Socialism and the Future of Gender Justice

A Dialogue about Feminism in the Marketplace of Ideas

On August 12, 2017, Kristen Ghodsee published an op-ed in the New York Times, titled “Why Women Had Better Sex under Socialism.” The piece was due to appear in print a few days later, but the editors published the online version on that date. Coincidentally, the late night of August 11th and the morning of August 12th turned out to be the Charlottesville white nationalist rally that shocked the world and shed a harsh light on racism and toxic masculinity in this country. What followed was a period of trolling, harassment, and nearly paralyzing attacks against Ghodsee. Fox News featured “analyses” of the op-ed by “experts” who equated Ghodsee’s writing to Stalin’s approach to human rights. For months, nasty messages and phone calls inundated her inbox and appeared on social media, including death threats. Colleagues at other universities also went after her, parsing the arguments of the op-ed to suggest she was a naïve Westerner, narrowly and uncritically interested only in what the propaganda of the Politburos of the communist bloc had to say, and that her research for the op-ed was not solid. The response to this onslaught of nasty criticism, much of it ad hominem, is the book Why Women Have Better Sex under Socialism and Other Arguments for Economic Independence. Read part 1 of a discussion between Kristen Ghodsee and Maria Bucur below.

Maria Bucur [MB]: Why did you decide to write this book? Was it just in response to these attacks, or is it something that you had wanted to write prior to them? I ask because it is hard to imagine having the guts to go back to one’s laptop and spend more time with a project that has produced so much personal grief. Who would want more of that? So, I imagine that other incentives or motivations played a role in why you decided to spend more time with this project. What was it?

Kristen Ghodsee [KG]: When the editor called and asked if I wanted to develop the op-ed into a short book, my first question was about references. Would I be able to include them? Writing a trade book is very different than an academic book, and I wanted to ensure that I could substantiate all of the claims with in-text endnote citations to the relevant scholarship. In the end, I had to compromise and allow for only one combined endnote at the end of each paragraph, but out of a 200-page book, I included 22 pages of endnotes and suggestions for further reading. I wanted people to know that there is a lot of relevant work out there, and to push back against those who claimed my 1200-word op-ed wasn’t substantiated with enough scholarly evidence.

But a second reason had to do with the number of emails, letters, and other messages I received or saw posted from people who grew up in Eastern Europe, or had parents or grandparents who grew up in Eastern Europe. Some of these were negative, but a surprising number of them were from people who agreed with the points in the op-ed and thanked me for talking about women’s rights under state socialism, and for addressing the erosion of many of those rights after 1989/1991. They felt their thoughts, opinions, and personal experiences had been disappeared from the public discourse about the socialist past. Nowhere was this more apparent than on Fox News when Greg Gutfield asserted that everyone who had lived under 20th century state socialism was already dead. Referring to the editors at the New York Times, Gutfield asked, “How blind do you have to be to run this story? I guess they figured anyone who could dispute this lie is already dead. That’s the beauty of socialism – everyone dies before you get around to asking.” I was so outraged by this blatant lie, and his willingness to rhetorically disappear the hundreds of millions of people still alive around the world with memories and first-hand experiences of this era.

But the critical moment that made me decide to write the book was in Linda Gordon’s “History of Women and Gender” Seminar at NYU. She had invited me to talk about the reactions to the op-ed, and because I was still in the throes of the trolling, I spent most of the talk focusing on the attacks. During the question and answer period, a young man from Azerbaijan chastised me for only focusing on the negative, stating that the op-ed had also had positive effects. In his country, he told the seminar, the piece had been translated and widely circulated on social media. He claimed it precipitated the first real national discussion on the status of women in Azerbaijan and the erosion of that status since 1991. So, I thought that maybe discussion and debate are a good thing no matter how many ad hominem attacks they generate. I didn’t want to dive back into the fray, but on some level, I was already living with the consequences of the original op-ed anyway, so writing the book was also a chance for me to work through what it means to be a Western scholar writing about these topics in 2019. Many people attacked me for my lack of personal or family history in the region, but those same people will also castigate, belittle, and delegitimize their own compatriots if they discuss any positive aspects of the past, denigrating them as hopeless nostalgics or red grandmothers. So, I wanted to challenge this epistemic de-platforming head on and try to understand why knowledge production about this history is still so vexed even three decades after the end of the Cold War.

