Marxism and Women

Women in the Soviet Union

We reproduce here an article from 1988 which examines the position of women in the former USSR. It exposes the Stalinist caricature of the question of women and the family, and explains the real attitude of Marxism towards the emancipation of women as expressed in the writings of Lenin and Trotsky.
In his book Perestroika: New Thinking for our Country and the World, Gorbachev claims that women in the Soviet Union have "the same right to work as men, equal pay…every opportunity to get an education, to have a career and to participate in social and political activities." The reality, however, is different. Seventy years after the revolution, despite legal equality, the Soviet Union still cannot justifiably claim the liberation of women.

October 1917 was a milestone in the emancipation of women. For the first time the complete economic, political and sexual equality of women was put on the historic agenda. The Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky envisaged that with the development of industry and a planned nationalised economy, women would be given the opportunity to work outside of the home and, with the establishment of political democracy at all levels, would be able to play a full role in all spheres of political and social life.

To achieve this goal, women would have to be released from the traditional confines of domestic chores, with childcare becoming the responsibility of society as a whole through the provision of cheap, good quality public dining halls, laundries, sewing centres, creches and nurseries. The Bolsheviks were accused of "breaking up families and relationships" but the provision of these facilities, lifting the burden off the shoulders of women, would enable relationships to be formed on an equal and voluntary basis.

Some of the earliest decrees after the revolution were to further the economic independence of women. For example, a woman was no longer obliged to live with her husband or to accompany him if a change of job meant a change of house. As well as the fundamental socialisation of the means of production, property relationships changed to give women equal rights to hold land, be head of a household and to receive equal pay. Attention was paid to women's childbearing role and special maternity laws were introduced forbidding long hours and night work, and establishing paid leave at childbirth, family allowances and childcare centres. Abortion was legalised in 1920, divorce was simplified and civil registration of marriage was introduced.

However, as Lenin wrote on International Women's Day, 1921, while "in Soviet Russia, no trace is left of any inequality between men and women under the law…this is only the first step in the liberation of women." There had to be the practical means to ensure that legal equality could become a reality, as well as a fundamental change in attitudes about the role of women in society. The establishment of the first worker's state was a transitional stage in the building of a new socialist society where attitudes would be determined by the new social relations and material conditions rather than being based on the old ideas prevalent under tsarism.

One of the immediate tasks of the Soviet government was to mobilise millions of women workers and peasants to participate in building the new society. A series of conferences were organised, leading up to the First All Russian Congress of Working Women in November 1918, where Lenin argued that "the experience of all liberation movements has shown that the success of a revolution depends on how much women take part in it. The Soviet government is doing everything in its power to enable women to carry on independent proletarian socialist work."

To assist this work commissions for agitation and propaganda among working women were set up, becoming in 1919 the women's department of the Bolshevik Party, the Zhenotdel, with a monthly publication, Kommunistka. On the second anniversary of October, Lenin again used the yardstick of women's emancipation to judge the achievements of the Soviet republic, arguing that in two years, in one of the most backward countries of Europe, "more has been done to emancipate women, to make her the equal of the 'strong' sex, than has been done during the past 130 years by all the advanced, enlightened, 'democratic' republics of the world taken together." But he also added that while the Bolsheviks could be proud of these achievements in clearing out the old laws, the complete end of the degradation of women would only come with the building of the new society, a society that had hardly begun construction.

The Zhenotdel did not function as a separate organisation but worked under the general direction and programme of the party. Lenin continually reproached comrades for their lack of attention to work among women, arguing that it was the concern of the whole party rather than that of the women comrades alone. He emphasised the need to change attitudes as well as policies and although he supported the idea of a women's department he warned against a separate organisation of women: "We derive our organisational ideas from our ideological conceptions, we want no separate organisations of Communist women. She who is a Communist belongs as a member to the party just as he who is a Communist, and has the same rights and duties. But the party must have organs - working groups, commissions, sections - with the specific purpose of rousing the broad mass of women, bringing them into contact with the party and keeping them under its influence; special methods of agitation and forms of organisation. This is not bourgeois feminism but a practical revolutionary expediency."

