Mother(s) for President(s)

Yulia is a Russian woman in her mid-fifties, fashionably dressed, her blond hair fixed stylishly on her head. Though short in stature, she exudes an infectious dynamism that reflects her self-confidence. She is a businesswoman, but in June of 1998 as a favor to a friend, and to pick up a little extra money, she has been the tour guide and constant companion of our group of professors. We are on a week long trip visiting Moscow and St. Petersburg, and Yulia has become more than a guide. She has become a fast friend to our group, and a most revealing window into the vagaries of life, especially for women, in the “New Russia”.

As we dine with Yulia in a restaurant owned by her cousin, also a businesswoman, we continue a discussion we have been having about the changing role of women in Russia. The problems for anyone in setting up a private business in Russia today are daunting, but they are especially difficult for women. Talking with Yulia and her cousin after a long evening’s feasting, and toasting with chilled vodka (not for the faint of heart, or stomach), I feel comfortable enough to ask about Yulia’s family. What, I wonder, provided the background for these Russian businesswomen?

Yulia proceeds to tell us a story of family tragedy; a story that many Russians, especially women, could tell of suffering in both Stalin’s Russia and in the evolving post-communist capitalist Russia. She speaks to us as friends, wanting us to take her story with us — partly due to the closeness we have developed, and partly so we do not forget the price all Russians have paid throughout years of turmoil. Before Yulia was born, she tells us, her mother’s first husband was taken away one night during Stalin’s purges of the late 1930s. Her mother didn’t know why he was taken away, and she never heard from him again. After World War II she married Yulia’s father. He, too, was arrested for some unknown crime and went to a Gulag in Siberia. But fortunately, after Stalin’s death in 1953, he was able to return. Yulia was born before her father’s arrest, her sister Larisa after his return.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Larisa went into business. What did she do? “A little bit of everything,” said Yulia. She was very successful. In fact Yulia noted, she was too successful: she made too much money, and was too blunt and plainspoken for the new and mostly male business community. As the banking system was not reliable, Larisa, despite her sister’s warnings, carried large amounts of cash to her apartment on the outskirts of St. Petersburg each evening. One evening, and as she says this Yulia’s voice lowers and she speaks with great sadness, Larisa was followed home and shot. And Yulia is convinced that the murder was not so much for her money as for revenge upon her success as a woman — a woman who considered herself the equal of her male counterparts. The murder was never solved.

So Yulia lost family in both the “old” Soviet Union and in the “new” Russia. The November following Larisa’s murder brought a terrible reminder that her death was not an isolated tragedy. Galina Starovoytova, a member of the Russian Duma (parliament) and an outspoken advocate of democracy and women’s rights in Russia was shot and killed, also in St. Petersburg. Her murder, too, remains unsolved. Shock and outrage followed her murder, but the attitude which spawned it remains pervasive in what one Russian woman writer has labeled “Russia: The Country of Male Power” (Julia Urakcheeva, The Harbinger, April 2000).

These sad stories came to mind this spring, when I stopped in the local chain bookstore in my hometown in the States. Close to the front of the store a special display was set up filled with books for Mother’s Day. The books displayed were the likes Miracles For Women by Karen Kingsbury, Mother’s Memories to Her Children by Thomas Kincaid, The Gift of Motherhood by Cherie Carter-Scott. It struck me that except for Sarah Brady’s book about her anti-gun activism (her husband James was severely wounded in the 1981 shooting of Ronald Reagan), and Sandra Day O’Connor’s book about her youth, The Lazy B (co-written with her brother), all the books focused on “women’s issues” such as beauty, motherhood and romance. There was no mention of “feminism”, and certainly nothing about women in politics.

Pondering these Mother’s Day offerings, the stories of the murdered Russian businesswoman and activist came to mind. It seems that, despite all the differences between the former Soviet Union and America, and now between Russia and America, one stark similarity the two nations have shared is the distinct distrust of women in power. Especially political power. Especially the height of political power. Indeed, it is equally inconceivable that a woman might be elected to top office in either Russia or the US.

In other nations the idea of a woman leading the government has not seemed so frightening. These women led their governments during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s: Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto; Israel, Golda Meir, Turkey, Tansu Ciller; India, Indira Gandhi; the Philippines, Corazon Aquino; and, Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher. Ruling in parliamentary systems where the prime minister was the government’s head (except for President Aquino), these women have been among the most important and influential leaders of the post-World War II era. Russia and America remain mired in seemingly unshakable beliefs about the ability and suitability of women to run a government.

