Anna Shadrina, sociologist and postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck, University of London spoke with ReForum about the particular role of women in Russian society.
ReForum: Do you mind if we speak today mainly of the female segment of society and its problems?
Shadrina: Why not? Women make up a large segment of Russian society. I would immediately like to make a caveat, however: sociology does not answer existential questions. It looks at different social phenomena and proposes an interpretation of them.
ReForum: You likely saw the video “Be a Lady” with the monologue which instantly went viral all over the world, where Cynthia Nixon criticizes the contradictory demands which society places on women in the modern world?
ReForum: This video provoked a wide response not only in Russia but in the West. Can we say that the problem of gender inequality is international, but in the West, at least people try to talk about it, try to solve it?
Shadrina: Yes, in fact, it would be much more interesting to hear what Cynthia Nixon, who speaks from such a critical feminist position, thinks today about the series “Sex and the City”. When we first saw that series more than 20 years ago, it seemed like a manifesto of women’s emancipation. From today’s perspective, it seems like a kind of “Bible” for white and super-rich American women whose reality is infinitely remote from ours.
As for the video you mentioned, my friend, the artist Maria Kapajeva noted an extremely important aspect of this work – its visuals speak to the viewer in the language of the fashion industry, which the message of the clip itself opposes. Cynthia Nixon criticizes the toxic standards of femininity, whereas the video itself is made by the same people and means of expression established by these standards. It looks like the t-shirts with the logo of the group Nirvana which became a cliché of sovereign industry, as Naomi Klein (Canadian journalist, writer, and sociologist—Ed), wrote in her book No Logo, explaining that capitalism appropriates social protest and turns it into a commodity. The same with the clip in which Cynthia Nixon appeared. The protest potential in it against the oppression of women was essentially appropriated by the fashion industry and turned into a harmless collective letting off of steam on the Internet through likes and reposts. Once we take our eyes off the screens, however, we return to the real world where all the previous problems remain – domestic violence, single mothers caring for their children, men getting higher salaries for the same work, and much else.
ReForum: Why is it so hard to combat gender inequality?
Shadrina: This is a system of power and privileges, and for it to change, a large part of society must become aware of this problem and voluntarily renounce its privileges. But where have you seen this? For example, when the British actor Benedict Cumberbatch announced that he won’t appear in a film if the actress who played the leading female role was offered a lower fee than the leading male role. That sounds very noble. But what about teachers and nurses whose work is no less important, but for women is paid incomparably lower than for men?
It’s important that in a number of countries, regardless of their sex, children are beginning to be simultaneously trained the skills of caring for their relatives, which are traditionally considered female, as well as the skills necessary for successful socialization beyond the private sphere. In some professional areas, so-called “positive discrimination” has been introduced, where the deciding factor in hiring, given other equal conditions, can be an affiliation with a social group that is more vulnerable to discrimination. This is an excellent example of what needs to be done, but it is absolutely insufficient to change the system as a whole.
Some scholars believe that gender may cease to be one of the main measurements of inequality, but for now, it is the case.
ReForum: Could a transformation of the very concept of “gender” in the 21st century affect the balance of power in society?
Shadrina: Gender is the place we get in a system of social hierarchy (from which we obtain access to various goods) depending on the meaning attached to our body. To put it more simply, as long as women give birth and are assigned the unpaid work of caring for children and elders, and men are freed from all this, today’s system of gender inequality will continue. The situation can begin changing when the function of childbearing is taken beyond the bounds of a woman’s body. For a small group of people, it is already in principle removed. A wealthy woman can hire a poor woman to bear her children for her; she can hire various types of specialists to help, but even so, preserve the status of mother and reserve tasks of her own choice.
ReForum: But if we look at the situation in Russia? In earlier interviews, you spoke of the existence of a certain “social order” in the country which discriminates against the older generation of women, pushing them away from active roles in society. Could you talk about this phenomenon and its nature in more detail?
Shadrina: The order about which I spoke was formed as a result of certain demographic tendencies, Soviet and post-Soviet social policy, and Russian culture. If we begin from afar, before the revolution, Russia was an agrarian country; its population primarily lived in villages and settlements. After the revolution of 1917, the situation began to change when industrialization and urbanization rapidly gained momentum. The massive migration of rural residents to the cities changed the form and hierarchy of the family. As Svetlana Adonyev and Laura J. Olson write in their book The Worlds of Russian Village Women: Tradition, Transgression, Compromise, in pre-revolutionary Russia, after marriage, a woman crossed over to the jurisdiction of her mother-in-law, losing her previous tie with her mother. A woman became part of the family of her husband, in a home where the mother of her husband ruled everything – she was called the bol’shukha, “mistress of the house.” In the 20th century, the configuration of the family changed. One of the reasons was the enormous loss of the male population as a result of the successions of upheavals – revolutions, World War II, other world wars, and Stalin’s repressions. Entire generations of Soviet people grew up without fathers.
