Wendy Goldman and the Grotesque Hybrid

In the conclusion of her compelling and intricate work on women’s issues throughout the early years of the Soviet system, Goldberg describes the family policy as a ‘grotesque hybrid” – a system that originated in an idealized socialist system that crashed headlong into poverty and the economic and social realities that women faced throughout the Soviet Union.[1]  She expands on this assertion by pointing out the emphasis towards women joining the workforce and leaving behind their traditional roles in the household.  Yet despite this seemingly progressive ideal, the soviet system in the 1920s and 1930s was unprepared – or possibly unaware – of the ramifications this push would have on society and their overextended resources.

By pushing women into the workforce, they forced the majority of women into underpaid, low positions and there was little hope for advancement, especially in competition with male rivals.[2]  Women faced discrimination, harassment and inequality in the labor force when they were able to get a job.[3]  Unemployment was a massive problem for women who were willing to work, and many turned to prostitution as a last resort before succumbing to starvation.[4]  By pushing an ideology and equality while failing to see the inherent problems in the economic and social spheres, soviet idealism smashed into reality with no viable resolution which resulted ultimately in a hybrid of socialist ideology and hard reality with little recourse available.  As the state began to reverse its earlier positions on the ‘withering away’ of the family and an increasing reliance upon the state, it simultaneously turned to repression and persecution in order to enforce its mandates upon a stricken and nearly-helpless majority.[5]  Although the Party’s official position in essence reversed itself between the 1920s and the 1940s in regards to the family, it clung to the claim of continuity, all while espousing the notion of female liberation from dependence upon men.[6]

Despite these obstacles and the reality on the ground, the Party continued to insist that its original socialist vision for its population was intact.[7]  What Goldman finds even more upsetting, however is that women – removed from the revolutionary ideology and social debates that framed the revolution itself began to see the implemented system as liberation and socialism despite its flaws, imperfections and economic disadvantage.[8]

In some regards, the socialist vision of gender equality and a social order is incredibly progressive, especially when compared to many of the ideas put forward by both religious and social conservatism both in Western Europe and the United States.  The idea of free unions, simplified divorce and the removal of the bonds of marriage seem to strive for equality in a way that, in theory, seems ideal.  In practice, however, it is clear throughout Goldman’s book that the State was completely unprepared for the reality of this liberation.  They did not have social institutions in place that would provide childcare for the thousands of women entering the workforce.  They did not have adequate support in place for women who found themselves suddenly divorced and unemployed with no legal protections or recourse.  They did not have provisions in place for the hundreds of thousands of orphaned and abandoned children who roamed the streets.  They did not have the resources necessary to implement the sweeping social programs that would have been necessary to make their vision a success.  Given the failings in these areas, Goldman’s assessment of this ‘grotesque hybrid’ seems accurate and fitting.  Had the infrastructure, resources and institutions been put in place prior to the implementation of the new family code, the situation may have been far different than reality showed.  Given the overwhelming majority peasant population, however, and the reliance on family agricultural units throughout the majority of the countryside, implementing these ideas would have taken a great deal of time and effort – neither of which the state or the party seemed inclined to spend, given the push for social revolution and the implementation of the socialist ideal.  The bottom line for Goldman seems to be that what ended up happening throughout the Soviet Union between 1920 and 1940 was anything but socialism and freedom.  Rather than gaining economic and social independence, women found themselves forced into prostitution in order to provide for themselves and their children, or to accept jobs that paid the lowest wages because nothing else was available.  Unable to make a living wage and unable to make ends meet, women became even more economically dependent both on men and on the state, and both women and children suffered under this ideology while still calling it liberation because they were cut off from any other definition of the word or the knowledge of what true liberation could be.

[1]Wendy Z. Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 342.

[2] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 116.

[3] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 116.

[4] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 119.

[5] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 342.

[6] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 342.

[7] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 343.

[8] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 343.


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