The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women

Oct 11, 2021

Translated from Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle), the newspaper of the revolutionary workers’ group active in France.

The emancipation of women is an integral part of the struggle of the communist workers movement. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was the first seizure of power on a large scale by the working class. It blew a wind of emancipation over the workers and peasants, despite the terrible difficulties linked to Russia’s underdevelopment, to the revolution’s isolation in a single country, to sabotage by bourgeois and aristocratic circles, and to aggression by all the united imperialist powers.

The steps taken toward the emancipation of women, and the way in which they were taken, give the measure of the uprooting which a deep social revolution allows. It was only later that the Stalinist bureaucracy, once consolidated in power, reverted to a conservative view of the role of women as housewives and pushed back the initial advances.

During the First World War, women entered Russian factories en masse to replace the men who left for the front lines. They made up 43% of the workforce. Their situation remained marked by submission to the family patriarch, to domestic violence, to the weight of religion and tradition, to illiteracy, to wages lower than mens’, and to the obligation to work up to the moment of childbirth and return to work the next day.

The Russian Revolution began with a demonstration of female textile workers in February 1917 in Petrograd. In October and under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, the revolution led to a new power based on the mobilization and organization of the workers themselves. The Council of People’s Commissars was also the first government in the world in which a woman sat: Alexandra Kollontai.

In terms of legislation, the new power quickly achieved what feminists were fighting for in so-called democratic countries in Europe and the U.S.: the right to vote and run as a candidate, the end of the legal domination by the head of the family, civil marriage, simpler divorce procedures, equal rights for children born out of wedlock, a ban on night work for women, equal pay, maternity leave of 16 weeks for wage workers and 12 weeks for salaried employees, and for legal and free abortion (in 1920).

As Lenin said at the end of 1918: “Nowhere in the world has the equality and freedom of working women been so fully realized.… For the first time in history, our law erased everything that left women without rights.” He went on to say: “Of course the laws are not enough.” Because there is a chasm between equality on paper and real equality in everyday life!

Lenin observed in 1919: “Woman continues to remain the domestic slave, despite all liberating laws, because the small domestic economy oppresses her, suffocates her, stifles her, humiliates her by attaching her to the kitchen, in the children’s room, forcing her to spend her strength in terribly unproductive, petty, annoying, stupefying, depressing tasks.” Inessa Armand clarified the matter: “To replace thousands and millions of small individual economic units, rudimentary, unhealthy and poorly equipped kitchens, and the inconvenient laundry tub, we must create exemplary collective structures, collective kitchens, collective canteens and collective laundries.”

What was new was that the workers’ state was an organ in the hands of the workers, functioning thanks to their initiatives and in particular those of working women. Despite the country’s poverty, many women set about changing the way of living, by setting up community housing, canteens, nurseries, kindergartens, and maternal homes welcoming women before and after birth.

The Bolshevik Party waged a militant struggle to involve women more in political action. Lenin underlined the difficulties in building a socialist society: “It is the beginning of a more difficult, more essential, more radical and more decisive revolution than the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, because it is a victory over our own routine, our laxitude … on these habits that capitalism has bequeathed to the worker and the peasant.” To workers and peasants, the past had bequeathed religious prejudices, lack of education and political awareness, and lack of self-confidence.

To combat this legacy, Bolshevik leaders Alexandra Kollontai, Inessa Armand and Concordia Samoïlova gathered more than 1,100 women in the fall of 1918 for an All-Russian Congress of Women Workers and Peasants. In 1919, despite opposition by certain militants, they created a section of the central committee of the Bolshevik party in charge of militating among women workers, the Jenotdel, which existed until 1930. Delegates elected for three to six months by women workers and peasants brought working women together to listen to their problems. They took part in meetings, in propaganda campaigns against alcoholism, domestic violence, epidemics, and so on. They learned how to manage collective institutions like kindergartens, nurseries, and canteens. Nadezhda Krupskaya estimated that 10 million women were delegates at one time or another.

Bolshevik newspapers Woman Worker and Woman Communist played a role in political education and became a sounding board for the problems and concerns of working women. The struggle for literacy gave millions of women access to reading for the first time, especially in the countryside where the male heads of the Orthodox Church and its elders opposed it, seeing it as the influence of the Antichrist!

In the Eastern Soviet Republics, the power of the Soviets prohibited polygamy and dowry and sought to rely on the mobilizations of women to overthrow the feudal and archaic religious castes. In 1921, a congress of Eastern Communist Women said: “Slaves we were born and slaves we died.… It seemed this was to be our eternal destiny.… But then, in October 1917, a red star appeared, never seen before, and so the workers and peasants joined the Revolution and it changed their lives.” There was still a long way to go: in Uzbekistan in 1928, more than 200 women were murdered by their families for trying to exercise their rights, or for attending a Jenotdel meeting.

In the countryside, activists spoke about contraception, participation in the life of the Soviets, and reading. They clashed with patriarchal traditions. One young woman was flushed out of the book club in her village by her mother-in-law and was dragged by her hair to the matrimonial home. One reader wrote to a socialist newspaper that her husband “practically overwhelms me with insults and beatings. He doesn’t want me to work. He wants me to sit by the stove … but I want to be a worker of the great October revolution. I’m tired of being a good woman, I want to be a human being.”

The power of the Soviets, with its legal and material achievements, expressed the will for change that was emerging among millions of working and peasant women and many of their companions, and this undermined traditions that had weighed on the lives of women for centuries.