Women's Movement in Russia and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

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 It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Women’s Movement in Russia and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics


originated during the revolutionary years 1859 through 1861 as part of the Russian social movement in the period characterized by the collapse of serfdom.

The specific features of the women’s movement in Russia were determined by the distinctive elements in the country’s historical development. The demands for political and civil liberties that characterized the women’s movement in the West became the slogans for the entire democratic movement in Russia, which was under autocratic rule. On the one hand, this development limited the demands made by the Russian women’s movement; on the other hand, it promoted the active participation of women in the liberation movement from the time of its domination by the raznochintsy (intellectuals of no definite class).

During the late 1850’s and early 1860’s the Russian women’s movement developed chiefly among women of the privileged classes. It was, on the whole, a bourgeois movement and a manifestation of feminism. However, Utopian socialist elements were introduced into the women’s movement through the enormous influence of the democratic press on society (Kolokol, Sovremennik, Russkoe slovo, Iskra, and later, Otechestvennye zapiski, Delo, and the illegal publications of the People’s Will organization). The close ties between many figures in the women’s movement and members of the revolutionary circles only helped to strengthen those elements. The demands for political equality for women were put forward only during the Revolution of 1905-07. With the beginning of the proletarian stage in the liberation movement, an organization of women workers emerged in the late 19th century. A part of the workers’ movement, it became the avantgarde of the Russian women’s movement.

The first cell of the Russian women’s movement was M. V. Trubnikova’s women’s circle, which helped to establish Sunday schools in St. Petersburg in 1859 and which was influenced by N. A. Serno-Solov’evich. From this circle emerged the so-called female triumvirate (Irubnikova, N. V. Stasova, and A. P. Filosofova), which was for many years the center of initiative in the women’s movement. In 1859 the philanthropic Society for Cheap Apartments and Other Benefits for Needy Residents of St. Petersburg was founded (its first chairman was Trubnikova). Workshops, public kitchens, schools, and kindergartens were later established by the society.

It was regarded as a landmark event when A. N. Engel’gardt, the wife of a prominent chemist and agronomist, appeared at the counter of Serno-Solov’evich’s bookstore. Some women from the lesser gentry and raznochintsy became translators, bookbinders, and typesetters; they were also becoming more prominent in journalism. The first women’s artels—V. I. Pechatkina’s and V. A. Inostrantseva’s bookbinders association in St. Petersburg and the Ivanova sisters’ artel for seamstresses in Moscow—were connected with revolutionary organizations. In 1863 the Publishing Artel, an association of women translators, was established on a cooperative basis on the initiative of Trubnikova and Stasova. (It existed until 1871.)

Participation in social work made it possible for women from the intelligentsia to achieve economic independence. Because it was difficult to have church marriages dissolved, women’s endeavors to liberate themselves from the legal guardianship of their husbands led to an increasing number of civil marriages. Beginning in the mid-1860’s the fictitious marriages became an increasingly popular method by which young women freed themselves from parental control. A major role in liberating women from the oppressive conditions of the family was played by communal societies, the most famous of which was the Znamenskaia Commune, which was established by V. A. Steptsov in St. Petersburg.

An important episode in the struggle for women’s education was the attendance by young women of courses at the University of St. Petersburg (1859-61) and at the Academy of Medicine and Surgery (1862-64). Among the first women students were N. I. Korsini (Utina), E. I. Korsini (Viskovatova), M. A. Bogdanova (Bykova), A. P. Bliummer (Kravtsova), M. A. Bokova (Sechenova), N. P. Suslova (Erisman), E. F. Tolstaia (lunge) and M. M. Korkunova (Manasseina). Most of these women participated in the revolutionary movement of the 1860’s and later became well known for their public activity. In 1867, E.I . Konradi drew up a petition demanding that women be allowed to attend the university. Presented at the first congress of natural scientists by Professor A. N. Beketov, the petition was approved by the members of the congress. In 1868 a petition introduced by Trubnikova, Filosofova, and Stasova and signed by more than 400 women was submitted to the rector of the University of St. Petersburg. The petition asked that women be permitted to study at the university.

In 1869 preparatory Gymnasium courses (the Alarchin courses in St. Petersburg and the Liubianka courses in Moscow) were opened for the first time to women. Supported by 43 professors, including Beketov, D. I. Mendeleev, A. S. Famintsyn, I. M. Sechenov, and A. P. Borodin, the minister of education authorized the opening of university courses for women in December 1869 (the so-called Vladimir courses in St. Petersburg, which began in January 1870). Higher education for women in Russia originated with the opening of the V. I. Ger’e Higher Courses for Women in Moscow (1872) and the Bestuzhev Higher Courses for Women in St. Petersburg (1878).