Parallel to this, maternity becomes the central focus of the family ideology, as the primary institution of concern for the welfare of the family and a woman’s duty. Soviet ideology in the area of the family equalized in status both the young mothers and the older, more influential women of the family. On the one hand, the bride came out from under her mother-in-law’s power; on the other, part of the family functions which previously were the responsibility of men was now transferred to women. The family became “wife-centric”; now men often bring their wives into families where the mother and the grandmother are the main parental pair, and the father and the husband have a secondary role.
ReForum: How do the processes of the emancipation of women and the cult of maternity co-exist with each other?
Shadrina: In the first Soviet decade, there was a plan to liberate the woman from domestic affairs to involve her in industrialization which required the participation of the entire adult population. But rather soon it became clear that the transfer of domestic work related to the care of the family was an incredibly expensive project. Therefore, already by the end of the 1920s, these functions are explained as the natural duties of women along with their compulsory labor occupation. The Soviet state enabled women to combine work outside the home and maternity – mothers received paid leave to care for a child; childcare centers were affordable. But it was expected of the family that it would be created once and for all, with its chief purpose reproduction. Hence the ban on abortions, and the very difficult procedure for divorce which existed from the late 1930s until the end of the 1960s. It is the woman who is made responsible for the “survival” of the family. But from the perspective of state ideology, the man was seen as a potential soldier, “cannon fodder,” prepared at any moment to leave his family and give up his life for the motherland.
Even so, in post-war Russia, the ideology of reproductive pressure began to play a special role. The expectation that women will become mothers as early as possible was institutionalized. A medical term existed, “elderly primigravida,” to describe women who gave birth at an age older than 26. Furthermore, the pension age of 55 years enabled women to become young grandmothers, able to help their daughters combine early motherhood with studies or work.
ReForum: Can you find examples in other countries where such family relationships existed?
Shadrina: The first thing that comes to mind from the examples described in the sociological literature is the situation in the US among the African American segment of the population during the decline in production of the 1970s and 1980s. At that time, due to a halt of entire sectors of the economy, many men lost their jobs. The men of this group did not have other social lifts set up; there was no direct access to education. As a result, they fell into a kind of social suspended animation, preferring simply to wait until the situation would change on its own. Women had to assume part of the male functions in order to keep their families afloat.
This episode of American history is reminiscent of the situation in Russia in the early 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union when many men lost their more prestigious workplaces. It was women then who picked up the large, plaid bags and went “shuttle trading” to feed their families. Meanwhile men, in most cases, turned out to be unprepared to “stoop to haggling” – that is, to lower their social status. During that period, a high percentage of suicides and male mortality at an early age was recorded.
ReForum: Why did the number of suicides increase?
Shadrina: Throughout the world, suicide has traditionally been considered a more masculine means of coping with life’s difficulties without losing dignity. But the situation that prompted such a choice was undoubtedly more complicated. Psychotherapists say that thoughts of suicide often have the function of reducing alarm. As a fantasy that the difficulties may disappear, and a soothing calm will ensue. Thoughts of death may be an attempt to find a kind of “oasis” where a person can permit himself to remove responsibility for survival without experiencing feelings of guilt or taking control over his fate in a way that seems accessible. Without a doubt, many men in the post-Soviet period found themselves in a very vulnerable position. The old social order had collapsed, the earlier social ties had disappeared, and efforts and time were required to create new ones.
ReForum: But why do women turn out to be more resilient under these conditions?
Shadrina: Women are simply more often put in conditions that they don’t get to choose. Girls are taught from childhood to be responsible for the welfare of others. In Russia, according to official statistics, 70% of fathers do not pay alimony after divorce. They can let themselves say the famous catchphrase [of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev], “There’s no money, but you hang in there”. The majority of women cannot tell their children that. They often agree to work at any level, just so the family has something to eat and a place to study.
