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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The threat facing the workers' state--from within and from
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
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
"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
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
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