“Bread!” was the first call to order. “Down with the tsar!” the next. Soon, cries of “Down with the war!” drowned the streets.
The women workers of Petrograd — then the capital of Russia — roamed through town on the cold morning of Feb. 23, 1917, throwing sticks, stones and snowballs at factory windows, urging their male counterparts to join their clamor. By the end of the day, 100,000 people were out in the streets on strike.
On the sixth International Working Women’s Day, women workers set the course of history: the strike in the juggernaut of the Russian empire would go on to topple the tsar forever, sparking the revolutions that would eventually give rise to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
The socialist October Revolution — also known as the Bolshevik Revolution — that would follow February’s fervor set in motion by the demands of working women, would, in turn, bring about massive gains for a society steeped in patriarchy and a semi-feudal order.
Women in Tsarist Russia
In Tsarist Russia — one of the largest empires in human history that spanned nearly two centuries — women were little more than the property of men.
The Russian Orthodox church had a hold in the country, preserving a culture of staunch conservatism. Men were legally allowed to beat their wives. Women also had no right to unrestricted movement, obliged to follow their husbands wherever they went.
They were allowed to work only with their husband’s consent. Education was massively restricted, with only about 13.1 percent of Russian women being literate in 1897.
Divorce, granted in only exceptional cases, put women through a humiliating interrogation process by police and judges and was essentially restricted to wealthy women.
Abortion was banned, and women were not allowed to vote or hold public office.
As capitalism developed in Russia between 1896 and 1899, it spurred women out of the home for the first time — but also increased their workload. Girls as young as 12 years old, or even younger, toiled away in factories, working 18 hour days for meager pay. At home, they were expected to help with household chores.
Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, wrote about this contradication, observing that “it is indisputable that the capitalist factory places these categories of the working population in particularly hard conditions, and that for them it is particularly necessary to regulate and shorten the working day, to guarantee hygienic conditions of labor, etc.
But endeavors completely to ban the work of women and juveniles in industry, or to maintain the patriarchal manner of life that ruled out such work, would be reactionary and utopian.”
The textile and metal industries soon saw masses of women workers join, who quickly formed the majority of workers in these factories. This was to have a profound impact on how the revolution unfolded.
The Bolsheviks counter petty-bourgeois feminists
The women's struggle emerged in 1889, through the social democratic movement. Study circles were set up by Mikhail Ivanovich Brusnyev, that at its roots were based on Marxist ideas and had the goal of a socialist revolution. By 1890, these circles were teeming with women workers, with some 20 existing across Russia.
Five years later, the various social democratic circles merged to form the Union of Struggle, the forerunner to the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. Among its 17 founding members were four women, including Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya, Lenin’s partner.
While the “woman question” was on the program of all Russian opposition parties by that point, it was the Bolsheviks that would take on uniting the working class not only on national divisions, but the gender divide as well. It was the Bolsheviks too that would immediately implement all demands from working women after taking power in 1917.
The turn of the century saw mass unrest in Tsarist Russia, which ultimately transpired into the 1905 Russian Revolution, where women participated in great numbers. That year, more than 50 Soviets — effectively, regional people's councils, made up of peasants, workers and soldiers — sprang up, with women revolutionaries assigned some of the most dangerous tasks.
One cotton weaving factory, Kashintsev, elected more women than men to the Soviet: 7 out of 8 members.
After the 1905 Revolution, the Bolsheviks worked to win women and organize them within the ranks of their party. Their efforts prevailed: at the Social Democratic Labor Party's Fifth Congress in 1907, the Bolsheviks had five women delegates for every woman Menshevik delegate, which was the other, more moderate faction of the party.
Despite this, the Bolsheviks came under attack by petty-bourgeois feminists for failing to care about women’s issues. Well outside the labor movement, the primary concern of this group was women’s right to education — meaning, they were only addressing a tiny group of women in Russia at the time.
As the Bolsheviks rejected the petty-bourgeois feminists’ claims that women’s liberation could be fought without socialism, Lenin reiterated the importance of abolishing class oppression alongside the struggle for democratic demands.
“Marxists know that democracy does not abolish class oppression, but only makes the class struggle clearer, broader, more open and sharper; and this is what we want. The more complete freedom of divorce is, the clearer will it be to the woman that the source of her ‘domestic slavery’ is not the lack of rights, but capitalism,” he wrote in 1916. “The more democratic the system of government is, the clearer it will be to the workers that the root of the evil is not the lack of rights, but capitalism.”
Clara Zetkin, the German Marxist that first called for International Working Women’s Day, also spoke out firmly against “bourgeois feminism."
“The proletarian woman ends up in the proletarian camp, the bourgeois woman in the bourgeois camp. We must not let ourselves be fooled by Socialist trends in the bourgeois women’s movement which last only as long as bourgeois women feel oppressed,” she warned.
These warnings rang true: the lack of class perspective within the petty-bourgeois feminist movement led them to support World War I, believing that once men were off to fight, women could play a greater role in society.
