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Women of the revolution

Heather Rawling, from Socialism Today (October 2017 issue)

Women workers launched the Russian revolution in February 1917. And increasing numbers would join the Bolshevik Party in the course of that revolutionary year. HEATHER RAWLING writes about how they forced their way onto the historical stage, an inspirational example to working-class women fighting oppression today.

In 2017 we see women’s movements developing around the globe in response to austerity, attacks on women’s reproductive rights, sexual and physical abuse, and a growth in misogynism, partly fuelled by the election of Donald Trump as president of the US. Women are seeking solutions to their double oppression under capitalism. The feminist movement has many different currents. Some, believing that men are the cause of their subjugation, do not see the overthrow of the capitalist system as necessary to achieve equality. Marxist feminists, on the other hand, understand that capitalism is at the heart of women’s exploitation and that a socialist planned economy is required to establish the basis for genuine equality and the ending of all oppression.

Women in Russia one hundred years ago had similar discussions and debates, which flowed directly from their experiences in the factories, on the land, in the universities and drawing rooms. We can draw inspiration and learn from the experiences of Russia’s women workers, the role of women in the Bolshevik Party, and their contribution to the revolution.

Academic feminists and others who have studied this period have criticised the Bolsheviks for failing to recognise the importance of women to the revolutionary movement. Some historians have portrayed the Bolsheviks as ruthless men subjugating women to inferior roles. Yet many women played a crucial role during the revolutionary year of 1917. In fact, the Bolsheviks paid closer attention to the specific needs of women workers and put more energy and resources into helping their struggles than either the right-wing socialist Mensheviks or the peasant-based Social Revolutionaries. Consequently, the Bolsheviks had more women members in the party’s leading positions.

The Bolsheviks led the way in forging links with working women. There were debates within the party about how to conduct this work. Some feared that separate women’s organisations would divert women from the socialist struggle. Others argued that women would not be won to the Bolshevik programme in great numbers without taking into account the difficulties working-class women had in becoming active revolutionaries. There were few public places to meet except the pub, then a masculine environment (apart from the women who served in them). A low level of female literacy meant that most could not read leaflets. A different approach was therefore required.

Women’s circles were vital in developing female working-class revolutionaries. They taught literacy and enabled the spread of Marxist ideas in repressive tsarist Russia. Nadezhda Krupskaya began her political life teaching in these groups. She wrote about the double oppression of women in The Woman Worker, published in 1901. Krupskaya explained that the employment of women in towns and cities gave them some economic independence and a class consciousness. The pamphlet was discussed in the women’s circles.

The first world war
The experiences of working-class and more privileged women were vastly different during the first world war and led to opposite viewpoints. Initially, most women and men patriotically supported the war. Many feminists believed that women had to prove that they were responsible citizens worthy of full sexual equality and wholeheartedly supported the war effort. Some of them joined the military to fight, fully backing ruling-class interests in Russia.

Emmeline Pankhurst, the British suffragette, met with feminist leaders in Russia and helped raise funds for the women’s battalion. She felt that the courage of women would shame male deserters. On her return, she advised the British prime minister David Lloyd George to intervene to prevent a Bolshevik seizure of power.

For working-class and peasant women, the war increased their misery, hard work and poverty. The war caused serious food shortages. By the end of 1916, working-class women spent on average 40 hours per week searching and standing in queues for food that was becoming scarcer and of poorer quality. Women therefore spent hours together, often in appalling weather, discussing the war, its causes and effects, the suffering of the soldiers and their families.

It is easy to see how their political and class consciousness would have developed. Class divisions were obvious as it was the poor women workers who waited in line. Professional and wealthy women had servants to do the queuing for them. The potential danger this represented to tsarist Russia was not lost on the secret police who noted that women ‘cursed god and tsar’ but blamed the tsar in particular for their misery.