Such irresponsible behavior by men is among other things also the consequence of a government policy that for many years literally pushed men into having as many children as possible from different women, without having any responsibility for their survival. For nearly 30 years in the Soviet Union, alimony was assigned to the father who was the husband of a mother. For children born outside of wedlock, there was a line in the space for “father”; if the father was “missing” legally, there was nothing to ask of him. Another component of the problem was the [low] symbolic sums calculated as alimony. For many men, myths about protectors and bread-winners allow them to exist in a self-induced trance, when, on the one hand, they do not need to protect anyone from anything, yet on the other, they can legitimately not take responsibility for the well-being of their children. Although research indicates that by withdrawing themselves from the family sphere, many men themselves reduce their life expectancy, dying prematurely of cardiovascular diseases. While having more time free from the care of members of the family, men often spend it on practices damaging to their health.
ReForum: Let’s take a look at today’s Russia and the protest activity in the country. There have already been several “mothers’ marches” in defense of political prisoners. Moreover, it was the mothers of the young people sentenced in the “Network Case” [of alleged terrorists whose confessions were made under torture], who announced their intention to campaign jointly. Why have mothers ended up on “the frontline”?
Shadrina: Actually, that’s totally not a new phenomenon. In the early 2000s, many wrote about the phenomenon of the “Afghan mothers” – movements of women who demanded recognition from the government of their grief – over the killing of their sons in the war. Mothers have a right to grief given them by the very state ideology itself, according to which motherhood is the main purpose and realization of women. If at the same time the state itself takes away from mothers what is most precious in their lives – the lives of their children – mothers remain the only social group whose “private” protest can legitimately be formed and resound rather loudly. A mother whose children are in danger through the fault of the state has the right and the voice to express her fury; mothers who have lost their children have nothing left to lose. Advocating for political prisoners, Russian women negotiate with the state in a language it understands, because the state itself “grants” women rights to these emotions. We hear all this in official speeches and congratulations, when women are addressed as follows, “Our dear, sweet ladies, always stay tender and caring, because thanks to your self-sacrifice…” and so on.
ReForum: How can you explain that the number of women in Russia who have obtained a higher education exceeds the number of men?
Shadrina: I have not studied that part of Russian statistics and cannot competently, as a sociologist, offer an interpretation of this phenomenon. But as a private person, I recall the documentary film about a similar situation in Mongolia, where there is also a large gap between men and women with higher education. The paradox consists of the fact that Mongolian women use their higher education not for advancement in the labor market but for the purpose of a more successful marriage. In Mongolia, there are more women than men which creates competition in the wedding market. A bride with a degree is considered a more advantageous party, although the degree, in this case, is treated as symbolic capital since everyone knows that in any event, managerial positions will go to men, regardless of their level of education. I would suppose that the explanation for the situation in Russia lies approximately in this area. But as they say on the Internet, this is not precise.
ReForum: From our conversation, it seems to me that we can draw the conclusion that in Russia there are no particular prerequisites for the status of women to change substantively. Yet a law to protect women from domestic violence has not been passed in Russia. Does it mean that such a law is not needed in Russia?
Shadrina: Without a doubt, such a law is needed in Russia. Domestic violence is not a uniquely Russian problem. One of the main problems of the patriarchal system is toxic masculinity – an ideology enabling any form of violence to be justified by men having “such a nature”. Essentially, thanks to this ideology men commit violence “simply because they can”. Remember when Bill Clinton was asked why he abused his power regarding the White House intern? He replied, “Just because I could”. Every time someone claims that women are softer by nature, and men are inclined to hunt and fight, the system enabling men to commit violence with impunity is strengthened.
Not so long ago I spoke with a woman lawyer from Australia who works with women who have suffered from domestic violence. She told me that in Australia there are programs for victims of domestic violence; there are also programs for men helping them to change their world view and understand that violence is impermissible in any form and cannot be justified by gender. As recent research has shown, however, domestic violence is an enormous problem that requires not only a law and programs which deal with the consequences but also preventive measures. This is the responsibility of literally every person on the planet – to bring about such an order in which the only means of resolving conflicts will be allowed – the peaceful methods. Information about what violence is, how to recognize it, and how not to allow it especially if you are in a group of those who commit violence, should be “commonplace”.
In Russia, the problem of domestic violence largely begins where 70% of divorced fathers do not pay alimony. Economic dependency forces many women with children to remain tied to brutal husbands. A law on domestic violence is only one measure but it is very important because it stops the abuser who raises his hand.
ReForum: So how can we explain that to this day in Russia, a law on domestic violence has not been passed?
Shadrina: Experts note that several factors have come together here – the government’s effort to transfer as much responsibility for the welfare of families into their own hands; the growing influence of the church which is in conflict with the idea of women’s rights; and the general policy which the power of Vladimir Putin broadcasts, glorifying the macho aggression supposedly needed to return Russia to the status of a “superpower”.