Schmidt Mária

Women in the 21st Century – Lessons from victory

“The only thing that prevents a woman from succeeding is the woman itself. Women must fight, but they must fight their own shyness and their own inferiority complexes, rather than men. Women who only complain about their own plight and bury themselves into theoretical feminism are much greater enemies of feminism than even the most ferocious women-haters.” — Beatrice Gordon Holmes, London banker, CEO (1929)

During the 20th century, women achieved all they had strived for; they attained all of their goals. Their life expectancy is seven years longer than men. They study, they teach; they work and put others to work. They are leaders and managers, physicians, nurses, engineers, technicians, politicians, soldiers, experts, investigators. And despite that, they are on the brink of losing the 21st century. Their aim to “castrate” men, making any courting, sex, or balanced intersex relations impossible — that is, seeking to dominate men instead of being equal to them, as achieved by the end of the 20th century — might result in squandering an epochal victory. What a pity that would be.


“We have bigger houses but smaller families.” — The Dalai Lama

In pre-modern times, the family was an economic unit based on kinship, where the offspring provided the future manpower for the family’s economic activities. Birth rates were high, as was infant mortality. Families struggled to raise offspring in good health until adulthood. Modernity, with its improvements in hygiene and public health, resulted in lower birth rates and higher life expectancies. As a result, fundamental changes occurred in the lives of both families and individuals. One factor lowering fertility rates was the elimination of illiteracy among women. Birth rates in fact are closely related to literacy levels throughout the world. As soon as women learn to read and write, birth rates tend to decline.

In our country, public education was extended to girls for the first time by Maria Theresa’s Ratio Educationis in 1777, which made daily, morning and afternoon education for children of both sexes mandatory from the age of six. Hungary was among the first countries to introduce elementary-level education in 1868. Soon thereafter, the first teachers’ training colleges were set up for women, first by the Catholic Church (1855), then by the state (1869). The first special training school for kindergarten teachers was founded in 1876. Girls were allowed to take their matriculation exams and enroll in university at the end of the century (1895). The first grammar school for girls opened its doors in Budapest in 1896 and employed the first woman teacher with a doctoral degree, Dr. Mária Schmidt, who taught Hungarian and history. The number of working women also started to gradually increase. On the eve of WWI, over two and a half million women worked in industry and public service, including, first and foremost, education and public health.

What changed everything was World War I

“Cabinet Minister, Cabinet Minister, Can your heart cope with women being deprived of the right to vote or be elected? Women have been electable for many centuries. Electable as companions – legitimate and illegitimate. Cabinet Minister, Cabinet Minister, oh soften your heart please: let women be granted voting rights – active and passive alike!” — Feminist petition to Vilmos Vázsonyi

World War I brought decisive changes for women. Universal conscription imposed military service on working-age men who spent years outside their country and their families. During the protracted war, women had to take over the management of families and family businesses as well as take part in caring for the wounded. Later, work in the war industry, and the rest of the economy, increasingly became their responsibility. Women were thus essentially forced into becoming workers. The change was reflected by new trends in fashion. Women had their hair cut, skirts became shorter, and they sewed pockets onto their coats. During the war, women proved their worth in all walks of life. It would no longer be possible to deny them the right to work, to study or to vote.

Under government decree 5985 issued on Nov. 17, 1919, all men and women above the age of 21, bearing Hungarian citizenship for at least six years and residing in the same settlement for at least six months, were granted the right to vote for members of the National Assembly. Women voters, however, were also required to be able to read and write. Hungary’s first woman MP, Catholic nun Margit Slachta, was elected to parliament in 1920.

By acquiring the right to vote, women attained the most important demand of 19th-century suffragettes and other women’s rights movements. In 1922, voting rights were somewhat restricted. The age limit was raised to 24 years for men and 30 for women. What’s more, while men were only required to have completed four years of elementary school, women had to have completed six, except if they were married, had three children or could provide for their needs from their own income. By that time, women represented 30 percent of the workforce. This was in line with European trends, as was the decline in fertility rates, which would continue during and after World War II.

