours

The Long Thread of Lessening Labor

We have more time to do as we wish and fewer needs that force us to do as we must.

Summary: This article challenges the common perception that human progress has made us work harder and deprived us of leisure. It shows how both market and domestic labor have declined over time, thanks to technological innovations and economic changes. It traces the history of labor alleviation from the Viking era to the present day, and celebrates the benefits of having more time and freedom to pursue our interests.


People often complain that we are all working too hard and that human progress is pointless if we have to labor and strain to achieve our current lifestyles. They say we would be better off curtailing our desires and returning to some Edenic life with more time for ourselves. The problem is that Edenic life never existed. In fact, over the past millennium, humanity has been working less and less. And a thousand years is probably long enough to make the claim that working less is a trend, not a blip.

To understand working hours, it is important to recognize two points. First, households (some societies define households as containing only parents and children, while others extend the definition to cousins and nephews and so on) are the central economic units that should be discussed. Second, labor comes in two flavors: domestic work and market work. Domestic work includes food preparation, childcare, cleaning, or any other labor within the household. Market work generates money or goods to trade for any goods and services that the household does not produce. The “labor burden” on the household is the combined number of hours spent doing those two types of work.

Market and domestic labor can substitute one another. Children can go to kindergarten, and food can be bought as take-out. Likewise, clothes can be purchased from a factory, or they can be stitched at home. People tend to use the option that gets them the desired good or service with the least amount of work. As I will show below, the net effect of changes in those two forms of labor determines the total household labor supply. Or, to put it less formally, it determines how long people have to work to gain what they want. Once those two kinds of labor are added up, a declining trend in the total number of hours worked becomes apparent. Consider this report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston:

Specifically, we document that leisure for men increased by 6-8 hours per week (driven by a decline in market work hours) and for women by 4-8 hours per week (driven by a decline in home production work hours). 

And that was just for the period between 1965 and 2003. A closer look at the 20th century suggests that market working hours fell for men and rose for women. The rise in female market working hours was precipitated by technological innovation and a concomitant decline in the number of domestic working hours. Domestic working hours fell greatly for women and, less dramatically, for men. The net effect of the four processes was that leisure hours rose, and total working hours fell, for both men and women.

In his 1930 essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, the British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that the next century would usher in an age of prosperity. He also forecasted that people would work less and spend more time at leisure. Keynes turned out to be right. But many modern readers, who come across Keynes’ prediction of a 15-hour workweek, wonder why they are still putting in 40 at the office. The answer is that the work we killed was the domestic labor done largely by women. 

One author estimates that it took 60 hours a week of physical labor to keep a 1930 household working. Today, it takes perhaps 15 hours. Those numbers are not exact, but when you consider the washing machine, the gas oven, the vacuum cleaner, prepared food, and steam irons, the amount of household work eliminated is immense. One of Hans Rosling’s TED talks recounts how the washing machine brought him books. According to the Swedish physician, once the washing machine liberated his mother from laundry, she had more time to read to him. The South Korean economist Ha Joon Chang claims that the washing machine – by which he really means all domestic labor-saving technologies – changed the world more than the internet.

But labor alleviation did not begin in the 20th century. In her new book (The Fabric Of Civilisation came out in November 2020), the American writer Virginia Postrel estimates that it took 365 full days of work to spin enough thread to make a Viking sail. Days and days of work to create enough thread to weave a bandana and weeks to make a pair of jeans. The Vikings used the drop spindle to make thread – a basic technology that humans used for millennia. The spinning wheel, which partly mechanized the process, arrived in Europe sometime in the 11th or the 12th century A.D. 

Then came the Industrial Revolution, first with the Spinning Jenny, which was followed by Crompton’s Mule and endless other derivatives. These machines progressively automated what was a horrendously time-consuming and nearly exclusively female domestic task for centuries. The economic historian Brad Delong has remarked that when women of any class are depicted in older literature, there is always reference to their spinning. By the time of Jane Austen’s novels in the late 18th and early 19th century A.D., spinning is never mentioned – it was all done in the factories by then.

We all have more leisure now than our forebears did. We have more time to do as we wish and fewer needs that force us to do as we must. But this wonderful outcome of human progress is obscured by the fact that, in large part, it is the household labor that has been automated away. Sure, the Roomba might not be a great leap forward, but it is just the latest iteration of a process that began a thousand years ago. And there is no sign of it ending.

Blog Post | Personal Income

What the Data Say About Equal Pay Day

We should take a clear-eyed view of the data and recognize the remarkable gains women have made in the workplace.

This week saw the passing of “Equal Pay Day,” which marks the culmination of the roughly three extra months that an average female employee had to work in 2019 to match the amount of money made by an average male worker in 2018. Many people see the pay gap as unjust, but is it really a result of rampant sexism in the workplace as the critics allege?

A survey unveiled on Tuesday by CNBC and Survey Monkey suggests that, actually, both men and women are equally pleased with their employment situations and the earnings gap can largely be explained by women being more likely on average to choose part-time work.

“Men have a Workplace Happiness Index score of 72 and women a score of 70, close enough to lack a statistically meaningful difference,” according to the newly released data. That fits with earlier polling that was conducted by Cato’s Dr. Emily Ekins, which found that in the United States, the vast majority of women “believe their own employers treat men and women equally.” Fully 86 percent of women polled believed that their employer pays women equally.

There is still a pay gap between men and women who work full-time, but that may be partly due to men and women opting to work in different fields. Dangerous jobs in fields like mining and fishing, for example, tend to attract men. Those jobs also tend to be relatively well-remunerated. (As HumanProgress.org advisory board member Mark Perry points out, the gender gap in workplace deaths far exceeds the gap in pay).

Even so, among full-time workers, the “pay gap” is rapidly narrowing. Data from the OECD shows that the gender wage gap in median earnings of full-time employees is declining in practically all countries for which there are data. In the United States, highlighted in blue in the graph below, the wage gap has fallen dramatically since the 1970s. In 1975, the U.S. gender wage gap was 38 percent. By 2015, it had shrunk to 18 percent.

That 18 percentage point difference does not take into account important characteristics like “age, education, years of experience, job title, employer, and location,” according to my Cato colleague Vanessa Calder. A recent study, which controlled for those characteristics, concluded that the U.S. gender pay gap is only around five percent, meaning that Equal Pay Day should actually be in January.

Of course, if any of that small remaining five percent gap is the result of sexist discrimination—rather than additional mitigating factors that the study failed to control for—then that is unacceptable. We should denounce all forms of inequitable treatment, wherever it persists. We should also take a clear-eyed view of the data and recognize the remarkable gains women have made in the workplace—and how labor market participation has transformed women’s lives for the better.