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In May of 1944, Bulgaria, which occupied large swathes of Northern Greece and Eastern Yugoslavia, was at war with France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Across the country, meanwhile, ragtag bands of guerrillas were resisting the Nazi-allied Bulgarian monarchy. In response to the growing threat of internal insurrection, King Boris III’s government deployed the gendarmerie to stamp out the partisan threat.
The Ministry of Interior paid large bounties for each partisan head. Anyone caught aiding the guerillas could be arrested, tortured, and shot. The gendarmerie had a license to torch the homes of suspected partisans’ families, and they mounted the severed heads of their victims on pikes in village squares.
On May 31, 1944, the gendarmes arrived in Razlog throwing grenades into the home of 14-year-old Elena Lagadinova. She barely escaped, running barefoot into the foothills of the Pirin Mountains, praying that the soldiers would not capture her before she could find her three elder brothers. As her home was reduced to cinders, Lagadinova took up arms and became Bulgaria’s youngest female partisan.
She spent the summer of 1944 fighting in the mountains, earning the nickname “the Amazon” for her courage and tenacity. Although her second-oldest brother, Assen Lagadinov, was ambushed and decapitated by the gendarmerie, Elena survived the war unscathed and went on to become something of an anti-fascist hero and role model. From Sofia to Moscow, children’s magazines told her story and encouraged boys and girls to “be brave like the Amazon.”
Elena Lagadinova went on to become the most important feminist you’ve never heard of, working with warrior-like dedication to the cause of women’s rights, improving the lives of families within the Eastern Bloc and throughout the world—even, indirectly, in the United States. Her achievements have been obscured by Cold War politics and a post-Cold War mentality according to which anything that happened under communism was ipso facto evil.
After WWII, Lagadinova moved to the Soviet Union to pursue a Ph.D. in agro-biology. She spent a year doing research in Sweden and England before returning to Sofia to work as a scientist, manipulating wheat seeds to create more robust hybrids. For her work in plant genetics, and her successful breeding of Triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye), Lagadinova was awarded the Order of Cyril and Methodius in 1959.
As her stature as a researcher grew, Lagadinova became increasingly critical of the politics of science in the communist world. In May of 1967, she penned a passionate letter to Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, a letter that might have landed her in a labor camp when it was intercepted by the Bulgarian government.
Although she was part of the communist establishment, Lagadinova made many enemies by holding communist leaders accountable within the framework of their own laws and the international conventions they signed.“One day, they sent a car for me while I was at the academy. I was in my lab coat, in the middle of an experiment. I told them to wait but they told me to come immediately. I thought I was being arrested,” Lagadinova told me in 2011. “Instead, I learned that they were making me a secretary of the Fatherland Front and president of the Women’s Committee.”
In the late 1960s, communist countries faced a demographic crisis. Women’s education and their full incorporation into the formal labor force resulted in a slump in the country’s birthrate. As women concentrated on work, they increasingly controlled their fertility through abortion, which was legal and freely available. Bulgaria’s northern neighbor, Romania, had already instituted a severe ban on abortion, and the Bulgarian Politburo was considering a similar step to increase the domestic birth rate.
And so, between 1968 and 1973, Lagadinova led the effort to protect Bulgarian women’s reproductive freedoms while drastically expanding state support for women and families. In 1969, Lagadinova and the editorial collective of the state women’s magazine, Zhenata Dnes, conducted a sociological survey of over 16,000 respondents. They found that most Bulgarian women wanted more children, but had a difficult time managing work and motherhood. Between their labor obligations and domestic responsibilities, socialist women suffered under a crushing double burden.
Public debates about women’s rights and work/family balance still rage in the United States today, but few Americans realize the intensity of these discussions in the former communist countries. Lagadinova was a mother of three children, and she tirelessly badgered the male-dominated Politburo to improve working conditions for women. Evidence from the now-accessible archives of the Bulgarian Women’s Committee demonstrates that Lagadinova fiercely advocated for the expansion of state-funded kindergartens and crèches as well as new social entitlements for working mothers. The proposal would be costly—drawing much-needed funds from the state budget. Bulgaria’s political leaders considered a ban on abortion a much cheaper option, even if it contradicted their own principles about sexual equality.