At the end of the 19th century a number of women’s philanthropic organizations were established, including the Society for the Care of Young Women Workers (1897), the Society for the Improvement of Women’s Lot (1899), and the Russian Women’s Mutual Aid Society (1899).

The RSDLP devoted a great deal of attention to the problems of the women’s movement, acknowledging that the problems encountered by the female labor force were similar to those of the proletariat. The party’s program, which was adopted by the Second Congress in 1903, demanded complete legal and political equality for women, prohibited them from holding jobs that might be physically harmful to them, and called for maternity and child care. Encouraged by V. I. Lenin, N. K. Krupskaia wrote the pamphlet The Woman Worker in 1901.

During the Revolution of 1905-07, female members of the Bolshevik Party organized meetings and assemblies of women and completely dissociated themselves from the bourgeois tendency in the women’s movement, the left wing of which had completely separated during the same period and started a vigorous campaign for the political equality of women. In April 1905 the Union for Women’s Equality (the All-Russian Union for Women’s Equality) was formed in Moscow. In May 1905 it held the First All-Russian Congress of Women (70 delegates), and in October 1905, the second congress was convened. The Union for Women’s Equality joined the Union of Unions in March 1906, and by May 1906 it had 8,000 members and 79 autonomous branches in other cities. The Union for Women’s Equality joined the International Women’s Suffrage Union in August 1906 and took part in its congresses in Copenhagen (August 1906) and Amsterdam (June 1908). From 1907 to 1909 the Union for Women’s Equality issued the journal Soiuz zhenshchin, whose editor and publisher was M. A. Chekhova. After the failure of the Revolution of 1905-07 the women’s union broke up. Its right wing announced the formation of the Women’s Progressive Party, a shortlived organization that published the journal Zhenskii vestnik.

The Russian Women’s Mutual Aid Society remained the chief organization of the Women’s Movement. It prepared for and conducted the First All-Russian Women’s Congress in December 1908 (chairman of the Organizing Committee, A. N. Shabanova; vicechairmen, A. P. Filosofova and O. A. Shapir). More than 1,000 delegates attended. Despite the bourgeois character of the congress, approximately 50 working-class delegates took part in its work. In preparing their speeches they were considerably helped by A. M. Kollontai, who wrote a report for the congress entitled “The Woman Worker in Contemporary Society.” An active member of the congress, Kollontai was forced to go into hiding because she was wanted by the police. Her report was read by a worker, V. I. Volkova. The Bolshevik V. K. lutskaia was the head of the group of workers who were delegates to the congress. In 1907 the Russian League for Women’s Equality was organized, which convoked the First All-Russian Congress on Women’s Education in St. Petersburg in December 1912.

On Mar. 9, 1913, Women Workers’ Day—an international women’s day—was celebrated for the first time in Russia. The journal Rabotnitsa was founded on Lenin’s initiative in 1914. Its editorial staff included N. K. Krupskaia, I. F. Armand, and A. I. Elizarova-Ul’ianova. On Feb. 23 (Mar. 8), 1917, women workers held demonstrations in the streets of Petrograd against hunger and war. Their actions marked the beginning of the February Bourgeois-Democratic Revolution of 1917. The Commission on the Work of Women Toilers was established in August 1917 under the Moscow regional bureau of the RSDLP.

The victory of the Great October Socialist Revolution made it possible to fully resolve the woman question in Russia. The women’s movement became a movement of workers and peasants whose tasks were to aid the socialist system in every way possible, to defend the socialist fatherland, and to bring women into active political and public activity. In November 1918, Lenin spoke at the First All-Russian Congress of Women Workers and Peasants, which was held in Moscow and organized by I. F. Armand, A. M. Kollontai, and K. N. Samoilova. The congress defined women’s role in the struggle for socialism and established an organizational basis of the women’s movement suitable to conditions in Soviet society. Women’s sections were set up in the central and local administration of the party.

The RCP (Bolshevik) program adopted by the Eighth Party Congress in 1919 stated that the party would not restrict itself to a formal recognition of the equal rights of women under the law but rather would strive to make them real by freeing women from the burden of domestic duties and bringing them into all facets of the new society. The party guaranteed that the state would provide maternity and child care. The Ninth Congress of the RCP (Bolshevik) focused on the problem of incorporating women workers and peasants into the socialist state. Questions concerning the women’s movement were also on the agenda of the Eleventh, Twelfth, and Thirteenth Party Congresses. During the 1920’s and 1930’s the basic units of the women’s movement in the Soviet Union were the delegates’ meetings. Working women’s meetings were organized at industrial enterprises, and housewives’ meetings were held by the local Soviets.

