This review appears in our Fall 2018 issue. Subscribe to receive a copy in your mailbox.
Discussed in this essay: Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence, by Kristen R. Ghodsee. Nation Books, 2018. 240 pages.
“THE WOMAN WORKER, no less than her brother in suffering, loathes that insatiable monster with the gilded maw which falls upon man, woman and child with equal voracity in order to suck them dry and grow fat at the cost of millions of human lives,” wrote Alexandra Kollontai in 1908, part of her introduction to The Social Basis of the Women’s Question. Kollontai was a daughter of the Russian nobility-turned-radical who considered organizing women—and offering a socialist alternative to a burgeoning bourgeois feminist movement—a calling. In the years immediately following the Bolshevik revolution, she fought for legalized abortion, equal rights for legitimate and illegitimate children, the replacement of church marriages with civil ceremonies, liberalized divorce laws, and the full incorporation of women into the workforce. Kollontai also helped establish the Zhenotdel, or Women’s Section, to oversee the creation of a radical network of social services for working women throughout the Soviet Union, like public nurseries, cafeterias, and laundries. Like other 20th century revolutionaries, including International Women’s Day founder Clara Zetkin, she sought to create, with limited success, the conditions for women’s economic independence.
Kollontai is one of several women invoked by Kristen R. Ghodsee in her new book, Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence. A slim volume expanded from Ghodsee’s similarly titled New York Times opinion column last year, the book is a straightforward account of how capitalism harms women—including, yes, in our intimate lives—and why women (and men) are comparatively better off “in nations where state revenues support greater levels of redistribution and larger social safety nets.” To illustrate her argument, Ghodsee turns to the history of Eastern European state socialism, where the utopian visions of Alexandra Kollontai may have fallen short, but women nonetheless lived radically different lives than their American counterparts. Despite what the Soviet Union’s most fervent critics would have you think, this buried chapter contains important lessons for a contemporary women’s movement. As Ghodsee puts it, “There was a baby in all that bathwater. It’s time we got around to saving it.”
CAPITALISM DISADVANTAGES women along several axes. The dawn of the industrial revolution enshrined a division of labor that largely confined them to the domestic sphere. When women did begin to enter the workforce, they did so for much lower wages than men doing similar work, regardless of whether or not they were widows, single mothers, or the primary earner in a household. This imbalance, of course, persists today, and is compounded by race. In 2016, Hispanic women were paid only 54% of what white men were paid, and black women, 63%. Women who decide to have children are rampantly discriminated against by employers, and in the United States, they are not guaranteed any maternity leave. Childcare is exorbitantly expensive, and a bipartisan 1971 law that would have established a network of nationally funded daycare centers providing educational, nutritional, and medical services was vetoed by Richard Nixon because of its “family-weakening implications.” The burden of eldercare also falls primarily on women, who make up the majority of the 44 million unpaid eldercare providers in the United States.
The countries behind the Iron Curtain did things differently, devising policies to, as Ghodsee writes, “encourage or require women’s formal labor participation.” Statistics released by the International Labor Organization in 1985 revealed that in 1950, women made up 51% of the Soviet workforce, compared to a paltry 28% in North America and 30% in Western Europe. By 1975, the figures from North America and Western Europe had increased to the mid-30s, but the Soviet women still led them by more than 10 points. This was accomplished through a combination of job guarantees, state-funded vocational training, and the dissemination of propaganda, like the Bulgarian documentary short, I Am a Woman Tractor Driver. Competition with the Eastern Bloc even convinced the United States to create new government programs for women, like the National Defense Education Act, which provided federal funding for women to study math and science, and the passage of Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.
The measure of independence afforded to Soviet women in the workplace was compounded by access to universal healthcare, public education, and subsidized transportation and basic foodstuffs, though the latter was famously plagued by shortages and lines. Although most Soviet Women faced the familiar double burden of full-time work and domestic labor, many Eastern European countries adopted progressive maternity leave policies. Poland offered 12 weeks of fully paid maternity leave as early as 1924. After 1973, Bulgarian women received 120 days of fully paid maternity leave before and after the birth of their first child and could take an extra six months at the national minimum wage; their leaves were job-protected and counted towards their pensions. Bulgarian magazines like Woman Today even encouraged men to take on their fair share of child-rearing and housework.
Despite her balanced retelling of the benefits won (and lost) by Soviet women throughout the 20th century, Ghodsee anticipates the reaction of those for whom any nuanced understanding of the state socialist project will always be anathema—“the sputtering and bluster of those who insist it was pure evil, end of story.” Indeed, for all that pundits delight in describing campus protesters as “Stalinist,” the borders of acceptable conversation when it comes to the Soviet Union are patrolled like few other subjects in American public discourse. In the first half of August alone, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf published not one, but two hectoring articles invoking the specter of socialism’s “rather unpleasant historical outcomes.” With popular support for socialism on the rise—a 2017 poll by the propagandistic Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation found that more millennials would rather live in a socialist country (44%) than a capitalist one (42%), while an even more recent Gallup poll revealed that Democrats have a more favorable view of socialism than capitalism for the first time in 10 years—Ghodsee’s reclamation of this socialist history is timely, particularly as capitalism’s defenders attempt once again to wield it like a cudgel.
At no point does Ghodsee suggest these policies were somehow “worth” the tradeoff of living under an authoritarian regime or deny the unique hardships that faced the women of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc. Rather, she says, “we should study [their] successes and salvage what we can.”
