November 7, 2017

Women and the Great October Socialist Revolution: How Bolshevik women organized for socialism and their own emancipation


Women demonstrating in Petrograd in February - March 1917
By Rozhin Emadi

One hundred years ago, on February 23rd 1917, 50,000 women poured out of factories and onto the streets, sparking the revolution in Russia that eventually led to the downfall of the Tsar. It was on International Women’s Day that textile workers organized a strike with a strong anti-war message to condemn the exploitative and oppressive conditions most people were subjected to during the Tsar era.

This movement not only brought women together, but also masses of people who simply called for bread and peace. It became the catalyst for one of most historical revolutions in the impact it had on changing the world. However, the role of women during the Russian Revolution, and the years following, is often erased by bourgeois historians who tend to frame the revolution as a ‘masculine’ movement. Some historians, such as Richard Piper, even go so far as to argue that the revolution was “a coup” by a small number of radical, male intellectuals, rather than it being a mass working class movement. This is because bourgeois historians do not focus and emphasize that the working class had been organizing for many years, demanding that they have basic rights.


Women were organizing themselves, creating unions, and fighting militantly to alleviate their hardship years before the 1917 Revolution. During the Tsar era, women were marked as ‘backwards’ segments of society. This misogynistic ideology justified the hyper-exploitation of women in Russia, leaving many without opportunities to get an education or the training needed to become skilled workers. Women were also the key labourers in the household—confined to childbearing and constantly providing for their husbands. By the late 19th century and early 20th century, many women became textile workers or found jobs in domestic services. Between 1901-1913, the number of women working in factories had grown by 59%, whereas the number of men only increased by 29%. In industries where women were more predominate, such as the textile industry, they were still paid less than men. Sexual assault and harassment in the workplace by both foreman and male workers was a common occurrence. In 1914, the Bolshevik newspaper for women workers, Rabotnitsa, complained about the brutal and sexually abusive treatment of women by men within the workforce.

While women in Russia faced increasing oppression and exploitation, they did not remain passive and began mobilizing themselves. Raising working-class consciousness was key to some of the powerful labour movements in Russia. “Workers’ circles,” such as the Brusnev circles of 1889-1892, began playing a vital role in the movement to raise the consciousness of the working class. Women were joining these organizations in small numbers, and from there, they created their own womens’ workers’ circles. Their organizations mostly concentrated on the industries that women had greater roles in, such as the textile industry. The women’s circles also set up literacy workshops, which allowed more women to read about oppression.

These organizations also became vital tools that allowed workers to collectively organize rallies and strikes, such as the 1890 general strike of textile workers organized under the Ivanovo-Voznesensk workers’ union. This strike lasted over two weeks and successfully forced concessions from employers. As Mcdermid and Hillyar mention, women workers “did not simply take spontaneous action,” but were instigators of the movement. Since their frustration continued to exist after these strikes, “women were once again prepared to take to the streets” a decade later.

Women played an important role during the 1905 movements that launched some of the biggest protests against the Tsar. On “Bloody Sunday,” thousands of workers in St Petersburg marched to the Winter Palace and presented the Tsar of Russia with a petition listing their grievances. Because of the Tsar’s violent response, resulting in the death of several people, strikes and protests escalated throughout the country. The events that occurred in 1905 led to another wave of resistance that culminated in a general strike of Ivanovo workers, in which women played a prominent role. This eventually led to the establishment of the very first workers’ soviets in the country. Among the 151 individuals elected to represent striking factory workers, 25 were women. While this does not seem like a large number, it is still notable for women to be taking leadership roles during a time when they were marked as ‘inferior’. One of the factories, known as the Kashintsev Cotton Weaving Mill, elected more women than men to the workers’ soviet. Seven out of the eight elected were women workers. Additionally, within these workers’ soviets, only 15.6% of the men belonged to the Bolshevik Party, while 62.5% of the women were part of the Bolsheviks.

