What’s a Woman to Think?

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Anyone anxious to further the cause of female emancipation once so prominent on the Soviet agenda, and relegated to secondary status by Stalin, would have been confused in 1954. The year saw many elements of the reinforcement of traditional gender roles prominent for the last twenty years. Femininity as a specific set of behaviors centered around home and family was reinforced by new opportunities in the consumer economy. Women could now pretty up their apartments or even themselves, by a visit to the department store or local hairdresser. Role models such as the housewife and school teacher served as foundations for gender differentiation.

Yet just as there was a thaw in cultural life, so there was a timid shift in Soviet understandings of gender. The government repealed the 1936 ban on abortions. Co-education was returned to the classrooms it had disappeared from in 1943. Perhaps most remarkably, the first glimmers of the issue that would come to be called the double burden – the crushing load faced by women at work and home – appeared in the press. Conservative commentators addressed it as a form of female malaise, others were more direct.

Minor though changes seemed, within several years there was a discernable shift in the way Soviet women understood the relationship of their subjective lives and the state. The path of Frida Vigdorova (1915-1965) illustrates the ways that loyal Soviet citizens could unexpectedly find themselves outside official norms. Vigdorova had already published her hugely popular My Class (translated as Diary of a Russian Schoolteacher in the west), an idealized account of her school experience and by implication of Soviet society. Her renown opened new opportunities for her, and she switched careers to become a journalist with the large newspapers Izvestiia, Komsomol Pravda, and Literary Gazette. The idealist was also something of a crusader, and she used her new pulpit to advocate issues such as the return of co-education in the schools. This issue was well within the bounds of Soviet discourse, but soon she encountered greater conflicts with the authorities. Her rupture with Soviet existence came during the 1964 trial of the poet Joseph Brodskii, when her insistence on recording the trial in her role of journalist, though legal, made her a pariah to the Soviet system.

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