WeeklyWorker

10.03.2022
International Women’s Day in 1917 Petrograd

Working women find a voice

Anne McShane looks at 'Rabotnitsa', first published by the Bolsheviks on February 23 1914 to mark International Women’s Day

In this article, I will present Rabotnitsa of 1914 (‘Woman Worker’, the first Bolshevik women’s publication), in context and provide quotations translated from a selection of articles, in order to illustrate the quality of the propaganda and agitation put forward.

Rabotnitsa was launched on February 23 1914 (old style, ie, Julian calendar) to mark International Women’s Day in Russia.1 Political conditions at the time were extremely challenging and the Bolsheviks were operating mainly underground. The journal almost did not appear, as the majority of its Russia-based team were arrested in a police raid on the final editorial meeting. Only the editor - Anna Ulyanova, Lenin’s sister - escaped capture because of her late arrival. The 30 women who were arrested were sent into internal exile. Fortunately the majority of articles had been received and Ulyanova managed to cohere other comrades around her and produce a first-print run of 12,000 copies. A further six issues of Rabotnitsa were published between February and April 1914, before it was finally closed down by the tsarist state.

The significance of the journal lay in its ambition to put forward Marxist ideas in an accessible form to the women of the Russian working class and to promote their organisation and integration into the proletariat. Women textile workers had taken part in regular wildcat strike action since the 1890s, raising political and economic demands - including for the right to strike, freedom of assembly and maternity rights. There had apparently been more strikes in these industries than in the male-dominated metal industries in the same period.

One of the largest was that of 11,000 women workers at Ivanovo-Vosnesensk in 1905. Many thousands took part in the Bloody Sunday March of January 7 1905 in St Petersburg, led by Father Gapon, and had witnessed the carnage exacted by state forces. They had taken part in the Moscow uprising of the same year and numerous other protests, documented vividly by Rosa Luxembourg in The mass strike. Female communists such as Inessa Armand had witnessed first-hand the events of 1905 and been profoundly struck by the militancy of women workers - as had Alexandra Kollontai, who had unsuccessfully agitated in its aftermath for the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party to set up a women’s organisation.

Armand was also present when Kollontai led an intervention by women workers into an all-Russia women’s congress led by bourgeois women in 1908. In Kollontai’s words this event was very significant, in that, “it drew a clear line of demarcation between the bourgeois suffragettes and the women’s liberation movement of the working class in Russia”.2

But these struggles had not in general led to women joining leftwing groups. There were barriers of culture, illiteracy and physical inaccessibility for the left to overcome. But also there was little attempt to recruit them.

However, the launch of Rabotnitsa was a serious attempt to address this void. The motivation came from Inessa Armand and Liudmila Stal in Paris, Nadia Krupskaya and Zlata Lilina in Poland, along with Konkordiia Samoilova and Praskovia Kudelli in Russia. There was a Russian and an émigré editorial board, with the division of labour giving the émigré board responsibility for the propaganda aspects of the journal.

Ulyanova, who had previous experience as a journalist, was reluctant when Armand asked her to be editor, as she had not seen herself as the type to lead a woman-centred project. However, once she attached herself to Rabotnitsa, she was astonished and delighted by the flood of positive responses and this produced in her a fierce commitment to the journal’s continuance and very definite ideas about its content.3 She and Armand clashed over the latter’s demand for the journal to include longer theoretical pieces, with Ulyanova determined to produce a popular journal. Unsurprisingly, given that she was on the ground in St Petersburg, Ulyanova’s approach prevailed. Appearing fortnightly, the journal featured a mixture of agitational and propaganda pieces, alongside messages of support and short reports from the readership. It also included poetry and short stories - the latter being very popular.

