Eighty percent of women living in communist East Germany always reached orgasm during sex, according to the Hamburg magazine Neue Revue in 1990. For West German women that figure was only 63 percent. Those counterintuitive findings confirmed two earlier studies, which East German sex researchers had published in 1984 and 1988. Those had found East German women reported high levels of sexual satisfaction outpacing those in the West.
The 1984 study’s authors contended socialism was to thank for women’s enjoyment of sex, specifically “the sense of social security, equal educational and professional responsibilities, equal rights and possibilities for participating in and determining the life of society.” In short, they claimed, women had better sex under socialism than under capitalism because socialism treated women better.
At face value, these findings seem suspect. Even with socialist ideas filtering into the left flank of the Democratic Party, we are accustomed to believing that everyday life under Soviet-style state socialism was repressive and awful. “There is something impalpable and unpleasant in the human climate” of communist countries, Nobel Laureate Czesław Miłosz once wrote, “if Hell should … condemn them to breathe in this aura forever, that would be punishment enough.” How on earth could women living in such bleak societies have fulfilling sex?
On August 12, 2017, Kristen Ghodsee, professor of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania, published an op-ed in the New York Times, “Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism.” Taking those East German studies as a jumping-off point, Ghodsee argued that, in many ways, socialism was good for women. “Sometimes necessary social change,” she wrote, “needs an emancipation proclamation from above.”
To flesh out her argument (and, I suspect, to take on right-wing critics who attacked her article), Ghodsee last year published a book-length version with Nation Books titled Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence. In its analysis of gender in both the West and the Soviet bloc, Ghodsee draws on revisionist scholarship that over the past several decades has fundamentally changed the way historians view socialism. She does so to argue that state socialism was often good to women and can teach Western democracies a thing or two about feminist policy.
Ghodsee’s principal claim begins something like this: capitalism, especially its American variant, insists on a kind of rugged individualism that is inherently inimical to women’s economic success. Our economic, social and cultural norms all conspire to keep women financially dependent on men—which leads to the instrumentalization of sexual life. Citing a study by Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs on “Sexual Economics,” Ghodsee notes that sexual interactions under capitalism often seem like “a market where women sell sex and men buy it with nonsexual resources.”
When women have sex for such reasons, Ghodsee suggests, they are less likely to enjoy it. The men probably are too. “Intimate relationships that are relatively free from the transactional ethos of sexual economics,” Ghodsee writes, “are generally more honest, authentic, and, well, just better.” In short, capitalism leads to bad sex.
Ghodsee’s broad critiques of capitalism are not new. As she herself points out, there is a whole pantheon of feminist Marxist thinkers dating to the nineteenth century. But the book is also part of a new wave of feminist skeptics of capitalism, from critiques of lean-in feminism to Nancy Fraser’s recent concern that institutional feminism “became capitalism’s handmaiden.”
Ghodsee’s work stands out among this chorus by arguing that capitalist democracies can learn something about gender from Eastern Europe’s communist dictatorships. It’s here that she uses revisionist historiography to paint an unorthodox picture of state socialism. Between 1945 and 1989, she contends, communist countries made strides in gender equality that far outpaced those in Western countries. Though Ghodsee draws examples from many communist states, the comparison between East and West Germany is particularly apt. While the victorious Allied Powers carved the two states from the same homogeneous country in 1949, they quickly diverged on most matters, including the treatment of women.
The commitment to gender equality began early in communist East Germany. On August 17, 1946, the Soviet occupiers mandated that women receive equal pay for equal work. The country’s 1949 constitution guaranteed gender equality. East Germany provided women with medical care, childcare and other forms of support in order to ease their roles as working mothers. It also abolished gendered education and in 1955 made divorces easier to obtain.
In the 1970s, government efforts to provide for working mothers increased dramatically. In 1972, East Germany legalized abortion on demand in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy. At the same time, the government extended maternity leave and built a nationwide system of crèches and kindergartens.
These kinds of policies had a concrete impact on the number of women in socialist labor forces. Women represented 40 percent of East Germany’s total workforce in 1950 and 48 percent by 1970. Likewise, in the Soviet Union, women represented 51.8 percent of workers in 1950, compared to 29.6 percent for Western Europe. Ghodsee notes that women were also overrepresented in certain technical fields. By the end of the Cold War, 73 percent of Soviet “scientific workers, teachers, and educators” were women.
