Short Teaching Module: Women in Romania
Using oral histories, this case study explores various aspects of women’s daily lives in Communist Romania and women’s attitudes toward the changes wrought by the transformation to a pluralist system and to a market economy after the collapse of the regime in December 1989.
This short teaching module includes a guide to a multi-class unit containing discussion questions, common student responses, and suggestions for incorporating the six primary sources.
This case study explores various aspects of women’s daily lives in Communist Romania and women’s attitudes toward the changes wrought by the transformation to a pluralist system and to a market economy after the collapse of the regime in December 1989. The primary sources I use are excerpts from oral history interviews with women in Romania. They provide my students with a personalized and complex portrait of the political, social, and economic changes that occurred in Romania during both the Communist and post-Communist periods. As it is impossible to understand women’s attitudes toward the post-1989 period without also exploring the varied ways that Communism shaped their lives, a good part of this unit focuses on the Communist period.
Conventional accounts of the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe typically focus on the corruption of politics and the failing command economy or on the contributions of a select group of individuals, usually male dissidents, in challenging the Communist system. As a result, in most European history courses the ways in which ordinary men and women experienced Communism and the transition to post-Communism in their daily lives receives little attention. In cases where women are the subject of historical investigation, they are often presented as oppressed and unfulfilled, subject to the dictates of both the repressive state and insensitive husbands. This is especially true of accounts of Communist Romania, where Nicolae Ceauşescu’s pro-natalist program essentially abolished women’s reproductive freedom. As a result of these factors, women’s positive experiences of life under Communism, as well as the woman-friendly social welfare policies offered by the Communist state, are often obscured from accounts of women in Communist Eastern Europe. By examining some of the practical benefits that the Communist state offered women and families—from guaranteed work to state subsidized vacations—and by focusing on women’s own perceptions, this unit explores the Communist and post-Communist periods “from below,” that is, through ordinary individuals’ daily lives. In so doing it not only offers a personalized portrait of life under Communism but also encourages students to reassess stereotypes regarding the “evils” of Communism and to think critically about the goals and contradictions of state policy—both in Communist and non-Communist contexts. Finally, by focusing on both the positive and negative aspects of Communism and analyzing them alongside the massive social, economic, and political changes that have occurred since 1989, students can theorize about why some individuals are seemingly nostalgic for Communism.
I teach this unit in both my Modern Europe and my 20th Century Eastern Europe courses as a part of the broader topic of Cold War and post-Cold War Europe. The unit requires two class periods and is designed to follow units focusing on postwar Western Europe, though it is also well suited for a survey on course on 20th Century European history. In preparation for the unit students read a chapter on the rise and fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and on the post-Communist transition.
I begin the unit by asking students to define Communism and the Cold War. What are our perceptions and assumptions about life “over there?” How do they compare with our perceptions of life in the United States? Why do we hold these assumptions and perceptions? What caused the Cold War? When did it end and who won it? Why? I then encourage students to think about what this narrative of Communism and the Cold War tells us. This discussion gradually develops into a broader conversation about the significance of Communism and Democracy in the shaping of the twentieth century. Students begin to question the meanings of these ideologies and deconstruct stereotypes surrounding the East versus the West, and the Communism versus democracy dichotomy. By openly discussing preconceived notions about the Soviet bloc and reevaluating them with reference to Cold War politics, students come to appreciate how our understanding of the region has been shaped by broader geopolitical forces and tend to approach the topic with a greater degree of openness.
I follow this conversation with a brief refresher on Communist theory, specifically the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Because I have already spent time on Communist theory earlier in the semester I don’t go into great detail here. I then discuss Communist theory on women, stressing that under Communism women’s emancipation was to be achieved through women’s equal participation in the labor force and through their “liberation” from the domestic sphere. I then lecture on the Sovietization of Eastern Europe, focusing on politics and domestic and foreign policy, the command economy, Communist culture and propaganda, and women, youth and everyday life. In this way I can highlight both the major events that occurred in this region, such as the Thaw, the 1956 revolution in Hungary, the Prague Spring, and the Solidarity movement, some of the major policy initiatives of Communist regimes such as universal education, health care and guaranteed employment (highlighting their benefits as well as shortcomings), and what might be considered the more banal ones such as work, family life, leisure, and schooling.
Because my sources deal specifically with the Romanian case, I stress the way in which policies in Romania were both similar to and different from other countries in Communist Eastern Europe during the period. In terms of gender, in all countries throughout the region women enjoyed the same legal and civic rights as men (free and universal education, health care, guaranteed employment and subsidized vacations and housing) and comprised over 40 percent of the labor force. During this part of the lecture I show them some images from the women’s communist party monthly magazine Femeia [The Woman]). At the same time, however, women tended to dominate low-skilled jobs and certain professions such as medicine and teaching, and, on average, earned less than men. Because of their biological differences with men, women were often subject to protective legislation at work. At this point I stress that these features characterized women’s employment in non-Communist, Western countries as well.
