“The real emancipation of women (…) will begin only where and when an all-out struggle begins (…) against this petty housekeeping, or rather when its wholesale transformation into a large-scale socialist economy begins” – Lenin.
By Laura Requena.
The Bolsheviks understood that juridical equity was not enough to achieve women’s emancipation nor equality in daily life, as equality relied on full women’s incorporation to political life and production under the same conditions as men, what meant for the State to socialize domestic work and care. Women’s participation in productive processes, as it happened in other aspects of their emancipation, was a complex process linked to the very material life conditions before and after the revolution, that brought advances forward but also some setbacks, as part of the dialectic dynamics of the socialist revolution in itself.
Russian Women’s situation during Tsarism
To understand the huge advance the Russian Revolution meant for Soviet Women in all fields, it is necessary to know first what was their situation in the vast territory of the Tsarist Russia:
In big cities, women were forced to work in workshops or factories about 12 or 13 daily hours, in harsh, unbearable conditions. Working women made half or 2/3 parts less than their male coworkers, just like in the rest of Europe. Because of their fear of being fired, women usually kept pregnancy hidden and gave birth inside the workshops, returning to work on the next day as normal. In the center of the country, in Moscow, more than a third part of working families’ children died before completing one year. By the age of 30-40, working women were already disabled.
Peasant Women, or “Mujik Women”
Most part of women, though, were located in rural areas. Peasant women’s life was even harder. The Mujik, or peasants’ wives, were practically slaves of their husbands, to which they owed absolute obedience, according to the Byzantine doctrine. Sullerot explains that “they were subjected to the hardest tasks and their social life was limited to a religion full of superstitions”. [Translation by us] 88% of Russian women were illiterate. The journalist Anna Louise Strong, who visited the URSS in 1920, testified about the reactionary culture in Central Asia, were women were real-state property sold early in marriage to never be seen in public again unless wearing a Paranji: a long, black veil of woven mane covering their faces, obstructing breathing and vision. The tradition gave the husbands the right to kill their women if they took the veil off.
Despite their oppression, or precisely because of it, women were participating of workers’ struggles together with their class comrades, like it happened in the 1905 revolution. In 1912, there were several revolts of peasant women against the authorities, and in 1913 knitting women of St. Petersburg made a strike of big proportions and were strongly repressed by the armed forces.
Just like in the rest of Europe, Russian intervention in WWI caused women of big cities to enter the factories massively to replace men that were in the front lines. According to Andrea D’Atri, agrarian female workers were the 72% of rural workers. In the factories, women went from 33% in 1914 to 50% in 1917. This is essential information to understand the crucial role of women in February Revolution, the prelude of October, which exploded for Peace, Land and Bread. For women, the war meant a situation of distress for their husbands, fathers and brothers in the front lines plus double work shift for them, in the heavy industry and at home. Socialist women, with Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, Krupskaia or Armand at the lead, were the first ones to condemn the war in the III International Socialist Women Conference, in March 2015, before the famous Zimmerwald Conference.
The Bolshevik’s Measures
Only four days after taking the power, in October 1917, the Bolsheviks established the 8 hours work shift and forbade night shift in the mines for women and teenagers. Shortly after, they approved subsidies and paid maternity leave of eight weeks before and after giving to birth for all working women.
The first Soviet Constitution established women would have equal rights to men in all fields of economic, public, cultural, social and political life. In September 1918, a text regulated the equal wage between men and women, turning the URSS into the first State to regulate the legislation according to the principle of “equal pay for equal job”.
Measures taken by the Bolsheviks during the first years of the Russian Revolution to emancipate women were exactly what Socialist women were defending for decades in their own countries.
In the rural field, the Land Code approved in 1922 gave to peasant women, for the first time in History, equal access to land, property, the right to leave the family if they wished, and participation in communal decisions – although this was hard to implement in practice. Still, the Party encouraged women to make part of the local government so their demands could be heard.
During the civil war against foreign invaders and the internal counter-revolution, during 1918-1920, women replaced male workers that went to the front lines and made every effort to guarantee the victory of the Red Army: they worked in workshops and factories, in the countryside, in the mines and as stokers in the trains. They were trained in military armies, they were part of the army as nurses, explorers, markspersons and soldiers. Women prevailed in many branches of economy and were the fourth or fifth part of the workforce in traditionally male sectors, like metal industry or the mines. The great task that women still needed to be incorporated to was the defense of the Workers’ State.
There is a speech of Lenin to non-partisan women, in 1919, when he appeals to them to take the major task of guaranteeing the provision and distribution of products and the management of public restaurants. This speech was target of criticism by a Feminist sector which incorrectly accuses Lenin of being male-chauvinist for calling women to take care of traditionally female tasks. The truth is that there were women in the army, although as a distorted inheritance of the Tsarist regime they were a minority. What Lenin did was ask women, in such hard times, to do what they knew the best how to do. If you read the speeches of Lenin and Trotsky back then it is clear how the Bolsheviks made a great effort to incorporate women to the management of all public companies, State Administration tasks, and encourage them to propose as delegates for the Soviets. Lenin and Trotsky knew that to build Socialism they had to convince and incorporate the millions of women all over the Soviet territory.
When the civil war ended, the Soviet economy and population were devastated. Between 1918 and 1919, a million of people died as consequence of typhus. By the end of 1920, diseases, hunger and cold killed near 7 and a half million Russians, and the war had taken another 4 million. To this horrible destruction of productive forces we have to add the industrial backwardness, the low urban population and the prevalence of the rural territory. This made the Bolsheviks to propose a New Economic Policy (the NEP) between 1921 and 1928.
