Women and the Russian Revolution

Tatiana Cozzarelli

1923 cover of Rabotnitsa, the women’s journal published in the Soviet Union and Russia and one of the oldest Russian magazines for women and families – source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/93/Rabotnitsa.jpg

Marxism is not always associated with the fight against sexism. It’s often stereotyped into “Bernie Bros” or reduced into that one white guy who insists that discussing patriarchy divides the working class. It’s true that some left groups adopt class reductionist positions, and it’s just as true that socialist feminisms exist as well. In my view, class reductionist “Marxists” are not Marxist at all, for Marxism has taken up the question of gender oppression ever since its inception. August Bebel wrote Woman and Socialism in 1879; Engels wrote The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in 1884. A few years later, Clara Zetkin was editor for the German Social Democratic Party’s women’s newspaper Equality. She was the head of the women’s division within the party, recruiting women to Marxist ideas and fighting for women to become subjects of the struggle against capitalism and patriarchy.



It is the Russian Revolution that best illustrates my argument. For leaders such as Lenin and Trotsky, revolution was insufficient to rid society of patriarchy. It was just the beginning of a profound social transformation of women’s role in society, as well as a transformation of all social values and culture. This is demonstrated by the laws enacted by the Bolsheviks, as well as the broad vision and debates about women’s rights within the party. Yet, as Lenin put it, equality in law does not mean equality in life. As a result of the war and isolation, the real economic conditions for women’s equality did not exist. It is under these dire circumstances that Stalinism took hold, erasing workers’ victories and specifically, women’s rights victories won by the Russian Revolution. It is from Stalinism that the dogma that Marxism is unconcerned with patriarchy was born. 

Women as the Spark for the Russian Revolution

The context for the 1917 Russian Revolution is one of complete misery for the country and its people. Russia had recently gone through a series of wars: with Japan in 1905, a failed revolution in 1905, and World War I in 1914. During the World War I, the price of products went up 131 percent in Moscow and women would spend hours waiting in the blistering cold for basics necessities like wheat and sugar. While Marx believed that the socialist revolution would first occur in advanced industrialized nations, Russia stood far from the economic and productive power of countries such as Germany. Peasants made up eighty percent of the population—mostly illiterate and isolated from the political debates in the city. Peasant life was based on a strict division of labor and women were taught to be obedient to their father and later their husband. It was only after 1914 that women were allowed to separate from their husbands, but only with a man’s permission; likewise, women could only get a passport or a job with a man’s permission.

There was, however, a proportionally small but strong proletariat in the cities. World War I played an important role in increasing the weight of women workers in the Russian proletariat; as men went off to war, more women joined the workforce – women were nearly half the workforce by 1917. Women industrial workers suffered inequality as well, over the already miserable conditions afforded to workers. They were paid lower wages and were not allowed to organize within the same unions. And yet women were the spark for the Russian Revolution.

In late February 1917, the women in factories in Petrograd left their workplaces on strike, going to neighboring factories calling on the men to also leave their jobs and join. The Bolshevik newspaper, Pravda stated, “The first day of the revolution – that is the Women’s Day, the day of the Women’s Workers International! All honor to the International! The women were the first to tread the streets of Petrograd on that day!” After the February Revolution, like in the 1905 uprising, the workers organized delegate assemblies to make decisions about the burgeoning movement: soviets. The Bolshevik paper Rabotnitsa (The Woman Worker) was relaunched in May 1917 and discussed equality of the sexes, as well as the need for the State to take up domestic labor tasks. The stage for the October Revolution was set by the radical activism of women. It was the tireless organizing of women such as Aleksandra Kollontai, as well as the rest of the Bolshevik party that allowed the Bolsheviks to win over the majority in the soviets and take power in the October Revolution. Women also participated in the October Revolution, providing medical help, communication and even joining the Red Guard.

What Did the Bolsheviks Think About Women’s Issues? 