Women on This Side of the Iron Curtain

“In the patterns established by communist ideologists, at first, the ideal woman was represented by a weaver in a textile mill; then, after some time, that role was suddenly taken over by a mother of three, the perfect housewife and mother.” — Valéria Kormos

After World War II, Europe was split in two, with the two halves developing along diverging trajectories as a result. The Western half was Americanized, while the Eastern half was annexed to the Soviet empire and Sovietized.

The role and the position of women in life developed in conformity with those diverging social and economic models. The goal set in the Soviet Union was to make women fully equal, while the Western, Americanized world still indicated the place of women, for a long time to come, as within the family — as mothers and wives. 

In Hungary, the Act of Parliament Nr. VIII of 1945 granted general secret suffrage to all men and women over 20 years of age. While in 1939, the electorate included 220,000 Hungarian women, from 1945 on, about 3 million of them had the right to vote. In 1946, all universities and colleges became accessible to women as well. The constitution adopted in 1949 stipulated that “women enjoy rights equal to those of men,” a principle confirmed by the constitutional amendment passed in 1972.

Equal rights for women meant that they had to take up their share of the post-war reconstruction as well. All the more so since a substantial part of the male population had been deported to the Gulag or were prisoners of war; others returned from the war handicapped or were imprisoned by the communists. As women had already stepped in for men absent during the war, mainly as machine operators or in labor-intensive branches of light (textile and food) industry, it was only natural for them to continue. However, they also had to take on their share of the rebuilding of the country, that is, in large-scale heavy industry projects. In these fields, given the shortage of both capital and modern technology, there was an urgent need for untrained labor, which was partly met by recruiting women on a large scale. In another parallel development, 1945 brought single-income families to an end – families could not do without the earnings of women anymore. And that hasn’t ever changed since.

Women carpenters, harvester operators, toolmakers, tractor operators and police officers were smiling at us from posters, as official propaganda pushed women working in heavy industry as role models for women at large. The modern socialist woman was just as good a producer as any man, while she was, of course, also pretty and well-groomed. In addition, she was irreplaceable in the family as a good wife and mother who, apart from working, also never stopped learning, re-qualifying herself and taking on her share of party activities and unpaid voluntary work. Hard physical labor was no hurdle at all for socialist women, nor would they feel inhibited from being 100 percent efficient in the second economy, that is in the family and home. 

Having forced women into the world of labor, the communist regime made efforts to build a system of welfare services that would alleviate the plight of women. The socialist state considered children a kind of public asset and therefore supported childbearing and education.

Motherhood ceased to be a private matter and was promoted to the status of being a service to society. “Childbearing is a duty for wives, while a glory for girls!” the slogan went. In order to increase birth rates, Minister of Health Anna Ratkó imposed an almost total ban on abortion and severe sanctions against illegal abortions; she also introduced a 4-percent infertility tax. That was the beginning of the Ratkó era when the government intended to halt the declining birth rate resulting from modernization and hard living conditions.

Women still remember that ban and the sanctions imposed on women and gynecologists guilty of performing abortions, and they still hold a grudge against all that. Meanwhile, however, the communist government introduced a series of measures to protect the health of working women, young people, pregnant women and children. Women were given 12 weeks of maternity leave, which they could take in two equal halves before and after the birth of their child or altogether after birth. If they showed up to the three mandatory pre-birth medical checkups, they were given a set of free baby garments, and for six to nine months, new mothers had the right to take time for breastfeeding during working hours. They could apply for pregnancy, childbearing and maternity allowances as well, and soon family allowances were introduced, too. The authorities laid particular emphasis on developing the network of daycare centers and nurseries. Homes were opened for unwed mothers, with 70 beds in Budapest and 100 each in Sztálinváros and Miskolc. The network of district nurses caring for pregnant women and newborn babies in their areas was modernized and expanded. The ban on abortion was lifted in 1956, while the infertility tax was abolished after the 1956 revolution.

The childcare institutions mentioned above, from nurseries and kindergartens to in-school daycare centers, were meant to offer relief to women in their “second shift.” A massive network of kitchens in schools, offices and factories was another way of helping families by providing meals. Later on, as household appliances and ready-made clothes became available and self-service shops became widespread, daily shopping also became simpler.

