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Soviet Russia, Zhenotdel, and Women’s Emancipation, 1919-1930

September 29, 2020

Just how much progress was made in the fight for equality? Anne McShane focuses in particular on Central Asia. See also Part 2 of this study, Zhenotdel: Clubs, Cooperatives, and the Hujum.

Introduction by Mike Taber: Anne McShane is a Marxist activist from Britain and Ireland who writes regularly for Weekly Worker, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). McShane has developed these views in more detail in her PhD thesis, “Bringing the Revolution to the Women of the East: The Zhenotdel Experience in Soviet Central Asia through the Lens of Kommunistka.” McShane has begun work to edit her thesis up into a book.

The 2017 article below, which we are running in two parts, is reposted with permission from Weekly Worker.

Discussion of these questions has practical importance for the struggle for women’s liberation today. The Russian Revolution of 1917, and the early years of the Soviet Republic, blazed a revolutionary path for achieving women’s full rights and equality in society. By focusing on Soviet Central Asia, McShane enables readers to get a new appreciation of the profound impact of the Russian Revolution on this question.

That perspective will also be the theme of the next volume in the series on the Communist International in Lenin’s time: “The Communist Women’s Movement 1920-1922,” to be published next year by the Historical Materialism Book Series.

By Anne McShane: The early Soviet republic is well known for introducing wide-ranging and unprecedented equality for women. However, far less is known about the efforts made to realise this equality. My own understanding until relatively recently was that actually not a great deal had been achieved in material terms. It was not until I began to study the Zhenotdel, the women’s bureau of the Communist Party, that I became aware of how wrong I had been.

Discovering the Zhenotdel’s journal Kommunistka was like finding buried treasure. It opened a unique window on the Soviet experience and the challenges facing it. For the first time I saw that the fight for women’s emancipation had been a real and living experience. The debates on women’s rights in the Soviet republic are hardly known outside academia, unlike those on the Workers Opposition and the Left Opposition.

Women: Join the Cooperative! (1918)

This gap in our knowledge means that we have an incomplete understanding of the revolution and the society which followed. It leaves this extraordinary experience – the apex of the struggle for women’s rights within revolutionary history – to feminist academics. That needs to be rectified.

Formation of the Zhenotdel

I have written already this year about the women’s movement in 1917.1 Firstly I want to repeat that, contrary to the claims of some academics, the Bolshevik Party did have mass support among the female working class. And in the heady days after the revolution these women looked to the Soviet government for radical transformation in their lives.

By summer 1918 it was evident that in reality little had changed. The burden of domestic labour and childcare had not shifted and discrimination in the workplace was endemic. In response, a conference of working and peasant women was convened in November 1918 under the leadership of Inessa Armand, Alexandra Kollontai and Konkordiia Samoilova. At a similar event the previous year a proposal from Kollontai to set up a special women’s organisation had been rejected. It was argued at that time that such an initiative was superfluous and would become a feminist deviation.

By 1918 this view had changed and leaders of the movement recognised that there would be little progress unless action was taken by those with a vested interest. Special commissions were created to represent working class and peasant women. These commissions began immediately to set up crèches and public canteens, and to agitate for maternity and other rights. Their existence led to the central committee taking a decision to set up the Zhenotdel in September 1919.

With the exception of Kollontai, the leaders of the Zhenotdel were all long-term Bolsheviks. Nadia Krupskaya was appointed editor of Kommunistka and Inessa Armand the first national secretary. These women were united by a view that revolutionary change necessitated action to transform traditional relations within the family. Important influences on this layer included the writing of Frederick Engels and August Bebel on the family under primitive communism.

Clara Zetkin – trailblazer for women’s rights both in the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the Second International – was a major inspiration, friend of the bureau and contributor to Kommunistka. As editor of Die Gleichheit, the women’s journal of the SDP, and one of the leaders of Frauenbewegung, the women’s movement, Zetkin believed that all communist parties needed a special women’s section. She drafted theses for the Second Congress of the Third International in 1921 to commit all parties to create their own Zhenotdel.2

The immediate question for the Zhenotdel was the socialisation of domestic labour and childcare. This had been put forward by Engels and Bebel as a necessary step for a workers’ state and was therefore an accepted part of Bolshevik orthodoxy. However, the stumbling block was whether immediate measures should be taken or whether socialisation would develop at a later, more productive, stage of socialism.

The leaders of the Zhenotdel very much supported the former view. They believed that, unless women were drawn into the project at the beginning, an extremely distorted form of socialism would result. Armand, Samoilova and Krupskaya had been involved for many years in pursuing women’s rights: in the Bolshevik women’s journal Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker) of 1914 and 1917, in writing pamphlets and in organising among the working class in St Petersburg and Moscow.

Kollontai worked closely with Clara Zetkin in the SDP and the women’s secretariat of the Second International. She was known as a leading advocate and had written a number of pamphlets and books, many of which were republished after the revolution.

For them feminism was a bourgeois ideology, which did not deal with the need to transcend the oppression implicit in class society – Kollontai in particular had been a fierce opponent of the reformist women’s movement in Russia. They shared the belief that women’s emancipation would be realised in a successful transition to a stateless society. However, this did not imply passivity. It meant ensuring that women’s rights were closely interconnected with all aspects of building socialism. The journal featured articles from the international struggle for women’s rights and sought to organise these struggles within Comintern.

