Woman Question

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Woman Question


(zhenskii vopros), a complex of social problems, including women’s role in society and the family, maternity add child care, and ways to liberate women from oppression. In the Marxist-Leninist sense the woman question is part of the problem of what conditions are necessary to win the socialist revolution and build a communist society.

In all antagonistic class structures, women hold a subordinate position in the family and society that is sanctioned by religion. They are granted either a few rights or no rights at all. Capitalism created the conditions for an increasing employment of hired female labor in social production, but it subjected women to wage discrimination and preserved their previous subordinate status in the family and their social and cultural enslavement, giving rise to the woman question as an integral part of the general social problem and of the workers’ problem, in particular. In 1921, V. I. Lenin wrote: “The female half of the human race has been doubly oppressed under capitalism. The woman worker and the peasant woman are oppressed by the capitalist, and moreover, even in the most democratic of the bourgeois republics, they still lack, in the first place, full equality of rights, for the law does not grant them equality with men; in the second place—and this is the main point—they are still in ‘domestic servitude,’ they are ‘domestic slaves,’ crushed by the most petty, the darkest, the heaviest, the most dulling work in the kitchen and the single-handed care of the house and family in general” (JPoln. sobr. soch. , 5th ed., vol. 42, pp. 368-69). Lenin’s description of the conditions of women’s lives in capitalist society is still valid to a significant extent, despite the well-known improvement in the status of women since World War II, which is associated with the general upsurge in the working-class movement and the democratic movement in general.

The involvement of women in social production under capitalism and their continuing lack of rights have given rise to contradictory attitudes toward women in bourgeois society. The ideological forerunners of the Great French Revolution considered the oppressed condition of women a violation of the natural rights of man. A. Condorcet—an ardent advocate of women’s equality and during the Great French Revolution one of the spokesmen of French bourgeois ideology, which was based on the slogan “liberty, equality, and fraternity”—considered the servile position of women a consequence of deeply rooted prejudices in popular opinions of women. Like other bourgeois authors, he ignored the class and economic roots of the woman question and believed that legal equality and education would lead to the emancipation of women. (The English philosopher, economist, and sociologist J. S. Mill later defended similar opinions in the book On the Subjection of Women [1869]). During the Great French Revolution, which dealt a crushing blow to feudal relations, laws were adopted that somewhat improved the legal status of women. Thus, a law adopted in 1791 included provisions for women’s education; the decree of Sept. 20, 1792, granted women a number of civil rights; and a law passed by the Convention in April 1794 was designed to make it easier to obtain a divorce. During the Thermidorian reaction, however, these gains were essentially lost.

The Napoleonic Code (1804) and bourgeois civil codes in other countries sharply limited women’s civil rights, making them subordinate to men in the family, marriage, divorce, parental authority, and property rights.

The de jure and de facto absence of rights for women has received theoretical support in the works of many bourgeois authors. In the opinion of the French philosopher A. Comte—an advocate of the so-called biological theory, which was prevalent in bourgeois literature—the unequal status of women in society was the result of “the natural weakness of the female organism.” According to Comte and many other bourgeois authors, there can be no social equality between men and women. Woman’s only calling is the family. The biological interpretation, which proclaims the woman question eternal and insoluble, is, with a few modifications, still prevalent in capitalist countries.

In the late 19th and early 20th century the petit bourgeois “theory” of the three K’s (German Kirche, Kuche, Kinder —church, kitchen, children) became widespread in Germany and other countries. According to the theory’s supporters, woman’s sphere of interest should be limited to the three K’s. Later, this idea was basically adopted by the fascists. With certain modifications, it is similar to the views of some contemporary bourgeois theorists on the woman question, who cite the physiological characteristics of women as mothers or future mothers as the chief argument against their taking part in social production and public life.

