In the midst of World War One, a war the Austro-Hungarian empire was destined to lose, an overhaul of the political systems of Eastern Europe was looming. As the empire fell, and Hungary became independent, the nationalism that was critical to the alliances of Germany and Hungary through both world wars began to impact the feminist movement in the region.
The compounding effects of the communist unity of Eastern Europe throughout the 20th century are widely acknowledged. However, the consequences of this four-generation long system – which began in 1956 when Hungary joined the Soviet Union – on women today are often disregarded. The collapse of the USSR, the subsequent pre-democratic regime in Hungary and the growing illiberal power of the country’s neoconservative leader, continues to challenge the feminist progression of Hungary. Consequently, this country’s experience highlights some of the flaws of the global feminist movement and gives an understanding of the trends seen throughout post-soviet Europe.
To understand the issues of contemporary feminism in Hungary, the current ‘feminist spring’, we must understand the history and politics of the region, especially current Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s neoliberal fascism.
The experience and history of feminism in Hungary demonstrates that overarching assumptions about what constitutes the movement can be damaging when women’s rights remain disparate, even within Europe, which is largely considered a torch-holder of progressive ideas. Europe, a conglomerate of states with unique regional histories and cultures, is not to be understood as a monocultural entity. This article will examine how the history of Hungary has differed from western states, who have a history of suffrage and multiple waves of feminism. Hungary, as a country without this history, must play ‘catch up’ with other countries in Europe, such as the United Kingdom and France, while simultaneously contending with the current global feminist discourse.
In the late nineteenth century, women’s rights in Hungary were building. Education was becoming a possibility, with the first school for girls being founded by Pálnes Veras in 1868. Unfortunately, it was swiftly shut down due to conflicts and ongoing civil war. Following the World Wars, the communist control of Hungary in 1956 would see the superficial emancipation of women, and therefore the progression of the feminist ideology would not take place. The USSR was of course a system that disdained political opposition, with frequent violence being met to those who attempted resistance, which restricted the collectivisation of women. This meant that when the collapse of European communism eventuated in the early 1990’s, the country was without the political, social and economic infrastructure to support the introduction of feminism to Hungary. We now see the simultaneous amalgamation of the distinct western waves of feminism occurring in a neoconservative regime.
The lack of social infrastructure and political collectivisation has meant that following the events of 1991, Hungary did not have the resources to unite and progress the position of women in society. Given the history of criminalisation of political identities that oppose the state, women in Hungary do not see themselves as a collective. If something happens, such as domestic violence, sexual assault or workplace harassment, it was seen as an individual issue and not as a problem plaguing women’s lives in Hungary. Therefore, the progression of feminist ideas is slow, as the issues are not yet understood as women’s issues.
There is only one feminist group in Budapest, the capital city, where the feminist movement is restrained to only attracting the wealthy, educated and largely westernised women of society. Under communism, women’s emancipation was formally ‘achieved’. However, it was not seen as true liberation in the way employment was in the west. Work was an obligation and therefore did not have the same effect for Hungarian women as it did for, as an example, Australian women who were able to choose to have a career for the first time.
The lack of a developed history with social movements means that post-soviet states lack the comprehension of grassroots social movement, and do not have the means to develop their own feminist infrastructure within society. Hungary’s experience with feminism is not unique within the post-soviet states, however the ways the government has opposed political identities that counter its own agenda is an interesting case study into the ways feminism actuates in non-western states.
Womanhood and national awakening
The mother is positioned at the centre of Hungarian national identity, and the mythicization of Dorottya Kanizsai highlights this. As ‘a weak woman with love and respect for her nation’, her only importance in the Hungarian sphere was her maternal patriotism. Dorottya was a 16th century countess, and the only person who, following the defeat at the Battle of Manon, would step onto the battlefield to find the body of her dead stepson. Reinvented as an image of maternal patriotism and an aspiration for women in the 20th century, she is a figure which personifies sacrifice in a period of national awakening and change.
