The Double Burden

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

“The real emancipation of women, real communism, will begin only where and when an all-out struggle begins … against this petty housekeeping.” So did Lenin in 1919 chart the agenda for the establishment of cafeterias, nurseries, laundries and other facilities that would unburden women from domestic chores and free them to participate fully in the sphere of production. In the course of the 1920s and ’30s, the Soviet Union got its cafeterias and nurseries, albeit inadequate in number and frequently unsanitary and poorly staffed. Thanks to the depression of living standards and industry’s boundless need for workers, it also got women into the industrial workforce in unprecedented numbers. From the mid-1930s onwards, an officially sponsored cult of motherhood, buttressed by anti-abortion legislation, encouraged women to fulfill what Stalin termed the “great and honorable duty that nature has given” them. Urban women thus found themselves assuming the “double burden” (also known as the “double shift”) of waged work outside the home and the lion’s share of unpaid labor within it. Collective farm women meanwhile bore the triple burden of work in the collective farm, on the household’s private plots, and in the household itself.

The double burden was the product of the planned economy’s exigencies but also a gendered division of labor among families that left men relatively free to pursue leisure activities and women responsible for child rearing, food acquisition and preparation, and other household duties. It was perpetuated by a vicious cycle: the gendered division of labor within the family fostered different forms of sociability among men and women which reinforced essentialist notions of their proclivities and capabilities. These notions in turn encouraged the clustering of women in such low-wage jobs as teaching, medical care, and clerical and sales work which contributed to different expectations at home.

What it was like to experience the double burden was poignantly conveyed in a work of fiction by Nataliia Baranskaia that appeared in the literary journal, Novyi mir, in 1969. The story, “A Week Like Any Other,” was told in diary fashion by the heroine, Olga Nikolaevna, a lab technician who lives over an hour away from work with her husband and two young children. The story begins with the line “I’m in a rush,” and proceeds through her harried week of dealing with deadlines at work, long lines at the shops and trolley bus stop, children catching colds at the badly run nursery school, and a husband who resents having to fetch the children and tells her she should give up her job. Representative of a new generation of Soviet urban women who could not rely on babushkas to look after their children, Olga somehow gets through the week. She thus ironically reinforced the stereotype of the self-sacrificing Soviet woman whose ability to bear the double burden earned her admiration and flowers on March 8 (International Women’s Day).

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