RURAL WOMEN’S LIVES IN THE ’30s
The Stalinists’ subjugation of the countryside irrevocably altered the lives of the survivors. Millions of families were broken up by arrest or disease or out‑migration. Among the migrants there were now many women: almost half the workers entering the urban paid‑labor force in the 1930s were female peasants. The birthrate fell, as did the number of single women in the countryside. The power structure of the peasants’ world also changed. By ruthlessly attacking uncooperative village elders and empowering government officials and the peasants who worked for them, the government destroyed the networks that had bound older and younger men together. A party‑dominated system of clientage and patronage took the place of kinship and age as the method of distributing power in the countryside. The control of older women over younger weakened as well.
Peasant women preserved some traditional ideas and practices, while questioning others. Medical services in the countryside, although expanded, remained seriously inadequate, so village midwives still attended most births. Many women continued to be religious, despite the regime’s propaganda against religion and attacks on religious leaders. They were more receptive than they had been in the 1920s to the criticism of patriarchy brought in by propagandists and periodicals. David Ransel has found that women who came of age in the 1930s believed that peasant custom gave too much power to men and oppressed women. Many girls demonstrated their rejection of the old ways by migrating to the cities. Those who remained in the countryside were more willing than older women to have abortions and to divorce.10
Women’s discontents grew from the fact that men’s power over women in the family and community was little changed by collectivization, despite the fact that women’s work was more important than ever. Because men were still more likely to move away than women, women made up 60 percent of the rural labor force by the end of the decade. This did not change the patriarchal principle that men should lead. Seventy‑five percent of farm managers were men in the Russian republic in the late 1930s; women held 67 percent of the least skilled jobs. As in the industrial sector, women were most likely to advance in those areas long considered their province, such as dairying.11
Collectivized agriculture did have its benefits. Some of the women who had worked on the farms in the 1930s remembered in their old age that the workload was lighter than under the old system, and that the new bosses were less demanding. They appreciated the fact that in 1935 the government granted them two months of maternity leave at half pay; in the past pregnant women had worked until they went into labor and returned to the fields soon after they gave birth. Women also praised the Soviet government for improving rural education. Between 1926 and 1939, the literacy rate among rural females aged 9–49 in the Russian republic increased from 39 percent to 80 percent. Fifty percent of the students enrolled in rural secondary schools in the Russian republic in 1939 were girls.12
These improvements were part of a government effort to cultivate support among peasant women. Policy makers recognized the importance of women’s work to the building of Soviet agriculture, and so they improved benefits and funded services, albeit inadequately. They issued orders to promote women, which were derailed by the same resistance such orders encountered in the industrial sector. They instructed local officials to give highly publicized awards to particularly energetic female workers, hoping thereby to inspire other women and shame men into working harder.
The government also conducted campaigns to move women into better jobs, the most famous of which was the effort to sign them up as tractor drivers. Tractors were a potent symbol of the industrialization of Soviet agriculture, so teaching women to drive them, government officials believed, would expand the pool of qualified personnel and publicize the importance of women’s emancipation. The first decrees to recruit female tractor drivers were issued in 1930, to little effect. Local managers ignored the orders and harassed the women who tried to sign up for training. The government then decided to establish courses exclusively for women, and party officials in Ukraine found a young peasant eager to lead such courses. Praskovia Angelina, better known by her nickname “Pasha,” then became one of the most famous female activists of the 1930s.
PRASKOVIA ANGELINA (1912–59)
Angelina came from a family of ardent peasant communists. In 1930, when a male tractor driver moved out of her village, she volunteered to take his place. “At first people just laughed at me, but as… the tractor was sitting idle, I was allowed to give it a try,” she wrote in her autobiography. Like most female activists, Angelina was persistent. She persuaded her brother, already a tractor driver, to teach her, and after she was trained, she talked her way onto an all‑male team of drivers. Although her mates came to accept her when she proved that she could do the work, her achievements did not change their estimation of women’s abilities. “Even my friends,” she remembered, “say, ‘Pasha may be doing okay because she’s so spunky, but basically a woman doesn’t belong on a tractor.’ This means that my example is not enough. I need to organize an all‑female tractor brigade.” Local officials supported her, especially after Moscow sent out word to recruit more women. By 1933 Angelina had trained a group of female drivers, and they in turn were bringing in new recruits.13
Deeply committed to agricultural development and to women’s participation in it, Angelina welcomed the opportunity to become an advocate for both. She joined the Communist Party in 1937, was given a variety of honorary appointments, and earned an advanced degree in agriculture in 1940. Everywhere she went, she sang the praises of the government and of Stalin. She also called for more daycare and medical services in the countryside and criticized the sexist prejudices that she and her colleagues were struggling to overcome. She did not have great success in persuading women to climb aboard the tractors, perhaps because of the sexism, perhaps also because operating the primitive machines was very hard work. In 1937, the peak year of female enlistment in the 1930s, they constituted only 6.8 percent of drivers.14 Angelina did make it into the ranks of Soviet heroes, and her exploits were celebrated until the end of the Soviet period.
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