There are women in politics in Russia. Valentina Matviyenko is a deputy prime minister for social affairs in the cabinet of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Ella Pamfilova was the first woman to run for the office of Russian president. She fared poorly, winning only a tiny percentage of the total vote. There is a political party called “Women of Russia” which has tirelessly pushed, not so much for “women’s issues”, but for the idea of women holding political power. In 1998 Yulia made certain that we had a meeting with some of the women from the party. We met in a dingy hall across a street from a lot full of decaying construction equipment. During this meeting some women clacked away at ancient typewriters while others took our questions.

The frustration of a long, drawn out struggle showed on all their faces as we asked about future prospects for women politicians in Russia. One young woman told us that she was a newlywed, and her husband was not happy with her political activity. “This,” he had said to her, “was not for women!” An older woman pointed out that her husband felt the same; and this she felt explained, at least somewhat, why the Russian Duma has only 10% women legislators.

Our group of mostly male professors continued to bombard the women with questions. I did, too, I must admit, until one of the women held up her hand to hold us off. “Your questions all sound as if you want to know what is wrong with us. Our husbands, Russian men in general, they want us to have jobs and make money, take care of the kids and our old parents and be docile and content! They are the problem, not us. And,” she finished to our now sheepish looking group, “what about your country? What about Hillary Clinton?” Indeed, she was right. We launched no more questions, but I felt certain that she did not mean to refer to the Monica scandal then raging back in the states. She was reminding us that if America had a truly gender equitable political system it could just as easily have been Hillary who had gone from law school into politics. Hillary would have had a shot at the presidency on her own, rather than having to marry and follow in the wake of a male politician.

America is as unwilling as Russia to trust the highest executive office to a woman. Yes, there are women in the Senate and in the House of Representatives, women governors; and also women in business and women CEOs. Shirley Chisolm in 1972 and Elizabeth Dole in 2000 ran for president, and Gerraldine Ferraro was Walter Mondale’s vice-presidential candidate in 1984. But these runs were as much symbolic as real. Sandra Day O’Connor does sit on the Supreme Court. In the executive branch, Madaleine Albright was Secretary of State and Condalezzi Rice is George Bush’s National Security Advisor. These are all powerful positions. But place a woman in the most powerful office in the world?! “Fuggadabout it!”

That is exactly what one young eighth grade boy said to me in 1978 when during my dissertation research on the growth of political attitudes in young people, I had asked about the possibility of a woman president. And this is still a dominant attitude among the young men in my current politics classes. During the 2000 election we discussed the apathy many, young and old, felt towards Gore and Bush. Ralph Nader elicited some interest, but when I suggested that there were many women politicians no less capable of being president, the men mostly demurred, although they seemed a bit embarrassed by their view. One brash student plucked up his courage (the class ratio was about 2-1 women to men), stuck up his hand and said, “I know it’s not fashionable to say, but women just can’t be president of the United States.” “Why not?” asked the woman student next to him. He looked around, his friends looked at the floor. “They just can’t! It’s a job for someone strong and women can’t be that kind of strong! You want a woman in charge of nuclear weapons?” “Why not?” asked another woman, and the battle was joined, disintegrating into a babble of conflicting voices.

Along with the sad and tragic stories of Russian women, I thought too of this debate as I stood perusing the sweet, sentimental, “womanly” books in the Mother’s Day display. In America, probably more so than in Russia, the debate over women and politics is an old one. From the American Revolution on, “womanly” traits were associated with weakness and a willingness to abjure liberty for comfort. Writing in 1776, Oxenbridge Thacher warned Britain that the American colonists could not be conquered, as they were a “hardy virtuous set of men . . . strangers to that luxury which effeminates the mind and body.” An early riposte to this view was penned by Abigail Adams. On March 31, 1776 she wrote to her husband John, who was assiduously pushing for the Continental Congress to declare independence from Great Britain: “I long to hear that you have declared an independancy — and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would remember the ladies . . . That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute . . . put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity . . . ” But Abigail didn’t go so far as to ask for political power. She desired only the recognition of women “as Beings placed by providence under your protection.” She knew not to push it — and she would no doubt not have been surprised that it would take yet another 144 years before women won the vote, let alone thought about the presidency or any political office.

Do American mothers still hope, as the old cliché used to go when I was a kid, that their sons will grow up to be president? Or their daughters? My students, though expressing their anti-female bias, ultimately didn’t want any of their kids to go into politics. “Why,” several asked, “would anyone want to be president?” And Russian mothers? They have most likely learned that, for a woman, Russian politics is not only rough and tumble, but downright dangerous. But there is always hope for the future, even if it seems to be only a glimmer shining on small symbols of historically acknowledged accomplishment. New York state is currently running a television ad extolling the diverse array of attractions it offers; including Seneca Falls where in 1848 the first major American women’s rights convention was held. And one of the last images at the commercial’s end is of a perky, smiling young girl of about nine or ten wearing a tee shirt. The shirt proudly proclaims: “Future President”.