To be or not to be feminist?

This article was published a few years ago in the English edition of ‘The New Presence’ – an interesting political/social/cultural journal in Prague, Czech Republic, wich has long history.  They publish a Czech and an English version. Later a Russian Feminist organisation re-published it on their website. (I have re-edited it recently). Originally I wrote it when the editor asked me to write about ‘Feminism and Hungarian women’. I told him I did nto have a clue. I emigrated to London in 1978, and even if I was still living in Hungary I may not know the opinion of more than a handful women. Instead I wrote down my own story in relation to feminism – and he said he loved it so it was published, despite being ‘subjective’. In fact I can not be anything else than subjective. Plus I want to be honest.

When I was a child, about 5-6 years old, I was occupied with death, and with the question, what happens after death? I used to ask my mother about it. I did not admit that understanding death itself was my painful subject, I just used to ask her about what happens after death. She used to say, that there was a Heaven and a Hell waiting for people, and we, the members of our family, and all our friends would definitely end up going to Heaven.

My next question was: is there a ‘ringlispil’ in Heaven?

Ringlispil is the Hungarian word for a special swing, although the word comes from the German language. This amazing swing takes you high up in the air, and it turns you round and round making large circles. You can find them in Hungarian fairs. Those days I was living in Budapest, and was lucky to grow up on one of the Buda hills, called Gellérthegy. A part of Gellérthegy is known as Tabán, and when the fair arrived there once a year, for me it was as special as Christmas. Because of the central position of Taban overlooking the Danube and the historical centre of Budapest, if you were riding the Taban ringlispil, you had the most amazing views. Depending on the actual position of your swing while turning round the large circle, for a few seconds you could see Central Pest, then the Danube, then the eastern of western end of the town, then the park and trees around you. I could not imagine anything more beautiful.


I wanted to know if I could continue riding the ringlispils after I die. My mother honestly answered, that she thought there were no ringlispils in Heaven. She said, the body did not go to Heaven, only the soul.

I decided I did not want to go to Heaven. ‘Ringlispil’ was for me the symbol of happiness, a happiness of mind and body together, calm ecstasy. Of course, I did not put these words together when I was a child. The experience meant for me the ultimate joy of life. My mind melted from the feeling of highness, speed, dizziness.

Later on in my life I forgot this question. I have never been as much occupied with the question of death, as I was when I was a young child. I forgot my other ‘metaphysical’ questions too, like what makes me, or any human being into an individual? Does the universe have and end? And so on.

In my teenager years I kept the idea of the ‘ringlispil’ without using this word. Instead, I started to admire people like Janis Joplin, and was dreaming about sailing through the world on a motor-cycle. So ‘ringlispil’ offered the type of experience which I wanted (at least occasionally) from life. I did not want to be a hedonist, going on this or that type of ringlispil every day or every hour of my life, but I wanted to have a life and a type of personality, which is able to enjoy this type of experiences. Enjoy it, create it, and offer it to others. In other words, I did not want to become a bore. That was my worst nightmare: to have a boring life, and a boring self.

It was clear for me when I was about 14-15, that marriage was boring. It was also clear for me that I did not want to become a type of woman whom men hate. Listening to jokes – ordinary jokes told on trains, on the TV, read in joke-papers, it was clear: men hated wives. So I decided that I would never become a wife, and would never marry. I wanted children, but I thought I would live together with other young people in some type of commune. I wanted to be attractive, but I was convinced I was very ugly, and I had this intellectual up-bringing which taught me that my worth was measured by the number of books I read, so I was reading day and night. I thought, my prince would find me if I become very clever.

At the age of 16 I met a woman called Julia Veres, who had read lots of American feminist books and articles and she wanted a collection to be published in Hungary. She wrote a few pages summary in order to present it for publication. This was in 1972. She told me, at several publication houses in Budapest the editors laughed at her. No one published any of the material that time, as far as I know. Those days, even your best female friends tended to laugh at you if you just mentioned the word ‘feminism’.

I became so enthusiastic about her summary that in my Secondary School during our special History seminar, I asked for a chance to introduce these ideas, and for my surprise the (male) teacher offered one of the classes for me to talk about these writings. Despite his positive response it was clear for me that I was potentially making myself a target of ridicule by others. However I remember that during the classes (other classes, e.g. maths or language), me and my friends used to read the pages and we passed these to each other secretly under the tables and chairs. At least while they were reading the summary my school-friends were completely immersed in it. – For me, these pages gave me the first words and theories to describe and justify the gut feelings I had against marriage, against living under the power of a man, against all the hypocrisy which was well known.

