The Flowering of Feminism in Hungary  

 

Judit Acsady was an early feminist in Hungary. (Photo: John Feffer)

Judit Acsady was an early feminist in Hungary. (Photo: John Feffer)

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com.

The feminist movement, which gathered strength in the 1960s and 1970s in the West, arrived in East-Central Europe much later. Women’s equality was a stated principle of the Communist governments, and official women’s organizations operated in all of the countries. But the official representation of women remained rather conservative. Alexandra Kollantai’s Marxist challenge of patriarchal structures such as marriage and the family was long forgotten as were the more radical emancipation movements that coalesced during the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian empire. “Women’s liberation” made little if any impact in the latter days of the Communist era. The social mores in the region were overwhelmingly traditional. The opposition movements tended to reflect this traditionalism as well.

As the political situation began to change in Hungary in the late 1980s, however, feminist thought began to make inroads, first in academia. Judit Acsady was studying sociology at that time. “I asked why the sociology department didn’t have a course on feminism,” she told me in an interview last May in her office at the sociology institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. “And they said, ‘Why should we?’ There were no materials on feminism, no textbooks in Hungarian. But many of my professors had gone abroad on scholarship, so they must have seen these books. You can’t do social studies in Western universities without being introduced to one or two books about the theory of gender, the history of feminist thought, or some aspect of this topic. It was a very artificial refusal. All other previously rejected political systems of thought had gradually entered into the discussion. But feminism didn’t.”

Acsady organized a study group. And then a series of lectures on women and society. Out of these efforts a new initiative emerged: the Feminist Network.

“During the few years of the existence of this network, we didn’t really become widely known,” she remembers. “But in a certain circle of people who were open to it, we managed to raise certain issues in the public mind. For example, I remember a pro-choice campaign. There was also a pacifist action during the wars in the former Yugoslavia that linked up with the Women in Black movement. It was really dramatic. Every week we went to a main square and wore black, just standing there silently for an hour. Also, we did several actions against violence against women. And activists in the Feminist Network put together the first hotline for battered women. It was called NANE. It still exists today, and it provides a really professional service.”

The Network lasted until the mid-1990s. “Somehow after that, the group dissolved,” Acsady reports. “We had so many dreams. We wanted a women’s center with a cafe and library as you see in Berlin or elsewhere. Those were the models in our head.”

In many ways, women as a class suffered a loss of status during the transition. Because of economic dislocation, many women lost their jobs. The representation of women in parliament remains quite low. Women’s “economic activity and representation in politics are discussed as issues in the public,” Acsady notes. “But the debate is very timid. ‘Oh yes, we know it’s important,’ politicians will say. ‘We signed a lot of agreements. We have to make the CEDAW report. We have to show a face that shows that we are for gender equality.’ But when it comes to penalizing domestic violence, then in the public discussion and political discussion you can hear awful statements that show that the people who are now responsible for formulating new structures and institutions, they simply do not know what they’re talking about.”

But Acsady does see some progress at a local level. “At the level of local government you can see more and more women mayors and women candidates who are winning local elections,” she says. “Some say that these are not really powerful positions. But it’s a position of responsibility to be a mayor in a small village that is isolated and has lots of social and economic problems. They manage to do the job. They’re ambitious. They’re not tired of these jobs.”

We also talked about Acsady’s early peace activism, her research into the emancipation of women in public life, and the difficulty of staking out an independent political or intellectual position in current Hungarian culture.

The Interview

Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

I was at home. We rushed to the see it on the TV. There were reports that people were climbing to the top of the wall. The news was really special for me. Just a couple months before it happened, at the end of August, I was with a group of activists that made a street theater performance connected to the topic of the Berlin Wall.

