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Soviet Gender Equality and Women of the Gulag

Blog Post | Gender Equality

Soviet Gender Equality and Women of the Gulag

The Gulag system serves as a stark example of how the Soviet Union accomplished the exact opposite of “liberation” for women.

Many hoped the Bolshevik Revolution one hundred years ago would usher in a new era of gender and class equality. Following the revolution, Soviet Russia declared “International Women’s Day” an official holiday, and “Marxist feminists” romanticize communism to this day. Women of the Gulag, both a remarkable book and a documentary film, highlights the disparity between the Soviet Union’s alleged gender equality and the reality of life for women under communism.

It is now popular to claim — in the New York Times no less — that Soviet women “enjoyed many rights and privileges unknown in liberal democracies at the time,” so it is worth noting some of the ways that communism tyrannized women in particular. Those who claim the Soviet Union liberated women would do well to learn the stories of the women of the Gulag.

The Gulag forced labor camp system, created under Lenin and massively expanded under Stalin, was only one of many horrors in the Soviet Union. At least five million prisoners toiled in the camps at any given time during the system’s peak from 1936 to 1953, mining radioactive material, hauling logs barefoot in winter, or performing other forms of slave labor. The camps were allegedly for “class enemies” (anyone insufficiently poor) and traitors.

“[S]ome 18 million people passed through this massive system,” with millions more compelled to migrate to special settlements with similar conditions, according to Pulitzer Prize-winner Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag: A History. It is estimated that harsh conditions and summary executions killed off at least 10 percent of the Gulag’s total prisoner population each year. Although only between 10 and 15 percent of Gulag inmates were women, their imprisonment had some uniquely horrible features.

First, they were almost all arrested for the alleged crimes of their husbands or fathers. Communist officials saw women as just another means of punishing men, rather than as individuals with distinct identities. One of the few ways for a woman to avoid arrest alongside her husband was, perversely, to accuse him of treason before anyone else did. Signed by the head of the NKVD on August 14, 1937, Operational Order of the Secret Police No. 00486, “About the Repression of Wives of Traitors of the Motherland and the Placement of Their Children,” stated:

Women married to husbands at the time of their arrest are to be arrested with the exception of … wives who provide information that leads to their husband’s arrest… The wives of traitors are to be imprisoned… no less than five to eight years. Children… are to be placed in orphanages of the ministry of health in other locations.

That brings us to the second horror unique to women’s persecution. Upon a mother’s arrest, the Soviet system declared her children orphans and sent them as far away as possible. After regaining freedom a woman would often never learn of their fate. In the state-run orphanages, children of traitors and class enemies faced social stigma. They were taught to feel shame and loathing for their parents.

The book describes how the secret police kidnapped Maria Ignatkina’s children and “before their horrified eyes… beat her to the ground.” Her husband was tortured into giving a false confession and killed. Maria spent eight years in a Gulag for the crime of being married to him. She attempted suicide but failed. Fortunately, her children were rescued from the orphanage by an aunt. Maria was eventually able to reunite with them and meet her grandchildren—a rare happy ending.

Finally, in addition to all the other horrors of the Gulag – forced labor, hunger, beatings, harsh cold, and unsanitary conditions — women prisoners were also subject to the experience of institutionalized sexual violence. A woman named Elena gave an unsettling account of how on a ship transporting prisoners to the Gulag, women were raped by multiple men, beaten and doused with cold water in an organized process called a “Kolyma streetcar,” and the bodies of the women who did not survive were thrown overboard. Other similar accounts corroborate her story.

Of course, the Gulag system was not the only way the Soviet Union harmed women. Its disastrous economic policies led to far deeper and more widespread poverty and scarcity than under capitalism (which has helped bring global poverty to an all-time low), affecting women and other vulnerable members of society the most. Still, the Gulag system serves as a stark example of how, despite a proclaimed commitment to gender equality, the Soviet Union accomplished the exact opposite of “liberation” for women.

This first appeared in the American Spectator.

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.