The Russian Revolution certainly marked the History of humanity. It not only showed the political capacity of the working class to run its own destiny, but among other great advances it guaranteed, for the first time in History, full political participation to the most exploited and oppressed women.
By Jessica Barquero.
Many of its conquests remain until today, but unfortunately the oppression continues to exclude millions of working women from political participation around the world. This is why it is necessary to look at the experience of this revolution, to learn how the USSR managed to incorporate thousands of women into the political life since its earliest years.
Women Before the Revolution
Life was very difficult for women in Tsarist Russia. Under the Tsar’s regime, women were considered a simple household’s extension and laws explicitly allowed men to use violence against their wives.
To earn a few coins, women had to work long shifts in the workshops and factories under very difficult conditions. They made great efforts to avoid being dismissed, enduring terrible labor conditions.
Access to education was very limited, and over 80% of women throughout Russia were illiterate. For peasants, conditions were even harder: they faced exhausting work shifts from sunrise to sunset, living under constant accusations and beatings from their masters and husbands. Like this, women were deprived of all rights. (Serébrennikov, 1943)
However, with the Revolution of October, 1917, and the seizure of power by the Soviets, women’s lives changed radically.
Incorporation of Women into Public Spaces
The Soviet Constitution introduced important changes, giving equal political rights to women. For the first time working women and peasants had the same right to vote as their male coworkers. They achieved the right to elect and be elected, and were able to occupy positions in factory committees, village institutions and police stations.
The Soviet Russia became the first country in the world in which women were elected for a government positions. In the first month after the seizure of power by the working class, Aleksandra Kollontai became part of the Soviet Government as People’s Commissioner for Social Assistance.
Vital changes came from the complete incorporation of women into the labor world. The introduction of mandatory work meant one of the most important revolutionary actions for women’s participation in public and political life. With this, they were longer economically dependent from their husbands, and they began to have their own supply card and a new life outside household sphere.
Taking into account that it was necessary to change the bases to improve women’s living conditions, the Soviets implemented a policy to create a wide network of day-care centers, soup kitchens and collective laundries that –even having to face many obstacles– gradually ended with women’s ties to domestic work and care. All of this was part of a necessary process to encourage women to be part of politics and public administration. Through numerous calls, militant women and women without party were invited to join the Soviets.
Facing the First Challenges
The young workers’ state also face a hard blows of reality while dealing with women’s issues. It was the first time in history that these debates were put into practice, precisely in a backward country regarding moral and cultural issues – as Russia was, with a great deal of preconceptions rooted along centuries. (Toledo, 2015)
The Soviet state understood that it would be a difficult period of transition to make those women, excluded and underestimated by the Tsarist regime, to become great leaders capable of managing a State. Inessa Armand explained the origin of these difficulties when she wrote: “Under the realm of capitalism, working women and peasants are completely separated from all public and political life, not only by the living conditions of the bourgeois family, but also by the lack of political rights. Because of this, with the transfer of power onto the Soviets’ hands, when the working class has taken upon itself the task of administration and the complex and difficult work of the new organization, working women as a whole have shown themselves to be even more inexperienced than working men. In order to successfully draw working women into the common cause, it was necessary to help them, first of all, to learn how to work, to make them understand where and how they can use their strengths.” (Armand, 1920.)
They had to use new methods to accompany working women and peasants in the process of being part of the Soviet organization. Armand described the mechanisms used by the Bolshevik government to mobilize working women, especially those without a party: “There have been assemblies of working women’s delegates, who have performed very well in this regard. These assemblies were constituted by representatives of all factories and workshops of a given region, elected at general meetings of different companies. […] In addition, the delegates are an active part of all the campaigns carried out by the party or the soviets (heating, new harvests, provisions, wounded care, the struggle against epidemics, agitation trains in the provinces, etc.).
Delegates’ assemblies meet two to four times a month. In recent times, in Moscow and in some other locations, the representation ratio has been lowered; now the delegates are elected on a basis of one for each twenty working women […].