During the next few years I became a bit mixed up, due to my participation in the soul-killing social life of the young opposition and young cultural underground world in Budapest. The sexual relationships and the partnerships were usually destructive, and people were virtually forcing each other to accept the morality of the ‘sexual revolution’ – which I tried, but I never fitted into it. The political opposition around the mid-70’s was asleep in Hungary, many of it’s members were depressed, emigrated or committed suicide, in large numbers. Hungary (with Japan) was leading the World- statistics in suicides those days. There was almost no action, and the atmosphere was suffocating – at least that is how I experienced it. I decided to emigrate, to escape a slow death.

I arrived in England in 1978, age 22. In England I was among the very-very few Hungarians who emigrated on their own. I have only ever met three others who came alone. Most Hungarians arrived with friends, partners, or they came to the UK to marry some English hero or heroin. And emigrating on your own is a completely different experience. It is a psychological suicide, as a friend warned me on my arrival. It also throws you into the deep water – the few of us who arrived alone got to know the English/British scene better, and we all happened to prefer the radical edge. We all got involved in squatting for awhile (living in occupied flats).

I only had a short association with Hungarians. During the first month I was living in the kitchen of a small house occupied downstairs by about six Hungarians and upstairs by about 10 New Zealanders. Even that kitchen was shared between another woman and me. They sent me on my way soon, and I also felt it was time to start to avoid Hungarians, so looked for English people and foreigners. I was ready for adventure, was hungry for experience and learning. About half year after emigrating I became pregnant and I decided to search for my ideal commune. Not finding any decent commune in London I travelled to Wales, Scotland and Ireland to find ‘my people’, whom I would instinctively like, and who would be living together in the way I dreamt about. I visited at least fifteen communal set-ups, and did not like them. Eventually I accepted my defeat, and settled down on my own with my baby-daughter in a council flat.

During the first years I got to know academic, religious, socialist, pacifist, anarchist, right-to-work, right-to-not-work etc crowds. I did not find anything convincing or attractive about any of these groups, I was getting increasingly disappointed. I found their ideology lacking (in just about everything). \on s human level there was no warmth or spontaneity. Even the anarchist groups felt too formal. Finally by accident I found a few feminist lesbian women who wanted to set up a home-made small nursery (crèche) in their own house, and I wanted to join them.

For about a year we were running the crèche together. We had five babies, we paid an extra worker and we all worked in the crèche one day/week. Through these women I was thrown into the middle of English feminism, how it was, at the beginning of 80’s. Despite the fact that I did not become a lesbian, I started to get involved in conferences, newspapers, parties – where just about everybody else were lesbian. A large number of these women were ‘separatists’, which meant they wanted to avoid men altogether. Although several of them had sons, they said, they were happy to bring up their sons, because their sons would become the example of men-kind (kind-men). These children were often the products of earlier relationships, although some of the kids were created by artificial insemination. My new friends did not allow adult men coming to their house, and they tried to work in women’s environment. They said that the whole society was arranged in a way that women had to spend all their energies ‘looking after’ men, worshipping and serving them, tolerating their stupidity, their violence, taking humiliation – and they wanted to spend their limited energy on, and with women. This was OK for me.

One evening I was in the living room of my friends baby-sitting for their children, and I opened a book. Suddenly I saw that I was damned: it said, I was ‘sleeping with the enemy’. I was shocked. I never thought, and would never accept to think that the men I slept with in my life were my enemy. I slept with them, because I loved them. Why on Earth should I think about them individually, as my enemy? But at the same time I felt really awkward. I imagined that these women always thought about me that I was betraying them. I felt I would not be able to face them the same innocent way as before. I also feared that I could not argue against their argument, because logically speaking they were probably right. If men oppressed, exploited and humiliated women (even if not all of them did), then the choice of heterosexuality exposed me to the blame that I was maintaining that oppressing system.

A mental battle began. I felt I had to prove them wrong. I started to write, first just to clear my mind. I wrote something which I still keep, which is a bad writing, but it was my half-successful attempt to safe my soul and my heterosexuality. By that time a number of women approached me, and I started to feel strong attraction and love towards a woman, although nothing ever came out of it. But that experience convinced me that the type of sexuality we have is the produce of social-learning and expectations. Anyone’s could change. I always thought that we were all basically bi-sexual, or have bi-sexual tendencies, but for some reason we are being pushed in one or another direction (with a number of people choosing both sexes).