We actually occupied a street in the middle of Budapest called Vörösmarty Square. It’s a very touristy area. We formed the Berlin Wall. We physically acted it out. One side represented the eastern side and they had posters of barbed wires. And the ones on the western side had posters filled with graffiti. One of the activists was a policeman, and he didn’t let the tourists pass. We blocked the street, and he said, “Please, your passport.” We acted out the whole thing. The end of this action was when we tore down these posters that represented the Wall. We broke it down. I still have photos of this event. I remember the East German tourists who actually understood the whole action. They were jumping on the pieces of this symbolic Wall and shouting.

And two or three months later, it really happened. It was so funny to see. We said among our friends, “Yeah, we did it first!”

If someone had asked you at that time when you thought the Berlin Wall would fall, what would you have said?

We weren’t thinking about that. But with Gorbachev and the reforms, everyone sensed some kind of change. But we didn’t really think, for instance, that the Soviet Union would fall apart. You could sense a certain change in the system, for instance economy-wise with private entrepreneurship. But when there would be a multi-party system? Nobody had a precise date when it would happen.

When you organized the event, did you think it would be a problem with the police or with anyone else?

At that time already there were some modest changes, a liberalization, and you could exercise the right of gathering. You could also report the action beforehand to the local authorities that at this and this time there will be a public assembly, and they gave permission. I wonder if they were interested in the content or not? We called that period of time, those two or three years, an “ex-lax” period — a period of no law. It was like rubber: you could stretch and play with the rules. You could openly write a letter that would have been censored before. You could sense that there was a space for social action.

During our Berlin Wall event, there were policemen at that place. But they did not intervene or disturb us.

Were you a student at that time? 

Yes, a university student in sociology. I started with Hungarian and English, and I continued my studies at those departments. But in the middle I took up sociology as well. There was a possibility to pick up a third major, and by that time I must have started it.

The group that organized that action was a student group?

Mostly students, but not only. There were teachers among us. Also taxi drivers. Unemployed writers. Journalists.

Did it have a name?

The action was organized by several groups. And our group joined. Our group was called Autonomia, and this referred to freedom, to our ideas about powerless structures. It was like a workshop at the university. We came together to think about social theory. We were reading different things.

Was this the first action that Autonomia joined?

There were other actions. For example, against the testing of nuclear weapons. And against identity cards.

What was the action against identity cards?

We were publicly burning them. It was like what they did in Hair — that was so romantic.

That was quite radical.

Yes.

In a public space?

Yes.

Did the police intervene?

No.

Why not?

We also notified the authorities that we would have this action, but probably the content was not reported. They didn’t think that this small group of crazy people was dangerous. Several dozen watchers were around us, but not a lot of people. That was an interesting experiment. We also had a solidarity gathering for Vaclav Havel who was in prison at that time. It was not organized by this particular group but several others, including intellectuals all over Budapest, but definitely we were there. And we also organized an action for women’s rights.

When did it start?

In 1988, 1989. It was just two years.

And then it stopped?

The gatherings did not stop. But the activists went into political party activism. That was the time when the new political parties were founded. Some of them even became candidates or volunteered to support parties. Some people went to the feminist group, like myself. Others went into ecology. And somehow it dissolved. Others formulated more radical groups.

Was that your first activism?

In fact, no. Back in secondary school, there was a petition that we signed. And there were students who were kicked out of school. The real reason wasn’t said. Instead, the school said that they were smoking in the bathroom. But everyone was smoking in the bathroom! One particular girl, who organized the collection of signatures, was dismissed from the school. There was propaganda in the early 1980s that Hungarian society and youth should protest against American missile defense. The petition that these young girls were distributing stated that we were very much against American armaments but we were also against the Russians putting their weapons in Eastern Europe. And that didn’t go over well.

And you didn’t get into trouble? 

I don’t honestly remember whether I signed it or not. I knew about it. I supported it. But I connect it to activism. Also with this young woman, I attended discussions of the so-called democratic opposition. There were free university lectures. A club called the Rakpart Group organized lectures and discussions. For me, it was very exciting, these discussions on new social questions like ecology or the Rome report on the state of the world. It was a kind of activism to attend those things. At university, there was a peace group named Dialogus. I went to some events organized by them as well.