In other developments, women could choose from an assortment of half-cooked meals and have bedsheets and other larger items cleaned by a state-owned cleaning network. In addition, men started accepting that they had a duty to help out with household chores and parenting duties. In an effort to encourage couples to have children, a childbearing allowance was introduced in 1967, allowing mothers to enjoy a monthly income while staying at home with their children. After the regime change, most measures to support mothers were abolished and the network of nurseries was cut back. In 1998, the childbearing allowance was revived, and today, fathers and grandparents are also included among the potential beneficiaries.

In 1985, a new form of childbearing allowance was introduced, the sum of which was proportional to the parent’s income. This allowance was among the ones terminated by the Socialist-Liberal government as part of its austerity package introduced in 1995 under the finance minister at the time, Lajos Bokros; it was reintroduced again in 2000. Certain subsidies introduced to support women under socialism are thus still in force; moreover, since 2010, they have been broadened and new ones introduced. All of this forms a part of the general consensus on the duty of the state to provide institutional conditions that allow women to equally meet their roles in the family, in childbearing and at their workplaces. By 2020, the Hungarian system of support for families had become one of the best in Europe.

Although changes in Hungary’s society and economy have resulted in massive increases in the employment of women and their level of education, the traditional concept of the ideal woman has remained in place. Over the past 75 years, the expectation that the performance of women in all spheres of life must be equal to that of men has become consensual, while they are still expected to remain housewives, mothers, wives and, of course, women.

Childbearing, leading the household and obtaining vocational training and/or a university degree didn’t prevent Hungary’s women from remaining feminine and attractive, pretty and well-groomed. They take care of their hair and their nails; cook fine meals and take care of the children; support and love their husbands; and care for ailing and older members of their families. Coping with those multiple tasks became the emancipation model of Central European women, as they were 100 percent women, mothers and employees, all at the same time.

Emancipation interrupted

“First we had to prove that women were being discriminated against and that it was evil”. — Gloria Steinem

In the wake of the Second World War, women in the Americanized West withdrew from the realm of labor and remained at home until their children reached the age of 10 to 12 or even longer. The general consensus was that women should continue to be first and foremost, or even almost exclusively, housewives and mothers. Getting married young and raising children remained the main goal of Western girls. Even after having accomplished this, they stayed away from employment, although this did not apply to lower-income families where women had to work. That was made possible by a family model based on one income, which survived until the end of the 1970s, with husbands earning enough to support their families. Therefore, no network of public childcare institutions — nurseries, kindergartens, daycare centers — was built west of the Iron Curtain, and in times of labor shortage, for instance in the 1960s, rather than recruiting women, the vacuum was filled by “guest workers” in Germany and France and by immigrants in the United States. After 1990, in the presence of a labor surplus in the newly reunited Germany, the East German network of nurseries and kindergartens was dismantled to keep East German women out of the labor market, after they had been part of it for decades.

Since the 1980s, the single-income family model has been increasingly in crisis in the U.S. and in many Western European countries that have been forcing women to seek jobs in order to contribute to the family budget. Nevertheless, there is still no public network of daycare institutions available in many of these countries. In the U.S., there is no maternity allowance; childbearing is considered to be a private matter, and women have to return to their jobs within a few days or a few weeks after their children are born.

In the wake of 1945, the lives of women developed along two clearly distinct lines: in Hungary, as in the socialist bloc in general, on the one hand, and in the Americanized West, on the other. Women belonging to the first group became part of the workforce immediately after World War II and thus appeared in the labor market, as well as in political and social life, as equal citizens. They performed multiple tasks — as mothers, housewives, women, wives and employees. Meanwhile, the American model resulted in halting women’s emancipation.

The two diverging interpretations of a woman’s role were sharply expressed in 1959 when the competing hostile superpowers mounted trade exhibitions in each other’s capitals. The Soviet Union represented itself as a great power of innovation, exhibiting three Sputniks to show off its technological achievements. The United States, on the other hand, retorted with a show of the American way of life in Moscow. It set up a three-bedroom “typical” American worker’s home, with a marvelous, shiny kitchen as well as the latest household appliances and amenities, including a color TV.

