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#special issue: Becoming a Mother

Anna Rotkirch – Anna Temkina – Elena Zdravomyslova /// Who helps the degraded housewife?

Comments on Vladimir Putin’s demographic speech

In his annual address to the nation May 2006, Russian president Vladimir Putin made several new suggestions concerning family and child care policy. Later in this year his proposals were confirmed by the Duma and received legal status. This is the first time that post-socialist gender politics have been so clearly outlined in Russia. While Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-80s envisioned the possibility of women returning to their traditional roles as a means to lighten their double burden, Putin strongly advocated both wage-work and state support for Russian mothers. What rhetorical and political strategies explain this interesting move? What gender ideology lies behind them?

Comments on Vladimir Putin’s demographic speech

In his annual address to the nation May 2006, Russian president Vladimir Putin made several new suggestions concerning family and child care policy. Later in this year his proposals were confirmed by the Duma and received legal status. This is the first time that post-socialist gender politics have been so clearly outlined in Russia. While Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-80s envisioned the possibility of women returning to their traditional roles as a means to lighten their double burden, Putin strongly advocated both wage-work and state support for Russian mothers. What rhetorical and political strategies explain this interesting move? What gender ideology lies behind them?

Introducing maternal capital

Putin’s 2006 address first noted how Russia’s worrisome demographic development—“the most acute problem facing our country today”—is affected by three processes: mortality, migration and fertility. Road safety should be improved, and skilled migrants encouraged to immigrate. He also mentioned improving general quality of life and supporting maternal care centers.

But the focus of his suggested demographic program is on child care policies encouraging fertility, and especially the birth of a second child. Monthly child care benefits for children under 18 months should be raised to 1,500 rubles (less than 50 euros) for the first child, and 3,000 rubles (less than 100 euros) for the second. Wage-earning mothers should receive at least 40% of their wages (with an upper treshold) until the child reaches eighteen months. This maternal subsidy is paid from the state budget. The huge numbers of abandoned children should be alleviated by support for foster parenting.

Finally, Putin proposed a new form of benefit, the “basic maternal capital”. This capital consists of a larger sum that the mother will receive when her second child turns three, and which should be invested in loans, housing, the mother’s pension, or education for the child. The total amount of maternal capital for a mother of two children is 250,000 rubles, and it will be annually indexed for inflation. This benefit will elevate the status of a woman taking maternity leave who might otherwise suffer from discrimination in the family. Funds from the maternal capital can be spent only on the state-defined targets mentioned above. In Putin’s view, the maternal capital should thus work as a mother’s wealth, which the state provides a woman as a mother when she has a second child, compensating for the loss of career momentum.

Putin’s approach was monetaristic and pragmatic, both in analysis and policy formation. He asked: “What stops young families, women, from making such a decision today, especially when we’re talking of having a second or third child? The answers are well known. They include low income, inadequate housing conditions, doubts as to their own ability to ensure the child a decent level of healthcare and education, and—let’s be honest—sometimes doubts as to whether they will even be able to feed the child. ”
Thus, the problems were presented as mainly economic, and the solution is more money from the state: “A program to encourage childbirth should include a whole series of administrative, financial and social support measures for young families. All of these measures are equally important, but nothing will bring results unless the necessary material support is provided. ”

The words ”men” or ”fathers” are glaringly absent from this speech, as is any reference to grandparents or other relatives, who still play a important role Russian child care arrangements. An indirect support of fatherhood can be detected only in the first part of the address concerning the role of the military. There Putin advocated revising several legal conditions enabling a suspension of obligatory military service, including a delay of the recruitment for conscripts whose wives are pregnant.

Furthermore, Putin was especially critical of the economic dependence of mothers in nuclear families:
”I think that the state has a duty to help women who have given birth to a second child and end up out of the workplace for a long time, losing their skills. I think that, unfortunately, women in this situation often end up in a dependent and frankly even degraded position within the family. We should not be shy about discussing these issues openly and we must do so if we want to resolve these problems.”

We see here how Putin’s speech aimed at strengthening the legacy of the Soviet family, which was centered around the civic entitlement of wage-earning mother. The Soviet gender contract, which took root in the 1930s, required women to become both wage-earners and mothers, returning these favors with equal rights (or lack of rights) for all citizens and female-friendly family policies. In terms of policy, this represented a kind of state feminism, while any independent feminist movement was forbidden in the Soviet Union.

The practices of working mothers have dominated in post-socialist Russia, although the range of gender contracts has come to include more diverse arrangements, notably the bourgeois housewife and male breadwinner (Temkina & Rotkirch 1996). That Putin labelled the image of woman favored by part of the business elite as not only dependent, but “degraded”, is an interesting move. We are very far from the perestroika years of the 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev wished women could return to their traditional roles, and the dominating ideology supported male breadwinners.
Neither did Putin reproduce the strong symbolic elevation of women as mothers typical of the Soviet gender order. For instance, the address does not refer directly to specific female values and inborn psychological skills. It did so only implicitly by not mentioning fathers as care-givers.

