The Sputnik Generation: Gender Roles as Defining Personality

In Ch. 3 of “Russia’s Sputnik Generation: Soviet Baby Boomers Talk about Their Lives”, editor and historian Donald J. Raleigh interviewed Natalia P. to discover what values, events and ideology shaped the formation of Soviet identity during 1960s and 1970s in the Soviet Union. Natalia P. is a language enthusiast, professor of foreign languages, mother and wife. Throughout this chapter, Natalia reminisced on her childhood during the Khrushchev era (1956-1964) and her adolescence and young adulthood during the Brezhnev era (1964-1982). When discussing the factors that shapes her own identity, Natalia pointed to her family values and credits her father as someone who taught her the importance of character and having strong principles in a society where bribing and using others to one’s advantage were common practices.

Through her own recollections, however, it is evident that Natalia’s own self-understanding comes from her strong identification with being a woman. When asked if she ever read any samizdat publications or participated in the dissident movement, Natalia replied “…it passed us by. You have to understand that it was all young women who studied in [her department]. We were not at all interested in politics. We were basically interested in boys and romance and…studying. Therefore samizdat didn’t circulate among us” (108). Raleigh also explicitly asked Natalia to explain how her gender defined her own identity and questioned whether her life would have been different if she had been born a man. To this, Natalia replied that she currently occupies a “exclusively man’s job at work” (108), adding that she was the only female department head (“can you imagine?” (108)) and claiming that she would like to “very much like to be a woman again, but I don’t like emancipation. What is, is. It’s too late” (108).

Although Soviet ideology emphasized gender equality (especially during the 1920s and 1930s), the reality and actual experiences of women in the Soviet Union shows otherwise. By claiming that females aren’t interested in politics, or that there are certain male positions, Natalia P. is making broad claims, yet is showing that her own self-understanding rests on this gender distinction. Was gender equality really as important in Soviet everyday life as it is ideologically claimed to be? For Natalia P, gender equality does not seem to be an issue. Indeed, her own identity rests on the fact that women and men are not equal. However, was this statement as universal as she claims? Did women feel unequal to men, and if so, was this a problem for their self-understanding?

Challenging the Traditional Roles of Women

The role of middle-class women existed solely in the home, which is seen easily in both Sanford and Beeton’s writings. Both women stress the importance of maintaining the role of a domestic housewife. In fact, alternative roles are not presented in either writings. Beeton managed to craft an entire novel dedicated to teach women how to properly execute their duties as a housewife.However, Emmeline Pankhurst, a militant suffragist, challenged these notions, demanding women gain the right to vote, which opposed the traditional roles placed on women. Those who fought against women’s suffrage argued that women did not participate in life outside the home, so they did not need the right to vote. The world of politics was an old boys club, and women were expected to stay out of the political fray. However, Pankhurst herself was a dramatic challenge to this traditional ideal. She was a politically active militant suffragist, as well as a mother, defying the traditional roles placed upon women. The ideal middle class family she and other feminists challenged contained a well paid, hard working father, happy and healthy children, and a wife in charge of all household operations. However, feminists and suffragists challenged this ideal in the hopes of breaking down the strict gender roles.

Motherhood and Reproduction in the Fascist, Soviet, and Nazi Regimes

In Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and Mussolini’s Italy, all three regimes emphasized the national importance of genetics and increased birth rates as a state resource. In Hoffman and Timm’s chapter on Utopian Biopolitics, Nazi eugenics that promoted selective racial hygiene and purity is contrasted with Soviet non-selective pronatalism. ((Hoffmann, David L., and Annette F. Timm. “Utopian Biopolitics: Reproductive Policies, Gender Roles, and Sexuality in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.” In Beyond Totalitarianism – Stalinism and Nazism Compared, edited by Michael Geyer and Sheila Fitzpatrick, 87-129. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009. )) Wilson analyzes the woman’s role in Fascism in his article separately. ((Wilson, Perry R. “Women in Fascist Italy.” In Facist Italy and Nazi Germany – Comparisons and Contrasts, edited by Richard Bessel, 78-93. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996.))