The Soviets emphasized their achievements in the realm of modern science. The message was that their GDP growth was already over 7 percent per year and would be ahead of America’s in just a short time. The Americans, on the other hand, sent the message that the American way of life offered the average citizen a higher quality, more liveable, more humane, and happier life. The U.S. contrasted the hardships and scarce everyday life of Soviets struggling with supply problems with the higher living standards of its consumer society. After having visited the American exhibition in Moscow, Khrushchev told then Vice-President Richard Nixon, who had been guiding him through the exhibit, “This exhibition is about your idea of keeping women in the kitchen. We value them more than that.”

Khrushchev was convinced that the struggle between the two world systems would be decided by superiority in science and innovation. He was mistaken. What would prove decisive was the desire for consumption. People forced to live under the Soviet regime also longed for the Western world, symbolized by neon light advertisements. They wanted to consume.

Women’s roles thus followed diverging patterns in the two blocks after 1945.

While on our side of the Iron Curtain, as a result of a labor shortage and the labor-intensive procedures of production, women were employed, gained an equal status and, as a result, fulfilled multiple duties as tractor operators, enterprise managers and educators, while the women of the countries following the American model, who had proven their worth in all spheres of life during the war, were pushed back into the private sphere. Western women were locked up into the role of housewives living the idyllic life of the suburbs. 

In the 70s and 80s, we read about their belated emancipation movements. As Valéria Kormos said in her book Álomszövők (Dream Weavers), “We saw them somewhat condescendingly as if they were merely waving their bras because we had long achieved what they were demanding at their demonstrations. Mind you, under socialism, it wouldn’t have been possible to take to the streets just like that, assemble or demonstrate in public.”

When women were forced to join the workforce, those who continued to live for their families, dedicating themselves to “only” raising their children, were for a long time deprived of society’s respect. In contrast, first-generation intellectual wives who studied, excelled and proved their worth in the world of masculine professions were presented as role models. Right as Western women had become fed up with their role as housewives, the governments of socialist countries began to show more respect toward women for whom family life, the household, childbearing and childcare came first. The safety of family life started being revalued in the East, along with consumption, fashion and comfort.

When in 1990, in the wake of the fall of the Soviet empire, it was our region’s turn to Americanize itself, Western representatives of women’s emancipation and feminism cluelessly started lecturing us about women’s equality in the spirit of the prevailing international standards. They wanted us to share the goals they had set on the basis of their own experience, which they were uniformly promoting in Colombia, Albania, Indonesia, Iraq, and Kenya. They were proceeding with the usual copy-paste methodology, ignoring that when it came to women’s equality, they were the ones who were some three decades behind us. Wouldn’t they perhaps have something to learn from us? After all, we had been equal with men for over 75 years and by then had more or less reached a state of equilibrium. Women in Hungary were and still are in a good place. They are self-aware and successful. They are absolute virtuosos, capable of fulfilling the roles of full-fledged mother, wife and exemplary employee, all at the same time. This is something to be proud of. 

The Machismo of 1968

“What kind of spell has our generation been struck by to make us suddenly regard young people as if they were the messengers of some perfect truth?” — Federico Fellini

The Western world was set on a new course with dramatic force by the generational explosion of 1968. The baby-boom generation of Berlin, Milan, Paris and Washington turned against the world of their parents in an effort to stir up a revolution — if not a social one, a more important, cultural one. They occupied institutions, universities, public education, the media and, by the end of the 20th century, the world of politics as well.

The West’s 1968 was a macho movement. Its leaders, ideologists, main advocates and activists were all men who had no intention of dealing with “women’s” issues that had remained unsolved because of the interrupted emancipation of women. By then, however, the number of female students at Western universities had been steadily growing. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg, now a liberal female icon, enrolled at Harvard Law School in 1956, the ratio of female students was nine in 500.

