Regaining the future by rebuilding the past? Women’s narratives of life during communism

Claudia-Florentina Dobre, Bernadette Jonda, Izabela Skórzyńska, Anna Wachowiak


As an increasing body of research on the status of women in the Central and Eastern European socialist countries (“people’s democracies”) shows, the regime did not necessarily turn women into “slaves of the system” their lives reduced to the dual role of worker and housewife. Rather, communism also enabled many women to achieve professional and personal development (Fidelis: 2010). That said, it remains the case that women’s socio-economic and political status was adversely affected both by certain features of everyday life during communism and by the destruction brought upon Central and Eastern Europe by the Second World War. The devastating effects of the war and the social costs of building the socialist society defined the quality of life for at least two generations of Polish, Romanian, and East German women. Called upon to participate with their labour to the challenging task of reconstruction, the women born just after the war were nevertheless deprived in many cases of the social and economic capital of their parents. Thus, one of their first objectives was to rebuild—and if possible enhance—the social and economic capital that the previous generation had possessed. In doing so, many women of the time showed courage and perseverance and attained professional and personal success. But does this necessarily mean that they managed to develop socio-economic capital that could be passed on successfully to the next generation? And if so, did this next generation of women born in the 1960s and 70s benefit from the achievements of their parents? Or is it the case that, owing to the economic and social crisis of the socialist bloc, they were also required, if not to start from scratch, then at least to channel some of their work towards preserving the gains in socio-economic and cultural capital achieved through considerable efforts by their elders? These questions frame our working hypothesis. To answer them, we are going to investigate how women from Central and Eastern Europe, struggling with the material legacy of the war and the difficulties of life under the communist regime, found ways to rise to the challenge before them, namely: “regaining the future by rebuilding the past.”

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