Feminism at the End of the World

In Depth
Feminism at the End of the World

Greetings from Russia’s Valley of the Geysers, one of the wonders of the world! This sliver at the edge of the globe is packed, as the name suggests, with nearly a hundred geysers. Plants grow fast enough that you can watch ferns unfurl. The ground steams so violently that I keep thinking, when I glance out my window, that the valley’s on fire.

There’s no Internet, and there are no roads. Instead, we scamper down wooden paths across multicolored waterfalls and boiling rivers. We bathe in a stone basin fed by geyser water. We watch for bears. When the weather’s bad, as it is ten months out of the year, we tuck ourselves into our cabins and watch movies. The two park rangers in residence suck on lemon rinds soaked in spirits to blur their monotonous days. For now, nobody lives here but the rangers, one volunteer, five construction workers, and me. I’m the only woman here. I’m the cook.

It’s hard to see the wonder of the valley out a ten-inch-tall kitchen window.

The territory’s administrators originally sent me here to vend souvenirs to the tourists who swing down each clear day by helicopter. The tourist groups follow a brief circuit along the paths, past bubbling mud and sulfurous water, then take off in a burst of air that sends everything not rooted flying up with them. When I flew in, Nikolai, the head ranger, met me with his arms crossed. “We don’t need someone to sell souvenirs,” he pointed out. “We only have tourists for a few hours each week.”

What they did need, he said, was a woman. “Your main task here is to keep me in a good mood,” he said. “Your secondary task is cooking.”

So I make sauces and soups and salads. I peel potatoes with a sharp knife. There’s no electric refrigeration, so I pack and unpack snow around our softening cuts of meat and cheese. The men compliment me over a tasty meal: “You’ll make a wonderful wife!” They discuss my future (as yet unknown to me) marriage. Konstantin and Dennis, the other ranger and the volunteer, come to the door of the kitchen and say, “Lady of the house, may we enter?”

“Come in,” I say. They do, carrying an extra bed frame between the two of them.

“Look at this,” Konstantin says. “Everything’s tidy and warm. Someone’s looked at this place with a feminine gaze.”

“She can cook, she can clean, she can light a fire,” Dennis says. “She’s ready to get married!” I go to move a bench out of their way. Dennis drops his end of the bed and leaps to my rescue. “That’s too heavy for you,” he tells me, and I know why he thinks so.

“That’s men’s work, to lift things,” says Konstantin. “Women’s work is to have babies.”

I smile. Around us, holes in the earth open and shut. I am angry, increasingly angry, as I salt the broth and wash the dishes, at the repeated references to my feminine gaze, feminine body, feminine interests, feminine abilities. It’s every conversation. It’s every sentence. It’s more regular than the geysers.

Water boils. Snow melts. Out the kitchen window, an acid lake reflects the sun. Nikolai says over dinner, “Women are the cause of all problems.” He might be joking but no one’s laughing. Konstantin says, “A woman’s domain is the world of her home. A man’s domain is the whole world.” Stuck behind a stove in the Valley of the Geysers, I rage.

Our little civilization of nine people has the same failings as my adopted Russian city or my New York home. If I were living in an isolated American state park with rangers and construction workers, they might say worse. Still, as a student of Russian culture, I am always shocked to hear people here speak this way, because we are nestled in one of the pulsing hearts of the country that, to my admiring mind, invented feminism—or at least was the first to put it into practice. Nearly a century ago, Vladimir Lenin rode into power by promising a new Soviet state that would eliminate inequality: of class, of race, of religion, of sex. “There cannot be nor is there nor will there ever be real ‘freedom’ as long as there is no freedom for women from the privileges which the law grants to men,” he proclaimed. Those values were written into the USSR’s constitution, which gave Soviet women “equal rights with men in all spheres of economic, state, cultural, social and political life.” (That language brings to mind the Equal Rights Amendment, which was first proposed in the U.S. ninety years ago, introduced in almost every Congressional session since, and never ratified.)

By 1920, when American women were just getting the right to vote, the Soviet state had legalized abortion, expanded maternity leave, and instituted no-fault divorce. Women could hold property and receive wages. The state moved families into communal housing and opened thousands of free kindergartens, because once Soviet women were freed by public programming from their private gendered cares, they could enter the workforce. Soon the vast majority of women held jobs. Wage equality was mandated. The USSR appointed the world’s first female ambassador, who declared, “The Soviet woman is a full and equal citizen of her country.”

That country is gone. It didn’t last long, anyway.

There’s so much to despise in what was the Soviet Union. Out of its bloody birth, the country entered a short and violent lifetime; it died in 1991 only after killing millions of its own people. Its leaders organized famines, gulags, show trials, and disappearances. How is it then possible that I love it? I do. As a citizen of another huge country that also proclaims its superiority, marches masses into war, and keeps the doors to its execution chambers swinging, I can reconcile love for ideals with disgust at actions. Lenin, who instituted the Red Terror campaign of torture and murder, also crusaded for the rights of oppressed peoples. And after he declared that “one of the primary tasks of the Soviet Republic is to abolish all restrictions on women’s rights,” he followed through—something no president of my own country ever has.

In America, we ask if we can “have it all,” assuming that it’s never all been had before. But look at the USSR for just a couple of pages in the history books. Their women had it all—the baby carriages, the vegetable stews, the staff reports, the oil fields—precisely because they were forced to. American women like me have spent a hundred years asking their government for change; Russian women woke up in 1917 to a state that demanded it of them.

