March 7, 2015

Women's History in the Soviet Union

IWD 1932: "A day of rebellion by working
women against kitchen slavery!"
Elizabeth Rowley Communist Party of Canada (Ontario) Leader
Transcribed by Jenna Amirault and Justin Ferguson
From a lecture at the 2013 YCL-LJC Women’s School

Well comrades, let me say a few words about women in the Soviet Union. The first thing to say about the Soviet Union is that it was the first socialist country in the world. Before the Soviet Union the ideas of socialism, of a working class state and country that was ruled by the working class in their own class interest and where big corporations and so on didn’t exist and where there was no monarchy and where feudalism was abolished and so on, it was all theoretical before 1917. When the Great October Socialist Revolution actually happened it had a huge impact, not only, obviously, in the Soviet Union but worldwide because it was the first time there was a little piece of territory that socialists around the world could point to and say ‘there, that’s what socialism looks like, that’s the experience, that’s what’s happening to people in that country and that’s what’s happening to women in that country!’

The conditions that the new revolutionary government inherited were horrendous. Amongst women there was almost 100 percent illiteracy. Most of the country had a feudal mode of production; it wasn’t even capitalism. Capitalist relations, industrialization for example, were just beginning and only in the European part of the Soviet Union. Most of the rest of the country was under agricultural production but in very feudal conditions. On top of that the  Great October Socialist Revolution took place on November 7th on our calendar and it was a matter of less than three months, 90 days later, 13 imperialist armies, including the Canadian army, invaded the country and so the Soviet Union spent almost three years fighting off invading armies. You can think of this in contemporary terms: the US sends in the Marines, whether it’s in the Middle East or Latin America or wherever they see something progressive happening. That’s what happened in January 1918 with the Russian Revolution. The tasks were enormous of the first Socialist Government: to defend socialism and protect the new government and worker’s power from being overthrown by invaders to fight off those feudal forces and to skip a stage of development. They had to skip the capitalist stage and move from feudal relations of production to socialist relations of production. That was an enormous task because of not only the economic conditions but also the cultural part of the equation. For example, how women saw themselves and how they were seen in society, what power they had, what rights they had and so on.

Then, of course, there was also the burgeoning capitalist class in the European part of Russia that had no interest at all in ceding power to the new Socialist government and they also fought back. It wasn’t a situation of an easy transition. It was a tumultuous time and defending the revolution while making these big transformations such as electrification, feeding everybody, putting everybody to work and winning the whole population for socialism, was a big factor.

The tasks that the socialist government had were to change the relations of production, to fight off those political forces in the country who were opposed to public ownership, to industrialize the country on socialist lines, to bring the whole population to the process of socialist construction. And with that in mind, they had to bring women into the process of socialist construction, meaning in economic terms, but also in cultural terms. Nothing ever takes place in a vacuum, it takes place in concrete conditions which cannot be addressed as anything other than a whole.

1926: "Emancipated women, help
build socialism!"
Very early in the revolution, essentially as soon as they got rid of or fought off the invading armies, all sorts of laws were introduced in the Soviet Union that had a direct impact on women. The USSR constitution from this time, 1918, guaranteed equal pay for equal value. That was a long time ago and you think about how long it’s taken for women in Canada, or advanced capitalist countries, to win that. Recently, the postal workers only finally won their pay equity payouts that had been guaranteed 30 years ago. In the Soviet Union women were guaranteed the ‘right to work’. The ‘right to work’ is a dirty word today but its meaning in the Soviet Union was the right to a job, the right to employment and the right to maternity leave. This is almost 100 years ago and women were guaranteed a year of maternity leave with pay, lighter work during pregnancy (if they were working while pregnant) with no loss of pay. There were no night shifts or overtime work for pregnant women or women with young children, paid breaks for working women as well as nursing women. Women could choose the right to divorce, which was a big deal, and wasn’t guaranteed in many parts of the world including advanced capitalist countries like Ireland, for example, where divorce was illegal until only a decade ago. The Soviet Union implemented a forty-one hour workweek in 1970 and with the introduction of the scientific and technological revolution the workweek was actually falling. The number of hours that workers were working was declining and by that time everyone in the Soviet Union was guaranteed a month vacation for example and retirement at 55 for women and 60 for men and in some cases, depending on how many children they had, they could retire at 45 and some even at 40 depending on what their professions were. There was employment equity guaranteed in 1929 and laws were put in place to eliminate the ‘glass-ceiling.’ Many women were living in conditions of feudalism when these laws were passed; you can see the leap forward that this would have meant for so many of them.

