On March 8th, mothers, daughters, wives, and girlfriends around the world will be showered with tokens of adoration in celebration of International Women’s Day. Although this holiday has become something of a Valentine’s/Mother’s Day hybrid in many regions, it originated as a Socialist political event in countries of the former Soviet bloc. In honor of Women’s Day, I would like to dedicate this post to the remarkable women in Russian and Jewish culture.
Acclaimed Russian writer Tatyana Tolstaya wrote in 1990 that “Russian writers and thinkers have often called the ‘Russian soul’ female, contrasting it to the rational, clean, dry, active, well-defined soul of the Western man” (from her book of collected essays, Pushkin’s Children). Tolstaya depicts Russian mothers as strong and authoritative, playing into the culture’s matriarchal ideology. In the Soviet period, the homeland was often referred to as rodina mat’, which translates roughly to “mother homeland.” When I think of this term I picture the enormous statue “Mother Motherland” in Kiev, of a majestic woman casting a sword and shield bearing the Soviet emblem to the sky, towering over passersby at a staggering height of over 200 feet.
In Soviet times, women were expected to juggle the responsibilities of motherhood with a career, as it was incredibly difficult to live off a husband’s salary alone. In the 1960s, not having a job that was recognized by the state (i.e., “parasitism”) was outlawed. Thus the Western stereotype of the “bored housewife” or “stay-at-home mom” was not particularly relevant. These social and cultural obligations, coupled with the traditional Jewish stereotype of overbearing mother/assertive wife, cultivated generations of Russian-Jewish women who are tough, demanding, and can also cook a mean pot of borscht (or matzo ball soup, as it were). For those curious as to how this role can be hilariously satirized, check out this YouTube clip parodying a “typical” Brighton Beach grandmother, created by two good-humored young locals (my apologies to the non-Russian speakers out there).
More recently, women have been making headlines in the former Soviet republics by championing feminist initiatives. The Ukraine-based feminist protest group FEMEN has staged brazen topless protests in public arenas on a variety of issues, most notably concerning sexual tourism and female exploitation worldwide. FEMEN’s tactics are similar to SlutWalks in the U.S. where protesters rebuke the idea that what a woman wears makes her a mark for rape.
Another group of noteworthy young feminists in Russia are the members of the punk-rock collective Pussy Riot, a sort of Russian offshoot of the third-wave feminist Riot Grrrl movement. These ladies have openly (and illegally) protested the corrupt regime under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin leadership. Jewish women have also made great strides in feminism over the years: philosopher and feminist theorist Judith Butler, for instance, has tremendously influenced the field of gender studies.
Notions of feminism certainly vary from culture to culture. I remember hearing one Russian woman proclaim that “I am a feminist, but not like an American feminist. I care about how I look.” This statement stunned me at first, but then I conceded that my reaction was wrong. Individual approaches are not what will make or break the longstanding struggle toward gender equity. Rather, it is the collective, transcultural recognition of female strength and power, that will finally provide our mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, and girlfriends with the respect and opportunities they deserve.
So on that note, happy International Women’s Day.
Samantha Shokin, 22, is a senior at N.Y.U. Gallatin, concentrating in literary journalism. She was born in New York City and lives in Brooklyn with her mother and father, who emigrated from Ukraine and Lithuania, respectively.