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Gendering Family Policies in Post-Communist Europe: A Historical-Institutional Analysis

0 Comments 🕔18.Nov 2014

The book Gendering Family Policies in Post-Communist Europe: A Historical-Institutional Analysis by Steven Saxonberg is an important contribution to further our understanding of family policies and gender relations in post-communist Central European countries. Saxonberg particularly focuses on the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, and compares their trajectories among each other as well as with the development of family policies in three Western European countries, namely Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

Saxonberg takes a novel approach by arguing that the combination of historical and sociological/discursive institutionalism is more fruitful in explaining differences in family policies among Central European countries than previous explanations that refer to economic factors, party politics, influences of international organizations or the impact of women’s organizations. Furthermore, instead of classifying countries and their policies along the commonly applied framework of familiarization versus defamiliarization, Saxonberg differentiates between genderizing versus degenderizing policies. Thereby, genderizing policies are classified as either explicit or implicit. Explicitly genderizing policies are defined as those which openly support separate gender roles and support a male breadwinner model. Implicitly genderizing policies are characterized by similar outcomes, but rather result from non-intervention or laissez-faire policies. Degenderizing policies by contrast deliberately aim at eliminating gender roles, for example by fostering public child care or setting incentives for fathers to share care responsibilities with mothers.

Against the backdrop of this classification and his theoretical interest in institutions’ influences on actors’ positions and public opinion, Saxonberg traces today’s gender relations back to family policy in the 1870s. Providing the reader with a rich empirical account of the history of family policies and actors’ ideas of gender roles in the post-communist countries, he identifies four critical junctures in the history of family policies. The first dates back to the 1870s, when a two-tier child-care model was institutionalized, with nurseries for children under three (with the purpose to enable poor mothers to work) and kindergartens for children older than three (with pedagogical orientations and the goal to educate children). This division was increased when the supervision was divided among different ministries, constituting the second critical juncture, which in Poland already took place before the communist era, while in Hungary and Czechoslovakia it was introduced by the communist regime. The third critical juncture that Saxonberg identifies is the ministerial reorganization of nurseries to the Ministries of Health. As Saxonberg emphasizes, this decision was part of the communist health-care reform with the aim to reduce infant and child mortality, but not a deliberate decision to impact family policies, despite its (unintended) large impact in the long run.

These decisions and the related decrease of popularity of nurseries prepared for the notion of ‘threeness’ typical in Central European countries, which describes the culturally engrained norm that it is ‘natural’ for mothers to take care of a child until he or she is three years of age and only then should the child attend public or private child-care services. Due to nurseries’ bad reputation, low fertility rates, and high unemployment rates, the communist leaders took the fourth critical juncture by introducing three-year maternity leaves in the 1960s as an alternative to public child care, instead of improving the quality of care. Following Saxonberg’s line of argument this emergence and institutionalization of ‘threeness’ enforced what he categorizes as explicitly and implicitly genderizing family policies. The developments in Central European countries after the fall of communism in 1989 – namely, the reduction of nurseries and the lengthening of leave times – are then regarded as an extension of the previous development path.

The interpretation of the events after the transition in regard to Saxonberg’s definition of critical junctures, but also the classification as genderizing/degenderizing policies, give rise to questions. While Saxonberg himself argues that to understand the path of family policies and gender regimes in the Central European countries it is important to loosen the definition of critical junctures and also include events, which at the time of decision were minor changes, he does not consistently imply this framework. Saxonberg identifies the early bureaucratic reorganization of the responsibilities for nurseries under a different ministry than kindergartens as a critical juncture in family policies. However, regarding the changes after 1989, he seems to apply different measures than before. While he recognizes that the reduction of access to child care for children under three years old was a big change, he depicts the events of the transition period as a path-dependent change, pointing out that these changes did not result from explicit family policies, but as indirect results of other policies – namely, the privatization of enterprises and related closing of company nurseries, as well as the transfer of financial responsibilities for child care to the local level. In contrast to Saxonberg’s interpretation, both decisions could be considered as critical junctures, as they have far-reaching consequences and render it more difficult for women to reconcile work and family life. The reduction in state support for child-care facilities for children under three years old can be classified as a turn toward more genderizing family policies, more specifically indicating a critical juncture in the field of child care.

