The Emancipation of Women in Russia before and after the Russian Revolution

Today, March 8, is International Working Women's Day. To celebrate this important day we are publishing an article on women and the Russian Revolution. It shows how that single event did more for women than any other struggle that had come before it and indeed after as well. First published (July 18, 2002) in issue Number 5 of 'In difesa del marxismo', the theoretical magazine of the Italian Marxist journal FalceMartello.

The 1917 October Russian Revolution was the most important event in the struggle for the emancipation of women in Russian history. To understand this event, makes it easier to understand the evolution of the women's liberation movement up to the present day. But there is more to it than that. The experience of the marvellous struggle of Bolshevik women is full of vital lessons for us, for it is an example of the most effective way of overcoming women's oppression.

Like the rest of the world, the industrialisation development of the 17th and 18th centuries, which radically changed the relationships within the family nucleus, also had a profound effect on the developing consciousness of Russian women about the state of their own specific exploitation. With the consolidation of the capitalist mode of production, the old family economic model had broken down. This had been based primarily on production for family consumption. Women were condemned to simply becoming physically exhausted. In the context of the old family based mode of production, - although they were definitely oppressed by men - women were not conscious of the limits imposed on their individual development and even less of the limits imposed on their fundamental social rights. First as a daughter, later as a wife and mother, a woman would spend her life within the confines of the home and the only society that she actually knew was that of the family nucleus. Gender oppression starts to be perceived as a limitation of women's freedom when the capitalist mode of production asserts itself, and with it the use of machines becomes widespread. This is because these machines completely undermine independent (or household) production and allow working class women to seek a role outside their home. Women then begin to acquire a consciousness that pushes them to seek to defend their interests, and begin to see that they are discriminated against. They become aware of the fact that they have fewer rights than men.

Historically the demands for women's emancipation initially emerged within the bourgeois feminist movement, which had greater financial and cultural resources. However, it was only when these demands were taken up by working class women did they assume the necessary strength to achieve important victories. However, the women of the upper classes tended to see the struggle for civil rights as a way of defending their own social status. This would not necessarily also be of any benefit to working class women.

Marxism does not see the women's question merely as one of gender. It also sees the bosses' oppression, which exists under capitalism, as playing a fundamental role in the oppression of women. It is capitalist exploitation, which favours the maintaining of sex discrimination. Within the different social classes discrimination against women, as well as the methods and the aims of the women's struggles, by necessity assume a different nature. At the decisive moment every woman will support the social class to which she belongs. A female member of the bourgeois class will not hesitate to support anti-trade union laws, even if these go against the interests of her working class "sisters", if these contribute to increasing her wealth. This does not mean that bourgeois feminist movements - if they feel the need to do so - never seek the support of working class women. What it does show is that real power in the struggle for women's emancipation, both organisationally and numerically, lies with the working class women.

Woman during the reign of the Tsars

As Engels pointed out, the group that was "the first in Russia in which women played an active and independent role" was the "Tchaikovsky" circle (1). This group was founded at the beginning of 1870 and was organized by students of both sexes, united by ethical and moral principles, but with no common ideology. The aim of this group was to spread socialist propaganda among the population, by making it conscious both of the exploitation it suffered, and of the possibility to overcome it with a revolution based on the peasants. The socialist groups working within the political organisations formed in that period, tended to concentrate their attention on the problem of illiteracy and the need to raise the cultural level of the most exploited layers of society. From this developed the organisation of lectures on capitalism and class exploitation, as well as the distribution of low cost political and economic writings of a wide-ranging character.

The greatest contribution of the Tchaikovsky group to the struggle for women's emancipation was how they involved women in discussions and political activity on the same level as men. The women that belonged to these circles, however, mainly came from groups that forbade male participation. Separatism and suspicion towards mixed groups should not surprise us if we remember that this was within the context of backward tsarist Russia, in which fear of male domination, experienced in different ways inside the family and society as a whole, brought socialist women activists to see the presence of men as a threat to their autonomy. This attitude was nothing more than a necessary phase - in that given context - of a process of personal emancipation. Separatism was determined by the need of women to develop freely their own awareness of their own state of exploitation, to overcome their own lack of confidence and to prepare themselves to act politically together with men, but with no sense of subjugation towards them. After having reached a certain degree of economic and political independence, and having acquired an adequate level of class-consciousness, the need to go beyond the "personal" struggle and to embrace a wider struggle of a social character became evident. Many women's political development followed the same general path; the conquest of individual independence would push them to abandon feminism, in its more limited [bourgeois] form, leading them to the radicalism of the Tchaikovsky group and other similar initiatives, where both sexes were united in socialist propaganda and agitation.

Most of the student groups [2] were influenced by Bakuninist (Anarchist) ideology, among them being the 'Rosalie Jakesburg' group [1872]. They were close to the 'Land and Freedom' party, reflecting - not surprisingly - the orientation towards the 'peasant majority' of the time, even among the worker and student vanguard. In the student groups, women were politically educated to carry their propaganda activity to the workers. These militants understood that only the elimination of capitalist exploitation - which condemned women to a double oppression of factory work and housework - together with the direct involvement in the democratic running of the production processes, and the organisation of society, could guarantee an effective emancipation of women. Only in this way would women be able to decide on and create services and structures that would emancipate them from the private duties of family care.

