Alexandra Kollantai, was a prominent leader of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, who joined the Bolsheviks. She became a member of the Central Committee in 1917. After the October Revolution, she became the Commissar for Social Welfare in the revolutionary government. She made her mark in bringing women to revolutionary politics. Below we publish the excerpts of an article written by her in 1918.
The idea of establishing a Department for the Protection of Mother and Child arose in the heat of the October battles. The basic principles underlying the work of the department, and the related statutes on social provision for mothers and expectant mothers were drafted at the first conference of women workers immediately following the October Revolution.
The conference was summoned at my suggestion as a member of the Central Committee, and we set up a lead group of women Bolsheviks at the editorial board of the magazine Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker). This first conference of the representatives of women industrial workers to be held in Russia had the task of binding together the female working masses who had spontaneously inclined towards the revolution, supporting the Soviets and the Bolsheviks. The conference was attended by more than 500 women delegates from the factories and plants of Petrograd. There were also some delegates from Moscow, Ivanovo-Voznesensk, Tula and Kaluga.
At the conference the main demands of Bolshevik women workers were put forward and adopted. Prominent among these demands was the question of protection and provision for motherhood. In a modest building somewhere on Bolotnaya St., in the very midst of the October revolution, women workers were engaged in business-like and enthusiastic discussions on the measures that should be immediately introduced by the Soviet government in order to protect working mothers and their babies.
On 6 November, 1917, I delivered a speech on the protection of motherhood in my capacity as a member of the party Central Committee and secretary of the lead group of women workers. My theses were taken as the basis for discussion. The women workers attending the conference took an active part in the discussions and the elaboration of the theses. These theses were then passed on 'as guidelines' to the People's Commissariat for State Welfare and the People's Commissariat for Labour, which then included the Department of Social Security.
If the legislation on protection and provision for motherhood now in force is compared with the theses adopted at the first conference of women workers, it is clear that it was precisely the aspirations expressed at the conference that served as the basis for Soviet legislation in this area.
It should therefore be noted that the initiative on the issue of protection and provision for mother and child came from the working women themselves. At that time, very few working women actively participated in the Soviets. But from the very first days of Soviet power, working women were able to contribute constructively to the work of the Soviets as regards lightening the burden of motherhood for women.
The first concern of the People's Commissariat for State Welfare was to maintain and rebuild the huge children's homes in Petrograd and Moscow, in order to convert these 'angel factories' into homes for mother and child.
The People's Commissariat also took control of all the existing creches, consultation centres and children's homes (very few in number) that had been founded before the revolution by charitable organisations.
In December, 1917, that is, six weeks after power had been transferred into the hands of the proletariat, it became clear that the People's Commissariat required a special centre to supervise the work being done in the sphere of protection for mother and child if it was to cope with the increasing demand and workload.
On 31 December, 1917, the People's Commissariat issued a decree on the creation of a board whose task was to set up a Department for the Protection of Mother and Child. Doctor Korolyov was appointed head of the department, while the chairman of the board was the People's Commissar for State Welfare.
The Soviet government is the first government in the world to officially and legally recognise maternity as one of the social functions of women and, basing itself on the fact that in a republic of working people women will always have this particular labour obligation towards society (ie, the obligation to bear and bring up children - Tr.), it has approached the problem of providing for motherhood from this new point of view.
With the decree issued on 20 January, 1918, the People's Commissariat for State Welfare began to set in order and reorganise lying-in hospitals. The decree ordered that all lying-in hospitals and all centres, clinics and institutes of gynaecology and midwifery be transferred to the Department for the Protection of Mother and Child. The decree also ordered that medical services for expectant mothers be organised on the basis of three new principles: 1) that medical assistance be available to all needy mothers, i.e., that the doors of lying-in hospitals be opened precisely to the poorest section of the female population - workers, peasants and office workers; 2) that doctors be paid a state salary so as to abolish the advantages enjoyed by more prosperous women able to pay the doctor for his services, thereby ending the inequality between poor and prosperous expectant and nursing mothers; 3) that expectant and nursing mothers, particularly the poor, be protected against a view which saw them as 'sacrifices to science' on whom unskilled midwives and young students gained practice. No one, noted the decree, has the right to view, a woman fulfilling her sacred but painful civic duty of motherhood as a 'sacrifice to science'. The decree also replaced one-year midwifery courses with two-year courses, and the trainee midwives were permitted to assist at deliveries only in the second year.
The next step taken by the board for the protection of mother and child was to bring together in one state organisation all the institutions caring for mother and child in the pre- and post-natal periods, and all institutions involved in child care, from children's homes to village creches. A decree issued by the People's Commissariat on 31 January, 1918, instructed the Department for the Protection of Mother and Child to create a network of institutions which would bring up for the Soviet Republic spiritually and physically strong and healthy citizens. This same decree also ordered the creation of a model Palace of Motherhood and the conversion of all the lying-in hospitals and children's homes in Moscow and Petrograd into one general institution to be known as 'The Moscow Children's Institute' and 'The Petrograd Children's Institute'. Children's homes were renamed young children's palaces.
The increasing scope of the activity undertaken by the Department for the Protection of Mother and Child, and the enthusiastic response this activity elicited among working women obliged the People's Commissariat to broaden the composition of the board for the protection of motherhood to include men and women representatives of the trade unions, health insurance, the Petrograd district Soviets and the editorial board of the magazine Rabotnitsa.
By a decree issued on 31 January, the board was reorganised into a commission whose activity was to pursue three basic aims: 1) protection of the child, i.e. the reduction of infant mortality; 2) the upbringing of the child in an atmosphere corresponding to the broad concept of the socialist family (the organisation of mother and baby homes, laying the basis for social upbringing from the very first days of the child's life; 3) the creation of a healthy environment in which the child can develop both physically and spiritually.
In January, 1918, before the decree was published, the Department for the Protection of Mother and Child set about organising a Palace of Mother and Child Protection, which was to comprise: a Young Children's Palace (a former children's home) and a Palace of Motherhood (a former clinical institute of midwifery and gynaecology in Petrograd). According to the plans, the Palace of Mother and Child Protection was to include a museum devoted to the protection of mother and child (an idea which was to be brilliantly executed later by VP Lebedeva in the form of an exhibition on the protection of mother and child), exemplary creches, consultation centres, a baby food dispensary, a child fostering centre... The former Nikolayevsky Institute, which was found to be eminently suitable for the purpose, was chosen to house the new Palace...