Near the top, but still not decisionmakers
They are the Jeane Kirkpatricks, the Sandra O'Connors, the Carla Hillses of Soviet society: the officially trumpeted female success stories. Western critics dismiss them as mere tokens in a Soviet system still steered overwhelmingly by men -- old and conservative men, at that.Skip to next paragraph
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Natalia Malachovskaya -- one of three dissident women who made an ill-fated stab at publishing this nation's first feminist journal and then emigrated to the West -- once scoffed:
"It is not important if we have women in our government . . . because those who get there are not women anymore."
Even President Leonid Brezhnev noted recently that "not all the possibilities are being used to promote women to executive posts," adding, "this must be corrected."
Still, the dozen or so women hoisted nominally near the pinnacle of Soviet political power embody a remarkable success story, one that is shared to some degree by more than a few of their compatriots.
The country's most powerful women come, by and large, from simple backgrounds. They suffered through a word war that left some 20 million men, women, and children here dead. They benefited from education well beyond the reach of their mothers or grandmothers.
And they climbed, or were hoisted, to their current positions by a route open , at least in theory, to many other Soviet, women: the Communist Party organization.
If lengthy interviews with four of the Soviet Union's top-ranking women are any indication, they indeed have little input into most major policy decisions. Other senior Soviet sources confirm that this remains the virtually exclusive province of the all-male party Politburo and the secretariat of the Central Committee.
Nor -- and this is presumably the implication of Mrs. Malachovskaya's indictment-from-exile -- does any of the most prominent Soviet women seem to see herself as a standard-bearer for feminist causes.
There is no need, these women argue, for women's liberation. Soviet communism has liberated women along with everyone else. Yes, there are problems (here the women generally quoted Mr. Brezhnev for good measure). But the problems are not fundamental, and they are being addressed.
A relevant vignette:
Valentina Nikolayeva-Tereshkova is perhaps the showcase woman of all Soviet showcase women. In the days when all males were male chauvinists, she would have been called delicate, charming, feminine, also willful and articulate. All would have been meant as compliments.
She is in her mid-40s but looks younger. She is the only woman in the world to have flown into outer space. "My [three-day] flight," she said proudly in an hourlong interview, "proved that women can be fully the equal of men. . . ."
Mr. Nikolayeva-Tereshkova is now head of the Soviet Union's official Women's Committee. She is also a member of the party Central Commitee, a larger and less powerful body than the committee's secretariat, although constitutionally it is empowered to remove even Mr. Brezhnev from power.
And what, she was asked, of the enormous number of abortions among Soviet women?
"This is the first time I've heard we have a problem of obortion," she replied evenly.
An aide quickly whispered something to her, and she retreated somewhat; "The main issue," she said, "is that there is no perfect form of contraception. . . . The decision [on abortions and the like] is the province of individual families."
On other issues, Mrs. Nikolayeva-Tereshkova spoke with a tone that alternated between warmth and incisiveness. She noted that she, like many other Soviet women, was a "child of the war," her father having been killed in its early days. She recalled her wideeyed dreams, as a member of the party's youth wing, of following in the footsteps of Yuri Gagarin, the world's first spaceman.
Asked why there were no women at present on the ruling party Politburo, she rebounded more sharply: "History shows there are heads of state who are women . . . like [Britain's] Mrs. Thatcher, but that this doesn't solve the problem" of women's rights.
The other women interviewed:
* Zinaida Mikhailovna Kruglova. Another of the eight women with full membership on the 470-strong Central Committee, she chairs the leadership of official Soviet friendship societies with foreign coutries.
A large, handsome, graying woman of peasant ancestry, she survived as her mother, sister, and finally her father were killed in World War II. "I was left alone, without any family," she recalls. "I was 17."