Soviet Women, Traditionalism, Revisionism
These comments are a reaction to Gail Warshofsky Lapidus’ “Women in Soviet Society: Equality, Development, and Social Change.” Much of Lapidus’ essay covers the same ground as these other works: Wendy Goldman’s Women at the Gates, Sheila Fritzpatrick’s Everyday Stalinism, and Hiroaki Kuromiya’s Stalin’s Industrial Revolution. What is refreshing about these authors, even though they are not communists, they approach the Stalinist era in a reasonable, less sensationalist way. Their work is rigorous and detailed, using a broad range of primary sources, including the Soviet archives. They also address the complexity of the Stalin era. They do not see the Stalin regime as a monolith. They do not embrace the totalitarian paradigm so popular in anti-communist propaganda. They also don’t fall for the “Stalin as madman” view that is so popular in the work of Daniel Pipes, Robert Conquest, and the Trotskyists. One good thing about this short essay is that it covers some of World War 2 and post-World War 2 periods. In the end, the analysis sees the Stalin regime as a contradictory mix of radical social revolution and traditionalist authority. There is some truth that the Stalin era involved this complexity, and the regime fell into old ways despite its revolutionary pretense. Even so, the analysis fails to look at just how difficult social revolution is. The revolution was encircled, all the capitalist empires sought to snuff it out. Nazi Germany invaded, killing 27 million Soviet citizens. Internal enemies confronted the regime. At the same time, the regime was trying to erase thousands of years of reactionary social programming. There were bound to be complicated, difficult contradictions. This is part of the revolutionary process. Although her analysis is very detailed, she looks at the regime through idealist lenses. She does not take into account that revolutions are born in blood, that terror and authority are necessary components of survival. Forward motion, twists and turns, backward slides, all happen. Although she avoids the worst elements of anarchist and Trotskyist “madman Stalin” narratives, her conclusions are not all that different from the “deformed workers’ state” formulation of the Trotskyists. One wonders what, given Stalin’s situation and the level of revolutionary science at the time, what a non-deformed workers’ state would look. What would a non-deformed workers’ state would look like given the incredible pressures placed against the regime by internal enemies and imperialist encirclement, including the Nazi’s bloodbath? There is a lack of reality to her ultimate conclusions despite the details of her work.
Feminists in the 1920s discussed the liberation of women primarily in terms of “byt” or lifestyle. This means liberating woman from the drudgery of housework and the patriarchal family. Some of these goals sounded far fetched in the 1920s, but they were realized to some extent during Stalin’s era, especially during the Five Year Plans from 1928 to 1937, not because of the struggle against patriarchy as patriarchy. What ultimately doomed the opponents of women’s liberation was that their sexist policies were incompatible with the needs of production, of the Five Year Plans. The Five Year plans involved massive industrialization. By November of 1939, roughly two years after the Second Five Year Plan, women accounted for 41.6 of the work force. And this percentage is even greater in heavy industry. (1) This was in sharp contrast to pre-revolutionary times when women’s participation was much less. Not only did women enter the workforce in record numbers in the Stalin era, but ghettoization of women’s work was struggled against, sometimes this struggle was successful, other times it failed. Between 1930 and 1937, percentage-wise, the largest influx of women was into construction, a traditionally male field. (2) Interestingly, “[t]he reception of women in traditional male fields was hostile… although this was less often the case in the Eastern region of the USSR where the demand for new laborers was particularly great and where the absence of entrenched male traditions permitted more flexible hiring practices.” (3) Within the top levels of the Party, Stalin represent the faction that pushed against those, especially the unions, who wanted to restrict union membership, including the power and benefits that went with it, to the traditional or “pure proletarian” who happened to be Russian, male, and urban. Unions also pushed for the restricting of hiring practices. This had the objective effect of keeping women, ex-peasants, the de-classed, and non-Russians unemployed. It kept them out of the good union jobs. The unions and leaders like Tomsky sought to keep power in the hands of the “pure proletarians,” the Russian, urban men, who were the vast majority in the unions, but did not represent the majority in Soviet society. Those who opposed the unions also pushed for the employment of youth alongside women, non-Russians, and the de-classed. (4) Generally, it was less the fight against patriarchy per se that justified these policies that sought to bring women and youth into the workforce than concerns with production. Economic reasons were given in support of the liberation of women against its opponents. Economic realities necessitated a larger workforce. Stalin recognized this. Women, non-Russians, the de-classed, and youth ultimately won their struggle to enter the labor force thanks to Stalin.
