The situation of women before the revolution
Before the 1917 revolution in tsarist Russia the majority of the population was made up of peasants living in rural backwardness, as they had done for centuries. In such conditions the women were treated as the property of men. Russia was still extremely patriarchal. According to Tsarist law, women were not much more than men’s slaves, and men had, by law, the right to beat their wives. Oppression of women was widespread in the culturally backward countryside where the Church and tradition had a firm hold. According to an 1897 report, only 13.1% of Russian women were literate.
In his analysis of the development of capitalism in Russia written between 1896 and 1899, Lenin studied in detail the situation of the Russian working class and the double burden of women. Children and especially girls were expected to help out at home and in the field or the factory. Many girls were taken out of school after a year of schooling, that is, if they even made it to school in the first place. Women workers started working in the factory at an average age of 12-14 years, many of them even earlier. The working day was up to 18 hours long for meagre wages.
But Lenin also described how industrial development was a progressive step because it pulled women out of the home and the patriarchal relationships and instead made them an independent part of society:
”Large-scale machine industry, which concentrates masses of workers who often come from various parts of the country, absolutely refuses to tolerate survivals of patriarchalism and personal dependence, and is marked by a truly ’contemptuous attitude to the past’.
“It is this break with obsolete tradition that is one of the substantial conditions which have created the possibility and evoked the necessity of regulating production and of public control over it. In particular, speaking of the transformation brought about by the factory in the conditions of life of the population, it must be stated that the drawing of women and juveniles into production is, at bottom, progressive. It is indisputable that the capitalist factory places these categories of the working population in particularly hard conditions, and that for them it is particularly necessary to regulate and shorten the working day, to guarantee hygienic conditions of labour, etc.; but endeavours completely to ban the work of women and juveniles in industry, or to maintain the patriarchal manner of life that ruled out such work, would be reactionary and utopian.
“By destroying the patriarchal isolation of these categories of the population who formerly never emerged from the narrow circle of domestic, family relationships, by drawing them into direct participation in social production, large-scale machine industry stimulates their development and increases their independence, in other words, creates conditions of life that are incomparably superior to the patriarchal immobility of pre-capitalist relations.” (The Development of Capitalism in Russia – V.I. Lenin)
The outbreak of world war in 1914 accelerated the process of integration of women into the workforce. In the textile industry women became the majority of workers in many factories. Also in the metal industry the presence of women workers increased significantly. This was to have a huge impact on how the revolution unfolded.
The first organization of women workers
Women had participated in revolutionary work and also played an important role in the revolutionary events during the nine months between February and October. It would be wrong, however, to simply see women as having come on the scene in February 1917. It is true that prior to the revolution the mass of women had been kept in a passive condition. Nonetheless, for years the Bolshevik party had consciously worked to win the most advanced women and organise them within the ranks of the party. That the Bolsheviks could take power in October 1917 was, therefore, not a coincidence but the result of a conscious effort to raise class consciousness and to organise and unite the working class not just across the national divisions, but also across the gender divide.
This approach of the Bolsheviks to the women’s question contrasted starkly with the attitude of the bourgeois liberals to women who had a condescending and moralistic view of the question. In words they preached equality, while in practice they supported policies that kept the majority of working women in poverty and thereby economically dependent.
If we go back to the early days of the Russian working class movement we see isolated study circles that mainly focused on the education of workers and the study of the ideas of Marxism. The social democratic movement, which in its beginning was based on Marxist ideas and had as a goal a socialist revolution, emerged in 1889 when Mikhail Ivanovich Brusnyev set up the first study circles in both St. Petersburg and Moscow. Initially, the circles were composed mostly of skilled male workers, but gradually women also began attending.
From around 1890-91 women started participating in Brusnyev’s organization. The women’s circles that were set up were particularly directed towards female industrial workers, especially in the textile industry, but also reached out to non-factory workers such as seamstresses and maids. By the end of 1890 there were at least 20 such circles. (Revolutionary Women in Russia 1870-1917 – Anna Hillyar and Jane McDermid, p. 64)
Sofia Pomeranets-Perazich, one of the most active women recalls the miserable conditions in Kiev in the mid-1890s:
“I remember one circle in Podol. Somebody introduced me to a woman worker from a seamstresses’ workshop. Through her I was able to start a circle consisting of eight people. These were young Jewish women seamstresses forced to work under terrible conditions. They slept on the floor and ate in the room where they also had to work; the only time we had for our studies was when the workshop owners, a childless couple, went to see their friends.” (Revolutionary Women in Russia 1870-1917, Anna Hillyar and Jane McDermid, p. 77).
Sunday Schools in the working class neighborhoods played an important channel for the spreading of socialist propaganda among the workers. They had been initiated by the government to teach the growing working class in the cities to read and write. Liberal and Marxist intellectuals used the schools to teach and to attract new members to their underground circles. The schools were also used to distribute illegal literature. An increasing number of Sunday school teachers were female students from colleges for women.
In 1895 several of the different social democratic circles merged and formed the Union of Struggle, the forerunner of the Social Democratic Party. There were 4 women among the 17 founding members: Radchenko, Krupskaja, Nevzorova and Lakubova. The last three of these were all assigned responsibility for different districts of Saint Petersburg. The revolutionary work was directed more and more towards mass work among the working class, which was becoming increasingly involved in strikes from the mid-1890s onwards. This also applied to women workers, especially in the textile industry.
In Moscow the trade unions had initially been against accepting female members as they considered them to be more backward and conservative – an idea that was prevalent in all countries in the early stages of the labour movement. But gradually the most advanced workers realised the need to overcome the division within the working class along gender lines.
The Moscow Workers Union, which mainly consisted of male workers, attempted to campaign for unity in the working class with leaflets distributed among the workers in the factories. One of them said the following:
”We must never separate male from female workers. In many factories in Russia women workers already constitute the majority of the workforce, and they are even more cruelly exploited by the factory owners. Their interests are no different from the interests of male workers. Male and female workers must grasp each other by the hand and together struggle for their liberation.” (Revolutionary Women in Russia 1870-1917, p. 75).
Women in the Bolshevik party
Lenin gave great importance to the women’s question. As his wife Krupskaya recounts: ”When he was in exile in 1899, Lenin corresponded with the Party organisation (the First Party Congress was held in 1898) and mentioned the subjects he wanted to write about in the illegal press. These included a pamphlet called ’Women and the Workers’ Cause.” (Preface to The Emancipation of Women – Nadezhda K. Krupskaya).
Krupskaya also dealt with the women’s question. She was born in 1869, joined the Brusnyev group and through that in 1894 met Lenin, whom she later married. In 1896 she was arrested for membership of the Union of Struggle. In 1898 she joined the Social Democratic Party and was one of the leading female Bolsheviks.
In exile Lenin spent much time on the drafting of the party program for the 1903 Congress. At his suggestion the demand of “complete equality of rights for men and women” became part of the program. This demand, however, was not unique to the Bolsheviks – it was in the programme of all the Russian opposition parties, just as it was an integral part of the programme of all the social democratic parties of the Second International.
The difference with the Bolsheviks was that they were thoroughly consistent on this question. Krupskaya wrote: ”In 1907, in his report on the International Congress in Stuttgart Lenin noted with satisfaction that the Congress condemned the opportunist practices of the Austrian Social-Democrats who, while conducting a campaign for electoral rights for men, put off the struggle for electoral rights for women to ‘a later date’.” (Preface to The Emancipation of Women – Nadezhda K. Krupskaya). What further distinguished the Bolsheviks from all other political currents, was that they actually immediately implemented the demand on coming to power in 1917.
