Poliksena Shishkina-Iavein, 1914 View full image detail.
Poliksena Shishkina-Iavein (1875-1947) was a doctor and activist who played a key role in advancing women’s rights in Russia. The country’s first female gynecologist, she taught medicine, championed property and voting rights for women, headed numerous philanthropic initiatives, and collaborated with feminist leaders from other countries. As president of the Russian League for Women’s Equal Rights from 1910 until 1917, she successfully campaigned for women’s suffrage. Thanks to her, women in Russia gained the right to vote in 1917 -- earlier than women in the U.S. (1920), the U.K. (1928), and France (1945).
Shishkina-Iavein died in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1947. She left behind a large collection of photographs and other materials, documenting her life and the work of the League. This collection has been carefully preserved by her granddaughter, Nonna Roshchina. In 2011, Rochelle Ruthchild, a researcher at Harvard University’s Davis Center, persuaded Nonna to permit the materials to be scanned for preservation. The resulting digital collection has been curated by staff of the Davis Center Research Collection and is now on display at the Harvard Libraries' online image database.
These images tell the story of Shishkina-Iavein’s extraordinary life. They also serve as a unique record of the women’s rights movement in Russia during the years just before the 1917 Revolution. As you look through this site, you will find information about Shishkina-Iavein, her feminist predecessors and collaborators, and a timeline of events that marked the evolution of women’s rights in Russia and in other countries. A list of additional resources will guide you toward further reading about women's lives and struggle for equality throughout Russian history.
Poliksena Nesterovna Shishkina was born in 1875 in the city of Nikolaev in present-day Ukraine, to a well-to-do family. Her father was the conductor of a military orchestra. In Nikolaev she happily participated in costume balls, including one where she dressed as a medieval knight in full armor and with a sword. The costume was prophetic: the young Shishkina would go on to become a real crusader in metaphoric armor, entering the traditionally masculine spheres of medicine and politics to help other women do the same.
Poliksena Shishkina-Iavein in a corseted knight’s costume (189-?). View full image detail.
One of the first to “have it all”
Shishkina’s six brothers received a higher education. Ambitious and determined to follow their example, she enrolled in the newly established Women’s Medical Institute in St. Petersburg. Even at an all-female institution, she experienced prejudice: school administrators hesitated to admit her because of her good looks, fearing she would marry quickly and abandon her studies. In 1900 Shishkina did indeed marry one of her medical school professors, Georgii Iulievich Iavein (1863-1920). They had two children, Alla (b. 1902) and Igor (b. 1903). However, Shishkina-Iavein not only completed her education, graduating in 1904, but went on to become the first female gynecologist in Russia. She remained a dedicated medical practitioner for the rest of her life.
Wedding portrait of Poliksena Shishkina-Iavein and her husband, Georgii Iul’evich Iavein (1901). View full image detail.
Poliksena Shishkina-Iavein with daughter Alla and son Igor, 1911. View full image detail.
Poliksena Shishkina-Iavein with classmates and an instructor at the Women’s Medical Institute (1900-01). View full image detail.
Revitalizing Russian feminism
By 1907, Russia’s women’s-rights movement was in crisis. Public support for the feminist cause had waned, and its leaders were becoming disillusioned as well. The chief feminist organization in Russia, the Women’s Equal Rights Union, had just disbanded, and the Russian League for Women’s Equal Rights was formed to replace it. In 1908, the new League finally won permission from Tsar Nicholas II to organize the First All-Russian Women’s Congress. This proved to be an important step in revitalizing the country’s feminist movement. In 1910, Shishkina-Iavein took over as the League’s president. Inspired by the example of Finland, which had granted women full voting rights in 1905, Shishkina-Iavein made it her organization’s primary mission to secure suffrage for all women in Russia.
Allegorical postcard issued by the Russian League for Women’s Rights (1914-1917), commemorating the First All-Russian Women’s Congress of 1908. View full image detail.
