“Intersectional before it was cool”: The women’s movement during state socialism
Women and children from the Soviet Union and other nations line the rail of a Soviet ship in 1986. | Merliac / AP

After reviewing Kristen Ghodsee’s excellent book, Second World, Second Sex: Socialist Women’s Activism and Global Solidarity during the Cold War, People’s World correspondent Tony Pecinovsky asked Ghodsee to elaborate on a few of the themes covered in the book. That discussion is below.

PW: Is the near absence of a recent history of Second World women’s organizing simply a by-product of the collapse of Soviet and Eastern European socialism? A by-product of Western capitalism’s “victory”? 

Kristen Ghodsee: The erasure of East European women’s activism—together with that of the activism of their socialist allies in the Global South—happened both because the East collapsed and because the West declared victory and could subsequently control and direct the historical narrative.

The 1990s ushered in a period of utter chaos and social, political, and economic upheaval in Eastern Europe. Many activists and scholars left the region to work or study in the West where the totalitarian paradigm still had a strong grip on the historiography of the Cold War.

In the case of Eastern Germany, almost all professors lost their university positions as part of a widespread lustration program that targeted intellectuals and silenced emerging critiques of the reunification process. All across the region, Western donors created new institutes with the specific task of investigating the “crimes of communism” using newly opened archives. Donors largely refused to fund projects that proposed to examine things that might be considered the successes of state socialism.

But even in the United States, where we supposedly celebrate academic freedom, young scholars interested in the history of 20th-century state socialism were (and still are) dissuaded from pursuing projects that challenge the “totalitarian” narrative. And even if you attempt such a project, you might face hostile peer reviewers who can prevent publication and try to undermine your career. In both Eastern Europe and the United States, there are still real risks associated with trying to complicate or nuance the history of 20th-century state socialism, and so it is not a surprise that these stories have not yet been told.

What role does First World, Western feminism play in serving to aid in the neglect of Second and Third World women’s organizing? What role do racism, individualism, and bourgeois concepts centered in middle and upper-class lifestyles play in this neglect?

If you go back and look at the conflicts between the liberal feminists and the socialists at the first U.N. Conference on Women in Mexico City in 1975, you will find that the former wanted to focus exclusively on women’s issues as a way of avoiding discussion of the larger structural factors that contribute to women’s oppression in capitalist societies. The so-called First World liberal feminists wanted to focus exclusively on legal and economic equality with men, whereas the socialists believed that women would be better off in more just and equitable societies, and thus they collectively supported a program for a New International Economic Order (NIEO).

These tensions really came to a head in 1985 in Nairobi at the Third World Conference on Women because the socialists insisted that legal equality between men and women was pointless in a country like South Africa where apartheid created such stark racial divisions. Western liberal feminists insisted that apartheid wasn’t a women’s issue and tried to prevent the conference from becoming “politicized.” The East European women together with their allies in the Global South resisted calls for “depoliticization” and argued that issues of racial and class oppression were just as important in women’s lives as specific “women’s issues.” As I have said elsewhere, they were intersectional before it was cool.

Individualism is another huge point of tension between liberal feminists and socialist women’s activists. Liberal feminism is focused on creating the conditions for women’s individual autonomy within the existing capitalist framework. It concentrates on maximizing personal opportunities and freedoms rather than on cultivating solidarities that will improve the quality of society as a whole. In some ways, liberal feminist individualism actually exacerbates income inequality and contributes to the increasing polarization of our societies, as the philosopher Nancy Fraser has discussed at length.

You note the shortage of certain consumer goods (feminine products, etc.) as one of the challenges women in the Second World faced. You also note the resentment some Eastern European women felt towards their African counterparts who may have had access to a wider array of consumer goods, clothes, etc. How did Second World women reconcile this fact with their beliefs and support for socialism? With the concrete, albeit incomplete, accomplishments (universal health care, childcare centers, pay equity, etc.) made under socialism? 

This is a difficult question to answer because there was so much variation across the Eastern Bloc, so I will have to make some broad generalizations here. On the whole, 20th-century state socialism did a relatively decent job of expanding access to urban housing, health care, childcare, public transportation, and education. These were not perfect systems to be sure, but they were universal benefits available to all citizens. Unfortunately, they co-existed with massive consumer shortages, especially for things like fashionable clothing, feminine hygiene products, diapers for babies, cosmetics, and many of the smaller consumer items we take for granted in the West.