The Bolsheviks saw women’s role in society as a measure of the society as a whole; it wouldn’t be until women had achieved full equality that they could consider the socialist revolution ultimately successful. After the revolution, immediate measures for women’s liberation were taken. The Bolsheviks put forward four primary ways to support women’s equality: free love, women’s participation in the workforce, the socialization of domestic work and the end of the family. Long before the “Wages for Housework” campaign, the Bolsheviks argued that there was nothing natural or biological about women doing domestic work or raising children. This was an ideology perpetuated by capitalism that had no place in a socialist society, and thus liberating women from “domestic slavery” was a central discussion within the party and an important task for the revolution. As Trotsky writes in Revolution Betrayed,

The revolution made a heroic effort to destroy the so-called “family hearth” – that archaic, stuffy and stagnant institution in which the woman of the toiling classes performs galley labor from childhood to death. The place of the family as a shut-in petty enterprise was to be occupied, according to the plans, by a finished system of social care and accommodation: maternity houses, creches, kindergartens, schools, social dining rooms, social laundries, first-aid stations, hospitals, sanatoria, athletic organizations, moving-picture theaters, etc. The complete absorption of the housekeeping functions of the family by institutions of the socialist society, uniting all generations in solidarity and mutual aid, was to bring to woman, and thereby to the loving couple, a real liberation from the thousand-year-old fetters.

Unlike the Wages for Housework campaign, the Bolsheviks sought to take housework out of the hands of individuals and put it in the hands of the state. As Argentine socialist Andrea D’Atri argues, the Bolsheviks did not want to maintain domestic work in the realm of the household, equally dividing those banal tasks between men and women. Rather, they wanted to divorce these tasks from the family unit and put them in the hands of the state. In this way, the family and women in particular, would shed much of their “reproductive role.”

There was far from a consensus about these matters among the Bolsheviks; Lenin was notoriously conservative about sex, while Kollontai argued that our perceptions of sex and sexuality are socially constructed. There were lively debates about the role of parents in the upbringing of children; while some argued that parents would still play a central role, others argued that prioritizing familial ties was contrary to a socialist form of social organization. One Bolshevik educator even thought up the possibility of settlements that would be self-governed by children with the help of educational professionals.

Equality in Law

The Bolsheviks put these into practice. In 1918, less than a year after the Revolution, the Family Code was passed, which historian Wendy Goldman calls the “most progressive family legislation ever seen in the world.” It took the church out of the business of marriage, making marriage civil. It not only legalized divorce, but streamlined the process and made it accessible to anyone without needing to provide a reason. The code stopped centuries old laws that privileged the private property of men and provided equal rights to all children – including children born outside of a registered marriage. If a woman did not know who the father of her child was, all of her sexual partners would share child support responsibilities. The author of the family code, Alexander Goikhbarg saw this law as transitory: one that was meant to strengthen neither the state nor the family, but to be a step towards the extinction of the family.

In 1920, abortion was legalized, making the Soviet Union the first country in the world to do so. Prostitution and homosexuality were no longer banned in the USSR. The Bolsheviks also opened public cafeterias, laundry-mats, schools and day care centers as a step towards the abolition of women’s double shift. It was a step towards placing the responsibility for domestic work on the state, not on individual women. The Bolsheviks saw women’s political participation as central to the advancement of the Soviet Union. They organized Zhenotdel, the women’s section of the party, made up of workers, peasants and housewives who organized women on the local level, while delegates from Zhenotdel were elected for internships in the government.

Although the Bolsheviks made major advances by passing laws for women’s rights, they were very conscious that this was insufficient to guarantee true equality. They stressed the material basis for inequalities, but they also knew that a profound personal change would have to occur in members of the new Soviet society—a social reorganization won by proletarian revolution. This is what Lenin meant, perhaps, when he said “the proletariat cannot achieve complete freedom unless it achieves complete freedom for women.”

The Struggles of a Young Workers’ State

Alexandra Kollontai (center) with female deputies at the Conference of Communist Women of the Peoples of the East, circa 1920 – source: http://inrussia.com/woman-on-the-march


The young workers’ state had to face considerable challenges in its first years. It was attacked by fourteen imperialist armies and survived because of the morale and the sacrifices of workers and peasants in the Red Army. Facing its fourth war in twenty years, the people of the Soviet Union faced starvation and high unemployment. Women suffered the most under these conditions. Although under explicit orders not to do so, women were laid off before their male counterparts. Many of these women turned to prostitution as the only way to survive, and the 13th Congress of the Bolshevik Party discussed this problem explicitly, making new regulations to protect women’s employment arguing “that the preservation of women workers in production has political significance.”

