The Problem of Female Rule – Catherine the Great

Portrait of Catherine II (1763)

Portrait of Catherine II (1763)

In the article Catherine the Great and the Problem of Female Rule, Brenda Meehan-Waters argues that Western European writers and Russian writers view the reign of Catherine the Great differently, and that these views reveal cultural reactions towards women in positions of power. Western foreigner ambassadors and correspondents alike of Catherine II almost always bring into discussion the fact that she is a women and the traits that differentiate men and women. Foreigners describe her as having “a masculine force of mind” with a “weakness vulgarity attributed to her sex” and as “an ambitious and unnatural women” giving the impression that “there was something inherently perverse in female ambition”. ((KM 380 – 382)) In general, the authors states that Westerners who felt threatened by the idea of a women ruler responded either by denying that Catherine held any real power or they exaggerated her negative qualities, therefore making her sound less qualified.

Russians, on the other hand, rarely brought up the fact that she was a women. There are two exceptions to this that the author brings up. Karamzin contrasts the masculinity and femininity of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great and states that their reign complements the other but also attributes masculine traits as positive and negative traits as feminine. Sumarokov too has similar viewpoints articulates that there are strong and weak rulers and Catherine falls in between the two. ((KM 380-381)) In general though, Russians rarely focus on her femininity. The author points out that there was no ideological battle on female rule in Russia as there was in Western Europe, adding evidence that the sex of the ruler was less important to Russians. In fact, Russian empresses are often found in poetry as viewed as great warriors and strong figures. Another reason as to why the Russians view Catherine’s reign more positively is the old Byzantine idea of a hermaphroditic being that united the principles of both sexes. ((KM 384))

At the very end, Meehan-Waters points out that we more often study the reasons why Russians don’t judge her based on sex, and not why Europeans do judge her in this way and that this take on it is backwards.


Why do you think we assume that the Russian’s acceptance of a female is abnormal? How can this be explained by referring to leading Western thinkers?,_Tretyakov_gallery).jpg

Women and abortion in Soviet Society

In the article “Revolution and the Family”, Wendy Goldman discussed the ideas of abortion and women in the Soviet Union.  She discussed how women in the Soviet Union, believed and even acted on using abortion in their lives.  She argued that abortion was used more often with women who were in comfortable positions, such as being married, than women who were unmarried, jobless, or young.  To prove her argument, she looked at influences in Soviet society that helped women in stable conditions make such decisions.

So why did Soviet women, the married and stable ones, decide to use abortion?  Wendy Goldman noted that the use of abortion was evident from the mid 1920s until the prohibition of abortion in 1936.  During this time, Goldman noted that abortion was a result of two important aspects.  First, she noted that during the 1920s, there had been the problem of overcrowding of children in Soviet homes.((Wendy Goldman, “Revolution and the Family” in The Stalin Revolution: Foundations of the Totalitarian Era. 4th edition. Edited by Robert V Daniels.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994. 163))  This can be contributed to two factors.  First, the devastating effects of World War I and the Russian Civil War left many children parentless, thus creating influxes of adopted children throughout homes.  Second, Goldman pointed to the idea of Stalins policies that everyone works, both men and women.  Thus, opportunities in the workforce and the military opened up for women, allowing them to leave the home.  Wendy Goldman noted that the number of women entering the workforce between 1930 and 1931 “in heavy industry leaped suddenly from 22 percent to 42 percent.” (((Wendy Goldman, “Revolution and the Family” in The Stalin Revolution: Foundations of the Totalitarian Era. 4th edition. Edited by Robert V Daniels.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994. 164)) As a result of the rapid jump in the number of women entering the workforce, women who were in stable conditions tended to abort their children because because of the strain pregnancy and taking care of children were on the women.

Considering Wendy Goldmans piece on abortion, do you think that this was true among all ethnic groups?  Or do you think it was only true among ethnic Russians?

