The lives of young women today are incomparable to that of their grandmothers in terms of work, expectations and sexual freedom. Yet, women are still oppressed.
It’s easy to see how many have drawn the conclusion that women’s inequality persists because it’s rooted in biology or human nature and is therefore here to stay.
The politics and writings of Alexandra Kollontai offer the alternative view that women and men can have free and equal relations.
Though some of Kollontai’s writing is nearly 100 years old, it feels very fresh when read today. Her political pamphlets such as The Social Basis of the Woman Question, and Sexual Relations and the Class Struggle are critical in developing an understanding that women’s oppression is a product of the role of the family in capitalism.
Our rulers preach the virtues of the nuclear family and try to impose norms of personal and sexual behaviour in order to legitimise individuals’ responsibility for bringing up children. Any parent who is working and bringing up children will recognise Kollontai description of how, “Capitalism has placed on the shoulders of the woman a burden which crushes her: it has made her a wage worker without having lessened her cares as a mother.”
Her writings offer a brilliant analysis of how the liberation of women, and sexual freedom are bound up with the struggle to create a different world.
Writing about the 1905 revolution in Russia, Kollontai described how involvement in the mass strikes for better working conditions, and political protests against the authoritarian regime changed even the most oppressed people.
“At a time of unrest and strike actions the proletarian woman, downtrodden, timid and without rights, suddenly grows and learns to stand tall and straight.”
Kollontai always campaigned to bring women into the centre of the struggle. Yet she always linked this attempt to engage women workers with building the struggle itself. She argued that only a society that put people before profit would allocate the resources needed to end the burdens placed on individuals within the family.
A women’s movement had developed in Russia as early as the 1890s. But it campaigned only for equality within existing capitalist society.
While supporting demands for legal and political equality, Kollontai insisted that women needed a much more thorough transformation to achieve liberation. This could unite all workers as “the same hated chains of capitalism oppress their will and deprive them of the joys and charms of life.”
Kollontai’s sharp analysis was proved right by history. In the space of a few short years, the 1917 revolution brought more political and legal equality for women than has ever existed before or since.
Abortion was made legal and free in 1920. The right to vote, equal pay and access to divorce and universal paid maternity leave were introduced within weeks of the revolution’s victory.
The leadership of the Bolshevik party, of which Kollontai was now a part, fought to ensure that measures were put in place to relieve women of many of the burdens placed on them in the capitalist family unit.
By 1919 almost 90 percent of Petrograd’s population had access to communal restaurants, washing facilities and childcare.
Kollontai envisaged that a new morality could develop from the revolution, “a morality which helps to re-educate the personality of man enabling him to be capable of positive feeling, capable of freedom instead of being bound by a sense of property, capable of comradeship rather than inequality and submission”.
Her two novels Love of the Worker Bees and A Great Love have characters grappling with the attempts to develop such a morality.
Yet the revolution was strangled within a few years and Kollontai’s vision of transformed sexual relations was crushed.
The reintroduction of market forces brought mass unemployment to women workers and ended state funding for many of the projects the Bolsheviks had initiated. A demoralised Kollontai left Russia to be ambassador to Norway.
She simply watched from abroad while the Stalinist counter revolution destroyed the workers’ state and glorified motherhood and the family.
But though it was short-lived, the revolution and Kollontai’s writings signpost the road to women’s liberation, and sexual freedom for the whole of humanity.