Up until the Soviet era, women bore the brunt of domestic duties. Women were not allowed to vote or hold a governmental position regardless of class. Only aristocratic women were schooled, and even then they only had limited access to education. Most peasant women were illiterate. But when the Bolsheviks gained power, three pioneering revolutionaries changed all this.
Nadezhda Krupskaya was Lenin’s wife and a respected Bolshevik in her own right. She was her husband’s personal secretary and confidant, as well as a long-time advocate of women’s education. During the couple’s European exile, they met Inessa Armand while living in Paris.
French-born Armand was also living in exile, escaping arrest for distributing propaganda in Moscow. In her expatriation, she became the Secretary for the Committee of Foreign Organisations, where she coordinated the network of Bolsheviks across Europe.
Her efforts earned her the opportunity to meet Lenin and to move into the upper echelons of the socialist exiles. The time she spent with both Lenin and Krupskaya strengthened her socialist resolve and her relationship with both of them. In Lenin, she found a lover, and in Krupskaya, she found a comrade and fellow feminist. Meanwhile, Alexandra Kollontai was pushing her own feminist socialist agenda.
Upon observing the appalling conditions female factory workers endured, Kollantai organised protests for women to fight for their workers’ rights and to stand up against systemic patriarchy. These rallies grew in size and force, and for her efforts, Kollantai spent three years dodging arrest.
She eventually fled into Europe, where she joined the Bolshevik diaspora in 1908. She continued to publish her own pamphlets, eventually writing for Rabonitsa (the Women Worker), a magazine focusing on issues that affect women’s inclusion in the workforce that Krupskaya and Armand had begun to publish in 1914. When Lenin came into power, Kollantai became the first woman in Lenin’s cabinet, holding the position of Welfare Commissioner.
Though it was not officially part of her job, Kollontai continued to push for women workers’ rights. She helped draft legislation, which among other things, made divorce and abortion more accessible. While on official duties outside of Moscow, Kollontai was dismayed to see factory conditions hadn’t improved for many women since Tsarist times. Along with Armand and Krupskaya, she petitioned the party to formalise a committee dedicated to making social provisions for women so they can enter the workforce without navigating obstacles. This was the beginning of Zhenodtel.
Between 1919 and 1930, Zhenodtel campaigned in Moscow and along the length and breadth of the USSR. The organisation advocated emancipation from housework and empowered women to join the workforce. In doing so, it addressed the issues that threatened to hinder employment.
The organisation’s structure was similar to that of the main communist party. Propaganda and upper management were based in Moscow, and regional heads and volunteer staff were employed up and down the Union so it could tap into the female peasant population across the country. Two major arms of Zhenodtel were education and recruitment: one team was responsible for enlightening women about their role in society and another team would then reel them into the Soviet machine as workers.
Zhenotdel served both feminism and communism well. The organisation told women they were agents of change and that their personal liberation would transform Russia into a true socialist society. Lenin himself argued that real communism would begin only when the issue of domestic duties were addressed and solved. Alexandra Kollontai would go on record to say that domestic servitude was not a feminist issue, but a socialist one.
Kollontai regarded the nuclear family as an ‘inefficient use of labour, food and fuel’ and advocated that the separation of wife and cook was as important as the separation between church and state. She believed marriage and nuclear families were outdated ideas and that their importance would diminish as communism strengthened the relationship between the individual and wider society.
However, not everyone agreed with her ambitions to overturn familial structures and relationships. Nor was Zhenotdel’s drive to get women out of households always welcomed. In fact, many people felt threatened by it.
Many women initially thought the programme served to separate mothers from children and were resistant to the idea of eradicating the nuclear family structure. In religiously conservative Soviet republics and regions, women who defied and protested against cultural norms were brutally punished.
One such incident occurred on International Women’s Day, on March 8, 1927, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Women in the USSR central Asian states were especially targeted by Zhenotdel (and by Kollontai in particular). They were seen as more oppressed by the patriarchy and religion than women in other areas. They were also viewed as an opportunity to grow the proletariat in these remote parts of the region. Kollontai had been campaigning hard for women in these regions to abandon their traditional clothes, which included a long shapeless robe and a heavy veil that fell to the knee.
As Women’s Day festivities got underway, processions of veiled women marched down the street as part of celebratory parades. When the procession made its way to the centre stage, thousands of women flung off their veils and cried revolutionary statements. The repercussions were immediate and savage. Many of these women became outcasts; or worse, they were raped and murdered by traditionalists, and their bodies were hung out on display in villages. Local activists were threatened and killed.
When Stalin came into power he began to reel in the campaign. He claimed women’s liberation had been achieved so the committee was no longer needed. Over time, Zhenotdel lost influence until the organisation was completely shut down. Gradually, by the mid-1930s many of the social and gender norms Zhenotdel challenged had returned. Women were left to deal with the double burden of domestic life and wage earning.
Despite its relatively short lifespan, the achievements and influence of Zhenotdel cannot be underestimated. The committee’s efforts can be seen in the communalisation of living arrangements and the introduction of shared domestic kitchens, which aimed to reduce domestic chores and allow women to join the workforce. Zhenotdel campaigned to improve conditions for pregnant factory workers and established state-run child care.
The committee was also hugely successful in engaging women as workers. It enabled the regime to reach remote communities of women who had added considerable value to the State as agricultural workers. In its short lifespan, Zhenotdel pushed the party’s agenda and gave public and political agency to many women who previously had little or none. Perhaps part of the committee’s legacy is a nation of women who, in spite of their household responsibilities, went on become captains of industry.