ACTIVIST WOMEN AND REVOLUTIONARY CHANGE
The Russian Revolution began in February 1917 with a demonstration by poor women in Petrograd, Russia’s newly renamed capital city. On February 23, textile workers took to the streets to protest food shortages and the war that had cost so many of them their husbands and brothers. They were answering the call of socialists and feminists to mark International Women’s Day with meetings and marches. Dozens, then hundreds of women came out of their tenements and factories. The swelling crowds marched through the streets, they yelled for bread and an end to the war, and they defied the police that tried to keep them out of the city center. Crowds milled around shouting their discontents until sunset and were back again the next morning. Ten days of demonstrations followed, during which troops sent to disperse the people joined them instead and committees of Duma delegates met to form a new government. On March 3, under pressure from his generals, Nicholas II abdicated.
In 1910, the Socialist International had named February 23 (March 8 on the Western calendar) Women’s Day, meaning it should be a time to demonstrate for women’s rights, and so the protests that swept Russia’s capital on that day in 1917 are known as the Women’s Day March. It became a much‑celebrated milestone in an era of female activism that began in late nineteenth‑century Russia and continued into the Soviet period. “Activism” is defined here as participation in such public institutions as the church, government, political parties, professions, trade unions, and voluntary organizations, particularly participation aimed at achieving social, political, or cultural change. The late nineteenth century was a time of rising female activism throughout the European world. Nowhere was that activism more consequential than in Russia. There women broadened the discussion of the woman question, expanded the feminist movement, made major contributions to the arts and sciences, helped to build public education and social services, energized the churches, and strengthened the labor movement and revolutionary parties. This activism led directly to the February 23 uprising.
The 1917 revolution promised still more, because it brought so many women into politics, spread the message of women’s equality, and empowered the Communist Party, which was committed to major reforms in gender values and practices. A heady, wide‑ranging discussion of what equality was and how it could be achieved followed. Professional women went to work in the ministries of the new government and scholars documented the obstacles hindering poor women’s participation in the public world. Operatives from the women’s organization of the Communist Party (the Zhenotdel) fanned out across the country to inform lower‑class women of their new rights, teach them to read and write, and engage them in building social services that would ease their burdens. The scale of the changes undertaken and the participation of women in them were unprecedented in Russia and throughout the European world.
The communist activists, who belonged to a party that was as autocratic as the monarchy it had overthrown, found, as their predecessors had, that autocracy was a powerful and demanding patron. Communist leaders, although willing to do much more than any other government of the time, believed that their main emphasis had to be on economic reconstruction. And so in 1930, when they undertook a massive program of industrialization, they declared the emancipation of women complete, closed the Zhenotdel, and summoned women to the factories. Female activism continued thereafter, but within limits set by the dictatorship.
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