Women's Rights in 1970s Europe

by Danielle Miller and Victoria Struys

On November 25, the IES, along with the Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ISEEES), and the Working Group for German History and Culture, was pleased to welcome Celia Donert from the University of Cambridge. In her paper, “The Working Women’s Charter: Women’s Rights between Socialist Internationalism and Neoliberalism in 1970s Europe,” Donert explored how proposals for a Working Women’s Charter developed through 1970s Europe. At times, proposals put forth by trade union movements and women’s groups in Europe crossed geographic and ideological barriers between communist Eastern Europe and the West, with many calling for equal rights to be integrated further into political and economic development goals of the decade and beyond. 

Donert began her lecture with the 1979 World Federation of Trade Unions’s introduction of rights to employment, equal pay, maternity leave and many others. Begun in 1940 to claim equal pay for equal work, the WFTU experienced conflicts over female laborers and social and economic rights during the Cold War, and was dismissed by critics as communist propaganda. Donert demonstrated that the narrative of feminism in the East offered a different perspective on discrimination against women. However, she insisted that even though conditions were different and socialist countries tried to reduce inequality, women were still not considered equal to men. In some of the countries of the Eastern bloc, pay discrimination toward women was also observed. Several charters for women’s rights were proposed, but it proved difficult to see them applied and accepted. 

During the Q&A, Donert spoke of the post-1989 transformation of discourse on women’s rights. Some scholars of gender studies, she noted, see “sexual rights” as the “final frontier of democratization” since the collapse of the Soviet Union. She noted that the weaponization of women’s rights by oppressive, autocratic regimes continues to pose a challenge for universal women’s rights. In addition, cultural and religious differences between countries’ notions of “freedom”— and the degree to which a state should intervene to guarantee it— prove difficult to reconcile. When asked what happened to Eastern European women’s rights organizations after the fall of communism, Donert noted that several women continued activism at a broad, European level, even joining social lobbies funded by the EU.