In this new history book Kristen rescues an important episode in the history of women’s activism at the United Nations – the contribution of women from the state socialist countries in Eastern Europe (“the Second World” as they called themselves). Equally importantly she reminds us of how important communism was to the lives of these women in giving them hope for a better future within a world turned upside down.
Kristen uses the experiences of socialist countries such as Bulgaria and socialist Zambia to highlight the way in which connections were made between the Second and Developing worlds, leading to the spread of ideas about women’s equality and how women could be part of creating a new world in which women played an important role in shaping society.
These ideas contrasted sharply with the lives of women in advanced capitalist countries such as the USA where Cold War politics marginalised progressive women and their hopes and dreams for a more equal society.
As a fluent speaker of Bulgarian Kristen was able to go and speak to some of the surviving women to find out how and why they became involved in women’s politics. She explains the difficulties of interviewing women such as Krastina Tchomakova, a nonagenarian, who had been involved with communist politics from the age of 18 years.
For her it was a mixture of personal experience of being denied an education (unlike her brothers), the revolution of 1917 and her own readings of Marxist literature that drove her towards communist politics. As Kristen points out: “How could a poor peasant girl such as Krastina Tchomakova, born in rural Bulgaria to illiterate parents, ever rise up to become a member of an official delegation to a United Nations conference halfway across the world?”
Women such as Krastina worked within the political constraints of the communist world they inhabited, playing a clever chess game that weaved together socialist tracts with the country’s need for women in the workplace. “Compared with the post-war situation in the USA Bulgarian women were leagues ahead of their American sisters by 1975”.
All women were working within the Cold War politics that had male politicians in the East and West still in control but it was the Second World women who worked hard to push women’s needs up the national agendas of their countries. At that time African, Asian and Latin American countries were emerging out of their colonial status after liberation struggles. To women in these countries the socialist bloc provided a more positive alliance, offering support to rebuild their countries and provide the women in the countries with programmes for education, healthcare and training.
Kristen chooses Zambia as her example of a former colony that chose to go down the socialist route under charismatic leader Kenneth Kaunda. She interviews Chibesa Kankasa, who was the President of the United National Independence Party Women’s League and a member of the Central Committee.
For a post independence country adjacent to racist regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa choosing to make alliances with the socialist bloc led to the rise of women such as Chibesa and the promotion of women’s issues in Zambia while links with the Bulgarian women’s movement ensured their position at international conferences during the UN Decade for Women in 1975.
How this international status played out for the ordinary Zambian woman on the ground is more difficult to assess, but Kristen concludes; “Zambian women saw the most improvements to the material conditions of their lives during the UNIP era, particularly when one considers the free access to education and healthcare they once enjoyed.”
The United Nations International Year of Women and its three conferences over the decade were promoted by Second World women who worked in alliance with their sisters in the developing worlds. They wanted to ensure that the needs of women would be on the international agenda. But the tensions between the different philosophies put them at loggerheads with countries such as the USA who promoted freemarket ideology while socialist women believed in the primacy of the state as a catalyst for women’s equality . And for all the problems faced by socialist women in countries such as Bulgaria and Zambia their strength lay in working together to shape the international agenda about women’s issues.
Kristen has written a very important book. Not just in terms of reminding us of an important aspect of women’s history, but in allowing individual women to tell their story and show the price they have paid for their political activity.
Reading it reminds me of interviewing Betty Tebbs, a British working class woman who became involved in socialist politics in this country which led to her involvement with Valentina Tereshkova and a life long commitment to peace activities. Betty’s autobiography, which she wrote in 1997, was self published, and like many other Left women she has never been given the recognition that she deserved.
I think Kristen’s book is a reminder of how important this history is and how much it has been ignored and marginalised in the history of the left across the world.
Read more about Betty in my book Northern ReSisters
Buy “Second World Second Sex” here