Why do you believe in communism?

Orgasm & socialism Why women weren't interested in feminism during socialism

The sociologist Kateřina Lišková researches, among other things, pornography and gender differences during communism. She wrote the foreword to the Czech edition of the book with the provocative title “Why Women Have Better Sex in Socialism” by Kristen R. Ghodsee. Why was the socialist regime interested in female orgasm? And why does feminism have such a bad reputation in the Czech Republic?

While translating Kristen Ghodsee's book, I was amazed that Czech sex researchers studied women's orgasms in the 1950s. How did it come about that you were interested in experiencing sex at that very moment?

We imagine today that the 1950s were a time of terror and darkness. They were, but only certain segments of the population were affected by this horror. For you as a woman, for example, the situation could improve a little because family law was fundamentally reformed at that time. That was a matter of the regime, because a similar development took place in practically all communist-ruled countries. Until then, women had fewer rights than men - for example, they were not automatically entitled to their children or to property.

Ghodsee also writes that married West German women needed permission from their husbands to work until 1977. The journalist and writer Alena Wagnerová also describes her astonishment at these conditions in an interview ...

Yes, for female emigrants like Alena Wagnerová or Gerlinde Šmausová, for example, it was definitely quite a shock. In Czechoslovakia women could work independently as publicists, educators or scientists, but after arriving in West Germany, at that time the land of freedom, they suddenly needed the consent of their husbands to practice their profession or to open a bank account. This relationship of dependence between women and men was abolished in the so-called Eastern Bloc as early as 1950. Of course, that was just one of the reasons sex researchers looked into women's sexual experience in the 1940s.
Another reason was the fact that the doctors at the time did not yet know to what extent the female orgasm was related to conception. At that time, women who had problems getting pregnant drove to Františkový Lázně (Franzensbad) to cure themselves. Doctors found no physical causes of their infertility in about ten percent of them, but many complained of marital problems. The gynecologists, by and large, correctly interpreted this as a sexual problem and asked the scientists at the Prague Institute for Sex Research to conduct an examination.
The results were published in 1952 and included not only the women from the spa, but also a control group of women who had already become pregnant and were attending the appropriate consultation hours. Discussions were held with all of them on various topics including family history. And it was discovered that women who couldn't get pregnant had a worse relationship with their husbands, felt less loved, had orgasms less often, and had less fun with sex. From this, the scientists concluded that a woman's pregnancy required a loving marriage. What actually was a socialist idea, or rather an ideal: A socialist regime should not only ensure equality but also ensure that young people decide to marry out of love, and not because of pressure from the family or for reasons of property, because property would become a new one Regime will ultimately no longer be an “issue”.

Couldn't it also have been because Czechoslovakia as a whole was not an agrarian state?

Yes. That is why I believe that the regime change in the field of work did not result in such a large social “leap” - it only came at the level of the law, because women could suddenly claim their rights, which the next generation took for granted . By the way, I also examined divorce records from the time of the previous regime and it was interesting to see the reasons for the divorce given and recognized by the court. Indeed, based on the 1950 amendment to the Family Act, such a reason could be “a deep and lasting disagreement” between the spouses. But what do you understand by discrepancy? The interpretation of this justification gradually changed, and by the 1980s women were complaining relatively often about inconsistencies in sex.

Kristen Ghodsee also mentions how the head of an academic publishing house in Germany said to her: "Thank God there are East German women," because they were used to kindergarten and day-care centers and also called for them in the West. Do you think that the changed legal situation and the possibility - even if later the obligation - to work could have been one of the reasons why we did not have a second wave of feminism?

I think that the feminist movement did not take place here for several reasons - for example, because there were no movements at all in the regime at that time. Czechoslovak women had actually "got" a number of things for which the second wave of feminism fought, whether from above through politics or thanks to the input of experts. This of course meant that we are not used to fighting for our rights - and not just for women's rights, but in general. On the other hand, society has got used to the fact that certain things - for example the family law already mentioned - are a fact, something natural, ordinary, that one does not want to be taken away, that is inviolable.

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What about contraception?

The classic pill did not exist until the 1960s, but it was not available everywhere and it was also not entirely unproblematic. That is why doctors did not want to prescribe them to young women, but rather to married women, and that was the practice until the 1990s. Of the modern methods of contraception, the IUD was the most commonly used; If this failed, a woman was automatically entitled to an intervention for health reasons and did not have to go to a commission.

We talked about equality and attitudes towards work and education. Then can you explain to me why there is no woman in any of the Central Committee photos?

