Workers' Liberty #58


Women and revolution

On Women's Day 1917, working class Russian women held a big demonstration in Petrograd. They wanted the war and the food shortage to end: they wanted bread and peace. The Petrograd women started a movement which led to revolution. The Russian Revolution was the only occasion in history when the working class took power and held onto it for a significant period of time.

What did the workers' state do for women? When the Bolsheviks took power, they scrapped the old, reactionary laws. They legislated for freedom of divorce and abortion, and for full legal and political equality for women - including the vote. They ran education campaigns against the seclusion and veiling of women in the Muslim areas of the Soviet Union. The Bolshevik policy was to liberate women from the burden of housework. So they set up communal kitchens, laundries, schools and nurseries. They introduced rights that we have not yet achieved in Britain over 80 years later - two months' paid maternity leave, and paid "nursing breaks" for working mothers to breastfeed their babies. Special trains took birth control facilities to remote areas.

But fulfiling this vision was difficult at that time in Russia. The world war had battered the largely peasant economy; invasion and civil war battered it further. The communal laundries, nurseries and facilities were woefully poor in quality. The Russian workers were relying on workers in other countries to make similar revolutions. But unlike the Bolsheviks, the workers' leaders in those countries were cowards and traitors. The revolutions were betrayed and defeated: the Soviet Union was isolated.

Women's progress was thrown into reverse when Stalin won control of the Communist Party, crushing opposition from Trotsky and others. Stalin overturned the revolution and murdered its leaders.

The new regime glorified motherhood and "family values", just as Hitler's Nazis were doing in Germany. The family could play a similar role for Stalin's new class system as it did for capitalism, reproducing workers and encouraging deference. Women were given the "double burden": oppressed at home and exploited at work. Abortion became illegal in the Soviet Union in 1933; from 1944, medals (the Order of Maternal Glory) were issued to women who bore many children. Women were not allowed to choose not to become mothers - unless they were members of the bureaucratic ruling class.

Contraception was so hard to get and so ineffective that in the 1980s (by which time abortion was legal again), Russian women were having an average eight abortions each, carried out in awful conditions, often with no anaesthetic.

Does Russia's experience prove that a workers' revolution will simply lead to renewed oppression of women? No-- Stalinism's victory was a defeat both for women and for the working class. The counter-revolution that crushed women's rights also destroyed workers' democracy.

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