Zhenotdel and its travails

In light of the ongoing Women, Life, Freedom protests in Iran, Anne McShane discussed with Yassamine Mather the lessons that can be drawn from the fight for women’s emancipation in post-revolutionary Russia

Yassamine Mather:  Given the fact that the recent struggles in Iran very much have women in the forefront - and involve so many sacrifices - imprisonment, injuries and even death - we really owe it to our sisters to go beyond the simple, individualistic demands of ‘freedom from the hijab’, the right to choose your own clothes or limited, bourgeois-style equality for women. In this respect the whole position of women - their role in housework, their responsibility towards the immediate and extended family, etc - become very important. In this respect there are no ‘middle of the road’ answers - which is why so many on the left have told us to wait until the socialist revolution and then everything will be resolved. But we know that that is not the case. Unless these issues are discussed in advance of such a revolution, they will go nowhere.

Anne, you previously discussed the pre-revolutionary period for the Zhenotdel (the Women’s Department of the Central Committee of the All-Union Russian Communist Party). Maybe you can recap to begin with, before dealing with the period immediately after the revolution.1

Anne McShane:  Last time I spoke about the manner in which the Zhenotdel was created and its influences from the revolutionary wing of Socialist Women’s Conferences within the Second International, as well as about the important role of Clara Zetkin.

Let me emphasise again one of the important facts about this movement, which is that it did not see the women’s question as something separate from socialism, and its members did not describe themselves as feminists of any kind. They believed that feminism was ultimately a bourgeois movement, even if working class women were involved in it. It has often been said that Bolshevik women were simply opposed to upper class or upper middle class feminists. This is not actually correct - what they were against was the concept of being able to resolve women’s oppression within contemporary society. They opposed the project of seeking equality within capitalism as an end in itself, and believed that the aim of women’s liberation had to be placed at the very core of the struggle for socialism.

Within the struggle for socialism lies the struggle for the liberation of all of humanity. Socialism transforms society from one based on private property to one which addresses the needs of the majority. Domestic labour and childcare are socialised and women are integrated into all aspects of the new society. The collective begins to take responsibility for questions that were previously left to the domestic sphere.

In November 1918 there was a congress of working class and peasant women in Russia, which voted to set up women’s commissions. These began to work autonomously in 1919 and in September of that year they were brought together by the central committee of the party as a department. Its first leader was Inessa Armand, who had played a leading role in the Bolsheviks since 1911 and was a close comrade of Vladimir Lenin and Nadia Krupskaya. Her time as leader was short due to her death in September 1920 from cholera, after a year of intense activity. During that time she developed methods of work which would characterise the Zhenotdel for its entire period of existence - in particular a democratic, flexible form of organisation based on delegate meetings, where groups of women were elected from non-party bodies.

Such meetings were based in both workplaces and districts, and they worked with other soviet bodies to set up childcare facilities, public canteens and other support organisations. They conducted factory inspections - a central function aimed at ensuring that protective legislation actually meant something in reality. The delegate meetings also selected certain women to be interns in a workplace or to attend courses in university or technical colleges. They would return to their workplaces and districts after some months, report back and communicate newly acquired skills, and that process would then be repeated, with other interns and students being elected to replace them. Some attended Sverdlov University in Moscow, at which Alexandra Kollontai and other Zhenotdel members gave lectures, along with Lenin and other leading members of the party.

Delegate meetings were popular among working women, because they were able to take initiatives which benefited them practically and gave them a voice in the building of the new society. They were also responding to existing conditions.

The Zhenotdel commitment was to educate, support and integrate women as equals, recruit them to the party, while also being a voice for women’s rights within the party. It wanted to involve men in this task and argued for a collective approach. This was reflected in how the meetings organised support for the civil war effort, with women recruited as nurses and other support staff, in the production of uniforms, and sometimes in direct military combat. Women needed to be fully part of the civil war campaign, which involved total mobilisation. And, although that was a very difficult time - with social dislocation, immense food shortages and even famine, many urban women felt empowered because of their activity.

