Women in the Russian Revolution

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The Russian Revolutions of 1917, and the events that preceded and followed it, saw the creation of the world's first socialist state, which made explicit commitments to promote the equality of men and women. Many early Russian feminists and ordinary Russian working women actively participated in the Revolution, and many more were affected by the events of that period and the new policies of the Soviet Union.

Beginning in October 1918, the Soviet Union liberalized divorce and abortion laws, decriminalized homosexuality, permitted cohabitation, and ushered in a host of reforms that instigated a red sexual revolution.[1] But without birth control, this early emancipation produced many broken marriages and broken hearts, as well as countless children born out of wedlock.[2] The epidemic of divorces and extramarital affairs created social hardships when Soviet leaders wanted people to concentrate their efforts on growing the economy. Giving Soviet women control over their fertility also led to a precipitous decline in the birth rate, perceived as a threat to their country's military power. By 1936, Joseph Stalin reversed most of the liberal laws, ushering in a conservative, pronatalist era that lasted for decades to come.[3]

Russian Women and World War I[edit]

Millions of Russian men fought actively in World War I, causing some disruption in the patriarchal gender roles traditional to Russian society.[4] The number of women workers in industrial centers rose to over one million as 250,000 women joined the workforce between 1914 and 1917. Peasant women also took on new roles, taking over some of their husbands' farm work.[5] Women fought directly in the war in small numbers on the front lines, often disguised as men, and thousands more served as nurses.[6] The social conditions of women during World War I affected the role they played in coming revolutions.[7]

The February Revolution and its impact on the Bolshevik party[edit]

The February Revolution toppled the tsarist regime and established a provisional government. Women were highly visible in this revolution, gathering in a mass protest on International Women's Day to call for political rights. They gained rights under the provisional government, including the right to vote, to serve as attorneys, and equal rights in civil service. Women advocating for these kinds of political rights generally came from upper and middle-class background, while poorer women protested for "bread and peace."[8] Record numbers of women joined the Russian army. All women's combat units were put into place, the first of these forming in May 1917.[9]

The Women Question and Bolshevik politics[edit]

The Women Question, the idea that women were seen as inferior and given strict social rules and roles, was a popular topic in Russia during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Russians generally viewed women as backward or superstitious, and not to be trusted politically, and even some Marxists referred to women workers as the "most backward stratum of the proletariat" and accused them of being unable to develop a revolutionary consciousness without party guidance.[10][11] Many wrote and theorized on the issue, but many Russians associated the issue mainly with feminists. Before the revolution, feminism was condemned as "bourgeois" because it tended to come from the upper classes, and was considered counterrevolutionary because of the perception that it would have divided the working class. Engels' 1890 work on The Women Question influenced Lenin heavily. He believed that the oppression of women was a function of their exclusion from the public production sphere and the relegation to the domestic sphere. For women to have been considered true comrades, the bourgeois family had to be dismantled and women needed full autonomy and access to employment.[12] In light of the participation of women in the February Revolution, the Bolshevik Party began to rethink and restructure its approach to "the women question."

The Bolsheviks had opposed any division of the working class, including separating men and women to put some focus specifically on women's issues. They thought men and women needed to work together with no division, and because of this, in the party's early days, there was no literature printed specifically targeting women, and the Bolsheviks refused to create a bureau for women workers. In 1917, they acquiesced to the demands of the Russian feminist movement and created the Women's Bureau.[13]

October Revolution and the Civil War[edit]

The Bolsheviks came to power with the idea of liberation of women and transformation of the family. They were able to equalize women's legal status with men's by reforming certain laws such as the Code on Marriage, the Family, and Guardianship ratified in October 1918 which allows both spouses were to retain the right to their own property and earnings, grant children born outside wedlock the same rights as those born within, and made divorce available upon request.[14] The Bolsheviks launched a movement for women's self-activity; the Zhenotdel, also known as women's section of the Communist Party (1919–1930). Under the leadership of Alexandra Kollontai, and with the support of women like Inessa Armand and, Nadezhda Krupskaya the Zhenotdel spread the news of the revolution, enforced its laws, set up political education and literacy classes for working-class and peasant women and fought prostitution.[15]

What the October Revolution gave to the female worker and peasant. 1920 Soviet propaganda poster. The inscriptions on the buildings read "library", "kindergarten", "school for grown-ups", etc.