These were the aims which stimulated many women to participate directly in the propaganda work around a series of strikes in Moscow in 1875. However, most of the organisers of these strikes were arrested and given heavy prison sentences and were kept in prison while awaiting their trial to take place. These trials became known as the 'trial of the 50' or the 'trial of the Moscow women'. These trials had an enormous influence in raising the political consciousness, not only of the then women's organisations, but also of the future generations of working class women. Here is how Kravinsky, a 19th century revolutionary journalist describes the trial:

"Before this trial the socialists were only known to the youth. Now an astonished public could look upon the radiant faces of these young women, who with their sweet child-like smiles, were on their way to a place with no return, without hope – towards the central prisons, towards long years of hard labour. The people said to themselves, 'We are back in the epoch of the early Christians, a new force is coming into being'." [Translated from the Italian] (3)

Many of the women that had gone on strike or had sympathized with the arrested "Muscovites" joined the terrorist group called "Narodnaya Volya". This group fought with an extreme spirit of self-sacrifice - although with highly questionable methods (later strongly criticised by Lenin himself) - in defence of the workers' cause against tsarist oppression. Among its best militants were Vera Figner, a member of the executive committee and a socialist activist since 1850, along with her sister Lydia, who were put on trial in Moscow.

From then on the women's movement was to develop together with that of the wider labour movement in the many spontaneous strikes, especially in the textile industries, that took place in the period from 1870 to 1880, where women workers were employed on a massive scale. The outcome of this movement was a law that banned children and women from working the night shift. It was later followed by the 1894-96 economic strikes in Petersburg and the great textile workers' strike of 1896.

The 1905 Russian Revolution and the bourgeois feminist movement

With the 1905 revolution the general picture radically changed, with many women now participating in events such as those lead by Father Gapon. The struggles to extend the franchise, so that women would have the right to vote in elections to the Duma, saw a mass participation of women. The initial difficulties in linking the struggles against specific gender oppression to the more generalised class struggle often made these women easy prey for the feminist bourgeois movement. The latter played a reactionary role because it wanted to channel all women's struggles through separate women's organisations, concentrating on 'universal' gender problems. The League for Women's Equality and the Progressive Women's Party promoted harmony between female employers and employees, on the basis that they were all women! However, it was not long before the women workers distanced themselves from these types of organisations and started to integrate themselves more into the wider labour movement and to concentrate on trade union demands as workers. Unfortunately the war against Japan was creating a general impoverishment in the rural areas, but this also had the effect of creating a greater degree of radicalisation among the peasant women, because they alone had to suffer the main burden of the war. These peasant women became important leaders in the women's struggles in the years 1904-1905.

Unfortunately, from a political point of view, by 1905-06 the ideas of the bourgeois feminist movement had become widespread among the Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries and even among some Bolshevik activists. In 1905 at the first big women's conference held in St. Petersburg there were few opposition voices calling for working class unity against the oppression of working women. To fight this bourgeois influence, a group of Social Democratic women (Bolsheviks and Mensheviks) decided to dedicate a part of their socialist propaganda activity, specifically towards spreading the ideas of socialism among women. These activists organised a campaign against bourgeois feminism, putting forward the Marxist interpretation on the women's question. They also pushed for specific work on the part of the party and the trade unions to be aimed at the problems of working class women.

The real differences in civil and political rights between men and women belonging to the same social class had been ignored for far too long within the traditional working class movement, and this encouraged women to sympathise with the bourgeois feminist groups who were concentrating their attention on gender oppression. However the work of Bolsheviks such as A. Kollontai had made it possible for the women's movement to assume mass proportions already by 1907, and its leaders were already organising public meetings, in open opposition to those of the bourgeois feminists. The patient and consistent propaganda of the socialist women in the workplaces and at meetings organised by the feminists, was finally bearing fruit.

The first working women's circle, the "Working Women's Mutual Assistance Association", was set up in 1907. Men and women could join but the leading positions were reserved to women. The circle's internal structure was designed in such a way as to facilitate the involvement of women activists, by getting them to take part directly in specific struggles concerning women's oppression. The association's aim was to spread the ideas of socialism among the proletariat, and to attract isolated workingwomen to the trade unions and to the Social Democratic party. It did not have the ambition of becoming an autonomous political entity, separate from the traditional organisations of the workers. On the contrary, it proposed that women should join these. In this way they were opening the doors for women's participation in politics. The group did not focus its attention on issues concerning gender oppression alone, but linked these issues to the political, social and economic conditions that determined these. The aim was not to carry out a limited feminist agitation, but socialist agitation among women.

In particular the association had strong links with the textile workers' trade union and was represented in different sections of the Party. It took part in the International Conference of Socialist Women, which took place in 1907 in Stuttgart. That conference discussed which demands should be put forward, but also which methods should be raised to achieve them. Clara Zetkin also participated in the conference and she got a resolution passed which called on the socialist parties of all countries to "fight energetically for universal suffrage (…) both in the legislative and in the local assemblies"(4). While speaking on this resolution, Zetkin stressed that the right to vote was not an end in itself but merely a means to an end. It would serve to strengthen the struggle against class domination and the private property of the means of production - the real source of gender oppression – by getting working class women onto the local and legislative assemblies.

The resolution provoked discussions both inside and outside the conference, because some activists (both men and women) of the different socialist parties had reservations about this question. One of these was Wally Zepler - to take one example - who requested that the extension of the right to vote be limited only to local elections. Victor Adler, the Austrian socialist leader, wanted to leave the decision whether to take up 'universal women's suffrage' as an immediate demand to each national party.

After 1907 relations with the feminist bourgeois organisations became particularly tense. However, when these decided to call a Congress of all Russian women in 1908, Social Democratic women activists, with the important support of Alexandra Kollontai, took advantage of this in order to carry out socialist propaganda among wider layers of society. They organized meetings and individual discussions in semi-underground conditions to elect delegates from trade union and party branches. In spite of their efforts, the working class women delegates actually participating in the conference were only 45, against the 700 bourgeois feminists present. The Social Democratic participants did not lose heart and used every opportunity to make their own separate political identity clear to everyone. They formed a separate group within the conference and presented revolutionary resolutions on every issue on the agenda, ranging from safety at work, to what relations women should have with political parties, to women's right to vote. The majority of delegates rejected all the resolutions presented by the revolutionary wing. The bourgeois feminists rejected completely the need to struggle against the private ownership of the means of production. Any attempt to unite workingwomen in a single "inter-class" organisation with bourgeois feminists was shown to be impossible. The intervention of the socialist women at this conference served to draw a clear line of demarcation between the bourgeois feminists and the socialist revolutionary movement, which served to raise higher the class-consciousness of women workers.

