Before the Revolution of 1917
The industrialization of Russia had a profound effect within the family and the developing consciousness of Russian women. Although women were oppressed by men, they were not conscious of the limitations on their individuality and their social rights. Women went from being a daughter to a wife and mother; they spent their life imprisoned in their homes.
“Gender oppression starts to be perceived as a limitation of women’s freedom when the capitalist mode of production asserts itself, and with it the use of machines becomes widespread”.
As machines began to take over what was once domestic work, women look out toward society to find their new role. This is when they developed a consciousness of their discrimination and oppression. From that time on, women participated in organizations that fought for women’s rights and became more involved in politics.
Russian Revolution of 1905
The Russian Revolution of 1905 was a precursor of what was to come in the Russian Revolution of 1917. Many women participated in the events during this time including those led by Father Gapon, who led an event that became known as Bloody Sunday. This is said to have activated the revolution of 1905. During 1905, Russia went through a wave of political and social unrest, which included worker strikes, peasant unrest, and military mutinies. This led to the establishment of the State Duma of the Russian Empire, the multi-party system, and the Russian Constitution of 1906. Although the Tsar offered reforms that satisfied the revolutionaries, it was not enough to prevent the 1917 revolution from happening.
What led to the Russian Revolution of 1917?
Since World War I took place after the revolution of 1905, it’s important to consider that many of the Russian citizens during this time did not think this war was necessary. Many people believed that this war was primarily between imperialist countries and that Russia had no place in it. Many soldiers were being sent off to fight and it became obvious that many of the casualties were mainly Russian soldiers. Along with the war, people in Russia were facing other horrible conditions such as lack of transportation, which in turn led to a lack of food. This lack of food forced the Tsarist government to ration out food to people. Workers, men and women, eventually came to understand that their pain and suffering was due to the economic and political system which was only benefiting the Czar, the nobles, and the capitalists. That being said, having had enough, the workers understood that the only way to change their way of life was through their own autonomy and by starting a revolution to instill a government that would benefit them.
Russian Revolution of 1917
“On February 23, 1917, what would come to be understood as the first day of the February Revolution, International Women’s Day was observed by female activists with organized gatherings and strikes. Despite calls to wait for male Bolshevik party leaders’ permission, women took to the streets, factories, and public trolleys. Women incited both men and women to join the growing crowds, in many instances overcoming the hesitancy of male factory workers, setting into motion many of the tactics that led to the final overthrow of Russia’s tsarist government. An editorial in the Socialist paper Pravda published a week after the uprising proclaimed “The women were the first to come out on the streets of Petrograd on their Women’s day. The women in Moscow in many cases determined the mood of the military; they went to the barracks and convinced the soldiers to come over to the side of the Revolution. Hail the women!”
The Russian revolution of 1917 started on what is known as International Women’s Day. Considering that WWI was still taking place, the majority of workers that were working within the factories were primarily women. Prior to the Russian Revolution, women accounted for about 29.5% in St. Petersburg, 41.5% in Moscow, and 20% in Kiev of the factory labor force. Taking into account the food rationing system that was being implemented, when women found out that that there would not be enough flour for bread for the next few days, they dropped what they were doing and took to the streets. The female textile workers from Petrograd were the first to instigate the strike on February 23, demanding bread. Through these women’s efforts to organize and demand a better standard of living they were able to gather close to 75,000 workers by the end of the first day and within the next couple of days there were close to 400,000 workers. While the bulk of the protesters were working-class individuals, the strike also attracted students, educators, and white-collar employees.
Due to the women’s efforts of starting the strike, this set off a series of events that eventually led to the overthrowing of Czar Nicholas II. Fearing the possibility that any of the Czar’s children could be reinstated as emperor, they were all executed in order to avoid any future problems. “Peace, land, and bread” was the slogan that the Bolshevik party used to rally up the demonstrators up until the moment that they took state power. Not happy with the provisional government that was implemented after the fall of the Czar, the Bolsheviks raided the Winter Palace on October 25, 1917 and took full control, which eventually led to the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
‘‘The revolution made a heroic effort to destroy the so-called ‘family hearth’—that archaic, stuffy and stagnant institution in which the woman of the toiling classes performs galley labor from childhood to death. The place of the family as a shut-in petty enterprise was to be occupied, according to the plans, by a finished system of social care and accommodation: maternity houses, crèches, kindergartens, schools, social dining rooms, social laundries, first-aid stations, hospitals, sanatoria, athletic organizations, moving-picture theaters, etc. The complete absorption of the house-keeping functions of the family by institutions of the socialist society, uniting all generations in solidarity and mutual aid, was to bring to woman, and thereby to the loving couple, a real liberation from the thousand-year-old fetters.’’
– Leon Trotsky (co-leader with Vladimir Lenin of the Bolshevik Party)
From 1917 to 1927 a series of laws were passed by the Soviet government that gave women more freedom. The Bolsheviks understood that in order for women to be liberated, home labor had to be transferred to the public sphere. Hence, the implementation of communal kitchens, laundry rooms, schools, etc. Now it was the public’s job to do what women have done for years inside the home.
The government even passed resolutions such as the 1918 Code on Marriage, the Family and Guardianship which recognized civil marriage, allowed for both partners to request divorce, abolished illegitimacy, and entitled children to financial support among other things. But liberation for women did not stop within the family. Working mothers gained the right to take a paid break in order to feed their baby during work hours. Also, during this time women received maternity insurance which was a popular innovation among Russian women. For a time, women were even allowed to take paid time off during menstruation. In 1920, abortion was free and in high demand. Although it was legal, the Bolsheviks did not see it as a woman’s right but rather as a health necessity.
When the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin died in 1924, Joseph Stalin took control of the USSR and things began to change for the worse.
“…the ideological commitment to women’s equality and emancipation was not shared by all men, and on a daily level, women continued to encounter harassment, prejudice, and exploitation.”
Once Stalin took control, the bureaucracy began to implement laws and policies that began to trample on many of the hard earned rights that women had gained through their revolutionary efforts. Stalin retracted all the policies that Lenin had implemented. Under Stalinism, divorce became more difficult, abortion was once again criminalized, incentives were given to increase marriages, and tax benefits were given to families with lots of children.
“These gentlemen have, it seems, completely forgotten that socialism was to remove the cause which impels woman to abortion, and not force her into the ‘joys of motherhood’ with the help of a foul police interference in what is to every woman the most intimate sphere of life.”
Why still talk about the Russian Revolution?
Women played a prominent role in the revolution and were affected by the events of this period and the policies that followed. Like many revolutions and strikes that have occurred prior and after the Russian Revolution, men always seem to be credited as being the central figures to the overall struggle. Much like the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Lenin is always mentioned and depicted in many documentaries and images of that time, but as we have demonstrated, women played a very important role. If it wasn’t for women’s involvement in organizations prior to the 1917 strike, then much of what occurred afterwards may not have happened. Their demands, which at first were only about bread rations led to other victories that catapulted women to a much more prominent position.
Taking into account current issues that several women are facing throughout the world from birth control to that of redefining motherhood, women have always and continue to play important roles in taking charge of their own livelihood. Despite the gains women have obtained and their efforts to continue their struggle for equality, women’s rights still come under attack. Women are fighting for rights that should be guaranteed to them as human beings and should not be hindered due to their gender. As the women of the Russian Revolution demonstrate, we all must unite as one to fight for the complete liberation of women to have control over their bodies because “Women’s Rights are Human Rights”. With a bit a more effort and organizing, women can once again play an important role in changing not just a single policy, but the world at large.
By Julisa Marie Cañada and Nestor Aaron Zaragoza