By 1968, things had started to change. As higher education became accessible to masses of people, the number of girls attending college followed suit. Meanwhile, the room Western women had to maneuver within was still defined by the triangle of marriage, parenting and housework. When in 1968 women attending universities or having recently graduated saw that the revolution of the new generations was going on “without them,” they decided to launch their own battle. ’68 thus also became a watershed in the struggle of Western women for emancipation. All the more so because that was the time when contraceptive pills became broadly accessible, making it possible to detach sexuality from reproduction. The sexual revolution was launched with the result of liberating women on both sides of the Iron Curtain from the threat of unwanted pregnancy and consequent compulsory marriage, by making sex risk-free. Sexual taboos started falling and most strict rules inherited from the Victorian age became null and void. Women could lead their sexual lives as equal partners to men and could make independent decisions about it. Samuel Colt’s revolver guaranteed men and women were equal, and “the pill” set women free. According to theorists, contraceptives and condoms became the sickles and hammers of the sexual revolution.

The belated revolution of Western women

“Generally speaking, children do not revolt. With historical hindsight, those of 1968 were the exception.” — Houellebecq

From the 1970s on, Western women found that it was time for them to break out of the nuclear family and the world of household chores. The signal was Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963. Friedan, a divorced mother of three, claimed that living as secluded women in a marriage — an existence as housewives — was unsatisfying for many of them. Their exclusion from the labor market and dependence on their husbands was humiliating in many cases and led to unhappiness. Friedan’s book was a great inspiration for the women’s rights movement that unfolded in the U.S. and in the Americanized world at large after 1968.

Western women fought for the kind of rights we in the East had been enjoying for decades and which had become natural parts of our lives by then. After having graduated from university in the late 1970s, I received a several-month scholarship from Vienna University to work on my doctoral thesis on the history of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. One day, I was invited by my fellow students to a feminist gathering. The topic discussed was why girls didn’t dare take the floor in faculty workshops. “Why?” I asked in sincere astonishment. “Because of the boys,” was the reply. “I just don’t understand,” I said. “We and my fellow students in Hungary never had such problems.” They were flabbergasted and never invited me again. Girls in Austrian universities had no idea about the thoroughly different position of women in socialist Hungary. Not that they cared. Nor did the uniform propaganda we were continuously fed ever point out how narrow the elbow room of Western women was compared to ours.

Starting in the 1970s, Western women started addressing their right to their own bodies, especially reproductive rights — contraception and abortion, encapsulated in the still-controversial Roe vs. Wade decision of 1973. Later on, in the 21st century, further elements were included, such as clarifying the consequences of in vitro fertilization and demanding stricter sanctions against sexual harassment, domestic violence and rape. Lively debates were going on about prostitution; in our countries, it was officially banned and therefore did not exist, while it was flourishing freely in the West. Prostitution was opposed by most feminists as a form of exploitation of women, and feminist advocates urged states to equally prosecute pimps and clients.

The right to abortion was one of the most important goals feminists set out to achieve. They saw pregnancy as an exercise of their right to self-determination and the fate of a fetus as part of their sovereignty over their own bodies. They argued that pregnancy is a process within the female body that determines all important aspects of a woman’s life as long as it persists. Therefore, depriving a woman of the right to decide about her own pregnancy was seen as the gravest violation of her self-determination. They argue that a pregnant woman’s subsequent personal fate is fundamentally influenced by whether or not she gives birth to her child. Thus, any decision by the state to compel women to carry a fetus to term by banning abortion deprived women of the right to decide their own destiny, thus preventing them from exercising a basic human right. According to feminists, all that could be expected was that pregnant women, after recognizing their pregnancy, seriously face their own moral convictions, responsibly consider whether they had substantial enough reason for rejecting the pregnancy, and then make a decision they could sustain in good conscience.

Today, this conception, which was revolutionary in many respects at the time, has become dominant. The decision about giving birth to a child is defined as being a women’s exclusive competence, while after birth, the state may enforce a father’s responsibility. In my opinion, mothers and fathers should decide together about keeping or interrupting a pregnancy. Excluding men from that decision on the basis of “my body, my decision” is selfish in relation to the fetus.

