It has become common in the past few decades for western, particularly American men to travel to Eastern Europe trying to find a bride. Women, there are beautiful, university-educated, and still, have traditional values. Yet, that tremendous culture difference cause problems. Although most Eastern European women are not ready to leave their homes and change their lifestyle, statistics say that if an American and a foreigner do marry, their union usually lasts for decades.
In the event you find yourself chasing an East European beauty. It would do you well to understand the differences in their viewpoints about gender, society and relationships. This will allow you to better understand how to interact with them and also if they decide to immigrate, help them to adapt more easily to our western society. A recent study of Eastern European immigrants to the American Midwest shed some light on the views those women hold, how they differ from women here and how they react and acculturate to modern western culture.
It is important to understand that East Europe is not a single culture. There are a dozen nations each having its own gender norms. Generally, Eastern European culture is characterized by a greater separation of gender roles and little concern about sexism. Women from the region often perceive male and female behaviour in American culture as ambiguous and gender-neutral. They observe egalitarian gender relations in the US but do not prefer the forms of male-female interaction that this involves. Although they will adapt to US culture behaviorally, they tend not to change their pre-existing values about gender relations. Also, the negative attitude of feminist activists toward gender roles in Eastern Europe often creates resistance toward American ways and slows adaptation.
Most immigrant women come from societies in which gender roles are rarely challenged. Life in the west forces them to go beyond the realm of womanhood they have known and to venture into unfamiliar territory. Feminism is rarely discussed in Eastern Europe. Most East Europeans only associate feminism with gender equality in the legal sense. They feel that feminism cannot have much impact on their lives because, though westerners aren’t aware of it, during the past 50 years, the soviet and communist ideology promoted feminism and true equality between all peoples of their “republics.” For decades, women worked alongside men in, fields, factories, universities and even underground mines. This increased even more during WWII when men were forced to the battlefront and women were the only ones left to work at manufacturing plants or communal farms. Equal opportunity clauses guaranteed women’s rights, in some countries even predating the West. Today, one of the biggest holidays in post-Soviet states is Women’s Day, celebrated on the 8th of March every year.
These days, most of these countries have strayed from communist ideology and returned to more traditional patriarchal and Christian values. However, women in the workforce and equality under the law remain constant. Eastern European society stresses its patriarchal nature, in which gender roles are distinct but complementary, with respect to the role of women. Gender relations in Eastern Europe exist on two very different levels. On the one hand, the world of public institutions is patriarchal and male-dominated. Even though men and women participate in the workforce in equal numbers, men receive higher salaries and hold most positions of power. Women attempting to work professionally must prove themselves before they are accepted as equals. Nonetheless, in those societies, there are female politicians, scientists and CEOs. On the other hand, interpersonal relations between men and women are either egalitarian or women receive preferential treatment. Politeness toward women is highly valued. By contrast, the American culture to which Eastern European women need to adapt is characterized by an emphasis on gender equality, by the prominence of feminism in public discourse and by gender roles that are less easily distinguished than in Eastern Europe. Most feminist research in the United States is based on the assumption that treating men and women differently has a detrimental effect on both individuals and on society.
Eastern families tend to be patriarchal and women, while treated with respect, are viewed as keepers of the home and hearth. They are not really expected to build a career nor to achieve a high position in society. Their only expected life goal is to marry a good man and to have children. They will get a higher education. Documents mean everything in those countries and most white-collar jobs require a university diploma, but almost no one works in the field that they studied. Additionally, girls view college as a place where they can find a future husband. Although everyone is taught English, due to poor teachers and methodology, only a minority know it well.
It can be noted that even though men dominate public life, in the realm of the family, wives have significant power and make the majority of the decisions. There is a saying, “A husband is the head of the family, yet the wife is the neck. Wherever the neck turns, the head turns along with it.”
