Ms. Durcheva was a single mother for many years, but she insisted that her life before 1989 was more gratifying than the stressful existence of her daughter, who was born in the late 1970s.
“All she does is work and work,” Ms. Durcheva told me in 2013, “and when she comes home at night she is too tired to be with her husband. But it doesn’t matter, because he is tired, too. They sit together in front of the television like zombies. When I was her age, we had much more fun.”
Last year in Jena, a university town in the former East Germany, I spoke with a recently married 30-something named Daniela Gruber. Her own mother — born and raised under the Communist system — was putting pressure on Ms. Gruber to have a baby.
“She doesn’t understand how much harder it is now — it was so easy for women before the Wall fell,” she told me, referring to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989. “They had kindergartens and crèches, and they could take maternity leave and have their jobs held for them. I work contract to contract, and don’t have time to get pregnant.”
This generational divide between daughters and mothers who reached adulthood on either side of 1989 supports the idea that women had more fulfilling lives during the Communist era. And they owed this quality of life, in part, to the fact that these regimes saw women’s emancipation as central to advanced “scientific socialist” societies, as they saw themselves.
Although East European Communist states needed women’s labor to realize their programs for rapid industrialization after World War II, the ideological foundation for women’s equality with men was laid by August Bebel and Friedrich Engels in the 19th century. After the Bolshevik takeover, Vladimir Lenin and Aleksandra Kollontai enabled a sexual revolution in the early years of the Soviet Union, with Kollontai arguing that love should be freed from economic considerations.
The Soviets extended full suffrage to women…