Another important issue on which the Zhenotdel made progress was abortion. Up to 1920, as in other parts of the world, there was a complete prohibition on abortion in Russia. And - again, as in other countries - there was an enormous number of back-street abortions, often leading to severe harm to women’s health and even death. There was awareness of this as a problem among the medical profession before the revolution, but the tsarist state refused to countenance any change in the law. Then the revolution - and with it the creation of the Zhenotdel - led to a shift, making it a possibility, and discussions were set up between Nikolai Semashko, the people’s commissar of health, and delegates from the Zhenotdel, including Krupskaya. The outcome was the Abortion Act of October 1920. It provided for abortion to be available in Soviet hospitals, free of charge on request. The view of the authorities was that abortion could not be eradicated in the circumstances of the time and needed to be provided safely, so it was seen as a necessary evil.

But it was one that was very popular, as Soviet women sought to control their reproduction and there was a huge shortage of basic contraception. In those circumstances women were in a much better position, because, although the procedure was quite painful because of a lack of painkilling medication, the conditions were safe. But, with the introduction of the New Economic Policy, limitations were placed on the availability of abortion and things definitely shifted backwards. The constraints were also reflected in attitudes towards women and an expectation that they should carry pregnancies to full term. But that did not stop them seeking an abortion and this right continued to be an important amenity for women up to when Stalin banned it in 1936 - even then women sought out illegal abortions in large numbers, in defiance of Stalin’s ‘Mother Russia’ policies.

Thus the Soviet Republic was the first country in the world to make abortion available as a health measure for women and to make it available for free within the state provision. That was a huge step forward, which would not have happened without the Zhenotdel.

Kollontai succeeded Inessa Armand as secretary. And, although she is often remembered as a leftist utopian, it must be recognised that, in terms of her practical activities, she was far more orthodox in her approach. She and other Bolshevik women had a shared perspective that women’s emancipation was going to come about through the struggle for communism. But her term in office coincided with the introduction of the NEP, which she opposed. Although she was one of the NEP’s most outspoken opponents - joining the Workers Opposition platform, writing a pamphlet, and speaking out at the 10th party congress and again at the Comintern - she was not the only Zhenotdel member to abhor the introduction of market forces. Her stubborn refusal to withdraw her opposition led to her being removed as secretary of the organisation in 1922 and exiled abroad to the diplomatic service.

The new secretary, Sofia Smidovich, was seen as a safe pair of hands, but she was also deeply unhappy with the impact of the NEP on women’s lives and the retreats made on many levels. In particular, women were losing their jobs in large numbers, as former Red Army men replaced them. Women with children were expected to become housewives again, but, without an income, many of them had to resort to prostitution. The phenomenon of ‘unregistered marriage’, which had become popular since the revolution, whereby men and women lived together, had children and could easily part, became problematic, as women no longer worked. They needed spousal maintenance, but there was no legal obligation on their husbands and ex-husbands to provide it.

A new family code in 1926 changed this and introduced financial obligations on spouses and ex-spouses. Kollontai, returning to Russia for the last time for political purposes, campaigned against this law and argued that women would lose their personal independence if they had to pursue men for financial support. She proposed instead a state social insurance scheme to provide for women in financial difficulties. However, she did not succeed in making any headway.

I think you can look at the Zhenotdel experience as a kind of a microcosm. It showed the possibilities, but this was a society in great difficulty after the lack of any successful international revolution, particularly in Germany. There was a need for a society with the material capacity to allow real emancipation to be explored. Women needed education and training and this required investment. With the NEP a lot of state funding was cut, including to the Zhenotdel, which saw a dramatic reduction in the number of its fulltime staff. It tried to continue to keep women in employment through the setting up of cooperatives, where goods were manufactured that would normally have been made in the handicrafts industry.

YM:  One of my questions concerns the law on divorce and family, taking into account what you say - which is very important - that people chose not to get married in the traditional way because there was no need for it. Given that many of the people in even urban areas had recently become workers - ie, they had roots in the peasantry - I assume there was opposition to this. I wonder if you could put it in the context of that time. I mean, we are talking about the beginning of the 20th century, so presumably religious people opposed it. If something like this happened in the global south or even in the advanced capitalist countries, I am sure that churches, mosques and religious groups would be up in arms.

AM:  In the debates in 1925-26 a call for spousal maintenance came from peasant organisations. In terms of the opposition to free divorce, again that would have come from those peasant organisations. But both working class and peasant women were in favour of the right to divorce. Even in central Asia, which had a very patriarchal culture, the demand for the right to divorce was very popular, with large numbers of women seeking an escape from arranged marriages. Of course, the mosque and sections of the male population opposed it. But it is interesting how readily peasant women queued up to obtain a divorce from a husband who treated them badly or did not provide them with a good life.

