In this academic year I have borrowed more than 120 academic books from the UCL library. I am not going to claim that Malgorzata Fidelis’ Women, Communism, and Industrialization in Postwar Poland is the best of them, but is it definitively the one that I have enjoyed the most (together with Goldman’s Women, the State and Revolution). It is well written, and she brings several important arguments on Polish after war gender policies, especially concerning the discussion on women’s agency and the double burden. This is highly applicable to other East European countries as well.
Fidelis is very clear on her methodological and theoretical positions, and through the entire book she sticks to them, providing quality cultural history. I am not going to write in details about all her arguments, as it will go into my literature review, but what is important is that she shows that Stalinist gender practices in Eastern Europe were transforming societies that were already very conservative. As she explains, “Stalinism was a force that brought radical social changes rather than a conservative backlash.” This is very important for the discussion on the retreat in gender policies, which was dominant in the scholarship for quite some time. I will write what exactly is this retreat in one of the future blog posts.
Another important aspect is that she historicizes the double burden and shows that for many women work in the factory and in the home was not the new thing. The difference to the pre-revolutionary times is a support that women received to work during pregnancy, and to return to their old workplace after giving a birth. Ideology was different, but the situation in which women had to combine paid work and domestic labour was familiar.
Fidelis also argues that there was no such thing as universal women’s agency in socialism, nor that there is some kind of female consciousness resistant to historical forces. She also opposes the idea that there was natural opposition between a production-oriented regime and family-oriented women. Instead she sees women’s agency as diverse and female solidarity as fragmented. In analysing women’s agency she looks at women as active participators in the society, and as people who were constantly producing and negotiating messages. Fidelis gives agency to both men and women and studies how they “formulated their demands within the framework of the dominant political discourse”. Even when she deals with the official policies she shows that gender policies were not simply given, but interpreted and disputed even within the Party.
The book is currently very expensive. On Amazon it is around 60£ and the price is pretty much the same everywhere. So, look for it in the library :)