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The non-feminist women advocates of the Eastern bloc

Second World, Second Sex. Socialist Women's Activism and Global Solidarity during the Cold War
Forfatter: Kristen Ghodsee
Forlag: Duke University Press (USA)
WOMEN'S MATCH / American liberal feminists love to hate Kristen Ghodsee, who rewrites the history of the women's struggle from an Eastern bloc perspective.


Once upon a time, women from the state socialist countries were pioneers under UN auspices – and it is not least we can thank for the international agreements that (at least formally) protect women's rights globally. This is what ethnographer Kristen Ghodsee argues for in her new book Second World, Second Sex. Socialist Women's Activism and Global Solidarity during the Cold War, there is an attempt to re-enroll the East Bloc women in feminist history.

Ghodsee has previously noted himself with titles such as Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism, where she analyzes capitalism's inherent women's oppression, and The Left Side of History, where she spotlights personalities such as Bulgarian Elena Lagadinova, one of history's youngest female anti-Nazis. The fact that she writes feminist history from a state socialist – but not apologetic – point of view has made Ghodsee a favorite shooter for American liberal feminists in particular, such as Nanette Funk, who has called Ghodsee "feminist revisionist".

Once upon a time, women from the state socialist countries were pioneers under UN auspices.

I Second World, Second Sex Ghodsee goes directly into this conflict zone by showing how liberal feminists in the West, especially the United States, have actively sought to disentangle the great role women of the former Soviet Allies, including countries in the global South, played in the project to get women's rights on the UN agenda in the second half of the 20th century.

The winners write the story

Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova.

Among Ghodsee's focal characters is Valentina Tereshkova – the first woman in the room – to lead the Soviet delegation to the UN conferences at which The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was prepared; Elena Lagadinova, who as a teenager fought against the Nazi-allied monarchy in Bulgaria and later led the Bulgarian delegation to the UN Women's Conferences in 1975 and 1985; and Chibesa Kankasa, an anti-colonial heroine from Zambia, as well as her compatriot Lily Monze, who both became leaders in the independent Zambian government and were central to the cooperation of women in what was called the Second and Third Worlds during the Cold War.

"Tereshkova, Lagadinova, Kankasa and Monze were all advocates of various forms of socialism, and without these women – and their total opposition to the official delegations of the United States and its Western allies – the issue of women's rights would never have caught the attention of male politicians, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, "Ghodsee writes, adding:" But by 1995, their legacy was already being eroded by history. "

1995 was the year in which the fourth UN Women's Conference took place (in Beijing). However, it was the first women's conference after the fall of the Wall, and Western liberal feminists who had never managed to bridge women on the other side of the Iron Curtain – and who could not imagine working for a state socialist project and being an independent woman with her own opinions and agenda – had been given every opportunity to marginalize their anti-capitalist sisters.

For US delegates to the UN Women's Conference in Mexico City 1975, it was forbidden to
talk to women from the Soviet Union and its allies.

"By darkening the contributions of Eastern European women and socialist women from developing countries, it has become possible to write a definite story of the United Nations women's decade, a story that gives credit to Western women and independent social movements," Ghodsee writes.

Non-feminist women advocates

The first part of Second World, Second Sex is a historical sketch showing how the state socialist pioneers in women's material and legal rights – not because the male rulers were necessarily more progressive than in the Western capitalist economies, but because it fit into the industrialization plans to get women into the labor market in a speed. In addition, Ghodsee shows that strong women in the USSR and allied countries such as Bulgaria and several African states with different forms of (authoritarian) socialism played a crucial role in the exercise of government. How it went about – and with what effects, even in the present – is about the rest of the book.

These women were not usually called feminists, and many even thought that "feminism" was a bourgeois disparity. This ideological divide between women advocates east and west of the later Iron Curtain came to block common women's footprints in the early 20th century.

So did the aggressive anti-communist line on the part of Western governments. Among other things, it was forbidden for US delegates to the UN Women Conference in Mexico City 1975 to talk to women from the Soviet Union and its allies.


Ghodsee argues that while women from the Western delegations were preoccupied with symbolic recognition of women's equality and the right to individual emancipation and self-realization, women from the second and third worlds were preoccupied with economic rights and redistribution policy. Including redistribution globally.

Women from the Eastern Bloc and from the Global South formed alliances to put issues of development, colonialism, apartheid, imperialism and a so-called New International Economic Order on the agenda of the UN. It was, of course, inedible to the Western delegations – although there were plenty of socialist and anti-imperialist feminists in the West back then, Ghodsee points out.

Her presentation is, on the whole, balanced, nuanced, empirically well-founded, and both courageously and peacefully written. Attempting to be written off as a "revisionist" by Ghodsee says everything about anti-communism remains such a powerful force that it blurs historical realities – in this case, the story of how women's rights became a global agenda.

Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen
Trige Andersen is a freelance journalist and historian.

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