Fortunately, the answer came to me just a couple of days later. I went to the Harold Pinter Theatre to see Conor McPherson’s new adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. The play, written in 1898 and widely performed ever since, goes some way to explain the female psyche we desperately need to change.
In the play Sonya and her uncle Vanya manage the country estate which supports the urban lifestyle of Sonya's father and his second wife, Yelena, a young and glamorous woman who dazzles everyone during their brief stay in the countryside. Sonya is bright, hard-working and kind. She is hopelessly in love with the local doctor, Astrov, who is in turn obsessed with Yelena. Sonya is in despair. She thinks she is ugly, certainly in comparison to beautiful Yelena. She sees herself as a pathetic grey mouse doomed to spinsterhood. A modern Instagram influencer would have told Sonya to own her assets: her ability to run the estate and her generous heart. But back in the 19th century Sonya was up against the force no positive mental attitude could have beaten. I'm talking about the patriarchy.
The patriarchy made sure that women were judged first and foremost by their looks. Astrov the doctor knew very well that Yelena was an idle, empty person. She did no work, she had no hobbies. She constantly complained of boredom yet she thought teaching peasants' children or volunteering at a local hospital would be pointless and beneath her. Her indolence disgusted the doctor but he was in love with her because of her looks. Sonya would feed him, cared for him and listen to his woes but he simply didn't see her as a woman.
In a patriarchal society there is only one set of values - the one established by men. In Chekhov's play, Sonya had no chance. A woman's worth was set by her beauty and that paradigm has been internalised by Sonya and generations of women after her. A Russian woman does not need to go to the theatre to admire the timelessness of Uncle Vanya. By and large the society and its attitudes towards women haven't changed that much.
A modern woman might not realise it, but she has been born with misogyny deep inside her DNA. How many times have you seen a woman wearing make-up at a 7am gym class? Last September when I told my father that Bianca Andreescu beat Serena Williams in the US Open Final, his response was: "The Canadian? Not a beauty, that one". It is common knowledge that female politicians receive a disproportionate coverage of their outfits rather than deeds. The virtue of femininity is not just about the looks. Harvard researchers found in 2010 that voters in the US regarded “power-seeking” women with contempt and anger, but saw power-seeking men as stronger and more competent. No wonder female candidates in the current primaries are having a hard time to convince voters.
The internalised misogyny is what's driving some women to play damsel in distress or appear less intelligent than they actually are because our society is still stuck in the so called traditional ways of valuing women for their femininity. A woman may well choose to play a role of a DIY ignoramus and to show particular appreciation for flowers just to fit the stereotype. In Britain, a third of women earn more than their male partners, and most of them lie about their salaries no doubt to preserve fragile male egos.
Dear readers, it is our responsibility to change the norms we inherited from Chekhov's Doctor Astrov and his 19th century pals. When considering female politicians, let's assess their competence not their likability. When complimenting young girls, let's use "strong", "kind" and "smart" at least as often as "pretty". Let's celebrate women's ability to choose whether to have children, whether to become a stay-at-home mum or return to work after maternity leave and whether to look feminine or androgynous.
As a Russian, I admire the longevity of Chekhov's plays but as a woman I despair. I honestly wish that one day we'd watch Sonya's anguish and Doctor Astrov's blindness and think "I can't relate to that at all."