Women’s involvement with the Bolsheviks was part of the reason why the Party became so successful. In her book, “Bolshevik Women,” Barbara Clements argues that “Marxism appealed to young women because of its systemic critique of patriarchy.” Marxism and revolutionary political groups stood out for women because they were the ones who were assessing the historical and structural ways in which women were oppressed.

Outside of Russia, the international communist and socialist movement also began paying closer attention to women’s struggles. As Rosa Luxemburg stated in one of her speeches, “women’s suffrage is one of the vital issues on the platform of Social Democracy.” The international communist movement’s growing interest in the “women’s question” also explains why women began taking more predominate roles within the Bolshevik Party.

Historically, misogynistic tendencies persisted within the communist and socialist movement. Many were even afraid of women voting because of stereotypes that marked them as the most ‘backward’ segments of society. For some within the communist and socialist movement, this implied that women were more conservative and religious in comparison to men—meaning that they could potentially vote for right wing forces. Nevertheless, this was not a widespread view inside the international movement. Within the Second International, Clara Zetkin, well known German revolutionary and one of the founders of International Women’s Day, pushed to make all socialist parties work for the liberation of both men and women. Russian revolutionaries, such as Alexandra Kollontai and Vladimir Lenin, supported Zetkins’s efforts.

Russian communists were some of the first to recognize the need to fight for the liberation of women. Marxist literature on the oppression of women, such as the works of Zetkin, Engles and Bebel, was being translated into Russian and distributed to women that took interest in revolutionary politics. In 1899, Lenin suggested adding “the establishment of full equality of rights of men and women” into the Party Program. At the Second Congress in 1903, this addition was officially added. Lenin also demanded that women have the right to maternity leave, and that they should be guaranteed the right to work in safe conditions.

In 1900, Nadezhda Krupskaya, a well-known revolutionary, most notably referred to as Lenin’s wife, wrote an article called, “The Woman Worker,” which became one of the first pieces that analyzed the conditions of Russian women through a Marxist lens. She wrote about the overworked and undernourished peasant women, the underpaid factory women who were often forced into sex-work, and pregnant working class women who did not have job security nor the right to maternity leave. Krupskaya’s article was being distributed to women who began participating in labour strikes in hopes of turning labour action from economic to political struggles. Near the end of the 19th century, Krupskaya was involved in organizing underground Marxist study groups. By 1905, she worked as the secretary of the Central Committee of the Russian Social Democratic Party, and was the editorial secretary of the Party’s journal. Krupskaya was not only known as “Lenin’s wife,” but was a true revolutionary who helped build the Party.

All the while, Alexandra Kollontai, another key revolutionary figure at the time, was also putting in an immense effort to bring working class women into the Party, or at the very least, to support its aims. She wrote major theoretical works on women’s rights and its relation to socialism. Additionally, she took a leading role in organizing women labour delegates, who had been elected from different factories to participate in trade union struggles. To avoid harassment from authorities, Kollontai disguised her meetings as “sewing circles” or “health talks on the harmfulness of corsets.”

By 1913, International Women’s Day was first introduced to the country by Bolshevik women. To mobilize for this day, Bolshevik women set up city-wide women’s circles to push their anti-war line amongst women workers and the wives of the many soldiers who were forced to go to war.

Around the same time, the Bolsheviks launched Rabotniska, their first women’s magazine that was regularly distributed to women workers. This was one of the first attempts to create a Bolshevik women’s organ within the Party. Inessa Armand, another Bolshevik revolutionary, took a prominent role in creating this journal. Prior to getting involved with the Bolsheviks, Inessa did charitable work for working class women within feminist circles, and even organized sex workers. Her idea to create a women’s newspaper received strong support from Krupskaya, though other Party members in the Central Committee were initially skeptical of it. Ziva Galili’s article, “Women and the Russian Revolution,” explains how several women within the Bolshevik party worked hard to “convince the Party’s male leaders, in particular V.I. Lenin to direct resources and energies to the organization of women workers. The centerpiece of that effort was the Bolshevik journal, Rabotniska.”

