Women’s representation in Bulgaria: the legacy of socialist feminism

Photo: Financial Times 

At first glance, the favorable attitude towards women in Bulgarian politics might be attributed to the legacy of the socialist ideology and women’s parliamentary presence during the regime. In fact, the idea that women have had access to the same career opportunities as men for a long time has resulted in a widespread perception that gender inequality is extremely rare in the country. Nevertheless, further analysis shows that despite popular opinion in Bulgaria, the level of representation of women’s issues in policy-making is concerning. Notably, such negative trends could equally be attributed to the history of state socialism. The aim of this article is to illustrate both the positive and the negative aspects of the political past, and to shift the focus of debate onto the future. A critical analysis of the idea that gender equality has already been achieved in Bulgaria is important because this notion has diverted the attention from the issues women face in the modern world.

The legacy of socialism: strong descriptive representation

The socialist parliaments in Central and Eastern Europe included a higher number of women than those in Western Europe at the time. Prior to the regime change, the average percentage of women in those parliaments was 26% compared to only 12.5% in the European Union (EU) member states. After the first free elections the level of women’s representation in parliament significantly decreased. In Bulgaria it fell down from 21% to 8.5%. Nevertheless, positive trends can be observed in the country at the beginning of the new millennium. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, women’s representation in the Bulgarian parliament has remained relatively stable at 20%-26.25% since 2001. The number of women at cabinet positions has also increased.

The dominant culture and ideology in a country have a significant impact on women’s representation (Paxton and Kunuvich, 2003). According to popular opinion surveys conducted in Bulgaria, 74% of respondents think that there should be more women in politics and 41% consider that the world would be a better place if politicians were predominantly women. It might seem reasonable to many to link the current popular attitude of Bulgarians to the established standards of women’s representation during socialism. This could be an especially appealing idea in light of the recent coverage of cases of gender-based discrimination and sexual assaults in Western countries.

The legacy of socialism: weak substantive representation

However, an increase in the number of women in the legislature and the executive does not necessarily lead to better policies on women’s issues. The literature on women’s representation in Central and Eastern Europe offers three broad explanations of why descriptive representation has often not been transformed into substantive one in post-socialist countries.

Firstly, while socialist parliaments included a significantly high proportion of women, the latter did not hold actual political power. Instead, it was concentrated in the male-dominated party leadership (Clavero and Galligan, 2005, pp. 981-982). Secondly, women’s “emancipation” during socialism was not complete. Women, portrayed as both laborers and mothers, entered the public sphere but retained all of their responsibilities in the private one. Discrimination and patriarchal stereotypes persisted despite women’s participation in politics (Funk, 1993, pp. 86-87). In addition, Western conceptions of feminism that were promoted in the 1990s ignored the pre-existing socialist ideologies of oppression. As a result, they were initially perceived as “bourgeois feminism” (Ghodsee, 2004, pp. 728-732). Finally, as socialism entailed a monopoly on all forms of civic associations, it impacted negatively the emerging structures of civil society afterwards (Bernhard and Karakoç, 2007, p. 542), including women’s activism.

Women’s substantive representation in Bulgaria

Such theories could be observed in practice in Bulgaria. Favorable attitudes towards descriptive representation in the country are often not accompanied by demands for substantive representation. Despite the fact that the country has one of the lowest gender equality indexes in the EU, according to Eurobarometer, 53% consider cases of gender inequality to be rare in Bulgaria.

The gap between performance and perception indicates a lack of awareness of what gender equality constitutes. This is further demonstrated by the large proportion of “I don’t know” answers recorded among Bulgarians on questions regarding equal rights and related policies. For example, asked about which institution they would contact in cases of gender discrimination, 40% of Bulgarians are unable to give an answer, compared to 9% of EU-28. CEDAW also observes that Bulgarian women are often not familiar with their rights under the Convention.

The legacy of “emancipating” women in public life while preserving their traditional roles in private life could also be identified in Bulgarian perceptions of women’s employment. Gender inequality is notable with regard to unpaid labor. Three quarters of Bulgarians believe that family life will suffer if a mother works full-time. Another 66% consider men as less competent to deal with the household. Consequently, popular measures for tackling gender differences in employment in Bulgaria focus on reconciling paid labor with responsibilities in the private sphere, instead of demanding better work conditions and increased access to the job market for women. The most mentioned measure in the country is flexible work arrangements. Significantly, equal pay receives the fewest mentions in Bulgaria among EU countries.

In conclusion, while the socialist legacy of Bulgaria has undoubtedly affected the manner in which we think about gender equality nowadays, its impact is far from straightforward. While the positive attitude towards female politicians might partially be the result of it, important issues of substantive equality have been neglected due to the failure of emancipating women in the private sphere. Certainly, other factors have also impacted such developments. For example, new democracies are initially occupied with tasks such as opening up the economy and reforming institutions. Women’s rights have often attracted attention at later stages. Just as Bulgaria’s socialist legacy is not the only cause of the presence of women in politics, it is also not the only cause of the low level of other forms of gender equality. Examining women’s issues should remind us that socialism is one among a variety of factors, which have impacted the development of Bulgaria over the past few decades. While its effect in all aspects of social life is important, it should be studied objectively, without neither prejudices, nor nostalgia.

Gender equality is supposed to be amongst the key priorities in the national strategic development plan for the next 25 years. A public debate is undoubtedly needed, in order to highlight the most effective steps for achieving it.

Author: Liana Minkova
Email: liana.minkova@millenniumclub.org
2018 Millennium Club Bulgaria


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