Universal Suffrage

The second International Conference of Socialist Women was held in 1910 in Copenhagen and it concentrated on the question of women's suffrage. On this issue Clara Zetkin was the most experienced, having fought for years against the bourgeois tendencies that wanted to limit this right only to those women who owned property.

The struggle for the "right to vote" divided women along class lines. There were the various feminist associations that saw the need to unite all women in the struggle for women's rights - over and above class divisions. They hypocritically saw the struggle as merely a means of obtaining the vote for women of property. Clara Zetkin explained that to give the vote only to women of property would have strengthened bourgeois policies in opposition to the demands for more rights and safeguards for all workers (be they men or women). In this way the struggle for the emancipation of the working class would be undermined. Giving bourgeois women the right to vote would not in any way mean that the struggle for the right to vote for all women would be made easier in the future. This was because the proletariat and the bourgeoisie are antagonistic social classes. A concession to one of them undermines the interests of the other. Both men and women of the bourgeois class make profit from the exploitation of working class women, so they will never willingly support their emancipation.

These are the words that Clara Zetkin pronounced at the 1907 Stuttgart congress of the Socialist International:

"The right to vote helps the bourgeois women to break down those barriers, in the form of privileges for the male sex, that are an obstacle to their own development and activity. For workingwomen this right becomes a weapon in the battle which they must wage for humanity to overcome exploitation and class rule. It allows them a greater participation in the struggle for the conquest of political power on the part of the proletariat with the aim of going beyond the capitalist order and building the socialist order, the only one that allows for a radical solution to the women's question (…). The workingwomen cannot therefore count on the support of the bourgeois women in the struggle for civil rights. Class contradictions exclude the possibility of workingwomen becoming allies of the bourgeois feminist movement. This does not mean that they reject bourgeois feminists if the latter, in the struggle for universal female suffrage, should stand by them in fighting the common enemy on different fronts. However, the workingwomen must be fully aware of the fact that the right to vote cannot be won through a struggle of the female sex without any class discrimination against the male sex, but only through the class struggle of all the exploited, without any sex discrimination, against all the exploiters, always without any sex discrimination." (5)

Conflicts within the movement for women's suffrage highlighted the class differences. There were those who considered the gender conflict as the main issue. But there were also those who subordinated this to the struggle for the emancipation of the working class as a whole. Although it would not resolve the question by itself, this was a necessary pre-condition for women's emancipation.

Working class women's organisations in the build up to 1917

The socialist women's movement was in the difficult position of having to answer the bourgeois tendencies while at the same time having to deal with a strong mistrust on the part of the male members of the Social Democratic parties themselves. Male activists who did not directly suffer from gender discrimination tended to confuse their female comrades' demands with a certain petit-bourgeois radicalism. In this period, opposition on an international level on the part of the Social Democratic parties proved to be an obstacle to the creation of a special bureau for agitation among workingwomen, something which had been requested by Kollontai. The importance of having adequate structures - with a certain degree of organisational autonomy, but strongly linked to the party politically and strategically - that could attract women to the revolutionary process, was not understood. There was a fear of making concessions to a separatist policy.

In spite of these difficulties, on March 19, 1911 the first international women's day (6) was proclaimed. Thanks to the work of the German Social Democratic party leader, Clara Zetkin, rallies and marches were organized in Germany with tens of thousands of women participating. Thanks to similar work on the part of Samoilova and Kollontai, by March 8, 1913, International Women's Day achieved similar success in Russia.

More and more articles on the work that needed to be done among women and on specific women's problems began to be published in the party press. Then, under pressure from Lenin, a special journal for working class women was created: "The Woman Worker" (Rabotnitsa) (7). The members of the first editorial board were arrested by the repressive Tsarist police, but nonetheless the first issue of the paper was published in 1914. In the same year the Bolshevik Central Committee decided to create a special committee to organise the meetings for International Women's Day. Meetings were held in the factories and public places to discuss issues concerning women's oppression, and to elect representatives from those who had participated in the discussions and proposals, to work on the new committee.

But this was also the year in which the parties of the Second International betrayed the aspirations of millions of workers by voting in favour of the imperialist world war, supporting their own national bourgeoisies in the national parliaments. In this context the Bolsheviks played a very important role in defending the revolutionary position on the women's question and they were able to rebuild a new Marxist International on a solid basis.

In the meantime the imperialist war meant that many workers were being sent to the front and women and children were taking their places in the factories. In Petrograd, between 1914 and 1917, women workers constituted one third of the total workforce. A new mass of women workers was becoming part of the large-scale capitalist production machine. In the factories the consciousness of the women workers was growing. They were becoming aware of the role that their class could play in building a new society. They gained in confidence, as they were involved more in the industrial organisation of the work and in the trade union structures.

1917 revolution

During 1917 the general consensus of opposition to the imperialist war increased, strengthening the Bolsheviks, who had been courageously denouncing the imperialist war since 1914. On February 23, the government attempted to stop the demonstrations called to celebrate International Women's Day. This provoked clashes with workers, especially in the Putilov factory in St Petersburg, which ended in a mass mobilisation of workers. The women came out onto the streets and spoke to the soldiers, who then refused to open fire against the demonstrators, turning their bayonets against the Tsarist monarchy. Thus, within a few days of demonstrations the rotten Tsarist regime collapsed, and the revolution began.


