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Communism's Loss Is Not Women's Gain

By Eric Bourne / October 3, 1990



VIENNA

EASTERN Europe's liberation has yet to liberate women. Sexual equality, in fact, appears as elusive after the revolution as before. The Communist claim to have achieved equality of the sexes sounded fine. But in practice, it was largely spurious. It ignored the fact that most married women worked simply to augment their husbands' pitiable pay. Jobs open to them were usually in dead-end categories where male labor was short.

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In addition, most of these women had an inescapable and unpaid second job every day after work - standing in line for hours to shop for (mostly scarce) food. When they finally got home, they had to attend to housework and the children.

So far, neither the situation nor the mentality behind it seem to have changed. Governments, with so many new problems, seem to have no time for such reform.

Discrimination continues. In some areas, it has worsened. There is no sign of legislative action to correct disparities in pay. Nor do the few openly articulate feminists seem able to generate support for a movement to make specific political changes.

Former leaders used to point to how women held one-third of the seats in parliament. Nothing was said of the fact that few made it to government and Cabinet rank. Those women who did were either career Communist Party stalwarts or wives of leaders, such as the spouse of Nicolae Ceausescu, the late Romanian dictator.

Rank-and-file female members of parliament were the party's public relations fodder. But even this share in parliament has shrunk. In the post-liberation elections, fewer than 4 percent of seats in Romania went to women (compared with one-third before). Figures for the other countries are only marginally higher.

In government, women have fared no better than before. The few who are in the new administrations are ministers for social affairs or the arts. None holds a major policymaking portfolio.

But Eastern Europe's feminists are also disturbed by the inundation of pornography, largely Western, which they say helps perpetuate and reinforce women's longstanding inferior status.

The open display of such material on newsstands and in bookstores is often at least as blatant as in some Western capitals. It is worst of all in Budapest, somewhat less so in Prague and Warsaw. The problem seems not to have hit the other capitals so hard. Perhaps Sofia and Bucharest retain old Communist taboos.

In the view of formerly staid, state-licensed newspapers, nude pullouts are as essential a weapon in their new circulation wars as they are among the worst Western tabloids.

Sex parlors and shops abound; their owners, many of them newly emerging entrepreneurs, boast openly of ``making fortunes,'' unhindered by official or legal restraints. Open distribution of sex magazines is not included in the category of media activities permitted by state regulations. Only in Poland has the Roman Catholic Church had some success in urging curbs on it.

Feminists who do speak out agree with the ``forbidden fruit'' theory, which states that the pornographic wave is predictable after the long period of so-called (communist) puritanism, when even normal sex education in schools or sexual candor in movies and books were virtually taboo.

Many people welcomed an end to such primness. But many also would like governments to act to keep this new industry within bounds.

Feminists complain that what little media debate there is on women's problems completely ignores their view - one long propagated by their Western counterparts - that this flaunting of pornography is deeply offensive to women. Although the newly free press presents controversial opinion on many subjects, on this one it is noticeably reticent. It does not carry the feminist argument that the pornographic tide is - to quote a Budapest woman journalist - ``license, not liberty.''

The official attitude seems to be that, once market reform makes life more bearable, the sex industry will subside.

But given the pace so far of East European reform, it is not only feminists who see this attitude as too optimistic.