Do you remember any conflict in your family around your activism?

Definitely. My father won’t get into trouble if I say this?

Today?

It’s important to know something about my family. My parents both came from a so-called middle-class family. This social stratum was destroyed in the 1950s, so they lost their position. They were not that wealthy. But the wealth they did have was gone. The family was part of the intelligentsia from the early part of the century. Even the women had university diplomas. For example, my grandmother was a chemist. My grandfather was a lawyer.

My father is in fact an engineer. He never entered the Party. Even though he had experience, he knew languages, and he had really established skills in his position, he didn’t get promoted. They told him, “If you enter the Party, you will be the head of the department.” He said, “No, I won’t join because of moral reasons.” So he always stayed in the middle position.

However, since he knew languages, he was very often asked to be a member of delegations that went abroad to make arrangements with factories. He really liked that responsibility. When I went home with samizdat literature, he became really disappointed and angry. He said, “This literature you’ve brought home is illegal. I could get into trouble and be kicked out of my position and lose my passport.” He was really nervous and angry about it.

In 1980, I received a copy of the declaration from the workers on strike in Gdansk. The declaration with their 21 demands was being circulated. The activist circle here was asked to type it at home to make several copies. It had already been translated into Hungarian. The demands were for democracy, freedom of gathering, defending their own rights as employed people, against the Soviets. I was typing it on my typewriter. I was so proud. “The workers in Gdansk wrote this,” I told my father. He took it out of the typewriter. He was so furious. He tore it in half. He said all the typewriters are registered. If I took the paper anywhere they would know the typewriter belonged to him and he would be punished. That was the reaction at home. He was afraid. Maybe he agreed with these things, but he never told me.

And your mother?

She was in fact silent about these things. She had been a revolutionary in 1956. So maybe she had a good reason to be silent. No one in the family had used weapons. But she was present with the students in the street. Originally she’d wanted to study medicine, but for political reasons she wasn’t accepted at the university of medicine. So she worked as a nurse and started studies as a pharmacist. During the uprising, she went to where the wounded people were kept at the building of the university and helped bandage people and bring tea for them. That’s the family legend. Unfortunately she died 10 years ago, so I can’t ask her about these things.

A colleague of yours, a nice American woman who was interested in East European history, interviewed my grandmother. This was Shana Penn, and the project was called Dark Circles. She published her work on Polish women, but I don’t think she did the same with the Hungarian material. There was a scene with my mother and grandmother. My mother said that one day in 1956, she was crossing the bridge and the Russian tanks were just opposite her. And my grandmother said, “You were not at auntie’s place that night? This is the first I’ve heard of it!” So for decades, she didn’t tell her mother about her role in the uprising.

After the free elections in 1989, my parents always insisted on arguing against those who in their eyes represented the former system.

After 1989 and the Autonomia experience, you mentioned that people went off to do different things. And you went into the women’s movement. Can you describe that process?

My involvement in feminism was rooted in two different lines. One was the activism in this group. The second was my sociological studies. I attended a course in the history of thought that was not at the sociology department. We had a wonderful professor with whom I am still in contact. She had a class on the public debate over women’s emancipation in Hungary in the 19th century. It was so interesting to hear the discussion. I thought to myself: why should one think that women shouldn’t go to university? So I started to think about this process of emancipation. Intellectually it really interested me. At the same time, in Autonomia, there were a lot of discussions about the nature of hierarchical structures and positions and attitudes. Somehow the two things came closer and closer in my mind.

I asked why the sociology department didn’t have a course on feminism. And they said, “Why should we?” There were no materials on feminism, no textbooks in Hungarian. But many of my professors had gone abroad on scholarship, so they must have seen these books. You can’t do social studies in Western universities without being introduced to one or two books about the theory of gender, the history of feminist thought, or some aspect of this topic. It was a very artificial refusal. All other previously rejected political systems of thought had gradually entered into the discussion. But feminism didn’t.