The years after the Congress in 1903 were marked by a strike wave that culminated in the revolution of 1905. Women workers also participated in this. It is a sure sign of a revolution when the most oppressed and politically backward sections of the working class move onto the political scene. The Revolution of 1905 was described by Lenin as the “dress rehearsal” for the October Revolution in 1917. Here, for the very first time, the workers began setting up workers councils, in Russian “soviets”.
The first Soviet was established in Ivanovo-Voznesensk. The Soviet was active from 12 May 1905 to 27 June 1905. It was set up as a series of local strikes in the spring of 1905 culminated in a general strike in the city. A total of 151 delegates were elected to the Soviet as representatives of the striking factory workers. At least 25 of them (16.5%) were women and Kashintsev, a cotton weaving factory, elected more women than men to the Soviet: 7 out of 8. The proportion of women in the Soviet was in fact remarkable. As Hillyar and McDermid write in Revolutionary Women in Russia, “in such a patriarchal country where there was no history of democratically elected governments, this number of female delegates is seen as a remarkable achievement.” (Revolutionary Women in Russia 1870-1917, p. 111)
Information is available for only about half of the delegates elected to the soviet in 1905. About 70, i.e. 46.3 percent, were known to be Bolsheviks. In the first half of 1905, the Bolsheviks in Ivanovo had 400 members, of which only 4 percent were women. However, 11 of the Bolshevik delegates in the Soviet were women. This means that 62.5 percent of female Bolsheviks in the city were chosen for the Soviet, while the corresponding figure was 15.6 percent for the male Bolsheviks. This reveals something about the level of women’s activity and the authority they must have had among their male colleagues.
The female Bolshevik delegates came mainly from the textile industry. They were on average 24 years old, but already had many years of work behind them. Six of them had started factory work at the age of 14-16 years, two of them at the age of 12. Many of them had, however, started to work even earlier as nannies. Four of them could not write, and other delegates had to sign the Soviet documents on their behalf.
In the town of Kostroma about a third of the delegates were female textile workers. The number was even higher in Rostov, although women generally accounted for a lower share in the Soviets of the bigger cities.
Trotsky, who in 1905 was elected chairman of the leading St. Petersburg Soviet, later described the Bolshevik Boldyreva, one of the only women workers elected to the St. Petersburg Soviet as “a voice of hope, despair and passion… like an irresistible reproach and appeal.” Boldyreva had strongly criticized the predominantly male workers of the giant Putilov factory, who in spite of their revolutionary traditions, had not supported the call for a general strike demanding an 8-hour working day: “You have inured your wives to a comfortable life and therefore you are scared to lose your wage. But we are not afraid of that. We are ready to die to secure an 8-hour working day. We will fight until the very end. Victory or death! Long live the 8-hour working day!” (Revolutionary Women in Russia 1870-1917, p. 124)
The revolution of 1905 ended in defeat, followed by counter-revolution. The Bolsheviks were forced back to mostly underground work. The female Bolsheviks were active on an equal footing with the men. One of the tasks that were often assigned to the female revolutionaries, extremely dangerous one at that, was to organise “safe houses”. At least 8 out of the 11 female members of the Ivanovo Soviet in 1905 had organised “safe houses”.
Many women took on the role of secretary. This is sometimes dismissed as being a minor role, and “proof” that the female Bolsheviks were not allowed to play an important role. But this completely misses the point. Both Lenin’s sister Maria and his wife Nadezhda Krupskaya had the position of secretary, a role which Lenin considered to be extremely important. For example, Krupskaya was party secretary in the years when Lenin was in exile and had the indispensable task of maintaining contact between the party’s exiled leadership and those active in Russia. One only has to remember Lenin’s attempt to get Stalin removed as party secretary, before he died, to understand that it was not an unimportant position.
Another leading female Bolshevik in those reactionary years was Samoilova, codenamed Natasha. Samoilova’s political activity is described in Katasheva’s Natasha – A Bolshevik Woman Organizer.
Samoilova was born in 1876 and started her revolutionary activities as a student. After some months under arrest she left for Paris in 1902. In Paris she received lessons from Lenin, among others, and became a convinced Marxist and joined the Bolsheviks in 1903. She went back to Russia, where she participated in underground work, and had to move from city to city due to her revolutionary activities. When Molotov was arrested in December 1912, Samoilova took over his position as editor of Pravda, the Bolshevik party newspaper. Pravda was at that time almost the only place where workers could have their say. Hundreds of workers sent letters or went directly to Pravda’s office. Often there were up to 300-400 visitors passing through Samoilova’s office during a single day.
“The humble editorial office was like a beehive. The workers came in streams: representatives from factories on strike, representatives of trade unions, benefit societies and workers’ clubs also came to relate the conditions of their life and work. Meetings of workers in factories collected money in small sums for ’our beloved Pravda’. […] Often a washerwoman or cook, a blacksmith or an unskilled worker came simply to ’tell the paper’ of their troubles. Then the workers of the paper and the secretary herself sat down beside them and wrote what they said, trying to get the actual words of the speaker.” (Natasha – A Bolshevik Woman Organiser, L. Katasheva, 1934).
The Bolsheviks and the petty-bourgeois feminists
The Bolsheviks were generally much more successful at organizing women than the Mensheviks. The Bolsheviks had five female delegates for every female Menshevik delegate at the Social Democratic Party’s (united) Fifth Congress in 1907. However, it is also true to say that the organization of work among women was difficult, especially in the reactionary conditions that followed the defeat after 1905. For example, no women attended the party congress in 1912.
The new revolutionary wave just before the First World War, once again led to an increased participation of women in political activity. For example, 10 out of the 171 delegates to the Bolshevik Sixth Party Congress in August 1917 were women, about 6 percent. Here three women – Kollontai, Stasova and Iakovleva – were also elected to the Party Central Committee, the leadership that was to eventually lead the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution. The proportion of women on the Central Committee was over 9 percent, while the proportion of women among members was under 8 percent.
In the period from 1914 when there was a surge in the class struggle, many new female members joined the party in the general increase in membership. However, the proportion of women remained relatively low. It was nonetheless a huge achievement to organize the women under these difficult conditions.
In spite of this, the Bolsheviks were attacked by petty-bourgeois feminists for supposedly failing to “care” about the women’s question. The petty bourgeois feminist movement in Russia remained outside the labour movement and initially was mainly concerned with women’s right to education, a focus which in the then conditions of Russia meant that they were addressing only a very small section of Russian women. A series of school reforms in the years around the turn of the century did create more opportunities for women to receive an education, and many trained as teachers. This was also reflected in the number of female Bolshevik teachers in the Sunday Schools.
Industrialisation and the consequent growth of the proletariat in the cities gave the feminists a new focus: philanthropic work to create a network of charities that could relieve the conditions of the poor proletarian masses. The petty-bourgeois feminists viewed the effects of industrialisation as something to be “compensated” for with charity and reforms. Despite the misery and hardship created by industrialisation, the Bolsheviks, on the other hand, saw it as a positive step, as it meant that women were being pulled into the class struggle.
