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Karina Rottinger

In what ways was the Russian Revolution revolutionary for women? Discuss with particular reference to Alexandra Kollontais autobiography OR in relation to her views on women and revolution.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 held opportunity for many Russians but in its results we can see a varied collection of emotions, involving both disillusionment as well as a sense of success, particularly so in the early years. Women are an especially interesting group to analyse when trying to understand the effects of the revolution, however some of their achievements were more tangible than others, and some of their changes cannot be measured. Nonetheless, by piecing together accounts of what the women themselves thought of the changes going on around them we can begin to understand the intricate web of political, economic and psychological alterations being experienced at the time. Conversely, certain solutions were fairly short lived and certain issues continually obstructed the aspirations of women as they tried to gain the right to control their lives.

Alexandra Kollontais views on women and revolution are one such source that proves to be incredibly useful not only because she identifies some of the problems and solutions to the woman question but also because she had a widespread impact on other women. Kollontai, the daughter of a nobleman, was a Marxist but also held the belief that women would only be free when they were granted economic independence.1 She strongly believed in the working class but her focus was on advocating women and informing people of the tribulations they were put through. In the hope of understanding the level revolutionary effects had on women one can look at how they were recognised by the Bolsheviks as a constituency not to be overlooked, changes in Russian perceptions regarding gender roles, women being united by work rather than divided by class and sex under the idea of the Social Revolution and the introduction of important legislation.

Beatrice Farnsworth, Bolshevism, the woman question and Alexandra Kollontai, in American Historical Review, 81 (Summer 1976), pp. 294

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The revolution in a way offered quite ground-breaking changes for women in Russia because unlike before, the major parties appeared willing to listen to women and prepared to give them greater equality in society. Due to writings by Marxists, women were portrayed as the most backward stratum of the proletariat, and unable to organise any kind of revolutionary process without help from a party.2 However figures such as Alexandra Kollontai changed this mentality to a degree and the revolutionaries began to recognise the possible potential for women in the revolution and this then led them to begin developing a program for women workers. This new opening was what led many women like Kollontai to join the Communist Party.3

However this acknowledgment was partly due to the fact that revolutionary changes among many Russian women were already occurring before the 1917 revolution. Industrialisation had hit certain parts of Russia and with it came a great increase in working women. Kollontai marks out the First World War in particular as a bringer of huge change to their society.4 As the men had to fight in the war, this meant there were increasing opportunities for women to work, and indeed a necessity for women to work, in order to fill the void. Between 1914 and 1917 the number of female workers increased significantly as they became a third of the workforce.5 Revolutionary groups, being pushed by people such as Kollontai, realised that women represented a valuable constituency and were needed in order for success. Various revolutionary groups attempted to draw women to their party. For the

Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal, Love on the Tractor: Women in the Russian Revolution and After, in Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz, eds., Becoming Visible: Women in European History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), pp. 375. 3 Barbara Clements, Emancipation through communism: The ideology of A. M. Kollontai, Slavic Review, 313 (1973), pp. 324. 4 Alexandra Kollontai, Women and the Revolution, in Alix Holt, ed., Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai (Westport, Conn: L. Hill, c1977), pp. 113. 5 Kollontai, Woman and the Revolution, p. 113.

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Bolsheviks, this meant re-establishing Rabotnitsa, a newspaper directed to women.6 Vladimir Lenin was a staunch supporter of womens emancipation believing that greater equality would then mean a more productive female workforce, who would then be more able to participate in production a main goal in the new socialist Russia.7 With womens increasing role in the labour force, they became a group too big to ignore and in 1917 women gained the vote. It was increasingly apparent that they could no longer be overlooked, nor could the revolution, arguably, be won without them.8

However, by looking at certain actions, one must call into question the motives of various parties in gaining the support of the women and their willingness to actually help solve their problems. The Bolsheviks for instance knew they needed the women in the revolution, however there was no real consensus on how to actually deal with the woman question, seen through the contradiction in their policy at the time. The main problem was that in the communist movement everyone was thought to be the same and to hold the same interests, their unity was what made them strong. Lenin himself said that, a woman communist is a member of the party just as a man communist. With equal rights and duties.9 However, Lenin approved the creation of a womens department of the party Zhenotdel.10 Although changes were given to women, many of the attitudes of men in society had not significantly changed, and this is what made womens progress more difficult and in some instances, quite shortlived.

Nevertheless, despite the attitudes of men, women were increasingly conscious of their situation and furthermore the realisation that they wanted better. The revolution brought sweeping changes in how

Beryl Williams, Kollontai and after: Women in the Russian Revolution, in Sin Reynolds, ed., Women, State and Revolution: Essays on Power and Gender in Europe Since 1789 (Brighton, Sussex: Wheatsheaf Books, 1986), pp. 66. 7 Williams, Kollontai and after, p. 68. 8 Farnsworth, Bolshevism, the woman question and Alexandra Kollontai p. 295. 9 Williams, Kollontai and after, p. 67. 10 Richard Stites, The Russian revolution and women, in Marilyn Boxer and Jean Quataert, eds, Connecting Spheres: Women and the Western World, 1500 to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp.253.

