Ancient Ukrainian woman: Myths about the position of women in traditional Ukrainian culture

Ukrainian culture is traditionally considered matriarchal, that is dominated by women’s values and women for centuries have rights and opportunities that their neighbors never even dream about. But this is only a myth, says senior researcher employee of the Institute of Ukrainian Ethnology, candidate of historical sciences Oksana Kis. Why gender equality in traditional Ukrainian culture is something illusory, the researcher said in the lecture “Feminist analysis of Ukrainian traditional culture” within the project Feminist Initiative Lviv.

“The idea of matriarchy, female supremacy that values in Ukrainian culture today is part of the Ukrainian national myth” – said the researcher. – They say that women in Ukraine were always equal and respected, and therefore we do not need feminism. «The roots of this myth formation reach the end of XIX – early XX century – when theory of evolutionism became popular. According to it, all societies have certain stage of development, and matriarchy is the lowest of these steps.

The idea of a basic matriarchy in Ukrainian culture fit well in forming the image of Ukrainian as a separate, special and progressive nation. At a time when the world originated the first wave of feminism, it was important to show how civilized Ukrainians are, which for centuries worshiped their womenfolk. This fitted Ukrainian historians in late XIX – early XX century, who worked on the formation of Ukrainian national idea. Ukrainian researchers carefully looked for signs of matriarchy in Ukrainian culture in the form of customs and traditions – and they found them.

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The myth of equality of women in the family

When talking about the equality of women in marriage, it is often imply equal rights of men and women to own property. Claiming that women could inherit land from her husband and have separate property, relatively independently pursue its female part of the economy, this was fully in their jurisdiction.

Interviews with women born in the early twentieth century that found the Ukrainian culture in not too affected by modernization process bring in fact that recognized head of the family was predominantly male. His voice has always been crucial on important issues – when it came to selling cows or marriage of their children.

He also had a legitimate by the culture and community right to use physical force against other family members, including his wife. However, often the wife could not even say abusive words about the man, because it was not according to traditions.

Double standards applied on male and female adultery, men’s betrayal was tend to tolerate, hiding from endure public condemnation, while female betrayal usually ended with physical punishment of unfaithful wife.

The myth of romantic feelings as the basis for marriage

It is not a secret that even now rather romanticized idea of marriage dominates in traditional Ukrainian culture. It says, people married through the deep feelings. However, in reality economic and business factors were still determining.

Gender equality preserved except in the sense powerlessness of bride and groom in choosing a partner, instead of them fathers often had done it. With conviction, persuasion, coercion and threats parents sought son or daughter to get married with those whom they had chosen as the best party. Often the bride and groom never saw each other until the day of the wedding.

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Girl usually was in a passive-holding position and actually was not able to influence her own destiny. As for groom, if the parents were not agreed on marriage in advance, he still retained some freedom of choice. Courtship belonged to the groom’s initiative. Meanwhile girl was told that refuse is not good practice, because otherwise she could be alone till gets old. She had to answer “Yes” almost for the first sentence.

In favor of matriarchy in traditional Ukrainian culture often cite the argument that the girls themselves could woo men. This custom really existed in some regions of Ukraine and disappeared inside the XVIII century. However, in reality such a scenario was possible only in exceptional circumstances. The first custom predicted that she would initiate the marriage when the offender sentenced to death and if she publicly expressed consent immediately to marry him, could save him from death. Another case when the young man had forced the girl and she got pregnant, it could come to him in the house and insist on the right to legalize relations.

The myth of the cult of premarital virginity

Ukrainian culture always is trying to be presented as very chaste, moral, or where first kiss happened already in the crown. This myth refutes by practice or evening sessions called “dosvitky” and “vechornytsi” – evening-night gatherings of boys and girls throughout the autumn and winter. The full format of this phenomenon began in the Central, Northern, Southern and Eastern Ukraine, while in the West had its regional specificity. The girls gathered in the house of a lonely woman and spun together, the guys came to visit them. An integral part of the evening sessions were co-sleeping – boys and girls slept together on the floor on straw. It is where erotic and sexual games occurred. Some researchers believe “vechornytsi” were kind of training institution of marriage where young people have learned, received some erotic, sexy experience with the opposite sex.

During the evenings gender hierarchy prevailed – the boys Groups treated women’s groups to some extent as their property. For example, they could invite boys from another village to visit “their” girls. Guys could compel women to a common sleeping, while the girl was responsible for maintaining virginity. If all defiled, shame felt on her head, not the head of a guy. To achieve physical reciprocity, the guys could use the means of violence – such as beat with cinch or hiding girl’s shoes, so they could not run away – then, some girls had to run barefoot through the snow and frost. The girls could not decide not to go on “vechornytsi” – parents almost forced their adult children there actually putting daughters at some risk of dishonor. Girl could become “pokrytka” – ie lose virginity, get pregnant and have a baby without marriage, sometimes not on her will. It happened, including through sexual ignorance, when mother simply did not explain to young girls, where are the children taken from. Guys often used such ignorance and tempted girls by deception. Fate of “pokrytka” girl mainly was sad. The only way to save social status in society was to get married, but she could not count on a good husband.

The myth of the romantic image of the mother

In practice, due to lack of contraception Ukrainian ancient mother almost lifetime went pregnant. There were from 7 to 12 children in average traditional Ukrainian family. However, it was forced to have many children; often there were no physical facilities to keep these children. So, sometimes even married women resorted to abortion. And the attitude of the mother to the newborn child in a family where there were many children could not be very positive. Immediately before and after childbirth and lactation period peasant woman had to perform all the hard work the same as in other circumstances. With each child the economic burden on the woman grew and resources of time and strength were limited. In a large family baby was seen as a burden that limits the mother and does not allow her fully carry out her business functions.

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The myth of educated Ukrainian women

It is believed that women in ancient Ukraine were educated. Thus it is not even goes about the political elite and the captains, princes, but namely about the common people. However, statistics show that in the late nineteenth century among Ukrainians living on Ukrainian territory of the Russian Empire, were only 4% of literate women opposed to 11% -12% of literate men.

The reason for this is parents did not assume it is necessary for their girls to study. School age girl was most needed in the economy, to work in the field. In an interview with ethnographer older women are often told how sad that parents did not sent them to school, because they had abilities and desire to learn and study. Paradoxically, mothers were against girls’ education, because girls were needed in the house as au pairs for the hostess.

The trust between generations almost was absent and young girls got the knowledge about sexual life more often from older friends or sisters than mother. Even midwife called “midwife granny” assisted in childbirth, but not the mother.

Lecture of Oksana Kis is based on years of historical and ethnographic studies that are fully set out in the book “Woman in traditional Ukrainian culture (second half of XIX – early XX century.).
Text: Anna Vlasyuk