Tomorrowland is today! On fresh starts, feminist protest, and the citizens of Greater Shut-upistan


It looks like I completely failed to blog a single word last week.  Once this blog starts to feel like another job, I’ll pull the plug, so in the meantime I’ll enjoy my off-line life when I will!  I hope you’re all having lovely winter breaks/holiday seasons/time away from the classroom/unstressful time with family and friends.

Two weeks ago, I sent my book off to begin its long and winding journey to eventual publication.  So now what do I do with the rest of my sabbatical?  I’ve got some fun ideas that I want to explore that have to do with women’s bodies, material culture, fashion, and citizenship in the Early U.S. Republic, and there are more sources at the Huntington Library than I can probably process in the next five and a half months.  But I can dream, can’t I?

While it may seem perverse, I hope that I don’t see any readers’ reports for at least a few months, because then I won’t feel obligated to respond to them and make a plan with an editor.  I want some time to dream and play, and to think about the second half of my scholarly career.  Tempus Fugit, my friends.  I’ve now written two books that several people told me I couldn’t write, shouldn’t write, and/or was stupid to write because everybody already knows that, nobody cares, and I should just stop talking about my ideas.

Isn’t that always what feminists get told?  Shut up.  Stop talking.  Stop writing.  Stop saying that you’re a feminist!  Just imagine the potential future scandal surrounding my third book!  The real scandal is that I’ve managed to survive professionally and to keep on writing and talking about my stupid ideas that everybody already knows and nobody cares about except they keep pissing people off.  (Not everyone, of course, but enough people that it makes the punk rocker inside me say, “Oh yeah?  Watch this!”)

If any feminist scholars out there in bloglandia need some inspiration, pick up a copy of Masha Gessen’s Words Will Break Cement:  The Passion of Pussy Riot, a Christmas gift from BT Scrivener which I started reading on the plane back to L.A. yesterday afternoon.  Pussy Riot became punk rockers in the service of their feminist and anti-totalitarian art and political goals, so it’s not a book about punk rock so much as about art and political protest in Putin’s Russia.  (Still, the sound and style of punk rock is an interesting choice as an effective language of protest, no?)



Gessen’s book shows how a small group of young women–bright but ill-served by post-Soviet Russian education under Vladmir Putin’s now fifteen year-long effort to control all political language and suppress dissent–groped their way towards feminist language, iconography, and political protest.  I was uninformed about the extent to which feminism had languished in the late Soviet and post-Soviet era. I’d actually like to hear from some modern Soviet/Russian historians on this point–do you think Gessen exaggerates, or was there no comparable “second-wave” women’s movement in the U.S.S.R.?

(How many times have we historians seen this before in revolutionary movements?  After initially embracing women’s liberation, the Soviets returned to the bourgeois family as the heart of “Soviet values,” and called feminism “bourgeois” and “Western!”  Just like right-wing critics today, who tell us that we should shut up about Western women because women under the Taliban have it so much worse, so why don’t we try to help them instead?)

Today is the first day of the rest of my scholarly career, so I’d better make the most of it.  And remember:  some of us think “Western” is a good thing.

9 thoughts on “Tomorrowland is today! On fresh starts, feminist protest, and the citizens of Greater Shut-upistan

  1. There was a small uptick of Soviet feminism in the 1970s, but nothing like the scale of American second-wave activity. In the late USSR most women had to work not just their regular jobs but also the “second shift” of doing virtually all the childcare and housework, which included spending unfathomable hours waiting in lines for goods and finding creative ways to get basic tasks done via the shadow economy. Basically, who had time? Plus participating in street demos or consciousness-raising groups would have gotten you arrested. Increasing male alcoholism did not help.

    Soviet feminism and its post-Soviet descendant also look different from the Anglo-American variety: contraception and abortion rights were key for US feminism. In the USSR the average Russian woman had something like 7 abortions in her lifetime, usually in the form of a D & C procedure, *as the major form of birth control.* So abortions were not exercising “reproductive choice” but were the sole, bad option left to you by a failing system. Similarly employment did not mean economic independence, but was forced upon you by the state, and so did not look like liberation.

