Z is for Zhenotdel

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When thousands of women workers went on strike on International Women's Day in Petrograd, Russia, in 1917 they had ignored advice from Bolshevik party leaders to "keep cool".

Once they were on the streets the Bolsheviks went all out to build their struggle. Leon Trotsky would later write, "Women's Day passed successfully, with enthusiasm and without victims. But what it concealed in itself no one had guessed even by nightfall." For that day's action was the trigger for the Russian revolution that was to transform the lives of millions.

There had already been a revolution in Russia in 1905. This had seen women workers lead struggles, win gains and finally be beaten back. Many joined the Bolsheviks and carried out dangerous underground work during the years of repression that followed.

When the 1917 revolution of February brought down centuries of Tsarist rule it was appropriate that women led the way. These were women who had experienced brutal servitude. They worked in factories from the age of 12, and in many peasant families a whip was passed to a new husband during a marriage ceremony and hung over the marital bed to keep the wife in line.

The sheer economic and political backwardness of Russian society made it all the more remarkable that when workers took power in October 1917 they enacted legislation on women's rights still unmatched by any government today. The new revolutionary government was the first to legalise abortion. It issued decrees establishing women's right to vote, paid maternity leave and free government-funded childcare. The burden of traditional women's work was to be carried by communal nurseries, dining rooms and laundries. Sexuality was deemed a purely private matter and laws criminalising homosexuality were repealed.

But Lenin and leading women Bolsheviks knew that simply declaring new formal and legal rights was not enough. Special efforts were needed to ensure women broke free from the terrible legacy of generations of oppression.

In 1918 over 1,000 women, mostly workers, attended the first all-Russian Congress of Working Women. One author described them as a "motley array of red-kerchiefed women...wearing sheepskins, colourful local costumes, or army greatcoats". Among the platform speakers were Alexandra Kollontai, who talked on the family and the communist state, and Lenin, who received such a rapturous reception he had to hold up his watch to indicate the delegates should stop clapping to leave him time to make his speech.

In order to reach the millions of unorganised women across the vast country the Bolsheviks set up a department for work among women, known by its acronym, Zhenotdel, with a monthly paper, Kommunistka. This was led by Inessa Armand (until her death from cholera in 1920 when she was replaced by Kollontai).

It was a hugely ambitious project for a fledgling state facing economic collapse and a devastating civil war, which threatened the very survival of the revolution. But the Bolsheviks did not see combating women's oppression as something that should wait for more stable times. They believed that the very success of the revolution depended on women playing an equal role.

Zhenotdel volunteers travelled thousands of miles from their homes to factories and villages to campaign for the revolution. They used agit-trains or agit-ships, like the Red Star that travelled up and down the River Volga to reach remote areas. They travelled with poster art and song and dance groups; they held meetings, showed films and plays, and set up "reading cabins" with blackboards to teach literacy. Over 125,000 literacy schools were set up. The Zhenotdel produced publications on everything from socialised childcare to Soviet architects' designs for new homes to take into account plans for communal facilities.

Delegate bodies ran on two or three month rotas: local women were elected and asked to take part in regional committees, organising the communal institutions, party work, people's courts and war work, and then report back to their local area. For many women this was the first time they had left isolated communities. When they returned they were often quite a curiosity.

Zhenotdel volunteers also travelled to Muslim populations in the East, often wearing the veil so they could mix and work with veiled women. Sometimes the Zhenotdel caused friction in relationships and communities as women's new experiences opened up new horizons and made them unwilling to go back to old ways.

The commitment of the revolutionary government and the courage and dedication of Zhenotdel workers were inspiring. Women who would previously have seen themselves as marginal to the political process began to have a stake in building the socialist society.

But when the revolution failed to spread successfully to the rest of Europe it was fatally isolated. The price of overcoming the hurdles of famine and civil war was high. Throughout the 1920s working women saw their situation deteriorate and plans for expanding state institutions falter. Stalin's rise after Lenin's death meant that along with the pushing back of economic and material gains came the imposition of a new ideology.

The Soviet government now celebrated chastity and motherhood. Zhenotdel workers were encouraged to forcibly unveil Muslim women in order to "liberate" them. Ultimately an organisation whose sole purpose was to agitate among women became incompatible with Stalinism and the Zhenotdel was closed down in 1930.

Trotsky said that "to change the conditions of life you have to learn to see them through the eyes of a woman". He measured the crushing of the revolution in the tiniest details of women's everyday lives. When social laundries became seen as places where "they tear and steal linen more than they wash it" he knew this signalled "the return of the workers' wives to their pots and pans, that is, to the old slavery".

But defeat was not inevitable, and the years of revolution did achieve a very important victory. They showed what's possible and that the fate of women is inextricably linked to the fate of the working class.

Judith Orr


Further reading:

The Women's Liberation Movement in Russia by Richard Stites, Midwives of the Revolution by Jane McDermid and Anna Hillyar.

Past columns of the A to Z of Socialism are available on this website.