08 March 2018

Women's Day reflections

"All types of moms are needed; all moms are important."
Soviet-era poster.  Source.
Another International Women's Day Soviet-era poster.
"Happy March 8!" (Boys making cake for mom.)  Source.
A Moscow restaurant advertising a Women's Day program,
"Blondes vs Brunettes."  Source.
We are happy to have such a wonderful occasion to express again our deep respect for you, our enchantment with your beauty and tenderness. - V.V. Putin, president of Russia, in his address today to Russian women on the occasion of International Women's Day.

If working at the Duma seems dangerous to you, find another job. - Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the State Duma, in remarks yesterday aimed at women journalists reporting sexual harassment by the chairman of the committee on foreign relations.

There was a time when International Women's Day was linked with women's rights and women's equality. (In the Soviet Union, this March holiday had the additional advantage of drawing attention away from Lent and Easter.) In today's Russia, the political overtones have all but vanished.

During our years in Russia, we celebrated Women's Day nine times. As a male observer, it's not for me to tell anyone else how to regard this holiday, but I hope it's not out of place to share some of my mixed feelings.

As a holiday, it's a big deal. This year, tomorrow (March 9) is also a holiday, making a four-day weekend. In Russia, Women's Day feels to me like a combination of Valentine's Day and Mother's Day. Boyfriends, husbands, and employers present women with flowers and chocolates and other gifts. Male family members may offer to do cooking, shopping, and housework often reserved for women in this culture. Advertising plays up the "aren't women special?" theme. Florists are busy at all hours. As Judy pointed out, it's funny to go to the grocery store on March 8 and watch those men who never go shopping at other times, and who today will wander the unfamiliar aisles in search of items their wives can find blindfolded.

Little of this holiday's rhetorical "deep respect" and "enchantment" seems to have influenced attitudes toward (for example) women's place in political life or their ability to get jobs normally associated with men. Legal safeguards against domestic violence were actually weakened just last year. Against this background, even the most sincere Women's Day greetings -- and I don't deny the sincerity at all -- could be interpreted as reinforcing assumptions that women are valued for their ability to charm and delight and serve men.

In contrast, movements in the West to correct these same ancient patterns are viewed by many Russian men and women as proof that the West is degenerating. These views came up frequently in our classes, and sometimes even among our colleagues. We were asked, for example, if it was true that a man could be arrested for opening a door for a woman.

To make the picture even more complicated, not all of the Soviet Union's egalitarian myth has vanished. As a result of that era, many more scientists, engineers, physicians, lawyers, university deans, factory managers, and judges have been women than might otherwise have been the case. The glass ceilings in Russia are configured differently than in the USA or Western Europe. But the outright challenges to those ceilings in Russia, while growing, are still in their early stages. And the word "feminist" is too often connected in the Russian mind with the word "aggressive."

In sum, that's why the over-the-top saccharine sentimentality of Women's Day in Russia sometimes sets my teeth on edge. But there was another dimension of the holiday that seemed incredibly important and moving: Women's Day as a celebration of female friendship. As far as I know, there's no holiday like it in the West, when women give gifts and tokens of friendship to each other. I was lucky enough to witness countless such scenes. Judy is a generous soul, so she quickly took to this dimension of Women's Day and entered into its spirit wholeheartedly. Now that we've left, this occasion of affectionate gift-giving among women is one of the things we miss most about Russia.

To illustrate these strangely mixed qualities of exaltation and bondage, here is the poem by Andrei Dementyev that Vladimir Putin quoted in his televised Women's Day address earlier today: (please don't blame Dementyev for my clunky versification)

I know that all women are beautiful,
Loveliness and intelligence combined.
Playfulness, too, when there's a celebration,
And faithfulness, when there's division in the home.
We're not bowled over by outfits or classic profiles
It's the womanly soul that conquers us.
And her youthfulness ...
And motherliness ...
And, when the time comes, her grey hairs.
While I'm alive, I'll pray to women.
Above all other delights, I'll prefer love.
The Lord showed us woman as miracle,
Entrusting the world with this beauty.

Finally: there is nothing about Russian doublemindedness about women that doesn't have equivalents here in the USA, just in different proportions and emphases. National stereotypes should not block mutual listening and learning until we ALL reach the "whole measure of the fullness of Christ." (Ephesians 4:13, context.)


Patriarch Kirill on the special nature of women (and more on that special nature)

The Return (film) and the cult of the patient woman.

Vladimir Putin's Women's Day address in Russian, including poem.

On Women's Day, Russian lawmaker Slutsky apologizes (sort of).

Meduza's editorial: Leonid Slutsky must resign.

Kevin Rothrock's Russia Guy podcast reviews the Slutsky story and its context. (Just eleven minutes, very worthwhile.)

Evgenia Albats: Oprah and #MeToo, Russian style.

A challenge to sexism at St. Petersburg State University.

For Women's Day, Joy Lujan lists her articles about Quaker women on one convenient page of links.

Ethan McCarthy -- Louis C.K.'s sins and mine.

Lon Fendall: Standing alongside those who serve in public office.
Few if any of us will ever have the kind of relationship [Jim] Wallis had with [Senator Mark] Hatfield, whose staff knew that when Wallis called, time would be found for the two of them to talk. I certainly do not have such an open door with local or national officials. But I often wonder if there is something more I could be doing to stand alongside public officials who are grappling with hard issues. We would hope they would be willing to “stand alone,” but why should they have to?
Leon Neyfakh wonders whether going to sleep at the same time as his sweetie is normal.

Vanessa Collier, "Love Me Like a Man."

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