In the recent literature on gender relations in Eastern Europe, it is quite often said that democratization has ‘opened up a space’ within which women can now seek to identify their interests and organize.footnote1 That is undoubtedly the case. At the same time, however, as offering a space to women, the transition to liberal capitalism offers men the opportunity of putting a greatly increased social distance between themselves and women. It is the rise in masculinism which is the primary characteristic of gender relations in Eastern Europe today. If we grasp this, I argue, we also grasp the opportunity to more fully apprehend the way in which masculinism forms the very bedrock of Western liberal democracy. For Eastern Europe makes plain that the gender order of liberal capitalism is not simply the result of historical contingency. It cannot, for example, be explained in terms of women’s lesser experience or expertise with respect to the functioning of democratic institutions or the market. Indeed, the very uniformity of the Eastern European experience indicates that the re-creation of the gender order in the transition to capitalism is in fact predicated on the rescinding of a range of rights accorded to women under state socialism.

Under state socialism, the lack of civil society and private property had an ambivalent significance for gender relations. On the one hand, the constraints on the scope for autonomous public action which this entailed brought a substantial levelling of relations between women and men. This dimension of equality was further reinforced by the encoding of legal rights for women based on the assumption of full employment. On the other hand, the absence of civil society also fostered the neo-traditional organization of society, one aspect of which was the valorization and entrenchment of traditional definitions of gender.footnote2 It is the combined effect of these two sets of influences that is responsible for the fact that in Eastern Europe, deep-seated notions of gender difference often go hand in hand with a lack of any real sense of gender inequality.

Traditional views of what ‘normal’ men and women are, have, in fact, acted as a vehicle for change in Eastern Europe, ‘freedom’ being associated with the freedom to more fully enact a traditional feminine or masculine identity, untrammelled by the constrictions of the socialist state.footnote3 However, the changes which have been wrought now offer systematic advantage to men. That is because civil society offers an enhanced but unequal scope for action in the new public sphere, while the private sphere—the traditional domain of women—is set to lose much of its previous significance. Civil society means the empowerment of men and the enactment of masculinity on a grand scale. The transition to liberal democracy and a market economy based on private property, essentially entails the (re)structuring of opportunity and the creation and institutionalization of hierarchy based on market advantage; traditional ideas concerning difference, including gender difference, are playing a key role in shaping such exclusionary advantage in the new public sphere.

That the democratization of Eastern Europe should be tantamount to the selective political empowerment of men is evidenced by the outcomes of the democratic elections which have been held in the former Soviet bloc. These had the immediate effect of making all of the East European parliaments far more exclusively male institutions than had been the case previously. As the parliaments acquired a measure of real social power, so women were excluded. The greatest change in this respect has been witnessed in Romania. There, the 1990 elections saw a decrease in the percentage of female members of parliament from about one-third to 3.5 per cent.footnote4 In the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic, there was a corresponding fall from 29.5 to 6 per cent; in Bulgaria the drop was from 21 to 8.5 per cent, in Hungary from 20.9 to 7 per cent and in the ex-gdr from 32.2 to 20.5 per cent.footnote5 Following the 1991 election in Poland, 44 out of a total of 460 members of parliament are women, roughly half the level of representation during state socialism.footnote6 The government formed after this election sacked the only two women ministers in post, as well as a number of female vice-ministers, leading one observer of the Polish Sejm to comment: ‘the liberal, European and modern Congress is reminiscent of an English club where only men are allowed to enter’.footnote7

