Budapest, without a doubt, is one of the most striking cites I have ever had the good fortune to visit. The snaking form of the Danube, the Buda side of the city rising to offer spectacular views while the Pest side’s sprawl of adjoining streets make for an unforgettable experience. Above all however, Budapest has a deeply conflicted nature. A façade of imperial buildings, relics of the Austro-Hungarian past, contrasted with a searing sense of liberalism. This can be seen in the famous ruin bars and the protests that face the monument commemorating the victims of the Second World War. The archangel Gabriel, representing the innocent Hungary, is born down upon by an eagle symbolising the German occupation. Now this monument has been overwhelmed by photographs and possessions of the victims of the Hungarian/German alliance: over half a million Jews and others sent to extermination camps by the Hungarian government. This popular counter-monument now stands to give a voice to the oppressed.
What better place to host a workshop on women, the value of their work and what lies beneath the surface of a housewife’s domestic bliss? Budapest is a city of contrasts and so, I have learned, is the changing concept of womanhood.
Over two engrossing sessions, we examined the role and beliefs of women in the post-war world. From the Italian fight in the 1950s for equal pay and new maternity laws, to the British Women’s Liberation Movement, the papers offered new insights into sexual politics which continue to burn as brightly as ever. Finding myself surrounded by academics, experts in their fields, my initial trepidation was soon replaced by enthusiasm as I saw the importance of what we were discussing. Naturally these papers looked backwards to establish historical trends but these trends continue to colour our world in fascinating ways. The guilt of the working mother, ‘feminism’ as a dirty word and the prejudices surrounding domestic labours are issues of the present as much as the past.
In fact, the discussions accompanying the papers, and even dinner time conversation, highlighted how far there still is to go. The continued prominence of gender in the welfare system and gendered divisions in the professions affect both men and women; it is clear that the constructions of the past continue to weigh us down.
There was one phrase I kept finding myself uttering as we discussed the culture we have constructed: “I can’t believe this is happening in 2015”. And I can’t. I feel like learning the lessons of the past, examining the increase in gender equality of the last hundred years, is evidence of how far we have come but also how far we have to go. Raising children, running a business, maintaining a home: all of these should be equally respectable professions as any other. The critical aspect is the element of choice.
The electric atmosphere of historical debate, as well as the opportunity to talk to academics about their philosophies and their life experiences, has given me a unique insight into feminist history. The legacy of women’s work has been a fraught one. From the glorified socialist vision of the working woman, the working mother, to the rise in atypical employment and the childcare demands this creates: the debate can be approached from all angles.
What I take from this, besides the opportunity to get to know a beautiful city and some wonderful people, is that gender politics is far from a closed book. The men and women who dedicate their time to this research have earned both my admiration and my support. The dual nature of Budapest, the dual character of the working woman; the feminist cause is not redundant and sometimes it is only by looking backwards that we can really move forwards.
Kati Taylor, Women, Work and Value Public Engagement Intern.