Yet only a few years into the Soviet experiment, that state began to roll its freedoms back. Radically reshaping Russian womanhood wasn’t turning out as gloriously as the government might have hoped. The country’s population was plummeting. In response, the Soviet government reversed its earlier legislation on birth control, abortion, and divorce, and kneecapped women once more. It insisted on equality in the workplace, where all citizens were expected to labor long, but discouraged it in the social sphere. Every patriotic woman was expected to be both a full-time worker and a full-time homemaker.

Two generations after the Russian Revolution, the United States got The Feminine Mystique and the National Organization for Women, Title IX and Our Bodies, Ourselves. American women were finally gaining momentum in their fight for the rights Lenin had enacted long before: wage equality, no-fault divorce, birth control and abortion. Bella Abzug won her congress seat on the campaign slogan “This woman’s place is in the House.” Meanwhile in the strained Soviet Union, where fully one-third of legislators were female, women were asking to slow down. A study found that between her home and job, the average Soviet woman worked fourteen hours a day. Liberated into the workplace then saddled again with domestic duties, Russian women were calling more and more loudly for relief.

Change came again from the top down. Mikhail Gorbachev told his country:

During the years of our difficult and heroic history, we failed to pay attention to women’s specific rights and needs arising from their roles as mothers and homemakers. Engaged in scientific research, working on construction sites, in industry and the service sector…women no longer have enough time to perform their everyday duties at home—keeping house, raising children and creating a good family atmosphere. We have discovered that many of our problems—in children’s and young people’s behavior, in our morals, culture and even industry—are partially caused by the weakening of family ties and a slack attitude toward family responsibilities. This is a paradoxical result of our sincere and politically justified desire to make women equal with men in everything.

The official “Women, go home!” campaign was initiated soon after.

We’re now another revolution later. Surrounded by geysers, I think of the state. The Soviet Union began by assigning identical burdens to every citizen. It then asked its women to shoulder twice the weight. Monuments to socialist strength still stand, so identical stone men and women heave identical tools into the sky, but beneath them, lines of flower shops bear signs that read, “For sweet ladies!” The modern Russian Federation has built a culture in which the two genders are furnished equivalent opportunities; they’re offered what’s considered fit to their natural abilities. Why split chores when women are predisposed for housework? This equivalency goes all the way up—when Hillary Clinton criticized Putin’s handling of the Ukraine crisis, the president said, “It’s better not to argue with women.”

He doesn’t have to. Women now make up just 12% of the contemporary Russian parliament. Throughout the country, they continue to assume almost sole responsibility for home and family, but are now accommodated by a federally shortened workweek. They earn much less than their male counterparts. They’re given flowers.

There’s an iconic early Soviet poster that shows a woman in red flinging open a door to the world. She’s throwing light into a room filled with laundry lines and soapsuds. “Down with kitchen slavery!” the poster says. “We want a new life!” The door frames a city, tall buildings, factories and cafeterias, children playing in a common space—all the possibilities that Lenin’s country promised. I keep the door to my cabin kitchen propped open, too. It lets in the day so I don’t have to waste power on overhead lights. Outside, there are the crossing paths we follow, the little wooden shacks where we sleep, and the hot, lush, green earth. Steam flares into the sky and disappears. An American visitor in this place, I can’t understand having had leaders who decreed equal rights for women. I draw instead on a history of housewives who took to the streets to ask for more. More, I repeat to myself as I heat the pans of vegetable oil. I want more. Lenin’s equality is outdated in Russia, but women in the USA have been begging for that twin weight for years.

So welcome to the Valley of the Geysers, one of the wonders of the world. It’s so beautiful here. It is. It’s wondrous, and it truly is “of the world”—you can’t escape history on a helicopter. No matter the distance from civilization, this spot is irrevocably bound to its country. I arrive, a foreigner, and bind it to ours.

In our village of nine in the green and gushing valley, we portion out rights. Nikolai is our president, Konstantin his right-hand man. The band of construction workers forms a noisy caucus. I am the minority vote. These men I live with, though good-hearted, spend every conversation we have together reminding me where I stand. I cook their meals. I’m not permitted to walk alone outside; “But everyone else can,” I say to the rangers when this rule is announced, and they point out that everyone else is a man. Each day, tasks are assigned in consideration of my gender’s limits: I must not be barefoot, sit on the ground, lean over for too long or fetch my own drinking water. “Girls are weak and little and that’s why men must help them,” Dennis says when he brings the water in. Help them, yes. Hurt them, too.

The dishes, our mealtimes, the bed frame, their jokes: these are all the things that make up a culture, just as the workweek, wage gap and babies do in the world beyond. In this little place, these little things add up into a day-to-day exactly like the one found in our cities, where women, Russian or American, are told we are different, less capable, more pliant, more distracting, less useful, less trustworthy, less knowledgeable, less strong. Almost a century ago on International Women’s Day, Lenin announced the end of “household bondage”—”We have taken a new path,” he told the world. But out the window, all I see are the same narrow wooden ones, dipping, twisting, looping back on themselves forever and covering savage ground.

Julia Phillips is a freelance writer and editor who has published work in The Week, The Hairpin, and The Moscow Times. She tweets @jkbphillips.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby.

Flygirl is Jezebel’s new travel blog dedicated to adventures big and small, tips and tricks for navigation, and exploring the world at large.

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