To compare, the deeply conservative Christian Democratic Union ruled West Germany for its first twenty years. (Chancellor Konrad Adenauer won a landslide reelection in 1957 running on the slogan “No Experiments!”) In spite of a constitutional guarantee of gender equality, its Civil Code was peppered with patriarchal provisions such as those granting a husband absolute authority over children and control over his wife’s finances.
The West German parliament only reformed the law in 1957. And those reforms did not touch many forms of social and cultural sexism. Female work was still defined differently than male work. To this day, abortion after the first twelve weeks of pregnancy—and advertising abortion services publicly—remains illegal in Germany.
Ghodsee focuses on a couple specific socialist policies that she believes democratic countries should adopt, like state-funded childcare and gender quotas. Western European countries have begun introducing quotas for women in politics and the economy, with staggering results. Of the 46 countries whose parliaments are at least 30 percent female, Ghodsee notes, forty have a quota in place. Starting with Norway in 2003, European countries also began introducing quotas for women on corporate boards.
But these policies did not just come from nowhere—socialist countries were the first to implement such quotas. During the Cold War many socialist politicians were female: Ghodsee notes that Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia all had high-ranking female politicians. She could have also mentioned Hilde Benjamin, vice president of East Germany’s Supreme Court and later Minister of Justice. Benjamin was at least partially responsible for East Germany’s large number of female judges.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Western consultants and corporation advised shock therapy, the quick and often corrupt privatization of state-owned enterprises. With it came mass layoffs and, not coincidentally, a 60 percent drop in the East German birthrate—what some termed a “birth strike.” Ghodsee writes,
There simply weren’t enough jobs in the economy to employ all of the people made redundant by the economic transition. In order to control unemployment, women were forced back into the home by refamilization policies, and there was explicit job discrimination against women as the imposition of free markets came bundled with the return of traditional gender roles.
It is now more valuable, she points out, for Russian women to enter “‘gold digger’ academies” than to receive an education or look for work. While state socialism emancipated women from patriarchal structures, the reintroduction of capitalism forced many of them back into stereotypical gender roles.
While provocative and insightful, Ghodsee’s use of sexual pleasure as a barometer for quality of life also leads her into some questionable assertions. Even while pointing out “the real horrors inflicted on citizens in one-party states,” including “secret police, travel restrictions, consumer shortages, and labor camps,” Ghodsee often comes across as flippant about the realities of everyday life in Eastern Europe. It doesn’t help that she gestures to communist authoritarianism with the decidedly milquetoast phrase “while state socialism had its downsides…”
She is sometimes too generous in her characterization of socialist policies’ effect on women. “Women dominated the fields of medicine, law, academia, and banking,” she asserts. Dominated? Really? While women were certainly overrepresented in some of these fields, in no sense did they dominate them. In East Germany, for instance, no woman ever became a member of the Socialist Unity Party’s Politburo. And all those female East German judges? They were mostly assigned to the judiciary’s lowest levels, typically family and divorce courts. And although significant numbers of women participated in socialist workforces, their chances of promotion were slight. Male managers, for instance, found ways to evade official guarantees of equal pay in East Germany. In the 1960s, women represented over 80 percent of the lowest wage classification, but only 4 percent of the highest. To say women dominated these fields under socialism is an egregious overstatement.
Ghodsee also exaggerates when she asserts that “the East German state fully supported women in the workplace.” To quote Mary Fulbrook, one of the most respected historians of East Germany, “The majority of women continued to lead extremely hard lives, concentrated predominantly at the lower levels of any hierarchy, where they had lower social status and less control over their work than did their male superiors. … Meanwhile, male gender roles were rarely, if ever, explicitly challenged.” In her eagerness to extol the benefits of state socialist feminism, Ghodsee offers a flattened view of what is actually an extraordinarily nuanced body of scholarship.
