Anthropologist Kristen Ghodsee’s newest book is meant to be provocative. Just read the title: “Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism.”
But it also explores a very serious economic question: What would our intimate personal lives be like if we all — but especially women — had more secure finances?
Ghodsee argues that the free market is failing women in many ways. Instead, she advocates for policies with a socialist bent, such as equal pay, paid maternity leave and government-funded child care.
Thursday on the PBS NewsHour, economics correspondent Paul Solman sits down with Ghodsee to explore whether those kinds of economic changes could really improve women’s lives at large. Below, you can read an excerpt from Ghodsee’s book.
Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence
From the introduction: YOU MIGHT BE SUFFERING FROM CAPITALISM
Today, socialist ideas are enjoying a renaissance as young people across countries such as the United States, France, Great Britain, Greece, and Germany find inspiration in politicians like Bernie Sanders, Jean-Luc Melenchon, Jeremy Corbyn, Yanis Varoufakis, and Sahra Wagenknecht. Citizens desire an alternative political path that would lead to a more egalitarian and sustainable future. To move forward, we must be able to discuss the past with no ideologically motivated attempts to whitewash or blackwash either our own history or the accomplishments of state socialism. On the one hand, any nuanced account of twentieth-century state socialism will inevitably encounter the sputtering and bluster of those who insist that it was pure evil, end of story. As the Czech writer Milan Kundera wrote in his famous novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”: “The people who struggle against what we call totalitarian regimes cannot function with queries and doubts. They, too, need certainties and simple truths to make the multitudes understand, to provoke collective tears.” On the other hand, some young people today joke about “full communism now.” Leftist millennials might not know about (or prefer to ignore) the real horrors inflicted on citizens in one-party states. Gruesome tales of the secret police, travel restrictions, consumer shortages, and labor camps are not just anticommunist propaganda. Our collective future depends on a balanced examination of the past so we can discard the bad and move forward with the good, especially where women’s rights are concerned.
Since the middle of the nineteenth century, European social theorists argued that the female sex is uniquely disadvantaged in an economic system that prizes profits and private property over people. Throughout the 1970s, socialist feminists in the United States also asserted that smashing the patriarchy wasn’t enough. Exploitation and inequality would persist so long as financial elites built their fortunes on the backs of docile women reproducing the labor force for free. But these early critiques were based on abstract theories with little empirical evidence to substantiate them. Slowly, over the course of the first half of the twentieth century, new democratic socialist and state socialist governments in Europe began to test these theories in practice. In East Germany, Scandinavia, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe, political leaders supported the idea of women’s emancipation through their full incorporation into the labor force. These ideas soon spread to China, Cuba, and a wide variety of newly independent countries across the globe. Experiments with female economic independence fueled the twentieth-century women’s movement and resulted in a revolution in the life paths open to women previously confined to the domestic sphere. And nowhere in the world were there more women in the workforce than under state socialism.
Women’s emancipation infused the ideology of almost all state socialist regimes, with the Franco-Russian revolutionary Inessa Armand famously declaring: “If women’s liberation is unthinkable without communism, then communism is unthinkable without women’s liberation.” Although important differences existed between countries and none achieved full equality in practice, these nations did expend vast resources to invest in women’s education and training and to promote them in professions previously dominated by men. Understanding the demands of reproductive biology, they also attempted to socialize domestic work and child care by building a network of public creches, kindergartens, laundries, and cafeterias. Extended, job-protected maternity leaves and child benefits allowed women to find at least a modicum of work/family balance. Moreover, twentieth-century state socialism did improve the material conditions of millions of women’s lives; maternal and infant mortality declined, life expectancy increased, and illiteracy all but disappeared. To take just one example, the majority of Albanian women were illiterate before the imposition of socialism in 1945. Just ten years later, the entire population under forty could read and write, and by the 1980s half of Albania’s university students were women.
While different countries pursued different policies, in general state socialist governments reduced women’s economic dependence on men by making men and women equal recipients of services from the socialist state. These policies helped to decouple love and intimacy from economic considerations. When women enjoy their own sources of income, and the state guarantees social security in old age, illness, and disability, women have no economic reason to stay in abusive, unfulfilling, or otherwise unhealthy relationships. In countries such as Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and East Germany, women’s economic independence translated into a culture in which personal relationships could be freed from market influences. Women didn’t have to marry for money.
