Communism and Gender: Historical and Global Perspectives (2017/18)

Course Description: 

This in an introductory course in the developing field of studies on communism and gender, in which we will explore historical, theoretical and global perspectives on the topic.

Mainstream narratives about communism in Europe or China depict it as oppressive, gloomy, and a failure. In 1956 Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s crimes were revealed and in the 1970s the violent aspects of Chairman Mao’s dictatorship became more widely known, resulting in many people losing their faith in “communism.” Nonetheless, whether in Europe or globally, communism was more than these dictatorships, and we need to allow for complexity and contradictions when we study its history. Many millions of women and men gave their lives in the struggles to establish or defend socialist or communist states. These states provided their male and female citizens with legal, social and economic rights and security that many people are lacking nowadays. For millions of people around the world, the Soviet Union was a land of hope. The Soviet Union had achieved impressive economic growth by the 1950s, it promoted women’s emancipation, anti-racism and anti-colonialism, and supported progressive movements worldwide. An understanding of either the Soviet Union or China as one-dimensional totalitarian and patriarchal states cannot explain their achievements in promulgating and implementing women’s rights nor does it allow us to even begin to understand where their “women-friendly” legislation and policies came from. In addition, in Asia, Latin America and Africa, the USA waged military and economic campaigns against (alleged) communism.

This course will therefore explore what happens to mainstream narratives about the history of communism if we go beyond the still common Eurocentric, androcentric and gender-blind focus and include questions about women and women’s organizations, gender and “race” in this history; if we consider the many violent attempts to undermine communism; and if we explore the role of communists in European and global struggles against fascism, racism, colonialism and imperialism. What did “communism” mean for women and men around the world? What did the support of the Soviet Union for anti-colonial struggles mean for them? What, for example, was the role of Chinese women Communists in creating the 1950 Marriage Law of the new socialist China?

We will ask these questions not to downplay the political oppression in or committed by communist states but to allow for more complex and multi-layered interpretations about the histories and the global meanings of communism. How, for example, does the “dark age narrative” fit with the 1943 observation about the USSR that “women gained most” from the change from Tsarist to Soviet Russia (Jordan, 1944, 3), with the fact that “[f]rom the 1950s to the 1970s, many observers, and certainly communist leaders, believed that communism had successfully answered the ‘woman question’”? (Harsch 2014: 488), or, for China, with “Chiang Kai-shek’s perplexed lament …, “Why did women all go to the Communist Party?” (Wang Zheng 2016, [p. tba].

The course has four parts. We will start with reading about the historical context as well as selections from Engels, Lenin, and Kollontai on women’s emancipation.

In part two we will take into account the larger historical picture of the impact of anti-communist forces, from 1919 onwards, and from the USA to Latin America and Indonesia.

Part three of the course focuses on women, gender and sexuality in the USSR and state socialist Europe. Whether we agree or not that “women gained most” from socialism, the gains they made did not happen automatically, but were generally the result of women’s persistent and organized efforts to improve women’s situation. Nor were these gains uncontested because men, whether Communist Party members or not, often actively resisted the challenges to their privileges, as historians have recently established (e.g. Goldman, Massino, and Zimmermann).

In part 4 we will again move beyond Europe and explore the contribution of communist thinkers, activists, movements and countries to the worldwide struggles against capitalism, colonialism and racism, women’s contributions to these struggles, and the intersectional thinking advanced by some of them. We will read about cases from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

In addition, in class we will watch a number of historical documentaries about communism globally and will discuss several historical documents. 


Learning Outcomes: 

The course provides students with a basic knowledge of the main communist ideas on women and gender. They will understand the importance of applying a critical and global perspective to mainstream, generally male-centered and Euro-centric narratives on the history of communism. Students will also become acquainted with the work of scholars whose work is considered as foundational in this developing field. 


Requirements and grading:

Your grade will comprise of the following elements:

  • Active participation in class which demonstrates your familiarity with the material assigned – 25% of the grade
  • One reaction paper  – 25% of the grade
  • Term paper – 50% of the grade