Around the year 1900 it seemed that formal bourgeois democracy could have become a concrete possibility and the petty bourgeois feminist movement began political organization to ensure that women were not forgotten if voting rights were granted. The most active group in this was the Association for Women’s Equality, which was formed in 1905. One of its leading activists was Anna Miliukov who was the wife of the leader of the Conservative Cadet Party. The Bolsheviks also fought for democratic demands, which concerned all women, regardless of class, such as voting rights, the right to divorce and so on. But the Bolsheviks rejected the claim that these could stand alone – for them it was undeniable that women’s liberation could be achieved only through socialism. Lenin explained the relationship between the struggle for democratic demands and socialism as follows:
”Under capitalism it is usually the case, and not the exception, that the oppressed classes cannot ’exercise’ their democratic rights. In most cases the right to divorce is not exercised under capitalism, because the oppressed sex is crushed economically; because, no matter how democratic the state may be, the woman remains a “domestic slave” under capitalism, a slave of the bedroom, nursery and kitchen. […]
“Only those who are totally incapable of thinking, or those who are entirely unfamiliar with Marxism, will conclude that, therefore, a republic is of no use, that freedom of divorce is of no use, that democracy is of no use, that self-determination of nations is of no use! Marxists know that democracy does not abolish class oppression, but only makes the class struggle clearer, broader, more open and sharper; and this is what we want. The more complete freedom of divorce is, the clearer will it be to the woman that the source of her ’domestic slavery’ is not the lack of rights, but capitalism. The more democratic the system of government is, the clearer it will be to the workers that the root of the evil is not the lack of rights, but capitalism. The more complete national equality is (and it is not complete without freedom of secession), the clearer will it be to the workers of the oppressed nation that it is not a question of lack of rights, but of capitalism. And so on.” (A caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism, Lenin)
Up until 1905, many different political groups gathered in opposition to the Tsarist regime and fought together for democratic demands. But a revolution puts the class struggle at the top, and all other contradictions are subordinated to class antagonisms. The petty bourgeois feminist movement was promoted mainly by intellectuals from the better-off layers in Russia. The same was true also for the Bolsheviks. The difference was that the feminist movement was based on the bourgeois idea that women had to stand together across class lines, and that women should organize themselves separately. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, explained that class division is a crucial division in society. When the class struggle comes to the fore, women are divided by class. For working women liberation can only be carried through via a break with the power and privileges of the ruling class, which are also shared by ruling class women.
This lack of class perspective within the petty bourgeois feminist movement led them to support the First World War when it broke out, because they believed that women’s increased role in society, as a result of the mobilisation of men, could pave the way for political progress for women. The Bolsheviks opposed the war, which they characterized as an imperialist war that sacrificed the working masses in the interests of the capitalists.
Lenin and the Bolsheviks attached great importance to the women’s struggle and the organization of women, but they did it as part of the working class organizing to fight against all oppression. They therefore believed that women should be organised within the Bolshevik Party and the other working class organisations such as the trade unions, and not in separate women’s organisations. The ruling class does what it can to divide the working class along gender, national and religious lines. For the Bolsheviks it was crucial to ensure the unity of the working class, including, for example, workers from all the different nationalities that existed in tsarist Russia.
This did not mean that the Bolshevik Party was perfect in every way. But as Lenin explained, the party must carry through the socialist revolution “with people as they are now.” The idea that revolution should be postponed to a time when humanity has developed a “socialist” consciousness amounts to completely abandoning the revolution – such a consciousness cannot develop in a capitalist society. The Bolshevik Party could not be a copy of the future communist society they were struggling to achieve. It arose out of – and could not avoid partly reflecting – the society they were fighting against. The constant focus of the Bolsheviks was to build the party so as to best fulfill its purpose: to organize the working class to take power. And in this women played a crucial role.
Women and the Bolsheviks
A number of women played a leading role in the Bolshevik Party. Aleksandra Kollontai, in addition to her efforts to organize women workers in the social democratic movement, had written a number of articles on the issue. In 1914 she joined the Bolshevik Party and was elected to the Central Committee in 1917. Krupskaya and Samoilova, have already been mentioned. Elena Stasova was already a member of the Central Committee before 1917, succeeding Krupskaya as party secretary that year. Inessa Armand began her revolutionary activities in 1901 and from 1910 worked closely with Lenin, whom she was personal friends with. She was the first leader of Zhenotdel, the women’s department of the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the All-Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks), created after the revolution to organize women politically.
These women all played an important role not only in building the Bolshevik party but also in organizing women in the Party, not least from 1914 onwards when the party began to step up efforts to attract women to its ranks.
As we have seen, from 1912 onwards, the Russian workers began to raise their heads again after the reactionary years that had followed on from 1905. Strike activity grew, and it also included women workers. On the verge of World War, in 1914, the Bolsheviks began to publish a journal aimed at working women, Rabotnitsa (Women Workers). The first edition came out on International Working Women’s Day of that year, with a total of seven issues that year. The regime then clamped down and the paper ceased publication until 1917.
The First World War had cut across and put a temporary halt to the revolutionary wave. Although, it is also true that the war gave renewed energy to women’s political organization. The mobilization of millions of men into the army resulted in a huge inflow of women into industry. At the end of the war, women accounted for 40 percent of the workforce in large industry and 60 percent of all textile workers in the Moscow region.
In these conditions, the work of the Bolsheviks bore fruit and they attracted an increasing number of women, especially women workers. Before 1905, over 60 percent of female Bolsheviks had been from the intelligentsia and 28.2 percent were workers. After the February Revolution workers represented 45.6 percent of female members (in these figures maids, nurses and the like were not included in the category of workers). (Revolutionary women in Russia 1870-1917 p. 164).
The political apathy created by the War, however, did not last for long. Military defeats, economic collapse and soaring food prices brought out a large number of workers, including women, in sporadic strike actions against these miserable conditions. All this was to culminate in the February Revolution in 1917.
The outbreak of revolution
The Russian Revolution began on International Women’s Day of February 23, 1917 (according to the Julian calendar, March 8 in the West). Even the most advanced layers of the organised working class, including the Bolsheviks, had not fully grasped how mature the situation was for revolution. Although they could see it coming, they felt more preparatory work had to be done, such as winning over the soldiers first. Their perspective was for a general strike on May Day, and in order to avoid premature clashes with the state apparatus, they tried to keep the workers from taking to the streets and limit the scope of the movement, at that point, to assemblies in the factories.
At the M. Aivaz factory women workers suggested celebrating the day as a day for women’s equality. They pointed out that women had to both work in the factory, and also had to take care of their children at home. They asked the male workers to support their demands. A factory meeting decided to go on strike and sent workers’ delegations to other factories. More and more factories joined the strike and demonstrations.
A male Bolshevik worker from the Nobel factory in Petrograd described how the female textile workers from the cotton spinning mill Bolshaia Sampsonievskaia had taken to the streets on that day and came to his factory to convince him and his co-workers to join them.
”The gates of the 1st Bolshaia Sampsonievskaia manufacture were wide open. Masses of militant women workers flooded the narrow street. Those who noticed us began to wave their hands and shouted, ‘Come on out! Down your tools!’ Snowballs were thrown through windows. We decided to join the demonstration. A short meeting took place at the main office by the gates, and the workers went out onto the street. The women workers greeted the Nobel workers with shouts of ‘Hooray!’ The demonstrators started for Bolshoi Sampsonievskii prospekt.” (Revolutionary women in Russia 1870-1917, p. 152)
Before the revolution, women were seen as the most conservative layer of the working class. Being directly responsible for care of the family, they often hesitated, and were even opposed to taking strike action. But this turns into its exact opposite when living conditions had become intolerable, with the lack of bread, the spiralling inflation, and with many of them with their husbands fighting on the front. Thus, women workers, especially in the textile industries, having reached the limit of what was humanly endurable, decided to take action.
