Second World, Second Sex

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Kristen Ghodsee documents the lost history of activism of women from Eastern bloc countries, specifically focussing on Bulgaria, within the United Nations Decade of Women 1975-1985. The links made by Eastern European activists with newly independent African nations challenged the hegemony of a Western or neoliberal capitalist vision of women’s emancipation. By sketching out this lost history Ghodsee attempts to draw conclusions about the legacy of “state socialism”, feminism and clash of ideologies during the Cold War. She argues that the global women’s movement was richer for having a space opened up for links to be made between women’s oppression and capitalism.

The first half of the book outlines the historical run up to the United Nations Decade of Women within the countries that would be the major players. After the Second World War and the communist coup of 1944 backed by the Red Army, Bulgaria entered into a period of rapid industrialisation that transformed what was previously a mostly agrarian country. Within a generation women in Bulgaria seemingly made huge gains to become an important part of the workforce supported by the state.

Conversely, in the US, the state was attempting to return women to the domestic realm following their involvement in the workforce because of labour shortages during the Second World War. During the 70s when women’s movements were once again on the rise. The state chose to give support to a conservative vision of women’s emancipation called “responsible feminism” where women could work but were equally responsible for holding together a nuclear family.

The stronger parts of the book are when Ghodsee outlines the interesting tussle between the propaganda machines of the USSR and an American vision of women’s liberation. Both wanting to broadcast that their political and economic system as better for the world’s women. Socialists critical of a Stalinist state capitalist vision of socialism will find much to disagree with in Ghodsee’s analysis of the women’s movement caught between socialism and capitalism. However, the comparison is handled with considerable nuance by including perspectives from African activists in the UN at the time. However, by avoiding discussing the material realities of women within the Soviet Union and focussing on a “softer” less authoritarian Eastern bloc country such as Bulgaria Ghodsee neatly sidesteps the problematic legacy of Stalinist policy on the women in the USSR.

The second half of the book is weaker in that it attempts to dramatise the political manoeuvres of delegations to the United Nations women’s conferences of 1975, 1980 and 1985 and what was required to pass various motions and declarations but Ghodsee’s prose contains little to excite and these chapters drag.

The book is ambitious in its outlook and its arguments. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the transition to capitalism in these former Eastern bloc countries leaves much of the world with only a Western dominated neoliberal understanding of women’s equality. What is really being discussed is two different types of liberation from above — one focussed on state intervention and the other on individual liberation both of which were prioritised by Bulgaria and the United States respectively because they fit with larger political goals. Neither of these perspectives contain the answers for how women are to achieve true liberation and equality. Only when women and men take their liberation into their own hands by defeating capitalism and replacing it with a truly democratic society run by workers, both women and men, will the women of the world be truly free.