The conferences of non-partisan working women have a great importance for propaganda; in different cities, governorships or districts, they meet three or four times a month (Only one conference has been called last year in all Russia). These conferences have been proven as an excellent means to agitate and awake the masses who are still far from the movement, and in this domain they have given good results (now the peasants are interested in these conferences). In last October, for example, a non-partisan conference of working women has met in Moscow, with an attendance of more than 3,000 delegates, representing 60,000 Muscovite working women (in Moscow there are about 180,000 working women).” (Armand, 1920.)
Gradually, women were incorporated to the local soviets and, eventually, the participation of peasants increased through collaboration between workers and peasants’ councils, or through their election in local councils.
In local soviets, peasants often held positions of high-responsibility, supporting the technical organization and administration of the rural government, and collaborating with the inspection of workers and peasants.
The incorporation to factories, fields and institutions became a school for Soviet women, and they acquired the necessary training to work in the State’s central body. Like this, with the Bolshevik revolution, working women went from being salaried slaves to being organizers and administrators of the new Soviet State.
Women at the Forefront of Revolution
Even with difficulties, from the very first moments of the revolution, working women and peasants participated in all fronts. Aleksandra Kollontai described the invaluable contribution of these women to the Soviet State: “The list of women who bravely fought for the Soviet Union is long. During Kerensky’s period, we already found women –working women and peasants– among the members of the first councils. It is also the first government in the world for which women were elected: from the first month after the seizure of power by workers and peasants, a woman was named People’s Commissioner for Social Assistance. In Ukraine, until the autumn of 1921, the comrade Majorova held a similar position, and in the provinces there were numerous female Commissioners: working women and peasants coming directly from the production field. Among them, just to mention a few, comrades Klimova, Nikolajeva, Tjernysjeva, Kalygina and Ikrjanistova; a generation of working women born in the heat of the revolutionary action. Without the active participation of working and peasant women, the Soviet Republic would have been unable to carry out the projects elaborated by the proletarian vanguard, incapable of maintaining the current institutions and preserve them.” (Kollontai, 1921)
With their participation, a revolution was carried out also in the field of traditions: “If the October revolution was proposed to reject the traditional injustices between the sexes, women’s participation in the revolutionary war ended up destroying the last preconceptions regarding women. While the bourgeoisie always affirmed that women’s role was to remain inside their houses and men’s role was more public and active, the Workers’ State assumed a completely different stand, assuming that useful social work was subject to the defense of the Soviet State. Like this, the highly developed class-consciousness in many of these women led them to participate actively in the Red Army, where <the work of Communist women was, above all, to lead campaigns of agitation in the Revolutionary Army Committees. The working women and peasants occupied, essentially, political positions in the Red Army. In the years of 1919-1920, 6,000 working women carried out these tasks>.” (Kollontai, 1921)
Congresses and Assemblies
In 1918, the First Working Women’s Congress of all Russia took place, also known as the Congress of Working and Peasant Women.
Aleksandra Kollontai (1921) remembers its preparation: “The First Russian Congress of Working and Peasant Women, on November 1918, made possible to realize the enormous support that women brought to the revolution. This congress –which met quickly by the initiative of women’s party sections and which was prepared by fifteen comrades– found a very high echo among working women: 1,147 delegates came from all the provinces of Russia, despite the extremely rushed preparations (just a month before the Congress’ meeting).”
The congress voted a resolution insisting on the need of active participation of the activities demanded by the defense of the revolutionary process, where it said: “Every working man, every working woman, must become a soldier of the revolution, ready to give all forces to the triumph of the proletariat and Communism. In consequence, the essential task of working women is the most active participation, in all forms and aspects, of the revolutionary struggle, both in the front and in the rear, not only in propaganda and agitation but also in the direct armed struggle.” (Armand , 1920)
The result of this conference was the creation of Zhenotdel, a.k.a. Women’s Department of the Bolshevik Party, that started initiatives like the creation of delegates’ assemblies of working women, which met two to four times a month. The delegates were women’s representatives from all factories and workshops in a particular district, and their mission was to listen to the demands and needs of their female coworkers and participate actively in all the campaigns carried out by the party and the Soviets.
A Supreme Form of Participation
The October Revolution left great lessons on the creation of a new society. The Workers’ State attempted to solve the most compelling problems of women from the very first moment, abolishing the most retrograde laws and giving the first steps on the construction of a more fair society.
