All Were Rebels: The Founding of the Network of East-West Women

All Were Rebels: The Founding of the Network of East-West Women

Were we to postpone focusing on women’s interests in deference to what always gets named as more urgent—nationalist cries of crisis and cynically manipulated threat? Who gets to make history?

Ann Snitow at the twenty-fifth anniversary meeting of the NEWW, with Małgorzata Tarasiewicz (director of NEWW), Wanda Nowicka, Roma Ciesla, and Barbara Limanowksa. (Phoebe West)

Ann Snitow (1943–2019) dedicated her life to feminism as a scholar and activist. The first piece she published in Dissent, in 1989, was a rigorous history of the U.S. feminist movement in which she participated. In the years and months leading up to her death last August, she devoted her energy to writing an account of her political work in Central and Eastern Europe. She finished the book days before she died. We are honored to publish this excerpt, in which Ann tells the story of the founding meeting of the Network of East-West Women, the organization she cofounded in 1991 and worked within for nearly three decades. This article is adapted from Visitors: An American Feminist in East Central Europe (New Village Press), which will be published in March.

—Natasha Lewis, Senior Editor

The Meeting, Dubrovnik, June 7–9, 1991

In the midst of our feverish last-minute planning for what became the founding meeting of the Network of East-West Women, the U.S. State Department placed a travel advisory on Yugoslavia. I called, and they advised us to call off the meeting. A war was scheduled for late June. We had worked a year to bring this group of Eastern and Central European feminists together. Were we now to postpone focusing on women’s interests in deference to what always gets named as more urgent—nationalist cries of crisis and cynically manipulated threat? Who gets to make history?

Wise or not, we refused to cancel. Participants feared, or refused to fear, according to their temperaments and histories; but finally everyone came—more than fifty women from the East, twenty from the West. They all refused the usual command to women in times of war fever: Step back; wait. We were horrified by the impending disaster but also half-disbelieving that a war could be scheduled in this way, as if by rational design. We never could have imagined the extent of the hysteria and political violence that was about to come. Instead, our meeting posed a general question with which we were to constantly wrestle in the years ahead: What is included in the concept “the political”? Feminism had made broad revisions to what politics should rightly include—the realms usually called “private,” such as sexuality and the very structures of daily social life.

It was clear to all those attending the meeting that every piece of received political rhetoric was about to be tossed in the air, a crazy confetti to land who knew where. All of the women at the meeting were renegades in one way or another; all were rebels who had bitten the hand that had fed them before the fall of communism and were not going to line up with uncritical enthusiasm for a new world order either. They were students, teachers, writers, and journalists—all cultural workers of various sorts. From many standpoints, they were skeptics. In being self-proclaimed feminists, they were idealists, yes, but ironic idealists.

Together in Dubrovnik

In one of those little collisions of history, we chose Dubrovnik (“gem of the Adriatic,” travel agents say)—then in Yugoslavia, now in Croatia—as our meeting place. Some of the women participating had never been out of their own countries before, and the Yugoslavian writer Slavenka Drakulić urged that the pleasures of this beautiful place should be part of what we organizers were offering to women weary to the bone.

I liked her attitude. After my first trip, I was beginning to understand the complex dynamics of resistance to feminism in the region. Rest and meals cooked by someone else in the nice Hotel Lero might be as useful to such overworked and politically beleaguered women as hours of strategic conversation. Let there be pleasure—or at least a moment to breathe; let the conference proceed: As You Like It, or What You Will. (Over the years, we tried to hold on to this faith in let-it-be organizing. We shared skepticism about endpoints, which, except in our language on foundation grant applications, we always defined as unknowable.)

Since being in the wrong place at the wrong time always has tragic possibilities beyond any calculation, we were lucky: The war that dismantled Yugoslavia started two weeks after we left the city. We were the last meeting in the grand, stone International University Center before the Serbian army bombed it a few months later. (A fundraising letter came to New York, enclosing charred pages from the center’s library.)

But in early June, Dubrovnik was entirely there and ours—ancient, rich, and golden. At the height of tourist season, it was completely empty. We wandered; we bought extraordinary things from desperate Muslim shopkeepers, who, after the war, were “cleansed” from Croatia, never to be seen in Dubrovnik again; we talked about the looming changes in women’s prospects. Only a few of us fully understood that for Yugoslavia this was an ending.

