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History from the Non-Region: A Review of Kristen Ghodsee’s Second World, Second Sex: Socialist Women’s Activism and Global Solidarity during the Cold War

by Brant Roberts
“Undoubtedly this book will ruffle the feathers of many western liberal feminists who feel that they, and they alone, brought equal rights for women to the rest of the world and felt themselves to be the shining beacon of freedom for all women to follow.

“Nobody would have admitted it, and it definitely would not be said by anybody from the US delegation, but it certainly did seem that women had at least more legal equality in the socialist bloc.” – Arvonne Fraser

Elena Lagadinova with Angela Davis

Second World, Second Sex: Socialist Women’s Activism and Global Solidarity during the Cold War. Kristin Ghodsee. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019. 328 pp. $27.95 paperback.

We have been given a caricature of history that borders on parody. To discuss the work of socialist women’s organizing in any of the countries that comprised the Eastern Bloc is seen by many western scholars as an oxymoron – how could socialist women organize an independent women’s movement while having their organizations funded by their governments? To those scholars, and many western feminists, this would be a contradiction. The logic that structures their very perceptions of both socialism and feminism is turned on its head by Kristen Ghodsee’s recent book Second World, Second Sex: Socialist Women’s Activism and Global Solidarity during the Cold War. Undoubtedly this book will ruffle the feathers of many western liberal feminists who feel that they, and they alone, brought equal rights for women to the rest of the world and felt themselves to be the shining beacon of freedom for all women to follow.

Brilliantly written, the book focuses on the work of Bulgarian and Zambian women’s organizations during the Cold War – as well as their collective efforts alongside the other second world and third world official women’s organizations at the UN conferences for women in 1975, 1980 and 1985. Challenging much of the historiography surrounding these conferences during the UN Decade for Women, Ghodsee’s analysis explores one of the least documented contributors to global women’s rights – that of the Socialist bloc. Often left out of the global north and global south binary, the countries that today make up the former socialist states of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union have, when rarely included, often been relegated to either one or the other but their contributions are rarely centered in histories that cover both – especially in women’s histories. Treated more as a footnote in the social and political histories that shaped these states, socialist women’s activism brought to life a far more progressive society than anything achieved in the US and much of the West. It is not without irony that during the 1995 conference, women who represented countries from Budapest to Vladivostok wrote a response to the official conference document’s “Global Framework” with a counter-document titled “Statement from the Non-Region.”

The past and current social conditions of Eastern Europe shape much of how Ghodsee frames the history. Millions of women’s lives had been overturned in an overwhelmingly negative way and the official conference document mustered only two sentences about it. Yugoslavia had been torn by genocide and wars, violent revolution overthrew the Romanian state, the breakup of the Soviet Union led to a significant decrease in living standards, especially for women, and the introduction of neoliberalism destroyed the economic gains of socialism – it is for the last reason that much of Eastern Europe is now under the thumb of Western European capital.

Now a more familiar name with the recent publication of her aptly titled Why Women have Better Sex Under Socialism, Ghodsee is an avowed democratic-socialist and professor of anthropology at Penn University. Specializing in Eastern Europe, and Bulgaria in particular, she visited the Eastern Bloc before the fall of socialism and continued to conduct her research on the region well-after the reestablishment of capitalist social relations and private property. In short, she has seen the positives and negatives of the transition to capitalism and the effect it had on women’s lives.

Ghodsee’s prose and sense of humor weaves in and out of the book and makes it far more enjoyable to read than most academic texts. Her interviews with former Bulgarian and Zambian delegates and the challenges that she faced from being compelled to make a salad for one of them to analyzing and documenting what was true in their answers, are littered into almost every chapter. There were some heart-wrenching moments as well from having one of her interviewees die the morning before an interview, to the story of a South African ANC (African National Congress) party member who had travelled the world organizing the boycott movement against apartheid, only to die poor, barely able to survive and forgotten by ANC politicians after the end of apartheid.

A Short Summary for Context

After laying out her project in the introduction, Ghodsee begins chapter one with an anecdote about her interview with 92-year old Krastina Tchomakova (as of 2010), an anti-Nazi partisan and former leader of the Committee of the Bulgarian Women’s Movement (CBWM). She was one of the few remaining Bulgarians who had witnessed life in Bulgaria before, during and after World War II, as well as the socialist period and the capitalist restoration – she had seen the vast differences in how women lived and how their lives changed during each historical sequence. It is from interviews with women like Tchomakova that the rest of the book is built upon. Ghodsee goes on to discuss the history of women’s rights within Marxism referencing the works of Friedrich Engels, Maxine Molyneux, Alexandra Kollontai, Clara Zetkin and August Bebel, providing the reader with an important history in order to establish why the Second World took women’s issues seriously.

In chapters two through five, Ghodsee contextualizes the situation for women’s activism in Bulgaria, Zambia and the US – all of which are key to understanding the latter half of the book and the detailed arguments and debates that took place between the delegates of these three countries to the UN conferences for women. Focusing on countries from the first world, second world and third world, these chapters are rich with interviews, histories and the global significance of each one in relation to the questions posed by CBWM throughout the book.

Bulgaria

Extensively detailing the approach of the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) when they took power, Ghodsee points out that:

“In addition to granting women full legal equality, Bulgaria (like other Eastern European nations) liberalized divorce laws, guaranteed reproductive freedoms, and provided enhanced social protections to mothers and children born out of wedlock. Women could keep their maiden names after marriage, had the right to own property, and to dispose of their own incomes. Although patriarchal traditions remained strong in the home, the communist government ensured equal access to all educational institutions… The expropriation of private property was accompanied by a concomitant assault on male authority in the family.”[1]

Having just recently liberated Bulgaria from the Nazi occupation, and before then a brief period of Tsarist autocracy and 500 years of Ottoman colonialism, the level of economic development that the BCP took over resembled much of the postcolonial third world – an underdeveloped agrarian society with a large peasantry and virtually no significant industries. Given the conditions listed above, it should be no surprise that by the third decade of BCP rule the living conditions for women drastically improved.