Women in the workplace
New jobs were opened up to women. The proportion of women in industry soared from 26.6% in 1914 to 43.4% in 1917. In 1914 women workers made up 3% of the metal industry. By 1917 they were 18%. (Jane McDermid and Anna Hillyar, Midwives of the Revolution, 1999) Before the war, work on city trams was considered unsuitable for women. By 1915, 179 women in Moscow were conductors, points and signals operators, couriers, telephonists and delivery women on the trams.

One tram conductor, AE Rodionova, described how she became politicised by her job and the experiences of war and revolution. On the trams she saw the contrast between the calloused hands of the Putilov metal workers and the well-dressed women who boarded in more wealthy areas. Rodionova worked twelve and 14-hour shifts with no breaks and little pay. By 1916 she was striking with her fellow workers for higher wages.

In 1915, 60% of clerks in the Moscow telegraph office were women. Some became telegraph operators, who would play an important role in the defeat of the counter-revolutionary coup attempt by General Kornilov in August 1917: “The railroad workers tore up and barricaded the tracks in order to hold back Kornilov’s army. The postal and telegraph clerks began to hold up and send to the committee [of defence] telegrams and orders from headquarters, or copies of them. The generals had been accustomed during the years of war to think of transport and communications as technical questions. They found out now that these were political questions”. (Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, 1930)

There were dangers that divisions could open up between working-class men and women because of their wide differences in pay levels. In December 1916, 996 out of a total of 1,293 women workers at Petrograd’s munitions stores gathered outside the canteen after lunch to demand wage rises, refusing to return to work until their pay had been increased. These women were in a minority in the 5,000-strong workforce and this particular strike was defeated because they lacked the support of their male colleagues.

However, there were many other cases of solidarity over issues like fines and compulsory overtime. One of the longest strikes was undertaken by women textile workers in the Vyborg district of Petrograd, lasting over a month. Strikes were called in January 1917 over pay and conditions but, during the harshest winter of the war, with severe food shortages causing starvation and malnutrition – and while the wealthy still had fresh daily produce – women’s demands for bread developed a political meaning.

February revolution
Nikolai Sukhanov, a social democrat and opponent of the Bolsheviks, described a general feeling of unease on the eve of the February revolution. He overheard two typists chatting about the food shortages and the search for hoarded food. They talked about the unrest in the food queues, concluding that it was the beginning of a revolution. Sukhanov was condescending: “These girls didn’t understand what a revolution was. Nor did I believe them for a second… Revolution: highly improbable!” Of course, these ‘girls’ understood far more clearly the mood of women and the masses than this learned gentleman.

By 1917, women constituted 47% of the workforce in Petrograd. The February revolution had begun from below, overcoming the resistance of its own revolutionary organisations. The bread queues were the spark. On International Women’s Day, 23 February (old-style calendar – 8 March in the calendar used today), women textile workers went on strike. By the end of the day, 90,000 women and men were out. Rodionova, the tram conductor, recorded that on the day before armed soldiers had stood outside the depots. By the end of 23 February they had joined the workers inside.

At the beginning of the February revolution the Bolsheviks Nina Agadzhanova and Mariia Vydrina had organised mass meetings of workers and soldiers’ wives. That led to strikes and mass demonstrations, searches for weapons to arm the crowds, as well as securing the release of political prisoners and setting up first aid units. Anastasia Deviatkina, a Bolshevik for 13 years, had led one of the demonstrations on 23 February. On that day, 20% of Petrograd’s workforce was on strike. In the predominately female textile industry, it was 30%. By 25 February, just over half of the city’s workers were out – 71% of textile workers. The demand for bread was quickly expanded to the political slogans: ‘Down with autocracy!’ ‘Down with the tsar!’

Workers freed prisoners, including Zhenia Egorova, Bolshevik Party secretary in the Vyborg district, along with other women. They joined the street protests. Rather than running away from mounted soldiers, the women encircled them, putting forward political demands. Egorova led calls for the soldiers to disobey their officers and refuse to shoot the demonstrators. They tried to drive a wedge between the rank-and-file troops and their officers, agitating about the war profiteers while their comrades were being needlessly slaughtered at the front. The women succeeded. The soldiers lowered their rifles and refused to fire.