The Zhenotdel was a bureau of the central committee and considered itself a loyal and committed part of the Russian party. Delegates from factories, government workplaces and collectives attended meetings several times a month, where they “heard reports by Zhenotdel instructors on political issues, on the work of local soviets and on practical issues, such as establishing crèches in factories where women worked”.3 The aim was to facilitate women’s full involvement in the civil war effort by setting up support systems. Delegates divided up the tasks of approaching organisations to seek help in setting up canteens and nurseries.

Also an internship scheme was connected to the delegate meetings, and women would be sent to various government departments, soviets, trade unions and party organisations to train for a period of three-six months in administration. The interns would then report back and replacements would be chosen. There was a particular emphasis within this model on being flexible and accountable and on working closely with other Soviet organisations.

Problems with Acceptance

There are many reports that delegates found it impossible to convince male comrades and trade unionists of the benefits of their work. Interns were often treated as a nuisance or made to carry out menial duties. Samoilova complained that male comrades “still exhibited a lot of prejudice towards the Zhenotdel”, most feeling that “it was beneath their dignity” to associate with it.4 This was despite the bureau being a department of the central committee.

Lenin admitted in an interview with Zetkin in 1920 that “unfortunately we may still say of many of our comrades, ‘Scratch the communist and a philistine appears’. To be sure, you have to scratch their sensitive spots – such as their mentality regarding women”, which was that of the “slave-owners”.5 Despite formal commitment to women’s emancipation, many Bolshevik men, including leading members, still saw women as inferior and women’s issues as trivial or irrelevant.

The introduction of the New Economic Policy in 1921 exacerbated the difficulties of the Zhenotdel and profoundly weakened the organisation. It also lost two of its leading members within a year, with Armand falling victim to the cholera epidemic in September 1920 and Samoilova following her in June 1921. Kollontai succeeded Armand as national secretary and began a struggle against the negative impact of NEP on working class women.

Female unemployment spiralled in this period, as men returned from the civil war and reactionary attitudes on the role of women re-emerged with a vengeance – Kollontai’s novel Love of worker bees captures well the deep alienation felt by revolutionary women at that time. The Zhenotdel launched a campaign to form collectives and artels (cooperatives) among working women and to fight the mass redundancies taking place. Kollontai herself was immersed in the struggle of the Workers Opposition against the NEP throughout 1921.

In February 1922, following its defeat and the controversy which surrounded her attempts to bring the issue before Comintern, Kollontai narrowly escaped expulsion from the party. Instead her punishment was to be removed from her position as leader of the Zhenotdel and sent abroad in disgrace.

This was a huge blow for her and for the bureau itself. It continued under the more conservative leadership of Sofia Smidovich, then Klavdiia Nikolaeva and Anna Artiukhina. All three had been active Bolsheviks and would never have considered themselves feminists in any way, despite being described as such by academics today. Their commitment lay in facilitating women’s emancipation as part of building socialism.

In March 1930 the bureau was closed down on the orders of Stalin. He claimed at the time that the woman’s question had been solved and that they would be liberated through the five-year plan. Instead of a special organisation, all comrades would fight for women’s equality. Of course, the opposite proved to be the case. Divorce, which had been made freely available in 1918, became virtually impossible under a 1936 decree.

Abortion, which had also been legalised after the revolution, was banned, also in 1936. Homosexuality, which had been decriminalised, was recriminalised in 1933. Stalin’s project of Mother Russia pushed women back into forced childbirth and domestic drudgery, while not relieving them of their place in the Soviet industrial machine. The history of the rise and fall of the Zhenotdel is therefore crucial to an understanding of the character of the revolution and its demise.

My study of the Zhenotdel is focused on its work in central Asia in the 1920s. This experience throws light in particular on its attitude to working with veiled women within a traditional Muslim society. In contrast to the working class women of Moscow and Petrograd, the lives of their central Asian counterparts had remained largely untouched by events of 1917.

The Zhenotdel directed its main focus of work in the Uzbek region, where women remained largely secluded from the outside world. Here the entire strategy of the bureau was dictated by a belief that it was necessary to work with indigenous women in a safe and non-confrontational way.

At the All-Russian Conference of Organisers among Women of the East in April 1921 Alexandra Kollontai put forward a resolution stating that the “best way to gather the isolated mass is through the creation of women’s clubs. Women’s clubs must act as models of how Soviet power can emancipate women in all aspects of their lives, once they engage with it”. They “should be schools where women are drawn to the Soviet project through their own self-activity and begin to cultivate the spirit of communism within themselves”.

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1. ‘The inferno erupts’ Weekly Worker March 2 2017.

2. C Zetkin, ‘Guidelines for the communist women’s movement’ (translation by Ben Lewis of ‘Kunst und Proletariat’) Revolutionary History No1, 2015, pp 42-61. For the theses adopted by the Third Congress see also ‘Methods and forms of work among women’ in A Holt and B Holland (translators) Theses, resolutions and manifestos of the first four congresses of the Third International London 1980.

3. RC Ellwood Inessa Armand: revolutionary and feminist Cambridge 1992, p247.

4. CE Hayden, ‘The Zhenodel and the Bolshevik Party Russian History Vol 3, No1, 1976.

5. C Zetkin, ‘Lenin on the woman question’.

One Comment
  1. Bernhard permalink

    See „The Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women (Women and Revolution pages)“, in: „Spartacist“ English edition No. 59, Spring 2006, pp. 56, 34-51 or
    „On Communist Work Among Women in Soviet Central Asia – From the Archives of Marxism“, in: „Workers Vanguard“ No. 975,
    4 March 2011

    Disclaimer: I’m not authorized to represent of which I am not a member. I’m posting this on my own initiative.

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