Romanian women entering politics today have few role models. Under the old regime, Elena Ceausescu, wife of the former Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, provided the national example of what Romanian women should be like. The execution of the Ceausescus in 1989 destroyed the image of Elena as the female ideal, but no one has ever really taken her place. Strangely, Elena Ceausescu still largely defines what it would mean to be a powerful woman in Romanian politics today.
The political forum in modern Romania is dominated by men. This is partly due to the lack of a strong female leader and partly due to the structure of society. The lack of a capable female figure on the current political scene can be blamed on the dark example of Elena Ceausescu: when Romanians think of influential women in politics, they think of her. Her connection with Communism and her role as 'wife of the dictator' provides sufficient stigma to discourage women from playing a bolder role in politics.
The role of women in Romanian society is changing slowly, but the society itself is still largely patriarchal. Men hold the dominant positions and are charged with 'looking after' the women. Women are often seen as inferior in the workplace, and this widely accepted position of inferiority hinders their advancement in the political arena. That concept of female inferiority is only re-enforced by Elena Ceausescu's life.
Elena Ceausescu, or 'Lenuta', was brought up in the small village of Petresti. Her father was a small-scale farmer working on rented land. He also ran a small store from his home, selling penknives and candles. At school Elena faired badly, failing most subjects except needlework, singing and gymnastics. She left school early to work in the fields. Later, she moved to Bucharest where she met Nicolae among a small circle of Communists and Marxists.
During the Communist period, much of this information was concealed. Official history texts mythologised Elena and Nicolae, transforming them into a national success story. Much of Elena's appeal as a female idol was fiction, and perhaps the post-89 revelation of the extensive fantasy surrounding her also damaged the potential for women in Romanian politics.
Elena Ceausescu's failures in her school days and her position as wife of the leader resulted in an inferiority complex. The myth of Elena Ceausescu involved the falsification of achievements to establish a facade of an intelligent, strong and powerful leading lady.
Once she had arrived in Bucharest she was employed as a hired hand in a somewhat shady medicine factory. Later she was to become chairman of ICECHIM, the main chemistry research laboratory in Romania. There she masqueraded as a world-renowned chemist and scientist. Using her influence rather than her intellect, she was awarded a doctorate in chemistry (this from the woman who had left school early to harvest the fields). She knew little about the sciences but yearned for recognition and acceptance.
Elena's desire for international recognition far outweighed that of her husband. Much of their business on official visits abroad concerned the attribution of honorary degrees in recognition of her scientific work. In reality, this work amounted to little.
Mircea Codreanu, a diplomat at the Romanian Embassy in Washington has summed up this side of her character rather succinctly: 'Being an ignorant, uneducated, primitive kind of woman, she really thought that if she had some titles after her name, it would change her image'. (Behr, E, Kiss the Hand you Cannot Bite, Penguin, 1991, p.160)
Determination was perhaps the one positive aspect of Elena's character. This might even be considered a good example for Romanian women today had Elena's determination been to do more than simply appear more significant and important than she actually was (though admittedly this is a trait of most politicians). In any case, her determination - combined with a strong dose of Ceausescu-era nepotism - did, indeed, take her far.
In 1968, Elena Ceausescu became a member of the Romanian Communist Party's Bucharest Municipal Committee. By 1972, she had become a member of the Central Committee, and in 1973, she reached the Executive Committee. In 1979, she became an ex officio member of the cabinet through her chairmanship of the National Council of Science and Technology. By 1980, she was deputy premier, second in command to Nicolae himself.
Perhaps not surprisingly with Elena Ceausescu as the only possible role model, few women enter the Romanian political arena today. With most Romanians wishing to move away from Communism and nepotism towards a more democratic Romania, her figure is only backward-looking. Elena Ceausescu merely conjures up an image of extravagance in the face of a backward and suffering society: hardly the perfect example for an aspiring female politician today.
To call Elena Ceausescu a politician, however, would be misleading. Just because she held a position of considerable power does not imply any political skill on her part. She served as a national example of what women could achieve and how they should achieve it. It was not her success within the Romanian Communist party that raised her to such a high level of influence; it was the success of her husband.
The legacy of Elena Ceausescu has been a society unprepared and unwilling to see women enter positions of power. The traditionally patriarchal structure of society itself only re-enforces this. The women who have held positions of influence are few and obscure in the face of Elena Ceasuescu's infamy.
Sadly for Romanian women wishing to enter politics today, no other, more positive role model has come along in the past ten years.
Catherine Lovatt, 8 July 1999
This article originally appeared in Central Europe Review,
http://www.ce-review.org and is republished here with permission.