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Narrating the Gender Order: Why Do Older Single Women in Russia Say That They Do Not Want to Be in Relationships with Men?

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Gender and Choice after Socialism

Abstract

Taking into account men’s premature mortality and high divorce rates, many older women in Russia are likely to be widows or divorced. What does it mean for women to grow older being single in a culture that prioritises youth and romantic couples? On the one hand, the mainstream culture reiterates the familiar narrative about the miserable and lonely old woman who ends up dying by herself, abandoned by everyone. This cliché has become a threat, aimed at encouraging younger women to hurry up, find a partner and have children. However, the majority of older women I interviewed in my study expressed no desire to have a partner. What causes such unanimity in this group of female pensioners? Do my interviewees conform to ageist notions that attribute intimacy and passion to people of a younger age by saying that they do not want to be in a relationship again? Or can this lack of enthusiasm concerning possible partnership be read as a critical utterance about the gender order that operates in Russia?

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Notes

  1. 1.

    According to the official statistics, the gender gap in life expectancy in 2014 was approximately 12 years. Men’s life expectancy fell from 63.8 in 1990 to 57.6 in 1994 and by 2014 had risen 65.2 in 2014. The Demographic Yearbook of Russia. 2015: Statistical Handbook, Moscow: Rosstat, 2015, p. 46. Available online: http://www.gks.ru/free_doc/doc_2015/demo15.pdf.

  2. 2.

    See United Nations Statistics Division, Demographic Yearbook: Divorces and crude divorce rates, by urban/rural residence: 2011–2015. Table 25 Available from: https://unstats.un.org/unsd/demographic/products/dyb/dyb2015.htm (Accessed: 13th July 2017).

  3. 3.

    See, for example, Neta Yodovich and Kinneret Lahad, ‘“I don’t think this woman had anyone in her life”: Loneliness and singlehood in Six Feet Under,’ European Journal of Women’s Studies, 2017, pp. 1–15.

  4. 4.

    I am grateful to all of the women who agreed to participate in my study. I would also like to thank Dr Maria Teteriuk, Dr Olga Plakhotnik, Dr Elena Gapova, Dr Julia Shimko and Dr Kinneret Lahad for their constructive feedback on the early draft of this chapter. Many thanks also go to the editors of this volume for their useful comments that helped me to see more in my data. Research for this chapter was supported in part by Open Society Foundations (OSF), Grant Number IN2017-37182. The opinions expressed herein are the author’s own and do not necessarily express the views of OSF.

  5. 5.

    I borrow this understanding of the concept of choice from Jill Reynolds, Margie Wetherell and Stephanie Taylor, ‘Choice and chance: negotiating agency in narratives of singleness,’ Sociological Review, 55(2), 2007, pp. 331–351.

  6. 6.

    In my analysis I will borrow Gilbert and Mulkay’s analytical concept of ‘interpretative repertoires ’ that at first signified popular ways of talking but later was re-introduced by Potter and Wetherell as a set of terms and metaphors used to characterise actions and events. See G. Nigel Gilbert and Michael Mulkay, Opening Pandora’s Box. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984. p. 125, and Jonathan Potter and Margaret Wetherell, Discourse and Social Psychology: Beyond Attitudes and Behaviour, Sage, 1987, p. 138.

  7. 7.

    Following Jennifer Utrata’s Women without Men: Single Mothers and Family Change in the New Russia, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 2015, I do not translate the word ‘babushka’ into English as in the Russian language, apart from the family role of grandmother, it also signifies the ‘gendered age’ performance of an older woman. In the Russian-speaking world, women of pension age are commonly called ‘babushki’ (plural form of a ‘babushka’), regardless of whether they have grandchildren or not.

  8. 8.

    See ‘Bednost’ i Neravenstvo v Sovremennoi Rossii: Desyat’ Let Spustya,’ an analytical report by the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow: 2015, p. 162.

  9. 9.

    The 15 women I did ask whether they wished to be in a relationship again all replied with a ‘categorical no.’

    I acknowledge the ethical issues that might arise in relation to asking questions about relationship status . Since I myself also do not live in a conventional couple relationship, I am well aware of the stigmatising effect that questions of this kind might cause. Due to the fact that women’s singlehood is stigmatised in mainstream culture, addressing the topic of relationship status places single women in an inferior position that requires from them making justifications and excuses about their nonconformity to normative expectations. However, I consider the matter of personal life an important theme in order to better understand older Russian women’s experiences. To equalise power relations between myself and my interviewees as far as possible, I revealed my relationship status in the course of the interviews, and offered the participants the chance to ask me about my personal life. Most of them took up this offer.

