Russian Revolution and Women

The role played by women in the Russian revolutions of 1917. In 1920 the Russian Communist feminist Alexandra Kollontai wrote, "The future historian will undoubtedly note that one of the characteristics of our revolution was that women workers and peasants played . . . an active important role" (Stites 1978, 317).

As economic, social, and political conditions across Russia worsened in early 1917, czarist officials worried that Russian women were on the verge of open revolt. It was reported that "mothers of families . . . are exhausted by the endless standing in line at the stores. . . . [O]ne spark will be enough for a conflagration to blaze up" (Miller 2001, 182). The spark took place in Pet-rograd on March 8, 1917, when thousands of women workers took to the streets demanding an end to the war and increases in social services. Over two weeks the crowds grew, more members of the military mutinied, and on March 15, Czar Nicholas II abdicated the throne.

Many Russian women believed that the Revolution would sweep away more than just the czar and the ruling family. Inessa Armand, the head of the Bolshevik Party’s women’s division, or Zhenotdel, proclaimed that "the bourgeois order is being abolished" and called for the removal of all strategies that maintained the ideology of separate spheres in which women had no control over their lives (Goldman 1993, 3—4).

Eventually, the Communist government would redefine gender relations through the adoption of the 1918 Code on Marriage, Family, and Guardianship. The code abolished the czarist-era status of women as subservient to men by allowing women to sue for divorce, abolishing the stigma of illegitimacy, and mandating child support (Goldman 1993, 51).


During the Revolution, women were portrayed in political iconography as enchained by the czarist policies and helpless to free themselves. For example, Communist leaders of the Petrograd Izhora Works used banners depicting women, in traditional costume and chained to rocks, set free by male workers wielding hammers with the sun shining in the background. The banners were splashed with slogans such as "All Hail the Socialist Republic," "All Hail the Democratic Republic," or "Free Russia." Although the slogans changed, the imagery did not: either women in chains about to be set free by the actions of men or women, or women just set free by the actions of men, standing atop piles of chains (Clements et al. 1991, 229).

As in other conflicts, Russian women played myriad roles from the battlefield to the home front. What was different about their actions during the Revolution was the level of organization (Stites 1978, 318). Communist leaders formed gender-specific combat units such as the Communist Women’s Combat Detachment and the Communist Women’s Special Purpose Detachment. Women were even recruited into the army of the new provisional government formed after the February Revolution (Stites 1978, 318). One of these combat veterans was Larisa Reisner, who specialized in intelligence gathering. For the Lenin government, formed after the October Revolution, she helped draft the law separating church from state and the Constitution of 1918 (Stites 1978, 319). Women headed the politotdely (political sections) in each Red Army unit, where they developed and offered training to all soldiers with regard to the social, political, and economic goals of the Communist leadership (Stites 1978, 32).


Of the thousands of women who participated in the Revolution (such as Nadezhda Konstanti-nova Krupskaya, Yelena Dmitriyevna Stassova, and Klavdia Nikolayeva), many took public, but certainly not leading, roles. Konstantinova was Lenin’s wife. During the Revolution she occasionally spoke at rallies, but she primarily supported her husband. After the Bolshevik seizure of power, Konstantinova became a member of the People’s Commissariat of Education and helped launch training and education programs for women. Likewise, Dmitriyevna’s role during the Revolution was primarily one of providing support at rallies by standing near Lenin, clapping at the appropriate times. Behind the scenes she worked as secretary for the Party Central Committee. Finally, Klavdia Nikolayeva worked for Russia’s first Communist women’s magazine, Kommunistka. Although Nikolayeva did on occasion speak at public events, her work, like that of other leading Communist women, was primarily behind the scenes (Kollontai 1980).

Possibly the most public woman’s voice during the Revolution was that of Alexandra Kollon-tai, a member of the Party Central Committee. Kollontai spoke publicly in support of women in general and about motherhood in particular. Her typical audience consisted of women, however, not the masses who heard Lenin, Trotsky, and other Communist men speak. For example, on November 6, 1917, she delivered a speech to a conference of women on the necessity of protecting motherhood. Ten years later Kollontai wrote, "These theses were then passed on ‘as guidelines’ to the People’s Commissariat for State Welfare and the People’s Commissariat for Labour, which then included the Department of Social Security." Before the end of 1917, Communist leaders issued a declaration ordering the creation of a government bureau dedicated to assessing the needs of women and providing them the necessary support. It was called the Department for the Protection of Mother and Child (Kollontai 1980).

Lenin was supposedly an ardent supporter of women’s importance at home. According to Kol-lontai, Lenin said:

If even the most resolute and courageous fighter on the civil war front returns home and has to listen day after day to the grumbles and complaints of his wife and face in her, as a result of her lack of political consciousness, an opponent to the continuing struggle for Soviet power, the will of even a valiant warrior hardened in battle may weaken, and he who did not surrender to counter-revolution may surrender to his wife and come under her harmful influence. (Kollontai 1980)

In November 1918, the first authorized women’s congress was held under the new Communist government. Overall, the congress adopted resolutions regarding the centrality of motherhood, family, and home to Russian women and urged the new Communist government to pass legislation to protect women as mothers and wives. This was the beginning of women’s emancipation in Russia. Interestingly enough, Kollontai defined emancipation as the ability to be mothers. In other words, emancipation for this Soviet women’s activist was seen as a social construct, not a political one.

Immediately following the Revolution and in light of the devastation caused by World War I, Communist leaders cut state funding for social services such as schools and day care centers. According to one source, only 1.8 percent of eligible children attended any type of preschool (Goldman 1993, 74). Although the 1918 code provided for gender equality in all aspects of marriage, family, and divorce, the economic realities of Russia immediately after the Revolution were prohibitive for women seeking divorce. According to Wendy Goldman, "High unemployment, low wages, a lack of daycare not only reinforced women’s dependence on the family, they created a sharp contradiction between the harsh reality of life and a legal vision of freedom long promulgated by reformers and socialists".

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