Russian revolution: what were its policies on women’s issues?

Marxism considers the struggle against capitalism and for social transformation as tightly linked to the demands related to women’s rights and the fight for gender emancipation. 

Women, apart from being an important part of the global workforce, also perform a great deal of tasks related to social reproduction (giving birth and raising children, doing household chores, taking care of the sick and weak members of the family)- which are in essence huge amounts of unpaid work. This is translated into millions of profits for the ruling class.

As an integral part of the forces that make society run, they should (and do) play an important role in the struggle to change society.

Women’s struggles at the beginning of the 20th century

The origins of the women’s movement can be traced around the 1850’s. We saw the rise of the Suffragettes movement, fighting for civil rights and especially the right to vote. Socialist women were in the forefront of that struggle, but they also considered that it is not enough: they saw that working-class women have much more to fight for: equal pay, healthcare, child care, better working conditions. 

In the 1910s, the number of women joining the Socialist parties, especially in Germany and the UK was growing rapidly. Klara Zetkin was one of the pioneers in the socialist feminist movement. After protests organised in New York on March 8, 1908, on what was called “the day of the working woman”, Zetkin was one of those who fought for the 8th of March to be celebrated as the international day of the working woman also in Europe. This actually happened in at least 8 countries (among which Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Denmark and the UK) in 1910. Two women’s conferences had taken place before, in which women members of the socialist parties, especially from Germany and the UK, held important and heated debates around the character of the actions and the demands that should be put forward. 

Radical change by the Russian revolution

The years of radicalisation, struggles and awareness raising led to the fact that women played a key role in the Russian revolution. The very revolt on February 1919 was sparked by a protest of women on the international women’s day (the confusion about the dates is due to the difference between the old and the new calendar). 

The new Soviet power introduced very advanced measures and laws concerning women from very early on. Here are a few examples to illustrate this:

  • Full civil rights granted to women, with one of its first Decrees, in December 1917. Equality was guaranteed by the new constitution in 1918.
  • Laws attributing women to an inferior place were cancelled.
  • A new family code was introduced in which the concept of the “head of the family” was abolished, and which stipulated that the family chooses the surname of the mother or the one of the father.
  • The law defining “legitimate” and “illegitimate” children was also cancelled. 
  • Civil marriage and divorce were established. Alimony was also established  at a third of the father’s salary. If the father was unknown, the woman’s romantic partners who would be potential fathers of the children should take over.
  • Prostitution was decriminalised and pimping was criminalized. Apprenticeships for ex-prostitutes were established, so that they would be able to find work and reintegrate into society.
  • Abortion was legalised and performed in public hospitals for free.
  • A social welfare system was organised: maternity homes, clinics, schools, crèches and nurseries, social kitchens and laundries.
  • Equal pay for equal work was established.
  • Paid maternity leave was guaranteed and covered pre- and post-natal care. Breastfeeding breaks and a special leave for periods were also recognised by law. 
  • The first woman to hold a ministerial position worldwide was in the USSR. Alexanda Kollontai was appointed People’s Commissar for Welfare.

Equally important things were achieved for LGBTQI+ people. Since this is also a matter related to gender discrimination, it is worth mentioning a few points:

  • Homosexuality was decriminalised.
  • Homosexuals were allowed to hold public office. Indeed, Georgy Vasilyevich Chicherin, an openly gay man, was appointed Commissar for Foreign Affairs from 1918 to 1930.
  • The right to change sex in public documents was established by law. Medical care was provided for transgender people, as well as the possibility of gender reassignment surgery. A process of research around transition was launched.
  • Same-sex marriage was established.

Soviet law in general was based in the following principles:

  • The absolute non-involvement of the state in sexual issues, as long as nobody is harmed and nobody’s interests are obstructed.
  • Sexual relations are in no context described as “sodomism” or as “an infringement of pubic morality”: in soviet legislation all sexual relations and contacts are regarded as personal affairs. Only in cases where force is applied, or if consent is missing, a person is harmed or their rights obstructed, only then do sexual relations become a matter of criminal prosecution. In a sense this was the first time the notion of consent was introduced in public politics.

It is obvious and clear that these policies were so far-reaching that they are considered, even today, in most counties, including the “advanced” ones, still radical and progressive.