More and more, the young workers, both men and women began to join their trade unions and also sought to join the Bolshevik party. From now on they would not stop until they had smashed the source of all their suffering, not only in the workplace but also the imperialist war. The laundry workers, considered among the most backward layer of workers, went on strike, demanding the nationalisation of the laundries, under the control of the local municipalities. However, although the Bolsheviks naturally supported this demand, the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries [SRs], being in the majority at this time, considered the demand premature and opposed it.

The propaganda work of the paper 'Rabotnitsa' was now becoming ever more central to the work of the Bolsheviks. On its editorial board were such stalwarts of women's liberation as comrades Krupskaya, Innessa Armand, Stahl, Kollontai, Eliazarova, Kudelli, Samoilova, and Nikolayeva and other female workers of St Petersburg. These women were absolutely dedicated to the revolutionary cause, they organised meetings, called aggregates and generally focused the work, developing the revolution. Each factory had its own representatives on the editorial board of 'Rabotnitsa' and there were weekly meetings, where all would participate and review the reports received from the different areas. The paper was also used as an instrument to raise the level of understanding in both trade union and political structures, which were still lagging behind the consciousness of the masses, towards a better understanding of the role of women workers. In March 1917 the Bolsheviks created a bureau to promote revolutionary work among women workers, but this project remained on paper for some time, with little action. However, thanks to the obstinacy and perseverance of the women comrades, they managed eventually to involve the party in calling for a Congress for all women workers, to discuss the best way to involve and organise women in the revolutionary struggles then taking place. In this period Lenin wrote many articles on the need to find new strategies and specific organisational models to attract women workers to socialism.

The congress, organised through the soviets, was held between 1917 and 1918, but was initially delayed during the days of the conquest of power by the Bolshevik party. Many women were actively participating in this process, and power brought important changes in the position of women. The victory over the Tsarist regime allowed newly born Soviet Russia to implement a number of civil rights that the capitalist regime could never have granted in that period. The involvement of women workers in the direct management and control of production of goods and services, through the Soviets, was opening up the era of the genuine emancipation of women.

The 'Eastern Women' greeted the women workers and peasants of Soviet Russia in speeches made at the first Pan-Russian conference of female communist militants, held in 1921, thus:

"We were born as slaves and used to die as slaves. That is how thousands, millions of women lived their lives, and it seemed that was to be their eternal destiny, that never a hand would be raised to break their chains. But then in October 1917 a red star appeared, that had never been seen before, and thus the workingwomen and peasant women joined the Revolution which changed their lives. News of those events got to us late and in a confused and partil manner. For this news to reach us women of the East, it had to get through the walls, the iron bars and our parandjà. [Note: Long veils that cover a woman from head to toe]

"For a long time we did not believe it. The mullahs threatened us and terrorised us with celestial damnation, while our husbands, fathers and brothers did everything to stop us having any contact with the outside world. The workingwomen comrades who came to us from Soviet Russia won our confidence and many of us have started to reply to their appeals, to follow their example, to teach other women how to liberate themselves from subjugation, and to be no longer ashamed or afraid... We believe in your energy and we know that in the future you will always come to our aid, so that we women of the East are not thrown back into the ancient slavery, closed behind iron bars, suffocated under the veils of submission and solitude." [Translated from the Italian]. (8)

In such an important moment for the young Russian proletariat, which needed to show its ability to defend the new social model from the external aggression of the capitalist countries, political education was particularly important. This is why the Petrograd 'Congress of Industrial Women Workers' decided to create special commission, with a majority participation of women, in charge of educating women in how to exercise their new rights. Also, the new Bolshevik government power implemented more advanced legislation, guaranteeing in the workplaces the right of women to directly participate in social and political activity, eliminating all formal and concrete obstacles which in the past had meant the subordination of their social and political activity and their subservience to men. New legislation on maternity and health insurance was proposed and approved in December 1917. A public insurance fund was created, with no deductions from workers wages, benefitting both women workers and male workers' wives.

After the victory of the revolution, comrade Kollontai entered the new Soviet government as commissar for social services. This position enabled her to participate in the passing of new laws which recognised women as citizens, with equal rights to men. Six weeks after the revolution, civil marriage was introduced and a year later the new civil code on marriage established an equal legal status between husband and wife. The distinction between legitimate and illigitimate children was eliminated. Divorce procedures were made much easier, based on the concept of mutual agreement allowing immediate divorce, and access to a court where mutual agreement was not forthcoming, and maintainance would be guaranteed in cases of unemployment or economic difficulties.

In January 1918 the department for the 'protection of maternity and youth' was officially established. It granted assistance to preganant womenworkers and mothers that had recently given birth, ensuring that this law was respected. This law was particularly firm; it included for instance a period of 16 weeks leave from work, before and after giving birth. It established that they should not have to do heavy work. It prohibited the transferring or laying off of pregnant women. It also prohibited night work for pregnant women and mothers who had recently given birth and it set up special maternity clinics.

The commisions established during the 1917 Congress were closed involved in, and favoured a rapid implementation of, all these reforms. The commissions were composed of delegates from the 'Workers, Soldiers and Peasants Soviets', Trade Unions together with social and infant care specialists. The attention given to women's problems, especially on the part of members of the Bolshevik party, shows the importance of this hands on policy, which was no longer relegated to a few isolated women comrades. The commission's main task was to promote the acceptance of the reforms by the population at large, which had to overcome old residual prejudices from the past period of capitalist oppression.

But 1918 saw the beginning of the attacks on the new Soviet state from the major imperialist powers and the outburst of civil war. This brought to the forefront the concrete tasks of preparing the women workers, alongside the men, to resist the imperialist invasion. The organisers of the St Petersburg congress decided to call a conference for all women workers and peasants - whether members of a political party or not - of the new soviet republic. Sverdlov, on behalf of the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks, supported this initiiative and actively participated in the organisation of the meetings to elect delegates to attend this conference. There was a strong reponse from the peasants in the countryside and the workers in the factories, and from the whole of the Bolshevik party. Eventually over a thousand delegates managed to attend the conference, quite an achievment considering the difficult travelling conditions that many delegates had to overcome in reaching St Petersburg from the different regions of Soviet Russia.

