The women in the Bolshevik party and the relevance of the resolutions of the Third International.
By Laura Sguazzabia.
Despite the millennial customs that left women in passivity and obedience, in Russia, the contribution of the female proletariat to the revolution was strong and determining. This active participation was expressed in both subordinate roles and the leading role of many women, because of the investment of the Bolshevik party in education and propaganda among the female proletarian masses.
The Bolshevik Party and the Organization of Women
According to the Bolshevik perspective, the work for the female emancipation interests the entire party because the issue of female oppression cannot be separated from the broader struggle for socialism, but women must carry out the leading role. They must organize, in synchrony with the communist vanguard of the proletariat, the conditions for their own liberation. As Lenin (1919) said, “the emancipation of working women is a matter for the working women themselves. Our task is to make politics available to every working woman.” That is, to make women workers, not only the party membership but also “the non-party women and those who are least politically conscious” play the leading role of the new social and political life.
During the revolutionary events of 1905, many Bolshevik women began to work on the women’s Russian movement, bringing to light class differentiation from bourgeois feminism. In the same way, the Bolshevik party press had for a long time devoted a growing space to the question of women.
In March 1913, the Bolshevik Party’s effort to step up the work among women is realized in the preparation of the first celebration of the Working Women’s Day.
In 1914, it was decided to dedicate, yet pushed by Lenin, a special publication for the proletarian women, called Rabotnitsa (The woman worker). Its first issue comes out despite the arrest of the first editorial board because of the Tsarist repression. In the same year, the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party institutes a special committee with the task of promoting meetings for the International Women’s Day: meetings are organized in factories and in public offices where the main issues regarding women’s oppression are discussed. Representatives are elected with the task, within the new committee, to deepen the proposals that had emerged.
In 1917, the support to the Bolsheviks was growing and the requests by the women to join the party increased: after the February incidents, the strike of the washerwomen, the most backward sector of the working class at the time, breaks out. They demanded the nationalization of the laundries under control of the local municipalities, a position supported only by the Bolsheviks. The diffusion of the Rabotnitsa gains importance. Its editorial board has women completely dedicated to the revolutionary cause, organizing meetings and gatherings against the war. Each factory has its representative on the editorial board, participating in weekly meetings to discuss the reports from several areas. The Rabotnitsa also becomes a tool to enhance the awareness of the political organizations and trade unions, still confused about the work among women. Lenin himself wrote several articles on the need to pose new strategies and organizational models to bring the working women closer to socialism.
In March 1917, the Bolsheviks open an office to promote the mobilization of women. The Bolshevik leaders manage to mobilize the entire party in convening a congress for working women in Petrograd to discuss how to involve and organize women in the Revolutionary movement. The congress, held on the eve of the October revolution, was interrupted by the conflicts that led to the Bolshevik seizure of power.
At such a delicate moment, it was very important to ramp up education. The congress of working women in Petrograd decides to set up special commissions (with predominant female presence) to raise the awareness of their rights. At the same time, the Soviets apply an advanced legislation that allows women, through greater protection of work, to participate directly in political activity and to liberate them from all the formal and substantial ties that subordinated them to men.
Alexandra Kollontai joins the new government as Commissioner for Social Services, a position that allows her to participate in the elaboration of new bills to acknowledge women as citizens with equal rights to men.
The committees set up at the Workers’ Congress in 1917 are committed to rapidly introducing the reforms that should be accepted by the population, which must overcome old prejudices. Especially, the attention on behalf of many male Bolsheviks towards female issues show the importance attributed to this intervention front, no longer restricted to a few isolated comrades.
In 1918, with the outbreak of the civil war, the problem of preparing the female workers for the resistance to imperialism was concretely posed. Those in charge of the Petrograd congress decided to summon a conference for all the working and peasant women (with or without a party). The result is impressive. Over 1000 delegates from the countryside and factories participate in the final meeting. It is a high number considering the terrible conditions of travel to reach Petrograd from several [and disperse] districts of Russia. In this way, many women approach socialism and join the Bolshevik party. In view of the great work to be developed on these grounds, the committees reveal an inadequate organizational structure and are reorganized, in the fall of 1919, into a formal section of the Central Committee known as Zhenotdel.