NOW: Statements for Change

Generating a document for the creation of new purpose and change was necessary for women in the mid-nineteenth century. Men and women, constituting themselves as the National Organization for Women (NOW), vouched for a new movement towards equality in America and beyond the national borders. Women weren’t able to enjoy their freedoms as their fellow country men were able to. With that as a catalyst for change, NOW created documentation of various purposes that would revolutionize the way in which women were seen throughout society. In order for this to happen, patterns of sex discrimination had to end, the creation of social institutions that benefit women would be enacted, the proper education would be given to women so that they too can reach their full potential, and last representation in politics as the voice of women need to be heard.

Traditionally women were shunned from attaining any form of high paying or high positioned job. Although they make up nearly 51% of the entire population, women did not have representation politically nor socially. Women faced discrimination, sexism, and acts of inequality on a day to day basis, and it was the job of NOW to take a stand for women who seemingly had no voice in the world, and create a platform for all women to flourish. Their task: “to win women the final right to be fully free and equal human beings.”

Unfulfilled Promises to Women

Wendy Z. Goldman’s article explained how the regime hid behind an elaborate mask which portrayed them as women’s rights activists, however in reality strived for a single-minded approach to production and progress.  The focus of Goldman’s article began with an analysis of Soviet legislature concerning beznadzornost, and how to solve the problem of homeless soviet children through the strengthening of the Socialist family.  It then shifted towards the effects of abortion and divorce on women and how the steps toward a more equal woman and man were taken under false pretense.  She concluded that the regime had successfully “brainwashed”, or convinced, the women of the Soviet Union that they had actually experienced a revolution or change in policy.

Women seemed to be affected by each law passed concerning the Soviet family, and whether it was in a good way or not did not concern the Soviet Union who were able to feed off of the good outcomes and ignore the unsatisfactory ones.  Even the legalization of adoption, meant to cope with the growing numbers of homeless children, indirectly changed a woman’s role in society.  As the implementation of adoption and its effects slowly abated, the regime placed a large piece of responsibility on the paternal figures and family, transferring it from state hands.  Women then had to take on a much larger part in responsibility for the children, as the men were needed for industrialization and collectivization.

The increase in family responsibility rested heavily on the women’s shoulders, as their social status transformed and they were coerced into labor.  Pregnancy leave and other legislation was passed which lessened the effects on women, however in a seemingly male dominant society, the regime was still able to convince its women that their lives had been made easier and they had experienced a surge in women’s rights.

European Progress

Much like Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, the United States believed that women should continue to be confined to managing the household in the mid-twentieth century.  In response, the National Organization for Women developed in 1966 and spoke out against these injustices and  lack of progress made in the United States.  In their mission statement, the National Organization for Women compared the lives and opportunities of American women to European women, claiming, “We believe that this nation has a capacity at least as great as other nations, to innovate new social institutions which enable women to enjoy true equality of opportunity and responsibility in society, without conflict with their responsibilities as mothers and homemakers.  In such innovations, America does not lead the Western world, but lags by decades behind many European countries,” (3). It is clear, through this excerpt of their mission statement, that opportunities for European women had increased dramatically since Sanford and Beeton wrote their pieces on the ideal middle-class woman in the mid-nineteenth century.  Moreover, because European women were not confined to their households like they had been, the National Organization of Women took note and believed that the United States lagged “decades behind many European countries.”  Furthermore, this organization rejected, “the current assumptions that a man must carry the sole burden of supporting himself, his wife, and family, and that a woman is automatically entitled to lifelong support by a man upon her marriage…” (3)  As indicated, more European women became less dependent on their husbands in the mid-twentieth century, as they were encouraged to join the workforce and step outside the confines of their household.

