The 1917 revolution put great effort into freeing women from domestic drudgery and giving them a leading role in the unfolding political struggle, writes Caitlin Doyle
In 1917, the lives of women in Russia were utterly transformed. Following the revolution in October, women enjoyed the highest levels of political freedom and equality anywhere in the world.
Some of the rights that they won, such as abortion on demand and equal pay, are yet to be achieved in Australia.
Women also played a decisive role in the revolutionary struggle, with strikes and protests led by women kicking off the February revolution and helping carry through the revolution in October, when workers took power.
The Bolsheviks argued that the full liberation of women could only come about through radical change. They planned for society as a whole to assume the traditional burden of women as mothers and carers that kept them isolated in the home. But this was to prove no easy task in a country ravaged by civil war and famine.
Women in Tsarist Russia
Tsarist Russia was extremely socially and economically backward. The vast majority of the population were poor peasants working the land. Peasant men who did not regularly beat their wives were considered “unmanly”.
Serfdom had only been abolished in 1861, more than half a century after Western Europe. While this brought some greater political and personal freedoms, it pushed people off the land and into the cities in their thousands.
Many women came to work in the multiplying factories. It was only in some, highly skilled industries that male workers earned enough to support a family.
On average, women were paid around half the wage of men, but in some cases, as little as a fifth. They often worked days of 12 or 13 hours. After this, while male workers might go to the taverns or to political meetings, women would go home to cook, clean and take care of children.
Women also lacked any political rights. They could not vote or own property and were essentially the property of their husbands.
Marxism and Women’s Liberation
Marxists saw the institution of the nuclear family as the basis of women’s oppression under capitalism, first identified by Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s collaborator, in the 1870s. They recognised that the private, unpaid labour that women did within the home, raising the next generation of workers at no cost to bosses or the state, was essential to running capitalism.
But as they entered the workforce, women also became part of the working class movement. Clara Zetkin, a prominent German socialist, proclaimed in 1896 that, “only in conjunction with proletarian women will socialism be victorious”.
Although the “woman question” had been discussed in radical and intellectual circles for decades, it was not until the 1905 revolution that the women’s movement in Russia was born. Although the revolution failed to overthrow the Tsar, it shook Russian society to its core.
Women workers played a significant role in the strikes and protests. They demonstrated that, despite the immense material difficulties that held them back, they too could be effective agents in the class struggle. Child care, maternity leave, and equal pay were also raised as crucial demands for women workers.
1905 also prompted socialists in the Bolshevik party to assess their work amongst women. Not all Bolsheviks recognised the importance of bringing working class women into the struggle.
Alexandra Kollontai was a leading Russian socialist. Initially a member of the Menshevik faction, she joined the Bolsheviks in 1915. With the support of other leading Bolsheviks, including Lenin, she argued within the movement for special work to engage and politically educate women, and for fighting the sexist ideas of male workers.
On International Women’s Day in 1915 the Bolsheviks launched a special newspaper for women, Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker). It was edited by Inessa Armand and Nadezhda Krupskaia (Lenin’s wife).
Feminism had begun to emerge as a significant political movement across Europe and the US. Middle and upper class women were now fighting to be able to enter professional jobs, own property and win the vote.
However, Marxists argued that the interests of bourgeois women ran counter to the interests of working class women, rejecting the notion of the “sisterhood”.
Ruling class women were able to push the burden of domestic labour onto maids and servants. They also drew their wealth from workers’ exploitation, and therefore could not be relied upon to support working women’s demands.
Kollontai argued that upper class women would, “be able to win a comfortable place for themselves in the old world of oppression, enslavement and bondage, of tears and hardship… For the majority of women of the proletariat, equal rights with men would mean only an equal share in inequality.”
Socialists supported middle class women’s demands for equal rights, but also called on them to support working women in their struggles. Feminists and socialists were also divided around the question of suffrage. Many feminists demanded only partial suffrage for women—with voting rights restricted to property owners. Socialists instead championed universal suffrage in the context of the class struggle.
World War One
The onset of the First World War brought class divisions into sharp relief.
The Bolsheviks rejected the war from the outset, arguing that it served the interests of the rich and powerful and would only bring suffering to the working masses. Most feminists supported the war effort. They sought to establish themselves as men’s equals by demonstrating their essential contribution to the defence of the nation.
As the war dragged on, food shortages made life harder and harder. Women began to resist the war and the demands that it placed on them and their families.