The specific task of the women's department was to bring the broad mass of women into politics by visiting factories and villages, selling the monthly Kommunistka (circulation about 30,000), organising literacy classes and discussion circles. In the countryside in particular it was important to raise the sights of the peasant women from the problems of their own individual lives and to enable them to see issues such as childcare as the responsibility of society as a whole. Again, in the rural areas, one of the main obstacles to the involvement of women in the party itself (by 1922 still only 8 percent were women) was the high level of illiteracy. However, through the makeshift schools and study groups which were set up, hundreds of thousands began to educate themselves and to take up delegate positions in the soviets.

In the ten years of its existence the Zhenotdel played a crucial role in the political mobilisation of women. By 1927 there were eighteen women's journals with a circulation of nearly 400,000; by 1928 there were two and a half million women attending conferences organised to assist with political education, training and recruitment of women. Of course the dangers of a special women's department were recognised. Leading Bolshevik Nadezhda Krupskaya at one point warned that the women comrades were too involved in issues of social welfare, health and nurseries, rather than playing a full role in all fields of economic and social reconstruction. A campaign had to be waged within the party itself to change attitudes to women. These changes did not occur overnight and required a conscious campaign; Lenin himself took to task the party activists who paid lip service to the emancipation of women yet refused their own wives the opportunity to participate in the work of the Zhenotdel.

Material advances were also made to facilitate the full involvement of women in all spheres of social, economic and political life: the provision of free school meals, milk for all children, special food and clothes allowances for children in need, pregnancy consultation centres, maternity homes, creches and other facilities. Between 1919 and 1920, ninety percent of Petrograd was fed communally.

But by 1921 the economy was in ruins following three years of savage civil war. Industrial production was only 10 percent of the 1913 level. Agricultural production had fallen by 16 percent between 1917 and 1921. The working class in the cities was drastically weakened and exhausted, many of the best elements having been killed in the civil war. Starvation reigned in the countryside and the peasants - with the immediate threat of the restoration of the landlord removed with the end of the civil war - began to resist the emergency restrictions of "war communism", the forced requisitioning of grain, the militarisation of labour, etc.

The Bolsheviks under Lenin had always envisaged that the revolution in backward Russia would be followed by socialist revolution in the more advanced capitalist countries like Germany. Fraternal socialist cooperation would then lead to the integration of these industrially advanced economies with backward Russia. However, the revolutionary wave unleashed at the end of the first world war, because of the role of the workers leaders, did not lead to victory and the Russian revolution remained isolated. The Bolsheviks were forced to retreat and give concessions to the peasants, small businessmen and foreign investors. This New Economic Policy (NEP) - introduced as a temporary measure to revive production - had serious consequences for women workers. A rise in unemployment hit unskilled women hardest. In 1923, 58 percent of the unemployed in Petrograd were women; in the textile industry between 80 and 90 percent of the unemployed were women. Now that divorce had been simplified, the problems for women workers were compounded. Without economic independence and a job, divorce only added to the insecurity and hardship of many women, rather than giving them freedom of choice.

The New Economic Policy, along with Russia's isolation and economic backwardness, laid the basis for inequality and privilege in Soviet Russia. Starting as a tiny minority of the population, the working class was decimated by the world war, the civil war, and famine. Exhausted, working long hours, worker's participation in the soviets - the organs of their democratic rule - began to fall away. Successive defeats of the international revolution in Germany, Bulgaria and China, added to the demoralisation. The interests of the kulaks, rich peasants, and the speculators who fed on the shortages, began to be reflected within the Communist Party, the government and the state. Policies both within Russia and internationally began to reflect the interests of these privileged layers. The developing bureaucracy personified in Stalin consolidated its grip with the theory of "socialism in one country" and the purging of opposition, including Trotsky, from the Communist Party. This bureaucratisation within the party and the Communist International was accompanied by parallel changes in the position of women in Russia.