Consumption as something to live for

“The shared ideal of the West is Holy Consumption.” — Tamás Molnár

In the 1970s, women in the West also started to become a greater part of the workforce, which valued their status as consumers as well. It had already been obvious that women made decisions regarding over 80 percent of household expenses, but from that point on, women started making their own financial decisions too. Household chores were increasingly turning into a management-type activity that, thanks to the growing number of household appliances, could be performed by the men who had previously been unfamiliar with those tasks. Electric “servants” — irons, washing machines, dishwashers, dryers, electric whisks, hair dryers, toasters, ovens, refrigerators, coffee machines, grills, etc. generally became available. Shopping was also made easier by huge supermarkets. The boundary between men’s and women’s tasks in the household thus became increasingly blurred and even gradually disappeared. Furthermore, as machines increasingly took over the role of hard labor in industry, many jobs traditionally reserved for men could now be filled with women. With the “liberation” progressing in the West so quickly, 1975 was proclaimed by the United Nations “the International Year of Women.”

Meanwhile, French women were demonstrating in Paris claiming that the high-end appliance maker “Moulinex does not liberate women” and demanded the right to abortion as well. Married French women had been free to find employment and could open bank accounts without the consent of their husbands since 1965. However, married women in West Germany had to wait another decade — until 1977 — before being allowed to do the same. Until then, they were also banned from employment unless their husbands gave permission. In the U.S., women could get their own credit cards starting in the 1970s.

The differences between the two models are rather striking. The socialist model left women with no choice but to join the workforce, devaluing parenting, household activities and caring for elderly, and sick family members. It compelled women to work two shifts, thus laying an enormous burden on them. No wonder many interpreted their “liberation” as being coerced into having to make superhuman efforts. Women employed in the so-called light industry were in reality performing hard physical labor, and although their salaries were high by contemporary standards, most of the time they had to get up at 3 or 4 a.m. to be able to feed the animals and cook meals for the family before going to work at the spinning or weaving mills. At the age of 30, they looked 60 years old.

Only much later did they get the state to let them choose if they stayed at home with the kids, and if so, for how long or if they would return to work as soon as possible. Despite the difficulties of the early decades, the model of women with their own careers and incomes was slowly solidified, and the routine of reconciling their various roles became well organized. As of today, the equality of Hungary’s women has become natural and unquestionable.

After WWII, the two-income family model became common and even exclusive within the Soviet bloc. That implied that women had to contribute to the family budget. From the 1980s, middle-class incomes started stagnating and even falling in Western Europe and in the United States. Thus, middle-class women in those countries also had to seek employment. Among lower-income families, women had by then become accustomed to contributing to the family budget, however, a network of welfare institutions like ours hadn’t been established by most states, and in many countries, women are still not as lavishly supported as they are in former socialist countries, including Prime Minister Orbán’s Hungary. In the United States and many West European countries, children are still not considered “public assets,” and childbearing and parenting have remained private matters.

Due to multiple loads being carried by women, attitudes toward childbearing have changed. The new, emancipated generations started considering children as something that limited consumption. The American way of life, as we have already mentioned, elevated consumption to be the most important purpose of human life, whereby it became more acceptable to consider children, rather than a blessing, as a burden that forced a family to distribute its income among more people. Children ceased to be a guarantee of the survival of the family or a potential supplementary workforce as they had been seen earlier; instead, they became a burden on their families’ finances and a factor inhibiting women’s self-fulfillment.

As divorces have become ever more frequent and people are consequently changing partners often, the nuclear family with two parents is being replaced more and more by families with just one parent or more than two. Many children are being raised by lonely parents, but in many cases, they have several, with some only appearing in their lives for a limited time. The pattern of the nuclear family is thus in crisis. Meanwhile, the broader family as a model has also disappeared or has at least become extremely rare. It is no longer fashionable for several generations to live under one shared roof, raising children in common, sharing the effort to care for the elderly, performing household chores and shouldering burdens together.

As a result of their belated emancipation, for a long time, Western women would join the workforce only sporadically and temporarily, until they got married. Throughout the decisive years of their lives, they did not have their own income, rendering them dependent and limiting their room to maneuver. Meanwhile, they had to shoulder much lighter burdens than their East European counterparts. That became especially striking in the 1960s when living standards in the West started rising sharply while stagnating in our countries.

Living standards in social market economies are still substantially higher than in our region. However, as to women’s equality, the lives of Western women are no different from our own. Our rights and duties are comparable. The only difference is that while in our countries, even our great-grandmothers were emancipated, west of the Leitha River (Lower Austria, Hungary), the first women to embark on that “adventure” were the generation of today’s grandmothers.