Road to emancipation

Print edition : December 22, 2017

March 8, 1917: A women's march at St. Petersburg, demanding "Bread and Peace". Photo: Getty Images

Vera Zasulich (1849-1919) and Maria Spiridonova (1884-1941), who studied abroad as they were not allowed to do so in Russia, saw themselves as revolutionaries. Photo: Getty Images

October 1917: Women line up to get food at Tverskaya Zastava square in Moscow. Photo: Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archive via AP

1917: Women soldiers march during the Russian Revolution. Photo: Getty Images

A 1918 poster that says: "Women workers, take up your rifles!"

A poster that reads: "Women want to win the war too. We must help them."

Nadezhda Krupskaya, Alexandra Kollontai and Inessa Armand were active in the struggles for women's equality and became important figures of the Bolshevik leadership. Photo: Getty Images

June 13, 1942: A woman worker operating complicated machinery in a factory during wartime. Photo: Getty Images

Catherine Breshkovskaya (1844-1934). Popularly known as Babushka, the grandmother of the Russian Revolution, she was instrumental in changing the attitudes and aspirations of women in Russian politics of that time. Photo: Bettmann Archive

Prof. L.S. Stern , eminent physiologist, professor at Moscow University and Director of the Moscow Physiological Institute. She was awarded the title of "Honorary Scientific Worker", the first woman in Soviet Russia to be so honoured. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

October 1917: Casting her vote at the constitutional assembly during the revolution. Photo: Getty Images

Women turned out in large numbers wearing red for the centenary march in Moscow on November 7, 2017, to sing old revolutionary songs and reaffirm their commitment to socialism and communism. Photo: Dilip Banerjee

Women were a significant force in the mass uprising that culminated in the revolution and were instrumental in shaping the attitudes and policies of the nascent Soviet state, which recognised the urgent need for their emancipation.

It is fair to say that there would have been no Russian Revolution without the contributions—and sacrifices—of Russian women. The February revolution began (in fact on March 8, International Women’s Day) with the massive march of working women demanding “Bread and Peace” in St. Petersburg. It became the catalytic (and even totemic) force that brought more and varied sections of society into the movement for change that led first to the downfall of the tsarist regime in the early months of 1917 and then, after the chaotic months of the Alexander Kerensky government, the Bolshevik Revolution in November.

This political involvement of women was relatively new and therefore unexpected. Pre-revolutionary Russia was patriarchal in a typically feudal way and, indeed, much less advanced than several other European countries of the time with respect to the rights of women and the social constraints on their actions. Women were not allowed to vote or serve in elected office or, indeed, hold any public position. They were generally relegated to housework and social reproduction and, regardless of social class, were not seen as able to hold and control assets and generally did not earn independent incomes. At the end of the 19th century, only 13 per cent of Russian women were estimated to be literate.

However, towards the later part of the 19th century, there was an expansion of urban factories that led to some employment of poor women, typically very young women or girls who were often migrants from rural areas, in a classic pattern of early industrialisation. Such employment was often arduous and low-paid, but it also meant that women were able to venture out of their homes and achieve some degree of economic autonomy rather than living as “dependants” performing only unpaid work at home.

The first women revolutionaries

At the same time, from the late 1860s and 1870s, there was some ferment in the upper and middle classes as well, as educated women from elite families became attracted to the nascent social democratic movement, seeking relief from sociopolitical absolutism. There were campaigns for women’s education and women’s suffrage, as well as demands for social changes resulting from more attention being given to “the women’s questions”. Women like Vera Zasulich, Maria Spiridonova and Vera Figner, who had typically engaged in higher studies abroad as they were not allowed to do so in Russia, indeed saw themselves as revolutionaries. Vera Figner’s autobiography was entitled Memoirs of a Revolutionist, and as a member of the terrorist group Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will), she applauded the assassination in 1881 of Tsar Alexander II, who, ironically, had begun the process of opening up the political space through some liberal reforms.

Others like Catherine Breshkovskaya were influenced by the anarchist Peter Kropotkin and became Narodniks. Catherine Breshkovskaya advocated more peaceful means to political transformation but nevertheless had to spend decades in tsarist prisons in Siberia. While she subsequently became strongly opposed to the Bolshevik regime and lived in exile in Prague after the revolution, she and other Narodnik women were important in changing both attitudes and aspirations of women involved in the turbulent Russian politics of the time.

Several other women, such as Nadezhda Krupskaya (Lenin’s wife), Alexandra Kollontai, Yelena Stassova, Inessa Armand and Konkordia Samiolova, were active in the struggles for women’s equality and became important figures of the Bolshevik leadership. In the decade leading up to 1917, there was tension between such women and feminists identified as “bourgeois women” because of Bolshevik fears (echoed over the subsequent century in so many other progressive movements) that the latter’s focus on women’s emancipation rather than class struggle would divide the working class. Among the Bolshevik women, “the women’s question” was clearly subordinated to the need for the working class as a whole to overthrow the tsarist state and usher in socialism, which it was believed would simultaneously bring about gender equality. Indeed, an attempt in 1914 by Bolshevik women to bring out a journal oriented to working women ( Rabotnitsa) carefully avoided “feminist” issues, but even so it lasted for only seven issues, although it was revived after the revolution.