The League as a political force
Under Shishkina-Iavein’s leadership, the League expanded significantly and became Russia’s most powerful women’s political organization. The League’s Council met regularly at its headquarters in the capital city of St. Petersburg, where Shishkina-Iavein lived with her family. In addition, there was a semi-autonomous Moscow branch, and new branches were opened in Tomsk and Ekaterinburg. The League carefully scrutinized all laws considered or passed by the State Duma (the legislative assembly in the Russian Empire) for gender inequities or clauses that had a negative impact on women’s interests. Between 1907 and 1914, the League brought before the State Duma such issues as divorce, spousal separation, women’s property rights, and the right of women to practice law. In 1913, Shishkina-Iavein prepared a government bill for the abolition of state-regulated prostitution. At the time many social reformers believed that such a law would help stop the spread of venereal disease and rescue women from a degrading, dangerous occupation. Unlike some earlier feminist organizations, the League espoused the interests of all women, regardless of origin or class.
A meeting of the Council of the Russian League for Women’s Equal Rights (1914-1916). Seated at center are Poliksena Shishkina-Iavein and, to her left, Count Ivan Ivanovich Tolstoi (1858-1916), the prominent politician who helped the League exert influence in the State Duma. On the wall hangs a portrait of Anna Pavlovna Filosofova (1837-1912), the founder of the feminist movement in Russia. Also on the wall hangs a series of 20 promotional postcards issued by the League to commemorate women famous for achievements in science, literature, and politics. Handwritten inscription: “20 Znamenskaia St., Apt 22” -- the address of the League’s headquarters in St. Petersburg (or Petrograd, as the city was known from 1914 until 1924). View full image detail.
Gala opening of the First All-Russian Congress on Women’s Education, organized by the Russian League for Women’s Equal Rights (St. Petersburg, 1912). View full image detail.
The League’s success was due in large part to its savvy publicity tactics. Shishkina-Iavein and her colleagues made frequent appearances at public meetings, speeches, debates, and assemblies organized by the League. These events attracted an audience from all social strata, as well as politicians and the mass media. The Russian and foreign press in turn ran stories about the organization’s activities, and the League printed and distributed its own reports of these events. In one particularly “modern” publicity campaign, the League issued a series of postcards honoring women who had risen to prominence as scientists, writers, and politicians. Perhaps most important, however, were the high-visibility congresses in which the League participated or organized: the First All-Russian Women’s Congress (1908), the first Russian Congress on the Struggle against the Trade in Women (1910), and the First All-Russian Congress on Women’s Education (1912). Shishkina-Iavein did much to increase the League’s visibility abroad. She wrote for the international feminist magazine Jus Suffragii, received women’s delegations from other countries, and participated in international women’s congresses -- for instance, the 1913 Congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in Budapest.
A 1915 article in the Swedish magazine IDUN, about the visit of the Swedish delegation from the 1915 Hague Women’s Peace Congress to St. Petersburg. The delegates were received by Shishkina-Iavein, observing the activities of the League for Women’s Equal Rights and the state of women’s equality and education in Russia. View full image detail.
Poster advertising a public debate on the Women’s Question, held in St. Petersburg in February 1914. Ariadna Tyrkova (1869-1962) presided over the event, and Shishkina-Iavein gave an address titled “Arguments Made by Opponents of Women’s Equality. View full image detail.
One of the promotional postcards issued by the Russian League for Women’s Equal Rights, honoring prominent female writers, artists, scientists, political figures, and women’s rights activists. This one features “Marie Skladowska-Curie, who discovered radium and received the Nobel Prize. Professor at the University of Paris.” At lower left: “Series of portraits of women active in the field of science.” The reverse of each postcard features the seal of the international women’s suffrage journal Jus Suffragii above the words “Voting rights for women.” View full image detail.
When World War I broke out, the League turned its efforts to helping those affected by the military conflict. The League’s philanthropic undertakings included public canteens that served cheap hot meals daily to the poor, refugee shelters, literacy courses for adult women, and an infirmary for wounded soldiers, where Shishkina-Iavein herself worked as a physician. Although devoted to providing humanitarian aid, the League made no secret of supporting Russia and its allies in the war. This stance distinguished it from some foreign women’s rights organizations, which maintained neutrality or actively promoted peace.