Thousands of women come from Eastern Europe to the US and the west every year. Very often, new immigrants have difficulties decoding gender norms in the culture of their new home. Rules about appropriate male and female behaviour tend to be subtle, unspoken, and ambiguous. In the United States, gender norms have changed rapidly in the past 30 years, making them difficult to articulate, even for Americans themselves. The main areas of confusion are thus:
gender-neutral relationships – business, friendship, etc.
competition between men and women at the workplace and on the social ladder
female assertiveness in life
sexual harassment – what is and isn’t acceptable
feminism – the struggle for the rights of women
Immigrants confess that they often cannot distinguish between male and female behaviour in Western society. While in their motherland, business relations are mostly gender-neutral, people still acknowledge the gender of their co-workers. In America, it’s hard to see a difference in the roles of men and women. They note the prominence of discourse about sexism and sexual harassment in American culture. They sense an ever-present fear of misunderstanding in American workplaces and notice that Americans pay special attention to avoid any references to gender that may be interpreted as sexist. “Men don’t see women at work, they are afraid to look at a person who is female,” says one woman from Belarus (age 45, 2.5 years in the US). As a result, interactions with coworkers often become, “sterile,” “cautious,” and “impersonal.” Such communication is characterized by an avoidance of personal issues and discourse routines, which make the interaction more predictable and boring.
They learn to become cautious and ‘polite’ in public, though their attitude toward their role as a woman remains. If she suppresses her femininity, she feels depressed and guilty. At home, she expects to be tender and even weak. She feels it is her husband’s duty to pay attention to her and let her feel feminine. She enjoys caring for her man and their children: cooking for them, ironing their clothes, listening to his problems at work, etc.
Coping with a new environment is always hard. Imagine if you suddenly arrived in China or the Middle East. What was once considered normal at home, is now rude. You suddenly ask too many questions and your simple, friendly gestures are incorrectly viewed as flirting by other men. Simultaneously, a woman might feel invisible. She get’s less attention than she is used to. No one lets her go through the door first, no one gives her their seat on the bus. The similar view between men and women in liberal-feminism reduces the specialness that women feel and the special treatment they receive in public settings.
As we mentioned earlier, Eastern Europeans know what feminism is. Women and men work together there and are equal before the law. In Bulgaria, people of both genders worked side-by-side, even years before the Soviet Union and communism. In America, the situation is different. Because American feminists perceive traditional women as oppressed, they seek to educate them about feminism and try to help them shed the traditional female role they were socialized to fulfil. During conversations between immigrant women and feminists, divergent perceptions about the goals of feminism often result in misunderstanding and conflict.
One might assume that women from a patriarchal culture would welcome the freedom that the achievements of the women’s movement bring them, but this is not the case. Eastern European women approach the relationship between men and women from a perspective similar to cultural feminism. They strongly believe in equality for men and women in the legal sense. At the same time, they accept male-female differences in communication style, the division of labour, and gender roles as an important part of their culture and expect men and women to be treated differently in social interactions. The American women they encounter often advocate a liberal feminist position and argue that men and women are exactly alike and should be treated the same way in every respect. In cultures that value assertiveness, like the United States, the goal of feminist movements is to help women enter formerly male-dominated spheres of life. By contrast, in the cultures of Eastern Europe, which are oriented toward nurturing rather than assertiveness, the goal of the few existing feminist efforts is to encourage men to adopt some of the values related to nurturance that women hold. Because of their different interpretation of feminism, the majority of the Eastern European participants acknowledge the advances toward gender equality in the United States but have reservations about embracing feminism — particularly liberal feminism-for several reasons. Mostly though, participants believe that promoting gender equality means giving up women’s femininity. They feel that American women “pay a high price for being equal,” and by being treated the same way as men, they no longer have as many privileges as women in Eastern Europe do.
To sum up, Eastern Europe women are in no hurry to join the Battle of Genders. Mostly, they avoid it and watch from the sidelines. They learn their new role slowly and cautiously. Naturally, younger ones tend to adapt faster. But, in general, immigrants have liked their patriarchal norms and values and try to make their husbands feel stronger and show how much they care about them and their children. If you end up with one, the same will apply to you.