Background for Educators

This section is adapted from Equality and Revolution: Women’s Rights in the Russian Empire, 1905-1917 by Rochelle Ruthchild (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010). This text is available through the Davis Center’s lending library.  

Women’s Lives in Pre-Revolutionary Russia

The life experience of women in pre-socialist Russia varied greatly.  A peasant in a rural village and an upper-class woman in the city would have had very different degrees of access to power and resources.  While men and women of all social classes were denied many political and social rights under the tsarist autocracy, rights of workers and peasants were limited even further.  Voting that occurred on rural and local levels was restricted to property owners.    

Some experience, however, cut across class boundaries.  As was the case across the globe, married women were commonly considered subject to the absolute authority of their husbands and had little to no access to education, whether basic or higher, or to many types of intellectual life and work.  In the second half of the 19th century women began to address these social limitations in a variety of ways.  Some formed independent study groups, or “self-education circles,” to learn together and teach one another.  Other civic groups formed as well, representing the diverse spectrum of women’s political engagement. From the Fritsche Circle, to the Ladies Committee of the Society for Poor Relief, to the Russian Women’s Mutual Philanthropic Society, some were quite radical groups focused on women’s liberation while others focused on women’s political engagement through charitable activity.  

The Context of the Revolutionary Period

The turn of the 20th century in Russia was a time of great political upheaval. Following a period of revolutionary fervor in the late 19th century, a series of revolutions in 1905 and 1917 resulted in the transition from a tsarist autocratic Russian Empire to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the socialist power structure that existed until its dissolution in 1991.  Though this full transformation occurred in only a handful of years, these revolutionary movements took on several forms.  The first series of organized strikes and demonstrations occurred in 1905 in opposition to the tsar and resulted in a short-lived constitutional monarchy, in which the power of the tsar was theoretically tempered by the Duma (legislature).  

This set the stage for the more dramatic revolutions of 1917.  In February of that year, the tsar was removed from power. A chaotic time followed during which a provisional government made up of legislators from the Duma took power. In October, a second revolution occurred, led by Vladimir Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks were now in power, ushering in the age of socialist rule in Russia and the creation of the USSR.  Women were involved in every stage of this revolutionary period, beginning with the earliest days of protest in the 1870s.  It was during the chaotic, but also dynamic and energized, period at the beginning of the 20th century that many of the historic victories for women’s rights occurred in Russia.   

The parallel development of these movements contrasts with the history of revolution and women’s suffrage in America.   While many women took part in the American Revolution that resulted in the colonies’ separation from British power, major victories for women’s civil rights, including suffrage, did not occur until a century after that revolutionary period.  Rights for women were never explicitly tied to the agenda of American revolutionaries, or to demands made of the fledgling American government.  In contrast, in early 20th-century Russia, the struggle for the vote happened simultaneously for both men and women.  

This simultaneity compelled women to consider how the struggle for women’s rights would relate to the larger struggle for political change in Russia and vice-versa.  Were women’s rights just one part of the larger movement, or a separate movement in its own right?  Would women activists be best served by emphasizing their common ties to men fighting for political change, or by working on their own?  These were questions that Russian women answered in many different ways.  

Diverse Forms of Activism

During and preceding the revolutionary period, Russian women ran civic and charitable organizations, such as the Society for Cheap Lodging, a shelter for women escaping violence in the home.  These groups sought to improve the lives of women in Russia, but how much did they connect women’s equality with larger struggles for social justice?  Ruthchild argues that they did quite a bit, often fueled by their own experience of being held back from higher education or professional goals because of their gender (Ruthchild, 30-36).  

After 1905 more radical groups began to emerge.  The Women’s Equal Rights Union, the first women’s political group devoted to achieving equal rights for women, appeared soon after “Bloody Sunday,” the massacre of unarmed demonstrators protesting against the imperial Tsar Nicholas II.  The union was particularly broad in its influence and makeup, including women from many political backgrounds, and deliberately framed its focus on women’s rights as part of the larger struggle for political liberation from the Tsarist regime (Ibid, 47).  From here the momentum of women organizers grew, but the complexities of differing priorities and loyalties increased as well.     

While grassroots organizing and publications flourished, institutional recognition of women’s rights was difficult to obtain. This became clear during proceedings of the Duma, a parliamentary council the tsarist government was pressured to convoke following the Revolution of 1905.  Increased citizen participation in governance was the focus of these assemblies, and women had high hopes that this would naturally include support for their own right to vote.  Would the call for “universal suffrage” from the Duma be truly universal?  Women were barred from voting or holding office in the Duma, and so had to rely on their ability to influence male members of the legislative body.  The question of women’s suffrage was given significant time and attention, and parties such as the Trudoviks argued to explicitly include women in the written demands for political rights.  Opposition from other groups, however, led to more debate than action even before the assemblies were dissolved by Tsar Nicholas (Ibid, 71-101).

