Soviet wonderwoman rockets to stardom

In this year of firsts for women, chalk up another one: the first woman to walk in space. The Soviet Union's Svetlana Savitskaya holds 18 world air records, flies more than 20 types of planes, and has done pioneering research on construction techniques in space.

In one sense, she represents the quintessential image of the Soviet woman - or, at least what the Communist Party would like to hold out as an ideal example of womanhood.

Capable. Adept at complex work. Able to take on challenging assignments. Unfettered by sex barriers.

A lot of her female comrades back on the ground undoubtedly wish that the last statement were true.

For while Soviet women claim a number of historic ''firsts'' and (on paper, at least) are legally equal with men, the down-to-earth reality of their situation is at odds with the idealized role model on propaganda posters.

And, in truth, Svetlana Savitskaya is extraordinary among Soviet women by almost any measure.

The Soviet government provides few details about her. She was born on Aug. 8, 1948. She graduated from flight school, later worked as an instructor and pilot, and at some point qualified as a test pilot. In 1970, she won a world aerobatics title.

She now works at an aircraft design institute. She served as flight engineer during the most recent flight of the Soyuz T-12 spacecraft, from which she ventured for her historic three-hour, 35-minute walk in space. She is also the only woman to make two space flights. Her first was in 1982, when she acted as a researcher. Both flights involved visits to the Salyut 7 space station.

The official biography does not say whether she is married or has children, although, according to the Moscow rumor mill, she does have a husband.

Most Western analysts, however, were more interested in what she did during last week's space walk.

During her walk, she wielded a new tool to cut and weld metals in space, using electron beams. The new tool can also be used to apply coatings to metals to protect them from the space environment. The device, according to Western experts, will undoubtedly help the Soviets build large permanent structures in space.

Former Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, who made the first space walk nearly two decades ago, was effusive in his praise: ''She has done (her work) brilliantly, I would say, with pinpoint precision.''

Ms. Savitskaya herself, however, said that maneuvering the equipment had been difficult and tiring, and said that the male mission commander, Vladimir Dzhanibekov, did most of the work during the walk.

By crediting her male counterpart, was she merely displaying modesty - or showing herself a prime candidate for feminist consciousness-raising?

The same question might be asked about a woman queried on a downtown Moscow street about Savitskaya's space walk.

''It's a great achievement, big progress,'' she said.

She said she felt ''pride for our women, pride for the weaker sex.''

All of this points to an ambiguity between the professed role of women in Soviet society and the actual state of affairs.

Females in the Soviet Union, as in the United States, comprise the majority of the population. But this country's imbalance - 53.1 percent female, 46.9 percent male - was greatly exaggerated by the losses suffered during World War II. Demographers suggest that it will be well into the next century before the figures approach parity.

Most Soviet women - official statistics say 93 percent - either work or are engaged in academic study. Women make up almost three-quarters of the USSR's doctors and teachers, and one-third of its engineers. Still, although the Soviet Constitution promises equal pay for equal work, unofficial statistics show that men earn more than women in three-quarters of all Soviet households.

Also, many women are grouped in occupations requiring heavy labor, either on factory floors or at building sites - despite official regulations barring them from 460 jobs thought to be dangerous or unhealthy for females.

The old maxim ''Woman's work is never done'' was never truer than in the Soviet Union. Despite their official emancipation, women here are still expected to run the household, cook the meals, and clean the homes at night or on weekends. (Frozen food is rare here, vacuum cleaners are undependable, and microwave ovens or food processors are unheard of.)

And it is mainly women who face the onerous task of standing in the seemingly omnipresent queues for food.

But the most serious problem Soviet women face is coping with Soviet men. Four out of five divorces in this country are at the initiative of women, and severe drinking problems on the part of the husband are cited as grounds for the majority of such divorces.

Coincidentally, those divorce statistics appeared in a Moscow newspaper the very day that news of Savitskaya's space walk was being trumpeted in the official government press.

Savitskaya is a member of the Communist Party, having joined in 1975. She is also a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League.

But one significant gauge of power - political power - has been largely denied Soviet women. Admittedly, women make up around one-third of the members of the Supreme Soviet, the nominal parliament. But it is a largely powerless body. The Politburo - which wields the real power - is an all-male enclave.

Could that be the reason why the news of Geraldine Ferraro's nomination for Democratic vice-president received scant notice in the government-controlled press?

In fact, some women interviewed on Moscow's streets seemed surprised by the news.

One said, ''It's irrelevant whether she's a man or a woman. What's important is whether she's qualified.''

Then, she added, it might be important if an American vice-president shares the concerns of other women - about families, about children, and about peace.

One woman in a blue dress, hearing of the Ferraro nomination, said, ''I welcome it.''

After all, she explained, ''She's a woman.''

If a Soviet woman can walk in space, might one someday walk in the halls of power in the Kremlin?

A young woman responded: ''Yes, if she has the willpower, she can.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.