It was the Bolsheviks who opposed the war, calling it a war by imperialists and capitalists at the expense of the working masses. It was also women Bolsheviks who rallied and persuaded the soldiers stationed in Petrograd to join the movement. Many soon left their posts and joined the Bolshevik ranks.
In 1914 the Bolsheviks began a journal aimed at working women, called "Rabotnitsa," or "Women Workers." With the first edition published on International Working Women's Day of that year, seven more were issued before the Tsarist government clamped down on the publication.
Women and revolution
After the February Revolution of 1917, the Provisional Government came to power, toppling Tsar Nicholas II and ending the Russian empire
As time passed and the people's demands for "Peace, Bread and Land" were not met, the Bolsheviks grew in popularity, as they called for the overthrow of the bourgeois Provisional Government.
More organizing was needed, and women workers were a key element of this process. They not only participated in strikes and demonstrations but also were a part of the armed defense of the revolution, dying alongside men of the Red Guards, the armed wing of the Bolsheviks.
Bolshevik women, in the months leading up to the October Revolution, took part in all activities: speaking at public meetings, distributing leaflets, transporting weapons, and providing care for the wounded.
In this fervor, the Bolsheviks began publishing "Rabotnitsa" again, with Krupskaya and many other women workers from Petrograd on the editorial board.
Lenin, during this time, wrote many articles about the importance of calling women workers to fight for socialism.
The pioneering advances for women under the Bolsheviks
Finally, on Oct. 25, 1917, the armed masses belonging to the Petrograd Soviet, which had been won over to socialist revolution by the Bolsheviks, occupied all public buildings, stormed the Winter Palace and arrested the Provisional Government members.
The Bolsheviks immediately set out ensuring equality between men and women. Just four days after taking power, they introduced the 8-hour working day, advancing possibilities for women, especially working-class women, to take part in politics.
Soon, the restriction on women’s freedom was removed. Women were given equal right to own land.
The church and state were also separated, marking one of the most profound shifts in women’s right: women were given free access to abortion, making Russia the first country in the world to grant this legal right.
Marriage also now took place with equal consent, and divorce was made as easy as possible for both parties.
The concept of illegitimate children was abolished, allowing all children to be treated equally. Paid maternity leave was granted both before and after birth, while night work for pregnant women and women who had just given birth was prohibited. In addition, special maternity wards were set up.
Long before women would be granted the right to vote in capitalist countries such as the U.K., the United States, Sweden or France, women in Russia could vote by 1917.
Aleksandra Kollontai also became the world’s first woman minister when she was appointed People's Commissar of Social Welfare shortly after the October Revolution.
The advances in women’s rights and equality ushered in by the Bolshevik Revolution also came part in parcel with advances in rights for other oppressed groups as well. In 1918, a decree was passed abolishing all pre-revolutionary Tsarist laws. The 1922 Criminal Code, for example, decriminalized homosexuality.
"The present sexual legislation in the Soviet Union is the work of the October Revolution,” the Bolshevik Grigorii Batkis, Director of the Institute for Social Hygiene, said at the time.
In November 1918, a series of small women’s conferences culminated in the first All-Russian Congress of Working Women.
During the conference, many new women joined the Bolshevik Party, as well as the women militias, "The Red Sisters," to actively fight the counter-revolutionary forces known as the White Army, who had the backing of foreign governments.
The women's department of the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks, who had since changed their name to the Russian Communist Party, organized women in the factories and villages into the party.
The Zhenotdel, as the women's department was known, soon launched a magazine, "Komitska," with Krupskaya as editor. By 1927, over 18 different women's magazines were published with a circulation of 386,000, focused on women's liberation and socialism.
Thanks to the Zhenotdel, women’s membership in the party doubled by 1932, with women making up 15.9 percent, compared to just 8 percent a decade earlier.
”No party or revolution in the world has ever dreamed of striking so deep at the roots of the oppression and inequality of women as the Soviet, Bolshevik revolution is doing,” Lenin observed in 1921. “Over here, in Soviet Russia, no trace is left of any inequality between men and women under the law. The Soviet power has eliminated all there was of the especially disgusting, base and hypocritical inequality in the laws on marriage and the family and inequality in respect of children.”
“This is only the first step in the liberation of woman. But none of the bourgeois republics, including the most democratic, has dared to take even this first step,” he added.
In 1922, with the creation of the USSR, the Soviet government sought to socialize housework. This was done by creating things such as public nurseries, kindergartens, kitchens and public laundries. The idea was to reduce household labor to a minimum, allowing women the freedom to pursue waged work, education and enjoy leisure time on par with men.
Long after the Bolshevik Revolution, the difference in women’s conditions was staggering. Compared to Tsarist times, life expectancy doubled by the 1970s, from 30 to nearly 74. Infant mortality was also reduced by 90 percent in that time period. Women soared in education, with only 10 percent enrolled in secondary school in 1926 to 97 percent by 1958.
From the first study circles at the turn of the century to the women-led uprising that incited the February Revolution, to the thousands of Bolshevik women who fought on behalf of the working class, the first worker's state in the world would never have become a reality without the steely, militant determination of women.