Under Soviet-style Socialism women appeared to enjoy rights that women in the west were demanding: for example in higher education and at work, access to affordable child care and the right to maternity leave, and abortion. However they were noticeably under-represented in politics, on average paid less well than men (tending to have less skilled jobs), and patriarchal attitudes meant that women had to undertake all the burdens of shopping, housework and child-rearing in addition to employment outside the home. There was also concern that abortion was used in lieu of contraception, and women were expected to return to work after paid maternity leave, although in the 1960s and 1970s some countries introduced unpaid maternity leave for up to a year and/or child allowances. The possibility of expressing feminist criticisms was limited by the stringent controls on any autonomous protest – a very small feminist group in the USSR in the 1980s immediately came under KGB surveillance. Moreover when in the post- Stalinist era dissent began to emerge, active women were likely to focus on basic human rights rather than women’s issues, although in the ferment of the late 1980s feminist issues began to be voiced. A stronger feminism existed in the GDR in the 1980s, where it tended to be linked to peace issues.
Since 1989 the economic, political and cultural situation has changed radically, and also varies between countries, for example in the political power of the Orthodox or Catholic Churches. In Russia in particular women’s position rapidly worsened: as a result of the new market economy (and ensuing economic chaos, poverty and rise in criminality), many more women than men became unemployed and women’s average wages had by 1995 dropped to 40% of men’s (compared with 70% in the Soviet era). Businesses openly advertised for secretaries who were ‘young, blonde, long-legged and without inhibitions’; and rates for the rape and murder of women soared between 1991 and the mid-1990s.
Feminist organizations emerged in the 1990s in Russia and in other parts of the former Communist bloc, for example to provide aid to raped and battered women, and to promote women’s representation in politics. In the second decade of the 21st century small but well-publicized radical groups like Pussy Riot have challenged the authorities.