MB: There is an important, but subtle shift in focus from the title of the op-ed to the book, and I hope you can talk about it a bit. You replaced “had” with “have”. In essence, I see this as an epistemic shift from a largely historical descriptive approach, which offered a particular analysis of the experience women had under state socialism, to a political programmatic approach, which provides a series of feminist ideas for engaging with what you see as fundamentally misogynistic elements of capitalism. Historical examples serve as a foundation and background, but the main focus is on pointing out what is wrong with our capitalist society in terms of gender norms and specifically cis-women’s position in the U.S. today. That in itself seems to me like a huge departure for someone who has built an academic career writing thoughtfully, but without such an overt political agenda, about communism and post-communism/neoliberalism in Eastern Europe. How did you get here and why did you take this leap?

KG: Yes, this was a huge leap for me, and I am still reeling from the decision. You lose so much control over your work when you leave the confines of academic publishing and dive into the world of journalism and trade books. You have no control over the titles or subheads or images that accompany your work, and you have to operate within strict word limits, without recourse to technical terminologies, and without references. For example, I had no idea that the New York Times was going to accompany the online version of the op-ed with a Stalin-era propaganda photo until the piece went live (the print version featured a photo from Alexanderplatz in East Berlin, which was much more appropriate). Later, I carefully crafted a short history column for a major U.S. newspaper, and spent a panicked hour trying to get them to change a misleading (but clickbaity) title and subtitle that had been added at the last minute. I get called by journalists with whom I speak for an hour or ninety minutes, carefully qualifying claims, and then they pull out what they want and run a 1500-word interview with me that removes all of the important qualifiers or includes incorrect transcriptions of direct quotes. You don’t get to see these interviews beforehand, and you have to chase down journalists to try to fix things only after they are already posted online. Then I see comments like, “I’m very uncomfortable with how Ghodsee presents her research to the public,” and I want to scream about how little control one has over this process, especially when, as you say, one has spent an entire career writing thoughtfully about a topic.

But the decision to write from an overt political point of view about contemporary capitalism was also a difficult one. Some of my mentors warned me that I would forever damage my academic reputation if I took this step, but I began to feel that the rules of engagement in academia were holding me hostage. The conventions of scholarly knowledge production seemed to require that I remain neutral in all aspects of my life, even when I had passionate feelings about was going on in the world around me. And I began to think a lot about academia and its complicity with neoliberalism and American imperialism. For instance, how many of my colleagues who uncritically uphold the totalitarian thesis have (directly or indirectly) supported Western political and economic expansion into Eastern Europe or perhaps personally received restituted properties after 1989? In the German context, for example, the journalist Daniela Dahn argues that contemporary debates about whether the GDR was a lawful or unlawful state (rechtsstaat oder unrechtsstaat) have a lot to do with the legitimacy of post-1990 property restitutions to the West German descendants of Nazis in East Berlin.

The truth is that the field of Russian and East European studies has always been incredibly polarized, as so well documented in David C. Engerman’s book, Know Your EnemyThe Rise and Fall of Americas Soviet Experts. Anthropology, too, was deeply divided by the demands of Cold War knowledge production and the needs of the U.S. military and intelligence establishments (see David Price’s excellent book, Cold War Anthropology). It has always been dangerous to have a critical view of U.S. foreign policy or to try to complicate or challenge the totalitarian thesis with regards to the Eastern Bloc, but these efforts have generally moved the field forward. There is a quote I love from Louis Menand’s 2010 book, The Marketplace of Ideas: “It is the academic’s job in a free society to serve the public culture by asking questions the public doesn’t want to ask, investigating subjects it cannot or will not investigate, and accommodating voices it fails or refuses to accommodate.” There is a long tradition of scholars, especially in the field of social history and cultural anthropology, that have been able to balance their political and intellectual lives. Unfortunately, the majority of them are men, so it is still a risky thing for a woman to do. But I think it needs to be done.

