Vol. XL No. 45 November 06, 2016

October Revolution and Women's Emancipation

Brinda Karat

THE socialist revolution in Russia and the subsequent formation of the Soviet Union, showed the world in a most spectacular way that the all round emancipation of women is possible only through the Socialist path. Under the leadership of Comrade Lenin and the Bolshevik party, later called the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the policies created and implemented in the world's first Socialist State made women and children the greatest beneficiaries. Women who were equal partners in the revolutionary movements which overthrew the Tsarist rule and later the rule of the provisional government were also critically the agents for the transformation. As Lenin had said “The proletariat cannot achieve complete liberty until it has won complete liberty for women." Women in the Soviet Union came close to it.

In celebrating in its centenary year the legacy of the October revolution, we look at four aspects of the Soviet experience and achievements in the multi-faceted struggle for women's emancipation  (1) the legal frameworks (2) the material changes, women's role in social production and efforts to address the sexual division of labour (3) the family and family codes and (4) the role of the party and women in the party.




The mountain of inequality in Russia at the time of the revolution was very high indeed. 85 percent of the population were dependent on agriculture dominated by big landlords and kulaks. The working class, small in proportion to the population was concentrated in large manufacturing industries in terrible working conditions with a 13-14 hour work day without benefits. One third of workers were women getting a wage half that of the male wage which itself was dismally low. There were no labour laws for working women. The female literacy rate was just 17 percent. Average female life expectancy was only 34 years. The vast majority of women were peasants and rural workers with legally no right to land. The patriarchal family was the main unit of production.

The ravages of the First World War had already caused huge scarcities across the country. After the revolution the new workers regime had to face a cruel economic blockade by imperialist countries. The two year old civil war led by the counter revolutionary armies of the landlords, capitalists and pro Tsarist forces, took a heavy toll. Soon after there was a two year drought further impoverishing the countryside. It was in this background of war and devastation that the Bolsheviks under Lenin took the most revolutionary steps to free Russian women from centuries of bondage.




Within the first six months of the revolution all existing laws were abolished and replaced by gender just laws for women.

The first Soviet decrees were on abolition of landlordism and transferring the land to peasants. Signed by Lenin, this decree also gave a peasant woman equal rights to the land. This was no small achievement. On November 11, literally on the morrow of the revolution a decree establishing the eight hour working day was passed. This decree also prohibited nightwork for women which brought tremendous relief at the time. The social security legislations of November 14 provided for maternity benefits for all working women for a minimum of 16 weeks. In another first in the world, optional menstrual leave was provided. In 1918, maternity benefits were further expanded to ensure paid nursing breaks every three hours for nursing mothers. The decree on wages established a minimum wage with equal wages for women. The Soviet Union was the first country in the world to provide such a legal framework for women in so far as land and work is concerned. It was many decades later that capitalist governments under pressure from class battles fought by their own people inspired by the Soviet example, were forced to pass such laws.

In July 1918, the first constitution of the Socialist regime was adopted. It was the first country in the world which gave equal rights to vote for men and women without conditions of property and education, and institutionalised equality for women in all fields. The right to vote was won by women in Russia a full decade before women in Britain, the birthplace of the suffragette movement and before the United States of America where women got the right to vote only in 1920. A decree was adopted for the compulsory spread of literacy. It is interesting that the literacy mission slogan in India of “each one teach one" was adopted decades earlier in Socialist Russia as a law in December 1919. Twenty years later, by 1939, female illiteracy in Russia had by and large been eliminated.

All these measures were accompanied by the most radical measures in the area of family law. Patriarchal laws and family codes were scrapped in this first Socialist State decades before Western feminists challenged male supremacy within the home, details of which are dealt with in a later section.

Reviewing these achievements Lenin said of the early achievements "not a single Democratic Party in the world, not even in the most advanced of bourgeois republics has done in decades so much as a hundredth part of what we did in our very first year of power. We really razed to the ground the infamous laws placing women in a position of inequality. "

This was the first big step, the establishment of a just and equal legal framework.




The Marxist theory of women's emancipation holds that the sexual division of labour (reproduction of the human race and production of the means of existence) can be addressed only when women have an equal footing with men in social production, eliminating the family as the basic production unit, and when the multi faceted responsibilities for the reproduction of humans is shared and women are freed from domestic tasks. As Lenin said “Notwithstanding all the laws...the real emancipation of women will begin only where and when an all-out struggle begins against this petty housekeeping or rather when its wholesale transformation into large scale socialist economy begins."

 The intrinsic nature of a market based capitalist economy geared towards the maximisation of profit could and can never address the issue. The prerequisite is public ownership of the means of production and the strength of a planned economy. The first workers State were pioneers in addressing this aspect.

Factory apprenticeship, vocational schools and on-job training were opened up for women and to help skill development. As the numbers of women in employment started increasing, the State provided the most comprehensive infrastructure in history, to move towards the elimination of the "double burden" of women's work characteristic of the lives of working women. The Socialist State started a huge network of child care centers, of canteens, of laundries and a host of neighborhood based initiatives. The results were dramatic. Millions of women in the course of the next decade broke out of traditional norms, won gainful employment on equal terms with men while domestic burdens were substantially reduced. In fact women played a key role in the reconstruction of the Socialist economy. On the eve of the Second World War, 36 percent of all graduates were women and they formed the majority of workers in the education and health sectors. Later women made up more than half of all engineers, scientists, doctors. The rural landscape was transformed with the collectivisation of agriculture and women were employed in large numbers, around 20 million, thousands of whom headed the collectives as chairpersons and deputy chairpersons.