This also highlights a few key differences between the relationship between men and women in Hungary as opposed to that in the west – women do not necessarily see themselves as subordinate to men; instead they have different responsibilities in the reinvention of their newly independent country. While this will be discussed further, it is important to understand the intersection of nationalism and feminism. The awakening of a mother is seen as unequivocally Hungarian and has become a pressing issue in mainstream political discourse since the collapse of the USSR in 1989. Dorottya – herself an image of sacrifice – and other maternal figures are ‘incontrovertibly Hungarian,’ and shows the complexities of images of mothers, and their innate connection to the Hungarian nationality.
When communism collapsed in 1989, along with socialised childcare and guaranteed employment, there was a large scale shift towards the traditional structures of family. A commonly held belief was that “the ideal situation would be for all women could stay at home as Hungarian mothers should, and if men could once again, earn enough to support their family“.
It is clear from the historical effects of national disenfranchisement for the four generations of USSR control, and the prior submission to the Austro-Hungarian empire, that the shift towards Hungarian tradition is a largely a consequence of nationalism. A progression toward the traditional life prior to communism, cannot be exclusively attributed to misogyny – though that is of course a major contributing factor. The ‘quasi-prestigious’ roles of Hungarian women, as an image of national identity, does not allow for a move away from these traditional roles.
Gender ideology and the failures of democratic representation: current feminist issues in Hungary.
The last ten years have seen a distinct change in Hungarian politics. Since joining the EU in 2004, it has been Eurosceptic, and is now a vocal figure of the Visegard Group, which comprises populist governments in Central and Eastern Europe (including Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland). The Visegard Group all share similar conservative beliefs and opinions towards feminism and other social movements such as LGBTQI+ equality.
Under Prime Minister Orbán’s leadership – which has occurred from 1998-2003 and then again from 2010 to the present day – Hungary has moved away from the political norms of Europe. Thus, the issues facing Hungary under the leadership of Orbán’s conservative party, Fidesz, are often unique. Currently, as the feminist movement rapidly develops, the Hungarian ‘feminist spring’ must contend with the neoconservative Christian leadership characterised by Orbán’s ridicule of modernity.
Other interconnecting issues facing the feminist movement include the defunding of gender studies in higher education, ongoing erasure of LGBTQI+ rights in the region, and persistent economic issues. These have been agitated further by the COVID-19 crisis and the associated isolationist policies. These examples demonstrate the extent to which Hungary’s ‘illiberal democracy’ departs from European norms and created a state in which the human rights of citizens are continuously reduced to further Fidesz’s power.
Significantly, a major challenge facing women in Hungary today is the changing discourse around abortion. In 1956, abortion was legalised in Hungary, following Hungary’s formal joining of the Soviet Union. This began what has been referred to by the pro-life movement as the 35 years of ‘Hungarian Holocaust’ and the ‘biological Trianon’, due to some 35 million Hungarian lives aborted.
In 2011, Orban’s conservative party revived the national debate around abortion. Although legal in some circumstances, it has largely been disallowed by employing a nationalistic rhetoric whereby the lives lost during war are used to delegitimise pro-choice movements. The loss of Hungarian lives during the wars of the 20th century have been misconstrued as a weapon of guilt against abortion, with religious pro-life virtues also being employed in a conservative Catholic region. These nationalised anti-abortion sentiments highlight the challenges faced by feminists in Hungary, the context of the recent national independence from the USSR, and the rise in alter-nationalism that resulted in a hyper remasculinisation of society.
The unique challenges of Hungary highlight how the global feminist movement can feel increasingly monolithic. The very idea of ‘western’ or ‘eurocentric’ feminism implies that women throughout the world face the same challenges, and can therefore progress in the same trajectory women in western states have done. However, the situation in Hungary demonstrates that this simplified assumption largely ignores the historic and cultural identities of particular regions. The issues of Hungarian nationalism in its contemporary identity, its history within the region and how these factors intertwine, affect how the feminist movement can actuate in a contemporary Hungarian state.
If, as a collective, we want to allow for global acceptance of the equities promoted by feminism, then we must understand how individual countries relate within the global movement. This is by no means exclusive to Hungary; similar dichotomies of feminism and nationalism exist throughout Europe and around the world. However, the example of Hungary has an interesting history, and a dramatic political sphere within Europe today.