What’s most frustrating about Ghodsee’s one-sided use of revisionist scholarship is that she weakens her argument’s potential. Even while criticizing the American right for peddling a static view of socialism, Ghodsee herself gives the impression that socialist governments were unchanging in their views, with faceless governments handing down policies from on high. The truth is far more interesting. These regimes did change dramatically over time, and feminist policy often came about not “from above” but through the intervention of ordinary women.
Donna Harsch, author of the principal English-language book on gender in East Germany, contends that while East German leaders neglected domestic concerns early in their rule, women eventually forced the state to take them and their desires seriously. The state’s later focus on gender policy is an example of the fact that while East Germany’s form of government did not change between 1949 and 1989, its “state policy … did change.” It did so, to quote Harsch, because “the power of the domestic was communicated to the [Communist Party] gradually but persistently, and to overwhelming cumulative effect, by the everyday actions, family decisions, consumer choices, arguments, complaints, and occasional open protest of, above all, East German women.”
To take an example from Paul Betts, another historian of East Germany (whom Ghodsee does cite), East German women were able to recruit divorce courts as allies in their struggle against patriarchy within the family. As Betts puts it, “women learnt to exploit the language of socialist legality and civil rights … and the courts followed, increasingly taking umbrage with the ‘selfishness’ of ‘traditional’ husbands.”
That dynamism is not typical of how most Americans imagine communist states. But it is a core feature of newer approaches to Eastern European history, which strive to understand how relationships between citizens and the state influenced policy in socialist countries. One thing that has emerged is an appreciation for the fact that these governments, and especially their bureaucracies, were often concerned with the happiness of their citizens and with maintaining their legitimacy in those citizens’ eyes. They proved far more adept at responding to citizens’ needs, complaints and desires than the stereotypical Cold War view of communism allows.
Ghodsee hints at the fact that the patriarchal 1940s and 1950s slowly gave way to more feminist practices in the 1970s and 1980s. Her occasional reference to communist repressions, for example, are typically dated to the Fifties, when Stalinism held the Soviet bloc in its grip. She acknowledges, in characteristically vivid fashion, that for women born between 1920 and 1945, “Soviet sex sucked.”
It is also notable that most of Ghodsee’s examples of female liberation in Eastern Europe come from the 1970s or 1980s. Ghodsee does not so much ignore the changes that occurred in the lifespans of the socialist states as skim over them and the processes by which they occurred.
Other groups besides women experienced similar change under communism. The East German government never persecuted gay people, for example, to the same degree that West Germany did. But in the Fifties and Sixties, gay men and lesbians found it near impossible to live open, happy lives in a system that considered homosexuality to be no more than a holdover from capitalism. But beginning in the Seventies and gaining steam in the Eighties, East Germany introduced increasingly ambitious policies aimed at integrating its gay citizens, such as abolishing the discrepancy in the age-of-consent law and taking steps to integrate them into the armed forces. They did so not because of any change in leadership, as I’ve discovered in my own research, but rather because a determined group of gay and lesbian activists successfully pressured them to do so.
That communist countries changed over time and that that change sometimes came about through the actions of ordinary people are some of the most significant findings of recent historical studies, because they illustrate the extent to which socialism, even when implemented in an authoritarian model, can remain responsive to the interests of its citizens. To take one example, the Bulgarian Politburo “authorized massive budget expenditures to expand state supports for women” in 1973, according to Ghodsee’s more recent scholarly monograph, Second World, Second Sex: Socialist Women’s Activism and Global Solidarity During the Cold War. The government did so, she argues, because of the years-long efforts of the Committee of the Bulgarian Women’s Movement to gather data on Bulgarian women’s lives and develop a coherent set of policies to address the country’s declining birth rate. Although the committee was a state organization, Ghodsee contends, “it strove for representativeness, recognizing the diversity of the Bulgarian women it claimed to represent.” Changes in everyday life along with women’s activism could lead to remarkable modifications of state policy.
It is unfortunate that this kind of detail about how, when and why socialist states decided to implement feminist policy did not make its way into Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism. Showing readers how and why socialist states changed would not only have fortified Ghodsee’s argument, it would have provided valuable information for Americans citizens wondering what there is to learn from the historical wreckage of communism—and if socialism is flexible enough to address the crises we face today.