Where are the Women?

Where are the Women - Remnants of Hollow Gender Equality in Post-Communist Europe

Despite the suppression of human rights that much of the population of the Eastern Bloc endured for four decades, some aspects of life under communism seems quite progressive at first glance. Take women’s political, economic, and social participation: in the 1980s, average women’s parliamentary participation in the Eastern Bloc countries (Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovenia) was 26.9%, a figure that the European Union did not reach until 2013. However, after the collapse of communism in 1989, this number dropped instantly and has only slowly made its way up again, with most countries still well below today’s EU average. 

Graph 1 data retrieved from: 1, 2, 3, 4

Graph 1 data retrieved from: 1, 2, 3, 4

Moreover, representation of women from post-communist countries in the European Parliament (EP), a platform where women can exert influence over policies at the European level, is also below the EU average. The most significant reasons for such low representation are, however, not institutional or legal, but generally cultural and attitudinal. 

Graph 2 data retrieved from: 5

Graph 2 data retrieved from: 5

Behind the numbers

The radical drop after 1989 can be attributed to the hollowness of gender equality under communism. Throughout the 1970s, most communist countries established a quota system, which promoted around 30% women on candidate lists. However, such a quota was highly symbolic since elections were not democratic, parliaments did not hold any real power, and women were generally promoted to lower echelons of politics. 

Thus, behind the progressive statistics hides a deeply patriarchal society. Communist policies aimed at women were rooted in Marxist theory, which posits that women would be emancipated due to abolition of private property, state responsibility for childcare, and their integration into employment, making ‘women … equal to men, not because men began sharing in the child-raising and household chores, but rather because mothers would no longer be responsible for these tasks’. Moreover, unemployment was outlawed. Women carried the “double burden”, meaning that they had to spend long hours working both in their employment and at home. In general, issues like domestic violence or the wage gap were not publicly discussed. 

This hollowness of gender equality spilt into women’s withdrawal from the political scene after the shift to democracy. Quotas were abolished and the perception of women as caretakers and homemakers became much stronger. Parties, such as the Hungarian Democratic Forum, called for women to “return home”. However, while most post-communist countries have made progress since then, Hungary is a notable exception. With parliamentary participation below 10% for the past 27 years, Hungary ranks as one of the lower countries globally in terms of female political participation (153rd in the world according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union Index). 

Most studies conducted on this topic show that one of the most decisive factors behind persistently low political representation of women are cultural, attitudinal, and party ideology (see Sloat [2004], Chiva [2005], Stockemer [2007], Várnagy [2013], Fortin-Rittberger and Rittberger [2014]). While certain electoral rules, such as the size of district magnitudes, or the type of electoral system, whether proportional representation or majoritarian, have sometimes been shown to disfavour women’s representation, they do not hold as strong of an explanation for general trends across countries. After all, elections to the European Parliament are all based on proportional representation, yet the share of women elected varies significantly across Europe. While communist successor and socialist parties are generally more supportive of greater women’s representation, right wing, conservative, and ethno-nationalist parties are not. This can be observed in Graph 1, which shows that representation tends to fluctuate, depending on which party or coalition is in power, because the party system as a whole does not have a unified view on women’s representation and role in society. 

Quotas don’t (always) make the world go round

One of the most common instruments to increase women’s political representation is a quota. However, most studies find that gender quotas are not an essential condition for higher women’s representation, as evidenced by Finland and Denmark, and especially when poorly designed, such as lacking in penalties for breaching the quota rule. 

Poland and Slovenia are the only two post-communist countries with legislated quotas. In 2011, Poland adopted such a quota whereby a party list must include at minimum 35% of female candidates. However, while the proportion of women put forward for election did increase from 23% to 43.5% after the application of the quota, it was not accompanied by a significant increase in the actual number of women elected. 

Slovenia adopted a similar quota in 2006 but no direct increase in elected women was observed. A breakthrough came only in 2011 when the electoral campaign was preceded by strong external pressure of the civil society, NGOs, and pressure from female politicians. This pressure resulted in a higher number of women put forward for candidacy than the minimum quota.  Campaigning for greater awareness of gender issues also contributed to a higher number of women elected.  

Other post-communist countries have strongly rejected legislative quotas, although some parties, such as the Czech Social Democrats, the Hungarian MSzP and Politics Can Be Different (Lehet Más a Politika), have applied a voluntary one. The issue is not that quotas are not proposed or debated - most countries have experienced heated debates on the topic at some point in time. However, quotas do not gain enough support in part because they perceived by some as an insult to women.  It is also argued that women would not be elected due to merit alone, because they are a reminder of the communist era, or that overregulation is unnecessary. On top of this, most parliamentary bills supporting quotas have often proposed by individual MPs, who do not have enough support even from their own parties. 

Resistance to quotas is certainly not a post-communist phenomenon.  France, where the issue of quotas has been debated since the 1970s, provides a potentially valuable lesson for post-communist countries. After years of unsuccessful debates, quotas were finally established due to a reframing of the issue from quotas to parity. Parity, or the demand for perfect equality - 50% women and 50% men - was legitimised as it was seen as less radical, had universal appeal, and did not single out women as a weaker group that would be elected only due to a quota rather than merit. Arguments from the pro-parity group focused on its benefits to the whole system, rather than solely for women. A number of female politicians also came together to create a manifesto which was circulated in the popular weekly magazine L'Express, which helped to foster greater public interest. 

Mind over matter

The Global Gender Gap Index, created by the World Economic Forum to measure economic, educational, health, and political disparities, shows that post-communist countries, with the notable exception of Slovenia, generally fare worse than the rest of European countries. With a ranking out of 145, Hungary occupies the lowest rank at 99.  Others are not much better off, with Slovakia at 97, the Czech Republic at 81 or Romania at 77. The difference between Slovenia and the other countries is that gender equality is a much more encouraged idea in Slovenia. The first feminist society was formed in 1901 and the first constitution of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia from 1946 granted women full equality with men in both public and private domains. Thus, a genuine belief in gender equality is ingrained at both the societal and political levels. 

In contrast, conservative parties have dominated politics in post-communist Hungary. In particular, Fidesz, the Hungarian Civic Alliance, which has gained a lot of traction on the political scene since 2010, supports conservative family and societal values. In a parliamentary debate on domestic violence, Fidesz MP Istvan Varga (1994-2002, 2010-2014) claimed that there would be no domestic violence if women gave birth to more than just one or two children (ideally three to four). While this is certainly one of the more extreme examples, it is indicative of the kinds of opinions that find their way into the Hungarian Parliament. 

Women’s NGOs in post-communist countries are often poorly funded and usually stay away from political issues and focus on welfare and education. Most of the NGOs operate separately from each other, without forming any coalitions striving for the same goal. Nevertheless, such cooperation is possible, such as in the 2007 proposal of a quota in Hungary. In this example, the NGOs did not manage to foster enough societal interest. They would have benefitted from more funding and technical support, which could have been provided by international women’s organisations. 

Until citizens and parties form a genuine belief in gender equality and NGOs and political parties increase cooperation, a systemic change cannot be expected and women will still be significantly underrepresented. 



Klara Ovcackova is a research assistant at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, the Czech Republic.  Follow her on Twitter: @klara_ovc