What Women got from Change: Interview with Mihaela Miroiu

Mihaela Miroiu (born in 1955), Professor at the National University of Political and Administrative Studies Bucharest, is one of the most important feminist scholars in the Eastern Europe. She initiated the first courses of Gender Studies in Romania, contributed to the feminism activism movement and published noumerous volumes on feminist ethics and philosophy. In the most famous book of her, “The road to autonomy. Feminist Political Theories”, she expounds the historical evolution of feminism and feminist political theories and most important, she explores the developments of gender policies in the context of communism and post-communism.

Irina Ilisei: What did the time of transition mean for the Romanian women?

Mihaela Miroiu: If we’re talking about a transition as a passage to something new, namely to a western type of society, a liberal-capitalist democracy, then we are talking about the 2000-2006 period. Thus, if since December 2000 we began the accession to the EU process, the whole 2000-2006 is a period of transition in itself. So we have a post-communist transition and a transition towards EU accession. That makes two transitions. Different things happened in these two transitions.

The post-communist transition meant the following things for women: First, the idea of gender equality, once promoted by communism, completely collapsed. Right after the fall of the communist regime the political representation of women declined to 3.5% at national level and 1.6% at local level. Therefore, politically speaking, women became completely unimportant and their interests weren’t represented.

What did the economic changes mean for women in contrast to men?

With the fall of the communist industry, specifically the state industry, the whole social network related to it collapsed too:  the nurseries and kindergartens which belonged to the industry. This meant, most of the nurseries and kindergartens closed. The state’s support in children’s upbringing fell through. On the other hand, in terms of job loss, the collapse of the so-called “heavy industries” like mining, smelting, machinery, oil refining affected mainly men. Mihaela Miroiu:

The industries in which women worked, the “light industries”, like food and textile industries, as well as commerce and tourism which were dominated by women, were privatized. Therefore, women’s adjustment to the market economy was faster than that of men. Practically speaking, in this first decade, those who created that massive GDP were women. The GDP that women produced was then redistributed as unemployment benefits, compensatory leaves etc. to the men from the heavy industries. The women contributed to the GDP and earned money, their money were taken and redistributed to those affected by deindustrialization. Thus, they did not lose jobs or status, but they lost money. This is where the financial imbalance between women and men began.

You mentioned the low representation of women in politics. How was that felt in practice?

Politically, women were alone, not represented. Along with the transition towards market, the trade unions disappeared and their interests were simply not taken into account. As a result, women had no protection from any trade union whatsoever. The feminist organizations emerged later and they did not appear in order to intervene in the socio-political life of women but rather in their education, their emancipation, the civil rights, this whole process that, intellectually speaking, mostly took place in the ‘70s. At an intellectual, civic and political level, there were some attempts at creating a form of support such as the “222” group for political equality in the Romanian Parliament. There were certain programs designed to help them, mostly made by the UN. Later the first feminist organizations emerged and women’s organizations began to develop, but this whole movement did not, in fact, impact their political status and interests.

As a result, what we discovered from research, was a patriarchy-concept rooted in the minds of the people deeper than we ever thought. This is because in communism, in terms of private relations, nobody tried to change it. And after the fall of the communist regime the church remained as the most influential institution strongly supporting the re-legitimization of the traditional patriarchate. So this is what the women got: all they won was a lighter transition towards market economy.

Did the average women feel frustrated realizing that along with the transition they have lost the kind of equality that they were somehow having during the communism?

I think the main frustration – based on the researches I have conducted especially in deindustrialized areas – was that their men did not work anymore or that their men entered a huge work crisis and even an identity crisis, that what later  lead to excessive mortality. Usually, when women loose work places, they don’t manifest extreme identity crises because their identity doesn’t revolve exclusively around professional identity in an “I either have that job or I’m nothing” sort of way. This was not a win for women but a loss for men compared to women.

The second source of frustratuion, according to my research, was the rather conflictual and merciless way of making politics – as women felt it.  This alienated them from the world of politics from a moral point of view.