From the early hours on International Working Women’s day in 1917, women workers came out on strike and organised mass rallies in the Russian capital of Petrograd, appealing to the male workers to join them. That day, 90,000 people came out on strike. The immediate cause for the movement was the lack of bread. The people of Petrograd were starving and the burden fell mainly on women, who had to stand for hours in endless queues in the February freezing conditions waiting for bread, very often only to be disappointed.
In all, more than 100,000 participated in demonstrations that day in Petrograd. The demands were not just for “bread” and “lower prices”, but also demands such as “Down with the war!” could be heard. In police reports from February 23rd you can read of the arrest of women workers who had shouted at the police:
“You don’t have long to enjoy yourselves – you’ll soon be hanging by your necks!” (Revolutionary women in Russia 1870-1917, p. 152)
Thousands of soldiers were stationed in Petrograd because of the First World War. The women participated in the fraternization and agitation to persuade the soldiers to join the movement: they went to the barracks, distributed flyers and organized meetings. It worked. Many soldiers refused to obey orders to fire on the demonstrators, but instead went over to the side of the Revolution.
In the following days the demonstrations and strikes grew into a general strike and insurrection. Five days later the hated Tsar was overthrown. Without even having realized it the working class had power in its hands. It is no exaggeration to say that it was the women workers who were the most determined and militant and it was they that ignited the revolution.
This was a graphic display of what we have seen in all revolutions throughout history: the normally inert, downtrodden layers, suddenly come to the forefront and the pent up anger and frustrations of years, if not generations, transforms this passive layer into the most advanced section of the movement. Women had been passive; now they were the most active. This process of revolution broke down the established divisions within the working class, in particular that between men and women, and was more effective than a thousand petitions.
This movement of the women workers set in motion the whole of the working class. Hopes were raised high by the February Revolution . The workers raised demands for bread, an 8-hour working day and an end to the war. However, after the first period of jubilation the mood became more embittered, as the workers realised that even the new regime was not prepared to meet their demands. The strike movement increased with mass protests and demonstrations to press their leaders to fulfill the demands.
The thinking of all socialists at the time, although there were key differences between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks – with the exception of Trotsky who had developed his theory of the Permanent Revolution – was that the coming revolution would be bourgeois. It would put an end to the old despotic Tsarist regime and prepare the ground for capitalist development. But the Russian bourgeoisie played no role in the revolution – they were more afraid of the Russian workers than of the monarchy and had tried until the last moment, to make a deal with the old regime. It was only when they realized that they could not stop the revolutionary movement through an agreement with the monarchy that they hastily set up the Provisional Government.
But the working class, based on the tradition of 1905, proceeded to set up workers;’ councils, the soviets, which emerged as organs of working class power. Lenin understood that the old perspective of bourgeois revolution had been superseded by the intervention of the working class. While the moderate socialists continued to offer collaboration with the bourgeoisie, the Bolsheviks rejected any cooperation with the Provisional Government, and instead raised the slogan of “All power to the Soviets”, as the only way to fulfill the demands of “peace, bread and land”.
Women workers were a key element in this process, not only participating in the strikes and demonstrations, but also organising armed defence of the revolution, for example in Petrograd during Kornilov’s reactionary coup attempt in August. They fought and died side by side with the men of the Red Guards. The Bolshevik women naturally took part in revolutionary work, both in the local and national organizational work, speaking at public meetings, distributing leaflets, transporting weapons, guaranteeing communications and providing care for the wounded.
The situation was also dramatically changing the conditions for women in the countryside. The war had only worsened the double burden on peasant women. While their men were at the front, all the responsibility for the farms and the land fell on their shoulders. The Provisional Government was talking about solving the agrarian question with promises of land to the peasants, but nothing concrete happened. It was too concerned about the landlords to implement land reform. During the summer the revolutionary movement spread to the rural areas producing a peasant revolt, with the main demands being for land and peace. Such was the revolutionary ferment affecting the peasantry, that in spite of the dominant patriarchal relations, there were several cases of women peasants rebelling in the countryside.
The Voronezh governorate for example, saw uprisings of soldiers’ wives in the early summer of 1917. The movement began when the authorities ignored the demand of 30 soldiers’ wives, that the distribution of village land should be postponed until their men were back from the front. 200 soldiers’ wives gathered: ”First they scattered boundary posts, then they raided farmsteads of land-owning peasants, destroying their kitchen gardens, taking out window frames, doors and in some cases having entered houses they broke stoves, demolished or stole furniture, house implements and other property. Groups of women burst into properties initially encouraged by cries from men following them, ’Smash it, women, you won’t be punished, your husbands are at the front’.” (Revolutionary Women in Russia 1870-1917, p. 154)
Liberalism and Bolshevism
As the women workers and women peasants – together with their male counterparts – were moving towards revolution, the liberal bourgeoisie revealed all its own limitations. For all their talk of equality and women’s liberation, the liberal bourgeois that had been catapulted to power by the revolution, was totally incapable of solving any of the pressing problems faced by women. This was also the case with the petty bourgeois feminist movement which, in addition to supporting the war, tended to dismiss the workers’ preoccupation with “bread” as abject materialism.
The reformist socialists – still clinging to the idea that the bourgeoisie should lead the revolution – were supporting the liberals and the Provisional Government. Within this perspective, the struggle for the interests of the workers and peasants was, for them, secondary. After the February Revolution they immediately betrayed one of the workers’ key demands – an end to the war – by calling for a war in “defence of the Revolution”.
This particularly affected the women. The city women often had men at the front, which meant they had both to work to earn a living and care for the whole family. And for the peasant women, it meant that the most able-bodied men were away from the farms, left in the hands of the elderly and the women. The war had also led to chaotic economic dislocation, leading to food and goods shortages, which again affected the women the most who were in charge of the household. Also, the income disparities between men and women continued, in spite of doing the same kind of work. We see here how the masses had freed themselves from the direct oppression of the Tsar, but all the social injustices continued.
In contrast to the moderate socialists and petty-bourgeois feminists, the Bolsheviks were in the forefront of the working class struggle for “bread” and explained that the only way to fulfill this demand was by the working class taking power through the soviets.
It was in these conditions in March 1917 that the Bolsheviks also began publishing Rabotnitsa. On the editorial board sat Krupskaya, Inessa Armand, Stahl, Kollontai, Eliazarova, Kudelli, Samoilova and Nikolayeva and other women workers from Petrograd. Each factory had its own representative on the editorial board, and held weekly meetings where everyone participated and reviewed the reports from the different areas. The newspaper was used to raise women’s consciousness. Also in March 1917 the Bolsheviks created an agency to promote revolutionary work among women workers. Initially, however, it remained mostly intentions, but they began to organize the convening of a conference for female workers. The conference ended up being postponed because of the revolution, but was held in 1918. Lenin in this period wrote many articles about the need to find new ways to attract women workers to fight for socialism.
It was by uncompromisingly defending the real interests of workers, both men and women, and bringing together the struggle of all oppressed layers, that the Bolsheviks were eventually to win the majority of workers in the period between February to October.
Women after the revolution
In October, nine months after February, the workers had taken power. The Bolsheviks had consciously fought for equality between men and women, a demand they could now put into practice. The new Soviet regime began the struggle to build a society free of oppression and inequality.
