2.2 Women’s role in revolutionary Russia Even though women have often been seen to have taken a backseat position in the Russian Revolution, it was ultimately women who fuelled the it with start of the February Revolution on 23 February 1917 as Thousands of female textile workers and housewives took to the streets of Petrograd, the Russian capital to protest about bread shortage and to mark international women’s day. However both western and soviet historians have said these actions of women to have been due to spontaneity of a food riot rather than for political means.
In this sense, it is questionable as to whether or not these actions were an intentional effort to improve the condition and position of women in the country. In contrast to this, some historians regard this as one of the most important first steps in the revolution as women had hope that their aid in the First World War, of which their participation was heavily relied upon would help bring equality to the nation.
This participation is seen as minor, however without these actions the revolution may not have happened in the way that it did.The political stance of women is a difficult topic to handle, as because most women in the nation during that time were illiterate and were used to the mundane way of domesticity, it seems that they either clung to the chance of a new governmental system and in turn new opportunities as a way of breaking out, or as historian Barbara Evans Clements states most women preferred the time-honored patriarchal forms of the family and village. From her views, only a small amount of women were in support and followed the Bolsheviks with most not wanting to change something they were familiar with. However, it could be seen that because of the previously mentioned lack of education, women lacked a wider perspective on societal issues that Russia faced.Even though the Bolshevik party did not gain the favour of most women immediately, the promises of the Bolshevik party aimed to combat the struggles that women in the nation faced, the favour of the Bolsheviks was gradually changing and becoming more popular with women wanting to see a change for the better.2.3 Impact of the communism on womenAccording to the works of Marx and Engels in their communist party manifesto, women were openly welcomed and encouraged to integrate into workforce and gain a so called freedom in which the family would be essentially uprooted and equality with men would be achieved. They argued that the oppression that women faced in the nation was due to their slave like role that they had to take within their families and that this in turn caused an unequal distribution of labour, one of which that needed to be changed. This in turn was believed by the Bolsheviks to be a critical part in sustaining a communist society and with the legislative body of Russia, The Central executive committee of the Soviet, a new code on Marriage, Family and guardianship was made which aimed to prepare for a time when the fetters of husband and wife would become obsolete. This meaning that marriage would just be about convenience of supplying the new regime with its population with women’s role not focused on mother- or wifehood. It was thought by the Bolsheviks that a reconstruction of economic and social institutions would rid the nation of inequality and allow for an egalitarian social order to be established as class, ethnicity and sex had long been the basis of exclusion in capitalist societies.With the time of Bolshevik control changing the lives of Russians, the working class was beginning to grow and women were beginning to join the workforce more and more, consequently changing their role in society greatly in line with this new idea of equality set forth by the communist party. The Bolsheviks aimed to change the way of life that the previous regime had set forth in which women were to help in the building of communism by becoming working mothers and in turn receiving not only independence from their mother roles, but protection from the state. Men on the other hand were expected to serve a role that is described as the backbone of this new communist society, acting as leaders, soldiers and workers along with providing for the family to help build up the new regime. Even though these changes aimed to include women into a more prominent role in society, elements of inequality still existed between both genders as both were expected to fulfill their assigned duties.After the Bolsheviks gained political power, many changes were implemented according to their new ideas and regime. For the changes that women were promised, these came in theory from improved living standards, with the government providing better food, housing, consumer goods and healthcare for women, with legal penalties established for things such as wife beating and the legalisation of divorce and abortion. In order to gain the favour of women, the Bolshevik party implemented laws that now allowed women to own property. However the reliability of these claims is much debated as during this time the nation was flooded with propaganda proclaiming the equality of women and men. Educational opportunities were presented to women, helping women not only to become more aware of society as a whole, but now to have her own voice within the nation. The collective benefits and new established rights and laws that bettered the lives of women greatly were stark in contrast to the lives that they had previously lived before the Bolshevik revolution. While as before women lived in a sort of familial oppression and segregation to the home, now they gained an independence that was thought to have never been possible before 1917. With this, it can be suggested that the promises that the Bolsheviks put forward seemed to hold true for women with them slowly but surely being fulfilled bettering the conditions for women all around the country. The Zhenotdel, which was the women’s department of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party of Bolsheviks was established in 1919 aimed to spread the message of communism to women and deal with their equality with men along with addressing issues such as child care, food distribution and public health. The department was lead by Alexandra Kollontai, a revolutionary Marxist who played a large role in both the Bolshevik party and their overthrow of the Provisional government and the improvement of women’s rights. This branch was in a sense a victory for women as they were now being included in governmental issues and for the first time being noticed as more than just housewives and mothers reaching out to peasants and working women alike as these were the groups most exposed to revolutionary ideology. These newfound benefits that women gained from the communist regime were ultimately taken away as once more abortion and divorce became illegal and in turn cast women back into the shadows that they previously emerged from. The communist party had long held their interest in equality for women and men in the nation as they believed the way to do this was by integrating women into the workplace, aiding women in new opportunities while still letting them maintain their familial duties. However, in practice this caused a so named double burden on women, as not only were they now obligated to take care of domestic duties, but also to work and bring income to the family. While these changes saw positive short term changes, in the long run they ultimately had a negative impact on the lives of women as the brief period of freedom for women was taken away. This new governmental system was not without its problems as famine continued to be prominent in the nation, with food shortages still remaining a prominent problem even under the new communist regime followed by enforced collectivisation, this being the congregation of land holdings and labour into collective farms in the 1930s driving peasants to the cities as it had previously done, however this time due to the vast number of unskilled, illiterate workers, the policy of women’s employment changed from one of mobilisation of women in the workforce to that of demobilisation. Once more women’s lives were beginning to regress back to the times of before the revolution as during this decade the Zhenotdel was abolished and many rights that women had only just gained were once again frowned upon and illegalised. It has been argued by both socialists and feminists that the Bolshevik revolution was an important milestone in the emancipation of women, in which the goals that were set to gain equality for women was directly achieved through socialism and that the Soviet Union was the first nation to achieve genuine equality. However this view is not entirely supported as it has also been argued by Professor Gail Lapidus that the changes made were purely external as By emphasizing the radical changes in the position of women that have come about as a consequence of the October 1917 revolution, it ignores the continuities that persist and the ways in which new forms of activity have been assimilated into older patterns and norms.Within the years of communist role the absence of women from positions of political power is generally taken as proof, first of the persistence of peasant patriarchy and second of the anti feminist nature of the Bolshevik party, and indeed of the 19th century revolutionary movement as a whole.