As they were working to transform the economy, they also had to transform the way people understood the world and how they lived their lives and why they had to be involved in this struggle. It was important not just for the communist cadres to be involved but the party people had to win the population over and some of them were very resistant and this included women. This meant that the women’s question had to be addressed; the question of women’s equality, of women in the economy, women at work, women’s rights and so forth.

We all know now the debates around burkas and veils and there were similar debates in the Soviet Union at the time in context of socialist power. During the 1930s there were mass meetings of women that were held in the caucuses and in Kazakhstan and women decided that they had had enough and many women dropped their burkas and started wearing the clothes that everyone else wore. It was a massive public rejection of that kind of oppression and repression of women and a demonstration of women asserting themselves and demanding that they be allowed to go to work without attacks on them and be allowed to vote and develop as equal partners in society. Distinct from Canada today and the debate around burkas and veils,  this was the women themselves that made the decision. They decided to sever those ties to feudal relations and patriarchy. What we are discussing in Canada today, sadly, because of the Conservative Government is forcing women to dress a certain way, which is a different cup of tea altogether.

Bringing women into production was very closely tied to the cultural revolution. I mean that in terms of how people regarded women – how men regarded women and how women regarded themselves. The Communist Party made big efforts right from the beginning to establish committees at the factory level, in the agricultural co-ops and state farms to help challenge patriarchal ideas, male chauvinism, male dominance and to fight for women’s equality in the workplace and in society.

A key part of the revolutionary transformation was to bring women into production but also into leadership and that meant education. I said at the beginning that there was almost one hundred percent illiteracy amongst women. That meant organizing adult education schools that were targeted at the whole population but especially women because it was harder to get them there due to the conditions that they lived in. These schools were meant to advance women into positions of management in the factories, farms and to advance them in the trade unions because all of these enterprises had trade unions and women were encouraged to join them. Nowhere was there force. Women were recruited and they were won to these things. There was a major push to put women in leadership positions in trade unions, to elect them as deputies or MPs or MPPs at the municipal level into government and you can see in some of the figures that they move very quickly. In the early 1920s the number of women elected as deputies was 4 percent, three years later it was 12 percent and by the 1970s it was over 40 percent. That doesn’t sound so great unless you consider that in the advanced capitalist countries, at the same time in the 1970s, there were less than 12 percent of women in the House of Commons in Canada. There was a movement to involve women at every level in socialist government and in socialist construction. You could see that the gains were increasing with every five-year plan, every opportunity to advance it was driven and organized by the communist party and the trade unions. For example, Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman astronaut, this was deliberate. The Soviets in the course of the space race in the 1970s and early 1980s wanted to make sure that the first woman in space was from a communist country and not from a capitalist country.

1952: "European women's
basketball championship"
On the question of education the first task, of course, was literacy. This is also true in Cuba where there was massive illiteracy as well as in China at the time of the revolution. One of the first things that happened in Cuba was adult education and students were sent out in the countryside to teach older workers, younger workers. They would give them the ABCs and the effort was to get everybody literate up to the grade 4 level, then 8, 12 and so on. In the post-war period major efforts were made to advance women and men in post-secondary education because post-secondary education before the revolution was for a kind of wealthy elite. There was a systematic advancement of women and of all workers during that period.

I want to say something about the war years. Part of the reason why 22 million Soviets died was because the advanced capitalist countries enabled fascism. Their hope was that Hitler and Mussolini would turn their attention to the Soviet Union and would attack socialism and destroy it. The war had a terrible toll on the whole country. You can read the statistics, vast stretches of land were completely leveled during the war, many people were killed and the economy was in ruins, some cities were leveled.  After the war there was this huge demographic change. Suddenly there were all these women and very few men of marriageable age because it was the young men who were killed. This really changed things in terms of women’s roles. At the end of the war in capitalist countries the men came home and took their jobs back and women were sent home. It didn’t happen in the Soviet Union. Women stayed in production, and they would have stayed in production anyway, but it also meant that a lot of women had to take on the job of reconstructing those cities post-war. There were a lot of women who were unable to marry because there were not enough men to go around so new forms of family relationships were established and it was not uncommon for some men to have more than one family. As the generations were born after that, things shifted again but it did, in a way, open the door for some attacks on the idea of the patriarchal family, which is not a socialist concept but a capitalist concept...