A tenet of communism, to each according to her need and from each according to her ability, can only work in a society of plenty. Advanced capitalist mass production provides such a basis. However, when there isn’t enough, a bureaucracy eventually decides who has and who does not. This is why Lenin and so many other Bolsheviks placed their hopes in a German revolution, which would ensure that the USSR was not isolated. It would provide access to German industry and the goods it produced. However, the third international failed and the German revolution was squashed, leaving the Soviet Union to fend for itself. It is from the conditions of scarcity that the counter revolutionary Stalinist bureaucracy emerged, going back on the advances made during the early years after the Russian Revolution. Stalinism went on to play a counterrevolutionary role around the world based on the theory of socialism in only one country.

Stalinism, the Counter Revolution and Women’s Rights

The Stalinist bureaucracy staged a counter revolution which murdered the left opposition within the Bolshevik party, locking up, exiling or killing those who attempted to carry on the legacy of the 1917 revolution. Theorists who wrote about the end of the family such as Nikolai Krylenko were arrested and murdered while the author of the 1918 Family Code was taken to an asylum. When Stalin began to exhort the idea of socialism in only one country, he also re-criminalized homosexuality and prostitution.  In 1936, Stalin banned abortion, arguing that women had the “noble duty” to be mothers. In order to put forward such reactionary ideas about gender, Stalin squashed the women’s committee within the Central Committee of the Communist Party, as well as all women’s organizing on the local level. He made government efforts to bring traditional gender roles, the very gender roles that the Bolsheviks had worked to break with. By 1944, Stalin had organized designations for women based on how many children they had. The “Order of Maternal Glory” created categories of women and provided women with 10 or more children with the designation of “Mother Heroine.”

The Left Opposition and The Bolshevik Legacy

As Stalin continued to play a counter-revolutionary role around the world, Trotsky created the Fourth International, which was dedicated to the legacy of the Bolsheviks. The Transitional Program that laid out the tasks for the Fourth International returns to the discussion of women’s rights as central to the socialist revolution. Trotsky says, “Opportunist organizations by their very nature concentrate their chief attention on the top layers of the working class and therefore ignore both the youth and the women workers. The decay of capitalism, however, deals its heaviest blows to the woman as a wage earner and as a housewife. The sections of the Fourth International should seek bases of support among the most exploited layers of the working class; consequently, among the women workers. Here they will find inexhaustible stores of devotion, selflessness and readiness to sacrifice.” Far from any class reductionism, Trotsky sees the organization of women in a revolutionary party as a central task for communists. Trotsky also wrote about the theory of the permanent revolution in which he argues that society will undergo changes even after a socialist revolution, including changes in the role of women in society.

What Can We Learn?

A hundred years have passed since the Russian Revolution and it has been several decades since the last successful revolution. Some believe that revolution is impossible. Others believe that it will enshrine in law the racist, sexist or homophobic attitudes that some workers hold. Many equate Marxism with the struggle against exploitation, not the struggle against oppression.

When the Bolsheviks took power and immediately made laws supporting women’s rights, they had no illusions that even the most progressive gender legislation in the history of the world could end patriarchy. They had lively debates about how to end the family and what society might look like when all bourgeois morals and patriarchal prejudices were rooted out. They saw women as political subjects in the workers’ state, as well as in their own home and lives. Stalinism put an end to all these dreams, reverting the Soviet Union to the most patriarchal kind of society.

We cannot leave the legacy of Marxism to those who pervert its meaning to crude class reductionism. We cannot leave Marx’s legacy to Stalinism and the patriarchal and counter revolutionary construction of gender and society that it upheld. This is not about some fetish with Marx, but rather a concern with drawing from the most advanced revolutionary tradition for women’s liberation. Not leaving the legacy of Marxism to those who associate with class reductionism is important because they erase the legacy of the Bolsheviks, of Clara Zetkin, of Rosa Luxemburg and all of those Marxists who saw Marxism as a strategy for women’s liberation. Those who saw it as in fact the only strategy that could truly liberate all women.

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