  10. 10.

    Sasha Roseneil and Shelley Budgeon, ‘Cultures of Intimacy and Care: Personal Life and Social Change in the Early 21st Century,’ Current Sociology, 52, 2004, pp. 135–159.

  11. 11.

    Karen Gail Lewis, With or Without a Man: Single Women Taking Control of Their Lives, Palo Alto: Bull Publishing Company, 2001; E. Kay Trimberger, The New Single Woman, Boston: Beacon Press, 2006; Bella DePaulo, Singled Out, New York: St Martin’s Press, 2007; Jill Reynolds, Margie Wetherell and Stephanie Taylor, ‘Choice and chance: Negotiating agency in narratives of singleness.’ The Sociological Review, 55 (2–3), 2007, pp. 331–351; Eric Klinenberg, Going Solo, New York: Penguin, 2013; Kinneret Lahad, ‘“Am I asking for too much?”: The selective single woman as a new social problem,’ Women’s Studies International Forum, Elsevier, 40, 2013, pp. 23–32; Anna Shadrina, Ne Zamuzhem, Moscow: NLO, 2014; Shelley Budgeon, ‘The “problem” with single women: Choice, accountability and social change,’ Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 33(3), 2016, pp. 401–418; Neta Yodovich and Kinneret Lahad, ‘“I don’t think this woman had anyone in her life”: Loneliness and singlehood in Six Feet Under,’ European Journal of Women’s Studies, Sage, 2017, p. 1–15.

  12. 12.

    See Shelley Budgeon, ‘The “problem” with single women: Choice, accountability and social change,’ Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 33(3), 2016, pp. 401–418, and Neta Yodovich and Kinneret Lahad, ‘“I don’t think this woman had anyone in her life”: Loneliness and singlehood in Six Feet Under,’ European Journal of Women’s Studies, 2017, pp. 1–15.

  13. 13.

    Neta Yodovich and Kinneret Lahad. ‘“I don’t think this woman had anyone in her life,”’ p. 5.

  14. 14.

    Shelley Budgeon, ‘The “problem” with single women,’ p. 406.

  15. 15.

    See Erving Goffman, Stigma. Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, London: Penguin, 1963; Erving Goffman, Relations in Public: Microstudies of the Public Order, New York: Basic Books, 1971.

  16. 16.

    Jill Reynolds and Margaret Wetherell, ‘The discursive climate of singleness: the consequences for women’s negotiation of a single identity,’ Feminism and Psychology, 13(4), 2003, p. 506.

  17. 17.

    Shelley Budgeon, ‘The “problem” with single women,’ p. 8.

  18. 18.

    Jennifer Utrata, Women without Men, pp. 37–38.

  19. 19.

    This unanimity might have to do with gendered expectations according to which women who were formed by the Soviet epoch were not expected to initiate intimate relationships but instead awaited men’s actions. See, for example, Anna Temkina, Seksual’naya zhizn’ zhenshchiny: mezhdu podchineniem i svobodoy. St. Petersburg: Sankt Peterburg Evropeiskii Universitet v Sankt Peterburge, 2008, pp. 233, 24. Although in reality there were different stories, the norm might have affected what my interviewees chose to tell of themselves in an interview setting.

  20. 20.

    Karen Gail Lewis and Sidney Moon, ‘Always single and single again women: A qualitative study,’ Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 23(2), 1997, pp. 115–134, cited by Jill Reynolds, Margie Wetherell and Stephanie Taylor, ‘Choice and chance: negotiating agency in narratives of singleness.’ Sociological Review, 55(2), 2007, pp. 331–351.

  21. 21.

    To ensure anonymity of the participants in my study, I use pseudonyms.

  22. 22.

    See, for example, Donald Filtzer, Soviet Workers and De-Stalinization: The Consolidation of the Modern System of Soviet Production Relations 1953–1964, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002, pp. 177–209; Jennifer Utrata, Women Without Men, pp. 179–200.

  23. 23.

    Anna Temkina in Seksual’naya zhizn’ zhenshchiny, pp. 248–254.

  24. 24.

    Green A. The Work of the Negative. London: Free Association, 1999, p. 16.

  25. 25.

    Simon Biggs and Jason Powell, ‘A Foucauldian Analysis of Old Age and the Power of Social Welfare,’ Journal of Aging and Social Policy, 12, 2001, pp. 100–103.

  26. 26.

    John Macnicol, Age Discrimination: An Historical and Contemporary Analysis, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp. 6–9.