An abbreviation for Otdel po rabote sredi ženščin (Section for work among women), with a monthly publication, Kommunitska, the Zhenotdel or Genotdel (hereinafter indicated Z.) was the department of the Central Committee for the work among women, created in 1919 by the Bolshevik party. This department intended to initiate women in politics, whether members of the party or not, driving them to the work in the party, trade unions and soviets. The Z. was never conceived as a separate organization. Alexandra Kollontai and Lenin were very clear about the purpose of this structure, which should draw women into the party, promoting awareness in the soviets and carrying out the specific demands of proletarian women. To this end, special organizational and propaganda measures were necessary, given the difficulty in contacting and politicizing women, isolated in the family and subject to the violent reactions of husbands and relatives, who hardly tolerated their effective emancipation.
The creation of the Z. gave rise to a broad and varied discussion within the Bolshevik party on the real need for a department dealing with work among women, since there were those who believed it unnecessary or those who assumed ambiguous attitudes.
Significant in this regard was the initial attitude of Konkordiya Samoilova. In 1917, she believed that the creation of a specific sector of women in the Bolshevik Party could lead to a separation by sex in the proletariat. However, in 1918 she shifted her position and understood the struggle of women as part of the socialist struggle, which should have had the collaboration of both genders. The debate on the importance and/or the need for a department that deals specifically with the issues of women workers and peasants will continue for a long time in the labor movement.
One of the most important leaders in the work among women, the first Director and defender of the Z. until its closure, was Inessa Armand. She introduced, in the Z.’s practice, truly effective and innovative methods at the time, which became the main tools used by the Bolsheviks to mobilize the feminine masses and conquer them for revolution. In the delegate assemblies and non-party women’s meetings, the Z.’s representatives asked the women to explain what they wanted most and what they considered most urgent. Then, with the help of the party, they built childhood centers, communal kitchens, laundries, literacy centers and schools, and they controlled their correct functioning. This work mobilized two million working and peasant women.
The department also engaged in the other activities like political agitation, organization of conferences and propaganda, with the publication of weekly articles and of the monthly Kommunistka, with the goal of reaching a large number of non-party working and peasant women or housewives.
In 1920, Armand, under the pseudonym Héléne Blonina, published an article in the 17th issue of the Communist Bulletin entitled “The Working Woman in Soviet Russia”. She explains in detail how the condition of the Russian woman had changed after the revolution and the role the Bolshevik party played, especially regarding the work carried out by the Z. members. “We can say without exaggerating… that results achieved this year exceeded our expectations. A year ago, there was only a small group of conscious women workers. The mood of the rest of the working mass was revolutionary but still instinctive, unconscious and disorganized. Now, a considerable number of conscious working women have been trained, all of them as members of the Communist party.”
The Resolutions of the Third International and the Women’s Question
The program of the Third International regarding women’s issue incorporates the Soviet experience. Adopted in July 1921, the Methods and Forms of Work Among Communist Party Women: Theses states: “there is no ‘special’ women’s question”, in other words, there are no problems that concern women that are not at the same time a broader social problem, of vital interest for the revolutionary movement, for which both men and women must fight.
The guidelines for the female communist movement are approved, providing for a national and international organization of the Bolsheviks, in such a way that: “Women belonging to the communist party of a particular country should not be assembled in separate associations but registered as effective members, Equality of rights and duties in the regional organizations of the party and convened to collaborate in all instances of the party. The Communist Party, however, takes specific measures and creates special organs that are responsible for the agitation, organization, and training of women.”
To this end, a “women’s agitation commission” has been established in each regional and district organization, for promoting the membership and participation of women in the party, in the trade union and in all the proletarian struggle organizations. It took charge of the theoretical and political training of party members, and of organizing mobilizations and conferences. Each committee should work in close contact with the party’s leadership, for whose approval all measures and resolutions depended. In the party’s national leadership a national agitation commission and a national women’s secretariat are expected to commit themselves to constant and regular contacts with the women’s commissions at various territorial levels.
Regarding the international organization, the resolution states, “The International women’s Secretariat of the Communist International leads the women’s work of the Communist Parties at the international level, unites working women to struggle for the goals put forward by the Communist International, and draws women of all countries and all peoples into the revolutionary struggle for the power of the Soviets and the dictatorship of the working class.”
This event, of historical importance to the world socialist movement, outlined a program and an orientation for the work among women, which for its clarity and coherence with the Marxist principles, has not yet been surpassed by any other workers’ organization. Thus, it is still valid.
Translation: Marcos Margarido.
 According to: Clara Zetkin, La questione femminile e la lotta al riformismo, Gabriele Mazzotta Editore, 1975.
 Third Congress of the Communist International: Methods and Forms of Work among Communist Party Women: Theses – https://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/3rd-congress/women-theses.htm