Of course, just as we can learn from the experiences of Eastern Europe, we shouldn’t ignore the downsides. Women’s rights in the Eastern Bloc failed to include a concern for same-sex couples and gender nonconformity. Abortion served as a primary form of birth control in the countries where it was available on demand. Most East European states strongly encouraged women to become mothers, with Romania, Albania, and the USSR under Stalin forcing women to have children they didn’t want. State socialist governments suppressed discussions of sexual harassment, domestic violence, and rape. And although they tried to get men involved in housework and child care, men largely resisted challenges to traditional gender roles. Many women suffered under a double burden of mandatory formal employment and domestic work, as so well captured in Natalya Baranskaya’s brilliant novella, A Week Like Any Other. Finally, in no country were women’s rights promoted as a project to support women’s individualism or self-actualization. Instead, the state supported women as workers and mothers so they could participate more fully in the collective life of the nation.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, new democratic governments rapidly privatized state assets and dismantled social safety nets. Men under these newly emerging capitalist economies regained their “natural” roles as family patriarchs, and women were expected to return home as mothers and wives supported by their husbands. Across Eastern Europe, post-1989 nationalists argued that capitalist competition would relieve women of the notorious double burden and restore familial and societal harmony by allowing men to reassert their masculine authority as breadwinners. However, this meant that men could once again wield financial power over women. For instance, the renowned historian of sexuality Dagmar Herzog shared a conversation with several East German men in their late forties in 2006. They told her that “it was really annoying that East German women had so much sexual self-confidence and economic independence. Money was useless, they complained. The few extra Eastern Marks that a doctor could make in contrast with, say, someone who worked in the theater, did absolutely no good, they explained, in luring or retaining women the way a doctor’s salary could and did in the West. ‘You had to be interesting.’ What pressure. And as one revealed: ‘I have much more power now as a man in unified Germany than I ever did in communist days.’” Furthermore, following the publication of my New York Times op-ed, “Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism,” I did an interview with Doug Henwood on his radio show, Behind the News. One listener, a forty-six-year-old woman born in the Soviet Union, emailed the show to say that I had “nailed it” in my discussion of romantic relations in “the old country,” as she called it, “but also the way men lord it over women with money here [in the United States].”
The collapse of state socialism in 1989 created a perfect laboratory to investigate the effects of capitalism on women’s lives. The world could watch as free markets were conjured from the rubble of the planned economy, and these new markets variously affected different categories of workers. After decades of shortages, East Europeans eagerly exchanged authoritarianism for the promise of democracy and economic prosperity, throwing their countries open to Western capital and international trade. But there were unforeseen costs.
The rejection of the one-party state and the embrace of political freedoms came bundled with economic neoliberalism. New democratic governments privatized public enterprises to make room for new competitive labor markets where productivity would determine wages. Gone were the long lines for toilet paper and the black markets for jeans. Coming soon was a glorious consumer paradise free from shortages, famines, the secret police, and the labor camp. But after almost three decades, many Eastern Europeans still wait for a bright capitalist future. Others have abandoned all hope.
The evidence is incontrovertible: like so many other women across the globe, women in Eastern Europe are once again commodities to be bought and sold—their price determined by the fickle fluctuations of supply and demand. Writing in the immediate aftermath of state socialism’s collapse, the Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić explained, “We live surrounded by newly opened porno shops, porno magazines, peepshows, stripteases, unemployment, and galloping poverty. In the press they call Budapest ‘the city of love, the Bangkok of Eastern Europe.’ Romanian women are prostituting themselves for a single dollar at the Romanian-Yugoslav border. In the midst of all this, our anti- choice nationalist governments are threatening our right to abortion and telling us to multiply, to give birth to more Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Croats, Slovaks.” Today, Russian mail-order brides, Ukrainian sex workers, Moldovan nannies, and Polish maids flood Western Europe. Unscrupulous middle men harvest blond hair from poor Belorussian teenagers for New York wig makers. In St. Petersburg, women attend academies for aspiring gold diggers. Prague is an epicenter of the European porn industry. Human traffickers prowl the streets of Sofia, Bucharest, and Chişinău for hapless girls dreaming of a more prosperous life in the West.
Older citizens of Eastern Europe fondly recall the small comforts and predictability of their life before 1989: free education and health care, no fear of unemployment and of not having money to meet basic needs. A joke, told in many East European languages, illustrates this sentiment:
In the middle of the night a woman screams and jumps out of bed, eyes filled with terror. Her startled husband watches her rush into the bathroom and open the medicine cabinet. She then dashes to the kitchen and inspects the inside of the refrigerator. Finally, she flings open a window and gazes out onto the street below their apartment.
She takes a deep breath and returns to bed.
“What’s wrong with you?” her husband says. “What happened?”
“I had a terrible nightmare,” she says. “I dreamed that we had the medicine we needed, that our refrigerator was full of food, and that the streets outside were safe and clean.”
“How is that a nightmare?”
The woman shakes her head and shudders. “I thought the Communists were back in power.”
Opinion polls throughout the region continue to show that many citizens believe their lives were better before 1989, under authoritarianism. Although these polls may say more about disappointment with the present than they do about the desirability of the past, they complicate the totalitarian narrative. For example, a 2013 random poll of 1,055 adult Romanians found that only a third reported that their lives were worse off before 1989: 44 percent said their lives were better, and 16 percent said there was no change. These results were also gendered in interesting ways: whereas 47 percent of women thought that state socialism was better for their country, only 42 percent of men said the same. Similarly, whereas 36 percent of men claimed that life was worse before 1989, only 31 percent of women said life under the dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu was worse than the present. And this is from Romania, one of the most corrupt and oppressive regimes in the former Eastern Bloc where Ceauşescu gold-plated the flushing handle on his private toilet. Similar results emerged from surveys in Poland in 2011 and from an opinion poll conducted in eight other former socialist nations in 2009. For citizens who have had the opportunity to live under two different economic systems, many now feel that capitalism is worse than the state socialism they were once so eager to cast aside.
Excerpted from “Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence” by Kristen R. Ghodsee. Copyright © 2018. Available from Nation Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.