Women’s Representation in Politics from the Communist Era to the Present

The congress of Poland’s communist party, 1980. Mostly men. Mariusz Młodek, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons PHOTO: EAST NEWS/W. LASKI I sekr KC PZPR Stanislaw Kania otwiera obrady IX Nadzwyczajnego Zjazdu PZPR w Sali Kongresowej Palacu Kultury, 1 July 1980 Source https://www.fakt.com.

On the eve of an election in March 1958, Nikolai Khrushchev, General Secretary of the USSR Communist Party, gave a speech to his prospective voters. In this speech, he remarked on foreign visitors’ amazement at seeing women engaged in snow and ice removal on the streets of Moscow.

Leadership of Poland’s Parliament (Sejm), 2017. Mostly men. Kancelaria Sejmu / Krzysztof Białoskórski Wikimedia Commons.

“On this basis they maintain that our women are not honored,” he said. “It is hardly necessary to prove that Soviet women are held in great esteem, that they have not merely in words but also in fact equal rights with men in all areas of social and political life, as well as in production” (Field, 1968: 7, quoting from USSR’s Pravda).

Khrushchev was paraphrasing Article 122 of the USSR Constitution from 1936, which reads: “Women in the USSR are accorded all equal rights on an equal footing with men in all spheres of economic, government, political and other social and cultural activity” (Field, 1968: 11).

But Khrushchev was delusional, for at the time (or any time after), women were not politically equal. True, by 1946, almost all countries of Eastern Europe had granted women the right to vote. However, legal equality is far different from the actions taken to fulfill the promise of those rights.

Khrushchev was not the only delusional leader during the Communist era. In June 1973, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, who was not up for election, gave a speech in which he expressed concern that there were few women in the ruling bodies of the Romanian Communist party. In that speech, he put some blame on the country’s Communist Party. And he also blamed women.

“I have something to admonish to women,” the male dictator said. “They have to be more active and not to allow to be treated only as representatives in different committees, but to be more active in participation in social life…” (Nicolae Ceaușescu, 1973: 142).

St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square in 1985. Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash.

During Communism, women had lesser representation because the parliament of which they were a part had very limited effective control over the legislative and policy process. Few women were members of the Communist party central committee, which was the main decision-making body under Communism. Women’s political representation followed Putnam’s Law of Increasing Disproportion: “as the importance of the office increases, the proportion of women declines” (Wolchik, 1981: 458; for Poland, see Fuszara 2005: 293 and Chapter 4)1.

After 1989, women’s political representation did not improve. Whatever limited legal protections afforded to women during the Communist era fell. As a consequence, the percentage of women in parliament dramatically dropped.

We can see this if we look at the percentage of women parliamentarians in the lower house of parliament (or single house, depending on the legislative system – in the USA, it would be the House of Representatives). Here, we examine Russia, Romania, and Poland across 70 years (1945 to 2018).

Let’s start with two main facts that these simple graphs reveal.

  • Fact 1: Since World War Two, women have been under-represented in parliament. Across 73 years, not one country of the Communist or post-Communist world achieved the gender parity level of 50 percent, and all are below 40 percent. We set each graph at the maximum of 40 percent.
  • Fact 2: After the fall of Communism, in every country the percentage of women in parliament dropped precipitously.

The mentality of the Communist era seems to have persisted into the post-Communist era. In 2005, a male Romanian parliamentarian was asked about his view on equality of men and women in politics. He said,

“Due to destiny, [men and women] are built for something… I am strong, but…I can’t have children, for example… In a woman’s life, you must put 2, 4, 6 years for … childcare. For this reason, I cannot say it is necessary. I think it’s natural. The direct proportion 51% [women in society] to 51% [women in parliament], I do not know if it is natural.”

In Poland, and around the same time (in 2005), a male Polish parliamentarian expressed a similar opinion:

“The state stands for all equally, whether they are red-headed or blond. If we accept the idea that the make-up of Parliament is to mirror that of society, it would mean that we are returning to the time of socialist realism, where a 32-year old teacher with 3 children from a small town could become a representative. This is nonsense.”

Many parliamentarians have seen an opportunity to advance the cause of women’s rights in the political sphere through equal representation – transforming a country that promises legal equality into one that is actually equal. In 2005, a female colleague in the Romanian parliament expressed this idea:

“If we want to be compared with the European and American democracies… to be normal, there has to be equality. But differences build the democracy. In our political class, now, there are only 11 percent female [in parliament]. We want to destroy the old mentality, the barriers for a woman to become a decision-maker.”

Four Stages of Transformation

The process of incorporating women into formal politics in Eastern Europe has developed in four stages.

