The Point
Last updated: 11 December 2017.

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Women and the Russian Revolution

SSP member and Highlands political activist, Suzanne Wright looks at the role of women in the Russian Revolution and its historical effects on equality politics.

Introduction

The 100th anniversary of the October Revolution is an opportunity to recognise possibly the most significant achievement of the working class to date. Pre-Revolutionary Russia embodied some of the worst extremes of poverty and wealth and the successful struggle of workers and peasants in overthrowing a powerful and rich capitalist elite is a struggle which all current socialists should rightly celebrate.

The events of 1917 saw Russia transform from a semi-feudal nation where working people were treated little more than slaves to a nation where resources were seized for the greater good of the population and the development of the first workers' state. For Russian women, the 1917 Revolution saw advancements which some women in parts of the early 21st Century world are still striving to achieve. So for women, what did 1917 mean, what was its legacy and its impact on the wider womens movement?

Women in pre-Revolutionary Russia

Russian rural life had barely changed in centuries and was deeply patriarchal in nature, confronting women with greater deprivations then their male counterparts, a lesser status and on marriage, treated as the property of their husbands. As for men, whilst pre-Revolutionary Russia was beginning to see a trend toward workers migrating to the cities it was still the case that the vast majority of working women were involved in working the land. The move to the cities was given greater impetus due to the industrial needs of World War One, resulting in more women entering the urban workforce due to the departure of men to the War.

For Lenin, "no revolution is possible without the participation of women", and the emancipation of women from domestic chores which still remained a female role in both urban and rural settings, was an integral part of emancipation of the working class as a whole:

"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)

...and so it transpired as the February Revolution of 1917 began as a result of the strike by women textile workers in Petrograd, no longer able to bear the deprivations caused by war and hunger. The integral part played by women in the February Revolution prompted the Bolsheviks to re-evaluate their approach to "the women question" re-inforcing Lenin's belief that for bourgeois society to be overthrown then women must have full an equal access to participate in society.

The role of women during the Revolution

It would be wrong to think however that the role of women in the Revolution began and ended with the strike on International Women's Day in February 1917, there are various examples of women's actions throughout the tumultuous year of 1917. It would however be wrong to think of women however as a homogenous mass – there were considerable differences between the demands of the middle-classes and factory workers – for the former, the February Revolution was much more about gaining suffrage and demanding electoral reform whilst for the urban poor the demands were more basic – demand for bread and an end to the deprivations wrought on the working class by the World War.

Following the February Revolution, the demands for women's suffrage continued and in July 1917, women over 20 were given the right to vote. Alongside this there were continued demonstrations against the War and continued hardships borne by women trying to maintain homes and work for the war effort.

Women's lives post-Revolution

The first years of Bolshevik rule saw far-ranging and far-reaching legislative changes which had dramatic effects on womens' lives. The first woman to serve in the Bolshevik Government was Alexandra Kollontai and she was the critical figure in the reforms enacted during this early phase.

The Family Code 1918 provided for women to have equal status with men, as well as legitimising the position of those born outside of marriage. Divorce became easily obtainable and the right to free access to abortion was legitimised by 1920. Steps were also taken to provide maternity rights, including paid maternity leave as well as progress made on childcare facilities. The concept of treating women as equal to men was almost unheard of at the time as was the right of women to vote.

For the Bolsheviks the decision to reduce the working day was seen as a critical factor in making the participation of women in politics possible:

"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)

In November 2018 the first All Russian Congress of Working Women was held and resulted in the formation of the Women's Bureau or Zhenotdel. Led by Alexandra Kollontai the aim of the Bureau was to engage working class women in political life as well as to provide opportunities for education – a critical requirement in a nation where pre-Revolution the vast majority of the working population had been illiterate. A number of magazines were produced aimed solely at women as a way to try and engage women and the Bureau's regional organisers worked closely with the local Bolsheviks to engage local women in the political structures established by the Party. In 1926 it was estimated that 620,000 women participated in conferences hosted by the Zhenotdel.

Impact of changes to women's lives on the USSR

Whilst the aims of the Zhenotdel were extremely forward-thinking there is debate as to the success of the project. Indeed, it has been reported that many women were uncomfortable with the pace of change in their lives brought about by the Revolution. Sheila Rowbotham in her study on Women and Revolution describes the reaction of older women to the concept of childcare and specifically, childcare:

"Almost all the older women were against it. Children had never been brought up in nurseries before — why start now? They had heard they bathed the children every day and believed this would mean they wouldn't grow up strong. The young women on the other hand, especially one girl whose child had been killed, were in support of the idea. They arranged for a house to be turned into a nursery and painted it white, hanging bright posters round the walls. The other women were shocked. "Surely they're not going to let children into a clean place like that."

The struggle to introduce Marxist ideas regarding the conduct of relationships and the importance of freeing women from the burdens of domesticity continued well into the 1920's – hardly surprising in a nation which had emerged from such a traditional paternalist past. The period of the New Economic Policy saw the beginnings of constraints on the gains made by women in the early days of the Revolution, as some of the childcare and maternity rights were scaled back and the reconstruction of societal relationships via the role of the family were to come to an abrupt end with the 1936 Family Code instigated by Stalin which re-instated the role of the family and made abortion illegal and divorce more difficult.

Impact on the women's movement in Britain

For the Bolsheviks, a critical forum for cascading the benefits of the Revolution was via the Third International, founded in 1919 with the express aim of exporting revolutionary ideas across the world. In Britain, the leading suffragette, Sylvia Pankhurst, by this time had split from her mother and sister in the womens suffrage movement, following her opposition to the First World War and her belief that women's suffrage was for all women, not just the middle classes that concerned her mother and sister.

The Russian Revolution was welcomed enthusiastically by Sylvia and she was enthused by the idea of setting up workers soviets and ultimately a workers revolution. How much the Revolution influenced the British Government in finally enfranchising women is a matter for debate however the various aspects of class struggle which occurred in Britain at that time, with numerous strikes, demands from returning soldiers for "a land fit for heroes", as well as the Ireland Question, emboldened the working class to demand concessions from the ruling class.

 References:

Broido V, 'Daughter of Revolution: A Russian Girlhood Remembered' Constable & Company Ltd (1998)

Lenin, V.I, 'The Development of Capitalism in Russia', (1899)

McDermid, J & Anna Hillyar, 'Midwives of the Revolution: Female Bolsheviks and Women Workers in 1917' Ohio University Press (1999)

McDermid, J & Anna Hillyar, 'Revolutionary Women in Russia 1870-1917' Manchester University Press (2000)

Rowbotham, S, 'Women, Resistance and Revolution', Verso Books, (2014)

Venton, R, '1917 Walls Come Tumbling Down: Russian Revolution and the Rise of Stalinism', Scottish Socialist Party (2017)

Zetkin, C 'Lenin on the Women's Question'

John Reed, 10 Days That Shook the World

Wendy Goldman's valuable Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life.

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left

Greenpeace

The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books