They considered that as long as politics can’t take a more cooperative and ethical form, they have nothing to do there. In a way, from all I have seen, women would be more ready for a stage of consolidated democracy than men through their male representatives. Sure, another frustrating issue is the already mentioned absence of support in children’s upbringing. What was there, was mostly private and pretty expensive.

What are the differences that you notice between the different generations of women –   those socialized in the communist era and the younger ones who were socialized in the transitional period?

Now I will be talking specifically about a study which included 101 women from both urban and rural areas of the Hunedoara county, part of three main generations: one generation which we have called the “communist generation”, the one which lived most of its live under the communist regime, that’s my mother’s generation; the “transitional generation”, which is my generation; and, finally, the “generation of democracy” [those who lived only few years of childhood under the communism].

The Communist Generation: Greatfulness for Urban Development and Education

We worked with research concerning all three generations and we noticed the differences between them. The communist generation was somehow pleased with communism and the main satisfaction was the fact that they had access to education, housing provided by the state and services. Generally, because 80% of Romania’s population lived in the rural areas, they had little access to education [bevore]. They were very happy with the possibility of getting an education. They consider this to be the single most important benefit they got during the communist era.

In Romania, women weren’t economically dependent on men as the have always worked shoulder to shoulder to men: both in the non-monetary peasant economy and later when they all got a job in the communist economy. It took equally peasant women and peasant men equally and built an industry with all of them. So in this sense, the main reasons for their gratitude were education and the urban lifestyle.

The Transition Generation: The Change Maker who see nothing good in Communism

For the generation of their daughters, education and the urban lifestyle were natural things. Now the gratitude towards the regime is gone completely, because this broad access was already granted. This is where the frustration emerged from, as the majority of them lived their youth in the ‘80s, with the general state of shortage, the economic crisis,  the consequences of Decree 660 (which forbade abortions), the complete absence of contraceptive methods and general a deep frustration with the state –  given the fact that the majority of the population was now pretty well educated. This is the generation which found nothing good in the past.

On the other hand, it was the generation which had to make the first great transition. Most of these women had to become some kind of ‘Jill of all trades’, to be both the men and women. A woman must be able to support a family mostly on her own, since her husband is now unemployed and she has to work double, even triple shift to be able to make ends meet. On top of all that, one must change and learn new skills in order to keep up with the world in which they lived. In my opinion, it was a generation with a high endurance and a great capacity to adapt. For good or for bad, everything that has substantially changed in Romania [in the transition time until the EU-access] has done so because of the people in this generation.

The Democracy Generation: Nostalgia and Desinterest in the Rights Achieved

And then there’s the next generation – having nothing to do with communism or being 2, 3 or 4 years old when the regime fell –  who thinks that life was pretty good back then because the state gave you a job and a house. There are all kinds of mythologies. If you ask me, I’d say: “If the state, after you graduate from univeristy would send you to the Pocreaca village [middle of nowhere] where there wasn’t even a train, would put that address on your ID and you were kept in that village like a prisoner with no house, no train and no possibility of leaving, was it better that they gave you a work place?” It’s all these illusions regarding what communism actually was.

But this is not what concerns me the most. What concerns me is the answer to the question: “If your husband would have earned enough so as you wouldn’t have to work too, would you have stayed home?” The answer of those in the communist generation and the transitional generation was a firm “no”. They couldn’t even imagine not being independent. On the other hand, many of those in the young generation answered “yes”. What struck me was a feeling of a backwards step in terms of emancipation.

How is it possible for the generation of their grandmothers and mothers to be so strongly independent while their (grand)daughters would willingly accept a state of dependence because it’s “trendy” or because it is a cultural model which they got from the fiction of some glossy magazine. I never quite understood this.