The Consequences of the NEP for Soviet Women
When the male labor force partially replaced by women in factories returned home, after the civil war, many workshops and factories were closed and women were the first ones to be fired. During the NEP, the State reduced the social spent for nurseries, orphanages and other institutions of working mother’s support, what made it more difficult to them to get a job, access the technical education needed, or participate of the social life. According W. Goldman, between 1921 and 1927 the official number of unemployed women multiplied by six, going from 60,975 to 369,800. Women also had lower wages because they had less qualified jobs, as one of the effects of the NEP was to move women from the heavy industry to traditionally female jobs, like sewing or food production.
To palliate this situation, the XIII Party Congress, in May 1924, decided that keeping female workforce in the companies had a politic importance. It forbade to fire single mothers and imposed for all economic entities to reinforce women’s work and help them achieve qualification. In November that same year, after the Zhenotdel agreement, the prohibition of night shifts for women was revoked as an attempt for the administrators to have less excuses to fire women.
On its side, the Zhenotdel organized a Congress of Working and Peasant Women in Moscow, where they could analyze and debate the condition of women in the countryside and the city, as well as the reasons of female unemployment. Despite all decrees and legislations in favor of women, discrimination continued to exist, not as much as an effect of the NEP but because legal measures only were not enough to end centuries of discrimination and male-chauvinist stereotypes. Female unemployment growing during the NEP period cause an increase of prostitution. The new Family Code was highly debated and finally approved in 1926, adopting new measures to palliate the negative effects of the NEP among women and children.
In the rural field, Krupskaia, as much as Sullerot, highlight how important the collectivization of agriculture was for the emancipation of peasant women. The collectivization ended the isolation peasant families lives in: it cut the roots of religion and, like this, gave steps towards women emancipation. The Bolshevik Party brought a first message of freedom to these regions: they built clinics for child assistance were native women could take the veil off in presence of other people. Still, it was a very hard struggle as women in koljoses had to overcome mistrust, jokes, and even violence and hostile opposition by the most backwardness segments of the rural population.
For women to be able to handle new and bigger responsibilities, in the rural zones as much as in the cities, they were massively integrated to technical and superior courses; an authentic “female cultural revolution”. In 1928, the number of women in diverse courses was of 83,137, and it surpassed the half million in 1933.
The Quinquennial Plans and the Stalinist Turn
From 1928 on, the State made a massive effort to collectivize the agriculture and industrialize the economy. Between 1928 and 1933, the number of active women raised to 5 millions, and in 1937 it was of 6,6 millions. The First Quinquennial Plan (1928-1932) did not give many opportunities to women that were still part of traditionally female industries, but there was a decree in 1931 with a list of qualified occupations where female workforce should be incremented. In 1931 there were 600 women presidents of koljoses, and 28,000 chief of brigades. In 1940, these numbers would reach 15,000 and 42,500 respectively, besides 7000 tractor drivers. In the industry, they were 15% of lathe operators, 38% of the milling and 65% of the tappings. The number of women in construction, railways, mines, metal industry and machinery production also grew. By the second quinquennial, plan they were already 44% of the new construction workers and 80% of industrial workers. By the end of the Second Plan, half employed women (4,3 millions) were working in the heavy industry, construction and transportation. Like the rest of the URSS workers, they had possibility to access all levels of education and receive free medical assistance.
The chaos of Stalinist industrialization and forced collectivization of land, together with low wages, affected strongly the life and housing conditions of working women. This – together with the emerge of the Stakhanovite Movement in 1935, and above all with the abandonment of the Bolshevik idea of the State to be responsible for domestic work and care – had disastrous consequences for women. As Jean Jacques Marie said: “As long as female workers and employees are subjected to a social oppression and family slavery is presented as the realization of socialist, the wife of the high bureaucrat – free of the daily preoccupations thanks to a network of specialized stores and a cheap offer of female workforce for domestic labor – can dedicate to leisure, as long as the police repression does not disturb her provisional wellbeing”. [Translation by us]
Unlike capitalist countries, in the URSS, after WWII, women not only kept their jobs as the number of employed women continued to grow in all productive sectors. And the most spectacular evolution was among “intellectual” jobs. Women were the majority of medical staff of the country, and in professions like engineering or jurist the number was much higher than in any capitalist country. Women achieved a higher economic independence and a more equal participation in social life, if we compare them with women across Europe were the right to vote was not conquered until the 1920s/30s, and where the Nazi Fascist legislation imposed a major setback to it. But female Soviets paid a high price for this.
Stalinism needed to keep and strengthen the incorporation of women to work life because it was trying to equal and surpass the industrial and economic development of imperialist powers. But the reactionary family policy of Stalinism glorified family and maternity aiming to maintain the privileges of a bureaucratic cast in power; so he put back the responsibility of domestic work on families’ shoulders, imposed mandatory maternity and heterosexuality, like this returning to a bourgeois sexual moral. The worst part is, as Goldman points out, “it was all done in name of Socialism”.
History and Sociology of Female Work. Evelyne Sullerot. Ediciones Península.1970
Women, the State and the Revolution. Wendy Z. Goldman. Ediciones IPS.1993
Marxism and Liberation of Working Women. From the Socialist Women International to the Russian Revolution. Cintia Frencia y Daniel Gaido. Ediciones Ariadna 2016
Women in the Soviet Union. T Serebrennikov. Editions in Foreign Languages. Moscu 1943.
Women’s Role in the Russian Revolution. CEME – Andrea D´Atri.