First, at the beginning of 20th Century, a formal suffrage took place. In most Eastern European countries, women won the right to vote between 1917 and 1920 (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus in 1917, Hungary, Poland in 1918, Czechoslovakia in 1919).

Second, there were formal equality measures during state socialism, including introduction of informal quota systems, and the increase of participation of women in formal politics.

Third, the1990s transformation brought a sharp decline of a number of women in politics.

Fourth, there were actually two interrelated processes that were important for the gradual re-incorporation of women into formal politics: Europeanization and institutionalization.

While the state socialist project of women’s emancipation offered a variety of social and economic rights for women, political and civil rights were often restricted, and the possibility for active participation in politics was limited for women. During socialism, informal gender quotas provided for a relatively high women’s representation in the lower and mid-level politics, but the highest-ranking positions were typically unavailable for them.

After 1989, the majority of the Eastern European states experienced a sharp drop in women’s political representation (United Nations 2005 – and see above). There were a number of reasons for why this happened. Some scholars and post-communist parliamentarians, particularly in the 1990s, argued that state socialist forced emancipation and a lack of political rights led to a general mistrust of women towards politics, political passivity, and suspicion towards the western style feminism and various kinds of “affirmative actions” where gender equality was concerned. We now know that a drastic drop of participation of women in formal politics was also a result of the removal of state socialist informal quotas and increasing economic burden on women during the transition.

In general, from the gendered point of view, the consequences of systemic transformation for women were ambivalent.  On the one hand, free elections guaranteed a full package of citizens’ freedoms; new civil organizations and political parties mushroomed across the region. Women could now run for offices in free elections, establish independent organizations and political parties.  On the other hand, societies became more prone to conservatism and nationalism, and started to lean towards a radical traditionalization. Many socialist provisions for women in politics and social life were removed, and economic transformation from centrally planned to free market economy proved to be a significant burden on women. In the face of the fundamental political and economic transformations, women’s rights were deemed marginal and pushed aside as a “cultural” rather than political issue. A number of contentious issues related to the fight for reproductive freedom were recognized as “divisive” and new struggling political parties were unwilling to take this issue up. A number of women’s political leaders, who fought for these issues, were pushed out of formal politics and into civil society activism.


  1. Before 1985 in the Soviet Union, women were 30% of the membership of elective bodies. In 1989, women constituted only 15% of the USSR Supreme Soviet (Russian: Верховный Совет, Verkhovny Sovet, “Supreme Council”, was the legislative body of the USSR)  and 11% of State Duma  (Russian: Госуда́рственная ду́ма, tr. Gosudárstvennaya dúma), the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia, while the upper house is the Supreme Soviet) members were women. Similarly in Poland, women constituted 7% of politically active members of the ruling party in 1948 – but already 20% in 1982. Yet in over 40 years of state socialism in Poland only two women– Helena Kozłowska and Zofia Grzyb – made it to the top political leadership of the ruling party, where decisions were made.


  • Field, M. (1968). Soviet Women today. In D. Brown (ed.): Women in the Soviet Union. New York: Teachers College Press, pp. 7-56.
  • Cuvintarea tovarasului Nicolae Ceausescu in plenara C.C al P.C.R. din 18-19 iunie 1973 cu privire la rolul femeii in viata politica, economica si sociala a tarii. (1973). In Documente ale Partidului Communist Roman. Culegere sintetica. Rolul femeii in viata economica, politica si sociala a Romaniei socialiste. Bucuresti: Editura politica. (pp.141-148). [Nicolae Ceausescu’s speech for the Plenary of C.C. of C.P.R. from 18-19 June 1973 regarding the role of women in the political, economic and social life of the country. (1973). In Documents of the Romanian Communist Party. Synthetic Collection. Role of women in economic, political and social life of the socialist Romania. Bucuresti: Editura politica. (pp.141-148)].
  • Paxton, Pamela, Green, Jennifer, and Hughes, Melanie M. Women in Parliament, 1945-2003: Cross-National Dataset. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2008-12-22. https://doi.org/10.3886/ICPSR24340.v1
  • Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) Women in National Parliaments Statistical Archive https://web.archive.org/web/*/http://archive.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif-arc.htm
  • Pawlowski, Lukasz and Joshua Kjerulf Dubrow. 2011. “Worlds Apart? Political Theorists, Parliamentarians and the Meaning of Unequal Representation.” Polish Sociological Review 175(3): 301 – 314.
  • Dubrow, Joshua Kjerulf. 2012. “Dynamics of Political Inequality of Voice: Romanian and Polish Women’s Parliamentary Representation since 1945.” Studia Sociologia 57(1): 3 – 25.

“Together for Women’s Safety” Protest march in Romania. 2019. Vstefanimadalina, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons