Sex, Politics, and Putin: Clark University professor’s new book explores political legitimacy in Russia

November 19, 2014
Clark University Professor Valerie Sperling's new book, "Sex, Politics, and Putin: Political Legitimacy in Russia."

Clark University Professor Valerie Sperling's new book, "Sex, Politics,
and Putin: Political Legitimacy in Russia."

In her new book, "Sex, Politics, and Putin: Political Legitimacy in Russia," Clark University Political Science Professor Valerie Sperling explores the ways in which "politicians and political activists in Russia use masculinity, femininity, and homophobia to bolster their legitimacy and to undermine their opponents."

While researching the Russian president as both a man and a political leader, Sperling analyzes how gender stereotypes and sexualization have been used as political tools in Putin’s Russia. Sperling says her interest in the topic of gender stereotypes in Russian political activism began in October 2010, after a group of Putin supporters published a calendar for Putin's birthday featuring female students and alumni of Moscow State University's journalism department wearing lingerie and offering themselves to Putin as potential lovers.

"Now, we all know that Putin's image, from almost the very start of his time in power, was extremely macho," Sperling says. "But what the calendar for Putin made me think about is that a man’s perceived masculinity is not just about what he does, but also it’s reinforced by the sexualized attention of traditionally feminine, attractive, young women who support him. From there, I started noticing a lot of gender stereotypes being used in Russian political activism."

Valerie Sperling, Clark University Professor of Political Science

Valerie Sperling,
Clark University
Professor of
Political Science

"Sex, Politics, and Putin: Political Legitimacy in Russia" (Oxford University Press) is part of the Oxford Studies in Culture and Politics series. According to the publisher, the book offers an "in-depth look at the political factors contributing to Russia's increasingly hostile environment for women and those outside of prevailing gender norms. Through three case studies, Sperling charts the ways that both pro- and anti-Kremlin political parties and activists partake in ideologies of machismo and misogyny."

Update: The best books about Russia in 2014 (Dec. 15) Prof. Sperling’s book is featured in Russia Direct’s annual review of the "must-read" books of the year … that help to explain the inner workings of Russia’s foreign policy and economy." Listen: Putin's Macho Power Play (Jan. 7) New Hampshire Public Radio

Sperling, who is fluent in Russian, interviewed pro- and anti-Putin political activists in 2011 about their paths into political activism, and then went back to interview young Russian feminists in 2012, to see what their explanations were for the kind of obvious use of sexism, machismo, and homophobia in Russian politics, and to hear about how they got interested in feminism and activism themselves.

Cynthia Enloe, Clark University research professor and author of "Seriously! Investigating Crashes and Crises as If Women Mattered," recommends "this provocative, innovative feminist analysis of politics in Putin's Russia to all Russia observers, students and scholars of women's and gender studies, and anyone trying to make sense of the Russia/Ukraine crisis. Sperling's insight into the foreign policy implications of misogyny, combined with her interviews with current Russian feminists, makes 'Sex, Politics, and Putin’ a must-read."

Sperling teaches courses in comparative politics, including Russian politics; revolution and political violence; mass murder and genocide under communism; transitions to democracy; globalization and democracy; and introduction to women’s studies. She received Ph.D. and master’s degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, as well as an M.A. at Georgetown University and B.A. at Yale University.

Other books by Sperling include "Altered States: The Globalization of Accountability" and "Organizing Women in Contemporary Russia: Engendering Transition."