Katie Turton reviews Women’s Liberation and the Russian Revolution in When Workers Took Power by Paul Vernadsky
This is a wide-ranging chapter which highlights the significant role women played in the historic events of 1917 in Russia. It explores the development of a Bolshevik women’s movement, in the wider context of liberal and socialist campaigns for women’s rights. It offers a detailed discussion of Kollontai’s views and activities as one of the leading lights among Bolsheviks campaigning for women’s emancipation, taking account of not only her social policies but also her beliefs on sexuality.
Importantly, it addresses some of the difficulties encountered when trying to implement the emancipation of women, including the obstructions caused by male chauvinism and sometimes even by the stereotypical beliefs women held, eg about motherhood. The chapter also evaluates the success of the Bolshevik campaign to ensure women’s equality to men. This is an extremely complicated question.
On paper there does seem to be a stark divide between the Leninist and Stalinist regimes in terms of commitment to women’s equality in the early years of the regime versus the conservative backlash of the 1930s, yet the lived experiences of women tell a more nuanced story. Where women’s political involvement in the regime is concerned, for example, there was no discernible difference between the two eras with female party membership and representation in party committees and soviets largely stable in a small minority.
Lenin’s regime implemented wide-ranging communal facilities, including laundrettes, canteens and kindergartens, while Stalin’s oversaw their closure, yet even when they did exist they were often used out of desperation, rather than as a means to women’s liberation. The transformation of family laws and sexual relations implemented under Lenin were designed to free wives and mothers, but were a cause of deep anxiety to many women since the laws were often exploited by men in order to get divorced, to avoid child maintenance and to sexually harass women. On the other hand, it was under Stalin’s Five Year Plans, rather than under Lenin’s New Economic Policy, that women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers, this being the natural consequence of huge labour demand, as opposed to a drive to recruit women.
In the end, the opening argument of the chapter — that the Russian revolution advanced women’s liberation more than any other event in modern history — cannot really be disputed. Yet, the lack of sustained and whole-hearted commitment to women’s emancipation in the Soviet Union meant that issues which are still wrestled with today were never satisfactorily resolved including women’s double or triple burden, the lack of representation of women in politics and, most challenging of all, the issue of how to create a society that does not judge an individual by their gender first. There are, however, lessons to be learned from the activities and approaches of Bolshevik feminists and the centenary of the revolution is a good time to learn them.
• Katie Turton is the author of Forgotten Lives: the Role of Lenin’s Sisters in the Russian Revolution.