The collapse of ‘really existing socialism’,footnote1 and its eclipse as an economic and political alternative to liberal capitalism, has many implications for the populations of the affected countries, not all of them positive.footnote For the half that is female, there will be both losses and gains. As the state retreats from its self-designated role as ‘emancipator of women’, to be replaced by market forces, civil society and new ideological configurations, vulnerable social groups—such as women—are threatened by the abandoning of old commitments, and by a deepening of existing social divisions and political tensions. At the same time, such groups are now able to form their own organizations and challenge the limited conceptions of citizenship that prevailed under the old state structures.

Although it is too early to predict the outcome of these epochal changes—in some Communist countries it is still possible to talk of ‘reforms’ under Party rule, while elsewhere it appears that a wholesale move to the free market is in train—the implications for women are momentous. Feminists might view these changes with a degree of ambivalence: on the one hand, welcoming fresh opportunities for debate as state control is relaxed and civil society emerges as a new political terrain; but on the other, fearing that the ‘transition from socialism’ will lead to a worsening of women’s social and economic position, at least in the short to medium term.

Although at this stage any analysis must necessarily be provisional, it is nevertheless possible to discern some changes in the definition of women’s social position within this new context. This article will examine the three most pertinent issues: how those Communist parties that remain in power, or remain competitors for power, have redefined their policies with respect to women; how the socioeconomic and political situation of women is likely to be affected by the abandoning of part or all of the orthodox Communist policy package; and how far these new conditions favour the emergence of feminist and women’s movements. Whilst the main focus of the discussion will be the Soviet Union and China, where the Communist Parties have remained in power, some of the problems and possibilities that can be identified there have also emerged in other parts of the bloc of countries which emulated the Soviet economic model, its social policies and political institutions—not only in Eastern Europe but also in the Communist states of the south. Whereas the ussr waited until after Gorbachev’s advent to power in 1985 to introduce major economic and social changes, some of the Third World Communist parties had begun these well before—China after 1978, Vietnam after 1981, Mozambique after 1983. (In Eastern Europe, Poland and Hungary had begun to liberalize—and to rethink policy on women—in the 1970s.) But even where these changes did not always explicitly involve changes in state policy towards women, the new orientations did affect women through their impact on the labour force, population policy and the family. With the launching of perestroika in the ussr after 1985, the great majority of the Communist states became involved in one way or another in this process, and it became increasingly evident that formerly prevalent views on ‘the woman question’ were being revised, sometimes radically.

The implications for women of these various changes have been of two general kinds. On the one hand, there have been changes in economic policy entailing a revision of earlier commitments in favour of new goals. There is, however, another dimension to reform, so far confined to Eastern Europe: namely, the loosening of state control and the emergence or expansion of civil society. It therefore becomes important to look not just at what state and party leaderships declare, but also at what emerges from civil society itself, as the power of these leaderships recedes or is challenged. Such an analysis has relevance to more than the phenomenon of perestroika: it poses much broader questions about the previous social role of Communist states, and the nature of socialist transformation itself.

The starting point in any discussion of the Communist states in relation to gender issues is to establish the significance and meaning of their commitment to women’s emancipation. In the socialist tradition and in the practice of Communist parties, the process of women’s emancipation was seen as part of the overall socialist revolutionary project, combining ideas of social justice and equality with those of modernity and development. In the classical texts of Engels, Lenin and Marx himself there was a recurrent commitment to the emancipation of women from the bonds of traditional society and the inhumanity of capitalism; and this theme subsequently informed the policies of the ruling Communist parties, committed as they were to social transformation. Emancipation in this context came to mean two things: the mobilization of women into the labour force; and the lifting of traditional social constraints and injustices, thereby enabling them to take part in the effort to develop their societies. A number of classic measures (embodied in the resolutions of the 1920 Congress of the Comintern) were adopted to secure women’s ‘emancipation’, first in the Soviet Union, and later in those states that followed in its footsteps. The most important of these were: the encouragement of women to work outside the home; the introduction of legal equality between men and women; the liberalization of laws on the family and marriage; the promotion of equality of opportunity in education; and the prohibition of sexually exploitative images and writing, and of practices such as prostitution. The earliest declarations of women’s rights recognized that women would perform two roles: a ‘maternal’ function and a role in production. The socialist state was to facilitate this dual function by supplying adequate child-care facilities and provisions for paid maternity leave.footnote2