Teatime at the Infirmary of the League for Women’s Rights (ca. 1916). View full image detail.
Free literacy courses for adult women, organized by the Russian League for Women’s Equal Rights, 1917. View full image detail.
Victory: universal suffrage attained
In February 1917, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia abdicated, and the Russian Empire became the Russian Republic. On March 4, 1917 Shishkina-Iavein and ninety other women’s organizations petitioned the new Provisional Government, demanding suffrage for women. On March 19, Shishkina-Iavein rode in an automobile at the heart of a demonstration organized by the League, in which approximately 40,000 women participated. They marched from the City Duma to the State Duma, where Shishkina-Iavein delivered a rousing speech. The crowd refused to leave until the new leadership agreed to grant Russia’s women universal suffrage. That evening, the head of the Provisional Government, Prince Georgy Lvov, acceded to the League’s demands. On July 20, 1917, the Duma promised that women would receive the right to vote and would be allowed to participate in the next election of the Constituent Assembly.
Petition from March 4, 1917, signed by Shishkina-Iavein, demanding that clauses pertaining to universal women’s suffrage and non-discrimination against women in all other contexts be written into the Provisional Government’s official program. View full image detail.
In 1918, soon after coming to power in the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks disbanded the Constituent Assembly. As a member of the bourgeoisie and a non-supporter of the new regime, Shishkina-Iavein was forced to flee to the family’s summer home in Estonia with her husband and children. However, they found the dacha destroyed. Georgii Iavein died soon afterwards. Shishkina-Iavein was left alone to support herself and her two children -- but as a Russian, she was not allowed to practice medicine in Estonia. By 1921 she was destitute, ill, and working as a doctor in a Bulgarian quarantine camp. In name she was still the president of a women’s rights union, but the original League’s members had dispersed after the revolution, and the new Soviet regime had banned all independent political organizations. Though men and women now had equal rights under Bolshevik law, the Russian feminist movement had effectively ceased to exist. In the early 1920’s Shishkina-Iavein returned to Soviet Russia with her children. After a brief period of political persecution, she continued medical work there. She survived the blockade of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) during World War II, and died in 1947.
Plaque commemorating a meeting of the League at a local girls’ school in April 1917 -- a meeting that marked the start of the women’s movement in the city of Yaroslavl. View full image detail.
Poliksena Shishkina-Iavein’s gravesite in Nikol’skoe Cemetery, St. Petersburg. Image source
FEMINISM IN RUSSIA: OTHER FIGURES
Anna Filosofova (1837-1912)
Anna Filosofova was Russia’s first women’s rights leader. Along with Maria Trubnikova and Nadezhda Stasova, she made up what was known as the Triumvirate, which laid the foundations of feminist activism Russia. In the 1870’s Filosofova founded the Higher Women’s Courses, also known as the Bestuzhev Courses, in St. Petersburg. This was the earliest -- and for a long time the only -- source of higher education for women in Russia. An active supporter of political prisoners, underground groups, and revolutionaries, Filosofova spent the years of 1879 to 1881 in political exile. After the February Revolution of 1905, she worked to prevail on the reactionary Tsar Nicholas II to permit the holding of the First All-Russian Women’s Congress. The Congress took place in 1908 under the aegis of the newly-founded Russian League for Women’s Equal Rights, which Shishkina-Iavein led starting in 1910. Filosofova was revered by later generations of Russian feminists, and a portrait of her was displayed prominently at the headquarters of the League for Women’s Equal Rights in St. Petersburg.
Mariia Trubnikova (1835-1897)
Another member of the Triumvirate, in 1859 Trubnikova co-founded the Society for Cheap Lodgings in St. Petersburg, providing inexpensive living quarters to needy families, especially fatherless ones. She was among those who in 1862 established the ambitious Society for Women’s Work. Later called the Women’s Publishing Guild, the organization not only offered women a way to earn money via translation and writing, but also increased their political awareness. To aid the movement, Trubnikova corresponded with feminists from abroad, including Josephine Butler and Jenny P. d’Héricourt. Separated from her husband in the 1870’s, she was left to support herself and her two daughters on her own -- an experience that helped her grasp at first hand the plight of many of her female compatriots.