In Middle Asia and the Caucasus, the women’s movement developed despite enormous obstacles. The decree of the Orgburo of the Central Committee of the ACP(Bolshevik) On the Immediate Working Tasks Among Women Workers, Peasants, and Toiling Women in the East (December 1924) gave great impetus to the movement. In addition to delegates’ meetings, women’s clubs, krasnye ugolki (Red Corners providing educational and propaganda materials), and houses of peasants were established, where women learned to read and write, received medical advice, and gained access to cultural activities. The women’s clubs gave rise to the first activists, who joined the party, went to study at workers’ departments in higher educational institutions and higher educational institutes, and were authorized to work in plants and factories. The First All-Union Conference of Women’s Club Workers was held in 1926. The Soviet women’s movement was widely covered in the press, and magazines designed specifically for women began to appear: Kommunistka (1920), Krest’ianka (1922), Rabotnitsa (1923), Delegatka (1923), and Obshchestvenitsa (1936).

In October 1927 the Second All-Union Congress of Women Workers and Peasants pointed out the rise in women’s participation in all areas of socialist society, as well as the growth in women’s political consciousness. The number of women delegates to the congresses of Soviets between 1922 and 1927 increased by three to eight times in the volosts (small rural districts), and provinces. The All-Union Congress of Women Workers and Peasant Members of the Soviets was held in 1927, and in 1931 the All-Union Conference on Women’s Work was held. The collectivization of agriculture caused an upsurge in the women’s movement in the countryside. Delegates’ meetings of women kolkhoz workers were organized, and women’s production meetings were held in the village councils and at the kolkhozes. A movement of publicminded women who supported raising the level of culture in production and in daily life emerged in 1933. Its members promoted the increased participation of housewives in public and industrial activities.

An important aspect of the women’s movement in the 1930’s was women’s achievements in mastering what had once been men’s jobs. (For example, P. N. Angelina and P. N. Kavardak became tractor drivers, and Z. P. Troitskaia became a railroad engineer.) Led by V. S. Khetagurova, Soviet women took an active part in helping to open up and develop the Soviet Far East. All-Union congresses of wives of industrial managers, engineers and technical workers in heavy industry and wives of commanders in the Red Army were held in 1936.

In the prewar period Soviet women participated actively in the international democratic women’s movement, and in 1934 they attended the World Congress of Women Against War and Fascism, of which E. D. Stasova was an organizer. The congress established the International Women’s Committee.

During the Great Patriotic War (1941-45), Soviet women by the millions filled places in the national econōmy left vacant by men who were called to the front. More than 1 million women kolkhoz workers became skilled tractor and combine operators and mechanics, and more than 200,000 became team leaders and chairmen of kolkhozes. More than 1 million women fought on the front and in the partisan forces against the fascist invaders. On Sept. 7,1941, the First Antifascist Women’s Political Meeting issued its appeal’ To Women of the Whole World,” which called for an intensified struggle against fascism and a united front in the struggle against Hitlerism. The Antifascist Committee of Soviet Women, which was founded in September 1941, began to publish the journal Sovetskaia zhenshchina in 1945. (Since 1956 the organization has been known as the Committee of Soviet Women.) On May 10, 1942, the Second Antifascist Women’s Political Meeting (the All-Union Meeting of Women Participants in the Patriotic War) adopted the appeals’ To the Women of the Whole World’’ and’’ From the Women of Moscow to the Women of London.’’

During the postwar years, as before, the goals and tasks of the women’s movement in the USSR were inseparably linked to those of Soviet society. To organize work among women, women’s councils (zhensovety) were established in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s at enterprises, institutions, kolkhozes, and sovkhozes. Regional and city women’s councils were organized in many regions. In the Soviet republics of Middle Asia, women’s councils grew rapidly. In 1964 the Uzbek SSR alone had 5,760 women’s councils with 93,000 active members.

Soviet women play an active part in the development of the national economy, science, engineering, and culture and in the growth of the international women’s movement. The Soviet Women’s Committee maintains contact with more than 229 national and international organizations in 119 countries and is a member of the International Democratic Federation of Women. The participation of the Committee of Soviet Women in various international and regional congresses and national conferences is designed to strengthen friendly relations and improve mutual understanding among women of all countries and continents and to unite them in the struggle against imperialism.


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