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The Flowering of Feminism in Hungary

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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

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?

For the rest of the interview, click here.