However as men went off to war in droves, women had to enter the factories and farms in greater numbers than ever. By 1917, women made up 40 per cent of the workforce in Petrograd.
This gave them new power and increased political confidence. Women workers struck, alongside men, over wages, workplace safety and the length of the work day.
At the beginning of 1917, the secret police warned that women, the mothers of half-starving families, were the biggest threat to the tsarist regime because they constituted, “a mass of inflammable material which needs only a spark for it to burst into flames”.
On International Women’s Day, in February 1917, female workers ignored the cautions of the established left parties and went out on strike against bread rationing in their thousands. A male engineering worker recalled that, “masses of women workers in a militant frame of mind filled the lane…shouting, ‘Come out! Stop work!’ Snowballs flew through the windows.”
The strike spread. Workers formed soviets, or workers’ councils, to coordinate their political activity in their workplaces.
During these tumultuous days, bourgeois women complained that their maids were inattentive—the tore off their aprons, tied red ribbons in their hair and took to the streets in celebration.
Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate and a provisional government was formed. In October 1917, workers, behind the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, overthrew the provisional government to deliver all power to the soviets.
Some of the first decrees by the new workers’ state were to give women full, equal rights with men. For the first time in their lives they had the right to divorce, to abortion on demand, paid maternity leave, and equal voting rights.
But the Bolsheviks realised that having the same rights on paper was not enough. Women had to be liberated from the household drudgery that enslaved them. The back-breaking work in the home, rearing children, cooking and cleaning, began to be socialised. Public kitchens and dining halls, laundries, and nurseries were established.
In Petrograd during 1919-20 almost 90 per cent of the population was fed communally. In Moscow more than 60 per cent were registered with the dining-halls.
The revolution also gave way to freer forms of relationships and sexuality in what had previously been a sexually repressive society.
Lenin once referred to the Russian Revolution as a “festival of the oppressed”. As the Russian working class was transforming society, they were also challenging the reactionary values that had underpinned the old system. Homosexuality was decriminalised and church control over sexual activity was abolished. For the first time, lesbian and gay people could meet without fear of state persecution. There were several instances of same sex marriage.
It was no simple task, however, to throw off old backwards ideas. Women still faced sexism and economic hardship that limited their ability to be involved in politics. Most women were still illiterate.
In recognition of this, the Bolsheviks redoubled their efforts to bring women into the party and the ongoing revolutionary struggle. Although the revolution was under siege, with no less than 22 armies invading in the first year, the Bolsheviks understood that the revolution would be lost without the equal involvement of women.
In 1918, the first all-Russian Congress of Working Women was held. Over 1000 delegates elected from all over the country attended.
Out of this conference the Zhenotdel was set up, a special body of the Communist Party dedicated to women and women’s issues.
Zhenotdel volunteers travelled thousands of miles across the country to factories and villages to campaign for the revolution. They used “agit-trains” to reach remote areas, bringing with them poster art and song and dance groups. They held political meetings and showed films and plays in towns all over Russia.
They travelled to the Muslim populations in the East, often wearing the veil to be able to talk and work amongst veiled women. The Zhenotdel set up over 125,000 literacy schools and produced publications on everything from socialised childcare to designs for new homes taking into account plans for communal facilities.
Delegate bodies rotated every two or three months. Local women were elected to regional committees, organising communal institutions, party work, people’s courts and war work, and then reported back to their local area. For many rural women this was the first time they had left their remote communities.
But with the failure of the revolution to spread to the rest of Europe, the Russian revolution became increasingly isolated.
As civil war raged, poverty and starvation gripped Russia throughout the 1920s. The new workers’ state was unable to fund and support the public kitchens, nurseries and laundries. As a result, women were forced back into the home. Prostitution soared back to war time levels.
By 1928 a counter-revolution, with Stalin at its head, was complete. Its progress could be measured in the lives of women. The role of mothers was again glorified and abortion was re-criminalised. In the Russian borderlands, Stalin’s bureaucrats carried out forced unveilings of Muslim women. The Zhenotdel was dissolved in 1930.
But for a moment in history, Russian workers created a society where dignity and respect lay at the centre of human relations. The Russian Revolution showed the possibility of sweeping aside sexism and oppression. Women glimpsed true freedom and had a hand in starting to build the world anew.
In the era of Donald Trump and entrenched sexist divisions across the world, the need for revolution is greater than ever.