An Exiled Feminist's Timely Return

"The other day I was listening to the radio and I heard a man singing a lullaby to his child," says Tatyana Mamonova. "I couldn't believe it. You would never have heard such a thing when I left. The idea of a man taking responsibility in child care was absolutely unheard of."


It doesn't sound dramatic, but it's a long way from the days when Mamonova was expelled from the Soviet Union for writing about such things as women's difficulties in the home, abortion and the lack of reliable birth control.


Fourteen years after being forced to leave the country for publishing an underground women's journal, Mamonova was making her first visit back last week. She returns to a country that has come a long way on women's issues -- women had surprising success in recent parliamentary elections and grassroots women's groups continue to proliferate -- but still has a long way to go. Women make up 70 to 75 percent of the country's unemployed, their wages continue to lag behind men's and most women still think of emancipation as a Soviet hoax to get them to work.


"Most people here think feminists hate men," says Mamonova, a forthright woman who says her husband and 18-year-old son are also feminists.


Her awakening to feminism began in 1976, when her son was born. The misery of the delivery prompted her to write an article chronicling her two weeks in the birth clinic, during which she wasn't allowed to take a shower or talk to her husband on the telephone. When she tried to get the article published, she says, she was told the topic was too "indecent" a subject to discuss. "So I decided to take care of it myself."


She and a group of like-minded women began publishing a journal of articles on issues affecting women -- the conditions of birth clinics, abortion and its dangers, the lack of birth control and the problems of single mothers.


The journal grew to 150 pages, and was distributed like other samizdat dissident literature. Mamonova would type out five copies and give them to five trusted friends, who would also type five copies and pass them on. Eventually, Mamonova began receiving letters from women all over the former Soviet Union. Her work also began to attract the attention of the KGB, she says. The material once considered "too personal" was now regarded as highly political. Shortly before the 1980 Olympics, Mamonova and her husband and child were forced to leave the country.


Mamonova received help from publishers and foundations abroad and began establishing a career as an expert on Soviet women. She moved from Paris to America, where she was a fellow at Harvard University. Selections from her almanac were published under the title, "Women and Russia: Feminist Writings from the Soviet Union" in 1984.


Unable to return here earlier because of bureaucratic troubles, Mamonova continued her writings through telephone contact and meetings with Russian women at conferences in America.


She continued publishing her magazine, "Women and Earth," and copies were distributed in Russia. She now plans to publish it in St. Petersburg.


Mamonova, whose interests and ideas are hardly radical, says she also wants to fight what she sees as a backlash. Now women "are being advised to obey their husbands, raise their children, and worry only about taking care of the family," she says.


"Practically all Russian women are feminists," she says. "Even if they don't consider themselves as such, in many ways they behave as if they are. They just don't know their strength."