The Bolsheviks immediately abolished all laws that put women at a disadvantage in relation to men. All restrictions on women’s freedom of movement was removed. Before the revolution a wife was legally bound to remain with her husband and follow him if he moved. Far-reaching changes in property relations weakened the family as an economic unit, as well as the father’s dominant position within the family. Other laws gave women equal rights to own land and function as head of the household.
Free access to abortion was introduced as a right for all women. Church and State were separated, marriage, registration of children, etc. were taken out of the control of the Church. Marriage now took place through a simple registration process based on mutual consent. Each partner could take the other’s name or keep their own. By 1926 marriage didn’t even have to be registered and divorce was made as easy as possible and could be achieved if one person demanded it, even without the other partner’s consent. The concept of illegitimate children was abolished so that all children were to be treated equally, whether they were born in or out of marriage. Paid maternity leave before and after birth was introduced and night work for pregnant women and women who had just given birth was prohibited. In addition, special maternity wards were set up.
This was extremely progressive for its time. In no capitalist country were women legally equal to men. In 1917, Denmark and Norway were the only European countries where women had the vote. In England women won the right to vote in 1918, in the United States in 1920, Sweden in 1921 and in France and Italy, women had to wait another 30 years.
In Denmark school children are told that the first female minister in the world was the Social Democrat Nina Bang. The truth is that she only became minister in 1924 – seven years after Aleksandra Kollontai was appointed People’s Commissar of Social Welfare in the first Bolshevik “government” after the revolution. Kollontai was thus the world’s first female minister. Only in 1973, more than 50 years after it was legalised in the Soviet Union, was abortion made legal in Denmark, the same year it was also introduced in the United States.
Equality in law in Russia did not only apply to women but also to oppressed groups in general. Under the Tsar homosexuality was prohibited and for those who did not fit into the norms of gender and sexuality, there was a risk of ending up in a labour camp. All these discriminatory laws were first abolished by the new Soviet regime in 1922. Prior to that, in 1918 a decree was issued stopping the application of pre-revolutionary Tsarist laws. In the new 1922 Criminal Code homosexuality was decriminalised.
Georgy Chicherin, who was openly gay, was People’s Commissar for foreign affairs from 1918 to 1930. During the Brest-Litovsk negotiations with Germany, he served as Trotsky’s deputy. In this capacity, ironically, he was responsible for negotiating the Catholic Church’s status in Russia after the revolution with Eugenio Pacelli, who later was to become became Pope Pius XII.
The Bolshevik Grigorii Batkis, Director of the Institute for Social Hygiene, described the position in the following way: “The present sexual legislation in the Soviet Union is the work of the October revolution. This revolution is important not only as a political phenomenon which secures the political role of the working class, but also for the revolutions which evolving from it reach out into all areas of life… [Soviet legislation] declares the absolute non-involvement of state and society in sexual relations, provided they harm no one and infringe upon no one’s interests… Homosexuality, sodomy and various other forms of sexual gratification set forth in European legislation as offences against public morality are treated by Soviet legislation exactly as is so called ‘natural’ intercourse.” [Available in German, Die Sexualrevolution in Russland, Berlin: Fritz Kater, 1925, The Sexual Revolution in Russia – Grigorii Batkis].
This is an extremely advanced approach to this kind of question, especially considering the centuries of extreme backwardness that still weighed on Soviet society in that period. It shows what is possible once class society has been overthrown. The Soviet Union would undoubtedly have seen a flourishing of human possibilities, far beyond anything so far dreamt, had the disaster of isolation and Stalinism not intervened.
Women in politics
Equality before the law was however just the first step. Now it was a question of involving the masses, including women, in leading society towards Socialism. Four days after the taking of power the Soviet government adopted a decree introducing the 8-hour working day, a crucial factor in making participation in politics possible for the working class, especially the women. In the new Soviet regime it was the masses who should govern society. That meant that even the content of policy changed:
”We say that the emancipation of the workers must be effected by the workers themselves, and in exactly the same way the emancipation of working women is a matter for the working women themselves. […]
“In order to be active in politics under the old, capitalist regime special training was required, so that women played an insignificant part in politics, even in the most advanced and free capitalist countries. Our task is to make politics available to every working woman. Ever since private property in land and factories has been abolished and the power of the landowners and capitalists overthrown, the tasks of politics have become simple, clear and comprehensible to the working people as a whole, including working women. In capitalist society the woman’s position is marked by such inequality that the extent of her participation in politics is only an insignificant fraction of that of the man. The power of the working people is necessary for a change to be wrought in this situation, for then the main tasks of politics will consist of matters directly affecting the fate of the working people themselves.” (The Tasks Of The Working Women’s Movement In The Soviet Republic, V.I. Lenin)
The Bolsheviks had come to power in an extremely backward country where illiteracy was widespread. In front of them lay the huge task of educating the masses so that they could actually participate in directing society. The 1919 program of the Russian Communist Party, as the Bolsheviks had renamed themselves in 1918, stated:
”The task of the Party at the present moment is mainly to carry on ideological and educational work for the purpose of finally stamping out all traces of the former inequality and prejudices, especially among the backward strata of the proletariat and the peasantry. Not satisfied with the formal equality of women, the Party strives to free women from the material burden of obsolete domestic economy, by replacing this with the house-communes, public dining-halls, central laundries, crêches, etc.” (Political Program of the CPSU, 1919)
A fundamental need to inform women about their new position and draw them into active participation in public life opened up. In particular Kollontai, Armand, Krupskaya and Nikolaeva played a crucial role in getting the Communist Party to decide to set up new organizational structures to mobilize women. There were a series of smaller conferences for women in the months immediately after the revolution that culminated in the first All-Russian Congress of Working Women in November 1918:
”One thousand women gathered in the Kremlin Hall of Unions, including workers and peasant women from distant regions of the country brightly dressed in local costumes, to be addressed by the leader of the new Soviet regime, Lenin himself. Lenin was greeted with wild enthusiasm. After outlining the measures already taken by the Soviet government to improve the position of women, Lenin called on the women to play a more active political role. ’The experience of all liberation movements,’ he informed them, ’has shown that the success of a revolution depends on how much the women take part in it.” (Women in soviet society, Gail, Warshofsky Lapidus, 1978, p. 63)
The conference took place in the midst of the Civil War, and it was a huge achievement to assemble 1,000 women from across the country under these conditions. The conference created better connections between the developed urban areas and the more remote and backward areas. Many women were attracted to socialism during the conference and joined the Bolshevik Party and the female militias, “The Red Sisters” to actively fight the White counter-revolutionary forces.
The conference also decided to transform the commissions for women’s work, that had until then existed, into bodies affiliated to the Bolshevik Party. The aim of these bodies was agitation and propaganda among working women, and in 1919 they were transformed into the Zhenotdel, affiliated to the Central Committee Secretariat. A network of branches was developed in close contact with local Party committees. Zhenotdel was led by the Bolsheviks, but was not purely a party structure. At the head of Zhenotdel stood Inessa Armand, and when she died in 1920, Kollontai took over. Local Zhenotdel departments were attached to Party committees at all levels of the party structures. The departments consisted of volunteers recruited from the party’s women members, but also among non-party members. Their task was to draw unorganized women in the factories and villages into public activities, politicize them and attract them to socialism and the Bolshevik Party.
Political participation and effective political communication was only possible if illiteracy was eradicated. Zhenotdel was quickly drawn into the struggle to teach women to read and write. During the 1920s a number of magazines were published aimed specifically at women based on a network of worker and peasant correspondents. Komitska was launched as Zhenotdel’s theoretical magazine, with Krupskaya as editor. In 1927 18 different women’s magazines were published with a circulation of 386,000. Politically these newspapers focused on the connection between women’s liberation and the establishment of Socialism. The main objective was to encourage women to participate in politics and build a larger group of experienced female cadres for party and government work.