Only Hungary took a different path, by reorganizing responsibilities for child care under the roof of one ministry and providing subsidies for local governments to finance nurseries. One could argue that Hungary continues its previous ‘degenderizing’ child-care policy. Saxonberg, however, classifies Hungary as a country with an ‘explicitly genderizing’ child-care policy – during communist times and today. Similarly, the Czech Republic is categorized as having ‘explicitly genderizing’ child-care policies, despite the fact that both countries today have higher child-care coverage rates for children between three and five years old than the ‘ideal type of degenderizing policies’ of Sweden, as well as coverage rates of more than 10 percent for children younger than three years old. In contrast, Germany (before 2007) is also listed among the explicitly genderizing child-care systems, but only holds a 2 percent care coverage rate for children under three years old and below 80 percent for the three to five year-olds. Criteria for one or the other classification are not clearly explained. In particular, the classification of child-care policy in the communist countries as genderizing is surprising given that Central European countries had comparatively well-developed family policies in comparison to other countries during that time (which should fare as a measure of comparison). The communist states eased divorce and supported single women and mothers’ employment via family policies. Following Engels, it was assumed that with economic equality, household equality would follow automatically, in large part due to the increased bargaining power of women resulting from more equal access to employment and similar wages levels.

One could argue that the 40-year rule of communism and its extensive child-care policy brought support for the dual-earner model, including women’s full-time employment, much earlier to Central European countries than has existed elsewhere. In addition, while most Western European countries face problems in extending child-care services, as they lack the necessary infrastructure of child-care institutions as well as trained staff, former communist countries by contrast could revert to both, institutions and staff, at the time of transition. Hence, one alternative interpretation to Saxonberg’s view could be that communist countries at the policy level embarked onto a degenderizing path, yet since transition governments stopped or decreased child-care expansion, while lengthening leave times and increasing benefits, Central European countries are back on their genderizing trajectory.

Nevertheless, even though it is not explicitly discussed, what the book reveals is that family policies in Central European countries are different on the surface than at second glance. This becomes particularly obvious in the chapter on public opinion, where it seems that the perception of institutions is just as critical in shaping citizens’ opinions as the existence of the institution. While one might assume that the availability of child care in post-communist countries would increase public support for these services, the opposite has been the case. Due to engrained norms of ‘threeness’, the bad quality and low reputation of nurseries for children younger than three years old (run like hospitals with nurses as staff), politicians decided not to improve these institutions, but rather to increase the amount and length of leave benefits for mothers instead.

Without question, one strength of the book is its in-depth empirical analysis and richness of information, based on primary and secondary sources, as well as more than 100 interviews aiming to compare actions and positions of various actors (including policymakers of different party affiliation, feminist and family organizations, directors of public and private nurseries, the average public and media discourse, as well as the impact of international organizations). Yet, exactly because of the variety of countries, the timespan, aspects considered, and the diverse perspectives taken, it is sometimes difficult for the reader to relate the bits and pieces from each of the sections together to form an encompassing picture of each individual country. Only in the section on party politics does Saxonberg trace the development separately. Here, it would have been helpful to provide a brief summary of the family policies and actors’ positions and alliances for each country. This would also leave room to discuss unexpected results. Taking findings from the different chapters together, one may ask why governments are moving in a different direction than public interests? Also, taken the book’s emphasis on the impacts of institutions on ideas and attitudes, it would have also been interesting to understand why public opinion departs from the institutional legacy in Hungary and Poland. Surprisingly, public support for early child care is much lower in Hungary than in other Central European countries, despite its comparatively progressive family policy legacy. In Poland, with its low level of public child-care provision, people are actually more supportive of public or private child care for children under three years old than favoring that mothers should be the primary caretaker.

Overall, the book is an important contribution to the literature on family policies in Central Europe and the first of its kind to compare the development among several Central European countries with Western counterparts from an historical-institutionalist perspective over a time span from as early as the 1870s to 2010. With its emphasis on institutions’ influence on norms and attitudes and rich empirical coverage, the book will be of much value for students and academics with an interest in family policies, gender relations, and post-communist Europe.

Reviewed by Susanne Münn, University of Konstanz

Gendering Family Policies in Post-Communist Europe: A Historical-Institutional Analysis
by Steven Saxonberg
Palgrave Macmillan
Paperback / 304 pages / 2014
ISBN: 9780230299955

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