It was most definitely an initiative of Bolshevik women and the editorial team was made up entirely of women. While both Lenin and Zinoviev (Zlata Lilina’s husband) were supportive, the central committee of the RSDLP refused to provide any financial assistance, believing it to be a waste of scarce resources. Rabotnitsa therefore relied entirely on funds raised from supporters abroad, and from women workers in Russia. Short reports from groups of workers in factories in Russia, Ukraine and other parts of the tsarist empire invariably included a report of the amount of money raised from collections. Some groups of women workers volunteered to physically distribute the journal, and held meetings to discuss specific articles.

First issue

The first 12,000 copies of the journal were sold - or more often distributed for free - at factories and workplaces. Illiteracy was a major problem, resolved through group readings and talks. Despite the fact that only seven issues were published, the journal made important inroads into the movement of working class women, particularly in St Petersburg.

Following its demise, Bolshevik women in Russia kept in contact with the journal’s readership, among whom would be the organisers of the mass demonstrations and the instigation of the February revolution. Many of those who became involved went on to become leading figures in the movement of working class women in 1917, the October revolution and the creation of the Zhenotdel (Women’s Department of the Communist Party) in September 1919.

Rabotnitsa needs to be considered as an integral part of the Second International women’s movement. Its strong connections with Clara Zetkin and other members of the secretariat are evidence of that, as is the fact that two of the three main demands raised in its initial publications reflect the International’s resolutions. The Women’s Secretariat of the Second International, formed on August 17 1907, had passed a resolution committing itself to struggle for women’s suffrage. The congress of the International subsequently adopted the same resolution, presented to it by Zetkin, the appointed leader of the secretariat.

The resolution included a clause which stated “It is the duty of the socialist parties of all countries to agitate strenuously for the introduction of universal women’s suffrage”.4 This was an important success for the secretariat in overcoming the passivity and opposition towards women’s suffrage evidenced in previous congresses. The fact that women socialists were now organised made a qualitative difference.

As will be seen from the selection of articles below, suffrage was a central question for Rabotnitsa. So too was the struggle for an eight-hour working day. The resolution on this had been passed by the Zurich congress of 1893, with very clear directions to the component parties to raise the question in all political arenas, both regional and national.

The establishment of International Women’s Day itself had, of course, also been won by the Women’s Secretariat in 1910. The first events to mark it in Russia had taken place in 1913, but these had been muted due to the illegal conditions and lack of organisation. It was hoped that Rabotnitsa would provide an impetus to overcoming these obstacles.

In 1914 Kollontai was the RSDLP representative to the secretariat. She was still a member of the Mensheviks and unfortunately was not included among the contributors to Rabotnitsa, although she did send a message of support and a contribution. The plan was for Armand to replace her as representative to the secretariat in 1915. However, the outbreak of war in July 1914 brought an end to those plans, although Armand proposed a conference of socialist women to discuss the war, which Zetkin organised and chaired in March 1915 in Berne - itself an important event in the movement’s history.5

The first issue of Rabotnitsa took up three questions which would feature again and again in subsequent issues. These were the demands for state health insurance for all workers and the right to vote and stand in elections, as well as for an eight-hour day. The editorial by Ulyanova set out how important health insurance was for women workers, pointing in particular to the dangerous conditions in the textile industry, where many women were based. She urged women workers to demand participation in the existing worker’s insurance campaign and called on male workers to encourage and facilitate their involvement.

Another article focused on the situation for women domestic servants, and gives us an indication of the commitment to organise all women workers. Domestic servants were a very significant, albeit isolated, section of the workforce. The writer, who signs herself as ‘L’ (most likely Lilina), describes the slave-like conditions of these servants in the homes of the nobility and bourgeoisie - women whose existence was so precarious that they could lose their job on a whim and find themselves on the streets, where many became prostitutes. She pointed to the fact that domestic servants were denied their own home life, being forced to hand their children over to orphanages, while acting as de facto mothers to the children of their mistresses. The article ends with the call to all servants to make Women’s Day their opportunity to unite:

Comrade servants, your political weakness results from your physical enslavement. Come together now and organise your own trade union. Fight alongside working class women and men of all countries to win your political equality and take up your fight to take part in the public life of the nation and to forge your own destiny.6

The first issue also contains an article on August Bebel and his book, Women and socialism. The author, Siberamova, wrote of Bebel’s challenge to traditional views of women:

Bebel spoke out sharply against those obscurantists who claim that a woman is born to serve; that she is destined to be a submissive wife and mother. He conducted a comprehensive study of the position of women over the epochs, and concluded that, within the historical development of humanity, conditions of life for women and attitudes towards them had changed significantly.