There always had been economic constraints placed on the Bolsheviks in the early days after the revolution, limiting the practical measures which could be undertaken to transform the role of women and realise in full the legal changes of 1918. The extent of the resources necessary to free women from domestic drudgery was summed up in a study at the time showing that over seven million domestic workers would be needed to do the shopping, cleaning, cooking and childcare for every 20 million of the population. Initially there had been a short period of uncertainty about creches and kindergartens, but very quickly women workers and peasants recognised the advantages of collective childcare. Nevertheless, the resources did not match up to the plans and hopes of the Communist Party or to the needs of the workers and peasants. If workers cannot afford to buy meals in the social dining room or the quality of food is poor, then families will go back to eating at home with the position of women as cook and cleaner reinforced. But while the party of Lenin fought these economic constraints to raise the social position of women, the party of Stalin began more and more to use the constraints to reverse the gains made in the past. There was a rundown in communal creches, and kitchens were cut back.

By 1928 the kulaks had enriched themselves to the point where they represented a real threat of capitalist restoration, hoarding grain, gold and even guns. The bureaucracy panicked and, in a complete about turn, switched to a programme of rapid industrialisation and forced collectivisation. This, coupled with the consolidation of a monstrous totalitarian state represented a turning point in the position of women. Millions were quickly mobilised into the workforce, but whereas the involvement of women in work outside of the home would generally be a progressive step, this mobilisation was based on coercion rather than opportunity and choice. In 1922 women were 22 per cent of the workforce but within ten years this figure had grown to 32 per cent. Between 1922 and 1937 out of 4 million new workers 82 per cent were women. Employment represents the potential for women's liberation but, in itself, having a job outside of the home does not constitute liberation. In fact, under the emerging bureaucracy, it meant increased oppression because of other changes in legislation regarding the family. It was at this time, in 1930, that the women's department was formally abolished.

The bureaucracy found the traditional conservatism and discipline of individual family units useful in reinforcing its own social and economic policies. In 1936 new legislation to reinforce the traditional role of the family was introduced, restricting women's rights to independence and mobility. Divorce became more difficult to obtain. Legal abortions were abolished except on health grounds and women were instructed that they had no right to deny the "joys of motherhood". Abortion became the privilege of those who could afford it. Ordinary women, out of necessity, were forced to procure illegal abortions without adequate sanitation and facilities. Many women suffered mutilation and medical problems. The benefits of life under a socialist system as envisaged by Lenin, where women would have a full and equal life with proper childcare, would have removed the insecurity and fear which the birth of another child often brought, thus eliminating the need for many abortions. This approach contrasted with the coercive instruction of the Stalinists to "enjoy motherhood".

Behind these legal changes and coercive methods lay the economic requirements of the bureaucracy. With millions of workers killed in the war and civil war, rapid industrialisation resulted in a desperate shortage of labour. Hence the necessity for such methods to ensure an increase in the population.

In 1934 homosexuality and prostitution were declared crimes with penalties of up to 8 years imprisonment. In 1936 there were over 1,000 women arrested for prostitution in Moscow alone. The fact that out of economic necessity thousands of women, many born after 1917, were resorting to prostitution - which represents the extreme degradation of women - was a crushing refutation of the myth of the bureaucracy that "socialism had been achieved."

These changes with respect to the position of women and the family were not the result of economic problems and the difficulties of "building socialism", as the Stalinists argue. The Bolsheviks had faced even greater problems but they recognised that, within the bounds of what was possible, the degree of emancipation of women was a measure of the success of the revolution. The changes made under the bureaucracy were in fact a reflection of the political degeneration taking place. This degeneration was a contradictory process: women were becoming involved in production, yet for women the political gains of the revolution were clawed back concurrently with the crushing of political democracy for the working class as a whole. Policies to bring women into production, or to expand the population, were consciously decided upon by the bureaucracy only from the point of view of consolidating its privileges, prestige and caste interests.