So I started to organize. I organized a study group. Since we didn’t have textbooks, we looked for something similar in Hungarian or English and sat together to talk. Later on, I organized a seminar as well. But that was a little bit later. The first important step was when, with a fellow student, we invited university professors to participate in a series of lectures on women and society. It was really interdisciplinary: economics, political science, psychology. Somehow we got this plan accredited. Students from any faculty could come and listen to this course. It was really unique. Maria Adamik, a sociology professor who really supported this idea, helped get the course included in the university curriculum. It was really successful and opened people’s minds to these ideas. It was held at a great lecture hall at ELTE University. At that time there was no Internet, but news spread. Women who were interested in this topic from all over Budapest came to hear. Maria Adamik saw this interest and said, “Why don’t we form a group that goes on thinking about these questions.” That was the first step in forming the Feminist Network.

So, there was a lot of discussion and work preparing seminars. Was there also an activist component?

I forgot to say something. In the group Autonomia, we met a woman Antonia Burrows who came from Great Britain and lived a long time in Germany. Somehow she dropped the topic of feminism into that circle, and people said, “Oooh, really, that’s weird!” Probably when I started to deal with emancipation in sociology, I wouldn’t have called it feminism. Women’s history, maybe. But Antonia was the one who framed the issues as feminist. This was the activist line. The Feminist Network was gradually moving out of university circles. In the beginning of the 1990s, this activist group was meeting more and more regularly. Every month we had a club with open lectures, discussions, and so on. Later, we saw that once we called it feminism and activism, we became more isolated from the intellectual side, which was painful for me given my sociological studies and later research. I thought I could combine the two, but I felt marginalized in those years.

Do you remember activist events that were particularly dramatic?

During the few years of the existence of this network, we didn’t really become widely known. But in a certain circle of people who were open to it, we managed to raise certain issues in the public mind. For example, I remember a pro-choice campaign. There was also a pacifist action during the wars in the former Yugoslavia that linked up with the Women in Black movement. It was really dramatic. Every week we went to a main square and wore black, just standing there silently for an hour. Also, we did several actions against violence against women. And activists in the Feminist Network put together the first hotline for battered women. It was called NANE. It still exists today, and it provides a really professional service.

That lasted until the mid-1990s. Somehow after that, the group dissolved. We had so many dreams. We wanted a women’s center with a cafe and library as you see in Berlin or elsewhere. Those were the models in our head. We also joined some initiatives that supported and provided information for women who wanted to run as candidates.

Has the situation for women changed for the better in Hungary when it comes to the level of sexism and sexual violence or the general consciousness of average Hungarians about women’s status in society or the participation rate of women in society or the pay differential between women and men?

Probably I’m not the first person to tell you that the democratization process and the strengthening of civil society slowed down. It stagnated. I don’t see improvement in this. Certain issues introduced at the beginning of the 1990s by independent thinkers and activists who were bringing in this new wind — some of the new theoreticians use the term “west wind” — became established and institutionalized. Some offices were established. Some desks were created at the ministry. But in terms of processes and values in society, unfortunately the public did not absorb these new ideas.

As far as the position of women is concerned, their economic activity and representation in politics are discussed as issues in the public. But the debate is very timid. “Oh yes, we know it’s important,” politicians will say. “We signed a lot of agreements. We have to make the CEDAW report. We have to show a face that shows that we are for gender equality.” But when it comes to penalizing domestic violence, then in the public discussion and political discussion you can hear awful statements that show that the people who are now responsible for formulating new structures and institutions, they simply do not know what they’re talking about.

In terms of the economic position of women, the dramatic change came right after the transition. During the Communist period, 85 percent of women were employed: full employment was a state policy of the socialist system. Women and men both lost their jobs because of the closing down of factories and the transition to a different economic structure. Women’s representation in politics also changed at that point. Since then, it’s always 9 or 11 percent in parliament, and there’s been no dramatic change regardless of which party is in power, whether conservatives or the so-called Socialist party (their economic policy is not socialist, I’m sorry to say).