Construction sites, whole cities, popped up over night. Industrialization brought women and others into the workforce. Collectivization was required to feed the new workforce. This massive development allowed for more communalization from the ground-up since in many of these new industrial centers, there was not entrenched traditionalist opposition. So, the state’s production policies ended up addressing many of the concerns of the feminists who wanted to revolutionize daily life in the domestic sphere through communalization. Collectivization in the countryside meant women were allowed to migrate to the cities to become employed. Collectivization also had big implications for women who remained in the countryside. It destroyed the old peasant economy, which empowered patriarchs. It took the means and organization of production out of the hands of the patriarchal family. The traditional domestic sphere suffered a huge blow because collective farms had communal facilities: kitchens, laundries, childcare, etc. Women were employed and lived in the collective farms where there was substantially less traditional oppression in the domestic sphere. Production demands required women, children, and also some of the de-classed be educated. Socialization now happened outside of the old patriarchal family and church. Women now had autonomy and freedom of movement for the first time since the new economy gave them a means to exist apart from the husbands. (5) Thus divorce became a more realistic option for wives.
“The forced collectivization of agriculture, with its stunning impact on authority and social relationships in the rural milieu, and massive entry of women into the industrial labor force during the 1930s, a process given still further impetus by the outbreak of World War II, were central features in this social transformation with the vast expansion of educational opportunities. The spread of networks of institutions for the education and care of children, and enactment of protective labor legislation and social programs designed to ensure the compatibility of women’s domestic responsibilities with industrial employment. These changes reverberated across the whole range of social institutions including the family itself.” (6)
Anna Louise Strong, a famous communist writer, describes the complexity of the struggle in the Soviet frontiers:
“The change in women’s status was one of the important social changes in all parts of the USSR. The Revolution gave women legal and political equality: industrialization provided the economic base in equal pay. But in every village women still had to fight the habits of centuries. News came of one village in Siberia, for instance, where, after the collective farms gave women their independent incomes, the wives ‘called a strike’ against wife-beating and smashed that time-honored custom in a week.
‘The men all jeered at the first woman we elected to our village soviet,’ a village president told me, ‘but at the next election we elected six women and now it is we who laugh.’ I met twenty of these women presidents of villages in 1928 on a train in Siberia, bound for a Women’s Congress in Moscow. For most it was their first trip by train and only one had ever been out of Siberia. They had been invited to Moscow ‘to advise the government’ on the demands of women; their counties elected them to go.
The toughest fight of all for women’s freedom was in Central Asia. Here, women were chattels, sold in early marriage and never thereafter seen in public without the hideous ‘paranja,’ a long black veil of woven horsehair which covered the entire face, hindering breathing and vision. Tradition gave husbands the right to kill wives for unveiling; the mullahs — Moslem priests supported this by religion. Russian women brought the first message of freedom; they set up child welfare clinics where native women unveiled in each other’s presence. Here, the rights of women and the evils of the veil were discussed. The Communist Party brought pressure on its members to permit their wives to unveil.
When I first visited Tashkent, in 1928, a conference of Communist women was announcing: ‘Our members in backward villages are being violated, tortured and murdered. But this year we must finish the hideous veil; this must be the historic year.’ Shocking incidents gave point to this resolution. A girl from a Tashkent school gave her vacation to agitating for women’s rights in her home village. Her dismembered body was sent back to school in a cart bearing the words: ‘That for your women’s freedom.’ Another woman had refused the attentions of a landlord and married a Communist peasant; a gang of eighteen men, stirred up by the landlord, violated her in the eighth month of pregnancy and threw her body in the river.
Poems were written by women to express their struggle. When Zulfia Khan, a fighter for freedom, was burned alive by the mullahs, the women of her village wrote a lament:
‘O, woman, the world will not forget your fight for freedom!
Your flame — let them not think that it consumed you.
The flame in which you burned is a torch in our hands.’
The citadel of orthodox oppression was ‘Holy Bokhara.’ Here, a dramatic unveiling was organized. Word was spread that ‘something spectacular’ would occur on International Women’s Day, March 8. Mass meetings of women were held in many parts of the city on that day, and women speakers urged that everyone ‘unveil all at once.’ Women then marched to the platform, tossed their veils before the speakers and went to parade the streets. Tribunes had been set up where government leaders greeted the women. Other women joined the parade from their homes and tossed their veils to the tribunes. That parade broke the veil tradition in Holy Bokhara. Many women, of course, donned veils again before facing their angry husbands. But the veil from that time on appeared less and less.