Thus for Bebel there was nothing natural about women’s role in current society. The author goes on:

Bebel believed that the only thing which would resolve women’s oppression was a total transformation of today’s society. It was only this which could extinguish every form of economic and legal servitude, and subjugation within the family.

He urged the coming together of working class men and women to achieve this victory.

Bebel was described as an outstanding individual - as a thinker, parliamentarian and human being:

As a member of the Reichstag, he was the first to put forward a demand to extend the right to vote to women. He also spoke and fought for the protection of maternity care. His entire attitude towards women was humanitarian and comradely ... Not only in public, but also in his personal life, Bebel showed his positive attitude towards women.

The author particularly stresses Bebel’s view of his wife as an equal, and she urged male workers to emulate his attitude and to treat their wives as equals too:

… in order for your life partner to become your comrade and travel with you on your path through life, you need to remember that she is your equal and to assist her in her development. To nurture in her a humane and civic spirit and to draw her towards your working class organisation.

The idea of men leading their wives towards political involvement may seem patronising to some. However, I would argue that the approach is a good one - men should not allow their wives to remain as domestic slaves, while they go out in the world to do politics. They should treat them as equals and facilitate their involvement as equals.

The article concludes by stating that Women and socialism

must be on the desk of not only all women workers, but also all male workers. The life of Bebel and his untiring struggle for the rights of women must be constantly understood by all Russian workers, who are still a long way from our European comrades in terms of how they should fight for the demands of women workers.

This feature on Bebel shows the continuing influence of his writing and political activity on Bolshevik women - particularly illustrated in the advocacy of his book as essential reading. It also belies the claim made by some academics that Bebel was seen as too radical for the movement. The opposite was in fact the case.

Right to vote

Following the success in bringing over the international to campaign for universal suffrage, the aim of Rabotnitsa was to win working class women to take up that demand and link it to other issues.

Writing in issue No3, Inessa Armand, under the pseudonym ‘Elena Blonina’, argued that working class women have

begun to understand far better than before how important it is to utilise all forms of struggle, economic and political. Among these forms, for all countries, excluding Finland, Austria and a number of US states, working class women are deprived of a very important weapon in the class struggle; that is, the right to vote.

Armand asserted:

… the political struggle of the workers does not simply take place on the streets and political strikes, demonstrations and meetings. It also takes place in parliament, where representatives of the working class in sight of all countries confront the representatives of the ruling class. They conduct a struggle with them for working class demands. Women workers understand and are conscious of the necessity to take part in this form of political struggle and over recent years they have sought universal electoral rights.

She goes on then to point to the struggle for universal suffrage being in the interests of all workers:

Firstly, working class women are not just interested in the protection of maternity rights, childcare and so forth. The right to an eight-hour working day is no less important to them as is freedom of association and assembly and all other working class demands. Secondly, the working class has no less an interest in the protection of women’s position within the workplace and in the protection of children and in issues relating to family and household life and they have already fought for those demands for a long time.

Therefore,

There are no working class women’s demands of any kind which are not relevant for the entire proletariat. The achievement of electoral rights for women will in turn strengthen the entire working class. Including it in the agenda of the entire working class will accelerate its advance to socialism. In confronting bourgeois women who do not look beyond the limits of contemporary society, conscious working class women understand that only socialism can destroy the heavy shackles which oppress them. Political rights make it easier for a working woman to reach the bright future for which she aspires.