The progress made by European nations in regards to women and their newfound role in society can be boiled down to two aspects: the golden era of socialism in Europe and constant warfare amongst European nations.  Before the start of World War I, many European nations produced socialist thinkers who argued for the rights of European women and workers.  Due to the success of these socialist thinkers, “new social institutions” were formed throughout Europe, allowing “women to enjoy true equality” and become more than household managers.  Secondly, European nations constantly fought with one another during the early twentieth century; these wars included the Morrocan Crisis, Bosnian Crisis, World War I and World War II.  Due to these wars, European men were constantly gone, leaving women without the “lifelong support by a man upon her marriage.”  In fact, due to their constant absence, women were the one’s carrying “the sole burden,” for they had to support themselves as well as their children financially and domestically during times of war.  In these times, European women proved themselves to European men; for they displayed their ability to manage a household while maintaining an everyday job typically reserved for men.  In conclusion, European nations progressed more quickly than the United States in regards to gender roles because of the success of socialism and the constant involvement in warfare; which allowed women to prove that they carried more value than simply being domestic workers.

Statement of Purpose

The National Organization for Women Statement of Purpose was written with the intention of making women to be seen as equals in the United States. New anti-discrimination laws were not being enforced as efficiently as some would have liked, with women still being discriminated against throughout the hiring process and not receiving equal pay. Some of the statistics displayed in the document are shocking. Facts such as, “Women comprise less than 1% of federal judges; less than 4% of all lawyers; 7% of doctors. Yet women represent 51% of the U.S. population,” are alarming. Obviously, women of this time were underutilized and oppressed, which most definitely limited production in the US as a whole. The National Organization for Women clearly points out flaws in the United State‘s system when it comes to women; even referencing the U.S. constitution. This topic has been an ongoing problem throughout the world for years. Although it is now much better, people still fight for their rights when it comes to discrimination.

Looking at Literacy in a Multi-Ethnic Russian Empire

While Kappeller discusses several different aspects of ethnicity in the nineteenth century in the eighth chapter of The Russian Ethnic Empire, the portion discussing the growth of literacy most definitely stands out.  When discussing literacy, Kappeller first explains that the censuses taken in the latter half of the century, he notes that literacy was defined by reading, but not necessarily writing.  Additionally, only the ability to read and write Russian was recorded, making literacy rates among certain ethnic populations lower.  Kappeller notes this could be one of two things: either education in the ethnic school systems were oral and repetition-based (or as Kappeller calls it, “parrot fashion”), or the census may not have taken into account foreign languages such as “Arabic, Tatar, Hebrew, Yiddish, or Mongolian” (Kapeller, pg. 310).  Additionally, he compares literacy between Protestant and Jewish populations with Protestants in Russia having more literacy, primarily because women were more literate in these communities than in Jewish communities.  This can be tied to the differences in educational beliefs, like that in Jewish communities, education was geared toward men.

1. Although Kapeller mentions that had the census recorded the ability to write along with literacy, it would have made the numbers for literacy in Russia as a whole significantly decrease, the bigger question is not why writing was not recorded in the census, but rather why were so many people literate yet not able to write?

2. Why wasn’t literacy still widespread with the general population of Russian women at this point in time, and mostly just in Protestant communities?

Women According to the Law

The readings in Kaiser and Marker pages 49-59 solidify the social presence of the church in Kievan Rus’ society; specifically in the way that women were treated. The most evident is the definitive distinction between “good” and “evil” women. Good women were characterized by their attentiveness to the Christian faith and their strict adherence to social principles; Evil women were those who strayed from the church and asserted their social independence. Even the way that these laws are writhed prove how male- centric the society was. Every law is geared towards the man, and in situations where the male is punished the prince offers punishment whereas where the female is punished she is punished by her husband (page 52, law 37). On the other hand, there certainly are some surprising laws that protect the women and her personal choice. For example, if a girl wishes to marry (or wishes not to marry) but her parents make her do the opposite of her wishes and she causes harm to herself her parents must accept responsibility. It is unclear on whether they simply accept responsibility or must allow her to assert her own wishes, but this still provides some insight into the value of the woman’s choice.  However, there is no way to ensure that these laws were held up in society or just looked at as if the women who enacted these laws were considered “evil” women who were too independent from a male’s rule. In addition, many laws that would appear to be protecting women were simply created to protect their societal role- their ability to care for children (and not respecting their own lives).