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some people viewed the family and overturned several traditional notions.11 Women like Kollontai gave voice to the many concerns women had, shown through her incredible ability to empathise with peasant and working women, despite her privileged upbringing. Kollontai wrote of how hardworking women were striking in order to protest against their oppression, fighting for a shorter working day and equal pay for equal work.12 Her pamphlets were distributed to women, more so as they left the home to work in the factories.13 It was the writings of Kollontai that made women aware of the overall situation and helped them identify with each other. This is shown particularly well in Kollontais recount of the working woman and mother, the story of various women in differing situations all called Mashenka. Kollontai writes,

There is no one to look after the working mother. No one to lift the heavy burdens from the shoulders of these tired women. Motherhood, they say, is sacred. But that is only true in the case of Masha the lady.14

Masha the lady refers of course to the bourgeoisie class, who is juxtaposed with the dismal conditions of a laundress, a maid and a dye-worker. Kollontai gives an emotional story that people can identify with and combines it with facts. According to Kollontai, there are several provinces in Russia, especially those with many factories, where 54% of children die at birth.15 Kollontai places part of the blame on the setting up of factories which tears women away from the home, claiming that poverty has driven women out of the home; the factory has pulled them in with its iron claws.16 The negative imagery in this statement is evident, however interestingly, the influence of Marxism means that Kollontai does not believe in putting women back in the home but rather in the idea that times are changing and Russian society must accommodate these changes. She declares that it is the duty of the

11 12

Stites, The Russian Revolution and Women, p. 247. Kollontai, Woman and the Revolution, p. 124. 13 Stites, The Russian Revolution and Women, p. 249. 14 Kollontai, Woman and the Revolution, p. 131. 15 Kollontai, Woman and the Revolution, p. 132. 16 Kollontai, Woman and the Revolution, p. 133.

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law to help women combine work and maternity.17 This changing belief in what role women play in society is in part what made the revolution so revolutionary for women. Under the banner of the working class struggle, women were incorporated into the revolution like many other constituencies. Although they had their own separate problems, the revolutionary movement spread this idea of the working class and the strength, happiness and strength that it offered them all if each undertook their duty and contributed.

This idea is further developed in what Kollontai referred to as the grand Social Revolution, the birth of a new society. It is important to note that what was revolutionary for women was at times also revolutionary for Russian society in general. In this way women were united with their fellow male citizens along lines of occupation, rather than being divided along lines of class and sex. Unlike the previous feminist movements in the late 1800s, the 1917 revolution changes were characterised by the proletariat struggle. Kollontai was a firm promoter of this, seen clearly when she stated,

The labour republic sees women first and foremost as a member of the labour force, as a unit of living labour; the function of maternity is seen as highly important, but as a supplementary task and as a task that is not a private family matter but a social matter.18

Improving the conditions for women was not only important for their health, but it was also important due to the notion that these women had a responsibility to give birth to new children of the state. In order for these children to be as healthy as possible, society needed to look after them as a whole. Kollontais idea of the family took the concept out of the home and rooted it in the broader concept of the community. The influences of Marxist ideas concerning the national economy are evident here by the emphasis on the collective.19

17 18

Kollontai, Woman and the Revolution, p. 135. Kollontai, Woman and the Revolution, p. 143. 19 Clements, Emancipation through communism, p. 335.

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By associating female issues with the workers movement, figures such as Kollontai hoped to integrate womens rights into the revolutionary cause, because undeniably, in her opinion it was part of the revolution. For Kollontai, the revolution held the prospect of a future society not only without class but furthermore which would act like one large, friendly family20. The idea that permeates these beliefs is that by supporting the revolution, womens emancipation will be achieved and that the issue of maternity will solve itself in the process. The revolution thus proved to have quite a revolutionary effect on women and on their expectations. In previous womens movements, many women had not involved themselves in such a mainstream movement, and had held onto the notion that their issues were distinctively different.21

Perhaps one of the most noticeably significant changes for women was the implementation of key pieces of legislation, despite the difficulties in achieving some of them. One cannot ignore the sense of hope and optimism that pervades Kollontais writing, fuelled perhaps by what had been achieved in the first few months after October 1917. This is illustrated clearly when she wrote in January 1918, Russia is fortunate that all these nightmares have, with the victory of the workers and the peasants, disappeared into the black gloom of the past. A morning as pure and bright as the children themselves has dawned.22 She has firm faith in the future and believed that although there have been difficulties, some major changes had been introduced or at least planned for in the near future. One cannot escape the sense that the revolution had provided a fresh start for the nation as a whole.

1917 brought a number of Kollontais demands incorporated into legislation and Kollontai was made the Peoples Commissar for Social Welfare23. They gave social insurance, cut the working day down

20 21

Kollontai, Woman and the Revolution, p. 134. Stites, The Russian Revolution and Women, p. 248 22 Kollontai, Woman and the Revolution, p. 140. 23 Williams, Kollontai and after, p. 74.

