Elevate Difference

Women in Power in Post-Communist Parliaments

Reading the title of this book, Women in Power in Post-Communist Parliaments, one pictures Chancellor Angela Merckel standing alongside Presidents Obama and Medvedev. Then, East German women swimmers, intimidating and Frankenstein-esque, and hearty Russian farmers, resilient with scythes in hand march across the landscape of one's mind, all of them serious and dour in shades of grey and brown. As the vision morphs back into post-communist parliaments, Yulia Tymoshenko, the current Ukrainian prime minister, appears blonde and leather clad, sitting astride a motorcycle in campaign posters. The free-association, in a dance now, takes you to Russian mail-order-brides, flirtatious and malleable, then models tall and leggy. Aside from Merckel and Tymoshenko, there is little that is overtly useful to understanding women in power in post-communist parliaments.

By not focusing on the post-communist superstar, this book draws a nuanced picture of the various women serving as members of parliament in the post-communist era. Focusing on six countries, including East Germany (as integrated into Germany) and the Ukraine, all but one (Russia) are members of the European Union, and all but one (Russia again) presently appears to be making strides towards further liberalization.

The book is divided into two sections: the first section focuses on the research and the second on the people. Both sections are dry and difficult to read, but the second part provides a human component with the inclusion of interviews with, and essays by, the parliamentarians themselves. Because of its personal nature, the second section pushes you past the farmers and models. As the women describe their routes to parliament and their work there, they create an account of their experiences with and in power that is comparable to those of women in the West.

These women are not self-described feminists, and they deny that definition in the Western sense. Most of the women became involved in politics as a result of spousal or communal pressure, not of their own volition, and their political identification is one of party and not gender. Their work focuses on family issues of pensions, pay, daycare, and education. The female parliamentarians focus on feminine issues only when they do not interfere with the party line.

The women and their work are best summarized in the words of a female Bulgarian parliamentarian as “gender empowerment,” that it is in the interest of women to have women in parliament to air their views on social issues in what she describes as a sort of “enlightened self interest” drawing attention to the issues one can expect to win, and not wasting one’s breath and seeming hysterical. The dancing women will not be experiencing fainting spells, but they will also not be leading brazen charges.

Written by: Elisheva Zakheim, January 12th 2010
Tags: communism

Elisheva, that was an outstanding review; thanks for bringing the book to our attention. I'm intrigued by these ideas that you conveyed, especially the women parliamentarians who do not identity as feminists in the "western" sense but who are concerned about pensions, pay, daycare, and education, even though their experiences are comparable to those of women in the West. I loved your first paragraph . . . and the others. Thanks! Lawrence Hammar