Of course, it is a very interesting generation from other points of view, but a generation which seemed less interested in politics, less involved in civic matters and with a tendency towards abandonment and dependency. This situation had both surprised and saddened me. I was used to the women in my generation, women who were strong, independent, autonomous, which involve others in the process of emancipation, which can’t even imagine not being independent. Back then, mothers and grandmothers were like that and most of them would choose that path. When you belong to certain groups where the need for liberation, for being yourself and being autonomous is strong, depending on a man wouldn’t cross your mind, but when you’re not part of such groups and you’re only connected to such channels which promote the Barbie model, or even luxury prostitution, the woman who managed to get her hands on a wealthy man appears to be the epitome of success.

Do you believe that the transition process in Romania is over?

Yes, I think it’s over and it came to an end in 2016 like it wouldn’t have considered it to be over in 2015. When you see what happened in 2016 in the old consolidated democracies and what foolish election choices were made by the people supposed to have a strong democratic political culture, like in the United States of America or in the oldest European democracy, namely the Great Britain, you start wondering where does Romania stand. And I want to say that as long as in 2016 Romanians did not elect extremist politicians. In terms of democracy, Romania looked a lot better in 2016 than many consolidated democracies.

Regarding the GDP, of course, we have a big historical discrepancy which cannot be overcome in a very short period of time, but which is not as big as it was 5 years ago or 10 years ago. I think we can safely say that Romania has a historical delay and has a hard time catching up but it now finds itself in the best situation possible in all its history.

So if we compare Romania now to its history and the Romanian democracy to other democracies right now, I am not pessimistic about it. On the contrary!

There’s another important thing about democracy:  Romania had the most tyrannical communist regime in the Eastern Europe apart from Albania. It seems that our memory on authoritarianism is still vivid enough to allow us to have the antidote and to be very precautious when it comes to such matters.

What about the backwards steps on democracy that are made nowadays in Romania? Say, the attempts of restricting abortions, these being one of the main gain after the communist fall?

During the communism abortions were forbidden and contraception was restricted, this lead to over 10.000 women who died trying to have ‘illegal’ abortions.

First of all, from my point of view, any kind of criminalization or other ways of taking away freedom of choice are paths to immorality. Because in the moment, in which the decision of having a child or not, no longer belongs to me but to the state (because they decided to do so), I won’t treat this as a moral dilemma but a default answer which was forcibly imposed upon me, mostly by people who will never even get pregnant because they are men. Secondly, I think that if somebody decides that a child is to be born, then they must also raise it. If this person x, this woman x made this decision, then she must take responsibility for it. If the state made this decision, the state must raise it, if the church made this decision, the church must raise it, if the husband forced her to have this child then the husband must raise it.

To sum up, it’s not an everyday decision. It’s not “Maricica killed her baby”, but “Maricica simply couldn’t take the responsibility of being a mother, with all the obligations deriving from that”. I think that in whatever society we find ourselves in, be it one that overcame such a trauma, like Romania did, or one that didn’t, the problem is the same: who takes responsibility? We know that most of those who have abortions come from social backgrounds that imply little or no access to sex education and contraceptive methods. You’re taking advantage of someone’s ignorance or state of poverty to force them to have a baby but what happens to it afterwards?

How do you explain the fact that there are these backwards steps? Is twenty years after this historical trauma forgotten?

Firstly, I think most people don’t know anything about this historical trauma. Younger generations don’t really do about it. For somebody who was born after the communist era, slavery, feudalism, and communism are the same. These are things that they learn about but which have nothing to do with their lives nowadays. Nothing! Maybe their parents have some memories of it. The probability of a parent, especially a mother or a grandmother, talk to their children about this trauma is pretty low because those who have lived it, and I don’t know how many from my generation got away from the absence of this trauma, purposefully forget in order to get away from their own emotional burden or they try to avoid burdening their children and grandchildren with their stories.

In school, nobody teaches them anything about daily life under the communist regime and what the consequences were. So how would they know? This trauma will be gone with my generation.

There’s another important factor: the fact that it becomes a general trend in the world, the spreading of this conservative populism. We can’t say it is yet extremist but it is a populist-right which hates everything that is feminism, civil rights, equal politics and everything involved. What do we expect? What can we expect in the future? It’s a worldwide trend!