The new cult of the family was a natural progression of Stalinism, necessary to ensure stable social relations within the newly-bureaucratised Soviet Union. Marital stability was considered essential for the proper upbringing of children and the responsibility for childcare was once again shifted back to the individual family, i.e. women. In The Revolution Betrayed Trotsky sums up the changes taking place:

"The triumphal rehabilitation of the family…is caused by the material and cultural bankruptcy of the state. Instead of openly saying, 'we have proven still too poor and ignorant for the creation of socialist relations among men, our children and grandchildren will realise this aim,' the leaders are forcing people to glue together again the shell of the broken family, and not only that, but to consider it, under threat of extreme penalties, the sacred nucleus of triumphal socialism." (p. 151)

The family was a means of disciplining youth. The Bolsheviks had always recognised the importance of its support among youth, with its new ideas and fresh approach. But the Stalinists imprisoned or exiled those who adhered to Bolshevism and dared to question the leadership. At the Tenth Congress of the Communist Youth in April 1936 the General Secretary called on the youth to "end the chatter about industrial and financial planning and other important state problems as though we are going to decide them." Yet the age of maturity was still 18! The rehabilitation of the family in the 1930s was a conscious plan of the bureaucracy to clamp down through the discipline of individual families, on the questions youth would raise about changes taking place.

Housework was considered socially useful labour, yet there were enormous differences in the lives of ordinary women workers and the wives of the bureaucrats, who had cooks, telephones with which to order the shopping, and cars. Ordinary working women had to fit in running to the shops, cooking dinner, carrying children to the kindergarten (if they were fortunate enough to have a place) with a full time job. The return of women to family responsibilities was further reinforced with the decline in standards of creches and nurseries. Some were no better than bad orphan asylums, rather than being a place where women could leave their children confident that they were being well looked after and receiving more attention than they would in the individual home. The better kindergartens were, of course, restricted for the use of the bureaucracy. Even the increase in kindergarten places to one million by 1935 was a drop in the ocean.

In addition, the standards and costs of the social dining halls and laundries made them unacceptable to the majority of ordinary workers. With the continuing responsibility for children and the home, divorce represented, not the door to freedom, but to destitution. But divorce itself became more difficult to obtain and by 1944 was virtually restricted to the privileged layers in society. There were massive increases in the payment required to register a divorce and the more times a person divorced the greater was the payment. Even in law the equality introduced in 1917 was being taken away. Only the affluent could afford divorce and unregistered marriages were no longer recognised. For ordinary working class families this meant that for the first time since the revolution there was a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children. Stalinism engulfed every aspect of daily life.

The position of women in Russia today stems from the policies laid down in the period where the bureaucracy consolidated its power and privileges. Women are involved in production but without being freed from their domestic responsibilities. In fact under Stalin it was argued that for real "fulfilment" a role in both production and the home were necessary. Motherhood was declared a patriotic duty with the tantalising carrot of a "Glory of Motherhood" medal for those women with nine or more children! This attitude was reflected in the education system with any semblance of equal opportunity and freedom of choice being swept aside. Girls were taught needlework, domestic science and childcare while boys studied electrical repairs and map reading. Coeducation was abolished in 1943 although it has been reintroduced since.

Nonetheless, there have been positive developments for women as a result of the planned economy. Despite the devastating destruction of the second world war, the Soviet economy was rapidly reconstructed, increasing five times since 1945. In the 1950s and early 1960s the economy grew by 10-11 percent a year, two or three times faster than most capitalist countries. This allowed steady improvements in living standards for women, including retirement at 55 (60 for men), no discrimination against working mothers in terms of employment or rates of pay, and the right of pregnant women to transfer to lighter work with fully paid maternity leave for 56 days before and 56 days after the birth of a child. New laws in 1970 abolished night work and underground work for women.

The number of women in higher education as a percentage of the total has risen from 28 percent in 1927, to 43 percent in 1960, to 49 percent in 1970. The only other countries where women are over 40 percent of the total in higher education are Finland, the USA and France. There have been improvements in pre-school care for children - in 1960 there were 500,000 places but by 1971 this had risen to over five million, even though parents still have to pay 20 percent of the cost of the upkeep of children at pre-school institutions. The transformation of Russia from a semi-feudal country where 99 percent of agricultural power was animals, to one of the two most powerful industrialised nations in the world, has seen a doubling of the life expectancy for women from 30 to 74 years and a reduction in child mortality of 90 percent.