But there have been positive changes in terms of women’s position. For example, and many social scientists have pointed it out, at the level of local government you can see more and more women mayors and women candidates who are winning local elections. Some say that these are not really powerful positions. But it’s a position of responsibility to be a mayor in a small village that is isolated and has lots of social and economic problems. They manage to do the job. They’re ambitious. They’re not tired of these jobs. They are organized. They have connections with one another. This is good. It’s also good that in the public mind, or in women’s minds, they know that certain women are organizing. The large group of women is not organized, but they know that if they want, they can find a group that supports battered women, that defends the interests of women with diplomas. In the trade unions there are women’s sections, but they’re much more administrative. But if a woman worker wants to find some activism in a party or a union, she can find it. So, at least this is in the air. But most women in public life appear as representatives of the major parties and mouth the discourse of one party or another. It’s rare that they articulate women’s issues. There is a politician from one of the parties, however, Katalin Ertsey of Politics Can Be Different (LMP), who authentically represents these issues.

You mentioned that social attitudes have stagnated. Do you have any examples?

I’m thinking about the openly sexist attitudes in the media. In one sense, this is a change. Earlier, the way people were represented in the media was very strictly defined and designed by the Communist Party. After the liberalization, which was theoretically good, we can have multiple views in the media. It is more colorful, and many different tastes are represented. But it turned out that when a woman is represented in the media, the more feminine features are often overemphasized — feminine in the sense of attracting men. And I think that poisons the Hungarian public mind. Somehow being attractive and sexy is the major way to evaluate the person. This applies more and more to men as well.

Men have to be sexy and attractive as well?

Yes. 

Image is more important.

Yes, more important than values or thoughts or your real behavior. Also, the attitudes of young people have changed. But I think that this was present in Western societies earlier as well: this way of not getting into long-lasting relationships, not feeling the need to be responsible for others, not connecting to a partner. A kind of “we are free and happy” approach. But studies show that this single way of life for young women is becoming more and more of a burden. They don’t really want it, but they can’t find men who want to establish partnerships or marriage. Young women in their 20s and 30s have difficulties in these personal connections. What makes this even more difficult is that the discussion of gender roles and the understanding of what modernity has brought is interpreted such that emancipation and feminism “ruined everything.” So, people will say, “To understand men and women, you should forget everything that the so-called socialist emancipation and the stupid Western feminists say.” Somehow they think how nice it would be to turn back to the traditional norms and ways of life of the 19th century.

Woman as housewife and mother.

Exactly. But shiny and attractive. Not with an apron on.

Does this come across as a political program or is it just an underlying political philosophy? Will a politician say that a woman should do x, y, and z?

Yes, there was a great scandal just a few months ago. A politician said a woman should stay at home, give birth to kids, the more the better, and then, if she does that, there will be no more problem with domestic violence.

Was that a Fidesz politician?

I guess so. It was a huge scandal and there were street actions in response. It was so hurtful to hear that because the problem of violence in a marriage is not connected to number of children, and so on. They don’t know what they’re talking about.

Was this an older man?

Middle-aged.

I haven’t asked you what you do in your research.

I finished my dissertation and received a PhD in 2005. The title is connected to what I was talking about before: emancipation and identity. I wanted to reveal what happens in public life with the representation of women. My method was to interview women in the elite — economic, political, intellectual, art world – and ask them about their career, their profession, their experiences. I approached women whose professional achievements were visible in public life, for example a well known writer or a very well known university professor who has an international reputation because of her work or a member of parliament or a minister (which is very rare) or the director of a bank. A really diverse group. During the interview, I asked them about what they thought about emancipation and representation.

There was a very interesting shift in the interviews. They said that they wanted to distance themselves from Communism, so they decided not to represent women’s issues publically. They thought it might harm their career if they did so. It was really breathtaking to analyze this attitude, which came up in so many interviews. They all constructed a narrative of a very professional person, in a good sense, in terms of education, building social connections, doing their best to get promoted. They did this consciously, and these attributes are not traditionally connected to a feminine attitude. It can be a part of being a woman, obviously. But in the public mind, it’s not. But then as soon as they represented themselves publically, they shifted their face to become the most feminine person on earth: a good cook, very caring. It was if they were saying, in public, that it’s best if women stay women and men stay men. It was interesting to see how the Hungarian public is not open to a discussion about the emancipation of women in public life.