Clara Zetkin also addressed the question in an article in Rabotnitsa No5. In this piece she congratulates Russian women workers on the advances they have made and encourages them to take up the weapon of political struggle to develop the movement:

Political freedom affords the opportunity to consolidate the power of working class men and women. It educates women and men in an understanding that, in order for us to replace the modern economy with a new system of fraternity, which is free and equal, we must patiently prepare and educate our forces. Without standing for political equality, the Russian working class women’s movement cannot defeat the bourgeoisie’s claim to do so. They cannot claim property or personal rights for women. To win this your movement must become an integral part of the working class movement and you must work harder to achieve this.

Armand took up the question of the eight-hour day in Rabotnitsa No4, emphasising that recent medical studies had shown the negative impact on the health of workers who worked for longer than eight hours.

Marxists seek this eight-hour day precisely because of the observations made by medical professionals that adults cannot work longer than this without harming their health. Any longer than an eight-hour day - even working for nine hours - depletes that person and undermines their strength. And for men and women workers younger than 20 years of age or those who work in particularly unhealthy industries, even an eight-hour day is too long and their working day must be much shorter.

For women the situation was “more onerous than that of men, as they have to combine their work in the factory with their duties as a mother and a housewife”. The woman worker,

having completed an exhausting working day in the factory, must then face all the household duties. She has used up the last drop of her energy in the factory and now must find additional strength and resources. She needs to be able sleep for a few hours before she can sit down with a book or a journal or even attend a meeting. When does this woman worker have the time to study and play an active part in the class struggle?

And it is not just having enough time to take part in political activities - Armand argues that “an eight-hour day provides the opportunity to relax, to have fun, to live for yourself and to experience some of the joys in life.” Marxists therefore “demand ‘eight hours of work, eight hours of relaxing and eight hours sleep’. They strive for this demand to be enshrined in law and to become obligatory for every employer.” At that time RSDLP deputies in the duma had proposed legislation for these demands and, of course, the fight for the vote would increase the pressure to win them.

One of the things which is particularly interesting about the journal is the large number of messages from women workers. Every issue features letters from groups of women factory workers, government clerks, exiled activists and individual supporters, some enclosing financial contributions. A group of stenographers confirmed that they would assist in the distribution of the journal. Another group of commercial sales women reported that they had passed a resolution in their union to build International Women’s Day. Very many of them welcomed the fact that there was finally a Marxist women’s journal. They reported on the discussions on various articles and consistently described Rabotnitsa as “our journal”. Some wrote poetry, others short stories.

The journal gained mass appeal in a very short time and Ulyanova can be said to have had remarkable success in developing the roots of Bolshevism within the Russian women’s movement.

1917

In the aftermath of the February revolution it was agreed to relaunch Rabotnitsa, and once again it had a dynamic effect. It began to organise women in struggle, soldiers’ wives, laundresses and those in other sections, educated them and won them to the October revolution. Following that revolution, it organised the first working class women’s conference in December 1917. This spearheaded the decrees which provided women formal equality in all aspects of the new society.

Rabotnitsa shows that claims of Bolshevik inaction on the woman question before 1917 are erroneous. However, it also shows the problems, in that the initiative was confined to women. It also shows that February 1917 was not simply some elemental movement that just happened to take place, but that it had roots in the earlier progressive politics of the Second International and other forms of organisation, including the influence of Rabotnitsa.

It demonstrated that women connected to Marxist ideas of liberation considered themselves revolutionaries, not feminists.


  1. Thanks to Daniel Gaido, who very kindly provided me with the pdf of Rabotnitsa 1914.↩︎

  2. www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1926/autobiography.htm.↩︎

  3. K Turton Forgotten lives London 2007, pp67-68.↩︎

  4. Mike Taber (ed) Under the socialist banner: resolutions of the Second International 1889-1912 Chicago 2021, pp111-12.↩︎

  5. johnriddell.com/2015/03/28/1915-socialist-women-unite-against-war.↩︎

  6. Rabotnitsa February 23 1914, p67.↩︎