When I look back now on that first gathering, I am in awe of what we managed to put together, in the held breath before a dreadful war, and right at the beginning of a new era. Because we Americans were outsiders, our colleagues (somewhat) forgave us for the social ignorance of inviting women with such different histories, national cultures, and political experiences. Our lack of regional angst and our open-to-all policy, at times irritating to Eastern Europeans, enabled some revealing combinations. People met who were not otherwise destined to meet. The very young encountered politically savvy feminist veterans. Here were the East German women, lesbians in leather with metal spikes in their ears, elegant and stern as they surveyed the polyglot scene. They were drinking coffee in the courtyard right next to the women from Czechoslovakia in summer dresses with lace collars.

In a plenary session, the Serbian activist Sonja Licht got up to say she had just come from Poland, where she had heard the Pope announce that abortion was another Holocaust. I heard one of the Czech women respond under her breath, “That Serb.” I was jolted by her vicious aside, her tone of disgust, but why be so surprised? Certainly racism was right there with us in the mix, and, for brief but startling moments, the new nationalisms of now-former Yugoslavia blew like a strange wind through our meeting. People stood to introduce themselves, first saying, “From Yugoslavia,” then in embarrassment or anger or confusion correcting themselves: “I mean, from Croatia”—or Serbia or Slovenia.

We American organizers wondered how these often-sophisticated internationalists could be party to such reductive new identities, but we were soon to see how powerful and inescapable such ethnic sorting was becoming. Intellectual resistance made little difference; the real breakdown in communication among the Yugoslav women at the Network’s founding lay just ahead and was of another order of magnitude. Ambitious nationalist leaders orchestrated the rifts in Yugoslavia. The phone lines were down; the train tracks cut. Although there was irony in trying to start an international communication network among women at such a time, the arrival of the war made it seem even more necessary. (Several Yugoslav women were to route messages to friends suddenly in another country through us in New York.)

In planning the conference, we U.S. organizers had used a reductive sorting device of our own, the elastic and resonant identifier “feminist.” At this point of intensifying division, as not only Yugoslavia but the whole region was flying apart, each country seeking some lost essence of its pre-Soviet past, the idea of an international “women’s movement” was a countercurrent. Our gathering represented resistance to the prevailing ideological flow. We sought relationships built through the possibility of shared ideas, not defined by borders. During the war that was ultimately to divide Yugoslavia into seven countries, women’s movements were to become one of the few political locations where the new militarism was named, analyzed in developing detail, and visibly rejected.

Looked at now, perhaps these images of us talking, drinking coffee, sucking up the sunlight in the courtyard lose their force; perhaps they figure us as fiddlers while the waiting fire was so near, consuming all relationships. We were definitely dreamers; even the most practical feminist activism includes desires that seem impossible in current conditions. We had the wish to talk to each other, what bell hooks calls the “integrity of intent.” However hard a shared politics might prove to be, seventy skeptical, often burned out, often overwhelmed activists—some of whom had had to travel for several days—converged on the first morning.

An Agenda

Back in New York, we Americans had been very clear that we didn’t want—or know how—to choose the meeting’s themes. So we planned to begin by breaking into small, mixed East-West groups as an informal way for people to discover one another’s interests and begin to know one another. A “facilitator” (dreadful euphemistic word, but U.S. feminists were still allergic to saying “leader”) explained the ideas behind this exercise, borrowed from the U.S. movement practice of consciousness-raising. Each person in the group was to address the question: “How did your personal experiences bring you to an involvement in women’s problems?”

In my particular group, both this structure and this sort of question were greeted with horror. “Why would we want to discuss our private histories with strangers?” Several simply refused to speak. Others talked about their activist or professional lives in order to push away these rude Americans with their voyeurism, their too-easy and innocent openness. So much for “the personal is political.” What layers of safety and trust that U.S. movement saying reflects! Here, on the other side of the looking glass, people who chose to expose intimate life to public scrutiny were fools.

The pernicious side of private life in the family—say, domestic violence, or just the daily, common repressions of individual will—were not themes for political discussion here, not even among these feminists, marginal and critical as they were within their own cultures. Whatever its limitations, the family had been, and remained, the key means of survival.