Considering that the situation of women’s rights in Romania was heavily influenced by the policies of other countries, do you think that the international trend of populism could have a similar impact on the situation of women in Romania?

Yes, absolutely. But I also believe that great powers have come to accept a way of thinking which produced leaders like Trump and which revolts against the issue or equality and rights as also includes xenophobic and islamophobic elements. The pro-Trump movement is an anti-feminist, against civil freedom and equal treatment, anti-foreigners, anti-muslim, anti-jewish, anti-everything movement. This is thes “menu” of this movement.

If this movement becomes stronger by day in both Western and Eastern Europe – in this particular case, what happened in Poland – this means that we should be very worried about this. This also means that it is likely that we, the others, haven’t yet found the right ways to make ourselves understood. Thus, hostility against people like us is high because people don’t understand us.

But I think here one must proceed with a bit more wisdom when it comes to respecting the choice of others. If I choose to wear a veil to signify the fact that I am a woman and I should cover myself before God and I choose to be a religious woman and a housewife etc., you, a feminist, should respect my choice. Don’t despise and disrespect me! In the same way, if I want to be independent, creative, autonomous or a globetrotter, respect my choice. Don’t create coalitions which are against me. I think none of us has come to really respect the choice of others. This has been achieved nowhere. We’re treating those, who are not like us, like they’re retarded. As long as we don’t make peace and we can’t say “this is what you’ve chosen, I respect your choice”, how can I ask for the same thing from you? Contempt towards those who have not reached your stage of development, that is having rights seems to attract the hostility of others and this hostility, if in an unfavorable context, can become so aggressive as to cancel all the rights that were won.

Do you see the political transformations towards democracy as inevitable?

No, this was never continuous. There are times in history when the good parts of people are supported in order to prevail and to make people more cooperative and trusting and this is when we have democracy. And we have times when mistrust, suspiciousness and envy prevail and become institutionalized and this when we have far-right regimes or fundamentalist regimes. As humans, we are the same people as we were 4000 years ago or 2000 years ago or 1000 years ago. Social arrangements, social institutions support if one part of us or the other to prevail. These totalitarian regimes bring the worst of us to the surface: hate, envy, hard feelings, revenge, the will to strangle the others because they are not like you. Democratic regimes surface cooperation and tolerance.

Did gender policies have any impact on the everyday life of women?

I think they did but in a silent manner. Right now, we have a little bit over 20% women in the new Romanian Parliament compared to 11% in the previous. It’s quite a lot. I can relate this to the high pressure put, even inside the Parliament itself, for gender representation ratios even if the gender ratios weren’t legislated. There was a pressure higher than ever before, and during an electoral year and this made a difference. Parties had enough political wisdom not to keep monopolizing available parliamentary seats with men. Moreover, there are now ethical, professional, and legal instruments with which women can defend themselves if they are being discriminated and the possibility of legitimate protest when gender inequality becomes serious.

Was the voice of feminism heard in the mainstream after ‘89?

Well how would we have all these policies, how would equality of chances be a constitutional principle, how would there be laws for this, how would there be laws to protect you against domestic violence and sexual harassment if this voice wouldn’t have been heard?

It’s not like they were gift from someone, of course it was heard! It is clear than within the European Union we are dealing with many countries for which feminism is state policy and that’s how it’s supposed to be. That’s the case of Romania as well. The problem is that we don’t really rush to apply the laws we have or we only do under high pressure and a kind of pressure that must be internal.

And the power pressurizing for gender equality is perceived as rather external?

It’s not external at all. If by “external” we understand the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council only for the time when Romania was not a member state and all this was part of the community acquis. After this, the pressure for this issue

The interview was edited and shortened. You can read the full transcript here: Interview on Transition with Mihaela Miroiu_Plural Bucharest.

Interview taken by Irina Ilisei in December 2016

Translation: Vlad Costea & Irina Ilisei