SO WHERE, EXACTLY, does sex come in? Despite its marquee billing in both title and text—two of the book’s six chapters are devoted to sexuality—Ghodsee does not argue that women’s sexual satisfaction is the litmus test for the health of an economic system. What studies of Soviet sexuality do offer is a unique opportunity to measure the less tangible benefits of economic independence.
Ghodsee’s case is drawn in part from a widely cited 2004 paper on “sexual economic theory,” which posits that the essential relationship between men and women is a market, where women “sell” sex and men “buy” it, either with material resources (grades, gifts, favors) or symbolic ones (love, commitment, attention). Although the theory’s authors proceed from the assumption that women’s sex drives are inherently weaker than men’s, it remains a valuable framework for understanding the way sexuality is experienced in certain kinds of societies—that is, in capitalist, materialistic ones like ours.
The basic premise of sexual economic theory long predates the 21st century, and versions of it have informed socialist feminist thought for at least a century. In 1975, Silvia Federici contended that “‘How much?’ is the question that governs our experience of sexuality,” and nearly 70 years earlier, Alexandra Kollontai observed in the essay “On Sexuality as Work” that “while the present exploitative system of producing new values continues to exist, [women] cannot become free and independent persons, wives who choose their husbands exclusively on the dictates of the heart.”
Although Kollontai and the Russian revolutionaries failed to achieve the complete transformation of sexual relationships they sought, the Soviet project did make substantial gains in decoupling sex from the acquisitive logic of capitalism. A study conducted by sociologists Anna Temkina and Elena Zdravomyslova from 1997 to 2005 found that, in interviews with multiple generations of middle-class Russian women, their attitudes towards sexuality mapped onto broader cultural shifts within the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia. For women born between 1920 and 1945, sex was about reproduction, whereas for women born towards the end of Stalin’s regime, between 1945 and 1965, sex was not only an expression of love, but something shared within a social group as a sign of affection and respect. In the responses from women who came of age during the post-Soviet era, under a newly deregulated economy, the purpose of sex was often individualistic pleasure or to extract some kind of material or social benefit. In other words, their sexual behavior began to resemble capitalism itself.
A similar phenomenon was observed by researchers in East Germany, where women were mobilized into working full-time and men were explicitly encouraged by state publications to share in both domestic tasks and childcare. In research published in 1984, young women in East Germany self-reported that they “almost always” achieved orgasm. A subsequent study found that the sexual attitudes of East German men and women were more complementary than those of their peers in the West, and East German women self-reported a significantly higher level of sensual enjoyment than their Western counterparts, who could not work outside the home without their husband’s permission until 1957.
There were, of course, some less rosy factors contributing to these numbers. In East Germany, many people retreated into the private sphere in search of shelter from the authoritarian state. There was also, quite simply, much less to do, and sex was an effective distraction. Still, however incomplete it may have been, the relative economic autonomy of East German women opened up the possibility of what Ghodsee calls a “unique, noncommodified” sexuality—one founded on mutual respect, and in pursuit of mutual pleasure.
IN THE OPENING LINES of Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism, Ghodsee writes that “the argument of this book can be summed up succinctly: Unregulated capitalism is bad for women, and if we adopt some ideas from socialism, women will have better lives.” Just how crucial that some turns out to be is not clear until the book’s final chapter, though its title, “From Barricades to Ballot Boxes,” provides a clue. After starkly outlining the degree to which women suffer under capitalism and stressing that not only is another world possible, but it has already, at least partially, existed (and continues to exist in the social democratic countries of Northern Europe), Ghodsee’s prescription for contemporary American women feels anemic. One piece of advice in particular sounds indistinguishable from a cherished refrain of centrist pundits since at least the 2016 election cycle:
[O]pen your mind to opposing perspectives no matter how painful it might be. If you’re a Jacobin reader, click through the pages of Reason. Scroll through both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. . . Break out of your digital bubble. . .
The revolution will not be televised, but neither, I’d wager, will it require a subscription to Reason. This points to the limits of Ghodsee’s political imagination: by her own admission, she’s no advocate of revolution. “All forms of regime change (even good ones) create collateral human damage, and if we can, we should try to minimize this as much as possible,” she writes. Her preferred strategy is electoral, as women’s political participation has historically correlated with the expansion of social safety nets and increased government spending, and changing demographics have strengthened young women’s potential strength as a voting block. “If younger voters, especially younger women, start hauling their butts to the polls,” says Ghodsee, “they have the power to make a difference.”
This may be true, but it presupposes that there will necessarily be candidates who support building social services like Medicare for All in the first place, and it does little to address the hijacking of the American democratic process by the super-rich. Ghodsee herself readily acknowledges this (“Casting a ballot is not enough”) but vaguely proposes political education and pressuring “business leaders and government officials to respond to the needs of ordinary people.” The absence of a more robust vision of collective action is conspicuous. Following Ghodsee’s insistent reclamation of a maligned history and the women who dedicated their lives to socialist struggle, her conclusion is akin to trailing off. Reading these limp prescriptions, I found my thoughts returning again to Kollontai, and what she had written back in 1909 about “the bourgeois women's movement,” whose real aim was “political rights, access to the election booth and a seat in parliament”:
Can political equality in the context of the retention of the entire capitalist-exploiter system free the working woman from that abyss of evil and suffering which pursues and oppresses her both as a woman and as a human being?
The answer, for the record, is no. Still, it’s a credit to Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism that it made me want to do much more than vote.
Jess Bergman is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn.