The New Woman

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Immediately upon assuming power the Bolsheviks passed legislation that made Soviet Russia the most progressive nation in the world on issues of gender. The great socialist tradition based on such fundamental texts as Engels The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), had prepared them for this achievement. Though conscious of gender and issues of social power, revolutionaries considered issues of gender secondary to class issues, and in practice often ignored them. As an unfortunate consequence, revolutionary circles were often hostile to women, whom they considered culturally backward; even though many women-revolutionaries were deeply respected, including the westerners Rosa Luxemburg and Klara Zetkin. The Bolsheviks deemed the Russian populist Ekaterina Breshkovskaia the “grandmother of the Revolution.”

Aleksandra Kollontai, a long-time revolutionary and early Bolshevik who became Commissar of Social Welfare in the new government, was one of the few Bolsheviks who understood the deeper connections between revolution and gender. She was a delegate to the First Congress of the Communist International, and an activist in the newly-formed Women’s Section of the Communist Party (the zhenskii otdel, or “Zhenotdel” for short), which she, Inessa Armand and Nadezhda Krupskaia played major roles in founding. Her great contribution was to argue for special forms of party work for women before the revolution, and for Zhenotdel after. Her Woman and the Family in the Communist State (1918) outlined how changing family relations under communism would transform the place of women in the home and workplace.

Women’s activists enjoyed significant legislative victories in the first years of the revolution. Laws were passed to enact the radical vision of women unencumbered by the familial chains that made them unequal citizens. The December 29, 1917 decree on divorce gave women the right to divorce their husbands without obtaining his or any other permission, and ensured a proper alimony (though not that it was paid). Church control of marriage was abolished in December 18, 1917 by the Decree on Marriage, Children, and Registration of Civil Status, which made give sole legal status to civil ceremonies conducted by the so-called ZAGS (Zapiska aktov grazhdanskogo sostoianiia, or Civil Registration Bureau). Scorned for their bare surroundings and ceremonies stripped of beauty, ZAGS would eventually become home to new rituals in conformance with the socialist family, such as the “Octobrina,” which replaced the Christian baptism.

The centrality of women and their agendas to the socialist state was symbolized by a new official holiday, International Women’s Day. It was celebrated on March 8 for the day (February 23 in the old calendar) in 1917 that Petrograd women had marched against tsarist authorities, leading to the collapse of the old regime. The holiday had a spotty history, evolving eventually into a celebration of gender difference. A analogous fate awaiting the Zhenotdel. Established in 1919 with the active participation of Kollontai and Nadezhda Krupskaia, and headed by Inessa Armand, zhenotdel had branches through Soviet Russia and the Union responsible for issues of women’s welfare. Never assigned the power or resources appropriate to its mission, women’s sections were closed down throughout the USSR in 1930, ostensibly because the consolidation of the revolution had already solved the women’s question.

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