Gender under State Socialism

Course Description: 

We will attempt to explore how gender (“women’s policy”) was understood in different parts of the socialist bloc and in different phases of state socialism. In the Soviet Union the 1920s was an era of gender emancipation and experimentation with various family forms. The high Stalinism of the 1930s put an end to this relative liberalization while extensive industrialization created a fresh demand for female labor force, thus leading to the mass employment of women throughout Eastern Europe as a result of the “export” of the Stalinist regime. The 1960s saw the “thaw” under Khrushchev and the beginning of economic reforms, which reoriented industry and socialist thinking towards an increased level of consumerism. We will examine how women’s policy changed in this new context, and how the propagated emancipation worked (or partly failed to work) in education, politics and household. By studying gender history under state socialism, we will get acquainted with the history of an era, which is considered to be even today a contested terrain of competing ideologies and paradigms.

The course demonstrates that looking at state socialism through the lens of gender develops our knowledge on crucial themes of social history: the relationship of paid and unpaid work, need and welfare under state socialism, social stratification and its related theories as well as the opportunities and limits of gender equality in the examined countries. Finally, we will take a closer look at the postsocialist era and the complex ways in which it impacted on women’s social and economic position within Eastern Europe. We examine how the category of gender is entangled with other categories such as class, the urban-rural divide and ethnicity. 

A critical investigation of the history of state socialism also allows us to identify major narratives and paradigms in the study of the postwar history in Central Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The course will attempt to introduce competing paradigms to the interpretation of state socialism ranging from Western left-wing perspectives on the Soviet Union to the Eastern European critics of “actually existing” socialism. We will also interrogate the question of what ways social history can be interpreted and studied under state socialism, and we will examine case studies, which contributed towards the reorientation of the ideological discourse, which influenced history-writing during the Cold War.

Learning Outcomes: 

Learning goals and outcomes

The course has two goals. First, students will become acquainted with recent, more global and comparative as well as historicizing perspectives on state socialism in Central Eastern Europe. They will develop a knowledge of the key historical and theoretical debates around the notion of “actually existing” socialism, and they practice the skills of assessing historical controversies surrounding the interpretation of state socialism. They will become familiar both with Western critics and the Eastern European debates on the nature and functioning of these regimes.

Second, students will develop a critical understanding of how the so called women’s policy functioned under state socialism, and the complex ways in which these regimes influenced class and gender relations as well as other dimensions of social and cultural difference throughout Eastern Europe. By the end of this course, students will have familiarized themselves with literature that approaches state socialism in Central Eastern Europe from a comparative and intersectional perspective. Students will be able to apply critical analysis to the material covered in class, and demonstrate their ability to such analysis in verbal commentary and written work. They will make original arguments with appropriate support and analysis.


1. Active class participation

2. Reaction papers

In order to make sure that you understand the texts you are asked to produce in total two short reaction papers (about 500 words) on the assigned readings of that session. You are expected to summarize the main argument(s) of the text(s), and at the end reflect in a few sentences on the ideas presented. Try to connect the articles to each other (or to the previous readings). Reaction papers are due in hard copy format in class (no late reaction papers please, and no emails).

3. Final term paper: The paper must be 10-15 pages long, (double spaced, Times New Roman). A topic proposal must be submitted in week 8 at the latest. The paper should be relevant to the theme of the course, and if possible, related to the student’s own research.


Your grade will be calculated from:

- active participation in discussion and class work: 10 %

- reaction papers: 35 %
- final term paper: 55 %