The conference served a useful purpose in establishing a greater coordination and unity of action between the advanced, mainly urban areas of the revolution, and the more distant and backward areas. Many women were being attracted to socialism and joined the Bolshevik party and the female militias of the 'Red Sisters', in order to actively oppose the white armies. Although the special commissions had made a tremendous effort it was eventually considered that their organisational structures were inadequate to the tasks ahead and in the autumn of 1919 they were reorganised and became a formal section of the Central Committee and were given the name 'Genotdel', which published a monthly paper, the 'Komminitska'. A network of branches was developed, in close contact with local party committees (9). Genotdel was led by the Bolsheviks but it was not a party structure in that it was run by women, both members and non members, with the aim of attracting non politicised women to the ideas of socialism and the party.

Alexandra Kollontai and Lenin were very clear on the aims of this body. Its role was to bring women into the party and involve them directly in the work of the soviets and of the state. Its aim was also to promote an awareness within the soviets and a genuine carrying out of specific working women's demands. In order to achieve these aims, special organisational and propaganda measures were necessary, because it was more difficult to involve women and politicise them, mainly due to their isolation within the family. In addition, sometimes the violent pressures of husbands and the opposition of parents, both of whom would not tolerate their effective emancipation had to be overcome. Therefore, Genotdel was never seen as a seperate organisation. It initiated women's participation in politics, driving them towards the work inside the trade unions, the party and soviets.

The Bolshevik Party organizes women after the revolution

The Conferences and Congresses that were organised by the Bolsheviks through Genotdel, [see end of Part One] developed all over Russia. Such events became an attraction to the peasant women and lead them to support and become participants in the struggles of working women generally. In 1920, at the second congress of the Third International, guidelines for the establishment of both national and international organisations of women Bolsheviks were approved.

"Women members of the Communist Party of a given country should not be organised in separate associations but they should be full members - with equal rights and obligations - of the regional bodies of the party and they should be called on to take part in all the bodies and levels of the party. The Communist Party however should take specific measures and set up special organs whose task it is to carry out women's agitation and the organisation and training of women."(10) [Translated from the Italian]


A series of committees for 'Women's Agitation' was created in each regional and local organisation, with the task of promoting activities and membership of women in the Bolshevik party, trade unions and other proletarian fighting organisations. These committees were given the role of providing political and theoretical education of party members. They also played a vital role in mobilising and organising for the conferences. Each committee was mandated to work in close contact with the party leadership, and all resolutions and decisions required the approval of the national party leadership. In order to further this co-operation the national leadership set up a national women's secretariat, which had regular contacts with the committees at all levels. As far as the international organisation is concerned we quote the following:

"Within the executive of the International an international women's secretariat is formed, mad up of between three and five female comrades, who are nominated by the International Communist Women's Conference, and ratified by the Congress of the Communist International or, representing it, by the executive. The women's secretariat works in agreement with the executive of the International to which it is bound by resolutions and measures adopted by this body. A representative of this [women's] secretariat participates in all the meetings and deliberations of the executive, with a consultative vote on general questions, and with a deciding vote on questions which particularly concern the women's movement.

"Its tasks are the following:

"1. Active links with the national women's committees of the individual Communist parties and maintaining relations between the individual committees.

"2. Gathering together agitational and documentary material from the activities of the individual national committees for possible consultation." (11)

The need to socialise housework and to organise services such as restaurants and laundries for the benefit of the whole working population was crucial. A further advance was the legalising of abortions in 1920. With limited social support it was difficult for working women to continue to raise a family, given the poverty then endemic in the country. Russia thus became the first country in the world to introduce the legal right to have an abortion. This measure alone brought to an end that most horrid suffering and even death, through clandestine abortions, of both mother and child.

Unresolved problems in post revolutionary Russia

The first years of the revolution were extremely difficult and the Bolsheviks had to fight on many fronts, in difficult conditions, to consolidate the revolution. The First World War itself caused great difficulty in obtaining commodities. Then a civil war was started, helped along by the aggression of the imperialists against the infant soviet state, which had been created amidst the general backwardness of Tsarist Russia. A successful revolution in one or more advanced European countries would certainly have reduced the suffering that the Russian people had to endure, but unfortunately we do not have the space to analyse in this article why the revolution was not successful internationally [for a more detailed analysis of this period see Russia, From revolution to counter-revolution, Part Two: The Rise of Stalinism]. That we must leave for another time. However, in truth the revolutionary wave of internationalism had been defeated, and during the winter of 1921 Russia was devastated by a food shortage and people went hungry.

The Bolsheviks, under Lenin's leadership, took stock of the situation and decided to retrench. A policy of concessions to the laws of capitalist economy was introduced. Elements of private property, particularly in the countryside were allowed, in order to encourage the circulation of goods. This policy became known as the New Economic Policy [NEP], and unfortunately it also led to a slowing down in the movement towards women's emancipation. The socialisation of housework was postponed and many women began to lose their jobs. The nurseries and public restaurants, because of their low returns, were not an attractive investment for the nascent bourgeoisie that was coming into being under the NEP. The period of 'war communism' had already left the public services in a precarious state, but the NEP was to condemn them completely. This was followed by the collapse of the tenant's organisations, which were created to organise the socialising of housework and thereby promote a 'communist spirit' during a temporary lack of adequate housing. Then the old prejudices surfaced, finding fertile ground in the misery and the limited infrastructure then prevalent, with no means seemingly to solve all this.

