The first feminist teacher in Romania
She has taught students for 42 years. She has marched in protests, helped with female rights legislation, and inspired the new generation of feminists.
Mihaela Miroiu is Romanian, a professor at the National School for Political Studies and Public Administration in Bucharest. However, that is far from a full description of all her achievements and efforts.
She is outspoken and strong, with a great sense of humour and a long history of introducing the topic of female rights into Romanian society. Prof Miroiu pioneered gender studies in Romanian academia and paved the way for feminism in this Eastern European country.
A new dawn
The mindset of a large portion of society has changed and that is probably the main achievement of people like Prof Mihaela Miroiu. She remembers how in the 1990s people called here and other feminists “radical”, “crazy”, or “a social danger”. Yet everyone has come a long way and she feels public intellectuals now accept her, and they explain that they like her feminism. But that is after her first ten years of activism — the same things said in a different time sounded differently. “It is not about me. It is the way they are seeing women’s minds, they are respecting women’s ideas, their approach to politics”, she adds. She laughs at how younger feminists now criticise her, as they see her as older and different from their own understanding.
“I am not their sister. I am the generation of their mothers. But I am very proud that we have reached a moment when diversity of opinion is very high and I am criticized by feminist themselves”, she smiles.
In the last few years, the professor has been active in protests and active on Facebook as well and she mentions that people wait for her reaction to any events on a political level.
“People need models, even to contest them, to criticize them. But they need people who are standing up for their opinions and arguments and who are able to have a dialogue with”, Prof Miroiu concludes.
The roots of Romanian feminism
Prof Miroiu graduated with a degree in philosophy in 1978, during the Communist regime in Romania. “At that time, we were not allowed to have an academic career or do research. There were just compulsory jobs in high schools”, she says. Women were discouraged to enrol in PhD programs. Thus, she became a high school teacher of philosophy and social science. She worked at a school for over a decade. Then, the authoritarian regime collapsed, and a new page was turned for her career and even — her life.
“1990 was the beginning of another life in fact. My child was not so little, my private life was settled, I had finished an important project for me — I had done a reform of how to study philosophy in high schools. This was the end of the story, the relationship between me and the former profession”, the professor remembers. She discovered a book on feminist philosophy in 1991 and this was the start of her quest for knowledge in this area — she describes it as a “revelation”. As the democratic transition was happening, she had the chance to enrol in a PhD programme in the philosophy faculty, doing feminist philosophy. “It was a shock to the academic environment, but they were impressed. That’s how my inclination towards research started”, the academic explains.
However, she transferred from the Philosophy department to Political Science in 1994. That was an important move because she had felt a hostility from the philosophy faculty regarding the feminist topics she was exploring. “It was a very and still is a very male-based establishment, even if 80% of the students are women. It is a paradox”, she says.
Before liberal democracy came in, during the communist regime, there were no degrees in political science, public administration, international relations, or communications. These fields were introduced after 1990. “When I was invited to teach classes in the Political Science department, I discovered that the people there were very open to the idea of teaching as done in Western Europe and the USA. There was no conservative establishment to look at me in a strange way because I am teaching from a feminist point of view. In a way I felt welcome”, she recalls.
This was the moment when her opportunity to change the way academia thinks, teaches, and explains females in Romania begins. Prof Miroiu created the first class in Feminist Philosophy, taught from 1994 until 1998 at the University of Bucharest. Afterwards, in 1996 she introduced a class called Gender and Politics to the undergraduates at the National School for Political Studies and Public Administration. That decade culminated with the Master of Arts in Gender Studies in Romania, started in 1998.
Prof Miroiu’s legacy also includes the first PhD program in political science, and through her breakthroughs in academia she paved the way for two decades of students who would think about female rights and gender impact, and are now be on the frontline of these movements. Prof Miroiu basically set the basis for the next generation of feminists.
