“Down with autocracy” and “Down with war” read the banners of the March 8 (Feb. 17 in the Julian calendar) Women’s Day march in St. Petersberg, Russia that began the 1917 Revolution. At the start of that year, Russia marked 3 million dead in the Czar’s disastrous engagement in World War I. What was to be a peaceful annual commemoration for working women, wound up igniting the downfall of centuries of Russian monarchy. Met with brute force by police, the women called for a general strike. Some 90,000 trade unionists took part.
Leon Trotsky would later reflect, “The February revolution was begun from below, overcoming the resistance of its own revolutionary organizations, the initiative being taken by the women textile workers of their own accord, demanding bread for the children.”
What made the mass of downtrodden women risk everything to rise up?
Besides the desperation of the times, Russia had strong currents of feminism, going back to Catherine the Great who ruled the empire from 1762 to 1796. Creator of the Smolny Institute, the first state-supported institution of higher education for women in Europe (later used by the Bolsheviks as their headquarters during the revolution), Catherine was known as sexually independent and sought intellectual companionship. Generous and enlightened, she gave a pension to her ex-lover.
The Russian Revolution was the first in history to seek women’s emancipation as one of its central goals. The revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai, together with Vladimir Lenin’s advisor and mistress Inessa Armand, founded the Communist Party’s Zhenotdel or Women’s Department, and helped institute the right to free abortion on demand in 1919. Prior to this reform, rural women in Russia gave birth on average to nine children throughout their lifetimes, only half of whom survived to adulthood.
The Zhenotdel aimed to free women from the drudgery of housework through creation of collective laundries, public cafes, communal kitchens, nurseries, kindergartens and children’s colonies.
The Bolsheviks delinked marriage from the church, legalized divorce and homosexuality and gave equal rights to children born out of wedlock. Social insurance for all women, in and out of the workforce, became a guarantee of the state.
The Zhenotdel also aimed to free women from the drudgery of housework through creation of collective laundries, public cafes, communal kitchens, nurseries, kindergartens and children’s colonies. The revolutionaries knew that as long as a woman is chained to housework, her chances of participation in social and political life are slim.
“The capitalists are aware that the family of old, with the wife a slave and the man responsible for the support and well-being of the family, is the best weapon to stifle the proletarian effort toward liberty,” Kollontai argued.
Kollontai was a “free love” advocate, by which she meant the freedom of women to choose whether and with whom to engage in sex and to do so without the disastrous effects of forced childbearing and loveless marriage.
Another of the key reforms for women during Russia’s revolutionary period was paid maternity leave. Equally important were legal labor protections, which prevented women from being kicked out of jobs as soon as the men returned from the front. Access to education was also a crucial feminist advancement.
“Soviet power meant you could study wherever you wanted for free,” stated one veteran of 1917. Unlike in previous generations, in which lower-class girls were commonly sent out from the home at twelve to work as domestic laborers, the revolution allowed millions of women to gain educational and employment opportunities.
Poet Maxwell Bodenheim later commemorated the “unyielding strength on every picket line throughout the world” that the feminists of the Russian Revolution set off.
The fevered dedication to women’s liberation of the Soviets was radically altered by the security state that emerged amid Russia’s civil war — a conflict funded by Western powers in an effort to restore the rule of private property — and the subsequent rise of Stalinism. The Zhenotdel was disbanded by the party in 1930 on the tenuous grounds that all of its goals had been met through the eradication of private property and the nationalization of the means of production. Abortion was banned throughout World War II, as the Soviet Union sought more soldiers and workers to ward off the Nazi threat.
Yet advancements made by women were never entirely unwound. In 1961, sexologists in Czechoslovak devoted an entire conference to the female orgasm. Examining social and cultural constructs, it suggested that men should do childcare and housework to please their women. Dozens of modern researchers later concluded that women had better sex under socialism across the East Bloc, right up to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the deterioration of the social safety net resulted in increased violence against women. An international market for sex trafficking developed. By one estimate, 14,000 women were murdered by their husbands or lovers in 1993. Under Vladimir Putin, the Russian legislature approved a measure to decriminalize first offenses of domestic violence. To this day, however, Russians still have paid maternity and paternity leave.
Image: From “Women, Go Into the Cooperatives” by I. Nivinskiy, circa 1918.