  27. 27.

    Lynne Segal in her Out of time: The pleasures and the perils of ageing, London: Verso Books, 2013, p. 35 refers to Paul Thompson, ‘I Don't Feel Old’: Subjective Ageing and the Search for Meaning in Later Life, Thompson, Paul. ‘“I don't feel old”: Subjective ageing and the search for meaning in later life,’ Ageing and Society, 12(1), 1992, p. 28.

  28. 28.

    See, for example, Laura Hurd Clarke, Facing Age: Women Growing Older in Anti-Aging Culture, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2013.

  29. 29.

    The first scholar to offer the term ‘ageism’ is the American gerontologist Robert Butler, in his article ‘Age-ism: Another form of bigotry,’ The Gerontologist, 9, pp. 243–246.

  30. 30.

    Margaret Morganroth Gullette, Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America, Reprint edition, University Of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2013, p. 31.

  31. 31.

    I borrow the term ‘couple culture’ from Shelley Budgeon, ‘Couple Culture and the Production of Singleness,’ Sexualities, 11, 2008, pp. 301–325.

  32. 32.

    Tuapse is a resort town in Krasnodar Krai, Russia.

  33. 33.

    Jennifer Utrata, Women without Men, p. 49.

  34. 34.

    Lynne Attwood, ‘“She was asking for it”: Rape and domestic violence against women,’ in Mary Buckley (ed.), Post-Soviet Women: From the Baltic to Central Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 101.

  35. 35.

    On the 7th of February 2016, President Vladimir Putin signed into law an amendment to Article 116 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation that transferred some forms of domestic violence from the category of criminal offense to the category of administrative offense. According to this amendment, if beatings do not happen more than once a year and do not result in broken bones, they are subject to 15 days in prison or a fine. Before the amendment, they were subject to a maximum jail sentence of two years. Official Internet portal of the Legal information: http://publication.pravo.gov.ru/Document/View/0001201702070049?index=0&rangeSize=1.

  36. 36.

    Elena Gapova, ‘Feminism in Post-Soviet Belarus,’ Warsaw: Heinrich Boell Stift. https://pl.boell.org/en/2014/01/07/feminism-post-soviet-belarus (accessed 20.07.2017) explains that in the USSR, ‘the women’s question’ was considered to have been solved in principle. The issues that Western feminism viewed as crucial to gender equality, namely, domestic violence , the exploitation and control of female sexuality , nonrecognition of women’s political autonomy and unpaid domestic labour, were not on the public agenda during most of the Soviet era.

    The critical perspective on women’s rights came to Russia in the 1990s with the proliferation of Western feminist research. See Anna Temkina and Elrna Zdravomyslova, ‘Gender’s crooked path: Feminism confronts Russian patriarchy,’ Current Sociology, 62(2), 2014, pp. 2–7.

  37. 37.

    Anna Rotkirch, The Man’s Question. Loves and lives in late 20th century Russia, University of Helsinki, Department of Social Policy, Research report 1/2000, p. 160.

  38. 38.

    Jennifer Utrata, Women without Men, pp. 124–125.

  39. 39.

    Jennifer Utrata, Women without Men, pp.123–36.

  40. 40.

    Erving Goffman, Stigma, p. 60.

  41. 41.

    According to Michele Rivkin-Fish, ‘Tracing landscapes of the past in class subjectivity: Practices of memory and distinction in marketizing Russia,’ American Ethnologist, 36(1), 2009, p. 84, the ideology of kulturnost’ legitimised social inequalities. The ideology of kulturnost’ presented the lifestyle and taste of the intelligentsia as the Soviet ‘civilising project,’ while concealing unequal access to it.

  42. 42.

    See Neta Yodovich and Kinneret Lahad, ‘I don’t think this woman had anyone in her life,’ pp. 7–9.

  43. 43.

    Shelley Budgeon, ‘The “problem” with single women,’ pp. 1, 15.

  44. 44.

    I borrow this concept from Patricia Ewick and Susan Silbey, ‘Narrating Social Structure: Stories of Resistance to Legal Authority,’ American Journal of Sociology, 108(6), 2003, p. 1329, in which the authors present stories of resistance executed by marginalised groups in ‘small acts of defiance,’ such as the transformation of an act of resistance into a story about resistance.

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Shadrina, A. (2018). Narrating the Gender Order: Why Do Older Single Women in Russia Say That They Do Not Want to Be in Relationships with Men?. In: Attwood, L., Schimpfössl, E., Yusupova, M. (eds) Gender and Choice after Socialism. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-73661-7_4

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