This is how Trotsky described the situation:

"The revolution made a heroic effort to destroy the so-called "family hearth"—that archaic, stuffy and stagnant institution in which the woman of the toiling classes performs galley labour from childhood to death. The place of the family as a shut-in petty enterprise was to be occupied, according to the plans, by a finished system of social care and accommodation: maternity houses, crèches, kindergartens, schools, social dining rooms, social laundries, first-aid stations, hospitals, sanatoria, athletic organizations, moving-picture theatres, etc. The complete absorption of the housekeeping functions of the family by institutions of the socialist society, uniting all generations in solidarity and mutual aid, was to bring to woman, and thereby to the loving couple, a real liberation from the thousand-year-old fetters.

"(…)It proved impossible to take the old family by storm— not because the will was lacking, and not because the family was so firmly rooted in men's hearts. On the contrary, after a short period of distrust of the government and its crèches, kindergartens and like institutions, the working women, and after them the more advanced peasants, appreciated the immeasurable advantages of the collective care of children as well as the socialization of the whole family economy. Unfortunately society proved too poor and little cultured. The real resources of the state did not correspond to the plans and intentions of the Communist Party. You cannot "abolish" the family; you have to replace it. The actual liberation of women is unrealisable on a basis of "generalized want." Experience soon proved this austere truth which Marx had formulated eighty years before." (12)

Many Russians fled from the communes in spite of the attempts by leading Bolsheviks (above all by Trotsky) to revitalise them. Now with the revolution confined within its own borders and international capitalism imposing isolation, and thus poverty, the revolutionary tide was brought to a halt, and a revolutionary running of the economy was put on hold. Unemployment was rife and 58% of these unemployed workers were women. At times this figure would reach peaks of 80-90%.

Although the bourgeoisie did not consider it was possible to end prostitution, the Bolsheviks had a firm commitment to abolish it, but in these conditions rather than diminish, it expanded. The selling of a woman's body, a leftover from the capitalist past, now became an economic function for some women, where personal relationships were regulated by profit. The capitalist who bought the labour power of a woman worker, now considered that he could also buy her body. Under capitalism, the nexus between money and property does not allow the full flowering of an equal relationship between male and female; in many marriages often the wife will supply sexual services and housework in exchange for the security of a home. A cultural heritage and traditions that always saw the woman dependant on the man, in certain difficult economic circumstances, propel women to find a way out along the degrading path of prostitution. There is a close link between economic crisis and the growth of prostitution. As unemployment rises, historically also does the number of women on the streets.

Whilst covering with condemnation the women who are the victims of prostitution, the capitalist system itself promotes sex as an economic entity. Both Lenin and Rosa Luxembourg explained that a solution to this social plague was to be found in re-introducing these unfortunate women into productive roles, involving them in the trade unions and workers' parties in the struggle against the root causes of their poverty. The exploitation of women that forced them to sell their bodies could only be abolished by the overthrow of the economic, social and cultural system that is endemic within capitalism. The only class capable of leading this process to a successful conclusion was the proletariat. However, in order to succeed it first had to free itself from that bourgeois cultural influence, which during this period still had a hold on many workers. Therefore for the prostitutes to achieve their own emancipation they first had to become aware of their revolutionary potential as part of the working class, and thus join the workers abandoning prostitution. This involved a rebellion against their own degradation and against their total submission to the laws of the market economy.

There are no legalistic shortcuts that can eliminate this phenomenon. The prostitute is not a criminal committing a crime but a victim of society and of the economic conditions imposed on women. In Russia a new society was being created and this had the potential to awaken the workers from the passivity that capitalist slavery engenders. A new society could (and should) have been built, based on the new cultural models that eliminate all discrimination between workers. Instead of this, because of the terrible economic conditions of the country, surrounded on all sides by over 21 armies fighting a civil war against the soviet state, the sad phenomenon of prostitution gained ground once more in the fertile climate of economic devastation.

"In the autumn of the past year Izvestia suddenly informed its readers, for example, of the arrest in Moscow of "as many as a thousand women who were secretly selling themselves on the streets of the proletarian capital." (…) Here there can be essentially no question of "relics of the past"; prostitutes are recruited from the younger generation. No reasonable person, of course, would think of placing special blame for this sore, as old as civilization, upon the Soviet regime. But it is unforgivable in the presence of prostitution to talk about the triumph of socialism. (…) But the restoration of money relations which has taken place since then, abolishing all direct rationing, will inevitably lead to a new growth of prostitution as well as of homeless children. Wherever there are privileged there are pariahs!" (13)

The Stalinist degeneration

The soviet state struggled magnificently for the liberation of women. It saw this struggle as part of the vital necessity to involve directly the masses in the management of the state power. The new workers' state could defend the revolutionary interests of the proletariat only if the workers controlled the economy. The Bolshevik policy towards women was thus part of a wider policy, aimed at improving the literacy and cultural education of the soviet masses, preparing them for the tasks history was imposing on them. In addition, because of the poverty and misery and the very low cultural level then existing, the Bolsheviks had to rely on other classes to run the state machinery. Lenin and his close collaborators realised that it was a battle against time for the life or death of the revolution. The fact was that the Russian proletariat was too underdeveloped and thus unable to control the state alone. It was vital that the working class raise its cultural level and also that the revolution be successful on an international level, by spreading the revolution to other European states. If this battle were to be lost so would the revolution in Russia!

In this situation, the death of Lenin in 1924 accelerated the process of bureaucratisation, already evident in leading soviet and party bodies. A whole layer of officials, headed by Stalin, whose main aim was to protect its privileges, had already abandoned the perspective of world revolution, and now came to the forefront. Famine and civil war had decimated the best elements of the proletariat and their presence within the soviets declined. Elements that used to play a secondary role now moved into a prominent position. Initially Stalin supported the NEP policy and allowed the 'nepmen' enormous political and economic liberties. In reality the NEP had been conceived as a necessary concession to capitalism to save the revolution while waiting for the success of a revolution in the West. It was intended as a temporary measure, and was recognised as a retreat because it re-introduced into the workers' state elements of a market economy. From 1922, when the NEP was introduced, the number of crèches and sheltered homes for mothers started to decrease, until it quickly reached the absurd position of only 9.3 places for every 1000 women. There were many articles in the papers, particularly in 'Kommunitska', testifying to the fear of public service workers about the uncertain future of their employment.