One of the instruments to reach women were conferences of the worker and peasant women or delegate assemblies on the Soviet model for promoting the political education, training and recruitment of women and to get them to take on political roles. Elections were organized among female workers and peasants to send “delegates” – one per 5 working women and per 25 peasant women – who should participate in meetings and training courses under the leadership of the party, and then gain “internships” in the state, the party, the trade unions and cooperatives. The aim was to create a growing layer of women with experience and confidence to take on public roles.
How widely this succeeded is hard to judge. According to Stalin’s organizational report to the Party Congress in 1926, there had been 46,000 delegates in the towns and 100,000 in the villages. The figures for 1926 show that 620,000 women participated in 6,000 conferences held in the urban areas and 12,000 in the rural areas. (Women in Soviet society, p. 65)
Zhenotdel and the party’s efforts to politicize and organize women began to bear fruit. Up to 1929 it was mainly the effect of political mobilization, whilst in the following period it also reflected the increasing number of women in the workforce and the expansion of educational opportunities for women.
”The very scanty and not completely reliable statistics available for the period from 1917 to 1934 indicate that these early efforts to draw women into political activity had rather important results. The proportion of women who performed the most basic civic duty, that of voting in elections, rose steadily in both urban and rural areas, from 42.9 percent in urban areas in 1926 to 89.7 percent in 1934 and in villages from 28 percent to 80.3 percent.
“Efforts to extend the level and scope of political involvement by drawing women into the work of local soviets also achieved substantial results. The proportion of women deputies in local soviets rose in rural areas from 1 percent in 1922 to 10 percent in 1926 and to 27 percent in 1934, and in urban areas it rose from 5.7 percent in 1920 to 18 percent in 1926 and to 32 percent in 1934.” (Women in Soviet society, p. 204)
In the Bolshevik Party, the number of women also increased. According to a 1922 census of party membership, the party had 41,212 women members, equivalent to less than 8 percent of the total membership. The numbers began to rise in the mid to late 1920s as a result of – among other things – the efforts of Zhenotdel. By 1932 the proportion of women party members had doubled to 15.9 percent. (Women in Soviet society p. 211)
The Third International and the women’s question
The question of work among women was also addressed in the Third International. The Communist Third International (Comintern) was established in 1919 as a tool in the struggle for world revolution. The third congress in 1921 discussed thoroughly the question of women and adopted the resolution “Methods and forms of work among Communist Party Women: Theses“. It describes in detail how the sections of the International must work to organize women, first and foremost because women are crucial in the fight for communism.
”The III Congress of the Communist International maintains that without the active participation of the broad masses of the female proletariat and the semi-proletarian women, the proletariat can neither seize power nor realise communism.”
But at the same time the struggle for women’s liberation could only be fulfilled as part of the struggle for Communism.
”At the same time, the Congress once again draws the attention of all women to the fact that without Communist Party support for all the projects leading to the liberation of women, the recognition of women’s rights as equal human beings and their real emancipation cannot in practice be won.” (Methods and Forms of work among Communist Party Women: Theses, Comintern Third congress)
The women had to be organized as part of the Communist movement, not in separate women’s movements.
”The Third Congress of the Communist International supports the basic position of revolutionary Marxism that there is no ‘special’ women’s question, nor should there be a special women’s movement, and that any alliance between working women and bourgeois feminism or support for the vacillating or clearly right-wing tactics of the social compromisers and opportunists [the reformist parties – ed] will lead to the weakening of the forces of the proletariat, thereby delaying the great hour of the full emancipation of women.
“A Communist society will be won not by the united efforts of women of different classes, but by the united struggle of all the exploited.” (Methods and Forms of work among Communist Party Women: Theses, Comintern Third congress)
But the Congress “accepts that special methods of work among women are necessary”, and that all the Communist Parties had to set up a special apparatus for this work. For each level in the party, special bodies for women’s work should be set up, and representatives of these women’s bodies had the right to participate in the leadership committees on the same organisational level, i.e. local, regional, national (if they were not already members of that body). It would, for instance, say that the leader of the women’s department with national responsibility had the right to participate in the Central Committee meetings, if not already a full member, and to vote on issues concerning women’s work, along with a consultative vote on all other issues.
These special bodies for work among women had among other things the task “to fight the prejudices against women held by the mass of the male proletariat, and increase the awareness of working men and women that they have common interests,” and also, ”to conduct a well-planned struggle against the power of tradition, bourgeois customs and religious ideas, clearing the way for healthier and more harmonious relations between the sexes, guaranteeing the physical and moral vitality of working people.” (Methods and Forms of work among Communist Party Women: Theses, Comintern Third congress)
The method of work among the women was ”agitation and propaganda through action”, which meant ”above all encouraging working women to self-activity, dispelling the doubts they have about their own abilities and drawing them into practical work in the sphere of construction or struggle.” (Methods and Forms of work among Communist Party Women: Theses, Comintern Third congress)
Decisions however are one thing; putting them into practice is another. Lenin in a conversation with Clara Zetkin expressed his opinion that he believed that many of the national sections showed a sloppy attitude towards this work:
“They regard agitation and propaganda among women and the task of rousing and revolutionizing them as of secondary importance, as the job of just the women-Communists. None but the latter are rebuked because the matter does not move ahead more quickly and strongly. This is wrong, fundamentally wrong! It is outright separatism. It is equality of women à rebours, as the French say, i.e., equality reversed. What is at the bottom of the incorrect attitude of our national sections? (I am not speaking of Soviet Russia.) In the final analysis, it is an underestimation of women and of their accomplishments. That’s just what it is! Unfortunately, we may still say of many of our comrades, ‘Scratch the Communist and a Philistine appears.’ To be sure, you have to scratch the sensitive spots, such as their mentality regarding women. Could there be any more palpable proof than the common sight of a man calmly watching a woman wear herself out with trivial, monotonous, strength- and time-consuming work, such as her housework, and watching her spirit shrinking, her mind growing dull, her heartbeat growing faint, and her will growing slack? It goes without saying that I am not referring to the bourgeois ladies who dump all housework and the care for their children on the hired help. What I say applies to the vast majority of women, including the wives of workers, even if these spend the day at the factory and earn money.
“Very few husbands, not even the proletarians, think of how much they could lighten the burdens and worries of their wives, or relieve them entirely, if they lent a hand in this ‘woman’s work’. But no, that would go against the ‘privilege and dignity of the husband’. He demands that he have rest and comfort. The domestic life of the woman is a daily sacrifice of self to a thousand insignificant trifles. The ancient rights of her husband, her lord and master, survive unnoticed. Objectively, his slave takes her revenge. Also in concealed form. Her backwardness and her lack of understanding for her husband’s revolutionary ideals act as a drag on his fighting spirit, on his determination to fight. They are like tiny worms, gnawing and undermining imperceptibly, slowly but surely. I know the life of the workers, and not only from books. Our communist work among the masses of women, and our political work in general, involves considerable educational work among the men. We must root out the old slave-owner’s point of view, both in the Party and among the masses. That is one of our political tasks, a task just as urgently necessary as the formation of a staff composed of comrades, men and women, with thorough theoretical and practical training for Party work among working women.” (Lenin on the women’s question, Clara Zetkin)
Nationalisation of the economy
Lenin here was speaking as a leader of the Soviet state addressing the activists of the mass Communist parties that adhered to the Third International. However, at the same time, he was fully conscious of the fact that in order to progress in terms of relations between the sexes, it was also necessary to create the material conditions which would allow the new society to pass from words to deeds. The two went together and could not be separated.