“In fact, I was more of a protective mother and inspiring figure, but not at all as active as they were. Of course, I participated in the marches that they organised. For sure in the last five years, my former students have played a far more important role than I have”.
Some power, some limits
The big question is: how did this change happen so suddenly? It probably would not have happened without a woman in power, especially when that woman was Mihaela. “In order to do that, I used the power I had as dean of the faculty. It was easier to introduce a programme from a power position. It is very difficult to be approved or accepted unless you have power to negotiate”, she explains.
“My rector and some other important people from the board of the National School of Political Studies and Public Administration were very busy with many other things. It was a time of ‘Jack of all trades’ and ‘Jane’ of all trades. Usually, they were so busy. I had the chance to shape the most important university decisions because I had the time to think in an academic way.”
“When the course was created, there were also boys. We also had three male professors. We never segregated them and some of the classes in this MA were offered in other kinds of MAs. They were not addressed just to a tiny group of people.”
However, this progressive path was not always so flexible. When she was first trying to build a career in academia, she received an offer from the Sociology faculty. However, the invitation was accompanied by the following condition, made by the dean: “I’d like very much for you to come here, but you have to get rid of your feminist approach.” This is not gender discrimination literally, she comments, but it is discrimination against her own approach, her theoretical preferences. “I have never heard about a man who was told: Ok, you can come, but you have to get rid of your Communitarian perspective or ecological perspective”, Prof Miroiu says.
She also emphasises that there is a glass ceiling in the academic sphere. “In philosophy or social science, the most important award for an academic is to become a member of the Romanian Academy of Science. This is a recognition of your professional contribution. You become a member for life, and there are a lot of advantages, including financial ones. In the section of social science in their academy, as well as in philosophy, there are no women at all. Doesn’t matter if they contributed a lot or not — if they are far better than the members there or not. There is not even a proposal for such kind of a position, as you have to be proposed to become a member.”
“For the last 10 to 15 years, women have excelled at getting credentials, they are the majority of students, they are the majority of PhD candidates and it is now very hard to question their capabilities. But for sure, there is still a passive preference for male candidates for academy positions.”
A lack of freedom before democracy
Female rights in Romania have also greatly evolved since the authoritarian regime and the period after its collapse in 1989.
“I think that in the former political regime, in the Communist one, we could not talk about minority, human, or women’s rights in a proper sense. From this point of view, it is hard to speak about professional discrimination”, Prof Miroiu comments when asked about the differences between the two environments.
Economically, women were at a disadvantage. She explains that salaries and prices were determined by the state which placed more women in the so-called ‘light industry’ — food, glass, textiles, etc., as opposed to heavy industry — metallurgy, chemistry. Women worked in the former, and men got jobs in the latter. However, there was a significant pay gap because salaries in light industry were about three to four times lower than in the heavy one. “It was politics. Once the state says the importance of work of women in light industry is a few times less than of men working in heavy industry, this is a huge discrimination”, she adds. Additionally, besides working at a factory as part of the workforce, women had to be in charge of all domestic duties, as there was no change in traditional roles — they had to clean, cook and take care of the household.
Moreover, the really morbid authoritarian phenomenon was that women were in physical danger and were not in charge of their bodies. “We were rather in a worse position because in Romania there was a so-called ‘pronatalist’ policy which obliged women to have forced pregnancies, to have no access to contraceptives, and to have the right to an abortion, you had to have at least five children and be at least 45 years old. The police were always in hospitals searching for “guilty women '' who did something wrong from this point of view. Many women were in prison. 10,000 women died in Romania because of illegal abortions — this was the official number, the real one is more”, the academic confides.
“In my opinion we cannot talk about feminism in communism. Feminism is a road to women’s autonomy and communism is a road to no one’s autonomy. It was impossible to have a different, dissident point of view”, she states. As Prof Miroiu points out, the second decree which was issued after the Romanian revolution was the one which eliminated the law against abortion. “It was a sign of freedom”, the professor says.