However improvements such as the increase in childcare facilities merely reflects the attempts by the bureaucracy to manipulate the female workforce according to the needs of the economy. The vast shortage of men in the Soviet Union arising from the first world war and the civil war years was compounded by the second world war, leaving only 59 men between the ages of 35-59 for every 100 women. Women again had to be mobilised into industry.

But in the 1970s, the growth rate fell to a mere 3 percent as the bureaucracy, now presiding over an advanced modern economy, became an absolute fetter on production, incapable of producing better results than the capitalist economies. At the same time, there was a new trend in the demographic crisis with women in the European republics rarely having more than one child. So the bureaucracy launched an assault on the alleged detrimental effects of institutional childcare in an attempt to persuade mothers that it was better for them to stay at home with the children. This "back to the home" policy reflected on the one hand the shortage of adequate childcare facilities but was also part of a scheme to increase the birth-rate. Pressures are brought to bear such as stressing the dangers of abortion (still the main method of birth control) and the greater risk of cancer in an unused womb.

The issue of women's wages in the Soviet Union is assuming more and more importance, as in the West especially since by 1959 almost one third of households were headed by women. But women still occupy jobs at the lower end of the wages scale. In 1975 in Russia women's wages were still between 67-73 percent of men's. The issue of low wages is further reinforced by the sex segregation that exists in employment opportunities. Some occupations have an almost exclusively female workforce and in fact this segregation has increased. In 1940 women working in education were 59 percent of the workforce, but by 1975 this figure had risen to 73 percent. In 1959 one third of women were in occupations where 70 percent of the workforce were women, but by 1970 this figure had risen to 55 percent. 98 percent of nurses are women, as are 75 percent of teachers, 95 percent of librarians and 75 percent of doctors. In agriculture too, men occupy the better paid skilled jobs and women do much of the heavy manual labour. In all these areas of work the proportion of women decreases the further up the scale. Although there has been a rapid growth in the number of women scientists (in 1950 there were 600 female doctors of science, in 1984 there were 5,600), in the top Academy of Sciences only one fifth are women. At the June "extraordinary" conference of the "Communist" Party Zoya Pukhova, chair of the Soviet Women's Committee, conceded that there was "a gap between the official policy of equality for women, and the reality, in which few keep pace with men in the working world." (Quoted in The Guardian, July 4, 1988)

Clearly, it is women's position in the family that has had far reaching consequences for women's involvement in all other areas of life. The family has had to absorb the additional burdens of female employment. It has not meant a reduction in the time spent on household chores. Women still spend two to two and a half times as much time on housework as men. Added to this, the emphasis on heavy industry, combined with the bungling and mismanagement of the bureaucracy without the check of workers' management and control, has meant fewer and inferior consumer goods such as washing machines, vacuum cleaners, or refrigerators. The growth in female employment has not been matched by the expansion of services such as cheap, good quality dining halls. This, coupled with a housing crisis which in 1970 meant that 23 percent of households were made up of three generations living in the same house, has added to the strains within family life.

Since the revolution, educational and professional opportunities have been opened up for women, but for most ordinary women these economic obligations, on top of the traditional responsibilities, have made life increasingly hard. The programme of the Bolsheviks to free women from domestic drudgery has been buried as more and more are compelled to combine their roles as workers and mothers. 85 percent of women between the ages of 20-55 work full-time with the responsibility for childcare often falling on the shoulders of elderly female relatives. The bureaucracy is attempting to solve the fall in the rate of economic growth since the 1970s on the backs of women, by looking for cheaper ways to provide childcare and domestic services in the form of individual family units. The programme of the Bolsheviks relating to women is clearly incompatible with the needs of the economy under bureaucratic control, and with the interests of the privileged bureaucracy.

Lenin emphasised that the oppression of women would not be automatically eliminated by the socialist revolution but that further measures would be needed to remove the sexual division of labour that keeps women tied to the home. Under Stalinism, the employment of women represents only the potential for the emancipation of women and in fact has clearly revealed the double burden that working class women bear.