Few other politicians of this level have so strongly endorsed women’s economic independence anywhere in the world. The same approach was found among socialist classics such as Friedrich Engels, August Bebel and notably the Russian Alexandra Kollontay, who regarded state support to women as mothers as the main tool of family policy.

Liberal, conservative and feminist critiques

Russian experts are more divided in their opinions. Most academics are skeptical, and claim that the monetary measures will not affect the demographic situation. We may identify three partially overlapping positions of critique: those of the liberals, feminists, and conservatives.

The liberally oriented demographers and sociologists believe that Putin’s program is not sufficient to stimulate the birth rate, though it could further encourage people having a 2nd child if it had been planned already. Additionally, only poorer strata of population are stimulated by the small monetary gains offered in the Program. The suggested measures would stimulate only those ethno-cultural groups that maintain traditions of multiple-children families (which in Russia means parities of three and more) and where the issues of poverty are most acute. For the middle class, maternal capital is too small and cannot compensate for the economic losses of the household if one of the parents stops working, albeit temporarily. Thus the middle class does not stand to benefit, as their earnings are higher and career is meaningful. Mothers risk jeopardizing their upward mobility and sacrificing their careers, if they stay for two to three years on maternity leave. Quality childcare and the cost of the education are very high in contemporary Russia, the sociologists further note, and the expenses far exceed the amounts of child subsidies outlined by the President. Thus, the general conclusion among Russian liberals is that the Family Program rhetoric is a populist one and may have undesired economic and social consequences.

The Russian conservatives express other concerns: they would like the state to support the “natural role” of women as mothers even more extensively. Sergei Mironov, the chairman of the Upper Chamber of the Parliament and the leader of the Russian Party of Life, proposed the idea of a family salary promoting housewifery, which is in his opinion still undeveloped in Russia. It would provide women on maternity leave with regular support from the state, rather than the one-time payment envisioned in Putin’s concept of maternal capital. Additionally, Mironov hopes that the family salary would strengthen the prestige of the father as the breadwinner of the family.

The third line of critique is that of feminists and women’s movement activists. They partly agree with the liberal position and partly express their own concerns. As the Program is too monetarist, it is predicted as having a low level of efficiency. Monetary policies deflect attention from such urgent issues as the reform of maternal healthcare, where institutional trust is very low, or educational reforms. Feminists have also criticised the proposed program for its shallow understanding of family types and arrangements and a focus on a certain type of families. Family benefits have to be more diversified; the Program’s focus on families with two children is not justified, they claim. Social policy should also address other types of families, such as single-parent households and families with more than two children. Feminists also deplored the traditional role assigned to fathers in Putin’s speech, which did not present any understanding of shared parenthood. Putin’s policies were seen to be very similar to the Soviet policies of assistance and support for the working mother as a natural caregiver and useful economic resource. They would strengthen the inferior positions of women on the labor market and reproduce gender polarization and gender imbalances on the symbolic level. Feminists also deplored that the issue of flexible employment schemes that could improve the balance between wage work and family life was not even mentioned.

Conclusions

The family policies proposed in Putin’s 2006 address raised child care benefits and introduced the new concept of maternal capital as support to mothers of two children. These policies present themselves as emphatically women-friendly.  We consider that the address and following policies prove that the Russian president reemployes notions of gender and parenthood that were typical of the Soviet period. In its entirety, the address included two complimentary gender issues: the “female” demographic problem and the “male” reform of the military service. Femininity was defined in terms of the wage working mother supported by the state on a symbolic level, and receiving small monetary benefits on an economic level. This suggests that the balance of work and family is exclusively a woman’s issue. This type of polarized gender consciousness, with strict division into feminine and masculine spheres, appears to be typical for the Russian administration today.
If US president George W. Bush is a compassionate conservative, Putin is a pragmatic conservative. Putin is conservative with regard to the Soviet social policy legacy, in which the state presents itself as a mother’s best friend. He is pragmatic in paying more attention to real-life problems and in discarding the praise of motherhood familiar from Soviet ideology.
We basically endorse the feminist line of critique. We agree that the economic part of the program will not reach its goal; it cannot stimulate the birth rate as it claims to be able to do, in spite of its populist rhetoric of pragmatism. We believe that priority should be given to policies fostering the growth of qualities and qualifications of parents, gender-equal parenthood, improvement of childcare, family-friendly working conditions, and maternity-care systems.

The symbolic appeal of the new presidential program of fertility growth should not be underestimated, however. Russian women’s citizenship has once again been defined in terms of the working-mother contract. There is no longer any discussion of sending women “back home”. Instead, there is some recognition of the dilemma of child-rearing for educated women in contemporary Russia (to stay at home and quit work, or to prefer career to children), and of the forms of discrimination experienced by economically dependent housewives in their families. The state is viewed as the agent that should fight against family patriarchy. Even if parenthood is still defined in terms of motherhood only, gender issues are once more visibly at the center of Russian national politics.

 

The authors
Anna Rotkirch is director of the project “Fertility patterns and family forms in St. Petersburg”, Academy of Finland.
Anna Temkina is professor of the Gender Studies Program, European University of St Petersburg.
Elena Zdravomyslova is professor of the Gender Studies Program, European University of St Petersburg; and researcher at the Centre for Independent Social Research.

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