Legislation isn’t enough: changing people’s mindset

At the same time, of course, laws and decrees are not enough to change traditions and habits that are established over centuries. The Bolsheviks were conscious of the fact that minds, mentalities and consciousness had to change and that this is a long process involving day to day work. This is why Alexandra Kollontai and Inessa Armand took the initiative to create the Zhenodtel, the Women’s department. They organised a women’s congress already in 1918, where more than 1,500 women participated. The Zhenodtel also organised delegations that travelled across the huge country, campaigning for all these issues, trying to persuade women to send their children to day care, to come forward and participate in social life, vote for their representatives at workplaces and the party, get rid of discrimintative and oppressing traditions- such as the scarf in muslim areas. This process was not easy and there were even attacks against those women which were documented. But it represented the beginning of a long educational process that was abruptly halted by the rise of bureaucracy in the USSR. 

Heritage of ideas

Socialist feminists, especially Alexandra Kollontai, have left us with a rich heritage of intellectual work around these issues. This educational work was of course directed not only at women themselves, but also at men. All this radical change would not have been possible if the perceptions and concepts in men’s heads were to get in the way, as was logically often the case. Lenin often criticised sexist attitudes and views expressed by his comrades. 

The basis for all these changes was of course the different economic structure under socialism, i.e. the socialization of the means of production, which in turn created different social relations. In this context education and the socialisation of domestic work had a huge contribution to changing the role and position of women in society. Marxism, on a theoretical level (writings of Engels, Lenin, Trotsky), argues that the double exploitation and oppression of women is a structural element of capitalism, and at the same time the main obstacle to their emancipation. By delegating domestic tasks to socialised entities, women get to have much more free time, which they can devote to both engagement in the social/political life and to personal development. 

Of course, this is inextricably linked to the structure and functioning of the family. In many of her writings, Kollontai argues that human relationships -love, marriage etc- cannot be healthy if they are tied to economic needs and dependence. Under capitalism, neither the absolute freedom of man nor the emancipation of women is possible, precisely because there is no economic independence. 

In this sense, Kollontai defends the liberation of women from the burden accompanying the traditional family structure, which goes hand in hand with sexual liberation. Relationships should be based on choice, on the compatibility of characters, not on economic ties. She also argued that, with the advance of socialism, a “new morality” would emerge. Relationships would not necessarily be monogamous or long-term. Men and women (no reference is made to same-sex relationships) would remain together as long as love lasts and would separate when it ends. Since women would not be economically dependent on men and all things related to child care would be on the responsibility of society as a whole, there would be none of the complications that occur when relationships break down under capitalism. 

This idea may seem difficult to grasp, but it was conceived as part of a process about changing perceptions, eliminating possessiveness and other toxic behaviours which are due to the alienation of human relationships under capitalism. Socialism is not only about changing how the economy is managed, precisely because the economy is tightly and dialectically linked to social, political and human aspects of society. 

Reversal of the gains under Stalinism

The developments within the USSR in the 1930s and the rise of the soviet bureaucracy halted these immense changes and reversed many of them. The USSR entered in a military and industrial competition with the west, which was expectable. But under Stalinism, the leadership of the Communist Party did not enter this struggle based on internationalism and the gains of the revolution. It rather did so trying to compete the capitalist block in the enemy’s court. 

E.g., the USSR tried to increase the number of working hands: more children should be born, therefore returning to the nuclear family concept was promoted to serve this purpose. Awards were given to women who gave birth to more children. Abortion was again banned and access to contraception became limited. Sexual freedom that challenged this dynamic was again marginalized or even demonized. The social policies of those times promoted motherhood, the nuclear family and of course heterosexuality. Homosexuality was again banned and considered as sodomism. 

These drawbacks were disappointing, and created a huge amount of confusion not only in the USSR, but in the Left movements worldwide. In this article we do not have the ability to elaborate on the effects of the Stalinist counter-revolution on these issues. But it is important to note that before the reactionary policies inflicted by the bureaucracy, at the beginning of the 1920s, those policies represented an immense progress. Many of the measures adopted by the Bolsheviks seem utopic in most of the modern countries nowadays. Yet, they have been possible- within a process of social transformation and the overthrow of capitalism. 

It is necessary to put forward demands, like the ones the current feminist movement is opting for: equal pay, quality public services, legal abortion, contraception for free. All these are basic demands to be fought for. At the same time, we need to keep in mind that a radical and long-lasting change for women and LGBTQI+ persons, their ultimate emancipation, is not possible within capitalism, and can only be achieved in a socialist society- albeit free of the burden of the bureaucracy. 

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