Nadezhda Stasova (1822-1895)
The third member of the Triumvirate, Stasova was a strong advocate for women’s higher education, which the feminists saw as the most effective weapon against the marginalization and limited employment opportunities faced by many women in Russia. In 1867, Stasova, Trubnikova, and Evgeniia Konradi petitioned the rector of St. Petersburg University for lectures and university-level courses for women on university premises. From 1878 until 1889, Stasova acted as the superintendent of the first Higher Education Courses for Women in St. Petersburg (also known as the Bestuzhev Courses). She worked to raise funds for the Higher Education Courses, taught at so-called “Sunday schools” for girls, founded a nursery school for working-class children, and helped in charitable efforts on behalf of prostitutes.
Anna Shabanova (1848-1932)
One of the leading feminist physicians of her time, Shabanova worked closely with Filosofova to found and later chair the Russian Women’s Mutual Philanthropic Society. A brilliant student, she sought admission to the Medical Surgical Academy in St. Petersburg, but was rejected on grounds of her sex -- an experience that affected her profoundly. With extreme difficulty she gained admission to the University of Helsinki, becoming the first woman to do so. After two years she returned to Russia and enrolled in the Higher Women’s Medical Courses, which had opened a year earlier. Upon graduating in 1878, she became the first woman pediatrician to work in St. Petersburg. She also set up health services for children, carried on medical research, taught medicine to young women, translated medical works, and authored more than forty academic texts herself. On December 10, 1908, she formally opened the First All-Russian Women’s Congress. Unlike many other feminist leaders, Shabanova was embraced by the Soviet regime: at her 1928 birthday jubilee, she was honored as an eminent pediatrician and named a “Heroine of Labor.”
Mariia Pokrovskaia (1852-?)
Pokrovskaia edited and published the monthly journal Women’s Herald between 1905 and 1918. It focus was on voting rights for women, combating gender discrimination, and women’s emancipation in society and in the home. She is also known as a doctor and founder of the Women’s Progressive Party. In her youth Pokrovskaia taught at a girls’ school before enrolling in the St. Petersburg Women’s Medical Courses, then spent seven years as a zemstvo (provincial) doctor, treating the peasant population. In 1888 she returned to St. Petersburg to launch a career as a writer and publisher. She authored articles on medicine and nutrition for various professional as well as popular journals, such as the European Herald and Russian Thought, and spotlighted rural health. Her pamphlets included advice on hygiene and health, keeping a clean house, and raising children safely. Like Shishkina-Iavein, Pokrovskaia was vehemently opposed to prostitution and especially to the medical-inspection system which regulated prostitution in Russia.
Mariia Chekhova (1866-1937)
Chekhova is best known as the founder of the Women’s Equal Rights Union and the editor of the journal Union of Women from 1907 to 1909. She was also the first president of the Moscow chapter of the League for Women’s Equal Rights. Unlike many of her progressive contemporaries, Chekhova rejected political radicalism and its violent tactics early in life, resolving instead to effect change through peaceful means -- in particular education. Outraged by the injustices faced by female teachers in Russia (low pay, a ban on marriage), in 1905 she and fellow educators in Moscow created the Union of Women’s Equal Rights, over which Chekhova presided. In 1906 she moved to St. Petersburg to further the Union’s cause and forge connections with the State Duma. There she worked for several women’s welfare organizations and became the editor and publisher of Union of Women. She played an active role in organizing the First All-Russian Women’s Congress of 1908. In an address to Russian women she wrote: “Do not be slaves, for it is only slaves who are ashamed to stand up for their rights as human beings.”