Organizational actions of the Soviet state extended to the whole International. Women’s participation and organization continued, with the strong conviction that the example of what happened in Russia should be followed in the rest of the countries. However, the bureaucratization of the Soviet State and restoration of capitalism ended these achievements.
No capitalist society has ever reached a similar level of participation and power as the achieved by women during the described period. As many laws promulgated or institutions created as there might be, women’s participation and decision-making continue to be restricted to a minor privileged sector.
And this is because the fundamental causes for the existence of these gaps remain. The situation of working women until now is still subjected to domestic economy, and this is why the bourgeois democracy has been unable to respond to women’s needs. The Third Congress of the Communist International explained that “The vote does not destroy the prime cause of women’s enslavement in the family and society (…)” and “…cannot equalise the position of women in marriage or solve the problem of relationships between the sexes. The real equality of women, as opposed to formal and superficial equality, will be achieved only under Communism, when women and all the other members of the labouring class will become co-owners of the means of production and distribution and will take part in administering them, and women will share on an equal footing with all the members of the labour society the duty to work; in other words, it will be achieved by overthrowing the capitalist system of production and exploitation which is based on the exploitation of human labour,and by organising a Communist economy.” (Communist International)
This is why the cause of the Soviet Republic is so exemplary in this regard; it showed what it meant to put in practice the task of turning working and peasant women and into administrators of a State. In this regard, Lenin said that: “In order to be active in politics under the old, capitalist regime special training was required, so that women played an insignificant part in politics, even in the most advanced and free capitalist countries. Our task is to make politics available to every working woman. Ever since private property in laud and factories has been abolished and the power of the landowners and capitalists overthrown, the tasks of politics have become simple, clear and comprehensible to the working people as a whole, including working women. In capitalist society the woman’s position is marked by such inequality that the extent of her participation in politics is only an insignificant fraction of that of the man. The power of the working people is necessary for a change to be wrought in this situation, for then the main tasks of politics will consist of matters directly affecting the fate of the working people themselves.” (Lenin, 1919)
This is why the Russian Revolution left great lessons on the limitations of the bourgeois democracy: neither participation fees nor representations by decree can ever equal the participation of working and peasant women in the Soviet State. The complete freedom and emancipation of women will only be achieved when, through a collective economy, they can be in the forefront, free from all oppression and exploitation.
Translation: Misty M.
 Source not available in English – our translation.
 Source not available in English – our translation.
 Source not available in English – our translation.
For precise references, bibliography was not translated to respect the original language of the sources used by the author of this article. Sources of translations quoted in the “Notes” section.
- Armand, I. (1920) La mujer en la Rusia soviética. Boletín comunista, primer año, número 17. Firmado con el pseudónimo de Hélène Blonina.
- Frencia, C. y Gaido, D. (2016) El marxismo y la liberación de las mujeres trabajadoras: de la Internacional de Mujeres Socialistas a la Revolución Rusa. Santiago, Chile: Ariadna Ediciones.
- Internacional Comunista 1919-1922, Los cuatro primeros congresos de la Internacional Comunista, Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI.
- Kollontai, A. (1921) Mujer, historia y sociedad. Barcelona, España: Editorial Fontamara.
- Lenin, V.I. “Discurso en el primer congreso de obreras de toda Rusia”. Izvestia del CEC de toda Rusia, núm. 253, 20 de nov, 1918, en Lenin, la emancipación de la mujer. Recopilación de artículos. Moscú, Rusia: Editorial Progreso.
- Lenin, V.I. (1919) La tareas del movimiento obrero femenino en la República Soviética. Pravda, núm. 249, 6 de nov, 1919, en Lenin, la emancipación de la mujer. Recopilación de artículos. Moscú, Rusia: Editorial Progreso.
- Serébrennikov, T. (1943) La Mujer en la Unión Soviética. Moscú, Rusia: Ediciones en Lenguas Extranjeras.
- Toledo, C. (2015) La Revolución Rusa y la mujer. Liga Internacional de los Trabajadores. Recuperado de: http://litci.org/es/opresiones/mujeres/la-revolucion-rusa-y-la-mujer/