After 1917, women’s emancipation was still on the Bolshevik’s agenda. The improvement of women’s conditions was in and of itself one of the most revolutionary transformations in the world at that time. In 1920, Lenin stated in the Pravda that the “Soviet government is the first and only government in the world to have completely abolished all the old, despicable bourgeois laws which placed women in a position of inferiority to men, which placed men in a privileged position.”

In November 1918, Alexandra Kollontai and Inessa Armand organized the first conference of working women, which had over a thousand participants. Eventually, this conference led to a variety of other changes in the country. There was a new civil code on marriage, which recognized equal legal status between husband and wife. The discrepancy between legitimate and illegitimate children was eliminated. Regulations around divorce were also minimized, making it much easier to go through the process. In January 1918, the Bolsheviks officially founded the department for the “protection of maternity and youth.” This department supported pregnant working class women and new mothers by ensuring a paid 16 week leave from work, and setting firm safety regulations at work. The Bolsheviks also created maternity clinics, which helped women raise their children. The changes made to the “traditional family household” became one of the fundamental ways in which the Bolsheviks successfully transformed the lives of women.

In the years following, the Soviet Union became the first country in the world to legalize abortion. Sex work was decriminalized in 1922. Sexual education programs were more openly available to youth, and there were health clinics that specifically treated STIs. As time went by, there was less stigma around sexual relations outside of wedlock. The Bolsheviks also created strong laws against sexual assault. Rape was finally defined as “non-consensual sexual intercourse using either physical or psychological force.”

In 1920, Kollontai wrote an article called, “Communism and the Family,” which went as far as calling
Alexandra Kollontai
for ‘free love’ and questioning the traditional family structure. She argued that “housework ceases to be a necessity” under communism. She called for the creation of public restaurants and communal kitchens, and thought that children should be primarily supervised by experienced educators through public child care facilities and maternity homes. Kollontai believed in the withering away of the traditional family household, which she thought chained women to oppressive reproductive labour. Though her perspective on the emancipation of women was respected and publicized through women’s circles, Kollontai did not manage to influence the Bolsheviks as much as she wanted to. Nonetheless, the Bolsheviks still created more schools, kindergartens, day-cares, playgrounds, and public gardens, which helped working-class mothers by minimizing their work in the household. Because of her astounding commitment to the development of socialism in the Soviet Union, Kollontai eventually became the first ever woman ambassador.

To bring more working women towards socialism, the Bolsheviks formed the Zhenotdel in 1919, an apparatus within the Party that focused on women’s issues. Kollontai and Armand became the directors of this women’s organization. The Zhenotdel was open to any women interested, not just Party members. It encouraged young women to think about their struggle for full emancipation. As such, education and consciousness raising programs of the Zhenotdel were placed as important. Krupskaya played yet another major role in the revolution by leading education programs initiated by the Zhenotdel. In general, women in the Bolshevik party wanted every working-class woman to understand that “the victory of socialism is turning the woman worker, like the man, into the conscious creator of her own life.”

There were still many setbacks because of the civil war and imperialist interventions in Russia. The civil war led to mass unemployment, leaving many women without work. Thanks to the Zhenotdel, vocational training courses were arranged for women, and more jobs were being created for them. The Zhenotdel also provided women, particularly single mothers, with housing benefits. It became clear that despite these hardships, working class women’s needs were still being considered by the Bolsheviks, who continued to fight for socialism while half the world tried to stop them.

While the Soviet Union was not perfect and more certainly could have been done, as Lenin states, a revolution takes “one step forward and two steps back.” Even though the struggle for women’s emancipation was not close to being over, the accomplishments that did occur in the Soviet Union were revolutionary and historic.

Overall, women contributed immensely to building socialism in the USSR. Even though bourgeois historians do not often associate the Russian Revolution with the many militant women who led and some of the first mass protests in 1917, it is important for us, as revolutionaries of this generation, to honour the crucial role women played in both building the revolution and shaping the politics of the Soviet Union in the years following.

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