The new Soviet regime in Russia had created equality before the law, but this did not lead by itself to real equality. Through the nationalization of the economy the foundations were laid for the development of the means of production, so that domestic tasks could be socialized, and the women’s double burden removed. In the long term, a development of the means of production would mean that the material basis of all inequality and oppression would disappear.
”No party or revolution in the world has ever dreamed of striking so deep at the roots of the oppression and inequality of women as the Soviet, Bolshevik revolution is doing. Over here, in Soviet Russia, no trace is left of any inequality between men and women under the law. The Soviet power has eliminated all there was of the especially disgusting, base and hypocritical inequality in the laws on marriage and the family and inequality in respect of children.
“This is only the first step in the liberation of woman. But none of the bourgeois republics, including the most democratic, has dared to take even this first step. The reason is awe of “sacrosanct” private property.
“The second and most important step is the abolition of the private ownership of land and the factories. This and this alone opens up the way towards a complete and actual emancipation of woman, her liberation from ’household bondage’ through transition from petty individual housekeeping to large-scale socialised domestic services.
“This transition is a difficult one, because it involves the remoulding of the most deep-rooted, inveterate, hidebound and rigid ’order’ (indecency and barbarity would be nearer the truth). But the transition has been started, the thing has been set in motion, we have taken the new path.” (International Working Women’s Day 1921, V.I. Lenin)
The new Soviet regime aimed to socialise housework, i.e. remove all the tasks entrusted to the individual households, that often fall on women’s shoulders, and turn them into society’s tasks. Nurseries, kindergartens, soup kitchens, public laundries and so on were to be built. This would also lay the material basis for a change in the family. The family would no longer be an economic unit, and all the bonds, such as economic pressures, that distort human relations would disappear such that couples would be free to remain together because they desired to do so, and not because of external pressures.
Trotsky, who along with Lenin had been at the head of the Russian Revolution, explained what the task was for the young Soviet power:
“The physical preparations for the conditions of the new life and the new family, again, cannot fundamentally be separated from the general work of socialist construction. The workers’ state must become wealthier in order that it may be possible seriously to tackle the public education of children and the releasing of the family from the burden of the kitchen and the laundry.
“Socialization of family housekeeping and public education of children are unthinkable without a marked improvement in our economics as a whole. We need more socialist economic forms. Only under such conditions can we free the family from the functions and cares that now oppress and disintegrate it. Washing must be done by a public laundry, catering by a public restaurant, sewing by a public workshop. Children must be educated by good public teachers who have a real vocation for the work.
“Then the bond between husband and wife would be freed from everything external and accidental, and the one would cease to absorb the life of the other. Genuine equality would at last be established. The bond will depend on mutual attachment. And on that account particularly, it will acquire inner stability, not the same, of course, for everyone, but compulsory for no one.” (From the old Family to the New, Leon Trotsky 1923).
The Bolshevik vision did not stop at a “division” of the housework, but envisaged also the elimination of housework altogether. Not in the sense of forcing people to eat in public restaurants, but in the sense that everyone should have the right to do so if they freely wished.
In the words of Marx, human consciousness is determined by social being, i.e. it is the material conditions that – ultimately – determine thoughts, ideas and so on. The development of the productive forces was necessary to create new social norms:
”We Marxists say that the value of a social structure is determined by the development of productive forces. This is indisputable. But it is also possible to approach the problem from the other end. The development of the productive forces is not needed for its own sake. In the last analysis the development of the productive forces is needed because it provides the basis for a new human personality, conscious, without a lord over him on earth, not fearing imaginary lords, born of fear, in the sky — a human personality which absorbs into itself all the best of what was created by the thought and creativity of past ages, which in solidarity with all others goes forward, creates new cultural values, constructs new personal and family attitudes, higher and nobler than those which were born on the basis of class slavery. The development of the productive forces is dear to us, as the material presupposition of a higher human personality, not shut up in itself, but cooperative, associative.
“From this point of view it may be said that probably for many decades to come it will be possible to evaluate a human society by the attitude it has toward women, toward the mother and toward the child — and this is true not only for evaluating society, but also the individual person.” (The protection of motherhood and the struggle for culture, Leon Trotsky).
The Soviet regime began this task of socialising housework, but started from a very low level. This was rendered more difficult, however, by the fact that immediately after the revolution the old ruling class, with the support of foreign powers, rose and launched vicious civil war, which followed on from the destruction of the First World War.
The economy was in ruins. Even before the war, Russia was extremely backward economically compared to the advanced capitalist countries. The Soviet economy was far from developed enough to eliminate housework and replace the family as an economic unit. The Bolsheviks could only grant political rights and issue economic declarations of intent. In the first years of the Revolution, all energy had to be directed to making sure that people did not die of hunger.
In 1936 Trotsky described the process as follows:
”The October revolution honestly fulfilled its obligations in relation to woman. The young government not only gave her all political and legal rights in equality with man, but, what is more important, did all that it could, and in any case incomparably more than any other government ever did, actually to secure her access to all forms of economic and cultural work. However, the boldest revolution, like the “all-powerful” British parliament, cannot convert a woman into a man – or rather, cannot divide equally between them the burden of pregnancy, birth, nursing and the rearing of children. The revolution made a heroic effort to destroy the so-called ’family hearth’ – that archaic, stuffy and stagnant institution in which the woman of the toiling classes performs galley labor from childhood to death. The place of the family as a shut-in petty enterprise was to be occupied, according to the plans, by a finished system of social care and accommodation: maternity houses, creches, kindergartens, schools, social dining rooms, social laundries, first-aid stations, hospitals, sanatoria, athletic organizations, moving-picture theaters, etc. The complete absorption of the housekeeping functions of the family by institutions of the socialist society, uniting all generations in solidarity and mutual aid, was to bring to woman, and thereby to the loving couple, a real liberation from the thousand-year-old fetters. Up to now this problem of problems has not been solved. The forty million Soviet families remain in their overwhelming majority nests of medievalism, female slavery and hysteria, daily humiliation of children, feminine and childish superstition. We must permit ourselves no illusions on this account. For that very reason, the consecutive changes in the approach to the problem of the family in the Soviet Union best of all characterize the actual nature of Soviet society and the evolution of its ruling stratum.
“It proved impossible to take the old family by storm – not because the will was lacking, and not because the family was so firmly rooted in men’s hearts. On the contrary, after a short period of distrust of the government and its creches, kindergartens and like institutions, the working women, and after them the more advanced peasants, appreciated the immeasurable advantages of the collective care of children as well as the socialization of the whole family economy. Unfortunately society proved too poor and little cultured. The real resources of the state did not correspond to the plans and intentions of the Communist Party. You cannot ’abolish’ the family; you have to replace it. The actual liberation of women is unrealizable on a basis of ’generalized want.’ Experience soon proved this austere truth which Marx had formulated eighty years before. (Revolution Betrayed, Chapter 7, Thermidor in the family, Leon Trotsky).
Degeneration of the revolution
Lenin and Trotsky had explained, already in 1917, that the Russian Revolution was the spark that would ignite the world revolution. Russia could only start the revolution but not lead it to the end. For that the country needed the help of the technology and the skilled working class in the advanced capitalist countries, primarily Germany.