MB: You summarize your argument very clearly at the beginning: “Unregulated capitalism is bad for women, and if we adopt some ideas from socialism, women will have better lives.” The crucial word for me in this sentence is “unregulated.” Implicitly, it seems you suggest that the alternative to “unregulated capitalism” is “regulated capitalism,” and the most forceful examples of how that works in real life come from Scandinavia. You are careful to point out that those are small, homogenous countries, and those features play an important role in their success story with regulated capitalism. They don’t have a history of slavery, of imperialism, and were relatively sheltered from the genocidal destruction of the two world wars. Some might argue that these specific features render the Scandinavian countries not as models to follow, but rather outliers in the current globalized capitalist world. In thinking about real solutions to unregulated capitalism in a society that is not homogenous, not small, and where capitalism is imbricated with racism, imperialism, and global power grabbing, how do you make sense of these tensions?

KG: I have taught a class called “Sex and Socialism” since the spring of 2003, and for over fifteen years, I’ve been thinking a lot about the common antecedents of pro-women socialist policies both in the democratic socialist countries of Northern Europe and in the state socialist countries of Eastern Europe. Most people aren’t familiar with the ideas of the British and French Utopian Socialists (Robert Owen, Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, Flora Tristan, and arguably John Stuart Mill), of the German social democrats (August Bebel, Lily Braun, Clara Zetkin, etc.), or of the Russian Menshevik-turned-Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai. In various ways, they all discussed the impact that capitalism has on cis-gendered women and how the state needs to intervene to protect women’s interests and promote their emancipation. Some of them believed that capitalism could be reformed through regulation and others thought that it needed to be destroyed through revolution, but all agreed that some form of “socialism” was the goal. Even from the earliest days of socialist theory, everyone understood that it would look different in different places. If you look up the word “socialism” in the Oxford English Dictionary, it gives a broad definition of what it means:

“A theory or system of social organization based on state or collective ownership and regulation of the means of production, distribution, and exchange for the common benefit of all members of society; advocacy or practice of such a system, esp. as a political movement. Now also: any of various systems of liberal social democracy which retain a commitment to social justice and social reform, or feature some degree of state intervention in the running of the economy.”

It is the “now also” part of this definition that is interesting in the contemporary political moment with the ascendance of Senator Bernie Sanders and representatives Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib. The challenges of the 21st century are going to be very different from the challenges of the 19th or 20th centuries so these socialist policies are going to evolve and adapt to fit changing circumstances and national or post-national contexts. The goal of the book is to get young people to look back at the accomplishments and failures of pro-women socialist policies in both Scandinavia and Eastern Europe to see what might work in a very different context like the United States. For example, 30 percent of total employment in Norway is public employment, and the Norwegians have a huge sovereign wealth fund which owns 37 percent of the shares of the companies listed on the Oslo stock exchange. This allows them to support a generous social safety net, and both of these things could be done in the United States. No, America will never be Denmark, but we can certainly learn a thing or two from Denmark or Norway and think creatively about how certain kinds of policies might work in a country that is still “imbricated with racism, imperialism, and global power grabbing.” And it is not as if the United States hasn’t experimented with socialist policies in the past. During WWII, there was federally-funded childcare for women working in factories. During the New Deal we had an expansion of federal employment. We have certainly had higher marginal tax rates on the very wealthy and a larger social safety net. I think we need to think creatively about the future, and doing that means we learn the lessons of the past, even if this includes studying societies that are very different from our own.

Purchase Why Women Have Better Sex under Socialism and Other Arguments for Economic Independence on the Hatchette Book Group website here, or on Amazon here.

Kristen R. Ghodsee is an award-winning author and ethnographer who has spent the last thirty years studying the lived experiences of socialism and postsocialism in Eastern Europe. She has written seven books on everyday life and the social, political, and economic upheavals following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Her articles and essays have appeared in publications such as Foreign Affairs, Dissent, Jacobin Magazine, Transitions Online, Eurozine, Aeon, The World Policy Journal, The Lancet, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.

Maria Bucur-Deckard is an American-Romanian historian of modern Eastern Europe and gender in the twentieth century. She has written on the history of eugenics in Eastern Europe, memory and war in twentieth-century Romania, gender and modernism, and gender and citizenship. She teaches history and gender studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, where she holds the John W. Hill Professorship.

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