American Sex Roles Unnerving to Eastern European Women

by W.F. Price on January 2, 2012

In looking into the phenomenon of culture shock, I recently came across a 2004 study that examines the problems Eastern European women have while adjusting to life in American society. The study is valuable in that it gives us a perspective rarely found in the English language, and suggests that American women themselves may be damaged (possibly more than men) through an enforced sexless environment.

It opens with a provocative question:

How do immigrant women from patriarchal cultures adjust to life in the Great Plains, where gender equality and feminism prevail? Do they feel that they have freedom from sexism and more social opportunities, or do they long for the female role that they left behind in their home culture? There are few places in the world where the women’s movement has been as vocal and active as in American culture. Gender equality is highly valued, and Americans believe that they have made more advances in this area than most cultures around the world (E. Kim 2001). As a result, many Americans assume that immigrant women will embrace gender equality and prefer to be women “in the American way.” Because American feminists perceive traditional women as oppressed, they seek to educate them about feminism and try to help them shed the traditional female role they were socialized to fulfill. How do immigrant women respond to American attitudes toward gender? How do they change as a result of living in a gender-neutral envi- ronment? Do encounters with American feminists help or hinder their cultural adaptation?

Apparently, despite the patriarchal nature of Eastern European society, women are treated with a great deal of respect, and deferred to in many situations. Men may be overrepresented in the public world, and women not taken as seriously there, but in private women are given a great deal of consideration and treated like ladies:

Writings on Eastern Europe stress the patriarchal nature of society, in which gender roles are distinct but complementary, with apparent respect for the role of women (Richmond 1995). Gender relations in Eastern Europe exist on two very different levels. On the one hand, the world of public institutions is patriarchal and male dominated. Even though men and women participate in the workforce in equal numbers, men receive higher salaries and hold most positions of power. On the other hand, interpersonal relations between men and women are either egalitarian or women receive preferen- tial treatment in them. Politeness toward women is highly valued. Men are attentive to the needs of women and seek to protect them from harm. Men are attentive to the needs of women and seek to protect them from harm. Gestures of respect such as opening the door for a woman or giving up one’s seat on the bus for a woman reflect a positive attitude toward women’s feminine qualities within the interpersonal realm. “Eastern Europe is still very much a man’s world. Women are flattered to excess, have their hands kissed, are presented with flowers, and are given other deferential treatment, but traditional attitudes toward the female sex still prevail. Women attempting to work professionally must prove themselves before they are accepted as equals”

I find it amusing that the need to “prove themselves” in the professional world is seen as a burden; the same is expected of Western men. However, the attention, affection and deference must be a source of comfort to many Eastern European women in their home countries.

In addition to the different attitudes concerning equality, the concept of feminism is not the same in Eastern Europe as it is in the West:

Most East Europeans associate feminism with gender equality in the legal sense. They feel that feminism cannot have much impact on their lives because during the past 50 years socialist ideology already promoted gender equality, women worked alongside with men, and equal opportunity clauses guaranteed their rights, in some countries earlier than in the West (Rohrlich 1979), yet discrimination in the workplace still prevailed.

[…]

Most feminist research in the United States is based on the assumption that treating men and women differently has a detrimental effect on both individuals and on society (Wood 2002). Efforts are being made to decrease the presence of gender in professional interactions and to avoid sexism, the discriminatory treatment of women. As a result of feminism, changes took place in notions about what is considered feminine and masculine, and in what is appropriate work for men and for women. Women strive to become more assertive and to enter formally male-dominated areas of life (Hofstede 1998). Gender-neutral use of language is expected in public and professional interaction (Lakoff 1975; Murphy and Zorn 1996)…

So, in E. Europe, gender roles are recognized, and reinforced to some extent by culture, whereas in the US, they are seen as a source of great evil, artificially implanted upon humanity by the “Patriarchy” (feminist version of Satan and his minions), which must be stricken off through a sort of mechanical de-sexing process. Hence, we see that the US is not so much gender-neutral as it is gender-neutered.

It seems that this is a source of distress to many women from Eastern Europe, who are not prepared for the strange new world of American gender relations.

Some western feminists argue that men open doors for a woman because they assume that she is weak and cannot do it for herself. East European women emphasize that in their culture such gestures of politeness are a sign of respect accorded not only to women, but also to those of higher status. The same expressions of respect may be used by a student toward his or her professor or by a child toward her parent. As a Bulgarian woman sums it up: “Women are treated like flowers, but are respected for their strengths.” Participants explain that these gestures of attention make women feel appreciated and noticed. Women expect and accept such privileged treatment, and bask in the sunshine of attention whenever they can…

[…]

Even though these expressions of politeness seem trivial, they fulfill a very important role in the culture because they validate gender identities of women in everyday life. Men treat women with distinction, and this allows them to fulfill the appropriate masculine role. Women invite such politeness by behaving in a feminine way, and when they accept privileged treatment they fulfill the appropriate feminine role. The validation of femininity that these gestures provide is one of the things that East European women miss most after moving to the United States. They feel unnoticed and unappreci- ated without them. Many women also miss compliments about their physi- cal appearance, which are common and are not regarded as sexist in Eastern Europe.

The irony here is that American women actually expect chivalry, politeness and the rest (as thousands of wistful articles, comments and blog posts attest), but they do not invite it, and in public they excoriate men for acting in this manner. Nor are they capable of behaving in a feminine manner; even if they were naturally inclined to do so, the tendency was eradicated when they were young.

Further along in the study, Eastern European women report being demoralized by the “sterilized” relationship between men and women, particularly in the workplace, where they lose interest in interacting with American men. One reason for this is that when they behave according to their cultural norms, America men tend to avoid them, probably fearing job loss through a sexual harassment claim. One woman, originally from Belarus, said that at work men “are afraid to look at a person who is female.” The EE women also report that although it appears that equalizing gender roles has worked surprisingly well in the US, they do not like it in their own lives.

