Rosie the Riveter Behind the Iron Curtain

Women gained equal rights to men in Hungary in 1945, which is when they received the right to vote and all higher education institutions opened their doors to them.

In accordance with the expectations of Soviet propaganda, women could now also work in traditionally male areas of employment. In fact, a weaver could even become a government minister, as was the case of Mrs. József Nagy. She even later shared a dance with the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin during his visit to Hungary.

Women could now work jobs that traditionally belonged to men, such as driving tractors. According to state propaganda, the tractor girls were equal workers to men, who fought for socialist agriculture, and helped her and her family’s financial prosperity or saved up for her marriage. In the popular depictions, the tractor girls were presented with a masculine appearance such as wide shoulders, large hands, and looking resolute with strong facial features. They sat on their tractors wearing overalls and feminine polka-dotted handkerchiefs. This experiment ended in embarrassment, however, since by the 1960s the tractor girls existed only in memory.

Films were even shot about some of these women, while others appeared in books that detailed their lives. Such fanfare was limited to those loyal to the system, and those “chosen women” also had to be eloquent and make a positive impression with their physical appearance. The ability to produce things quickly was important for women working in the construction industry. When Anna Czukor and her colleagues in the brick and mortar industry received a Kossuth Prize in 1950, journalists asked these award-winning women how they would spend their prize money.

Irén Wekerle, who worked for the Standard Factory as a cable installer bought herself a winter coat, black, green and blue dresses, shoes and bedding. By early 1950, she also had her eyes set on two items of furniture. Mrs. Sándor Gábor, a weaver with the Goldberger Factory in Kelenföld, who received the Kossuth Prize at the age of 24, spent her award money on kitchen furniture. The older workers, who had already furnished their living spaces, instead bought luxury items, such as jewelry or fur coats.

The other side to this glorification of the working woman was that abortion was banned during the 1950s, with attempts to end unwanted pregnancies frequently ending in tragedy. Another cost to full employment was that women had to stand their ground in both the workplace and at home, the so-called second shift, where they had to run the household all the while being a pretty and attractive wife.

In many cases the woman was the sole provider for a family if the dictatorship threw the husband into prison, and they had to raise the children alone during the most difficult of times. Women of noble background who were exiled from Budapest lived in inhumane conditions during the 1950s on farms or in small villages. One of these women, Borbála Pallavicini-Andrássy, wrote in her memoirs about this period.

The 1950s were a tumultuous period from a woman’s perspective. As we can see, for some the decade provided opportunity, but for others it meant exile, a loss in social standing and misery.

Eszter Zsófia Tóth