The Russian Revolution brought huge transformations for some of the most oppressed. Socialist Review spoke to Emma Davis about how women began to take control of their lives and lead in the struggle.
What was life like for women in Russia before the revolution?
Peasant women and women workers had virtually no rights in Tsarist Russia. They couldn’t get divorced; they had extremely limited property rights. It was only middle class women who could even consider leaving their husbands.
The beating of women by their husbands and fathers was actively encouraged — the more your husband beat you the more he was said to love you. It was customary for the father of the husband to have sex with his daughter in law.
After serfdom was abolished in 1861 the situation began to change. Millions were now landless and forced to move to cities such as St Petersburg and Moscow to find work.
As women became part of the working class they started to gain some independence. However, this was limited by the fact that they were often paid as little as a fifth of what men earned; on average it was half.
They also worked in horrifying conditions with 14-hour days and pregnant women expected to continue working until the point of birth. There was no provision for breastfeeding at work and still births in the workplace were very common.
Sexism and sexual harassment were common in the workplace and seen as completely acceptable.
But women began to organise themselves in industry. They fought for the right to work and for the right to education. They set up work collectives. For the first time in the late 19th century some women were able to study. This was under Tsar Alexander III, a relatively progressive figure, who introduced some limited rights for women in response to their demands. For the first time in Russian history the “woman question” became a topic of discussion.
But women workers also began to organise at the point of production. The first strikes of women workers began, particularly among textile workers where women made up nearly half of the workforce in some places. Between 1870 and 1879 there were 170 strikes of textile workers.
Tsar Nicholas II, who came to power in 1894, overturned all of the progressive measures that Alexander III had put through and launched a wholesale attack on the workers’ movement and civil society. In response there was a huge strike wave in the 1890s, involving many women in leading roles.
The 1905 Russian Revolution was sparked by peasant women who protested against the war with Japan, which they saw as an invention by the Tsar leading to thousands of peasants being killed on the frontlines. They rioted, set fire to barns, and this spread to the cities, such as St Petersburg, rolling over into revolution.
The impact of the revolution was enormous. There are brilliant accounts of how, during the revolution, women on every street corner were debating issues such as maternity rights and creches. Alexandra Kollontai, a member of the Bolshevik Party, was working to coordinate the efforts of women workers.
The image of the woman in society was changing. Women were leading the struggle; they were shaped by it but in turn they shaped it and its demands.
From the 1905 Revolution the official women’s movement in Russia was founded. It brought together the work that women workers had done towards raising the issue of women’s rights and education, and the demands of middle class women who looked to the battles for the right to vote in Britain and Germany and started to ask questions about their own rights.
What role did women play in the revolutions of 1917?
The First World War was the main source of misery for peasant and working class women from 1914 onwards. In the first year of the war something like a million Russians were killed. As more and more men were sucked into the armed forces women replaced them in the factories and the fields. By 1917 women made up nearly half of the workforce in Petrograd. Strikes had been brewing from about 1915 onwards, and in January 1917 there was a series of textile strikes by women.
The February Revolution wasn’t “planned”, but it certainly had a source in the discontent over poverty, working conditions and starvation. Women workers were the first to take that forward.
The revolution was started by textile and other women workers protesting on International Working Women’s Day, but they didn’t see this as a “women’s struggle” — they went straight to the men in other factories and called them out. One engineering worker said:
“We could hear women’s voices, ‘Down with the high prices! Down with hunger! Bread for the workers!’… Masses of women workers in a militant frame of mind filled the lane. Those who caught sight of us began to wave their arms, shouting, ‘Come out! Stop work!’ Snowballs flew through the windows. We decided to join the demonstration.” After this there was an escalation of the struggle.
The armed forces coming over to the side of the revolution was crucial. Women workers, many of them soldiers’ wives, were the first to go to the soldiers and say, “Put down your guns”. They were able to play that role because they had a sense of ownership over the struggle: they’d led it. But also they had relationships with these people. They could say, we’re your kin.
How central were women workers to the October Revolution?
Women were a central part of the workers’ movement which provided the base for the October insurrection. Around 40,000 laundresses struck in May 1917 over pay and conditions — but their strike took on a political dimension. They raised issues about their rights as women. You also see a broadening from factory strikes to service industry strikes — restaurant workers, laundry workers, people who ran the services essential to the industrial centres.
The key contribution of the Bolsheviks was understanding that the revolution had to carry on. This was a very practical question. Lenin returned to Russia in April 1917 and set about arguing that without a workers’ revolution to take state power the war would continue and the liberal provisional government would be overthrown by much nastier, reactionary forces. In order to defend February there had to be October.
Many women were quick to accept this, because they could feel their power. In one chocolate factory they won a 100 percent pay rise for the men and 125 percent for the women.
