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 entitled 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. The flabbergasted Lazutina, however, 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 until then, 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 with satisfaction.
"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, citing her interviews. "Now, I openly say I am a feminist and I have the opportunity to be involved in political action, though I am Jewish." She proudly produced a poster promoting a 24-hour hotline for domestic violence, headlined: "You Are Not Alone."
"For 10 years, we worked without the support of the government," said Yelena Vladimirovna Mashkova, 41, from the city of Naberezhnyye Chelny in Tatarstan, a mainly Muslim region. "Now the government of my district wants to support and help open a gender development center and they have asked us for a strategic plan that would encompass five areas: violence against women, reproductive health, women in the labor force, women in the media and political decision-making."
"What started out as a personal concern is now a career," said Mashkova, who has a doctorate in sociology but worked at an international investment company and a management institute before becoming involved in advancing women's rights. In 1989, she prepared a study on how female employees of the only truck factory in her town -- of the workers, 53 percent were women -- would be the first to lose their jobs as economic transformation beckoned. In 1990, women made 78 percent of what men earned, a figure that has dropped in the post-Soviet years to between 40 percent and 60 percent, she said.
Extremist Tatar religious groups threatened Mashkova's group, Femina, if it dared open a center for women in Naberezhnyye Chelny. "They called us Russian prostitutes teaching women about how to get a divorce," she said, "but our center has now been operating for two years."
Though the place of women in politics remains a sensitive issue with the authorities -- only 6 percent of politicians in Tatarstan are women -- many are hankering to become more active. "I am thinking of going into politics," Mashkova said. "Sometimes I think it may be impossible, but I strongly feel we are making a difference."
These days about 85 women's organizations from 53 regions participate in a consortium that attends all parliamentary hearings on the topic in Moscow.
Mashkova singled out Russia's deputy minister for labor and social protection, Galina Karelova, as a champion for women in government. Her department hosts a regular roundtable with NGO representatives and is working with a newly formed Interior Ministry task force on women's issues.
"The most important thing that happened in my life is that I came into the women's movement," Mashkova declared.