Last week, I had the privilege to talk with Dr. Kristen R. Ghodsee
about her most recent book Second World, Second Sex: Socialist Women's Activism and Global Solidarity during the Cold War
(Duke University Press, 2019) and the behind-the-scene details of its making. Ghodsee is a professor in Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and an author of nine books and many more articles and essays.
Second World, Second Sex
addresses a telling gap in the historiography of women rights movements – the contributions of the Second World women rights activists. While careful not to idealize the socialist authoritarian regimes, Ghodsee reveals how deeply problematic and unfair it is to define feminism based on Western-inspired definitions of self-fulfillment or grassroot activism and to dismiss the achievements of women’s state organizations in the Eastern bloc as top-down policies and socialist propaganda.
Aiming to retell the UN Decade for Women from a non-Western perspective, this book follows the participation of the Bulgarian and Zambian delegations in the international conferences in Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980) and Nairobi (1985). The author makes use of a painstaking multi-site archival research and compassionate oral histories, to reconstruct the conferences and their context of arduous preparations and ideological tensions. The book’s approach to the conferences is very factual but also offers a lot of context, which helps the reader to better understand the main points of conflict between the Western delegates and the delegates from the developing and non-aligning countries. Ironically, what was rebranded in the 1990’s as “intersectionality” was the main argument of the state socialist women activists much earlier, namely, that the discussions of women’s rights separately from other social injustices such as racism, imperialism and colonialism are ultimately futile.
Curiously enough, Ghodsee’s comparative overview of the state of women’s rights before the UN Decade reveals that socialist states were forerunners of women’s rights with generous maternal leaves and state-run childcare among others. Moreover, the author reminds us, that the US government’s attention to women’s issues in the 1960s was actually a direct response to the threat coming from the USSR where women’s brains and forces were put into service of the rivalry with the West.
Thus, in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War, Ghodsee sees the current political and cultural hegemony of the West as rather disadvantageous in terms of women’s rights. There is no rivalry to push governments to do better and women remaining in the periphery hardly benefit from having equal access to the free market in their crime-ridden and economically dependent from the West countries with dismantled welfare systems.
Marina Kadriu is an international MA student in Anthropology at Simon Fraser University.