It’s not an accident that 1917 delivered such massive progress for women and other oppressed groups. The Bolsheviks understood that revolutionaries had to be the tribunes of the oppressed — that oppression and socialism couldn’t exist together, and the working class as a whole had to be involved in overthrowing the old society and building a new one. In order for them to be involved, you had to make sure that the barriers in their way were removed.
One of the most inspiring things about the October Revolution are the decrees that were passed straight away. Divorce was legalised, so a woman could leave a relationship. The marriage process was simplified so any woman over the age of 16 and any man over 18 could marry. There were examples of same-sex marriage and the Tsar’s sodomy laws were abolished, so homosexuality was decriminalised. Women gained equal inheritance rights with men. They got equal employment rights and equal pay. Women had already won the right to vote in May. By 1920 abortion was legalised. Prostitution, which was very common in Russia, all but disappeared. This was partly to do with the disappearance of the upper classes who were the main purchasers of sex, but it was also because the economic conditions which drove women into prostitution were being tackled.
Alexandra Kollontai, Inessa Armand, Nadya Krupskaya and other leading Bolsheviks organised a conference for women straight after the October Revolution, at which hundreds of women raised their concerns and demands. They talked about needing time off for breastfeeding, maternity care, the lifting of the immense work that they were doing in the home.
Kollontai was Commissar for Welfare — the only woman member of the central committee — and she was given the green light to go out and set these things up. So the first public maternity hospital was set up. However, the night before the hospital was due to open it was burned down by counter-revolutionaries. So you see the explosion of liberation and immediately counter-revolution.
That was only reinforced by the civil war. From March 1918 onwards you had not only a civil war but 14 invading armies, including those sent by Britain, France and Germany, backing the counter-revolutionaries.
Women were very active in the civil war. For them, this was a war for liberation. This is reflected in the composition of the Red Army — there were whole battalions that were made up of women. Over 70,000 women fought in the civil war. They were involved in the agit-trains — agitational trains that travelled the country helping to argue with workers why they should defend the revolution. They used film, theatre, literature and pamphlets to try to win people over.
By the summer of 1918 it was clear that the war was taking a toll on the attempts to build a new society. Kollontai wrote at that time that although women had their rights on paper, in practice they did not. So on the first anniversary of the 1917 women’s conference they had another one. They expected a few hundred women as the previous year, but well over a thousand came.
From this they set up the Zhenotdel, the women’s branch of the Bolsheviks. It was intended to look at the tiniest details of women’s lives and pay attention to the small changes that could be made to help, and to provide education to enable women to be full participants in the political life of the revolution.
It was a delegate based organisation in which any woman could be elected from her workplace or community to go to Moscow and be a party worker. They would go to lectures, get involved in organising locally, and if they couldn’t read they would attend literacy classes. After three months they could either stay on and be a party worker or they could go back and organise in their home town.
Branches of Zhenotdel were set up all around the country. It wasn’t always easy — there are stories of Bolshevik women being sent to remote areas and facing hostility and sexism.
They also set up communal kitchens and laundries to help lift the burden on individual women in the home. By 1919 90 percent of Petrograd’s population was registered at a communal kitchen. So the projects were extensive, but they faced many challenges. But the biggest obstacle they faced was that of material conditions too weak to sustain the advanced ideas they were pioneering.
Sex, love and revolution
1917 was also a sexual revolution, bringing with it a flowering of experimentation. Central to that was the beginning of the lifting of women’s oppression, because it was at the heart of so many of the problems women faced. The new divorce laws meant it was much easier for women to leave relationships.
Alexandra Kollontai wrote novels that reflected how women were changing. In Three Generations, Zenya, a young woman who has been active in the revolution, says to her mother, “As soon as I no longer have feelings for my partner, we mutually agree to separate and then I go on and maybe find someone else, or maybe I don’t.” She then says she is planning to get an abortion, and talks about the confusion she feels at having feelings for two people at the same time.
Kollontai argues that capitalism has brought the concepts of marriage and sexual enjoyment and “one true love” together for the first time. In the past, the family had played a crucial role in terms of property and inheritance rights and reproduction, but with the growth of capitalism the narrow, nuclear family had become the desirable form and with it the notion of one true love that lasts a lifetime.
This went completely against what Kollontai saw as the true nature of humans’ ability to love, which was more about camaraderie, solidarity, freedom and choice. She said the idea of the state telling you who you should love or how you should live went very much against nature.
Capitalism created this drive towards an unattainable goal — romantic love — and Kollontai talked about the despair this created. We can still see that today, with the dating industry, the marriage industry — capitalism profiting off the despair it has created.
Russia 1917 created possibilities where, for a short while, people were able to experiment with different ways of living and caring for each other.
Emma Davis is currently working on a forthcoming book, A Rebel’s Guide to Alexandra Kollontai