The position and role of Women in the USSR has been debated by historians. Nominally, Women were equal to men under the Soviet Constitution. A woman could, in theory, be employed in any sector. They could be promoted in the same way as men. Opportunities to climb the political ladder were open to women. In practise, this was not always the case. Russia had only just emerged from a system of Nobility and Serfs. A woman’s place had been in the home, or on the fields. Some areas saw inequalities, such as pay. In other areas females were far more likely to succeed.
Prior to the Bolshevik Revolution the majority of women in Russia lived a hard life in a peasant based society. Domestic duties were a burden in addition to manual work in the fields. Some though had a different life. The ladies of the middle and upper classes were educated. Some had agitated on behalf of Political Groups, others taken up arms during the First World War. The roles and perceptions of Women did change with the coming of Bolshevism though.
Women in the Revolution
On 23rd February, 1917, around 40,000 women took to the streets of St. Petersburg. They protested about the price of food. Increases in rationing for the families of men on active duty were demanded. International Women’s Day was, this year, one in which they made themselves loud and clear: things had to change. Around these events other things were taking place. The rally by women is seen by some as the catalyst for the uprising. The Women’s march was the moment at which the February (Bolshevik) Revolution began.
Whether the timing of the women’s protest was coincidence or not, change was soon to follow. Women were granted equal voting rights to men in elections. All women aged 20 or above could vote in elections to the Constituent Assembly. Female votes outnumbered male votes in some areas.
The Family Code was introduced by the Bolshevik’s in 1918. This social reform was quite far reaching. In it, women were given equal rights to men. Marriage allowed a couple to choose either family name. Marriage also became a secular act, rather than a religious one. Soon afterwards laws made abortion and divorce easier for a woman to obtain. Areas under Bolshevik control in 1920 saw the introduction of communal washing and dining areas. The idea behind these being that the collective nature of them would reduce the burden of domestic duties on women. It was moving towards equality, in theory, if not universally in practise.
A Women’s Bureau, Zhenotdel, was established in 1920. It aimed to spread Socialism through education programmes and propaganda. Zhenotdel had a major role to play in Central Asian Soviet Republics. Here the society was quite different to the European Cities of Soviet Russia. Society was more Patriarchal and Zhenotdel looked to create a new type of woman in the region, based on socialist belief.
In the mid 1920’s some of the laws introduced under the Family Code were changed. Women retained the same rights as men to the vote, pay and opportunities to enter the workforce. However divorce became harder to obtain. The children of non married couples lost some of the rights that had been given to them. In 1930, Stalin opted to close Zhenotdel. It was claimed that equality had been won.
In reality this was not the case. Females had equal rights in relation to the vote, sick pay and were able to enter most professions. The early plans to reduce the level of domestic service done in the home by women simply did not work. In the 1930’s and again in the 1960’s traditional family values were approved. These tended to lead to women having to combine paid work and domestic duties at home.
Politically women did not enter the system in the sort of numbers that an equal society would typically be expected to see. At the highest level less that 4% of positions over the full duration of the USSR had females appointed.
1917 – Women able to vote in elections to the Constituent Assembly
1918 – Family Code introduced
1919 – Zhenotdel formed
1920 – Abortion legalised
1926 – Marriage Law
1930 – Zhenotdel disbanded
1936 – Stalin bans Abortion
1942 – More than half of Agricultural workers are women due to the war effort
1955 – Abortion legalised again
1977 – New Soviet Constitution
British Library – Women and the Russian Revolution
Boston University – Women in Soviet Russia
Marxists.org – Library of texts on the topic
The Ukrainian Week – Gender in the USSR