This report first appeared in Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 7, no. 15, Autumn 1992.
For four days in November 1991 I attended an international seminar in Moscow. The letter inviting me to present a paper had arrived in July on the letterhead of the Academy of the Social Sciences of the USSR. That institution had been renamed by November: it is now called the Russian Academy of Management.
Speeches made at a small lunch on the first day, hosted by the Academy's new head and attended by one of the women in the People's Congress of Deputies, indicated that there was a struggle in process over who would control the Academy, now that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union [CPSU] had been banned. They suggested, too, that our seminar would play a major part in determining the outcome of such a struggle. What was less immediately clear, though, was why this seminar might have such determining power. Its subject was ‘Gender Studies: Issues and Perspectives’.
We had been given a definition of ‘Gender Studies’ during the first morning. Dr Anastasiya Posadskaya, Director of the new Gender Studies Centre established in the Institute of Social and Economic Problems of Population in a different academy, the Academy of Science, told us that the Centre had introduced the term into the Russian vocabulary in a discussion that it had organised in 1989 under the heading ‘How to Solve the Woman Question?’ The principal social divisions between women and men are not ‘natural’, she reminded us. They are socially constructed. ‘Gender’ refers to the social construction of the feminine and the masculine, and the allocation of socially differentiated kinds of work as part of such a construction. ‘No single phenomenon can be genderneutral’, she declared. ‘If gender is concealed, the task of the researcher is to discover and analyse it.’ And this was particularly important in the USSR at present, she said. It would not have been possible to hold a seminar like this one in the USSR even as recently as two years ago.
Did this mean that perestroika, and moves toward a market economy — so celebrated as liberalising progress in the Western media — were improving conditions for women? Was there an upsurge of activist feminism across what was still, then, being called the USSR? If there was, what forms was it taking?