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to eight hours, prohibited night work for women, allocated time specifically for breastfeeding, and also obtained pregnancy leave for women two months before and after birth.24 There were also attempts made to increase the equality between men and women under the Family Code of October 1918.25 Divorce was made easier, women did not have to take her husbands name and marriage was replaced with civil registration26. Abortion was also made legal in 1920, under the idea that at the time it was a necessary evil.27 Kollontais call for society to be more of a family (cite), also led to infrastructure being created in the hope of aiding mothers under the Commission for the Protection of Mothers28. This tried to give women a number of homes and clinics specifically for mothers and babies, where they could go to in order to be looked after.29

However, regrettably, despite many of the reforms being put in place, many did not function as they were thought to or were indeed revoked in later years. The brief romantic revolutionary period had certain realities forced upon it soon after 1918, one of which was the Civil War (1918-1920)30, which left Russia with many casualties and the country largely in ruin31. Women took up jobs to support themselves as the men fought in the war rather than because it was their social duty32. Due to economic failure and the introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP), there was not enough money to be used on the public expenditure Kollontai had originally wanted. Model nurseries for example, were in reality, shelters for homeless children who had nowhere else to go, and often

24 25

Williams, Kollontai and after, p. 74. Rosenthal, Love on the Tractor, p. 378. 26 Williams, Kollontai and after, p. 74. 27 Kollontai saw the need for abortions to be linked with maternity problems. She advocated abortion because she believed that once the necessary institutions were put in place to help women during motherhood than this would lead to their decline. In advocating abortion she was not advocating the idea of choice, because as a woman it was their duty and social obligation to have children. Kollontai, Woman and the Revolution, p. 148-149. 28 Williams, Kollontai and after, p. 74. 29 Williams, Kollontai and after, p. 74. 30 Rosenthal, Love on the Tractor, p. 378. 31 Jacqueline Heinen, Kollontai and the History of Womens Oppression, New Left Review, 110 (1978), pp. 45. 32 However, a number of women served in the army (as many as 80 000). Stites, The Russian Revolution and Women, p. 252

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children died there.33 The prohibitions against night work and many jobs considered dangerous for women were repealed in 1919, and as a result many women were working dismal conditions. Prostitution returned especially in the 1920s illustrating the lack of opportunities for women and by 1936 abortion was made illegal and divorces were made increasingly difficult34 By the mid-1920s the idea of the bourgeois family were beginning to disappear, but the idea of the socialist family had not yet become common, and it was unclear what such an idea actually meant for many people.35 So although psychological many women were expecting and hoping for the sweeping changes of the revolution, in reality the new government could not provide ample social services to generate such a transformation, nor did they at times seem overly committed to them.36

Woman did not see all the changes that they had aspired for before the revolution; however this does not mean it wasnt in some ways revolutionary for them. There was a distinct broadening of woman consciousness throughout society that changed the views of women, and made them think about what they wanted the new society to hold for them. Women like Alexandra Kollontai made society aware of the exploitation of women in this industrialising nation, and aimed to integrate their plight within the socialist movement. Such an attempt had its strengths and weaknesses. For although many women were ready to accept changes, many men werent. Despite their claims of supporting the Bolshevik revolution, some of their attitudes remained firmly imbedded in the past. However, it should be noted that women were not the only group disappointed with the revolution; yet despite the failure of many of the key implementations this does not mean they were unchanged by the events of 1917.

33 34

Rosenthal, Love on the Tractor, p. 379. Williams, Kollontai and after, p. 76-77. 35 Rosenthal, Love on the Tractor, p. 383. 36 Farnsworth, Bolshevism, the woman question and Alexandra Kollontai p. 308.

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References
Primary Source Alexandra Kollontai, Women and the Revolution, in Alix Holt, ed., Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai (Westport, Conn: L. Hill, 1977), pp. 113-149 Secondary Sources Barbara Clements, Emancipation through communism: The ideology of A. M. Kollontai, Slavic Review, 313 (1973), pp. 323-338. Jacqueline Heinen, Kollontai and the History of Womens Oppression, New Left Review, 110 (1978), pp. 43-63. Beatrice Farnsworth, Bolshevism, the woman question and Alexandra Kollontai, in American Historical Review, 81 (Summer 1976), pp. 292-316. Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal, Love on the Tractor: Women in the Russian Revolution and After, in Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz, eds., Becoming Visible: Women in European History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), pp. 369-399 Richard Stites, The Russian revolution and women, in Marilyn Boxer and Jean Quataert, eds, Connecting Spheres: Women and the Western World, 1500 to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 246-255. Beryl Williams, Kollontai and after: Women in the Russian Revolution, in Sin Reynolds, ed., Women, State and Revolution: Essays on Power and Gender in Europe Since 1789 (Brighton, Sussex: Wheatsheaf Books, 1986), pp. 60-80