So 30 percent of the seats in parliament were women, but parliament had no real power. Sure, we can discuss why there are no women where there is power and why there is a lack of power where there are many women. It is obviously not as if society would immediately be ready for women to get some power too. However, legislative changes such as that of family law from 1950 have changed real, everyday life, the proportion of women in the labor market and in the field of education. Let's look at my favorite example, Hungary, where the proportion of female students in technical universities was more than forty percent. I am not saying that the situation was ideal, and I am not saying that it was at the political level, but something has changed dramatically, and in a way that cannot be compared to Western European countries.

Was there any change in family relationships, family law and state intervention during normalization?

Czechoslovakia is actually unique in this regard, because normalization brought about a return to the past in terms of gender roles. This can of course be explained by the stiffening of conditions after the Prague Spring, but it seems to me that this change had already begun and that normalization only “froze” everything. As early as the 1960s, the expert discourses had gradually transformed in a way that later justified a traditional hierarchical gender regime during normalization.
Above all, the way of looking after young children has changed. While collective care prevailed in the 1950s, developmental psychologists believed by 1963 at the latest that institutional care was insufficient and led to an emotional deprivation of the children. In their opinion, this would have unpredictable effects. It was not discussed about the lack of influence of both parents, but about the absence of the biological mother. But the experts drew their conclusions from the study of the development of children who grew up in institutions, in children's homes and the so-called week nurseries, which only affected a small number. In society, however, the impression arose that all children were affected by this deprivation. This was reinforced in 1963 by the film that could almost be described as horror Děti bez lásky (Children without love), on which the child psychologist Zdeněk Matějček collaborated. And then there was another factor: at the same time, women in demographic surveys were complaining that they felt overwhelmed.

That they actually had two jobs?

Exactly: many of them even admitted that they only wanted to have one child at most. From the point of view of the state, that was also problematic, which is why criticism of the desire to have only children and the “egoism” of women became louder. In the mid-1960s, Ota Šik, economist and member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, set up a party commission for economic reforms. In cooperation with demographers, they began to evaluate the financial support of families. At that time this existed in the form of tax breaks; the tax burden fell as the number of children increased, which paradoxically benefited families with higher incomes. That is why people began to think about the benefit system, the extension of parental leave and housing benefit, because in 1963, for example, only 11 percent of couples ran an independent household. But then normalization came and some of those reforms were implemented later. That is why we associate them with Husák.

So that's why the term "Husák's children" ...

Yes, these family-friendly changes were basically the only reform efforts of the 1960s that were implemented - with the possible exception of the federalization of the state. A similar development took place in other countries of the Eastern Bloc, but I suspect that there was already a different climate in Czechoslovakia, in which experts in the field of developmental psychology emphasized the role of the mother as a caregiver in an almost extreme way. Paradoxically, the number of working women and kindergarten places increased.

This argument of the irreplaceable role of the mother, who should stay at home as long as possible, can still be heard today, especially from conservative circles. When was parental leave for mothers in the Czech Republic extended, as it is probably one of the longest in Europe?

The first time it was extended before the invasion of the Warsaw Pact armies and then a few more times, with part of the maternal parental leave originally being a freely selectable unpaid leave that gradually became paid. The motivation to have several children grew due to the possibility of deducting part of the installments for a marriage loan from tax after the birth of the second child.

At the end something completely different: you perform with Lucie Jarkovská as Duo Docentky (lecturer duo). How did it come about and why?

At the very beginning it was a spontaneous, unprepared stand-up at a conference sometime in 2011. It occurred to us that we could do something similar more often. Lucie later resurrected this idea in a stand-up version of her scientific work on sex education and today we are both trying to "stand-up" scientific findings. Because I believe that very few people outside of the academic sphere read scientific texts in our field. This form of “appearance” could not only be more accessible but also more entertaining for the ordinary taxpayer who is actually involved in research.

Kateřina Lišková (* 1976) works at the Department of Sociology and the Institute for Population Studies of the Faculty of Social Sciences (FSS) at Masaryk University in Brno. After her dissertation on pornography and feminist theories, she dealt with the history and topics of Czechoslovak sex research. At the FSS, for example, she leads the freely selectable course for master’s degrees “Sex and Gender in Communism”; in 2018 she published a textbook on gender in Cambridge University Press entitled Sexual liberation, socialist style: Communist Czechoslovakia and the science of desire, 1945–1989. She occasionally appears with the sociologist Lucie Jarkovská as a stand-up duo Docentky (duo of lecturers).

Sep 12 2020

Translation: Hana Sedláček

Copyright: This text is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution - Noncommercial - No Adaptations 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).