Anna Yelizarova-Ulyanova was not only Lenin’s sister but a close political collaborator, taking part for many years in illegal propagandist and agitational work. Their sister Mariia was also a full-time revolutionary. After February, Mariia and Anna helped to produce and write for Pravda, the Bolshevik Party’s main newspaper. Both of them were members of the party’s Central Committee, and contributed to the party’s Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker) paper.

Working-class women in particular found that their situation had changed little after the February revolution. This explains the increasing number of strikes by the summer of 1917, especially in the service sector. Bolshevik women were very active in organising workers, soldiers’ wives and young women as more and more of them blamed the war effort for continuing bread queues and poor wages and conditions.

Rodionova saw a great deal of the unrest. Trams were delayed by the movement of soldiers going to the front. Working-class areas were crowded with people discussing and protesting at meetings and in queues. She remarked: “Even someone with very little formal education could understand that such intense social and material discontent had political implications, for the talk in the street was not just about bread, but also justice and freedom”.

Political obstacles
In spite of their activity, women were under-represented in elections to the Petrograd Soviet and the factory committees. It was difficult for women to play a leading role due to family responsibilities and food shortages. But the February revolution caught the imagination of young women like 19-year-old seamstress, PG Glizer. On hearing that the tsar had been overthrown, she made a red banner emblazoned with the slogan: ‘Long Live Freedom!’

When conditions had not improved, her workshop demanded hot water for their lunches and for ventilators to be installed. Their requests were turned down and Glizer searched for a trade union. She met union secretary and Bolshevik, Sakharova, who sent a union representative. With their help Glizer negotiated with the owners and their demands were met by the end of the day. The workers joined the union and Glizer joined the Bolsheviks, becoming a member of her local soviet.

The soldiers’ wives (Soldatki) were some of the most downtrodden women. The Bolsheviks helped them organise. Anastasia Deviatkina set up a union of soldiers’ wives after the February revolution. Soldatki protested against the lack of improvements in their situation and organised a demonstration on 11 April to the Tauride Palace, headquarters of the Provisional Government. Soviet leader and Menshevik, Fyodor Dan, who supported the war, remonstrated with the women, denouncing them for demanding money during wartime and saying that the leading Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai was not allowed to speak. She did anyway and urged the Soldatki to elect their own delegates to the soviet. Bolshevik women were helping these hungry, disappointed, worn out women to organise and fight back.

Krupskaya took over the running of the local Committee for the Relief of Soldiers’ Wives. Nina Gerd, who had been an old student friend and colleague in the Sunday school movement in the early 1890s but had abandoned Marxism for liberalism, remarked to Krupskaya: “The soldiers’ wives do not trust us; they are displeased with whatever we do; they have faith only in the Bolsheviks”. Why did they trust the Bolsheviks better? Because they had been consistent in their programme and in opposing the war, as well as fighting on economic issues.

On 21 April, a crowd of mainly women textile workers demonstrated against the government. Strikes increased over the summer months. Forty thousand laundresses struck over pay and conditions in May. Kollontai worked with the laundresses who included a number of Bolsheviks in this politically significant strike, the first under the coalition government. These workers were scattered in thousands of laundries of various sizes. The Bolshevik Sofia Goncharskaia went round the laundries and persuaded others to join the strike. Their demands included improved working conditions, an eight-hour day, a minimum wage, sick pay and paid annual leave. The strike was successful and the Bolsheviks regarded it as a model of militancy, publishing many reports of it. Articles showed a growing involvement of women workers in strike action and protests.

Fighting reaction
Only the Bolsheviks fully realised the political significance of the service-sector strikes in May. News of women workers’ protests and strikes were reported throughout the Bolshevik press, especially in Rabotnitsa. Rabotnitsa was a newspaper aimed at women workers. It was first published in 1914, before it was suppressed for opposing the war, and was revived in May 1917.