The major activists of the movement carried on and in 1908 the First All-Russian Women’s Congress, the largest legal women’s gathering in Russia up to that point, was held.  Competing ideas about the goals of women’s activism remained hotly contested.  Could bourgeois (middle class) women truly be allies to worker and peasant women?  Was women’s suffrage central to liberation or merely a distraction that would cause divisions between men and women?  This landmark meeting provided a space for speakers to argue passionately about the role of women in rapidly changing Russian society.  While the years following the first congress held disappointments, including the introduction and failure of more proposals for female suffrage at the third and fourth Duma, women would soon play a critical and visible role in the dramatic culminating events of this revolutionary period.    

On February 23, 1917, what would come to be understood as the first day of the February Revolution, International Women’s Day was observed by female activists with organized gatherings and strikes.  Despite calls to wait for male Bolshevik party leaders’ permission, women took to the streets, factories, and public trolleys.  Women incited both men and women to join the growing crowds, in many instances overcoming the hesitancy of male factory workers, setting into motion many of the tactics that led to the final overthrow of Russia’s tsarist government.  An editorial in the Socialist paper Pravda published a week after the uprising proclaimed “The women were the first to come out on the streets of Petrograd on their Women’s day.  The women in Moscow in many cases determined the mood of the military; they went to the barracks and convinced the soldiers to come over to the side of the Revolution.  Hail the women!” (Ibid, 220 - 222).     

Following the February Revolution, women were well positioned to argue that “women’s rights [were] not… a frivolous demand of ‘privileged women,’ but a natural consequence of women’s courageous actions in sparking the initial demonstrations and then moving events forward” (Ibid, 225).  One month later on March 19th, 1917, a mass women’s suffrage demonstration was held in Petrograd (St. Petersburg), during which forty thousand women marched to the state Duma and refused to leave until they were granted the right to vote and run for political office.  On July 20, 1917, the provisional government made this decree official for all women over the age of twenty.

Revolutionary Intersections: Class and Gender

Economic class – the disparity between rich and poor, owners, workers, and peasants -  was the defining catalyst of political and revolutionary history in 19th and 20th century Russia.  The revolutionary movements of the 1860’s and 70’s were largely driven by the goal of liberation for Russian peasants who were living as serfs.  In later years, the liberation of peasants became linked to the liberation of Russian workers and the socialist economic vision that developed in the first half of the 20th century.

How did the rights of women, and women’s right to vote, fit into this history?  Some revolutionary party leaders claimed that women workers and peasants were not interested in the right to vote because they were more focused on gaining liberation from land and factory owners.  For these women, so went the argument, their class identity, and the oppression they faced because of it, was a more immediate concern than political rights denied to them based on their gender.  Was this accurate?  

There were many ways that the diverse Russian society of this time created competing priorities and goals during the revolutionary period.  Some who were politically conservative and did not want to see a total overthrow of the current government, worried that women’s suffrage would make Russian citizens more politically radical.  Some activists who wanted more dramatic political change feared that women would only vote for conservative leaders (Ibid, 239).  There were assumptions made about men, as well, including the belief that peasant men would be appalled by giving women the right to vote (Ibid, 69).  Likewise, some socialist men resented the presence of “bourgeois” (middle class) women who were working for women’s suffrage.  These men pressured socialist and working-class women not to work with suffragists, saying that although they might agree on the issue of women’s rights, wealthy women were part of the oppressive class and could never be true allies of working men and women.  Women activists such as Alexandra Kollontai voiced this opinion as well, arguing that a feminist movement inclusive of many different classes would be a threat to working-class solidarity.  Bourgeois feminists, she believed, were entirely ignorant about the real struggle facing poor and working women.      

While these tensions were present, we learn from Rochelle Ruthchild’s research that this is only part of the story.  Ruthchild demonstrates that there were many ways in which women from different segments of society worked together, and that men and women from upper class, worker, and peasant backgrounds responded in many different ways to the intersection of women’ rights and the Russian revolutions.  

One way we see this is in engagement with women’s groups.   As the Women’s Union was forming, similar peasant women’s groups organized in Moscow and Voronezh.  During this time a union member wrote that “the great majority, almost all, old and young peasant women warmly support the idea of women’s equality and that they found the idea of proxy votes by males “laughable” (Ibid, 51).  Later on, the petition for women’s suffrage presented at the Second Duma showed signatures from entire villages of peasant men and women (Ibid, 91).  The idea that peasant men were more wary of women’s suffrage than upper class men is also questioned by historical sources.   “At the founding congress of the Peasant Union in October 1905, the majority of delegates voted to support women’s suffrage, explaining their decision with a statement declaring that ‘since we don’t exclude women from using the land, it makes no sense to deny them political rights’” (Ibid, 51).   

As calls for women’s rights grew more intense following the February Revolution, worker and peasant women grew more engaged, as well.  “On March 5th, women from four factories held a meeting at which they called for their sisters to unite with their proletarian brothers and fight for women’s rights, among other issues.  On the same day a meeting of twelve hundred credit union employees, after heated debate, passed four resolutions.  The second of these called for Constituent Assembly elections based on universal suffrage ‘without distinction of sex’” (Ibid, 224).  At the large scale marches for women’s rights that followed, the presence of worker and peasant women can be seen clearly (Ibid, 9).  

Learn more about the intersections between class and gender in Russian women’s political activism in the accompanying video interview with Rochelle Ruthchild.