Soviet power used many weapons for the freeing of women. Education, propaganda, law all had their place. Big public trials were held of husbands who murdered wives; the pressure of the new propaganda confirmed judges who gave the death sentence for what old custom had not considered crime. The most important weapon for freeing women was, as in Russia proper, the new industrialization.
I visited a new silk mill in Old Bokhara. Its director, a pale, exhausted man, driving without sleep to build a new industry, told me the mill was not expected to be profitable for a long time. ‘We are training village women into a new staff for future silk mills of Turkestan. Our mill is the consciously applied force which broke the veiling of women; we demand that women unveil in the mill.’
Girl textile workers wrote songs on the new meaning of life when they exchanged the veil for the Russian head-dress, the kerchief.
‘When I took the road to the factory
I found there a new kerchief,
A red kerchief, a silk kerchief,
Bought with my own hand’s labor!
The roar of the factory is in me.
It gives me rhythm.
it gives me energy.’” (7)
World War 2 also changed the situation for women. The war further brought women into the workforce. Men were mobilized into the military. Thus women often filled the need of production, as they did in other countries. In 1945, women were 56 percent of the workforce. One important criticism of Wendy Goldman’s Women at the Gates is that she writes as though women’s struggles were going on in a vacuum, so she seems to find fault with Stalin for not going far enough and directing more energy to communalization. Lapidus’ also points out that communalization of domestic sphere did not keep pace with industrialization in general. (8) But again, this can be partially explained because of the massive amount of resources needed for World War 2. This is a case of not seeing the forest for the trees. It is impressive is how the Soviet Union pushed forward considering the dangerous military situation that existed. However, during and war and after, the specific issues of women would get a lower priority. The war effort, then efforts to rebuild, trumped social revolution.
Throughout the Stalin period, before and after the war, Soviet economists studied the benefits of communalization in great detail. They came to the conclusions that it was necessary for a rationally organized economy. Yet those forces opposed to the collective economy blamed women for economic problems and the feeling of social chaos and instability of this revolutionary period. Later, “Measures designed to protect and give more freedom to women were whittled away.” (9) Unfortunately, her essay barely scratches the surface of this opposition to women’s liberation. It fails to ask, when, where and who. Goldman’s book answers these questions much better, especially outlining the conflict between the unions and those associated with the women’s organizations, and the struggle of both of these trends with Stalin. Stalin ended up more on the feminist side, but primarily for productionist reasons. The only opposition covered in Lapidus’ essay is that of male managers and engineers in the later Stalin period, presumably after World War 2.
Even though much progress was made for women in the Stalin era, new and old forms of patriarchy emerged. In the earlier part of the industrialization under Stalin, managers were on the side of giving women more opportunities generally because there were labor shortages. The shortages were so great that managers went around the labor rolls and official channels to an underground market of people looking for work. These people were often women who could not get on the labor roles for various reasons. The unions fought to keep them off, the unions were trying to protect the privileges of the traditional “pure proletarian,” the traditional Russian, male worker. Chaos spread through the planned economy. There was both a labor shortage and high unemployment at the same time because industrialization created a need for more laborers but the unions created obstructions to keep women, ex-peasants, non-Russians, etc. unemployed. As the economy changes, so too did opposition to women’s liberation. According to Lapidus, the managers and engineers became part of the conservative trend. Although Lapidus doesn’t say, this was probably after the second Five Year Plan, and later, after World War 2, when the was more wealth and consumer goods. This more affluent group now wanted their wives at home.
It is well known that the regime produced a great deal of art promoting the new status of women. Women tractor drivers, for example, became a cliche in Stalin-era art. This art was especially associated with the Five Year Plans. This progressive art was not the only art. Especially after World War 2, another art emerged that promoted the idea that women should be good workers and good, traditional wives. Lapidus writes, “the ranks of proletarian heroines were now joined by the wives of the new Soviet elite of managers, praised not for heroic feats of production but for introducing civilization to the lives of men by planting flowers outside power stations, sewing linen, and opening fashion studios.” (10) One example is a fictional account of a female heroine that meets a fictional Stalin:
“‘Our feminine hearts are overflowing with emotions,’ she said, ‘and of these love is paramount. Yet, a wife should also be a happy mother and create a serene home atmosphere, without however, abandoning work for the common welfare. She should know how to combine all these things while matching her husband’s performance on the job.’