Each regime attempted to characterize the woman’s role as a prolific mother in different ways. The common thread running between each dictatorship was the notion that women should actively participate in the creation of the future Utopian state by literally producing as many offspring as possible. As the Nazi state was repressive in many ways, ironically, it was not repressive of heterosexual sexual freedoms. Himmler himself sanctioned premarital and even extramarital sex, considering intercourse productive if between two Aryan individuals. ((Hoffmann and Timm, Utopian Biopolitics, p. 106)) In this way, sexual relationships, a highly, personal interaction, were characterized by practical, statist goals. In contrast, in both Nazi and Soviet policy, homosexuality was viewed as a waste of “genetic stock” and was therefore prosecuted as a crime against the state. In these illiberal nations that denounced capitalism, children were seen as a valuable and priceless commodity that should be produced and protected at all costs. Through incentivization and coercion, each regime found a way to influence reproductive decisions but ultimately did not increase birth rates as desired. In this way, fertility and virility took on new meanings in totalitarian states; no longer was having an individual family decision, each family was a “germ cell” with a collectivist responsibility.

As motherhood was glorified in all three countries, maternalist welfare was developed through government intervention and propaganda was produced that provided support and motivation for women to raise more children. The major standout difference was how the Soviet Union approached the role of women as mothers and labors, encouraging dual earning households. In Germany and Italy, the mother’s ideal domain was to forever remain the domestic home while the father’s world was either the workforce or battlefield. However, regardless of the portrayed ideal norm, women worked outside the home in both Germany and Italy.

It is notable that trying to raise birth rates during a period of world war seems counterproductive, when many men are away from home fighting and some may never return. Wilson concludes that “despite the enormous amount of attention paid to gender roles in Fascist rhetoric, it seems that the particular patterns of industrialization, commercialization, and urbanization had more power to shape female experiences in this period than the crude tools of Fascist ideology and policy.” ((Wilson, Women in Fascist Italy, p. 93)) I agree with Wilson and argue that not just Fascist policy failed to control gender and family roles, so too did Nazi and Soviet policy. Is it ever advisable for a state to define and encourage gender roles and family structure? In addition, is it possible for reproductive policies to be used in a democratic, non-dictatorial way to influence a country’s population?

Gender Roles in Goodbye to BerlinThere

In Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, the characters reflect the gender roles of Nazi Germany by exemplifying the ideal male and female roles in German society. To start, Sally is allowed to focus on meeting a man as her “full-time job” while Chris is expected to go out and work, secure sustainable employment and at some point marry one of these women like Sally. These young adults, while having fun amongst themselves, are expected to form the relationships that will allow the state to succeed by the couples producing offspring. This population growth is encouraged by parents supporting their children through the use of monthly stipends; the children however use this money not for its intended purpose but rather for meeting friends and having a good time.

There is a noticeable lack of older males in the text. A lot of the Fraus are single and working to take care of these groups of young adults. They act as a level between the state and the young adults, guiding their development with much more freedom than home life all while providing a motherly environment. They cook, clean and run daily house life for these single men and women, allowing them the ability to go out and search for a spouse, or in Sally’s case a “rich old man, where she won’t have to worry”.

The Triumph of the Will

The Triumph of the Will, directed by Leni Riefenstahl in 1935, is a Nazi propaganda film chronicling the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg. Riefenstahl shows hundreds of thousands of children and adults saluting and cheering as they see Hitler. The film shows small portions of many Nazi leaders speeches at the Congress. It is very apparent the film is attempting to depict that Germany has once again risen to be a great power, all thanks to the glorious leader Adolf Hitler.

There are many things I found intriguing about this film, however a scene that caught my attention was at the very beginning. As Hitler is being driven down the street in a motorcade, the cars slow down so that a mother and daughter can shake Hitler’s hand and give him flowers. It is obvious that these people were specifically selected for this event, due to the fact that there were so many people lining the streets watching the motorcade and none were able to approach except for this duo. I began to think why they were selected and what is the significance of this? Well, for one it depicts the perfect Nazi-German mother-daughter role. The woman’s husband is not with them, and I would assume he is either in the army fighting the war or fulfilling his Nazi duties elsewhere. The mother steps up to raise her child on her own, and in a sense Hitler fills the now empty father role for the child. He is the male figure the daughter now looks up to, which is depicted through the young childs’ salute.  This act is met with loud cheers from the crowd. I believe they were selected based on their appearance. The daughter is a perfect example of an Aryan. Although it was hard to see her eyes, it is obvious she has light skin and blonde hair.

Although this scene depicted the role a Nazi party woman should have- taking care of her children and praising Hitler- there is a serious contradiction to that party thought regarding the film. Leni Riefenstahl, the director, is a woman. My question is, why would Hitler chose her to produce and direct his propaganda film? Doesn’t that go against his traditional party beliefs regarding women?