Washington — There was a time in Russia when feminists were seen as dangerous dissidents. Their clandestine magazines were part of the underground literary movement and once found out, they were in trouble.
Leading activists then included Olga Lipovskaya, who published a journal titled Women Reading, and Tatiana Mamonova, whose magazine Maria, launched in the 1980s, led to her deportation. That was a little over 10 years ago.
A few years later, it was not lost on the many young Russian women influenced by those two trailblazers when Russian television kept running footage of President Boris Yeltsin pinching a woman who was standing in line to register at a professional conference. That was on International Women's Day, March 8, 1995.
Four years ago, when the Russian skier Larissa Lazutina won five medals, including three golds, at the Winter Olympics in Japan, she was deemed fortunate to appear on a sports show with male medalists, who were asked about sports technology and their strategies for success. Lazutina was asked about knitting. What had she made for her husband recently? Her children? Her teammates? The real embarrassment came when Yeltsin congratulated her by saying she had won as a gift to men.
So the presence in Washington this week of 13 Russian women who are leaders in democracy-building and in the fights against human trafficking, sexual exploitation and domestic violence is a testament to how far they have come. The group, brought here for training by the Russian Leadership Program of the Library of Congress and the Vital Voices Global Partnership Institute in collaboration with Georgetown University, includes women from inside the Russian government as well as representatives of nongovernmental organizations and social workers.
Yelena Vladimirovna Zabadykina, 41, a consulting psychologist for a women's community crisis center and a staff member of the St. Petersburg Center for Gender Problems, said her journey began 14 years ago.
As a journalist, she interviewed Lipovskaya and started delving into feminist literature. "I had never heard of domestic violence as a trend, and I felt the world was not a comfortable place or safe for my two daughters, aged 3 and 6. I understood that I had to act to help change the environment for them," she said in an interview.
In her early twenties, Zabadykina thought all she had ahead of her would be marriage and motherhood. As a Jew, she figured the best career she could aim for was teaching. "The situation has changed radically. I consider my work to be political right now," she noted.
"If it was possible for me to change, it is possible for others such as law enforcement types to change, even if they start out with an antagonistic view," she said. "Now, I openly say I am a feminist and I have the opportunity to be involved in political action, though I am Jewish."