‘Right,’ said Stalin.” (11)
Another example is Marya by Georgii Medynsky, a story that criticizes the effects of women’s liberation:
“He was used to being boss in his house. He used to walk along the villages with an unhurried step holding his head high and proud.. And, she moves about, gives orders… And, the more she grows, the smaller he gets… And, it seems she needs her husband and then again it seems she does not. ” (12)
In this story, the struggle for power ends with Marya being criticized by a Party secretary for her misuse of power rather than the Party encouraging her independence. After World War 2, a genre about overambitious heroines who neglect their husbands and children develops. (13)
It seems that the Stalin era was not consistent toward women. In the earlier period, women were liberated from much traditional oppression in order to fill the needs to economic development. However, especially later, after World War 2, the Party and state promoted the idea of limiting women to the traditional domestic sphere as necessary to socialism. The patriarchal family was now seen as a microcosm of socialist society as a whole. Stalin’s cult of personality often portrayed him as a kind of father figure. No doubt this fed the conservative trend.
This conservative trend in Soviet society continued. Delinquency was tied to a breakdown of the family. Homosexuality was criminalized. Housework, criticized by Lenin, was now extolled. Low birthrates were linked to instability in the family. Motherhood was now romanticized. And, after World War 2, this romantization was connected to the desire to replenish those who had died. Abortion was outlawed even though studies showed that banning abortion does not raise birthrates in the long term. (14)
Trotskyists often like to pinpoint the conservative turn to the early years of Stalin’s regime. One thing they point to is the strengthening of the marriage laws during the heavy industrialization period. The real story is that there was grassroots support from women to strengthen these laws. This is described in Sheila Fritzpatrick’s Everyday Stalinism. The massive industrialization allowed laborers to move from town to town. New cities and construction sites popped up overnight. This meant that husbands could easily abandon their families or avoid paying child support. There was so much mobility of the population that the state could not keep track of individuals and their obligations. Initially, the Party was resistant to strengthening the marriage laws that would make it harder to divorce because their heads were filled with bourgeois notions inherited from Western European feminism. However, the women’s organizations eventually educated the Party that stronger laws were required to address the phenomenon of Soviet deadbeat dads. This particular change in policy is really not indicative of the conservative turn.
Different people locate the conservative turn in Soviet society to different years. The Trotskyists claim that the conservative turn occurs with the death of Lenin in 1924. Some Trotskyists even claim that the revolution was totally lost at that point. The Trotskyist view is contradicted by the amazing accomplishments of the Stalin era, including the huge progress for women that mostly happened in the early and middle years of the Stalin era. Others pinpoint the conservative turn to the assassination of Sergei Kirov in December of 1934. This led to a rise in terror and the police state. Others located the conservative turn with the need to draw on nationalism and traditionalism as a tool in the fight against the Nazi invasion. Perhaps the rebuilding of society after World War 2 and the growth of consumerism in peacetime also contributed to the slide rightward. Of these views, the Trotskyist one is the least supported by the facts. There are always political and social struggles during socialist construction. The Stalin era had its conflicts. When exactly, Soviet society began to slide back toward capitalism is an open question. However, regression on women’s issues along with the promotion of traditionalism surely aided counter-revolution. Uprooting thousands of years of reactionary patriarchy is no easy task. Only the power of the people led by the most advanced revolutionary science, Leading Light Communism, will liberate women and men once and for all.
1. Lapidus, Gail Warshofsky. “Women in Soviet Society: Equality, Development, and Social Change” in Stalinism edited by David Hoffman. Blackwell Publishing, UK:2003. p. 220
2. ibid. p. 200
3. ibid. p. 220
4. ibid. p. 219
5. ibid. p. 217
6. ibid. p. 217
7. Strong, Anna Louise. Women in The Stalin Era http://www.northstarcompass.org/nsc9903/women.htm
8. Lapidus, Gail Warshofsky. “Women in Soviet Society: Equality, Development, and Social Change” in Stalinism edited by David Hoffman. Blackwell Publishing, UK:2003. p. 225
9. ibid. p. 218
10. ibid. p. 229
11. ibid. p. 230
12. ibid. p. 234
13. ibid. p. 234
14. ibid. p. 229