SOVIET WOMEN: WALKING THE TIGHTROPE By Francine du Plessix Gray (Doubleday, $24.95, 213 pages)
In her rivetting portrait of Soviet women, Francine du Plessix Gray combines loving knowledge of her subject—she was raised in Paris by Russian women—with an American novelist’s gleeful sense of irony. And the ironies abound in Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope, a candid depiction of post-glasnost females—superwomen of a sort never imagined by Western feminism. To begin with, feminism does not yet exist in the Soviet Union (although high fashion does). In its place is a strong matriarchal tradition expressed by the Russian proverb “Woman can do everything; men can do the rest.”
According to du Plessix Gray, since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, women have done everything: 92 per cent of women work at jobs while also logging 40 extra hours every week shopping, cooking and single-handedly raising their children. Most husbands do very little around the house. Soviet grandmothers do not stay at home and babysit; they work as doctors or clean office buildings. Housekeeping is made more difficult by the scarcity of commodities and long lineups, and women are anxious and exhausted by their overburdening. Du Plessix Gray’s descriptions illustrate how the state engineered an essentially fake feminism: it “emancipated” women as producers— to swell the labor force—but ignored their role as reproducers and domestic slaves. The result is a chasm between the sexes that makes the Western gender gap look like a lovers’ quarrel.
When du Plessix Gray asked a group of women what domestic duties their men undertook, there was derisive laughter all around. “ ‘He takes out the dog . . . ’ one said. (Much giggling) ... ‘He tinkers with the car ... (Further hilarity).” Du Plessix Gray was amazed by the attitude women displayed towards Soviet men, a hearty contempt that, she writes, “might make the most committed American feminist uncomfortable.”
Everywhere she went, du Plessix Gray says, women complained about the “passivity and boorishness” of their men, while sighing over the “gallantry” of American males. Even compliments were framed with condescension. One school rector described her husband of 35 years as “charmingly infantile.” Slightly aghast at this reverse sexism, the author concluded that the Soviet Union might be as much in need of a men’s movement as a women’s movement.
The control that women exercise over their little domestic kingdoms evaporates at the door of the maternity ward, however. For a country that prides itself on technological prowess, the Soviet Union is tragically backward in the areas of gynecology and obstetrics, du Plessix Gray reports. Sex education is almost unheard of, and one woman reported that abortion is considered more reliable and “almost cleansing” compared with the available forms of birth control. A gynecologist estimated that there are five to eight abortions for every live birth; one woman thought 14 abortions per woman was more likely.
It is hardly surprising, then, that women turn to more frivolous matters, such as fashion. Du Plessix Gray reports that Soviet women of every level, from philosophers to factory workers, are obsessed with dressing well, spending hours in search of imitation Dior blouses. Still, du Plessix Gray accepts that fascination with surface; in an otherwise bleak environment, fashion offers women a bit of color and a sense of self-worth.
For men, self-worth is more problematic in a country where they have traditionally been excluded from both domestic and political power. Indeed, du Plessix Gray devotes considerable space to the sad-eyed, ghostly husbands trying not to get in the way of their all-toocapable wives. Men are an echoing absence in the book. Du Plessix Gray concludes that the matrioshka, that staple of Russian folk art, is a fitting symbol of Soviet women: a set of carved female figures, nestled one inside the other— “parthenogenetic females” reproducing themselves generation after generation.
The spectacle of emancipation without sexual equality is immensely poignant. Du Plessix Gray describes a country of women whose great strength is still a form of martyrdom, who are left with little time or energy for political vision—or even love.
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