    There was a recent demographic study in Russia that found that 25% of men will die before the age of 50, mostly from the consequences of alcoholism. Russian traditional patriarchy may end up drinking itself to death.


  2. Thanks so much for this NB–I was hoping you’d weigh in! Gessen makes both of your major points about late Soviet feminism (or lack thereof) and its differences from Western feminism, namely, the truly wretched second shift, abortion as birth control, and alcoholic men.

    Russian traditional patriarchy may well drink itself to death, but alcoholism is a very, very slow death that unfortunately (like HIV?) permits its victims to pass along their disease before it kills them.


  3. Congratulations on using your holiday break to recharge and your time to pursue what you want to do next. I think your next topic area sounds jim dandy!

    I received Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman for Christmas and it’s next up on my to-read list. As a geek queen, comics fan and feminist, I figured that Lepore’s book was right up my alley. Now I’m putting Gessen on the to-read list for a little later in the year thanks to your recommendation. I can always use more good feminist studies.


  4. I read a fairly recent interview with Valentina Tereshkova, the early-on Soviet cosmonaut, but can’t recall any of the particulars now. She has some kind of a seemingly symbolic post-space career. There has to have been an interesting back story–propagandistic or otherwise–behind the rostering of “seats” on those early flights, although it certainly didn’t go much of anywhere in terms of practice and precedent. I remember many years ago reading a story somewhere about the very high percentage of Soviet era doctors who were women, as compared with anywhere in the west, but again, it didn’t seem to lead much of anywhere.

    If it were me, I would use the second half of the fellowship year out there as the ultimate “free kick,” allowing unstructured curiosity to tell me where to go in the fabulous stacks, the collections, and maybe even the outer gardens. That’s how I used the last two thirds of my much shorter time there, and just the other day I pulled a box of moldy notes out a deep storage nook I didn’t even know I had and said, my god, why didn’t I ever publish this stuff?!? Maybe I still will, but anyway, it was a delicious and restorative time which has continued to pay dividends.


  5. Take the time to let your brain rest. And as it does, it’ll say “Hey! Let’s do this.” Or that or whatever.

    If ever there was a time for academics to think big, think broad, deep, creatively — well, this is it.

    Percolate, baby, percolate.


  6. Northern Barbarian answered the question about why there was no second wave in the USSR. I would only add that the situation was varied but comparable throughout the eastern block.

    I have my students read Slavenka Drakulic’s _How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed_ (1991) in Western Civ so that they get a sense of how late State Socialism worked around the block. Material circumstances varied, but it was clear from Drakulic’s interviews and own experiences that communism failed people on a fundamental, material and psychological level, but it especially failed women.

    What were those failings? No reliable access to birth control or sometimes even family planning information. No tampons, or pads, or if they were availability was sporadic. The feminism Drakulic and other women articulated was much more centered around material needs and the inequalities of the second shift.

    In terms of patriarchy, Drakulic makes it clear that men were part of the problem, especially the second shift, And yet, she found it difficult to critque them in _How we survived_ because they were all trapped in the same impossible position together.


  7. Absolutely play. You’ve got a bunch of great questions, and you will explore at the HEH, and the questions will shift a little, but playing with fun ideas is great. And exploring a new project or set of ideas will make returning to the old one much easier. Enjoy the rest of your sabbatical!

    You definitely make me want to read Gessen’s book!


  8. Seconding Northern Barbarian and Matt_L. Not that I’m a historian of any kind. I grew up in a Russian family and visited the Soviet Union when it was the Soviet Union. Men had no rights and women had even less. That was evident everywhere.

    About the doctors. I remember reading somewhere that the USSR was the only or one of the very few countries where doctors made just an average income. Oh, and by the way, two thirds were women.

    During my visit as a kid, I remember gawping at people working on a new railroad. They had ropes and chains around a great big section of steel rail and were hauling it into place with plain old manual labor. What had me gawping was that lots of them were women. Big brawny women at least as strong as the men.

    There’s a long tradition in Russia of women doing (most of the) manual labor. And an equally long tradition of abusing women. Those railroad women really brought home to me as a wide-eyed kid that social power has nothing to do with strength.

    /switching gears/

    Oh, and Happy New Year to all! 😀


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