With the turn by Stalin towards forced industrialisation after 1929, unemployment started to fall. However, the Left Opposition, lead by Trotsky, considered Stalin's industrialisation plan an adventure, being conceived without taking into account the backwardness of the Russian economy, which at that time was still mainly based on agriculture. However, industrialisation was applied wildly and ruthlessly, at a rapid pace. Unemployment, which in 1929 was 1.74 million dropped to 1.08 million by April 1930 and down to a mere one third of a million by October 1930 (14). All this was undertaken without the development of adequate social services, which would have helped to ease the burden on women having to work long hours and also do housework. Stalin was to subordinate everything to strengthen soviet industrialisation, in order that the so-called 'real socialist' model being applied in Russia should demonstrate its superiority. The bulk of human and material resources was concentrated in building up soviet industry, without however creating for the workers the social and educational infrastructure that would have guaranteed productive quality and not only quantity. The industrialisation Plan, which mainly affected the heavy industrial sectors, involved very few women. Women at this time were mainly employed in light industry or at home doing housework. The Genotdel, which was the only institution at that time that could have been used to ameliorate the situation, was abolished, being now considered "useless". In fact this institution had been responsible for many great conquests for working class women. It had promoted the spread of women's newspapers, to the extent that by 1927 there were at least 18, with over 400,000 copies being distributed. Its work of organising political education among resulted by 1929 in the participation of two and half million women. In addition it had played a major role in increasing the number of women delegates to the soviets and the number of women joining the Bolshevik party. In the East the task of Genotdel had been particularly difficult. It had done enormous work in helping to free women from the oppression of the veil and seclusion inside the home. These tasks were not easy to carry out and in many instances the price the young women had to pay was often very high, with beatings being handed out merely for them having participated in meetings of the women's circles. In 1928 in Uzbekistan, 203 cases were reported of women being killed by their fathers, husbands or brothers for having participated in the struggle for woman's liberation.

In order to guarantee greater room for manoeuvre in the recruitment of women for heavy industrial work, it became necessary to abolish Genotdel. They did this while declaring at the same time that the emancipation of women had already been achieved. The Industrial Plan now had specific chapters dedicated to women workers, but with only minimal allocation of social services. This was so much the case that it meant re-introducing the historical division of labour based on gender. For example, in calculating the number of evening meals to be provided for workers by the state canteens, it was only possible to guarantee 700,000. The other 3 million workers had to rely upon their wives to provide a meal. Again, in Leningrad, where 74,000 women started to work outside the family, only one nursery was set up.

The effort to educate women became pointless, as they often had to leave lectures in order to do the housework. Women who entered the labour market during the first Five Year Plan were mostly assigned to the lowest category of work. In Leningrad in 1932, women comprised 58.6% of the least qualified layer of the workforce, with 70% of women doing such work in Moscow. Even higher percentages occurred in the more outlying areas.

The number of workingwomen was now to increase through compulsion, but without providing the necessary training that would have ensured a qualitative improvement in output. The Bolshevik party of Lenin and Trotsky had committed itself to eradicate the double exploitation of women in society and within the family. The Stalinist bureaucracy, with its policies, was now to go the other way and accentuate such exploitation. The new soviet officials, who had by this time become separated from the masses and independent of them, found it necessary to have a firmer control over society. They found that the bourgeois family model was very useful to achieve this end. The bourgeois model divided the working class into their respective family units, having to seek from within the family what the state was now unable to guarantee. The family was now the place where the worker would be forced to seek to sort out his economic difficulties by such means as tightening up on the family budget, enslaving both his wife and children and isolating them within the family unit, making them unable to participate in political activity. Thus the bourgeois family model became a means by which to curtail dissent against the bureaucracy.

"The retreat not only assumes forms of disgusting hypocrisy, but also is going infinitely farther than the iron economic necessity demands. To the objective causes producing this return to such bourgeois forms as the payment of alimony, there is added the social interest of the ruling stratum in the deepening of bourgeois law. The most compelling motive of the present cult of the family is undoubtedly the need of the bureaucracy for a stable hierarchy of relations, and for the disciplining of youth by means of 40,000,000 points of support for authority and power." (15)

The Stalinist bureaucracy now began to remove all the laws that had initially been introduced by the Bolsheviks to allow both males and females the full expression of their potential. Homosexuality and prostitution were declared criminal offences in 1934, and were made punishable with a minimum of 8 years in prison. In 1936 abortion became illegal and divorce became both more difficult to obtain and too expensive for ordinary workers.

"Having revealed its inability to serve women who are compelled to resort to abortion with the necessary medical aid and sanitation, the state makes a sharp change of course, and takes the road of prohibition. And just as in other situations, the bureaucracy makes a virtue of necessity. One of the members of the highest Soviet court, Soltz, a specialist on matrimonial questions, bases the forthcoming prohibition of abortion on the fact that in a socialist society where there are no unemployed, etc., etc., a woman has no right to decline "the joys of motherhood."

(...) These gentlemen have, it seems, completely forgotten that socialism was to remove the cause which impels woman to abortion, and not force her into the "joys of motherhood" with the help of foul police interference in what is to every woman the most intimate sphere of life.