...On the other side, one of the reasons that Canadians and others in advanced capitalist countries were able to live as well as they were was because of the existence of the Soviet Union and the rights that women, for example, and others had in the Soviet Union. What the capitalist class was trying to do on the global level was to warn working people of Canada and other countries with capitalist governments not to be taken in by the fact that the socialists have full employment, that they have health care, month long holidays, holiday residences that everybody can go to and that their conditions of life are pretty good and that they have come from feudalism to the conditions of an advanced capitalist country. Because, say the capitalists, we can meet that and surpass it. We can give you Medicare, universal pensions, employment insurance, rising wages. At the time of the collapse one of the things that the Communist Party and Communist Parties around the world said was ‘watch out working people in capitalist countries. You are going to lose everything that these capitalist allowed to develop in the capitalist countries because they had to compete with the socialist world and that included the rights of women.’ And you can see comrades, it happened so fast. We have been in a period since the 1990s, almost to the date, of cutting, privatizing, and eliminating the idea of job security.

Women’s reproductive rights in the Soviet Union were guaranteed in 1918 and here we are today, going into another battle on abortion. This is a way of oppressing women, of controlling them. If you can do that you can make more money from them in terms of profits. If you can exploit one group and pay another group higher and another group lower you can divide them, you can split them and you can make bigger profits. Now that the socialist world is much smaller than it was in 1920, 1950 or 1990 all these things are under attack and there are new issues like LGBTQ rights. They cannot tolerate equality – equality means lower profits.

The Soviet Union spent billions of dollars, money that was made by the workers because work is the source of all profits and all funds. However, a lot of money was not put into the production of consumer goods. It could have been but it was not. So where did it go? It went to help the people of Cuba. It went to help the national liberation movements in Africa and in Latin America. It went to help the people in Vietnam to win their war against the US. It went, as Cubans are doing today, to doctors being sent around the world. It was a form of international solidarity, which had a socialist basis underneath it.

When will the conditions be such that the peoples of each country will move towards socialism? In part things are being speeded along here by neoliberalism and austerity. People are pretty fed up with what capitalism has to offer in this country and increasingly you are hearing people say that they are anti-capitalist. But being anti-capitalist is not enough. You have to be not just against capitalism but for socialism. The more that people know about socialism and what socialism’s actual history is, as we are talking about today, and what it means for the future. What it means for people when you take out ownership, exploitation and oppression, and when you add in equality and you change the system. We are talking about worker’s power, working class power and people’s power in the interest of people. Creating a society based on meeting the needs of people.

1931: "Down with kitchen slavery! Let
there be a new household order"
In Canada, the conditions in which a revolution will take place are very different from Cuba, China or the Soviet Union because the material basis of industrialization is here. We are not living in feudal conditions so the actual transformation of the economy should be much easier but the cultural revolution, the way that people think, may be more complicated.

I remember discussing that with some of our women teachers when I was in school in Russia. It was one of the biggest challenges in the Soviet Union and it is today as well. I have a comrade from Cuba living with me and I asked her.  What do you think about the conditions of women in socialist countries? And she said that there are two things that need work. The first thing is domestic labour. Women carry this double load, and obviously, women in capitalist countries do too (although there has been some shift, although not a big one) in the divisions of domestic labour amongst men and women in housework and domestic work. The second thing was men’s attitudes towards women.

Those conditions in 1917 were very challenging and yet they did amazing things for us. When our revolution comes, when we make that revolution, a lot of the tasks that were difficult for the Soviet people will not be difficult for us. But I really do think that the changes in the ways that people think about themselves and others, including the conditions of women, are going to be a challenge even though women are making strides and have made strides against capitalism. Part of this has also to do with the Canadian situation now, men and women have to stand together to fight these governments and these attacks. In the 1960s and 1970s, which was a period of international liberation and moving forward globally, a lot of the ideas that people had were about themselves and about gender roles and gender equity. Those ideas are not present in the same way anymore, many people do not see things that way. So we have a big challenge but its very nice to be sitting here with you where 2/3rds of the seats are filled with women and not just any women but activist women and communist-thinking women. It’s also very nice to see the men who are here because it’s not just a struggle of women it’s a struggle of all communists and workers generally. Thank you.

You can hear the full recording of the original lecture at:

This article is included in Rebel Youth's 18th print issue, released in March 2015. This issue is produced by women identified members of the Young Communist League of Canada. To subscribe to Rebel Youth click here. To learn more or to join the YCL or click here.

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