Despite improvements in Bulgarian women’s lives, they were not afraid to criticize the government and began to launch strong critiques in the popular women’s magazine, and mouthpiece of the CBWM, Zhenata Dnes. The difference between the criticisms leveled by the CBWM and first world women towards the BCP laid in how they went about it, as the CBWM would quote Lenin, Marx, Engels and other communist ideologues in order to make their points clear. Filled with exposés by staff journalists, the magazine criticized the situation of women having to work the notorious ‘second shift’ where women were expected to work alongside men then do all of the social reproduction at home (cooking, cleaning, childcare, eldercare, etc.). The editors forced the hand of the government to push propaganda for men to take on a larger share of the work at home.

The US & Zambia

Women in both the US and Zambia indirectly benefited from the work of the second world. Ghodsee makes it clear that the combined pressure of the Soviet Union sending the first woman into space, as well as encouraging women to become engineers, scientists and join other professions, became a national security issue for the US which forced the hand of the Kennedy administration to sign an executive order to establish the President’s Commission on the Status of Women which lifted restrictions on gender-based employment discrimination, opened more opportunities for women to join the workforce, and led to the establishment of the National Organization for Women. It is not out of principle that President Kennedy signed the executive order but out of reasons of state – after all, how could the US expect to compete with the Soviet Union when they were only utilizing half of their potential workforce and brainpower?

In Zambia, the postcolonial government was a one-party state under the leadership of the United National Independence Party (UNIP) and the women of the party worked to establish the UNIP-Women’s League (UNIP-WL) which took on the role of organizing a school of solidarity with their Bulgarian counterparts between the UN women’s conferences and worked with Zambian women on a personal level to raise their standards of living. The UNIP-WL benefitted from diplomatic ties with the second world and “received $15 million in direct aid from the Soviet Union and $60 million from the East European countries between 1964 and 1979, and hundreds of Zambian youth were sent to the Eastern Bloc for education and training.”[2] From Ghana to Tanzania, this was not an unusual practice as many economists and other professionals from the Eastern Bloc took part in working closely with many African nations within their institutions after the end of their national liberation struggles against colonialism.

Criticism

The second half of the book is bogged down with arguments about the importance of the positions taken at the UN women’s conferences in 1975, 1980 and 1985. Tedious sections about the discussions that took place, how motions were passed and declarations were written, make chapters six through twelve extremely dull. Much of the essential analysis for these chapters could have been grouped into a single chapter. 

My second criticism regards the rights of Palestinian women which were deemed to be a top priority at each of these conferences but is never contextualized by Ghodsee despite its apparent importance to the entirety of both the second and third world’s representatives. While it is often treated as taboo in academia to seriously analyze the fight of Palestinians and their international allies against settler-colonialism and zionism, Ghodsee is already making bold points throughout the book and if she had at least explained why they took those positions then it would have made the issue clearer for readers. 

The appendix of the book has a much stronger analysis than any single chapter, where Ghodsee lays out the difficulty of the research she conducted in Bulgaria, Zambia and elsewhere. Critiquing the archive of UNIP as “Disorganized and stored in a building with no climate control, these documents are fragile, their yellowing pages literally crumbling between my fingers when I examined them in their damp and moldy folders.”[3] She also lays out an honest, impassioned assessment of post-socialist Bulgaria and the impoverished living conditions of the women who once ran the most important women’s political institution in the country, as opposed to the American women who enjoy the benefits of retiring in the imperial core of the US. The appendix deserved a much more primary position in the book than it received.

Another flaw of this book is that it is clearly meant for both scholars of Eastern Europe and for the generally well-read. Despite its relatively average page-length at 306 pages, the information is very dense and requires a great deal of context. The book would be a lot for the average reader to process and clearly it was not written for a wide audience – hence its publication in a prestigious university press. In order to properly contextualize this work, the average reader should consider starting with Vijay Prashad’s books The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations before delving into Second World, Second Sex.

Second World, Second Sex is a key historiographical intervention into the history of these conferences, and into the history of women in both Bulgaria and Zambia. It is a passionately written work and reminds the readers of the lost horizon of women’s emancipation which is tied to the abolition of private property as a commodity and the establishment of socialism. An important intervention in Marxist-feminist criticism, this book should be cited as an important secondary source for those who wish to further ideas about social reproduction, as well as the role of the state and internationalism.


About the Reviewer: Brant Roberts is based out of Houston and is a member of the editorial collective Houston Review of Books. His writings have appeared in Marx and Philosophy Review of BooksThe Daily Cougar, and Threshold Magazine.


Works Cited

Gerőcs, T. (2018, November 8). To be Bravely Critical of Reality: an interview with Tamás Szentes. Retrieved from Review of African Political Economy: http://roape.net/2018/11/08/to-be-bravely-critical-to-reality-an-interview-with-tamas-szentes/

Ghodsee, K. (2018). Second World, Second Sex: Socialist Women’s Activism and Global Solidarity during the Cold War. Durham: Duke University Press.

Ginelli, Z. (2018, May). Hungarian Experts in Nkrumah’s Ghana. Retrieved from Mezosfera: http://mezosfera.org/hungarian-experts-in-nkrumahs-ghana/


[1] Kristen Ghodsee, Second World, Second Sex: Socialist Women’s Activism and Global Solidarity during the Cold War (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 58.

[2] Ibid., 126.

[3] Ibid., 247. 

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