The contradictory position of women in the USSR with their involvement in industry on a mass scale without any reduction in family responsibilities, is part of the general contradictions that are developing in Soviet society. There is a basic conflict of interests between the bureaucracy and the working class as a whole. Gorbachev's "reform" programme is an indication of these contradictions. The slowing down of the Soviet economy threatens the position of the bureaucracy. As living standards are affected, the discontent of the workers will develop. To prevent a political revolution from below Gorbachev wants to carry out reforms from the top. But it will prove impossible to transform Soviet society, to end waste and corruption without eliminating the bureaucratic system itself.

The limits of Gorbachev's "reform" programme are revealed by its application to the position of women. The reforms are being introduced alongside a campaign to push women back to the confines of the home. A new course, "The Ethics and Psychology of Family Life" has been introduced into the school curriculum and is shown on television. This course is designed to reinforce the traditional role of women hl the family. Teachers are urged to "train and train again, girls to be girls and boys to be boys." This instruction on the different roles of girls and boys is even carried over into different diets - from the age of 14 or earlier, boys are given less sweets and more meat!

Faced with low growth and, according to one of Gorbachev's economists, the prospect of unemployment arising out of the closure of uneconomic factories, the bureaucracy has effectively abandoned any prospect of providing universal childcare facilities. Instead, shifting the responsibility firmly onto the family, Gorbachev announced at the 27th Congress of the "Communist" Party, a plan "to extend the practise of letting women work a shorter day or week, [i.e. part-time working - JP] or to work at home." But this is not just a question of material problems in providing childcare facilities.

As Trotsky explained in The Revolution Betrayed, the restoration of the family went "infinitely farther than the iron economic necessity demands. To the objective causes producing this return…there is added the social interest of the ruling stratum in the deepening of bourgeois law. The most compelling motive of the present cult of the family is undoubtedly the need of the bureaucracy for a stable hierarchy of relations, and for the disciplining of youth by means of forty million points of support for authority and power." (p. 153) Gorbachev, like Stalin before him, clearly sees the family as an important element of social control.

This is confirmed by Gorbachev himself in his book, Perestroika: New Thinking for our Country and the World, where he argues that "women no longer have enough time to perform their everyday duties at home - housework, the upbringing of children and the creation of a good family atmosphere. We have discovered that many of our problems - in children's and young people's behaviour, in our morals, culture and in production - are partially caused by the weakening of family ties and slack attitudes to family responsibilities…we should…make it possible for women to return to their purely womenly mission."

Fundamentally, the attempts of the bureaucracy to manipulate women to suit the needs of the system will only be overcome by the involvement of the mass of men and women in the political revolution. The political revolution has the same role to play in the emancipation of women as for society generally; working class men and women have exactly the same interests in overthrowing the bureaucracy and instituting workers' democracy.

Marxists can be confident that the demands and aspirations of women workers in the Soviet Union will not be to turn the clock back and return to the confines of the home but will be to extend their rights and conditions. They will demand the full implementation of the ideas and laws made immediately after the 1917 revolution so that the emancipation of women can become a reality and the promises of the revolution can be fulfilled. Despite the gains of October, the level of women's emancipation in Russia has to be measured, not on the basis of a backward economy, but on the basis of a modern industrialised nation.

In the early days of the revolution Lenin used the same yardstick of success that Marx and Engels took: "No nation can be free when half the population is enslaved in the kitchen." The conclusion to be drawn must be that there is, as yet, still no society internationally where children, women and men have been liberated. Fifty years after The Revolution Betrayed was written by Trotsky, his words have as much significance today as in 1936:

"How man enslaved woman, how the exploiter subjected them both, how toilers have attempted at the price of blood to free themselves from slavery and have only exchanged one chain for another - history tells us much about all this. In essence it tells us nothing else. But how in reality to free the child, the woman and the human being? For that we have as yet no reliable models. All past historical experience, wholly negative, demands of the toilers at least and first of all an implacable distrust of all privileged and uncontrolled guardians." (p. 158)

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