Ultimately, the Politburo agreed to pay certain allowances to families with children, and give working women a generous maternity leave, up to three years for each child, with a guarantee that a woman’s job would be held for her in her absence. All maternity leave was counted as labor service toward retirement, and applied equally to urban and rural women, including women in agriculture. The state also promised to build new childcare facilities so that every working woman had access to a kindergarten.
Although the Committee continued to agitate for total reproductive freedom, a compromise was reached in a special 1973 Politburo decision regarding women’s rights. By the time of the United Nations First World Conference of Women in 1975, Bulgaria had one of the most progressive social systems in place for working women, not only compared to the capitalist and developing worlds, but also compared to other socialist countries. The United Nations named Bulgaria a “model country,” and the benefits extended to Bulgarian families were seen as a template for the rest of the world to emulate.
During the UN Decade for Women (1976–85), Lagadinova crisscrossed the globe forging relationships with over a hundred women’s organizations. The Women’s Committee’s success on the international stage translated into greater power at home, and Lagadinova used the Committee’s growing international clout to advocate for changes in the Bulgarian Family and Labor Codes.
Although she was part of the communist establishment—a Member of Parliament and a member of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party—Lagadinova made many enemies by holding communist leaders accountable within the framework of their own laws and the international conventions they signed. The Women’s Committee antagonized Bulgarian enterprises that refused to grant pregnant women their legal rights, and relentlessly badgered state planners for not producing consumer goods that families needed. The archives overflow with Lagadinova’s letters to the planning authorities complaining about the poor quality of women’s clothing or the lack of age-appropriate children’s toys.
Internationally, Lagadinova further expanded her networks with women in developing countries, providing both material and logistical support for new women’s committees and movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. She even reached out across the Iron Curtain, joining forces with Western women advocating for peace and disarmament in the 1980s. In 1988, Lagadinova invited the leaders of women’s organizations in NATO countries to sit down in Sofia with the Ministers of Defense of the Warsaw Pact countries, hoping to encourage dialogue and understanding.
At the Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi in 1985, Lagadinova served as the General Rapporteur, becoming the face of the international women’s movement to the global press. Recognized worldwide for her leadership, she became a member of the board of trustees of the United Nations Institute for Training Women (INSTRAW) between 1985 and 1988. Even today, activists from Lusaka to Los Angeles speak highly of Lagadinova’s deft navigation of Cold War tensions to promote women’s rights around the globe.
Although she was part of the communist establishment, Lagadinova made many enemies by holding communist leaders accountable within the framework of their own laws and the international conventions they signed.Members of the official U.S. delegations to these UN conferences report being embarrassed that women in the East European countries enjoyed legal rights for which their counterparts in the United States were still struggling. Such realizations may have spurred women’s activism in the West, and accelerated the pace of change. In some respects, though, the United States is still behind Bulgaria of the 1980s. Today, for instance, all countries around the world legally guarantee some form of paid maternity leave, with the four notable exceptions: Papua New Guinea, Suriname, Liberia, and the United States.
Before the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Claremont Graduate School in California awarded Lagadinova their President’s Medal of Outstanding Achievement. “To the benefit of all nations, you have taken…the world stage,” read the Claremont president’s speech. “Long before a new world order emerged, you envisioned one. You acted as if it already existed, and through your actions you contributed to its emergence. You reached beyond the narrow confines of party and nationality to create an international network of scholars and policymakers devoted to the improvement of women’s lives. Through your work with the United Nations, you have influenced women’s lives throughout the world, and through them the destinies of their families.”
They say that history is written by the victors, and nowhere is this truer than in contemporary Eastern Europe. Because they were communists, because they fought on the Left side of history, the accomplishments of women like Lagadinova are discredited or ignored by those who can only see her as the political tool of a totalitarian regime. But recognizing Lagadinova’s heroism against the Nazi-allied Bulgarian government during World War II, or her discoveries as a scientist, or her decades of domestic and international advocacy for women’s rights does not mean apologizing for twentieth-century communism. It does not mean denying the horrific crimes committed in the name of communist ideals.
Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, we should be able to recognize and appreciate that communist ideals also inspired many individual men and women to fight for a better world. And indeed they made progress on causes like gender equality and work/family balance. An inability to appreciate the work of East Europeans such as Elena Lagadinova means that American women must reinvent the proverbial wheel when it comes to imagining family-friendly public policies. If we look at the work of people like Lagadinova and study their accomplishments, we will not only more accurately understand our own history, but we might also be in a better position to live up to our own egalitarian ideals.