There was also a sense of impermanence in the early 1920s, but unregistered marriages were not necessarily good, particularly when women lost their jobs. Kollontai tended to idealise them, saying women were now free from domestic subservience, but Krupskaya wrote about the difficulties for women of being in reality lone parents, with their common-law husbands living in another part of the city and being of little practical assistance in caring for children.

So, while there were new freedoms, and a kind of sexual revolution, the lack of financial means and proper support meant that women were more isolated and vulnerable. In those circumstances they could not be the social equal of men. The introduction of market forces under the NEP had produced a call for women to become housewives again - to return to a husband to cook, care and clean for him and their children.

YM:  You said something which is very interesting, which was that market forces basically forced women to return to the home and from an abstract economic point of view that would be inevitable. I attended a seminar about the Iranian women’s protests and one of the speakers said that such protests would lead to democracy - and I thought, ‘Well, democracy for which class? And what does it mean in the current situation in the Middle East?’

You have written in the past about other ways in which women were helped when they had to get involved in work in terms of communal kitchens and so on. I wonder if you could expand on that, because some very basic issues must be tackled in relation to domestic work. Things do not change just because suddenly men become educated and people become revolutionary, but because practical solutions are found. What was the situation on this in post-revolutionary Russia? I know you have researched these issues, so I would be grateful if you could expand on some of those points.

AM:  I believe that the majority of factories in Petrograd, Moscow and other major cities had nurseries attached to them, so that women were able to leave their children there while they worked. Also they could take breaks if they were nursing mothers. In the very beginning the public canteens were extremely popular - even in Russia today there are stolovayas - canteens where really good food is sold at a cheap price. They are a remnant from that period.

The commitment to childcare at the workplace was continued under Stalin, because it meant that women could go to work in large numbers to fulfil the targets of the five-year plans. But, after the Zhenotdel was closed, there was no commitment to provide childcare outside of working hours. Women would have to go home and do the cooking and obviously that suggests that public nutrition fell by the wayside to a certain extent - not to mention the fact that many women were no longer able to be involved in politics. In terms of the workplace, I remember reading a book which interviewed women in the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. They said they really enjoyed their work because they had friends there, their children were being looked after and they saw it as a place of collectivity. This was compared to their home life, which was full of friction. Women sometimes resented their husbands because of the double burden on them - men were deeply demoralised by their own experience of society and often took to drink, and so on.

YM:  One last question. When people like Kollontai or Armand started these debates and were talking to the working class, including party members, what historical text from Marx or Engels did they produce as an example? On the concepts of private property, the family, the state and so on, when they were talking to ordinary working class people, were the connections made ideologically or was it more a matter of generalities and practical issues?

The reason I am asking relates to the problem of how to explain such matters in a traditional society - in some ways the Russia of that time was indeed a traditional society. What Marx and Engels wrote on these questions would have been very advanced for many so-called liberated men and women. As I sometimes say in relation to sections of the Iranian left, they do not grasp or really believe in such theory and that is why they cannot discuss it properly or even do any practical political work. So I wonder how people like Kollontai approached ideas that must have formed the basis of their political work.

AM:  August Bebel’s book Woman in the past, present and future actually appears to have been the most popular text, possibly because he was well known for being a fighter for women’s rights within the German Reichstag. But, when Zhenotdel members were speaking to a wider audience, they did not go into the details of Engels’ or Bebel’s works. Rather they would summarise their research - how, for example, it had shown that women’s oppression did not exist in early human society and therefore was not part of the natural order. They often argued against claims that a woman’s position within the family was an inherent one; and that women were somehow not capable of being political leaders, could not be trusted in positions of responsibility outside the home.

They also pointed to how the family had changed over time, and pointed out that the way to consciously attempt to change it in the current situation was to socialise its functions, so it could be replaced by more liberated relationships. They would stress to women that the Soviet Republic represented their pathway to liberation by beginning this process of promoting social responsibility for domestic labour and childcare.

If women were unhappy and felt imprisoned within the home, Zhenotdel members would organise meetings to discuss such ideas with them. Education was really important, so a lot of effort was put into popular pamphlets and journals, along with a huge effort to eradicate illiteracy. There was also an effort to get to where women were, even to visit them at home, in order to discuss these issues, along with providing them with some support.

It was essential that women could see in practice how socialism worked.

Watch the full discussion at: 

  1. . ‘Centrality of involvement’ Weekly Worker February 2: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1428/centrality-of-involvement.↩︎