Feminism vs. Femininity in Russia was the theme of an on-air discussion in which one renowned radio station recently invited me to participate. I agreed and yet... What an odd topic, I thought to myself. Femininity is an essential part of being a woman — who'd argue about that? As far as feminism, - the concept seemed to me so hopelessly passe, a headline from the late 1960s and 1970s, when in the sexual revolution-infected Western world women's issues once again began to be a hot topic.
Curiously, I felt slightly embarrassed to even be talking about this. I realized the very word "feminism" makes me shudder. I know I am not alone — feminism is not the notion many, if not the majority of Russian women, would wish to identify with. But I still wonder why. Equal pay for equal work, equal rights and equal opportunities for both genders — really, who'd object to these key feminist principles? Take the Scandinavian countries with their "women-friendly" welfare state regimes. Despite feminism being solidly rooted over there, many in Russia consider that part of the world a snowy Eldorado. I have visited those countries several times, reporting for Marie Claire magazine on the Perfect Scandinavian Family, boasting the world's longest paid parental leaves and other social benefits. I will never forget the afternoon I spent at the home daddy's club in Stockholm's suburbs, profiling a few stay-at-home fathers, one of them a diplomat and another - a lawyer, both on paternity leave. It was one of the few times I cried while on assignment — the tenderness with which these robust 6 feet-tall guys cared for their infant children touched me to the core. And when the article came out, I got numerous letters from readers, some women asking if I knew any single Swedish guys they could marry.
Even so, all this has little to do with feminism — at least in Russians' minds. I've got a number of foreign girlfriends who vehemently support the movement's values — some openly call themselves "feminists," but I don't know a single Russian woman who'd dare to do so. When asked how they felt about feminism, some of my accomplished Russian girlfriends brought up the 1960s-era bra-burning female activists (even though scholars claim the bra-burning never actually happened), American sexual harassment mass hysteria and other cliched images.
"All I can imagine is a bunch of really unattractive women, with greasy hair, beards and unshaved legs, claiming to be feminists out of mere desperation, because no man would want to be with them," one woman, a successful online journalist, confessed.
"In theory, feminist ideas sound good but the way their ambassadors expressed them is just disgusting. What they seemed to have been fighting for was to get the right to act like men, which is completely unnatural," a close friend of mine who is manager at the oil and gas corporation and a mother of two, said. "Feminism might be a reaction to male chauvinism, but both are extremes," another intelligent woman, a government consultant, noted.
But these answers didn't surprise me much. It could be that Russian women were forced to become feminists a long time ago, without having been asked if they really wanted it. We have been endowed with many rights, or rather — duties, at birth, — abundantly, and now we are resisting the pressure. Romanticizing a super-potent pain- and danger-enduring Russian woman dates back to 19th century Russian poetry. In 1910s, right after the Revolution, gender equality was put to action. And as the wars and the Soviet regime’s repressions took more and more male lives, women began to lead for real, driven much more often by a mere survival instinct rather than by heart's calling. Staying home for many wasn't even an option - the inefficient Soviet economy required two breadwinners.
Some call the modern Russian culture with its defined gender roles patriarchal, even chauvinistic. Perhaps it's not so far from the truth. Still, chauvinists exist in every culture, even the most progressive ones, it often happens to be just a question of class and education. Perhaps Russian women's overstated femininity is a backlash from the recent Soviet era when such basics as toiletries and clothing were unavailable to women.
Perhaps this will change a couple generations forward, as we integrate more into the West and females start craving more "space" and independence. Feminist ideas are indeed surprisingly vital — they flourish in cycles, responding to societies' needs at certain moments in history. (The first feminists, the one-breasted men-hating female warriors Amazons inhabited ancient Greek myths.) And perhaps in today's Russia, we should be worrying more about basic human rights and civil liberties, whereas women's rights don't seem much of an issue.
Meanwhile we want to be given flowers (on the first date, and on the second and the third, and for no particular reason at all, not just for the International Women's Day, this bizarre feminist holiday). We don't really mind our coats to be handed to us (not only by our boyfriends but by all men), doors held open, bags carried and dinners paid for.
We want to be spoiled — anything wrong about that?
Russia has always been referred to as feminine and Russian women have been one of the most popular stereotypes of this nation, both positive and negative. But is this an all-male fantasy? Here is a hip, modern, professional and increasingly globalized Russian woman looking at the trends around her, both about her gender and the society at large. She talks and lets other women talk.
Svetlana Kolchik, 33, is deputy editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Marie Claire magazine. She holds degrees from the Moscow State University Journalism Department and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked for Argumenty i Fakty weekly in Moscow and USA Today in Washington, D.C., and contributed to RussiaProfile.org, Russian editions of Vogue, Forbes and other publications.