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Lesbian, bay, bi and trans pride series part 14

1930s Soviet Union: 'Seismic gender shift'

By Leslie Feinberg

The political backslide that resulted in the re-criminalization of male homosexuality and banning of abortion in the 1930s in the Soviet Union did not take place in an economic, military or social void. The point of examining these conditions is not to them away" but to serve as a tool for today's movement for socialism to strengthen its understanding of revolutionary process.

Women's and same-sex rights had been politically catapulted ahead by the 1917 Russian Revolution. But when the isolated, impoverished and embattled workers' state could not raise the living standards of the population quickly enough to provide economic and social freedom from the old patriarchal, heterosexual nuclear family bequeathed by class society, then both women's rights and same-sex rights suffered setbacks.

The broadest outlines of this economic crisis are apparent in the efforts to liberate Soviet women.

William H. Mandel, in his book "Soviet Women," noted that after the seizure of state power in October 1917, "In a matter of months, the new government legislated more than the upper-class feminists had ever asked for: suffrage of course, divorce and civil marriage laws which made marriage a voluntary alliance, elimination of distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate children, employment rights equal to those of men, equal pay for equal work, universal paid late-pregnancy and early-maternity leave. Overnight, the status of women in Russia became far and away the world's most advanced."

But the revolution had been made in a single city--Petrograd--which at that time was the capital, and then spread to Moscow. The country was left technologically underdeveloped as a result of feudalism and the greed of foreign imperialism. And its working class was tiny.

The cities were isolated and famished. By early 1918, with German troops still occupying much of the grain-producing west, workers in the cities were surviving on starvation rations: nothing but four ounces a day of bread.

A combined force of the imperialists, forces loyal to the ousted Provisional Government and the monarchists tried to launch a counter-revolution.

Trying to roll aside obstacles

Writing in 1971, Soviet scholar Helen Emelianova commented about the early workers' state, "An acute contradiction had arisen: the participation of female workers in the socialist revolution was considerable, but immediately after the revolution their numbers were extremely few among members of the party, in the soviets, in factory committees, in trade unions." (Quoted in "Soviet Women.")

Mandel stressed, "Peasant women (four fifths of the total female population), housewives (a majority among urban women), and houseworkers (an extremely large group) had hardly been involved at all" in the revolution.

To address the critical need to reach out to masses of women, the Bolsheviks organized the First Russia-Wide Congress of Women Workers and Peasants in November 1918. No men were present at the meetings.

About 300 to 500 women were expected; 1,147 attended.

One delegate described the goal of the congress's work: "to explain their rights to the millions of women in even the most remote corners of the country, and call upon them to take an active part in building a new life."

One of the resolutions of the congress stressed that "housework is a heavy burden on female workers and peasants and ... negating the eight-hour workday for them, interferes with their becoming revolutionaries."

The delegates decided to organize special groups for women. And the communists urged their party to set up a women's department. Although some currents of men in the party reportedly argued that this would "divide the working class" along sex lines, they did not predominate. The Bolshevik Party Women's Department, known as Zhenotdel, was established in 1919, even as civil war ravaged the workers' state.

The following year, in 1920, 60,000 women were elected to organize women. At Lenin's insistence, this work was paid so that they could be full-time organizers. However, even with small stipends, these women could reach only about 2 percent of the female population, mostly urban.

During the 1920s, Zhenotdel worked to liberate women from exhausting individual housework, and led attempts to create socialized childcare, large-scale dining halls and public laundries.

Zhenotdel's rationale was that "socializing this work would bolster the new socialist economy by replacing the inefficiencies of individual women's household labor with economies of scale and would also raise productivity by shifting millions of new workers into Soviet industries," according to historian Thomas T. Shrand, in his essay "Socialism in One Gender."

Women would not only be socially "equal" to men, they would break out of stultifying isolation, become productive members of society in the fullest sense of the word, and thereby contribute their skills and insights to the revolutionary process for social progress.

Dead hand of history, iron fist of imperialism

These Bolsheviks were not utopian socialists, however. "The Zhenotdel approach to liberating women involved integrating them into a super-productive socialist economy that would be created following a global (or at least, continental) revolution," Shrand notes. "In this scenario, Russia would have access to the rest of Europe's technology and resources, which would allow it to modernize its economy and to invest in the infrastructure of nurseries, daycare centers, and other institutions that would make women's emancipation possible."