Ariadna Tyrkova (1869-1962)
Tyrkova was a prominent writer, journalist, radical activist, and politician who vigorously participated in the women’s rights movement during the period of 1906-1917. After divorcing her first husband, she began to support herself and her young son as a journalist. She wrote under the pen-name Vergezhsky and gained wide popularity. For her involvement in liberal opposition groups in St. Petersburg in the early 1900’s, she was arrested twice and fled to Germany to avoid imprisonment. After the 1905 Revolution she returned to Russia and helped found the Kadet (Constitutional Democratic) Party, becoming a member of its Central Committee. In 1906 she joined the All-Russian Union for Women’s Equality and began to write for Mariia Chekhova’s journal Soiuz zhenshchin (Women’s Union). It was largely thanks to her activities that the Kadet Party became the main supporter of women’s political equality in the State Duma. In 1910, Tyrkova joined the League for Women’s Equal Rights, playing a prominent role in the organization’s activities until 1917. After the October Revolution, Tyrkova and her second husband, Harold Williams, left Russia and moved to London, where she set up a society to aid Russian refugees. Later she moved to France, and in 1951, to the United States, where she continued to write, edit and participate in political organizations until her death.
Edmondson, Linda Harriet. 1984. Feminism in Russia, 1900-17. London ; Exeter, NH: Heinemann Educational.
Haan, Francisca de, Krasimira Daskalova, and Anna Loutfi, eds. 2006. “Shishkina-Iavein, Poliksena Nestorovna (1875-1947).” A Biographical Dictionary of Women’s Movements and Feminisms: Central, Eastern, and South Eastern Europe, 19th and 20th Centuries. Budapest ; New York: Central European University Press.
Rappaport, Helen. 2001. “Shishkina-Yavein, Poliksena (c. 1874-1950s): Russia.” Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO.
Ruthchild, Rochelle Goldberg. 2010. Equality & Revolution: Women’s Rights in the Russian Empire, 1905-1917. Pitt Series in Russian and East European Studies. Pittsburgh, Pa: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Stites, Richard. 1990. The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism, 1860-1930. New ed. with afterword. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
Zakuta, Olga, and Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild. 2012. “How in the Revolutionary Time the All-Russian League for Women’s Equal Rights Won Suffrage for Russian Women. [Translation of: Kak v Revoliutsionnoe Vremia Vserossiiskaia Liga Ravnopraviia Zhenshchin Dobilas’ Izbiratel’nykh Prav Dlia Russkikh Zhenshchin.].” Translated by Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild. Aspasia 6 (January): 117–24.
Additional resources in English
Atkinson, Dorothy; Dallin, Alexander; Lapidus, Gail Warshofsky (1977). Women in Russia. Stanford University Press.
Bernstein, Laurie. 1995. Sonia’s Daughters: Prostitutes and Their Regulation in Imperial Russia. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Bisha, Robin (2002). Russian Women, 1698–1917: Experience and Expression, an Anthology of Sources. Indiana University Press.
Bobroff-Hajal, Anne. 1994. Working Women in Russia under the Hunger Tsars: Political Activism and Daily Life. Scholarship in Women’s History, v. 3. Brooklyn, N.Y: Carlson Pub.
Clark, Linda L. 2008. Women and Achievement in Nineteenth-Century Europe. New Approaches to European History. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
Clements, Barbara Evans (2012). A History of Women in Russia From Earliest Times to the Present. Indiana University Press.
Evans, Richard J. 1987. Comrades and Sisters: Feminism, Socialism, and Pacifism in Europe, 1870-1945. Brighton, Sussex : New York: Wheatsheaf Books ; St. Martin’s Press.
Hutton, M. (2014). Remarkable Russian Women in Pictures, Prose and Poetry. Zea Books.
Hutton, Marcelline J. 2001. Russian and West European Women, 1860-1939: Dreams, Struggles, and Nightmares. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield.
Jonsson, Pernilla, Silke Neunsinger, and Joan Sangster, eds. 2007. Crossing Boundaries: Women’s Organizing in Europe and the Americas, 1880s-1940s. Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis 80. Uppsala: Uppsala Universitet.
Koblitz, Ann Hibner, 2000. Science, Women and Revolution in Russia. Women in Science. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic.
Noonan, Norma C.; Nechemias, Carol (2001). Encyclopedia of Russian Women's Movements. Greenwood Publishing Group.
Offen, Karen M., 2000. European Feminisms, 1700-1950: A Political History. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Pushkareva, Natalia Lʹvovna; Levin, Eve (1997). Women in Russian History: From the Tenth to the
Twentieth Century. M.E. Sharpe.
