Feminism, Russsian Style

How American Feminism Has Failed--and What Russian Women Can Offer

I remember setting off for Russia with a rather strong sense of what it means to be a feminist. I admit that I had a sort of Western superiority complex in that I didn't understand how, in these times, a woman could stay at home with the children and feel whole. "If I did that," I thought, "I would certainly feel as if I was missing out on half of life's experiences." I thought that I would be a little imperialist and teach Russian women to be liberated. What a disgusting idea, especially since exactly the opposite happened--they educated me! I found when I was in Russia that my feminist identity crisis stemmed from three main issues: the role of beauty, the importance of a career and the reason for raising children. Ironically, I had been making many decision in my life based on feminine stereotypes--I would do the opposite of what the stereotypes stated that I should do. I would pretend I hated children. I would never even sew a button on a skirt. I would wear slippers and my pajamas (or jeans) to class all the time.

Russia has undergone a feminist revolution in the mirror image of what has occurred in the United States. Natalia Baranskaia's "A Week Like Any Other" is an especially vivid example of the role of beauty and personal appearance in Soviet life. This story describes a week in the life of a Soviet woman. The heroine receives a questionnaire at work requesting information about how she spends her time each week. We follow her through a week and see her travel three hours a day on public transportation, prepare meals for her family, work in a high-pressure research job, attend a workplace propaganda class and rush out to the beauty parlor on a quick break from work. For her, attending to her beauty is a renewing process. It does not wear her down. She is not trying to "keep" her husband. She is not trying to look like models in fashion magazines. She is going to the hairdresser for her own personal pleasure.

Beauty is an important issue for Russian women, in that they take more care with their appearance than many American women would deem acceptable. In general, they are more fashionable, get manicures more frequently and don't wince at the thought of wearing heels like so many feminists here. For instance, when I went to Russia, people who had lived there told me that I should leave my jeans at home and buy some nice skirts and high heels so that I would blend in. Crisis number one. As an American feminist, I had always yelled at my mother when she would suggest that I wear heels. If I went to a formal dance, I would complain to my date about my heels. When I whined about my feet hurting, I felt as if I were apologizing for my lack of liberation. The same would happen when I was carrying a purse. I would always leave it somewhere and then make the point that purses were such a nuisance for women anyway. When I started wearing heels (but not carrying a purse) in Russia, I decided that I liked them. I realized that I had been letting my feminist textbooks dictate to me what I liked and didn't like--instead of experimenting and coming to my own conclusion.

Another aspect of my feminist outlook on life concerns children. When I became a feminist, I decided to start pretending that I hated them--even though I enjoyed teaching young children for over five years at my church. For Russian women, it is a luxury to stay at home with their children. After being pressured to work during the Soviet period, being a stay-at-home mom is a completely new phenomenon for them. There was one group of people in Russia that obliterated my association between weakness and being a stay-at-home mom. The strongest people I met in Russia were the babushki, that is, the grandmothers. There exists a certain respect for them among my young Russian friends. For instance, I'll never forget the the time I was riding on the bus and my two friends said to me, "If any grandmothers come on the bus, get up right away and give them your seat. Or else, they'll hit you with their purse. They hit really hard, too!" I remember thinking how strange it was that elderly women command such strength and have such a strong image. Then I think about "A Week Like Any Other," and it all makes sense to me. Anyone who has had to endure such a back-breaking schedule would naturally either crack under the pressure or become incredibly strong.

Coming back to America, what I did notice is that there is a certain pressure inherent in American feminism. To illustrate this phenomenon, let me give you an example. Let's say that you're a first year female sitting in Greenough with your new rooming group. Everyone is saying what they want to do when they finish Harvard. The first five spit out illustrious goals: medical school, law school, high school math teacher, consultant, Ambassador to Turkey ... What does your sixth roommate want to be? Housewife. Housewife?! Be honest: what would you think about this career goal?


But here's the problem: feminism was meant to liberate women. If a woman wants to be a housewife, shouldn't she be free to do so--and without anyone's dirty looks? I came to the conclusion in Russia and through my "Women in Russian Literature" class that women are always being manipulated to move away from whatever they might want to do, both in the USA and in Russia.

The widespread disdain in Russia for the American brand of feminism stems from the pressure exerted upon women during the time of the Soviet Union. They were encouraged to be endogenous. If a woman reported to work "dressed up," she would get dirty looks from her female co-workers. In general, hair-dos and clothing were "modest and attractive" according to a book on female fashion Soviet style. It's not that Soviet women were expected to be completely sexless. They were just not allowed to assert themselves as any sort of symbol of womanly beauty. They were utilitarian bearers of children and workers in the Soviet system.

In America, we have taken the opposite trajectory. We run from Donna Reed. We couldn't work in the 1950s. We had to be stay-at-home moms. In contrast to women in the Soviet Union, women in America have a long legacy as symbols of sex and womanly beauty: Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth, Doris Day, Marilyn Monroe, Jackie O. The list could go on forever. Somehow, though, this ability to be proud of one's appearance and to be an ornament has not been enough for American women. Neither has the weak image women receive as mothers been satisfying. For the purpose of rectifying this situation, we developed feminism to liberate us.

Except that "liberation" had its own constraints. Now we are judged on how "liberated" we are. How well are we rectifying the past status of women? The fact of the matter is that in doing so, we must restrict our lives according to stereotypes, just as we did before. The only difference is that now we have to reject all activities characterized as womanly: waxing our eyebrows, wearing heels, enjoying going to the hairdresser, giggling amongst ourselves, to name a few.

Russian women took care of their families during the Soviet period and that was their way of holding on to the only aspect of the private sphere to which they were entitled, the last grasp at a personal life outside of the Party and the "Motherland." In America, women are forced into the public sphere and out of the private sphere.

But I am sick of being "forced." Women need to be free to do what they want, and they should be able to do so unjudged. Feminism should liberate women to be free of any stereotype and choose from the spectrum of options, without pressure to be tough or assertive or motherly or feminine. Through this all, I have found a new sense of respect for my stay-at-home mother. Many of my convictions are unchanged. I still want to be an investment banker. I want to carry a purse as little as possible. But I want to wear heels to the office.

Kristen A. Olsavsky is a senior living in Dunster house.