Rodionova gave three-day’s wages to help get Rabotnitsa restarted at a meeting which raised 800 roubles. She took the money to the Bolshevik headquarters where she collected copies of the paper and leaflets to distribute at her depot. Even though she was barely literate, Rodionova was encouraged to write articles for Rabotnitsa, recounting her own experiences. By the summer of 1917 she had joined the Bolshevik Party. A women’s bureau, Zhenotdel, was established with responsibility for the Bolsheviks’ work among women.

Krupskaya noted on her return to Russia with Lenin in April 1917 that there had been a significant development in the political awareness of working-class women since the first Russian revolution of 1905. The Bolsheviks campaigned to have women represented on factory committees in industries where they predominated and argued for respect for women. There were examples of male metalworkers in Petrograd refusing to accept women as factory representatives and, from June, of male representatives pushing to protect jobs done by men at the expense of women. Bolsheviks in the metalworkers’ union challenged these divisive attitudes and argued for class solidarity.

During the July days, when government propaganda falsely accused the Bolsheviks of being paid agents of the Germans, many workers turned against them. They were physically and verbally attacked. The Bolshevik E Tarasova was pelted with nuts and bolts thrown by women workers who accused her of being a German spy. Later, however, they helped clean her bleeding face and hands, explaining that a Menshevik woman had been agitating against her. Pylaeva, a Bolshevik youth organiser, hid in the Peter and Paul fortress with two other women Bolsheviks, armed and prepared to resist government forces. They were carrying party documents and considerable funds. The fortress came under siege but the women managed to escape dressed as nurses.

Rodionova hid 42 rifles and other weapons in her depot when the Provisional Government tried to disarm the workers during the July days. For a time in July the Bolsheviks had to rely on Rabotnitsa because Pravda had been shut down by the government. When the police then raided the Rabotnitsa offices, they were too late: the women had already distributed the paper in factories during the night.

In defence of revolution
Krupskaya, Kollontai, Konkordiia Samoilova, LN Stal, Nikolaeva and PF Kudelli had city-wide responsibilities during the October revolution. Vera Slutskaia played a key role in organising the uprising in a district of Petrograd. The youth workers Pylaeva and Evgeniia Gerr were members of the Red Guard. Legions of Bolshevik women made vital contributions to the revolution in communications, as messengers and in the medical brigades.

E Alekseeva came from a family of textile workers and was a lookout at the meeting that finalised plans for the insurrection. In October, Rodionova was responsible for making sure that two trams armed with machine guns left the depot for the storming of the Winter Palace. She made sure that the tram service operated on the nights of 25 and 26 October to assist the seizure of power and to check on Red Guard posts throughout the capital.

Bolshevik women transported weapons and fought in the Red Guard. Serafima Zaitseva joined the Bolsheviks in 1915 aged 20. She was a metalworker and joined the Red Guard in her factory. She was in a contingent that stormed the post office in October and fought counter-revolutionaries on the outskirts of the city. Many women went on to defend the revolution during the civil war. According to Kollontai, of around 66,000 female Red Army personnel, 1,850 were killed or captured. More women fought in the civil war than in the first world war because they had something to fight for.

It is striking that the ideas and organisational methods of the Bolsheviks are so similar to the work of the Socialist Party today. Whether from the intelligentsia or the working class, female Bolsheviks became professional revolutionaries through a combination of factors, such as personal experience of oppression, family influence, and study – in a workers’ circle, evening class or through higher education. Given the difficult circumstances for women in repressive, semi-feudal Russia, it is remarkable that so many were able to play such an active and vital role.

These were ordinary women who carried out extraordinary and heroic deeds, boldly stepping onto the historical stage. We have much to admire and learn from them but working-class women today can be just as heroic and win our own socialist revolution to free ourselves and the world from poverty and exploitation.

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