Most accounts of the Russian Revolution of 1917 rightly emphasise the role of women workers in Petrograd on International Women’s Day (IWD), when their strikes sparked the mass movement that overthrew the tsar. But then they disappear regarding the rest of the year – except for the women’s armed battalion that tried to defend the Winter Palace against the workers’ insurrection in October.
Yet more women fought in the Red Guards (workers’ armed militias) in the fight to capture the palace. And many in the Red Guards went on to fight in the civil war between 1918 and 1920 against invading imperialist armies that were backing the counter-revolutionary white Russian forces.
Gender and class
The history of the revolution remains relevant because class exploitation and women’s oppression are still central to capitalism, and the relationship between class and gender is still debated.
Women didn’t just suddenly, in some primitive display of unorganised, unconscious anger, burst into the streets. During World War One, women entered the workforce in large numbers: by 1917 they were 47 percent of the workforce of Petrograd, similar to advanced economies today.
Thousands had been involved in bread riots since mid-1915. During 1916, both female and male workers were increasingly restive, confronted with a food crisis, the misery of the war and the authoritarianism of the tsarist regime.
In January 1917, there was a round of strikes, one of which was to commemorate the anniversary of Bloody Sunday 1905, when the tsar’s troops massacred workers on a peaceful demonstration. Forty percent of Petrograd’s industrial workforce struck – including thousands of women who would lead the IWD demonstration a month later.
The left organisations couldn’t agree on what to do on IWD. The Bolsheviks favoured a well-planned protest for May Day. Jane McDermid and Anna Hillyar, in their book Midwives of the Revolution, argue that the Bolsheviks were afraid of the women’s unruly spontaneity. But actually, it was the poor turnout to demonstrations during the Bloody Sunday strike that made them cautious, fearing workers were not ready for a general offensive against the regime. More than any other organisation, the Bolsheviks welcomed spontaneous struggles – they recognised that this was how workers were radicalised and became open to revolutionary arguments.
A dispute in the militant Putilov works became a lockout on 22 February, the day before IWD. Women from the factory demonstrated outside food warehouses. A few days earlier, women at a trolley-car park had sought assurances from the soldiers that they wouldn’t fire on them if they came out.
The women’s strikes were the result of months of conscious organisation and preparation. This process is not dissimilar to how struggles develop today: people resist the injustices of the system, and levels of organisation and involvement grow as increasing numbers gain confidence.
They marched to the metal factories nearby, throwing snowballs at the windows and calling the workers out. Under the leadership of Bolsheviks such as Kayurov, the metalworkers joined the women. McDermid and Hillyar, rather than recognise that the solidarity of male workers helped turn a protest into a revolution, denigrate it, saying: “[T]he traditional hierarchy of the labour movement reasserted itself, and re-imposed the distinction between economic and political questions”. But issues of food scarcity, wages and the like were highly political – they gave rise to the demand for an end to the war. And it was natural for the most experienced to lead.
For decades it had been common practice for workers to call out other workplaces. The Treugol’nik Rubber Factory, for example, with an overwhelmingly female and unskilled work force, had never struck during its entire pre-1917 history except when “taken out” by the more active workers from the Putilov Works. This tradition ensured that the women on strike on IWD escalated their action without much trouble.
During 1917, women’s involvement consistently grew, bringing with it a commensurate radicalisation among at least some layers. The Petrograd laundresses’ strike in May involved 5,500 in 200 laundries, organised by Bolshevik women in their union, which was set up in the flush of the February uprising.
They demanded the eight-hour day, a minimum daily wage, two weeks’ notice of redundancies, recognition of their union, polite address by bosses, two weeks’ annual leave, a month’s sick leave and jobs to be reserved for a further six months. These were demands that the whole of the working class was agitating for in the factory committees and soviets that had sprung up after the February revolution. Petrograd’s militant workers mobilised to support them as they battled scabs and extremely repressive bosses. By the end of May, they’d won a significant victory.
Some social historians, such as McDermid and Hillyar, have assembled accounts of the revolution which in a lot of ways are excellent. But under the influence of the identity politics popular today, they misunderstand the dynamic of gender and the class struggle. They are critical because “revolutionaries saw [the women’s struggle] as part of the general class struggle”. Rex Wade similarly argues: “Socialist leaders were concerned with women as low-paid workers rather than as people with special gender concerns”.
But in the context of revolution, there were no gender issues unrelated to class. Take the issues workers, both female and male, agitated around: low and unequal pay, maternity leave, sick leave and sexual harassment. These are all issues that highlight gender oppression – issues that only workers would campaign around. Bourgeois women relied on inequalities to ensure profits in their husband’s businesses and cheap domestic labour.
The Bolshevik workers who led the revolution and who became active in the factory committees and soviets did not, because of an emphasis on class, ignore gender issues. In fact, Richard Stites, a historian of the women’s movement in Russia, argues that the Bolsheviks could relate to working class women and soldiers’ wives much more easily than the Mensheviks, the moderate socialists, because they were more radical and identified with the class struggle more strongly.
The Mensheviks did not support workers overthrowing the government, but preferred to send demands off to some committee to investigate – unlike the Bolsheviks, who unequivocally supported strikes by everyone to win their demands, identifying completely with the workers.
Ariadna Tyrkova was a liberal journalist, a member of the Constitutional Democrats, the party of the liberal bourgeoisie, and wife of a wealthy English businessman. She was inclined to welcome the demise of the tsarist regime along with the rest of the capitalists, and was affected by the sense of joy and hope for a new world that erupted. “In those days good-nature and good-will were general, and created a strong, common feeling, breathing energy and force”, she wrote in her diary.