Vowles, Judith (11 March 1999). Russia Through Women's Eyes: Autobiographies from Tsarist Russia. Yale University Press.
Primary sources (in Russian)
Brandt, B. F. 1896. Sovremennaia zhenshchina: eia polozhenīe v Evropie i Amerikie. S.-Peterburg: Izd. F. Pavlenkova : Tip. P.P. Soikina.
Ganelin, R. Sh, ed. 1997. O blagorodstve i preimushchestve zhenskogo pola: iz istorii zhenskogo voprosa v Rossii: sbornik nauchnykh trudov. Sankt-Peterburg: Sankt-Peterburgskaia gos. akademiia kulʹtury : Nevskii institut iazyka i kulʹtury : Zhenskaia gumanitarnaia kollegiia imeni A.P. Filosofovoi.
Iavein-Shishkina, P.N. 1917. Zhenshchina-glasnyi. Snogr. Otchet rechi, proiznes. na publ. sobr., org. Vseros. ligoii ravnopriaviia zhenschin v Petrograde. Petrograd: Vserosliga ravnopraviia zhenshchin.
Shtakenshneider, E. A., and I. I. Rozanov. 1934. Dnevnik i zapiski, 1854-1886. Russkie memuary, dnevniki, pisʹma i materialy. Moskva: Academia.
Tolstoi, I., and L. I. Tolstaia. 1997. Dnevnik, 1906-1916. Dnevniki i vospominaniia peterburgskikh uchenykh. Sankt-Peterburg: Evropeiskii dom.
Tolstoi, I., L. I. Tolstaia, I. Tolstoi, and I. Tolstoi. 2002. Memuary grafa I.I. Tolstogo. Deus conservat omnia. Moskva: Izd-vo Indrik.
Shishkina-Iavein, P. N. “Voina i zhenshchina.” Tugan-Baranovskii, M. I., ed. 1915. Chego zhdet Rossīia ot voiny: sbornik statei. Izd. 2. Petrograd: Prometei.
Uspenskaia, V. I., ed. 2005. Muzhskie otvety na zhenskii vopros v Rossii: vtoraia polovina XIX v - pervaia tretʹ XX v: antologiia. Tverʹ: Feminist-press.
Vserossīiskīi sʺiezd po obrazovanīiu︡ zhenshchin, and Rossiiskaia liga ravnopraviia zhenshchin, eds. 1978. Trudy I-go vserossīiskago sʺiezda po obrazovanīiu zhenshchin, organizov. Rossīisk. ligoi ravnopr. zhenshchin v S.-Peterburgie. S.-Peterburg: Izd. Rossīiskoi ligi ravnopravīia zhenshchin.
Additional resources in Russian
Iukina, I. I. 2003. Istoriia zhenshchin Rossii: zhenskoe dvizhenie i feminizm v 1850-1920-e gody: materialy k bibliografii. Knizhnaia seriia “Gendernaia kollektsiia.” Sankt-Peterburg: Aleteiia.
Iukina, I. I., and iu E. Guseva. 2004. Zhenskii Peterburg: opyt istoriko-kraevedcheskogo putevoditelia. Gendernaia kollektsiia. Sankt-Peterburg: Aleteiia.
Iukina, I. I., and И. И. Юкина. 2007. Russkii feminizm kak vyzov sovremennosti. Feministskaia kollektsiia. Sankt-Peterburg: Aleteiia.
Khasbulatova, O. A. 1994. Opyt i traditsii zhenskogo dvizheniia v Rossii, 1860-1917. Ivanovo: Ivanovskii gos. univ.
Rossiiskii nezavisimyi institut sotsialʹnykh i natsionalʹnykh problem, and Rossiiskaia akademiia nauk. 1993. Politicheskie deiateli Rossii, 1917: biograficheskii slovarʹ. Edited by P. V. Volobuev and A. S. Velidov. Biograficheskie slovari i spravochniki. Moskva: Nauch. izd-vo “Bolʹshaia rossiiskaia ėntsiklopediia.”