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Opening the Electronic Curtain:
The Network of East-West Women

By Sonia Jaffe Robbins

Seven years ago, I was watching TV and reading with fascination about the changes in Eastern Europe. My grandparents had all come from Eastern Europe -- Russia, Poland, Bessarabia -- but I'd always felt that part of the world closed off to me because of the Manichean politics of the cold war. As a red-diaper baby, I had been raised to see the Communist world as a realistic alternative to American capitalism. However, as an unaffiliated new leftist, I knew Eastern Europe was not a workers' paradise. And as a feminist, I was acutely aware of the contradictions and tensions between feminism and socialism. Now, as everything was opening up, I was eager to find out as much as I could about this world historical moment.

That year, 1990, half a dozen feminists, sparked by Slavenka Drakulic -- a Yugoslav journalist who'd traveled through Eastern Europe to do an article for Ms. magazine on the effects of the end of communism on women's lives -- gathered in New York to raise money and help plan a gathering of women from the region. Three weeks before the war began in Yugoslavia, in June 1991, 75 of us met in Dubrovnik -- activists, writers and journalists, and academics from all the East European countries except Albania -- and formed the Network of East-West Women. In the glare of an Adriatic sun, we talked in workshops, plenary sessions, and cafes, with an enthusiasm and energy I hadn't felt since the women's movement in the U.S. in the late '60s and early '70s.

Slavenka Drakulic talked about the dramatic decline in women's political participation: Under communism, parliaments had quotas of one-third to almost one-half women, but these representatives had no power. In the first free elections, women gained only 8.5 percent of seats in Bulgaria, 7 percent in Hungary, 6 percent in Czechoslovakia, 3.5 percent in Poland, 1.6 percent in Yugoslavia. Sonja Licht, then co-chair of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly, pointed out how rising nationalisms put a priority on the nation first, which reduced women to producers of "the nation." Christina Kotchemidova, a translater and editor from Bulgaria, described the marriage of the Ottoman mentality with Marxist totalitarianism producing women married to both husband and state. Ana Titkow, a sociologist from Poland, presented the tradition of heroic women in Polish culture, which didn't expand their opportunities but only extended the work expected of them.

I returned from Dubrovnik, my datebook stuffed with cards and lists of names, and my head stuffed with impressions and facts, not only about the differences between the West and the East, but also between the countries of Eastern Europe themselves. I spent the next few months writing reams of letters inviting women to join our developing communication exchange network. In New York, we met with women from the region who were traveling to the United States on academic and government-funded exchanges: legislators from Poland and the former East Germany, feminists and environmentalists from Hungary, students from Bulgaria and Slovakia, writers in involuntary exile from a homeland that no longer existed -- Yugoslavia.

For the first couple of years we were a voluntary network. Wherever women gathered who were interested in what gender means and how it functions in society, we discussed and exchanged experiences, ideas, and books and journals. Exchange, however, could not continue unaided. For example, postal rates that had been subsidized by Communist governments were rising precipitously. A family therapist in Prague told us that it took half a day's wages to mail a letter to the United States. In Russia the mail was so unreliable that a manuscript sent to Anastasia Posadskaya, founder of the Moscow Center for Gender Studies, arrived a year later. NEWW's directory of members could no longer be handily xeroxed and sent on request; it was becoming book-length. A telephone call or fax to Bucharest had to be carefully scheduled to account for the seven-hour time difference, and was expensive from either end.

E-mail was an idea for NEWW before it was a practicality. Some academic members of NEWW in the United States were just being connected to e-mail at our institutions and it seemed the ideal solution to most of our communication problems. If key women in each of the countries where NEWW members lived could only be connected to e-mail, we could break through many of the difficulties we faced and perhaps even create new ways for women activists to relate to each other internationally and non-hierarchically.

At the same time, feminist legal scholars and activists both in the post-communist region and the US were working out a process that had first been discussed at the Dubrovnik conference: to form an international coalition to monitor women's status in the writing of new constitutions and the rewriting of laws, and to ensure that women's human rights did not fall through a patriarchal crack. Slovenia, for example, initially failed to put into its new constitution a guarantee of women's right to abortion (a right women had under the Communist constitution); when challenged by women legislators, the men pointed out that the American constitution didn't guarantee the right to abortion. As Slavenka Drakulic had so trenchantly put it in 1991, "Democracy without women is no democracy." A NEWW legal coalition would be an active force in ensuring that women would not be left out of democracy.

In the middle of 1994, a planning meeting to organize what is becoming the East-East Legal Coalition (EELC) was held in Budapest; at the same time, NEWW received funding to start its e-mail network. Wired Women NEWW On-Line got off the ground first. A Russian -- Galina Venediktova, a computer programmer and activist (she co-organized an activist group, Women for Social Democracy) -- and a Pole -- Roma Ciesla, a lesbian feminist activist from Cracow -- came to the U.S. for training. Then, with Victoria Vrana, the U.S. director of the On-Line project, the three women fanned out across Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to link women's centers in 28 locations to the Internet. (In most cases, e-mail was the basic connection. The Web was either unavailable or simply too expensive.) For two months, women.east-west, NEWW's electronic conference, (also available as a mailing list) received messages from women just learning how quickly they could be connected to the rest of the world.

