Solidarity continues a series on the lives and struggle of revolutionary women
The 1917 Russian Revolution saw women win greater political, civil and legal equality with men than in any other modern society. The activity and the writings of Alexandra Kollontai (the first female member of the Bolshevik party’s central committee) before, during and after the revolution, were central to this process.
From the late 19th century Kollontai was drawn to the struggle of working women. In 1895 she visited a textile factory where women workers toiled between 12 and 18 hours a day and few lived beyond 30 years of age.
Kollontai identified the women’s (often spontaneous) resistance as “an indivisible part of the workers movement”. In 1885 thousands of textile workers struck demanding an end to night work for women and children; their militancy forcing the Tsarist government to capitulate to their demands.
These early experiences both horrified and inspired Kollontai. She argued that women’s oppression was upheld by capitalism, and thus the fight for women’s liberation was inextricably linked to fighting for a new type of society. Yet she also understood that waiting for socialism was not enough. Fighting every aspect of sexism within society was fundamental in building a movement able to fight for a truly equal society.
Kollontai argued against the emerging bourgeois feminist movement.
Led by middle-class and intellectual women, groups like the Women’s Equal Rights Union said that feminism was unconcerned with the emerging revolutionary situation: “For feminists there are no classes, legal castes, or educational levels. It is an idea which equalises all.”
Kollontai insisted that women’s oppression could be separated from the question of class. You could not compare the labouring mothers’ “triple burden” of work, childcare and housework, with the leisurely life of the female elite. Ruling class women might be affected by sexism, but their class position meant they had an interest in maintaining the oppression of their working class “sisters”. The demand for equal property rights or the rights of propertied women to vote in fact leaves intact the class divisions responsible for maintaining women’s oppression.
Heavily influenced by Engels, Kollontai argued that sexism was in not innate, but rather emerged due to certain social relations in society (see her pamphlet The Social Basis for the Women’s Question). Under capitalism, oppression is underpinned materially and ideologically by the nuclear family.
Kollontai emphasised that it allows for both the so-called “unproductive” household labour—the rearing of the next generation of workers—to be unpaid, and it also justifies the intense exploitation of women in the work force: “Capitalism has placed on the shoulders of the women a burden which crushes her: it has made her a wage worker without having lessened her cares as a mother.”
Kollontai stressed that building a united class-based socialist movement required addressing the specific oppression experienced by women. From 1903 the Bolsheviks had incorporated equality of the sexes into their political program, but this had to be translated into activity.
Central to Kollontai’s success in overcoming conservative attitudes to this work were successes within the Russian unions, which had accepted women members from their beginnings.
Over the next decade, women became increasingly involved in the class struggle. Strikes often addressed specific women’s demands, such as paid maternity leave or workplace childcare. In early 1914 the Bolsheviks introduced a newspaper specifically to address the exploitation and oppression of women. The first edition sold over 12,000 copies.
In 1917, the women’s demonstration on International Women’s Day, calling for “peace and bread” and “down with autocracy”, was the initial spark for the Russian revolution.
After victory in October, reforms such as the right to vote and divorce were introduced within weeks. Church marriages were replaced with civil, registered marriage. The legal concept of illegitimacy was abolished. In 1920, abortion became legal and free.
Workplace reforms introduced equal pay, 16 weeks’ paid maternity leave and exemption from jobs deemed dangerous when pregnant. Prostitution was banned and began to disappear.
Fundamental to transforming the situation for women was freeing them from the burdens and constraints of the nuclear family. The private family responsibilities of women needed to be socialised and publicly provided by the state. By 1919 over 90 per cent of Petrograd had access to communal restaurants, childcare and washing facilities.
Kollontai’s vision of women’s liberation was cut short by the defeat of the revolution. Under Stalin, capitalist social relations re-emerged.
However her ideas remain fundamental in understanding sexism today. Women’s liberation can only be achieved when the needs of women and men are put before profit, when classes are eliminated, and people can choose how they want to live.
As Kollontai argued, “If in a new society women are still oppressed, we are nowhere near a socialist society.”