The revolution did spread, but for the reasons we cannot go into here, it ended in defeat. The means of production in Russia were far from developed enough to provide enough for everyone, and this in turn led to the crystallisation of a bureaucracy under the leadership of Stalin, that rose above society and in turn led to the degeneration of the revolution. This political counterrevolution was clearly expressed in the status of women.
The situation of women is one of the most sensitive barometers of a society’s cultural development. With the rise of Stalinism came also regression and an unravelling of many of the gains of the revolution. The rising Stalinist bureaucracy required the “old” bourgeois family as a social base as it carried out its bureaucratic political counter-revolution.
The Stalinist bureaucracy proclaimed that Socialism had been achieved, but this was very far from the truth: there were still widespread shortages and real material inequality was very much alive. The women were still largely confined to the home by thousands of domestic tasks. In 1930 the Zhenotdel was closed by the Stalinist bureaucracy with the argument that “the women’s question was now solved in the Soviet Union.”
Trotsky explained that was very far from being the case:
”[…] guided by its conservative instinct, the bureaucracy has taken alarm at the ’disintegration’ of the family. It began singing panegyrics to the family suppe and the family laundry, that is, the household slavery of woman. To cap it all, the bureaucracy has restored criminal punishment for abortions, officially returning women to the status of pack animals. In complete contradiction with the ABC of Communism, the ruling caste has thus restored the most reactionary and benighted nucleus of the class system, i.e., the petty-bourgeois family”. (quoted in the Preface to Women and the family, Leon Trotsky)
Stalin and the bureaucracy reintroduced the old bourgeois attitude towards the family, as the nucleus of society and emphasized the woman’s maternal role. Divorce was made more difficult and expensive, and thus reserved for the bureaucracy and prizes were introduced to families that had many children. The opening hours for childcare were cut to coincide with the working day. The bureaucracy introduced segregated education in schools, and girls were taught special “girls’ subjects” to prepare them for their role as housewives.
In 1936, abortion was made illegal. It was not a popular initiative and in spite of the dictatorial regime in the Soviet Union, criticism emerged in the press. But the Stalinist regime responded with a counter-campaign praising the bliss of motherhood and equated criticism of the ban on abortion with criticism of Soviet power itself:
”A massive press campaign linked the joys of motherhood with the benefits of Soviet power. ’A woman without children merits our pity, for she does not know the full joy of life. Our Soviet women, full-blooded citizens of the freest country in the world, have been given the bliss of motherhood.’ The idealization of the family and of marital stability and the close association of femininity with maternity had as a counterpart the repression of sexual deviance as a social crime.” (Women in Soviet Society, p. 112)
Prostitutes were arrested, in opposition to the former Bolshevik policy of only arresting the brothel owners and exposing the men who bought prostitutes, and offering prostitutes voluntary introduction to productive work. In 1933, homosexuality was once again criminalised, overturning the previous 1922 law, with a maximum penalty of five years hard labour. The Stalinist propaganda equated homosexuality with reactionary decadence by connecting it both with the old ruling class and fascism. This regression also spread to the national Communist Parties.
The rise of Stalinism meant massive social regression, with drastic consequences for women. But at the same time the first five-year plans, introduced in the Soviet Union in 1928, led to economic progress which meant that women were drawn into the workforce on a larger scale with some progress when it came to education, nurseries and the like. After Stalin’s death, continued economic growth after World War II allowed for further material progress.
Life expectancy for women was more than doubled from 30 years in Tsarist times to 74 by the 1970s. Pregnant women were given the right to switch to lighter work with fully paid maternity leave of 56 days before and after birth. In 1970, night work and underground work was prohibited for women. Infant mortality was reduced by 90 percent.
In 1917 the new Soviet regime had planned to build creches and nurseries, but did not have the material resources to begin the work. It was only with the first five-year plan when a large number of women came into industry that the work really began. Between 1927 and 1932, the number of nurseries rose from 2,155 to 19,611. And by 1960 an explosive growth had taken place with 4.4 million children in permanent creches and nurseries, and by 1976 this had increased to 12 million. (Women in Soviet society, p. 131)
Education levels generally increased, especially from 1930 onwards. For example, the proportion of the cohort enrolled in secondary school level (5th-7th grade) rose from 10 percent in 1926 to 65 percent in 1939 and 97 percent in 1958. The girls’ share rose from the already reasonably high 44.4 percent in 1927 to almost half. The proportion of women in higher education rose from 28 percent in 1927 to 43 percent in 1960 and 49 percent in 1970. The only other countries in the world where women constituted over 40 percent in higher education were Finland, France, Sweden and USA. (Women in Soviet Society, p. 148) In 1950, there were 600 women with a scientific doctorate; in 1984 this had increased to 5,600!
The pattern for women’s education reflected a certain break with gender stereotypes in specific areas. Traditionally “female” areas such as education and health were also high among Russian women, but there were also a large number of women in research and industrial engineering, which separates women’s education patterns in the Soviet Union significantly from those in the West. In 1959 a third of women worked in distinct female occupations, while the figure in 1970 had risen to 55 percent. At the time, 98 percent of nurses were women, and 75 percent of teachers, 95 percent of librarians and 75 percent of the doctors.
The struggle continues today
Lenin was of the firm belief that “a revolution is impossible without the participation of women.” The Russian Revolution fully showed the revolutionary potential of women. The Russian women not only started the revolution, but took an active part in it. And with good reason.
Prior to the October Revolution there had been years of patient work of organising the Russian workers under the banner of Bolshevism. The Bolsheviks insisted that women’s liberation could only be part of working class liberation in the struggle for a Communist society. The Bolshevik Party succeeded in uniting the struggles on a class basis across gender, religion, nationality, etc. Only in that way were they able to win the majority of the workers in October 1917.
The October Revolution was a huge step forward for Russian women. The revolution was a precondition for the liberation of women, but in and of itself could not solve all the problems. It began the task of freeing women from domestic slavery, making them an equal part of society, eliminating prejudice and enhancing the level education and consciousness.
However, because of the economic backwardness of the country, the Bolsheviks could only begin the task, they could not carry it to through to the end. Today, we are in a much stronger situation. Technological advances have produced wonders the Bolsheviks could not even have imagined: washing machines, dishwashers, robot vacuum cleaners and so on. And even this is nothing compared to what could be developed if the resources were used to develop socially useful technique instead of the enormous waste implied by capitalism, including the immense resources thrown away today in producing weapons that could destroy the planet ten times over.
Today we see youth and workers again taking to the streets in protest against austerity, oppression, sexism and racism. In Poland women organisations demonstrations and strikes to stop the government’s plans to severely limit abortion laws. In the US, Trump was greeted by millions of angry women, and men, in protest against his sexism and misogynistic politics. This year on 8th March we also saw huge mobilisations, such as the oceanic demonstration in Madrid.
Women are involved in social struggles, and the question of women’s oppression is on the agenda to a degree we have not seen in decades. Sexism and the oppression of women is an integral part of capitalism, and they can only be removed by uprooting the system. A socialist revolution is the precondition for women’s liberation.
The Russian revolution and the revolutionary energy of Russian women show the powerful reserves of courage and determination which can be mobilised for a socialist revolution. The Bolsheviks in 1917 began the task of the emancipation of women. It is up to us to finish it.
[Note: Although I have not quoted directly from The Emancipation of Women in Russia before and after the Russian Revolution, by Elisabetta Rossi, 8 March 2004, I found it a very useful source on the period and recommend reading it in conjunction with the present article]