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> > Gender after the fall of the Wall

For Susan Gal, what's most striking about the collapse of communism is how little has been said about the role of gender in the transformation. Yet you can hardly pick up a newspaper or a magazine in East Central Europe, says the professor and chair of anthropology, without tripping over gender-related issues, including abortion, rape as a weapon of war in the former Yugoslavia, domestic-violence awareness, even "how-to" articles teaching women to shave their legs and put on make-up. "Gender is an enormous component of how social change takes place, what changes first, what are continuities with the socialist past," observes Gal, who's spent the past 30 years working in and writing about East Central Europe. "Yet most analysts are not thinking at all about gendered perspectives."

What's there to think about? Start at the beginning, says Gal. Among the first actions of nearly every former communist country in 1989 was to address abortion policy. In its second official decree after the fall of the Ceauçescu regime, Romania declared abortion legal. Abortion rights in East Germany and its restriction in West Germany nearly derailed unification. In predominantly Catholic Poland, says Gal, abortion has become "virtually a permanent feature of the parliamentary agenda."

The debating and making of reproductive policy, she says, is just one aspect of how democracy is taking hold in East Central Europe-but it's a telling aspect. For the most complete "view" of democratization, she argues, observers would do well to focus less on changes in specific political and economic processes and more broadly on "how men and women are differently imagined as citizens, and how ideas of gender are shaping political and economic change in the region." Gal explores both questions in two recent books, The Politics of Gender after Socialism: A Comparative-Historical Essay (Princeton, 2000) and the companion collection Reproducing Gender: Politics, Publics, and Everyday Life after Socialism (Princeton, 2000), with coauthor and coeditor Gail Kligman of the University of California, Los Angeles.

In Politics of Gender, Gal takes a historical view of gender in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech and Slovak Republics, and East Germany. Examining notions of gender under socialist regimes as well as in the countries' bourgeois pre-communist past, she discusses how gender is being reconceived today. In doing so, she points out that issues of gender equality aren't as cut-and-dried as they are in the West, where women have long fought to achieve equality. "Under communism, the official line claimed there were no distinctions between men and women. Everyone was comrades, everyone had a full-time job, and everyone was involved in political work. Whether they were equal in reality is another question, but the perception was there-and perceptions are important."

As economies shifted away from state-mandated full employment, and privatization kicked in, Gal notes that despite the socialist ideal of equality, certain occupations have become "gendered." Financial services, for instance, a field previously balanced between men and women (if not tipped toward women, who did much of the bookkeeping in some countries), is newly lucrative and now predominantly a male field. And as entrepreneurship flourishes in most East Central European economies, it's mainly the women who are starting the small businesses that provide catering, childcare, counseling, and computer, travel, and real-estate services.

Part of this "restratification," says Gal, is a result of the influx of male-dominated Western corporations and female-dominated international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), both of which bring their own gender perceptions into post-socialist economies as they hire local staff. Another factor, she says, is the post-socialist slashing of social programs, partly out of continued suspicion of government involvement in private lives, but also as part of a larger trend across Europe to balance budgets. "Women were simply left without childcare," says Gal, so they have gotten creative in their work lives, juggling jobs and contracting out their services.

Meanwhile, arenas of political activity have also restratified. Women are involved in what Gal calls "civil society"-volunteer work, charities, NGOs-while men dominate national politics and policy making.

What happens when women who spent the past 50 years as the perceived equals of their male comrades are kept out of policy making, which has the power to allow or disallow them to seek abortion, determines their social-welfare benefits, and regulates their economic activities? That, says Gal, is a story worth following.-S.A.S.

  JUNE 2001

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