The provisional government did not last, and in October the Bolshevik party led another revolution. While men were forcibly conscripted for service in the civil war following the October Revolution, women were not required to participate. Nevertheless, they did, in large numbers, suggesting the Bolsheviks had gained some women's support. An estimated 50,000 to 70,000 women had joined the Red Army by 1920 to make up 2% of the overall armed forces.[9]

During this time Bolshevik feminism really began to take form. Lenin spoke often of the importance of relieving women from housework so they could participate more fully in society, and an effort to pay workers for household chores began.[16] The principle "Equal pay for equal work" was officially legislated. Some changes to the traditional emphasis on family were implemented, including making divorce easily attainable and granting full rights to illegitimate children.[17]

One former revolutionary fighter, Fanni Kaplan, attempted to assassinate Vladimir Lenin in 1918, but was arrested and executed.

Peasant Women and Women's Emancipation[edit]

Peasant women were largely uninvolved in both the "bourgeois" feminist movement, and the Bolshevik revolution. Patriarchal gender roles were way of life in villages, and the village was the only life peasant women knew. Historians have theorized that peasants saw revolution as a dangerous threat to their way of life, and that peasant women, already impoverished, feared the disruptions brought by war. Only a small minority of peasant women joined the Bolshevik cause. Peasant women's rejection of women's emancipation is most clearly demonstrated in their refusal to be involved with the Women's Bureau.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wendy Z. Goldman, Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917-1936. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993
  2. ^ Richard Stites, The Women's Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism, 1860-1930. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978
  3. ^ Rebecca Balmas Neary, "Mothering Socialist Society: The Wife-Activists' Movement and the Soviet Culture of Daily Life, 1934-1941," Russian Review (58) 3, July 1999: 396-412
  4. ^ Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild, Equality and Revolution: Women's Rights in the Russian Empire, 1905-1917 (University of Pittsburgh Press, June 2010
  5. ^ Engel, pp. 129–131.
  6. ^ Stoff, p. 30.
  7. ^ Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild, "Women's Suffrage and Revolution in the Russian Empire, 1905-1917," in Karen Offen, ed., Globalizing Feminisms, 1789-1945. New York: Routledge, 2010, 257-274.
  8. ^ Engel, pp. 133–135.
  9. ^ a b Stoff, p. 66.
  10. ^ Koonz, Claudia (1977). Becoming Visible: Women in European History. Houghton Mifflin. p. 375. ISBN 0395244773. 
  11. ^ McShane, Anne. "Did the Russian Revolution Really Change Much for Women?". Retrieved 31 December 2014. 
  12. ^ McAndrew, Maggie; Peers, Jo (1981). The New Soviet Woman- Model or Myth. London: North Star Press. 
  13. ^ Borbroff, pp. 540–567.
  14. ^ Smith, p. 137.
  15. ^ Boxer & Quataert, p. 302.
  16. ^ Beth Holmgren and Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild (eds.), A Very Short Course on Russian Women's History Contextualizing Russian Feminism: Twenty Years Forward, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.
  17. ^ Engel, pp. 140–145.
  18. ^ Clements, pp. 215–235.


  • Borbroff, Anne (1974). "The Bolsheviks and Working Women, 1905–20". Soviet Studies. 26 (4). 
  • Boxer, Marilyn J.; Quataert, Jean H. (2000). "Chapter 14". Connecting Spheres: European women in a globalizing world, 1500 to the present (Second ed.). New York, New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-510950-4. 
  • Clements, Barbara Evans (Winter 1982). "Working-Class and Peasant Women in the Russia Revolution, 1917–1923". Signs. 8 (2): 215–235. doi:10.1086/493960. JSTOR 3173897. 
  • Engel, Barbara Alpern (2004). Women in Russia, 1700–2000. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Smith, S. A. (2002). The Russian Revolution. United States: Oxford University Press. p. 137. ISBN 978-0-19-285395-0. 
  • Stoff, Laurie (2006). They fought for the Motherland: Russia's women soldiers in World War I and the Revolution. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Wade, Rex A. (2000). "Chapter 4". The Russian Revolution, 1917. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-41548-4. 
  • Walther Schmieding, Aufstand der Töchter, Russische Revolutionärinnen im 19. Jahrhundert, 1979, Kindler Verlag, München (in German)
  • Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild, Equality and Revolution: Women's Rights in the Russian Empire, 1905-1917 (University of Pittsburgh Press, June 2010
  • Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild, "Women's Suffrage and Revolution in the Russian Empire, 1905-1917," in Karen Offen, ed., Globalizing Feminisms, 1789-1945. New York: Routledge, 2010, 257-274.
  • Beth Holmgren and Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild (eds.), A Very Short Course on Russian Women's History Contextualizing Russian Feminism: Twenty Years Forward, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.
  • Francisca DeHaan, Krassimira Dasskalova, and Anna Loutfi (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Women's Movements and Feminisms in Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe, 19th and 20th Centuries. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2006.

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