It was the first time in the history of the world that within the course of a few decades after the revolution, women came to occupy equal space as their male counterparts in every field of human endeavor and work.




The revolution swept away all the old laws which discriminated against women. They were replaced by laws which gave women equal rights in marriage, divorce, ensured protection for children, alimony, equal rights in marital property. They abolished the difference between so-called legitimate and illegitimate children. The State took legal responsibility for child care while at the same time ensuring that children had the legal right of parental care till the age of 18 years. The law gave women the right to abortion. It was the first in the world to give rights for individual sexual choices. It abolished penal laws against homosexuality and other consensual sexual activity. The approach of the Socialist government was published in an official pamphlet in 1923 which said " Soviet law declares the absolute non- interference of the State and society into sexual matters, so long as nobody is injured and no one's interests are encroached upon." Prostitution was not declared illegal although it was strongly discouraged and women involved in the trade were sought to be brought into productive work. The Government Commission stated in 1921 "in fighting against prostitution, the government by no means intends to intrude into the sphere of sexual relations, for in that area all forced, regulated influence will lead only to the distortion of the sexual self-determination of free and independent economic citizens." 

The early Bolsheviks believed that the patriarchal family should be abolished and the first Family codes reflected this. The commitment of the State to abolish the patriarchal family had an immediate shock value in challenging centuries old traditions and replacing them with egalitarian values backed by law.  Domestic violence led to strong criminal action as well as social disapproval. Compared to the situation in capitalist countries where violence by partners is common and horrific, the situation in Socialist Russia was comparatively better. But in the course of the experience of the liberalisation of divorce laws and the early abolition of registered marriages, it was found that men took full advantage and the sexual exploitation of women in short relationships and then being abandoned, often with infants, became quite common.

The codes were suitably revised, making registration compulsory, ensuring payment of alimony, divorce laws which men had taken advantage of were made stricter for them. These changes reflected the process of widespread public debate about the family and inter-personal relationships. It also showed the resilience of patriarchal notions and blew away illusions that the change in material conditions would automatically result in the defeat of male supremacist ideologies.

In the following years under the leadership of Com Stalin, women made tremendous economic advance but the challenges were different. In the patriotic war for defence of the Soviet Union against fascism, women were again in the forefront of the heroic battle encouraged and inspired by Stalin into unparalleled acts of heroism. But it was also in this period and in particular after the Second World War, that the role of the family in rebuilding a war torn country, began to take a shape which emphasized the role of the mother, of the duty to bring up the new generation and other traditional roles which had been so strongly opposed by the early Bolshevik revolutionaries. The right to abortion was reversed (brought back only in 1955) and the emphasis on women's role in the domestic sphere was reintroduced. The 1944 Family Edict also reversed some of the important aspects that had been introduced in the early years. In many ways, in the post war period, the setback had begun.

Yet even the most bitter critics of the Socialist project cannot deny that the seven decades experience of Socialism proved that family structures and inter-personal relations between men and women can be challenged and changed as was sought to be achieved by the first Workers State.




The Party set up a separate women's section to train women in practical politics, work and legal training. This section was called the Zhenotdel and was set up with the direct encouragement of Lenin. It did the most stupendous work, training women in action. At the time of the revolution women party members were only around 10 percent. Through Zhenotdel they reached out to millions of women. Special newspapers for women communists and women workers were set up for ideological training. The results were extremely encouraging and helped increase women's representation at all elected levels to around 40 percent in the first decade. This again was a historic achievement unmatched in capitalist countries even today. The Zhenotdel was abolished in 1930 on the ground that its tasks were complete. In hindsight it would appear that the decision was premature. There was still much work left to be done.

The historic record of women’s advance was possible because of the vision of the Bolsheviks, men and women and the role played by leading women communist revolutionaries. There is also little doubt that it was because of the backing of Lenin that women leaders could move so confidently on untread paths challenging and confronting patriarchal forces including within the family. The names of those heroic communist women leaders who dreamed and worked day and night towards ushering in a new world include, Alexandra Kollantai, Inessa Armand, N Krupskaya, K Samlinova, Maria Ulyanova, Sofia Smidovich, Lyudmila Stal, Zlata Lilina,, Rosalia Zemliachika, Enova Stasova, Vera Goluleva, Polina V, Alexandra Altukhina, Vera Lebedeva and so many more. They were the pioneers, leading from the front, in the party, in government, in the Red Army, in education, in legal spheres, in the medical sector, in the various commissions, in the Soviets, in all the areas which were the vehicles for social change and transformation. Their individual histories are known and also unknown, although recent archival material available may provide a more comprehensive picture of the critical role women played in the struggle that built the first Socialist State.

In this centenary year of the October Revolution, the status of women in the erstwhile Socialist regimes, including Russia, overtaken by the capitalist counter revolution, is a study in contrast. All the old inequalities are back. The most recent statistics show that women are the worst off in all these countries including in Russia.

There were many ups and downs, big achievements and setbacks too in the struggle for women's emancipation in the seventy five years of the life of Soviet Union. But in these years what was proved unambiguously was that the huge strides made towards the goal of social liberation of women could be actualised only under socialism.