THE Women of Russia alliance is not a radical feminist group, but it is doing something pretty radical: The fledgling organization is challenging Russia's male-dominated political status quo by becoming the first women's election bloc to participate in national elections.
Alevtina Fedulova, a grandmother and former Soviet Pioneer Camp administrator who is the bloc's leading candidate, says the Alliance hopes to get at least 5 percent of the vote in the December elections. That will put up to half of its 44 female candidates in Russia's new Duma, or parliament.
``People think it's normal when only men are in the parliament, but we think a parliament that is supposed to represent the interests of all of society cannot be represented only by men,'' says Ms. Fedulova, who now heads the non-governmental Women's Union of Russia. ``It's not democratic when half the population is left out of the social and political spheres.''
Soviet rhetoric guaranteed sexual equality, but women in Soviet society were treated as second-class citizens. Hard labor was traditionally done by women, who were paid less than men and offered fewer chances of promotion. Professions dominated by women, such as doctors and teachers, were among the lowest-paid in Soviet society.
Correspondingly, women were granted only token representation politically. Women received a mere 75 seats out of more than 2,500 in the Soviet parliament. Only 57 seats in Russia's now-disbanded Congress of People's Deputies, or 6 percent, were occupied by women. And only one minister in the current Russian government - Social Security Minister Ella Pamfilova - is female.
Fedulova may be right about the need for women to participate in politics, but many post-Soviet Russians think differently. Western women fought bitterly for the right to go to work, but many Russians are fighting to give women the right to stay home.
``A woman shouldn't take part in politics; a woman's place is in the home,'' says electrician Volodya Tyomushkin, a slight man in grimy workclothes. ``She should raise the kids, and not only raise them, but bear them, too. If a woman is involved in politics, her husband would have to wash and take care of all the household things. Their marriage would fall apart. We don't need that.''
Some would say the alliance is facing an uphill battle. The bloc, however, has powerful numerical potential: It joins together the Women's Union of Russia with the Association of Women Entrepreneurs and the Association of Navy Women, which is comprised of wives and widows of servicemen. The three groups claim about 2 million women members nationwide.
Fedulova's goals include a softer approach to market reforms, equal access to quality education and medical care, more housing funds, improved legal services, and better social benefits for single-parent families and families with low earning potential.
Although increased opportunities for women exist in some areas, their general status has worsened since the 1985 advent of perestroika, says spokeswoman Vera Sobaleva of the Women's Union. Social problems among women are rising, female and infant mortality have increased, and the country's birthrate is the lowest it has been since World War II.
As Russia lurches from a centrally planned to a market economy, unemployment has jumped. About 75 percent of Russia's unemployed are female, according to the Russian Labor Ministry.
But Alexander Kochenko, head of the Labor Ministry's department of market policies and the population, says Russian women had it too good under Communism. Proof of this, he says, is that women did not fear losing their jobs if they suddenly became pregnant. He says women should be cut from the workforce. ``We think a democratic society should concentrate on family policies. That means it's better if we decrease the number of women in the labor force so they can stay home and take care of their families.''
Yet Fedulova believes democracy cannot exist without women. ``If we continue to make government policies without the participation of women and taking into account the interests of women, we will never build a civilized democratic society,'' she says.