The first generations of state socialist citizens in Eastern Europe cared less about these consumer shortages because they had just survived a World War, but later generations deeply resented these shortages and they proved to be a massive thorn in the side of state socialist economies. It is important to remember that these shortages existed well before the environmental movement or Marie Kondo-style de-cluttering and minimalism, and so the persistent lack of consumer goods was experienced as a failure of the socialist economy, especially when compared to the abundance of Western capitalist economies.

When women from the Global South showed up in Eastern Europe with jeans, sunglasses, perfumes, or feminine hygiene products, many East European women felt resentment and envy, and this caused tensions. The constant consumer shortages undermined many East European women’s faith in socialism, and according to scholars like Slavenka Drakulic, eventually contributed to its demise.

Historian Gerald Horne once asked: “Who lost the Cold War?” He answered, “Africans and African Americans.” Could a similar argument be made regarding women and women’s rights on a world scale? That while the Soviet Union and the Eastern European states existed more concessions were won on behalf of women? And that since the collapse of socialism we’ve seen a marked rollback of women’s rights, along with the ascendancy of the far-right, religious fundamentalism, etc.?

Yes. The Indian economist Devaki Jain wrote a wonderful intellectual history of women at the United Nations and she argues that women’s rights have stagnated since the end of the Cold War. And one of the reasons there hasn’t been another world conference on women since Beijing in 1995 is because many global women’s activists fear that a new conference would lead to a regression in women’s rights. Without a doubt, the Cold War was a very productive moment for many types of social and economic rights because the Eastern Bloc once championed them on the international stage.

On a global stage, do we now see nations (like Bulgaria, etc. before 1991) moving to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the Socialist East and its commitment to women’s rights? What role are Cuba, China, Vietnam, African nations, etc. playing today to try to fill in that space once occupied by Second World women’s organizations? 

Unfortunately, I think women’s issues have taken a back seat to other pressing social issues like inequality and climate change. Today, there really isn’t a country that is championing social justice issues on the world stage, and the United Nations has become an anachronism in many ways.

Besides your groundbreaking work (Second World, Second Sex, for example), is there still a lingering “Red Taboo” (a phrase used at a recent Organization of American Historians Conference) in American historiography? A refusal to acknowledge and accept the many contributions the socialist East and their supporters in the capitalist West (U.S. communists such as Charlene Mitchell, for example) made to the struggle for women’s rights, African-American equality, anti-colonialism, workers’ rights, peace, etc.?

A Soviet poster celebrating International Women’s Day.

There is still a strong “red taboo,” but there are younger scholars who are challenging it in fascinating ways. I think we are at the beginning of an epoch of new scholarship on socialism and communism in the United States, partially because it has been so understudied until now. If you want to write an original dissertation in U.S. history, the field of domestic leftist politics is almost uncharted territory. Some excellent books to read are: Kate Weigand’s Red Feminism and Erik McDuffie’s Sojourning for Freedom, as well as the work of Nicholas Toloudis on Local 192 of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in Philadelphia. Angela Davis also just recently deposited all of her personal papers to the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, and other prominent American socialists and communists are bequeathing collections that will provide valuable primary sources for future scholars. So, I am optimistic that these stories will be told eventually.

Writing about socialist, communist history can be a daunting task. It seems to me complexity and nuance are often missing from the more traditional analysis of the socialist East. As an ethnographer, how do you identify, acknowledge, and lift up the very real accomplishments of the socialist East—and women’s organizations there in particular—while also acknowledging the very real limitations of the Eastern socialist model?   

This is a difficult challenge, but I think it can be done if you are willing to work with multiple methodologies. In my own work, I combine archival research with oral history interviews, discourse analysis, and legal research. I use materials from the East, the West, and the Global South, and I try to read everything with a skeptical eye. It takes a long time, but I think I can get at least in the general vicinity of truth by checking and double-checking different primary and secondary sources. There’s no doubt that doing research on 20th-century state socialism is harder than doing research on other historical eras, but it is worth it at the end of the day because you might be able to challenge stereotypes and say something new and interesting and inspire new conversations about the recent past.


Tony Pecinovsky
Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky is the author of "Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA" and author/editor of "Faith In The Masses: Essays Celebrating 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA." His forthcoming book is titled "The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker, 1944-1946." Pecinovsky has appeared on C-SPAN’s "Book TV" and speaks regularly on college and university campuses across the country.