In the wake of a world war and revolutionary uprising, hundreds of women gathered to launch the first ever international organisation of Communist women. They were committed to instigating a global revolution.
The delegates journeyed across war-ravaged Europe and through revolutionary Russia. They faced the threat of rape, torture and murder at the hands of the White Armies who were fighting against the new workers’ government. The women’s arrival in Moscow in July 1920 was a moment of collective relief, joy and celebration.
The city’s streets were filled with women carrying banners declaring, “Long Live Clara Zetkin—Leader of the World Army of Proletarian Women!” and “Through the Dictatorship of the Proletariat in All Countries, Onward to the Complete Emancipation of Women!”
Women marched together singing The Internationale. The first congress of the Communist Women’s Movement (CWM) was held in the Bolshoi Ballet’s theatre.
Moscow’s elite had once graced its velvet seats. But now the stage was occupied by Communist women from Germany, France, Britain, the United States, Mexico, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Hungary, Finland, Norway, Latvia, Bulgaria, India, Georgia, the Caucasus and Turkestan.
In the summer of 1920, the world was poised between the restoration of capitalism with all its barbarity and hopes of a global socialist revolution. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Russian troops were pulled out of the First World War and workers set up councils to run the factories collectively.
Within weeks, the workers’ government passed a raft of legislation that gave women full legal and political equality. Despite grappling with a broken economy, the workers’ state began to allocate resources for the creation of nurseries, schools, health centres, maternity provision, public canteens and laundries.
This work was directed by the Women’s Bureau—the Zhenotdel—under the direction of two Bolshevik leaders, Alexandra Kollontai and Inessa Armand. Zhenotdel activists spread socialist propaganda among women, taught women to read and write and encouraged women to participate in the workers’ councils.
This beacon of hope for workers of the world could only survive if it spread. The Third International, or Comintern, was established to strengthen the work of Communist parties across the world.
The Comintern recognised that women were indispensable to the struggle for socialism. Its founding congress, held in March 1919, adopted Kollontai’s Resolution on the Need to Draw Women Workers into the Struggle for Socialism. This argued, “The dictatorship of the proletariat can be won and maintained only with the energetic and active participation of working class women.”
Comintern delegates agreed to campaign for equality for women. They also prioritised education and medical care, the integration of women into political life and easing the burden of housework and childcare. The Comintern set up the CWM to help other Communist parties emulate the work of Zhenotdel. The CWM created a Women’s Agitation Committee within national Communist parties.
It initiated important campaigns on issues such as abortion rights, childcare, equal pay, women’s suffrage and promoting International Women’s Day. The CWM published the popular Communist Women’s International journal under the editorship of leading German socialist Clara Zetkin. More than 100,000 women joined parties affiliated to the Communist International.
The Communist women’s successes are all the more impressive given the opposition they met from their political opponents, and from some of their male comrades. The gains of the revolution for women had to be defended and fought for, and any success wasn’t automatic.
Records of the CWM’s first two congresses give an inspiring sense of how women overcame enormous obstacles to demand their liberation. Lida Dvorkina reported that women in Turkestan, who were illiterate and confined within their homes, were joining the Communist Party because of its work in Muslim women’s schools and clubs.
Klavdiya Nikolayeva’s report from Russia, Liberation from Domestic Bondage, derided “the old cooking pot” as a sentimentalised symbol of women’s oppression. “The old cooking pot is only the source of additional back-breaking work, which takes away every last moment of leisure, depriving women of the ability to go to meetings, read books and take part in the class struggle,” she argued.
The CWM set up an International Women’s Secretariat to guide its work. Zetkin was elected as general secretary, and Kollontai became assistant secretary. The Second Congress was held a year later and was larger and more representative than the first. Heated debates went on until late into the night.
Women from the east of the former Russian empire were strongly represented. Gaiane Areshian from Armenia criticised the secretariat for not doing enough to encourage communist work in these areas. Evelyn Roy challenged the use of the term “backward” in relation to women from colonised countries unless it was made clear that imperialism was to blame.
Other delegates recounted more positive experiences. Arifa Musabekova described, “With the advent of the revolution in Azerbaijan, from the moment when the victorious Red Army liberated Red Azerbaijan… a possibility was opened to share in and know the sweetness of liberty.
“Now women throughout Azerbaijan are already removing their veils, having entered upon the struggle for emancipation.” One evening session opened with the arrival of a delegation of Muslim women wearing hijabs and niqabs. They were greeted with great applause.
Clara Zetkin noted that this encounter between Muslim and Communist women was without precedent. But she emphasised, “From wherever we may originate, whatever may be the colour of our skin, our clothing and our condition of life, we are of the same stock, the same sex.
“We are yours, sisters from the Far East. Your cause is our cause, our cause will be yours. We have one cause, one work in common—to drive the revolution forward, so that communism should be realised.” To the activists of the CWM, solidarity with women in the eastern caucuses flowed from an understanding of the role of anti-colonial insurgencies in furthering socialist revolution.
As Kollontai declared, “No great imperialist power can be destroyed without proper action being taken in the colonies of this power. Consequently, it is among the women of the East that we have to accomplish minutely detailed work, which is most important”.
The CWM established a Women’s Secretariat for the Near East, which held its own successful conference in Tbilisi in Georgia in December 1921. The CWM was associated with the Comintern, but its political independence was reflected at its congresses where sharply dissenting views were expressed.
Some delegates argued that campaigning for votes for women could create illusions in parliamentary change. Zetkin argued passionately that Communist women must initiate and lead the fight for equal political rights.
“The demand for women’s equality signifies much more than sweeping away received prejudices, customs and practices—much more than sweeping away male privilege,” she said. It becomes a struggle against bourgeois class rule and the bourgeois class state, and it merges with the onward drive of the proletariat to win state power.”
Another debate focused on abortion rights. Some women were wary of calling for abortion rights because they wanted to focus on winning support for mothers and children. German Communist women reported from their campaign against anti-abortion laws.
“The Communist Party must demand for women the right to determine their own fate and to decide by themselves whether they are in a position to bring up and educate a child,” they said.
They adopted the campaign slogan “Your Body Belongs to You”, which still resonates with women fighting for abortion rights today. Their militant campaign was successful, and the restrictions on abortion were eventually eased.
The CWM only existed as an independent movement for a few years. By 1924, the German Revolution had failed, leading Russian revolution Vladimir Lenin had died and Joseph Stalin’s influence in the Soviet Union and Comintern was growing.
The independence of the CWM was rolled back. Its journal was closed down early in 1925. The Zhenotdel was wound down and dissolved in 1930. Most of the Communist women leaders joined the anti-Stalinist opposition and became victims of Stalin’s gulags and repression.
One hundred years of capitalist development has failed to deliver the free health care, education, access to abortion rights, equal pay and freedom from sexual violence that the Communist women strove for. They anticipated the failure of middle class feminism to improve the lives of working class women.
The CWM developed strategies based on unleashing the revolutionary energy hidden among working class women. That energy has burst out many times over the last hundred years. But to win decisively, we need a global movement for revolutionary socialism led by a new generation of revolutionary women.
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