However, the laws of development of capitalist society, as well as the development of science, technology, and culture, which draw women into production and cultural and social activities, are exposing the groundlessness of the theories supporting the subordination of women. The flimsiness of these theories was first revealed by revolutionary democratic ideologists, particularly those of the proletariat. The Utopian socialist C. Fourier demonstrated that in any society the extent of women’s liberation is a measure of liberation in general. Unlike the bourgeois defenders of equality for women, Utopian socialists (Saint-Simon, Owen, and Fourier) understood the connection between the oppressed condition of women and the characteristics of bourgeois society. The emancipation of women was an important point in their plans for reconstructing society. The 19th-century Russian revolutionary democrats made still another advance in the approach to the woman question when they noted the exceptional importance of involving women in public life and urged them to join in active revolutionary struggle.

Among the Russian revolutionary democrats the most brilliant defender of the emancipation of women was N. G. Chernyshevskii. In the novel What Is to Be Done? he introduced the character of a woman who had broken away from the narrow family circle and earned the right to an independent existence and active social involvement. However, the path to liberation outlined in Chernyshevskii’s novel reflects the Utopian elements in his teaching.

The first to reveal the class roots of the woman question, Marx and Engels showed that in capitalist society a solution in favor of working women is impossible, inasmuch as the first condition for a true liberation of women is the abolition of the system of capitalist exploitation. The decision of the First International on labor protection for women workers, which was based on the ideas of Marx and Engels, revealed not only the link between the oppressed condition of women and private ownership of the means of production and man’s exploitation of man but also the flimsiness of the Proudhonist approach to women’s rights. (Proudhon and his followers opposed women’s engaging in socially useful work.) The decision on labor protection for women workers also established the theoretical basis for the development of the proletarian women’s movement.

Marx, Engels, and Lenin considered oppressed masses of working women the greatest reserve of the proletarian revolution. Describing the dialectical link between the proletarian revolution and the solution to the woman question, Lenin wrote: “The proletariat cannot gain complete freedom without winning complete freedom for women” (Poln. sobr. soch. , vol. 40, p. 158). A. Bebel’s book Woman and Socialism (1879) played an exceptionally important role in propagandizing and developing Marxist views on the woman question. The written work and the activities of a number of women, including C. Zetkin and N. K. Krupskaia, made a vital contribution to the Marxist solution of the woman question.

The demands of capitalist production and the development of the democratic and proletarian movements, especially the women’s movement, contributed to definite progress in legislation on women’s education and female labor, as well as to some general improvement in the legal status of women. Thus, for example, as early as 1847, Great Britain issued a law that limited a woman’s work day to ten hours. The founders of Marxism considered the law a great victory for the working class. Other laws concerning the protection of women laborers were passed. Women began to be admitted to trade unions, and the question of their membership was essentially decided by the trade unions congress in 1889. Secondary schools for girls began to be established, at first only for those from well-to-do families.

In the second half of the 19th century, women in Great Britain were admitted to the teaching profession, and later they were allowed to practice other professions as well. In 1858, British women won the right to sue for divorce, but until 1938 they had fewer rights than men in divorce cases. A number of concessions in civil rights were won by British women between 1870 and 1900. Women taxpayers received the right to participate in municipal elections in 1869, and in 1918 suffrage was granted to married women and to female apartment tenants who had university diplomas and were over 30. However, not until 1928 did all women age 21 obtain the right to vote. Although the formal legal status of women in Great Britain has improved, wage discrimination is still openly practiced against them.

In the USA women were admitted to the teaching profession in the first half of the 19th century, and between the 1850’s and 1870’s they were allowed to join the so-called liberal professions. In 1848 married women obtained the right to own property. However, a law limiting the length of women’s workdays was not introduced until 1874 (in Massachusetts). Women began to be accepted in “male” professions after 1880. In 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which abolished the restrictions on voting rights for women, went into effect.