My main argument against my friends was, that there were many types of oppressions and exploitations, and there was no reason why we should choose women’s oppression as the most vital one. My writing aimed to attack any movement that tried to decide, which was the most important oppression, usually by generating a hate-campaign against a specific group of people or institution. The socialists claim the devil is Capitalism; Trockists claim it is Stalinism; anarchists claim it is the State; feminists claim the problem is Men; certain anti racists claim it is White people as such; pacifists might claim War. I was arguing that feminist women created a pathetic ethos, claiming that they “loved” ALL women – while in reality there were many reasons why they might belong to different groups who oppress or exploit each other (e.g. social class, privileges). A rich feminist woman can live off the work of another woman, if not hundreds or thousands of other women – so why claim she “loves” them? I also argued that women, inc. feminist women might have lots of reasons to compete with each other, e.g. trying to prove who is MORE feminist.

Gradually I moved away from them, as I have disappeared from every other political or other movement, big and small group, which made me curious for awhile in my life.

My feminist-lesbian friends also felt disappointed in me, because even after years of friendship I kept myself different. I constantly broke the rules of engagement, and I argued with everyone. Even worse, I moved together with my long-time partner who was a man, and soon gave birth to two more children, both incredible beautiful and lovely boys. I was told off for “selling out” by one of the women (who had a child by artificial insemination and was living together with another woman in a traditional marriage-like-suffocation, which I used to experience in their house several times weekly).

My last involvement with feminists happened through the peace movement. One day in the middle of the night, an old hippie friend knocked on my door. She wanted to know, if she and about ten other people could sleep in my flat, as they were going to create a peace-camp the following day in Jubilee Gardens, in the heart of London. I let them in and next day I went with them. I thought politically they had not much to say, but they were a very nice bunch of people. The peace-camp was good fun, there was tasty vegetarian food cooked together. I almost felt I found my dreamt-about communal life. My daughter also loved the playful lively village-atmosphere, as there were many other children around and many nice adults to give attention to little children. This was the time of the Greenham Common Women-only peace-camp. Things were different, and many people had this feeling of optimism, that they were changing history. Unfortunately at the Jubilee Gardens Peace-camp the idyll was disturbed when skinheads attacked our camp, they tried to stab some of the sleeping people from the outside of a tent. We moved back home.

From these pacifists I heard about a meeting organised about ‘East European women and the peace movement’. That made me curious. By that time (1982) I started to forget the fact that I was from East Europe. I hardly sew any Eastern Europeans for years. For the ordinary English feminist women whom I knew earlier, it was absolutely meaningless that I came Hungary. I was a woman, end of story.

So dying with curiosity I went to the meeting, which took place in a University. There the women decided to organise a whole day conference on the same subject. I offered to help, but I felt funny. I did not know why. During the organising process I felt over-powered by the perspectives of the English women, including women who told us their parents were from Eastern Europe but they were born here. I could not find anyone to identify with, but I was not yet able to articulate what was bothering me.

The conference took place. I don’t remember details, apart from loosing the drink-bottle of my daughter in the crèche. And I remember I absolutely awful during the whole time of the conference. Like an alien. I did not feel the discussions were relevant to me at all.

It took me years to understand why. And also, to understand why I don’t want to be a ‘feminist’, while I am a feminist. Now it is simple. But those days, it was agony.

Last year I went into a bookshop, and I noticed a large book on display. It had something to do with women all over the world, perhaps “The end of feminism”, or something similar. I opened it. I looked through the chapters and among the about 20 subjects I managed to find one concerning Eastern Europe. The rest was about (and written by) women in England, USA, Africa, Ireland, Asia, the situation of Muslim women etc. A woman with an English name wrote the only chapter about Eastern European women. I got very upset, just seeing her name. Then I looked at what she had to say. It started with the usual cry: Why women in East Europe don’t want to become feminists?

