Unlimited Liberal Feminism in Lithuania

When thinking about the situation of feminism in Lithuania, the film Kramer vs. Kramer springs to mind. Or, perhaps it would be better to say that what arises is discussion within feminist circles about this film, decades after it was first seen on the screen.

Created in 1979 in the midst of second-wave feminism, Kramer vs. Kramer was accused by more liberal feminists of being anti-feminist because it questioned a woman’s equal right to choose her own path, requesting that she be returned to her rightful place, so that everything within the family, i.e. society, would fall back into order.

However, watching Kramer vs. Kramer from a critical feminist perspective, the composition when the husband is placed in a position of looking after his child, i.e. in the sphere of social reproduction, reveals that the grounding point of today’s patriarchal structures is capitalism. The issue of equal rights between men and women without questioning power structures supported by capitalism may have some meaning but doesn’t offer a resolution. On the other hand, by portraying men as a means of creating surplus value and women as reproductive slaves for the capitalist system, the film provides a greater insight into the roots of such problems, such as unequal pay, domestic violence and levels of suicide in our society.

The feminist movement in Lithuania began quite early and got off to a strong start. Women’s voting rights were legally established in 1918, and Lithuania was one of the first country’s in the world to abolish the ban on abortion (1955). During Soviet times, emancipatory policies were implemented. Women had support from the state in the form of guaranteed childcare, medical care (childbirth had to take place in hospitals), guaranteed work, and legalised abortion in 1950. On the other hand, some equality policies went too far. Women were encouraged to take any job, even those that were traditionally considered to be for men as they required more physical strength. In addition, they were not allowed to stay at home and look after their newborn babies for longer than the state policy allowed.

šwDuring the Sąjūdis (independence) movement, a conservative attitude towards women arose as an alternative to Soviet politics. In Lithuania, a conservative attitude is considered to be anti-regime, and so, quite perversely when compared with the rest of the world, patriarchal values became the “new progressive”. A woman’s right to stay at home for three years with her baby was considered freedom and protection of women’s rights. Private kindergartens were publicly acknowledged as better value, offering a more homely approach to children’s upbringing (especially various kindergartens with Catholic religious education), and there was a new wave of giving birth at home. All this was considered liberation from Soviet mind dictatorship and a return to true national values.

After regaining independence, together with the new wave of “patriotic conservatism”, Lithuania increasingly became a land of glorification for neoliberalism. It was not only due to anti-Soviet sentiment but was also related to Lithuania being uncritically pro-EU and pro-capitalist. All of a sudden, a wave of liberal feminism became an alternative to both – to the feminism associated with the Soviet regime and to the conservative attitude. Therefore, it is not surprising that a formerly progressive feminist country was moving towards liberalism in its fight for women’s rights. Ironically, the new demands for more gender equality were expressed at the expense of and by denying the progressive achievements of the past.

Liberal feminism found wide support in Lithuanian society, perceiving it to fit in well with dominating neoliberal attitudes. Discussions on gender were mainly construed in terms of the freedom of the rich to choose their lifestyle and in terms of them having some moral obligations towards the rest of society in the form of “civic activism”, mostly used as PR campaigns for their businesses.

While the real problems that effect women’s position in society are poverty and economic dependency, issues such as domestic violence or women staying in low-paid jobs are addressed by liberal feminists, moralising them for being backwards and not “taking the future into their own hands”. Liberal moralising about finding inner freedom is supported by examples of celebrity liberation success stories. The public domain is full of business types of feminism, where rich and successful businesswomen organise happy gatherings for film viewings while their private businesses are known for shamefully high gender pay gaps.

One such example is Swedbank (one of the largest and most influential banks in Lithuania). Alongside the Office of the Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson, it placed a traffic light at one of the Vilnius crossings with a female-gendered walk symbol. There was vast publicity surrounding this action, and Swedbank was portrayed as a big supporter of women’s rights with a pat on the back from the state ombudsman. However, bearing in mind that the gender pay gap in private business is 18% and Swedbank’s workers’ salaries are the lowest in the Lithuanian banking sector, we can safely conclude that women’s salaries at Swedbank are the lowest in the banking sector in Lithuania. No PR action, even if it is backed by the state, can justify that.

Feminist radio shows run by newly self-proclaimed celebrities, encouraging women to be proactive in their careers and not to be ashamed of different identities, have rapidly grown in popularity. Many argue that it is good to publicise feminism (as a term, it has become more popular and less threatening to the wider society). However, this celebrity form of liberal feminism allows all kinds of social climbers to promote their “individual freedom” as the main aim of feminism, most of the time at other women’s expense (like demanding the legalisation of prostitution or disregarding poverty as a factor in domestic violence).

Rosa Luxemburg called privileged rich women “parasites of parasites”. Today, it could be added that the celebrity form of feminism is a “parasite of feminism”. It often feeds on feminist discourse to undermine its achievements and progress, for example, the discussion on legalising prostitution. It also reduces gender struggles to freedom not to shave or suggests that women should also be conscripted into the army. This kind of popular feminism discourse doesn’t talk about the division between classes and makes working with poor and structurally enslaved women even more difficult. This is because the latter see feminists as people from a different class who don’t relate to their problems.

Over the last few years, critical feminism has become more visible. Movements such as 8th March and Reproductive Strike have been organising rallies against attempts to introduce abortion bans. The 8th March marches have also been raising awareness of pay gaps and women’s situation in the workplace, mobbing and sexual harassment at work, and poverty and domestic violence. These movements aim to make it clear that the main issues feminism needs to tackle are poverty, structural inequality, class and the struggle for pacifism. Feminist movements should not shy away from the problem of pacifism, even though it is very controversial in Lithuania, which leans towards nationalistic patriotism.

On top of what is being done, critical feminism in Lithuania should proceed in two directions: re-evaluating the women-enabling social institutions created in Soviet times and working directly with working-class women to hear their stories. To progress the feminist discourse further, we must learn not to impose our attitudes and frameworks but to try and listen to the stories of working-class women and understand their needs and desires.