However, within days she recorded her upper-class distaste for “the mob in the labour districts … looting the markets and parading the streets with shouts of ‘bread!’”. On 1 April, mainly female textile workers were demonstrating against the provisional government. Pro-government demonstrators, well-dressed women and men, jeered at them, calling them “stockingless!”, “uneducated riff raff!” and “ignoble sluts!” Pelageia Romanovna retorted from the workers’ side: “You lot are wearing hats made by our hands!” A violent confrontation ensued.
The ravages of war were a central reason for workers’ revolt. But liberal, upper class feminists supported the war. They presumed the new republic would be ruled by their class, and their interests were served by this state proving its credentials on the war front as an imperialist power. On 20 March, they marched in a demonstration in Petrograd, with banners demanding universal suffrage in any new parliament. But, crucially, they also demanded a fight to victory at the front.
Women workers were already voting in the factory committees, trade unions and soviets, often imposing reforms such as the eight-hour day on employers. So remarks by historians that the Bolsheviks – who had always stood for universal suffrage, unlike many feminists – didn’t care about the vote as it wasn’t considered as important as economic demands, are ridiculous. A typical resolution passed in a factory when it seemed the provisional government wanted to keep the war going illustrates the different class attitudes:
“The people and army went into the street not to replace one government by another but to carry out our slogans. And these slogans are: ‘Freedom’, ‘Equality’, ‘Land and Liberty’ and ‘An end to the bloody war’ – for us, the un-propertied classes, the bloody slaughter is not necessary.”
Leading Menshevik women spoke on feminist platforms calling to continue the war. And the bourgeois feminists entertained the British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst from June to September on a visit explicitly organised to whip up support for the war effort. She addressed private meetings in their mansions and helped raise money for a women’s battalion to go to the front to replace soldiers deserting in droves.
These issues remain important. An emphasis on women’s identity as an oppressed group cannot be a guide in times of sharp class polarisation. In the US today, Democrat women like Hillary Clinton support the destruction of working class women’s lives whether it’s cuts to social services, keeping wages low, bombing civilians in imperialist wars or deporting immigrants. At the same time, thousands of women and men are fighting back against Trump’s reactionary attacks on women’s rights.
Revolution makes it clear that class solidarity is essential, challenging sexist divisions, and also raises the oppressed to new levels of confidence. So women were often able to organise and lead men and take on roles not associated with sexist stereotypes. Alexandra Kollontai, who was hugely popular as an orator, played a key role in touring the barracks and firming up the soldiers in October to support the workers’ soviets taking power.
Bolshevik work among women
McDermid and Hillyar misunderstand key elements of the Bolsheviks’ work among women, but they cannot escape the fact that the Bolsheviks were the only organisation that seriously organised and encouraged working class women’s struggles. Contrary to assertions throughout the book, which imply that the Bolsheviks, because of their class analysis, didn’t take gender issues seriously, they record that they responded “to workers’ protests by addressing leaflets to both female and male workers. The appeals were gender neutral”.
The propaganda work of the paper Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker) became ever more central to the work of the Bolsheviks during 1917. On its editorial board were stalwarts of women’s liberation who had been leading Bolsheviks for many years, having experienced jail and exile. Factories had their own representatives on the editorial board, and there were weekly meetings, in which all would participate and review the reports received from the different areas.
They used Rabotnitsa to organise women, in particular soldiers’ wives, to agitate around their grievances. Regular mass meetings attracted huge crowds that spilled into the streets to hear Bolshevik speakers. The paper argued for male workers to see women as an integral part of the workers’ movement. McDermid and Hillyar explain the Bolshevik approach:
“[O]n the one hand this entailed challenging the stereotype of the passive, conservative woman and insisting on the principle of sexual equality. On the other hand, it focused on ‘women’s’ issues (such as crèches, nurseries, maternity benefits and protective labour legislation), as well as those ‘domestic’ problems associated with the war.”
They fought the prevalent idea that, with growing unemployment, women should be laid off first, especially using their influence in the metalworkers’ union. And yet McDermid and Hillyar refer to the “narrowness” and “limited [Bolshevik] practice” because of the Bolshevik emphasis on class struggle.
From the first months of 1918, civil war, imperialist invasions, economic sabotage by capitalists and isolation as a result of the failed revolutions around Europe sucked the lifeblood of the revolutionary movement.
Yet before Stalin’s counterrevolution, the Bolshevik government, in these conditions, decreed universal suffrage. Marriage and divorce laws were taken out of the remit of the church or state. Same sex relationships were recognised. Illegitimacy was abolished as a legal concept and paid maternity leave before and after birth was enshrined in law. Communal kitchens and child care centres were established wherever possible. Literacy programs and education – vital for women, who were disproportionately illiterate – were given priority. Resources were provided for surgery for those who wished to transition from one gender to the other and law makers tried to write the laws in gender-neutral language.
Stites concludes of the revolutionary year: “[I]t is clear that the Bolsheviks never had any real competition as organisers and propagandists among women of the urban lower classes in 1917”. McDermid and Hillyar recognise that the women “were not simply blank pages on which the Bolsheviks could write. Rather, they eventually turned to the Bolshevik Party because it alone seemed to articulate their concerns as women and as workers, and to appreciate that they wanted these addressed as a matter of urgency”.
This testimony indicates that it was the revolutionary, class orientation of the Bolsheviks that made them the most effective organisers in the fight for women’s liberation. That orientation is why they came to lead the workers to a successful insurrection in October, which created a (short-lived) workers state – the only basis on which socialism, and therefore women’s liberation, could have been built.