But these leaders were only a small part of the huge numbers of women who became essential to the mass uprising that culminated in the revolution. Alexandra Kollontai described them in her memoirs: “If one looks back into the past, one can see them, these masses of nameless heroines whom October found living in starving cities, in impoverished villages plundered by war.... A scarf on their head (very rarely, as yet, a red kerchief), a worn skirt, a patched winter jacket.... Young and old, women workers and soldiers’ wives, peasant women and housewives from among the city poor. More rarely, much more rarely in those days, office workers and women in the professions, educated and cultured women. But there were also women from the intelligentsia among those who carried the Red Flag to the October victory—teachers, office employees, young students at high schools and universities, women doctors. They marched cheerfully, selflessly, purposefully. They went wherever they were sent. To the front? They put on a soldier’s cap and became fighters in the Red Army. If they put on red arm-bands, then they were hurrying off to the first-aid stations to help the Red front against Kerensky at Gatchina. They worked in army communications. They worked cheerfully, filled with the belief that something momentous was happening, and that we are all small cogs in the one class of revolution.”

This significant force of women had an impact during the upheavals of 1917: in July, women were granted the right to vote and to hold public office, and the first such vote was for the Constituent Assembly in November, when in several areas, women who voted outnumbered men. After the Bolshevik takeover, the egalitarian ideals of the revolution inevitably affected the attitudes and policies of the nascent Soviet state towards women as it sought to build a society free from oppression and inequality.

The Bolshevik leadership explicitly recognised the urgent need for women’s emancipation under socialism. Lenin himself argued: “The female half of the human race is doubly oppressed under capitalism. The working woman and the peasant woman are oppressed by capital, but over and above that, even in the most democratic of the bourgeois republics, they remain, firstly, deprived of some rights because the law does not give them equality with men; and secondly—and this is the main thing—they remain in ‘household bondage’, they continue to be ‘household slaves’, for they are overburdened with the drudgery of the most squalid and backbreaking and stultifying toil in the kitchen and the individual family household.”

State recognition of women’s rights

Women’s active participation in paid work was seen as central to breaking out of that bondage. A range of legal changes reinforced women’s economic autonomy: changes in property relations; an end to restrictions on women’s mobility after marriage; equal rights across genders to own land and function as household heads. Social changes were also mandated by new laws. Marriage was made an entirely secular process, enabled through registration, and within a decade even that requirement was removed, while divorce was made much easier. Women were given free access to abortion, and no legal distinction was made between children born within a marriage and those born out of marriage. Paid maternity leave was introduced and more maternity wards were set up in hospitals. These were significant advances not only over Russia’s previous patterns but in relation to other countries at the time, and it is likely that this extent of state recognition of women’s rights did not exist in any other society of the time, including in Europe.

The first decade after the revolution also experienced a major cultural flowering as newly liberated women experienced and expressed their emancipation in all sorts of creative ways. They must have been heady days for women, who were beginning to benefit from some of the fruits of the social and political changes brought about to a substantial extent through their own efforts and political involvement.

It is true, unfortunately, that some of these significant gains were relatively short-lived as the patriarchy inherent in society and the Soviet bureaucracy under Stalin began a pushback. The importance of family stability and the joys of motherhood were once again reiterated; the gendered division of labour within households was reaffirmed even though women were also expected to work outside, leading to significant double burdens of work; the legal notion of illegitimate children was reintroduced; divorce was made more difficult and expensive. Sexual freedoms were greatly curbed; homosexuality (which had been decriminalised in 1922) was once again made illegal in 1933; and by 1936 even abortion was banned.

By the time of the Second World War, women were once again the sufferers of events beyond their control, buffeted by decisions and policies that they neither determined nor benefited from. The sacrifices made by Soviet women during the War were enormous—but this time they were less recognised.

However, the emphasis on women’s education and work participation continued, and that meant that some of the gains made in the early years after the revolution simply could not be reversed. Even in the late 20th century, when perestroika had already begun to dismantle many Soviet structures, women in the Soviet Union were in general more educated, more involved in a range of professions and better paid in their work than their counterparts in Western capitalist societies. The extent to which much of this was dependent upon policies of the Soviet state to ensure some economic rights of women became evident after the collapse of socialism, when the regression to traditional gender roles and the increasing gender gaps in occupation and pay became even worse than in other market-oriented societies.

What this century-long experience suggests is that the process of moving towards gender equality—and thereby emancipating and empowering both women and men—is a long, complex and uneven road, in which there can be twists and turns, bumps and reversals, even within a forward movement over time. But there are shining moments of inspiration that suggest what can be achieved—and the decade after the Russian Revolution provides one example of that.