The Russian Revolution of 1917 transformed the lives of millions of women—and gave a glimpse of how to end women’s oppression.
Women participated centrally in the fight for change, and demanded an end to the appalling position of women under Tsarism.
Especially in the rural areas, the state and the church pushed the idea that women were the property of men. They could be ordered about and beaten for the slightest imagined fault.
Women gained from the February Revolution.
Between February and May successful strikes in the textile industry saw wages for unskilled grades, which mostly women were on, rise by 125 percent.
The factory militias set up to defend the revolution included women.
Of course not all sexism disappeared. The revolution was only in its first phase, and had not moved on to dispossess the bosses and landlords.
In Petrograd half the workforce were women. In March 1917 only 259 out of 4,753 delegates to the soviet were women.
But the October Revolution massively stepped up the pace and depth of change.
Decrees were passed almost immediately enshrining equal pay, equal rights at work and maternity pay. Women won the full right to vote—at the time only in existence in Norway and Denmark.
In 1920 free abortion was introduced. It existed nowhere else in the world at the time.
But legal changes were only the beginning. As Bolshevik revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin said, “Notwithstanding all the laws emancipating women, she continues to be a domestic slave, because petty housework chains her to the kitchen and the nursery.”
Communal institutions helped free women from ‘women’s work
Alexandra Kollontai, another leading Bolshevik, insisted that the “separation of kitchen from marriage” was as important as separation of church from state.
Communal institutions were set up to free women from “women’s work”. These included nurseries, laundries and mending centres.
In 1919 to 1920 some 90 percent of Petrograd’s population ate communally, as did 60 percent of Moscow’s.
The Bolsheviks set up Zhenotdel, a department of the party based on organising women and making sure issues of women’s liberation were not sidelined. The party held a women’s congress in November 1918. About 300 women were expected but 1,150 turned up.
In 1919 Lenin said, “In the course of two years of soviet power in one of the most backward countries, more had been done to emancipate women than during the past 130 years by all the ‘democratic’ republics.”
The revolution had mixed together material changes in women’s lives with a sharp ideological battle to beat back sexism.
But as the revolution retreated and then was defeated, the gains were abolished.
In 1936 legal abortion was abolished, and divorce made much more difficult. The regime trumpeted, “Marriage is ... a lifelong union ... Moreover, marriage receives its full value for the state only if there is children.”
The defeat of attempts by women to win their freedom was one signal of grim rise of a new bureaucratic class running a state capitalist regime.
It was confirmation of Bolshevik Inessa Armand’s slogan, “If the emancipation of women is unthinkable without communism, then communism is unthinkable without the full emancipation of women.”