So the opening small group I attended could be called an embarrassing failure. But we certainly heard each other, and we organizers from the United States were confirmed in our initial belief that we were not here to give shape to events. I was relieved that the atmosphere was contentious. No passive, quiet resistance here. Building something useful out of our baggy, underdetermined planning in New York became the much-debated work of the entire group.


Slavenka Drakulić opened the first plenary:

We are meeting here a year and a half after the crucial changes in Eastern Europe . . . time enough to recognize the tendencies and changes especially in regard to women. What happened to them?

She laid out the bloody facts: Now that there were no more communist-style quotas and elections were free, the new parliaments included only a few women; the regional economies where women were formerly clustered were collapsing; the newly free states were trying to restrict abortion because they wanted more children for the nation and a safely conservative return to an older form of authority, the Church.

Boldly, Slavenka brought a then socially unacceptable critique of the new, enchanted talk about “freedom.”

As we all know, freedom has to be taken; it’s not given by anyone, even by the new democratic governments. Women will, most probably, have to learn their lessons the hard way, through disappointment, unemployment, poverty, losses, and fears. If they don’t make themselves into a political subject, and the agent of political change, they simply won’t exist as women per se, and their particular problems will be neglected and ignored.

It was a wonderful speech—full of clarion warnings and rousing abjurations—and rereading it now, all these years later, I can hear the passion, the unrelentingly critical analysis, and the good sense that lay behind the founding of the Network of East-West Women.

She went on:

What exactly is characterizing our position after the so-called revolution in Eastern Europe?

That “so-called” before “revolution” was like a trumpet blast. It gave us all permission—East and West—to criticize what was happening. No one was going to call us communists here if we asked for social services or complained about the forms that some of the new “freedoms” were taking.

In another blast, acknowledging everyone’s desire for new, unique identities and escape from the crushing gray of compulsory communist-
era groups, Slavenka nonetheless insisted on the need for a collective identity among Eastern European women who were actually having very similar experiences of loss wherever they were. Describing her trips around the region reporting for Ms., she noted how little information women had either about their shared situation or about feminism in Western or Third World countries: “While feminists in South America and India were connecting with each other, we didn’t connect.” This was a call for a cosmopolitan feminism. The Network was forming to correct a double blackout: first, a lack of information in the West about what was happening to women in the East, and, second, Eastern European women’s ignorance of each other.

Slavenka goes on:

Ann was very worried [and insisted] I had to mention [her fears] about imperialism. You know how Americans are very sensitive: “Are we going to be imperialistic, because we are going to give you money?” [The group laughs.]

Not necessarily. Are men not helping each other? Men are helping each other!—in a different name—they call it “politics.” [More laughter.]

My welcoming talk followed. I described the explosion of feminist consciousness in the United States and the backlash against it. Now this backlash was deforming U.S. women’s movements, putting them on the defensive. I wish I had added that we wanted company in these difficult years of reaction, that we wanted to exchange ideas about how to build women’s movements in aggressively unfriendly circumstances; but that important formulation of parallel experiences came later.

The word that went round among the Eastern European women at the conference was this “backlash.” As one organizer said, “We have backlash before we even have a movement.” Certainly, something unusual was happening. Perhaps because women had been so strong under communism, patriarchs seemed to be making a vicious preemptive strike against any aspirations these powerful women might be entertaining in the new order. The news everywhere was full of prescriptions, open insults, and coaxing invitations to women to be feminine again, to step back and let men take charge at last.

Organizers were going to have a problem: Communists had claimed to “emancipate” women, so now any echo of that political project—in many ways still so unrealized—was tainted by the hypocrisies and failures of the past. People didn’t even want to hear the word politics. I told the meeting that Slavenka had warned me beforehand: “Don’t use the word organize; it depresses people.” Everyone laughed at this recognition. Here we were, political people, facing a reactive, anti-communist taboo on politics, on organizing, on any idea of women’s group solidarity. Too many ideologies had been enforced here from outside. Although feminism was in fact indigenous, it was being greeted everywhere as a rude intrusion, a pernicious orthodoxy from without. How were we to interrupt this alienation from basic questions of equality and justice?