From Valentina Uspenskaya and Marina Tsoy, of the Association of Independent Women's Initiatives in Tver, Russia: "Dear sisters! Today we have our e-mail training in Tver. It is Saturday. The weather is fine. The sun is shining. But we crowd around our computer and can't stop our work. We are so excited about the new possibilities and broad perspectives which we've got thanks to NEWW On-Line project."

From Elena Mashkova, of Femina in Naberezhnye Chelny, Tatarstan: "I am very glad to be included into the NEWW project There are great new perspectives and possibilities for participants of our women's group, Femina, which aims to break social stereotypes on the role of women, to reveal their actual status in our city."

From Laura Gruenberg, of Center for Feminist Analyses, ANA, in Bucharest, Romania: "Slowly things are moving here in Romania, so we will do our best to keep you all informed about what Romanian women are doing, thinking, dreaming."

Over the next two years, NEWW grew fast and furiously. E-mail became our primary means of getting to know each other and finding out what was happening. In Romania, the ANA group translates highlights of the messages received from women.east-west and mails them to 30 women's groups throughout their country. In Russia, the Association of Independent Women's Initiatives in Tver broadcasts information gleaned from women.east-west on a local radio program.

Here are just a few of the many messages posted on women.east-west and NEWW's Russian-language conference, glas.sisters, just last spring:

From Russia:discussions on women's role during the presidential elections.
From Poland:a request for letters of support to present to the Polish parliament during its debate on liberalizing the law currently banning abortion.
From Slovakia: a scholar seeks information from the post-communist region about women's situation in literature, particularly organizations of women authors, important contemporary women authors, the reflection of social change in women's literature, the availability of women's studies programs, and journals dealing with women's issues.
From Romania:a businesswomen's organization seeks ties with women in neighboring countries.
From Croatia: B.a.B.e., a women's human rights group, calls for support from international, national, and women's human rights organizations against a pro-life, nationalist, antiwoman government progam.
From Albania:announcement of activities at the Women's Center in Tirana, including voter education, a gender issues database, seminars on Beijing conference issues for Albanian women, and English courses for women from Albanian NGOs.

E-mail showed perhaps its most radical aspect in the countries of the former Yugoslavia, where a flourishing women's movement, first begun 15 years ago, was drastically split by war, which cut telephone and other normal means of communication. E-mail, however, enabled the antinationalist women to maintain linkages. But let Jelica Todosijevic, NEWW e-mail trainer and lesbian activist from Belgrade, describe her impression of e-mail in a letter of support to NEWW:

Now we are no longer imprisoned by state limitations and censorship... [S]ince we are receiving so much information, we have a wonderful opportunity to collect other people's experiences and apply it in our work. Sometimes it introduces revolutionary ideas, which makes our work much easier, or gives us plenty of useful tips. Most of the time, though, learning about the successes of women-in-struggle itself gives us a lot of positive energy to go on.

Meanwhile, members of the East-East Legal Coalition met in 1996 at a conference co-sponsored by NEWW and the University of Connecticut School of Law to highlight continuing issues and forge links with western experts in law. Feminist law is especially important in the post-communist countries, where law is conceived very narrowly as merely the writing of law and policy. How activist lawyers in the U.S. have altered the way social issues are approached -- by individuals, organizations, and governments -- is relatively unknown in the post-communist region and can be useful in thinking of different ways to bring about social and political change.

Other current NEWW projects:

I've learned a tremendous amount in the past years, working with NEWW. After believing myself out-of-step with mainstream America all of my life, I've learned how American I am: pragmatic, activist, "just do it." Yet I find myself oddly un-American: I'm not naturally competitive, I don't know how to raise money. Having grown up as a red-diaper baby, I found that my mental world was very close to that of the East European women I met who'd grown up in dissident homes: we both had to hide from our friends what our parents thought, we both felt alienated from our governments and sure that a better way existed in the land of the "enemy." It was a shock for me to hear a Czech professional explain why free medical care was not a good thing (if the state provided vaccinations for children automatically, parents never learned to be responsible for their children's health), or to discover that words like "liberation" and "struggle" and "freedom" had been so debased by Communist governments that they were hardly usable in common discourse. Many issues that mattered greatly to women's liberation in the United States -- the importance of paid work, the melding of the political and the personal -- were irrelevant in societies where all women worked outside the home, with no value given to their work at home, and where the personal was often the only refuge from an intrusive government. But it has been fascinating to discuss the issues that are important to us as women, from our varying perspectives. And women in the West have a lot to learn from women in the East, who have had to negotiate a very different relationship to the paternalisms of home and state.

Now my relationship to NEWW has changed. NEWW's projects are moving into areas I am less close to. As the focus of my work has shifted -- to writing fiction -- I still treasure the friendships I've made with women halfway around the world. We will continue to correspond by e-mail and meet in cafes when they visit New York, or I visit Belgrade, or Sofia, or Tver, or Moscow...

The Network of East-West Women

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Sonia Jaffe Robbins is a writer, editor, and teacher in New York City. She would like to offer the following acknowledgements:

Many, many thanks to Victoria Vrana and Dorota Majewska for keeping me up to date on the details of NEWW and NEWW's projects. I also want to thank all my friends in East and Central Europe and Russia for our continuing conversations on women, politics, and life. I am especially grateful to Ann Snitow, for her everlasting encouragement and gentle pushing to think deeper.

Graphics used to illustrate this article were taken from the NEWW logo, created by Arwen Donahue.

Photo by Andres Hernandez from Wired Women at 24 Hours in Cyberspace.
© 1996 Andres Hernandez. Reprinted by permission.