In France, lycées for girls were opened under a law passed in 1880, and the first law regulating female labor conditions was adopted in 1892. (The law established an 11-hour maximum workday. In 1904 women’s workdays were reduced to ten hours.) Bills on voting rights for women were first introduced in France in 1848, but a law on women’s suffrage was not passed for almost 100 years. Only in 1944 did French women win the right to vote.

The right to vote was first given to women in Germany by the Weimar Constitution of 1919. When the Hitlerites took power in 1933, however, women were deprived of the political and social gains that they had won through a long, stubborn struggle.

In tsarist Russia women did not have the right to vote for deputies to the State Duma or for members of so-called local government bodies. Although female workers were widely employed, there was no legislation for their protection until the 1880’s. The workday was longer in branches of industry where female labor prevailed than in branches where the majority of workers were men, and women were paid half as much as men. The legislation in force in Russia placed women in a subordinate position in the family. The February Revolution of 1917 gave women the right to vote, but it maintained their inequality in civil rights.

The conditions for a genuine solution of the woman question were established for the first time in history in the Soviet state, which was created as a result of the Great October Socialist Revolution. In the first months of its existence the Soviet government repealed all laws confirming the inequality of women. A resolution on the formation of the workers’ and peasants’ government, which was adopted by the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets on Oct. 25-27 (Nov. 7-9), 1917, provided for the participation of organizations of women workers, as well as other mass organizations, in the state. The political equality of women was confirmed by the first Soviet constitution in 1918. Through a series of acts adopted in 1917-18, Soviet power gave women complete equality with men in labor rights, civil rights, family and marital rights, and education. The government also adopted measures concerning female labor and maternity and child care, and it established the principle of equal pay for equal labor.

With the establishment of socialist production relations, the industrialization of the country, the collectivization of agriculture, and the cultural revolution, the de facto equality of women with men has been essentially achieved in Soviet society. (Particularly great difficulties had to be overcome in the struggle for the emancipation of women in the Soviet East, where the chief obstacle was the age-old tradition of women’s servility.) Women’s rights were stated in Article 122 of the Constitution of the USSR: “A woman in the USSR is granted rights equal to those of a man in all spheres of economic, state, cultural, and social and political life.”

The many forms of state assistance that are increasingly offered to mothers ensure women the opportunity to take advantage of their rights. The network of institutions for maternity and child care grows every year. In 1971 there were 9.5 million children (in 1914, 4,500) in the full-time kindergartens and day nurseries. In 1956 the pregnancy and childbirth leave was increased from 77 to 112 days. Old-age pensions are given to women five years earlier than to men and are granted after five years’ less work. (Mothers of large families enjoy additional privileges for pension security.)

In the USSR respect for women as equal and active citizens of the socialist state is deeply ingrained. Women, who made up 53.9 percent of the population of the USSR in early 1971, accounted for 51 percent of the workers and office workers employed in the national economy in 1970, as compared to 24 percent in 1928. Of the industrial workers, 48 percent were women. Among the specialists with a higher or secondary education in 1968, 58 percent were women. (Of the specialists with a higher degree, 52 percent were women, and of those with a secondary education, 63 percent were women.) In 1968 the Soviet Union had 58 times as many women specialists as in 1928. According to 1968 figures, 31 percent of the nation’s engineers, 38 percent of its technicians, 72 percent of its physicians (10 percent before the revolution), 69 percent of its teachers and cultural and educational workers, and 39 percent of its scientists were women. Of the deputies to the eighth convocation of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR elected on June 14, 1970, 463 (30.5 percent) were women. (Only 16.5 percent of the deputies to the first convocation of the Supreme Soviet, who were elected in 1937, were women.) After the 1971 elections, 45.8 percent of the deputies to the local Soviets of working people’s deputies were women. Scientific and technological progress is contributing to women’s liberation from domestic work and to their further involvement in industrial and public activity.

The resolution of the woman question in the USSR has tremendous international significance. For example, other socialist countries have learned from the experience of the USSR in resolving the woman question. Legislation in these countries guarantees equal rights to women. The rights to work, education, and participation in public and political life are being exercised by many women.