What followed was an extraordinary three days. Sonia Jaffe Robbins, one of the key organizers of the meeting on the American end, includes in her excellent notes that I ended the opening session with an announcement that we had brought books—and, also, condoms—because we had heard of the lack of access to feminist writing and decent birth control. A voice from the back of the room called out, “Our men don’t want to use condoms. Bring us diaphragms.”

Women in State Politics

A large group was unhappy that the loose agenda we had cooked up in New York didn’t include anything about the disappearance of women from all the region’s parliaments. (No doubt as we wrote our draft agenda, we Americans had been insufficiently surprised at this, given the miserable U.S. record.) The first free elections had had astonishing results: In Romania, the number of women in parliament went from 34.3 percent to 3.5 percent; in Czechoslovakia, from 29.5 percent to 6 percent; in Hungary, 20.9 percent to 7 percent; in Bulgaria 21 percent to 8.5 percent. (The high numbers in these pairs, it must be remembered, were all quotas for women under communism; those many women had served in powerless, rubber-stamp parliaments.)

Did this dramatic change show that, left free to choose, women wanted no part in politics, and men were delighted to see them depart? Was it that politics is dirty, and men like that and can take it? Or was there a deeper psychological reaction here? Had communism further distilled traditional distrust of women when it granted them low-level public powers? A swarm of women apparatchiks had ordered everyone around, often in a belligerent style far from feminine. Stalin had given women special, if in some ways fictive, status: milk for mother. And because communism hadn’t interrupted traditional divisions of labor at home, women had maintained their usual power in the family while men outside the party had power nowhere. Here perhaps was a reaction, a gleeful stripping away of female authority.

The meeting agenda was reorganized to include a workshop about women in state politics, which became the largest and most intense of all the thematic sessions. Only later did I come to recognize a silent group, an outer ring during this discussion, and begin to see who these outliers were—the radicals, the anarchists, and the new liberals. They wanted no part in the state, but for very divergent reasons. The idea of “the political” was being fundamentally contested, and I recognize now that a basic conundrum of post-communism was being enacted in that seminar room.

The new liberals wanted the new governments to leave them alone. Later, plazas and squares were renamed for Ronald Reagan—a hero to some of the women present. Freedom was an escape from the stranglehold of the nanny state. These critics of government wanted an unregulated entry into the world’s marketplace. This was what the new “freedom” was going to mean.

Others, the majority in that radical company, were angry at the state precisely because it was eagerly withdrawing from any pretense of being a provider, becoming neoliberal and uncaring. These women didn’t want totalitarian government back but were deeply disappointed by its various replacements. The anarchists in the room carried this disdain for governments further. Positioning themselves as critics of the “Women in Parliament” meeting, they scorned those who thought they could do anything inside the state. Being included was never their objective. “Feminist politics” was by definition outsider politics, a continuous critique and resistance. To them, the insider position meant unacceptable compromises.

But some of the radicals of what might be called the left—though left/right distinctions were soon to collapse—were uncertain about what should become the right locations and aesthetics for activism; they saw all refusenik disengagement from national politics as dangerous. A new poverty was coming, and while they felt helpless to reverse this sweeping change—the creation of a steep class system overnight—they also felt the need to engage with official politics, to fight, inch by inch, for laws and public policies that would protect people from the downsides of the new order. They were recognizing with alarm that the new poverty was what the new politics was all about, a frightening reprise of the old communist willingness to be harshly instrumental.

Also standing in the margins of these hot discussions about how women should or should not participate in state politics, a few former dissidents presented a complex case. They had never expected any public power at all and had lived instead in a moral but static state of refusal—in and out of prison or exile. They had assumed life as outsiders was their unavoidable fate. What would these former dissident women among us do now, when their male colleagues were proceeding from jail to state power? Surely the purity of Václav Havel’s “living in truth” would look quite different once he was the leader of Czechoslovakia ruling from inside the royal castle on the hill in Prague.

At one point, a frequent traveler to the United States, I believe it was Slavenka, introduced a rival account of action altogether: independent organizations without any official standing, open to the like-minded but requiring unpaid commitment. This had been the organizational style of the early U.S. women’s movement, which had of course been fed by the fat of U.S. society in the 1970s. No one picked up on this idea of an unaffiliated civil society as a possible path to influence, even power. Such a structure for public action was totally absent from these women’s experience. Free time to meet, to develop new ideas, and to organize was unknown.