The defeat of revolutions in Germany and elsewhere dashed these hopes. The fists of capital were clenched and striking the workers' state externally and internally. The country was surrounded and invaded by imperialist armies soon after it first liberated territory to begin building socialism.

And as a result, the dead hand of the past weighed heavily on the revolution.

The population was hungry and exhausted by war. The Bolshevik Party had lost many of its most revolutionary elements in the struggle to defend the workers' state. Lenin, the leader of the October 1917 Revolution and architect of the early years of socialist construction, had died in 1924 from complications resulting from an assassination attempt. It took many years before the benefits of a planned economy reached the people.

Between 1924 and 1934, the phenomenon of "postcard" divorces grew. Under the new marriage laws, a spouse could simply inform the authorities that the marriage had dissolved. Mandel wrote that, "if the other party was not physically present, a form postcard would break the news. The major intent of the law was to free millions of women who had been married off against their will under traditional patriarchal procedures. It proved catastrophically counterproductive. Women lost the protection against abandonment with a child or children that they had formerly had." Material need, not love, was still the most important impetus for many marriages.

The technologically underdeveloped workers' state continued to be wracked by internal class warfare. During the New Economic Policy in the early 1920s, when the market in agricultural goods was restored after the war, rich peasants--kulaks--withheld food from the cities in order to drive up prices. This virtual starving of the city workers spurred on the decision by the leadership to collectivize agriculture.

Industrialization and its impact on women

The task was still clear and compelling--the workers' state had to build up industry and hike productivity to meet the needs of its vast population. But a constant state of capitalist siege hampered that urgent objective.

"Rather than retreating from the goal of socialism," Shrand states, "Stalin and his followers decided that the USSR would have to create the economic prerequisites for it in isolation, while surrounded by hostile capitalist powers. From this perspective, the campaign for industrialization and modernization became, among other things, a desperate struggle to arm the Soviet Union for the defense of socialism."

The first five-year plan, ratified by the party in 1928, set a goal of a 250-percent growth in overall industrial development and a 330-percent increase in heavy industry. All industry and services were nationalized by the workers' state, thousands of new factories and industrial centers were constructed throughout the Soviet Union and productivity was planned by quotas. However, the investment required to build heavy industry created painful shortages in consumer goods and services.

The five-year plan also attempted to rapidly convert small-scale peasant agriculture into large-scale state collective farms. Resistance from the peasantry--particularly the wealthy kulaks--created a disastrous and widespread famine.

The threat facing the workers' state--from within and from without--was enormous.

Shrand offers his insight into the enormous impact that this swift industrialization had on Soviet women. "Between the years of 1929 and 1941, Soviet society experienced what might be described as a gender-quake, a seismic shift in sexual divisions of labor produced by the largest national peacetime expansion of women's employment in world history.

"As a result of this rapid industrialization campaign, over 10 million women began wage-labor in the industrial and service sectors of the Soviet economy," he continued."The Soviet government actively recruited women for industrial employment, created affirmative action programs to train female technicians and skilled workers, and greatly expanded childcare and cafeteria facilities to free working women from some of their domestic obligations."

Steps forward and backward

The continuing threats from imperialism required a mobilization to defend the Soviet Union, and that demanded development of heavy industry and military growth.

The marshaling of so much investment of the USSR's resources in these branches of manufacturing, Shrand stressed, "came at the expense of the light industries, which not only employed many women, but also produced the consumer goods that might have lightened their domestic labor.

"The new priorities also restricted the construction of cafeterias, laundries, daycare centers, and other institutions necessary for Bolshevik-style women's emancipation."

In 1930 Zhenotdel, weakened since the late 1920s, had been formally abolished.

"The Soviet government actually began developing a Five-Year Plan for Women's Labor, but the effort to mobilize women was not accompanied by a commitment to freeing them from domestic labor," Shrand concluded. "Although social services did expand somewhat during the 1930s, they did so within limits, and only to the extent necessary to recruit a certain number of women workers."

The formal liberation of peasants from serfdom in 1861, the creation of urban industrial centers and the dislocation and carnage of the first imperialist war had shaken the medieval patriarchal family structure. Now this rapid industrialization was also having a profound impact on the sexes.

And it was in this period that official attitudes towards gender expression and same-sex love were also shifting.

Next: Gender, sexuality and national defense: Dual nature of 1930s Soviet state

Reprinted from the Sept. 16, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper

This article is copyright under a Creative Commons License.
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