They see American men as henpecked, inattentive to women (in terms of traditional manners), and less traditionally masculine, and American women as mannish, bossy and dominant. Some of their negative associations are left over from Communist times, when women in positions of authority were brutal and expected to behave like men. Over time, a negative stereotype about these kinds of women led EE women to prefer a more feminine role.

Despite their distaste for American-style feminism, EE women tend to strongly support legal equality for women. However, they do not think, as American feminists do, that this means that men and women should behave and treat each other exactly the same. Another difference is that EE women tend to view feminism in terms of caring for women and children rather than thrusting women into traditionally male spheres, such as the armed forces.

In other words, to these women feminism means something entirely different from what Americans understand. We must keep in mind that when an EE woman calls herself a “feminist,” she is not the same species as the frothing-at-the-mouth pit bull type we are familiar with here in the US. Rather, she is a milder, gentler breed with an entirely different set of priorities, and not really a feminist at all in the American sense of the word.

In some ways, feminism was first field-tested in the USSR. Radical gender equality programs were put into place very early on, but the harsh realities of the 20th century prevented their realization. Certainly, there are examples of effective Soviet female snipers and pilots from WWII, but the overwhelming brunt of the hard fighting was borne by men, and women exposed to the brutality of war liked it even less than their male counterparts. Despite the Cold War stereotype of the mannish, unattractive EE/Russian woman that was prevalent in the West, feminism never really took root because of real physical and economic constraints that got in the way. This probably explains why the movement has had such success in post-Cold War America: as the dominant nation on earth there is little sense of want or insecurity here, and the extra expenses involved in enforcing gender equality don’t seem all that difficult to bear (but they will in due course).

The differences between American and EE women make for some amusing anecdotes in the study, including one where an American woman tries to ram her idea of feminism down a Bulgarian woman’s throat.

Here is the quote in full:

And I had this argument, with [an American woman] recently. I was trying to explain to her that I am an educated person, I come from a very liberal background, I certainly read a lot of stuff about feminism…. The misunderstanding between me and her comes at a point where she refuses to realize that I feel my mind, my body, I’m free as a bird. I want my rights, my civil rights. I, however, do not insist in bearing arms, on being asked to do things that I do not enjoy.

And I tried to tell to her that the feminist movement in Bulgaria is not as popular as it is here precisely because of some history of gender relations, precisely because they are quite different than gender relations in the United States. She jumped from her chair, and she declared that I was not correct, and that the movement, the feminist movement in Eastern Europe is very strong…. I’ve read many feminist writings and it seems to me that they equate their experience with women throughout the world.

[She implied] that I wasn’t understanding what American feminism was about. I think I perfectly understand. And the other thing that struck me was her aggressive attitude. We weren’t discussing at a point. She was patronizing. She was telling me that I don’t understand. And I think I do understand. And I backed up, and I thought it was not worth it, because she wasn’t listening to me. (Bulgaria, 35, 6 years in the US)

The goal of the study was to ease transitions to American society, and through the quote selection one can detect a certain distaste for the behavior of American feminists from the author, who is named Nanda Dimitrov, and obviously of EE origin herself. She suggests that the aggressive behavior and bigotry of American feminists causes difficulties for the EE women by giving them a motive to resist adaptation to American values and norms. Dare we call it “chauvinism?”

I would recommend that any Eastern European – male or female – who plans to live in the West, and the US in particular, give this study a serious read. Likewise, an American man who has an EE woman (or one from any non-Western culture, for that matter) for a partner would do well to pay attention to it, because it could promote a better understanding of difficulties she may face, and also allay concerns he might have. For example, the sterile nature of interpersonal discourse between American men and women is not the norm in the rest of the world; when a woman acts in a friendly manner toward a man in the US it is usually taken as a sign of sexual intent, whereas this is not normally the case worldwide. Instead, American women are generally expected to act in a hostile or indifferent manner toward any and all men except those they intend to sleep with. This, as I see it, would probably be one of the biggest potential sources of misunderstanding.

Shortly after reading this study yesterday, I drove my kids back up toward the border to hand them off to their mother, and while waiting to be seated at a restaurant, I noticed a young man and young woman talking to each other. They were obviously colleagues, and the totally functional nature of the conversation, lacking any expressed emotion or concern for anything besides the practical subject, struck me as quite an unnatural way for a man and woman to relate to each other. I wouldn’t have thought much of it if I hadn’t read the study, but there it was on display, and it was indeed an example of what’s happened to gender relations in the US today. It is quite repellent from a human perspective, but we live in odd times, and these cultural norms have been dictated to the young for their entire lives.

Fortunately, not all of us live or work in such an environment. I am convinced that young men are avoiding the campus and the cubicle precisely because they find this kind of atmosphere abhorrent. It is only the professional class that has truly adopted it (the study indicates that professional EE women may have some of the most difficulties in regards to American gender roles — probably because of the professional workplace environment in the US), and even these well-behaved types chafe under the restrictions. And, it is not necessary to live this way at home. Despite their best efforts, there is not a feminist in every living room (unless that’s where you keep your TV), and men and women are free to take on natural roles away from the public enforcers.

Cultural differences often provide a lot of food for thought, and I’ve gained some interesting perspective on the plight of American women in particular, who are going to face a terrible reckoning in coming years, as they learn that being a second-rate facsimile of a man will be worth a lot less than being a full woman. Just as westernization was a terrible trauma to Eastern European men, the disintegration of feminism is going to be very difficult to bear for our women.

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