The common structures to come later were nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), with their need to trim to foundations’ vacillating interests, their staffs paid and accountable to no one but foundation budget reviews. Some NGOs were able to mimic aspects of independent movements (I think our eventual Network was sometimes one of these types of NGOs), and they made some key contributions to political culture. Others tried to offer what governments were increasingly failing to provide—services and protections. These latter enterprises were financially unsustainable, making false promises that private entities could substitute for what governments should be doing—and suddenly were not. Whatever NGOs were eventually able to do or not do, in 1991 in Dubrovnik, they were still unfamiliar.

Loretta Ross, the only African American at the conference, famous for her work developing rape crisis centers and long experienced in many movements, from civil rights onward, made a concluding remark at the “politics” session: “I perceive tensions around stereotypes of socialism and capitalism. This topic does not get picked up on; in fact, it seems to be suppressed for the sake of the unity of the conference.” Aha. No one responded to this bold observation of how different these women were from each other in their past political affiliations and future hopes. Loretta’s words cast a stark light on how undeveloped and confusing was the post-communist political imaginary. Skepticism about prevailing ideas of what communism had been and what capitalism was promising wasn’t a tone available for this discussion. Loretta heard caricatures of these two worlds, and a failure to name possible, needed continuities. I hear this now as prophetic.

Given their history of relative success for women under communism, the East Germans were the ones with the most formed and unapologetic left position; one of them complained to me, “Where did you get all these conservative women?” Sigh. I drifted around the courtyard a bit, feeling disconsolate. At that moment, during the first day, I remember being awash with doubt; the whole meeting seemed to be a hopeless shambles, a Tower of Babel; or, to change metaphors, how officious to bring all these apples, oranges, and pears together as if they could share a politics at any level. Why should they? I was no believer in a bland “sisterhood.” But I had hoped to join an incipient political movement. The idea of a network had been dreamed up on the U.S. side by feminists of the American New Left, whose political sensibilities had taken form in the 1960s. But now, like the women we were meeting, we were living through a fundamental post-communist realignment of all political meanings; we had to rethink “the political” too, in this enormous, global reshuffling.

Beyond questions of capitalist, neoliberal, liberal, moral refusenik, social democrat, leftist, or anarchist, the desire for as yet barely imagined freedoms in the wild wind of post-communism was scattering these formerly clandestine resisters. They had yet to imagine a politics beyond refusal, though some were beginning to see the anti-political force that neoliberalism might become. In the best case, our shared state of post–Cold War confusion might bring us together in some mutual recognition—of hope, of worry—prompting some shared analyses of the various difficulties we were all to face. In the worst case, it was all chaos and old night, shared incomprehension and failure of partnership.

I drank coffee; I confessed my acedia to my old friend in the U.S. movement, Ellen Willis, who sighed with me. We’d been working at this for many years. In the middle of all these complex collisions, I needed to turn my chagrin into something else in order to face the next day. I calmed down. I laughed. After day one, I entered a Zen state that lasted until the end of the conference.

In the final plenary, a Pole with long experience in the U.S. movement was being very stern and directive as she tried to herd these cats toward some conclusion. Agnes Hochberg, cofounder of the Hungarian Feminist Network, rebelled; she yelled from the floor, “Why are you up there with the microphone? We didn’t choose you to be our leader.” I remember being both worried and delighted at Agnes’s outburst. Here it was, the obstreperous feminism I knew and often loved—angry, prickly about maintaining fair process, and questioning all authority. Hungry for equality, Agnes had the nerve to be incautious, to denounce the rigidities in which everyone in the East had lived. She was breaking with old repressions and anxieties. For me, Agnes was the hero of the messy ending of our meeting.

Vale, dear, brilliant shades.

Ann Snitow (1943­–2019), a cofounder of the Network of East-West Women, was a professor of literature and the director of gender studies from 2006 to 2012 at The New School, and a member of Dissent’s editorial board. This article is adapted from a chapter in her forthcoming book, Visitors: An American Feminist in East Central Europe (New Village Press), which is available to pre-order at the NYU Press website.

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