I also continue to work on the history of the feminist movement in Hungary. It turns out from the study of the original sources in the archive that the public, 100 years ago, was discussing really deeply the right to vote and women’s position in the media. So, we find ourselves using the same terms as this 100-year-old debate but without a strong feminist presence. At least at that time, people were open-minded and were trying to think through the stereotypical approaches. But now these stereotypes are diffused through society. You can find some activists or scholars who think otherwise, but it’s not a strong group.

I also did research on care workers: how they construct gender in their minds. Is care work gendered or not? It was really exciting to meet people who work in orphanages, homes for the elderly, places where they help drug addicts, and many other diverse places. It turned out, through these interviews, that men who are involved in such professions don’t think that their role is gendered. They don’t think it should be a women’s role. Once you are in a profession and you do it, then you don’t think it is connected to a particular gender. It’s a much deeper understanding that is not present in everyday speech. The care workers connected their work to transcendental motives.

Spiritual?

Yes — exactly. Sometimes they framed in terms of religion but not necessarily.

And the overall view of society is that care work is gendered.

Yes, that it is something that women should or can do. It’s an archetypal image of the woman who cares for the child and therefore all caring in society should be performed by women. And it’s devalued financially. There’s a very good American thinker, Virginia Held, who has written a book on the ethics of care. I borrowed from many aspects of her book when I constructed my research questions. Let’s think about a society that devalues caring attitudes so much, she writes, when care is necessary for social integration, for the strength of groups and individuals.

When you look back at the way you were thinking in the 1989-90 — when you were a student and involved in Autonomia — have you had any major shifts in the way you look at the world based on your experiences?

I think I was full of ideas to change the world and to promote new things that had not been present in Hungarian social life before. I understood, after a few years, that obviously feminism was not absolutely right, that it couldn’t give the final answers to all personal or social questions. But I still believe that it’s important to bring it into the public discussion, so that when people search for questions and values, they can take from this point of view and that point of view and make up their own minds.

In terms of my own thinking, I had to withdraw for almost ten years from public activity for personal reasons. My husband died ten years ago, which was obviously something beyond just losing a person you love. I found myself in the situation of a single mother in a society that has no structural support for a single academic mother who has to support herself and demonstrate progress in her academic life as well. This institute was very supportive of me and so was the director, but he couldn’t do anything for my scientific progress. That’s my responsibility. Otherwise, I learned how difficult it is for single mothers. Also, this way of life made it impossible for me to get involved in public activity.

There’s another thing, and this is beyond the personal level. I realized that I have difficulty defining my position in Hungarian public life. It is so divided among very strictly constructed categories — leftist, rightist, liberal, traditional, national, blah blah blah. In my thinking I have elements from all of these. I understand the problems in conservative thinking, the limits of liberal thinking, of socialist thinking, but I cannot position myself in any of these categories. I can’t say that I’m 100 percent part of this or that category. And without being in any of these positions, you don’t really have a public space. Once you say something, they say, “Ah, yes, you’re an nationalist,” or “you’re a socialist.” No, I’m not. I’m thinking. I’m asking questions. I’m defining social problems.

There are very few thinkers or actors in Hungarian public life who can be independent. They also have problems and endure lots of attacks. But I didn’t want that. So I wait. I am waiting to see women’s activities that are independent. A year ago, I found such a student group. But then I saw that these women’s activities were getting supported by one specific political party. And I said, “Sorry, this is not what I really meant.” Maybe my position is not a very brave position, but I feel uncomfortable in these categories. In this way, my position changed from the time before. But I don’t remember identifying with political parties at that time either.

Budapest, May 8, 2013