No Such Thing as “Separate Women’s Rights”: Ukraine’s Feminism

March 27, 2013

One common criticism of feminism is that its definition as it is traditionally understood in the United States has been exported to — and often imposed on — non-Western countries. We’ve all heard this before.

Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak

Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak is a leading Ukrainian women’s history scholar.

Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak is doing something to address this issue. Her book Feminists despite Themselves is the authoritative source on the Ukrainian women’s movement and demonstrates that feminism “is not a closed ideology but grows out of the needs of the individual and society.”

The Ukrainian women’s movement was led, surprisingly, by wives of the Catholic clergy in the 19th century. (In the Ukrainian Catholic Church, clergymen may marry as long as they do not become priests.)

These women were Catholics who usually had lots of children and no professional career, but they still initiated a grassroots modernization movement in their villages. Certainly this women’s movement looked different from the one in the United States, but Bohachevsky-Chomiak explains that the Ukrainian women were still feminists. When the Ukrainian right attacked the movement, the women realized they were in fact feminists — something they had previously denied. According to Bohachevsky-Chomiak, “It was a feminism that worked within the community, not [for] liberation from the community.”

When Bohachevsky-Chomiak received her American Fellowship in 1980, she was writing Feminists despite Themselves, a break from her previous work on the Ukrainian intelligentsia. The fellowship meant both validation and the economic opportunity to do research in Europe. Since then she has been no stranger to Ukraine. From 2000 to 2006 she directed the Fulbright Program in Ukraine, and these days she is working to create a women’s studies program at the Catholic University of Ukraine. While there has been some pushback on the program from more conservative members of the academic community, Bohachevsky-Chomiak says the students, both male and female, are enamored with the curriculum and flock to all of her lectures.

On her last trip to Ukraine, Bohachevsky-Chomiak gave multiple lectures at universities, on television, and for general audiences on topics relating to women that she felt should be discussed but usually get left out of feminist discourse, including totalitarianism, nationalism, and the church. Bohachevsky-Chomiak is not just interested in changing Ukrainian academia’s understanding and appreciation of feminism; she wants the whole society included in the conversation, an inclusion that she believes is both natural and necessary. Since feminism organically develops from broader historical and societal movements, everyone should be included. As Bohachevsky-Chomiak explains, “We need to understand no such thing as separate women’s rights. There are human rights. Women have to deal with societal issues that the society has not been able to address in the past.”

Bohachevsky-Chomiak was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Catholic University of Ukraine, making her only the second person to receive the honor. The first degree went to the last underground Catholic archbishop of Ukraine. While she has made a major impact on the discussion of the women’s movement in Ukraine, Bohachevsky-Chomiak recognizes the movement still has a ways to go, and she is prepared to be part of that effort.

What began as a small booklet at the request of Ukrainian-American women became the definitive book on the women’s movement and feminism in Ukraine. Bohachevsky-Chomiak encourages scholars never to overlook the small stories because “even stories that appear to be marginal will give perspectives on the larger picture.” Just as with her writing on the communal and social nature of feminism, Bohachevsky-Chomiak sees identity as something interconnected and developed within a person. As she so beautifully put it, “Identity is a series of interrelated circles. ‘Wife’ doesn’t define me, or ‘mother,’ or ‘Ukrainian-American.’ All are one of my characteristics, but not my identity. My identity is me.”

This post was written by Fellowships and Grants Intern Emily McGranachan.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post stated that priests in the Ukrainian Catholic Church may get married. In fact, only clergymen, not priests, may marry in the church; the text has been corrected to reflect the change.

By:   |   March 27, 2013

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