I became red with anger. I shouted with them inside my own head: “You big-headed, patronising, cultural-feminist-imperialists, WHY CAN’T YOU ASK US TO SPEAK IN OUR OWN NAME?! How come you can ask Black women, Asian women, Irish women? How come, when people talk about having disabilities, having Aids, being gay, being transsexual, being Muslim, being anything – they can search for, at least, a token person from that community? But NOT when they are talking about US!” We don’t really exist! Not even for the women. Or especially not for the feminist women! It hit me that I felt SO ALIENATED when I was friendly with those feminist-lesbian women. Because they showed the LEAST interest about me, about my background – and they expected me to become a ‘club’-member. SOMEONE WHO IS LIKE THEM AND WHO LIKES THEM. They wanted me to adapt to their values, their way of dressing, speaking, being with each other. (I remember one of them, a psycho-therapist became red, and they all looked at me with a shock, when I told her in a party, in front of several others that I liked her face. This honesty was not part of their games. But she did have a lovely clown-looking face, with a good smile printed on it.) They ‘tolerated’ my heterosexuality (at least for the time being, hoping I would eventually give it up), but they did not tolerate my different personality. I remember, once one of my super-intelligent lesbian friend told me, when I told her half-jokingly that I was ‘very unique’, – she said that was a dangerous idea. I half-knew what she was trying to say. I thought she felt I was trying to distinguish myself by putting down ‘other women’ when claiming to be so unique. As if others were not. The message was: be like any other women, we are all OK and loveable. They also got very upset when one evening I went to see them with my small daughter, without pre-arranging it. They explained me that in the future I should phone several days earlier if I wanted to visit them. The appointment-booking social life of the English people never attracted me, but it took me years to “accept” that even many young people need “appointments” to meet up with each other. I tried and tried to do it without appointments, encouraging people “just to turn up”, but I will never forget the face of my lesbian friends when I “just turned up” to see them because I felt like it. Perhaps this was the final straw for me.

After finding that book a year ago, I knew exactly what I hated about the whole English feminist attitude. THEY SIMPLY TAKE IT FOR GRANTED THAT THEY CAN DEFINE WHAT FEMINISM IS. AND THEY WANT TO DEFINE WHO A FEMINIST IS. THEIR ANSWER IS SELF-EVIDENT FOR THEM: THEY ARE feminists, and feminism is whatever they believe. Similarly, how DEMOCRACY is being defined in the West: democracy is what we have. Democratic is, what we are. Or ‘civilisation’. And so on. So I realised, the whole question: Are Eastern European women feminists? or really, for that matter, Is anyone in the world a feminist? Or Should we be feminists? – all these questions are red herrings. Nonsense. In it’s present form this type of question, as far as it originates in West Europe or in America, means: DO YOU WANT TO BE LIKE ME? – And now, put a picture of a ‘typical’ English feminist next to the question. The typical English (or American) feminist is the one, who would like the rest of womanhood to become like her. She is the example. I could call her feminist-imperialist, if it was not cheap. And I have met hundreds of them. (OK everyone is an individual, there are differences, still, many looked the same with short hair, ugly clothes – the image advertising the message:

I am not going to please men!”

So, I do not, did not and will not join their club. I am not going to become ‘one of them’. Even if I wanted to, I could not, my instincts are different.

I also remembered, that my writings about the situation of the women in Hungary (and in the ‘socialist’ countries) were rejected by the feminist papers and journals I turned to – during the early 80’s when I was desperately interested to address these issues publicly. Despite the fact that one of the best known feminist women from Russia contacted me after her emigration to France, and she wanted to work with me. She was so much promoted, that even Simon de Bouvier wrote about her. When she asked me to go to Paris or Vienna to work with her, I wrote to her, that I didn’t have enough money to get to Victoria Station, let alone to buy a ticket to Paris or Vienna.

During the 80’s I wrote to several English Feminist Publishers asking them to donate copies of unsold books and one copy each of the main feminist papers and journals so they could be sent to Hungary and Poland, as from both countries a few individual women and small feminist groups asked for it. However, I received no reply. I wrote again, repeating my request. Eventually I got one answer, which was negative. – So I realised, that all the cry about the “lack of feminism” in East Europe was hypocrisy, as important organisations failed to help.

And again, there was the whole issue of the ringlispil. As a child I decided not to go to Heaven because there was no ringlispil there. Then I decided not to marry, because I feared me and my life would become boring. It is the same trouble with the English feminists. I do not see much ringlispilling among them, despite some forced ‘fun’, laughter, and claims that they are enjoying themselves.

And in any case, English people have simply NO IDEA how much more free, beautiful, clever, creative, tough, honest, autonomous, spontaneous and self-reliant, self-determining (relatively, relatively) we are, Eastern European women, or many of us, then they have ever been or ever will be. It is not part of their culture. Sorry folks. And of course, I am only writing generalisations. If a Western person goes as far as putting into his/her hands this article, this newspaper, than perhaps, he or she belongs to the exceptions.

But we, Eastern European women, need to learn to be proud of our own qualities. And we have to start our own analysis, setting our own agenda. So far the discussion about ‘us’, about feminism as such, was set by the agenda, the values, norms, definitions of Westerners. The discussion had a West–East-West direction. We could break free from this, and start an East-West-East dialogue, in which they would be measured by us, and they would have to answer our questions. And, among ourselves, if we respected ourselves enough, we could even have East-East dialogues. For me, I perhaps said what I wanted to say. I guess I will look for my next ringlispil.

Piroska Markus