Although men have swept into the democratic parliaments in force, their claim to rule is nevertheless a fragile one: it cannot be readily justified in terms of the superior experience, skills or qualifications of men, since the procedures of democracy are new and women have been at least the educational equals of men since the 1960s. Nor is political power yet founded on private property. Radical claims of gender difference are the sole basis for the legitimacy of the rule of men, and constitute an explicit justification of the exclusion of women from power in Eastern Europe. For example, the Polish Representative on the Council of Europe, Marcin Libicki, has openly said that: ‘It is impossible to speak of discrimination against women. Nature gave them a different role to that of men. The ideal must still be the woman-mother, for whom pregnancy is a blessing.’footnote8 Similarly, the leader of the Union of Real Politics (Unia Polityki Realnej), Janusz Korwin-Mikke, is of the view that ‘equality of the sexes is patent nonsense. The entire development of the human species depends on specialization—only the society where men and women fulfil different roles can win’.footnote9 Dissenting women are given the pejorative label of ‘feminist’, and then typically defined, not in terms of a quest for self-determination (a uniquely masculine concept in Eastern Europe), but in terms of their sexual dependency in relation to men. Vaclav Havel, for example, has called feminism a refuge for ‘bored housewives and dissatisfied mistresses’.footnote10 In Poland, the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, in a discussion of contraception in March 1992, asserted that ‘half the feminists want to be raped, but there is no-one who wants to do it.’footnote11 Some see this caricature of feminism as deterring women from action. Barbara Labuda, leader of the Women’s Group in the Polish Sejm, has said that the hesitation of Democratic Union deputies to join the group is because ‘they are frightened of the “red label” and the jibes of their male colleagues that they are using feminist activity to compensate for an unhappy personal life.’footnote12

The question of women’s rights is secondary to the establishment of stable political (and economic) hierarchy. That is why it is recently been said of the reformers in Czechoslovakia that their ‘much-voiced opinion is that women’s issues can be addressed only once the democratization process is completed.’footnote13 Signs of female autonomy evince reactions of intolerance and vulnerability, as the brief history of Poland’s ‘Governmental Plenipotentiary for Women’s Affairs and the Family’ shows. Anna Popowicz was appointed to this position in April 1991. She had played no part in determining the remit of the post: ‘I had the choice of taking the job or not; I could not discuss the issue,’ she said.footnote14 In fact, the job had been created by the then Prime Minister Jan Krzysztof Bielecki in response to two conflicting sets of demands. On the one hand there had been protests that the post of women’s representative, a function filled by a Vice-Minister of Labour since 1982, had been left unfilled for a number of months. ‘All the places in the government have been filled by Plenipotentiaries for Men’s Affairs’ wrote one commentator, ‘and a single Plenipotentiary for Women’s Affairs may never be created.’footnote15 There was also considerable pressure from family organizations and the Catholic Church to create an office for family affairs. Bielecki’s solution was to marry the two sets of demands, move women’s affairs out of the Ministry of Labour and link them with family problems in the Office of the Council of Ministers. According to Popowicz, her function as women’s representative was unacceptable to many men, and to some women too. ‘The first criticisms that were raised against me came from family organizations, very many priests in fact, and some lay men. They said: “What on earth are you this representative of women’s affairs for? The family now, that is an important business, that I understand. Family affairs—yes. But women, what are you talking about women’s affairs for? It’s really annoying!” (. . .) Both for men, and for many women too, it’s a job which is wide open to ridicule. They say: “Why do you separate those women from the rest of society? They say that it’s not a serious way of behaving, that women are people too, and what do we need this special woman’s representative for? That’s how some women see it, and that’s why the former Vice-Minister of Labour didn’t want the job. I am the first person who publicly admits that she is Representative of Women’s Affairs (. . .). I think that I am the first person not to be ashamed of the job.’footnote16 Although Popowicz was appointed at ministerial level, her scope for autonomous decision-making was limited. ‘I cannot instruct the education authorities, the pharmacists or hospitals or anyone else to do anything. Only the relevant minister can do that. I have to convince the minister that he actually thought of it first, that it was actually his idea. I have to persuade him that he’s not just doing something because I say so, but that he actually wanted it himself. That is the difficulty.’

In the event, Popowicz soon overstepped the line which had been marked out for her. She was summarily dismissed from her post on 28 February 1992—ironically, on the eve of her departure for Vienna where she had been due to address a conference on the decrease in discrimination against women in Poland.footnote17 According to press reports, the reason for her demise had been her temerity in criticizing the new Ethical Code adopted by doctors in November 1991, which effectively banned abortion (in contravention of existing law), as well as her opposition to the proposed anti-abortion bill. Her post was left vacant. In a statement concerning the dismissal, the head of the Council of Ministers, Wojciech Włodarczyk, said that if a plenipotentiary would still be required, which he doubted, then he himself would fill the role.footnote18 One month later, it was the Minister Without Portfolio, Artur Balasz, who was called upon to open an international conference in Poznań on the equality of women and men in a changing Europe. He used this occasion to express his view that ‘the creation of a special programme for women is a strange demand and is reminiscent of Communist times’.footnote19