PEASANT WOMEN AND THE LAW

 

Emancipation did not alter peasant women’s property rights. Throughout European Russia, peasants stuck to the custom of giving sons equal shares of whatever property the family possessed and daughters far less–sometimes nothing at all. Shortly before World War I the national law was revised to grant daughters equal rights with sons in their families’ moveable property. The rule that women were entitled to inherit only one‑seventh of the land was retained until the Revolution. A widow who had lived for a long time in her in‑laws’ household could expect continuing financial support from that family, but she had no claim to any of her husband’s patrimony, unless he had made specific provisions for her in a will. Only a widow who had lived with her husband in their own household, instead of in his parents’ home, was entitled to receive a share of his property, usually between one‑seventh and one‑fourth.19

Peasant women’s property consisted mainly of their dowries, which now often included cash and factory‑made goods, their tools, clothes, linens, bedding, personal items such as combs, and storage chests. Peasants in most of European Russia also believed, as did many Europeans, Americans, and Canadians, that women owned the money they made selling handcrafts and foods such as mushrooms, fruit, eggs, and dairy products. Many women in Russia saved the small amounts they earned this way for their daughters’ dowries. In keeping with long‑established precedents, local and national courts consistently upheld peasant women’s rights to their property, even ruling on occasion that a wife could not be forced to pay her husband’s debts out of her own resources.

The reforms gave peasant women access to the civil and criminal courts, which led to surprisingly large numbers of them appearing before the judges as plaintiffs. To the township courts, women brought complaints about their neighbors and their relatives. Christine Worobec has shown that, “in the provinces of Vladimir, Iaroslavl, Moscow, and Tambov, … 64 percent of the inheritance cases… involved women.” Beatrice Farnsworth’s study of township courts in four provinces between 1866 and 1872 found that women participated in 32 percent of all cases. Most of these disputes concerned debts peasants owed to one another. Women also brought claims against their neighbors for theft, damage to property, and physical and verbal assault. The medieval notion that women could, and should, seek legal remedy for insults to their honor was still quite alive in the Russian countryside in the late nineteenth century. Some women also dared to sue their husbands and in‑laws. Farnsworth has found that almost one‑third of the family disputes involved a daughter‑in‑law accusing her in‑laws of mistreating her. A few women sued their husbands for nonsupport or, more commonly, for physical abuse. Some also filed petitions for divorce with the church courts.20

The church denied most of these, and peasant judges often refused even to consider women’ complaints against their husbands. But notable instances have been found of judges acting on the ancient notion that the law should protect women. Ethnographer Olga Semenova Tian‑Shanskaia recorded, “Not long ago a woman from a remote village was able to have her husband flogged at the township office for his refusal to live with her.” To make such an appeal required going to higher authorities than the village elders, an audacious move few peasant women were willing to make. That any did so testifies to the fact that some women were not as submissive and long‑suffering as the stereotypes proclaimed them to be.21

 

EDUCATION

 

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the church, local governments, and the zemstva opened primary schools in the countryside. There was much to be done, for Russia, progressive in its education of elite women, lagged far behind more prosperous countries, such as Germany, in providing schooling for the poor. For their part, peasants resisted the idea of formal education for boys because they thought it was a waste of money. Boys should be working, not studying. In the last decades of the century, many peasants came to understand that literate sons would get better jobs in the cities and promotions in the army. They could also help their parents handle their financial affairs. So by 1900, the number of poor boys attending primary schools had grown considerably.

Peasants thought that daughters, on the other hand, could learn all they needed to know from the women of the village. “If you send her to school, she costs money; if you keep her home, she makes money,” one man observed in 1893. School administrators also believed that the education of boys was a priority. Most were supportive of enrolling girls, but, when faced with overcrowded facilities, they granted preferential admission to boys. Consequently, far fewer girls than boys enrolled in primary schools, and those girls that did so were likely to drop out before completing the three‑year course of study in reading, writing, and arithmetic. This disparity weakened as the century drew to a close, as parents became less resistant and more schools were built. Ben Eklof estimates that by 1910 perhaps 40 percent of peasant girls had had some formal education.22

 

HEALTH CARE

 

Village healers still provided most of the health care in the countryside in the late nineteenth century, and the rates of maternal and child mortality were among the highest in Europe. Peasant mothers died in childbirth more frequently than women in the cities, where better care was available, and more suffered from the chronic illnesses, such as prolapsed uterus, that resulted from multiple pregnancies. For children, the consequences were still more dire: half of them died before their fifth birthdays. The healers, most of whom were women by this time, could treat some injuries and minor illnesses effectively, and they knew how to help with uncomplicated childbirths. But they understood very little about the causes of disease and infection, and therefore remained powerless to stop epidemics that occasionally swept through the villages. They also promoted unhygienic customs. Midwives encouraged mothers to soothe their infants by giving them rags stuffed with solid food to suck on. Although the midwives did not invent these microbe‑laden pacifiers, which spread gastro‑intestinal infections, they encouraged their use and thereby contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands of babies every year. By contrast, David Ransel has found far higher survival rates among babies born to Muslim mothers, who fed only breast milk to infants.23

The attempts by the government and the zemstva to improve rural health care were insufficient to the huge task and were impeded by public resistance. Kashevarova, the country’s first woman doctor, struggled to earn her patients’ trust, because most peasants did not believe that doctors could help them. In fact they were often correct; nineteenth‑century “scientific” medicine was almost as inefficacious as the traditional sort. Peasant women were particularly suspicious of midwives trained at programs like the one Kashevarova attended. And Kashevarova herself found the courses oversimplified and too short. The young, inexperienced graduates then came into the villages as strangers and tried to convince peasants that they knew more about birthing babies than the grannies who lived there. They also refused to help out with the housework while the new mother recuperated from childbirth, as traditional midwives did. So peasants often refused the services of the few professionally trained midwives that ventured into the countryside; in 1900, village women were still assisting in 98 percent of rural births.24

 








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