After Nicoale Ceauşescu’s assumption of power women in Romania were denied the legal right to abortion in 1966 through Decree 770 and faced fines and imprisonment if they had an abortion. I stress that this draconian policy was accompanied by a general repressiveness, including the brutal crushing of a workers strike in 1977 and of a revolt in Braşov in 1987, arbitrary arrests, and the rationing of food, electricity, heat, and other consumer goods during the 1980, all of which played a part in the eventual overthrow of the Ceauşescu regime and the bloody revolution of December 1989. In my discussion of Ceauşescu’s pro-natalist policies I stress that abortion was also restricted or criminalized during the 20th century in countries in the West; however, I emphasize that in Romania these policies were particularly repressive—making comparisons with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. I also talk about their human cost, including maternal deaths and an increase in the number of orphans. I point out that because no independent feminist organizations existed in Communist states (since independent organizing was illegal and typically led to arrest or some type of punishment) women did not have the same opportunity to develop a collective feminist consciousness or the freedom to protest this policy as they would have under a pluralist system in which civil society plays an important role. Thus, there was no “March on Bucharest” against state curtailment of reproductive freedom. However, at the same time I emphasize that women found ways of getting around these policies. Thus I stress that even under a dictatorial regime individuals found room and opportunities, however meager, to resist or subvert the dictates of the state.
Having set up the context for the primary sources, I assign selections of oral histories for homework. These selections are grouped under different headings (work, marital relations, leisure, motherhood, attitudes toward the 1989 revolution, and transition to Communism). I tell students that the interviews were conducted in 2003, when over 60 percent of Romanians were living below the poverty level and consumer goods such as food and clothing, and utilities such as heat and electricity consumed nearly all—and in some cases more than—the average monthly wage. I also talk about the rise of unemployment due to the closure of factories, a development which affected women more than men as women were forced into early retirement, the rise of exclusionary nationalism, and the political clientism and corruption which characterized much of the 1990s in Romania.
During the second day of this unit my students get into small groups and analyze the oral histories. I provide them with the following questions to guide them in their analyses:
- Who is the author of this piece? What is her age, occupation, and current employment status? Is she married and does she have children?
- What is the overall meaning/message of the excerpt? What does this tell us about politics, the economy, and daily life in socialist and post-socialist Romania?
- To what degree might the subject’s recollection of the past be shaped by present problems and concerns?
- What are the potential problems/limitations associated with using oral history for understanding life in socialist and post-socialist Romania? What are the benefits?
- How has reading these oral histories impacted your understanding of life under state socialism, the revolution of 1989, and the transition to democracy?
After analyzing the sources in groups the class reconvenes to talk about them. We begin by talking about what life was like for women during the Communist period. This part of our conversation typically begins with a discussion of women's experiences of work and marriage and some of the difficulties they faced with their male colleagues and husbands. Many students were impressed by women’s perseverance at work and their strong work ethic, and some expressed shock over the harassment women faced by their male colleagues. We then talk about the irony of sexism existing in a state in which men and women were supposedly equal, which usually turns into a debate about the shaping of behavior and attitudes. Can a state mandate particular behavioral and attitudinal codes? Or is this the responsibility of the family and/or teachers? At this point I ask them about feminism. Questions include: What is feminism and where does it come from? Is it a state or grassroots initiative? Can a state be feminist, and if so how? Can people be taught to be feminist, or does one become a feminist as a result of personal experiences? What policies in the United States might we consider feminist? These questions usually produce a lively and sometimes heated, yet thoughtful discussion that really gets students thinking about the purpose, impact, and ambiguities of state policies.
One thing my students have been most struck by is how Communist policies toward women in Romania could be simultaneously repressive and inhumane and progressive and beneficial. In particular, students have difficulty reconciling how some women’s lives could have been better during the Communist period, since the harsh pro-natalist policies introduced in 1966 and the difficulties women faced in procuring food and more generally raising children during the period of intense rationing in the 1980s, made daily life a seemingly constant struggle. At this point I have them compare some of the policies of Communist Romania with the United States. In particular we talk about maternity/family leave, the educational system, and health care in these two countries.
A good deal of the discussion is also devoted to the post-1989 period and the disappointments some women have experienced during the transition to a democratic system and free market economy. In particular we talk about how rising inflation and unemployment have made the many consumer goods now on offer in stores inaccessible to many. I highlight how many of the benefits guaranteed to women under Communism in Romania have been scaled back with the transition to democratic and capitalist systems. At this point I make comparisons with other post-Communist countries in the region so that students can appreciate the national and regional differences.
Typically my students express sympathy for my subjects who are having difficulties procuring enough food for their families since they faced such difficulties in the 1980s under Ceauşescu. When considered from this perspective they come to understand how and why Communism was meaningful for some women and how they are able to overlook the more repressive aspects of life under state Socialism when reflecting on how their lives were prior to 1989. This often triggers a discussion of how notions such as freedom and quality of life are highly subjective and contextual rather than objective and universal. I ask them, what is more important: freedom of speech or guaranteed employment and health care? If you had to choose between one or the other, which would you choose and why? How do particular circumstances affect how you define rights and needs? Ideally, students emerge from this unit with a better understanding of how systems of government and state policy shape individuals’ lives—at times in rather surprising ways. They also come to appreciate the relationship between gender and policy, how state policy is gendered, and how state policy impacts men and women differently.
In this collection of oral histories from Romania, subjects “R,” “I,” “M,” “E,” and “N” talk about their experiences of work during the socialist period. Although “R” and “M” worked in male-dominated fields and faced harassment by their male colleagues, “M” was able to overcome these difficulties by playing the role of the oddball woman. Meanwhile, “I” reflects on how ordered her life was during the socialist period, stressing that a strong work ethic, rather than the political system, constitutes a good life. Finally, “N” and “E” focus on the issue of equality between men and women under socialism.
To view the associated Teaching Case Study, click here.
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