(…) The triumphal rehabilitation of the family, taking place simultaneously -- what a providential coincidence! -- with the rehabilitation of the rouble, is caused by the material and cultural bankruptcy of the state. Instead of openly saying, "We have proven still too poor and ignorant for the creation of socialist relations among men, our children and grandchildren will realize this aim", the leaders are forcing people to glue together again the shell of the broken family, and not only that, but to consider it, under threat of extreme penalties, the sacred nucleus of triumphant socialism. It is hard to measure with the eye the scope of this retreat." (16)

The bureaucracy now began to flood the press with peons of praise for marriage, the beauty of childbearing and the family, which became elevated to a communist moral principle, opposed to the degenerate 'free love' of bourgeois society. By 1945 'common law marriage' was no longer legally recognised, in spite of the fact that this had been recognised as legitimate as far back as the 1920s. The new consciousness about the equality of the sexes that had been developing in that period, was now being severly curtailed.

The staggering victory of the USSR over Nazi Germany in the Second World War granted greater stability to the soviet state. In spite of the cancer of the bureacracy that soviet society was suffering from, the planned economy allowed for astonishing developement which would have been unthinkable in a market economy. This growth of the economy was to allow the system to acquire a certain degree of support amoung the masses, in spite of the enormous reversals in the political field. All the titanic efforts of the Bolsheviks to involve the masses directly in party and soviet work were now to be wiped from the memories of the masses.

Thanks to the planned economy introduced by the October revolution, despite the reactionary role of the Stalinist byreacracy, women began to play a more important role in society. By the 1960s and 1970s the number of women with a university education in the USSR was only surpassed by three western countries, France, Finland and the USA. Laws were passed improving the condition of women. Working in the mines and night work were abolished for women. Between 1960 and 1971 the number of places in 'pre-school' classes rose from half a million to over 5 million. These changes were to encourage and allow more women to seek employment outside the home. A telling statistic is that by 1971 the number of women in the paramedical field was 98% of the total workforce. Similarly, women in the medical and state school field comprised 75% of the total workforce, while 90% of librarians were women. The improvements in public health through the free national health service ensured that life expectancy for women, which had been as low as 30 in 1927 rose to 74 in 1970. There was also a massive 90% reduction in infant mortality. These results demonstrated the advantages of the planned economy. Although improvements were also made in standards of living in western countries during the same period, these in no way compared with the massive changes taking place in the USSR, especially if we consider that the western countries were starting from a far higher economic level.

The gradual elimination of all the benefits deriving from the growth in the economy in the post-war period follwed by the final surrender to the laws of the market economy, were to lead inevitably to the abandonment of all the conquests of the past, with the return to the social barbarism of capitalism. We quote directly from Ted Grant's book on Russia:

"The movement toward capitalism has rapidly reversed the gains of the past, pushing women back to a position of abject slavery in the hypocritical name of the 'family'. The biggest part of the burden of the crisis is being placed on the shoulders of the women. Women are the first to be sacked, in order to avoid paying social benefits, like child and maternity benefit. Given the fact that women made up 51 per cent of the Russian workforce a few years ago, and that 90 per cent of women worked, the growth of unemployment has meant that more than 70 per cent of Russia's unemployed workers are now women. In some areas the figure is 90 per cent.

"The collapse of social services and increased unemployment means that all the benefits of the planned economy for women are being systematically wiped out.

"(…) Under the previous regime, women received 70 per cent of men's wages. The figure is now 40 per cent. Keeping a family on one wage was difficult enough in the old USSR. Now, with the dramatic rise in poverty, it is virtually impossible. Thus, women are the main victims of this reactionary regime". (17)

Never before have the words of Marx and Engels in the "Holy Family" been truer:

"The change in a historical epoch can always be determined by women's progress towards freedom, because here, in the relation of woman to man, of the weak to the strong, the victory of human nature over brutality is most evident. The degree of emancipation of woman is the natural measure of general emancipation." (18)

The worsening of women's conditions under capitalism highlights the need to continue the struggle to overthrow this social and economic system, not just in one country, but world-wide. Capitalism is now pushing society backwards and has become directly reponsible for the emergence of elements of barbarism within society. The socialist transformation of society is now the only solution.

July 18, 2002.


(1) See Socialist Women: European socialist feminism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, edited by M.J.Boxer & J.H.Quataert, Greenwood Pub, Group, 1978.

(2) See Donne in rivolta nella Russia zarista by Cathy Porter, Feltrinelli editore, 1977.

(3) See M.J.Boxer & J.H.Quataert, Op.Cit.

(4) See Zetkin femminista senza frontiere by G.Badia, Erre emme edizioni, 1994.

(5) See G.Badià, Op.Cit.

(6) See Natasha - A Bolshevik Woman Organiser. A short biography by L.Katasheva,

(7) See Bolshevism: the Road to Revolution by A.Woods, Wellred Publications, London, 1999.

(8) See

(9) See Donne, Resistenza e Rivoluzione by S. Rowbotham, Piccola Biblioteca Einaudi, 1972.

(10) See La questione femminile e la lotta al riformismo [The Women's Question and the Struggle Against Reformism] by Clara Zetkin, Gabriele Mazzotta editore, 1975.

(11) See Zetkin femminista senza frontiere [Zetkin, feminist without frontiers] by G.Badia, Erre emme edizioni, 1994

(12) See The Revolution Betrayed:What is the Soviet Union and where is it Going? (Chapter 7), By Leon Trotsky, 1936.

(13) Ibid.

(14) Source: "The Five-Year Plan for Women's Labour: Constructig Socialism and the 'Double Burden', 1930-1932", by T.G. Schrand in Europe-Asia Studies, Dec 1999.

(15) See Trotsky, Op.Cit.

(16) Ibidem.

(17) See Alan Woods' Introduction to Russia: from Revolution to Counter-Revolution, By Ted Grant, Wellred Publications, 1997, page 32.

(18) See The Holy Family Chapter VIII, 6) Revelation of the Mystery of the Emancipation of Women, Or Louise Morel, by Marx and Engels (1845)