The emancipation of women in socialist countries has, on the whole, been achieved. However, the elimination of vestiges of de facto inequality in everyday life is a lengthy process, which will be completed only when the gradual transition from socialism to communism has been made. The Program of the CPSU provides for the creation of all the social and domestic conditions that will make possible the elimination of the de facto inequality of women.

Under the influence of the example of the socialist countries, particularly the USSR, the general growth of democratic and socialist forces, and the new demands evoked by the scientific and technological revolution, further vital changes are occurring in the status of women all over the world. The rights for which the women’s movement has been struggling for many decades (for example, the rights to vote and work) have been acknowledged in most capitalist countries and in young independent states. They have been proclaimed in a number of international documents, including the Charter of the UN (1945), the resolution (1946) and convention (1952) on women’s political rights adopted by the UN General Assembly, the UN Declaration on Eliminating Discrimination Against Women (1967), and the convention of the International Labor Organization on equal pay for equal labor (1951), as well as its recommendation on labor by women with family responsibilities (1965).

In developed capitalist countries and developing countries the greatest changes in women’s status have been won in the struggle for legal equality. The first gains were made in the fight for political rights. Before 1917 women were allowed to vote in only six countries (New Zealand, Australia, Finland, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland). Between 1917 and 1920, approximately 11 more countries granted women the vote. According to UN data, by the beginning of 1970 women in 121 countries had the right to vote and to be elected to any government body. Since World War II women’s participation in political life has increased significantly, but in the capitalist countries the percentage of women in parliament and even local government bodies is very low. In some countries the number of women deputies in parliament is decreasing. (In France the number of women deputies fell from 39 in 1946 to six in 1968, and in the USA, the number of women representatives declined from 19 in the Eighty-seventh Congress to 13 in the Ninety-second Congress.)

In a number of countries the active participation of women in political life has been hindered by the isolation of a significant part of the female population from economic and social and political life, the low political and cultural level, and mass illiteracy. (In the late 1960’s, more than 85 percent of the world’s illiterates were women.) Many bourgeois countries have preserved the legal inequality of women in family and marital relations, and women are still subject to wage discrimination. Laws requiring equal pay for equal labor have been adopted by a number of countries (for example, Italy, France, the Federal Republic of Germany, Argentina, Canada, and Turkey), and international conventions on the subject have been recognized, but they are being violated. In Great Britain in the late 1960’s only 1.5 million out of 9 million working women received pay equal to men’s. According to data from the late 1960’s, women in the USA, who make up 51 percent of the population and 37 percent of the workers, receive 42 percent less money for their work than do men. The disparity between men’s and women’s wages in the USA increased during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Discrimination is also evident in the difficulties women encounter in trying to obtain an education or enter a profession and in the absence of the conditions necessary for combining work with the fulfillment of family responsibilities. The percentage of women skilled workers in a number of capitalist countries remains extremely low. In the USA only 1 percent of the engineers, 3 percent of the lawyers, 7 percent of the physicians, and 9 percent of the scientists are women. In 1969 the unemployment rate among women in the USA was 4.7 percent, as compared to 2.8 percent among men. Peasant women and women farm workers, in particular, suffer from discrimination in all the nonsocialist countries.

The emergence of new independent states as a result of the disintegration of the imperialist colonial system has been accompanied by the emancipation of women and the strengthening of their role in public and political life. The developing countries of Asia and Africa are taking the first steps toward gaining equality for women, solving the problem of employing women in social production, overcoming archaic customs and carry-overs in family relations, and eliminating illiteracy. (In the late 1960’s more than 85 percent of the women in Africa were illiterate.)

The inequality of women hinders social progress in the nonsocialist countries, where the struggle to eliminate discrimination against women remains one of the important tasks of the workers’ movement and of the democratic movement in general.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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