Women and Revolution: Women's Political Activism in Russia from 1905 to 1917

Poliksena Shishkina-Iavein

Portrait photograph of Poliksena Shishkina-Iavein, 1911.

League of Women

Placard: Russian League of Women’s Equal Rights, St. Petersburg, Znamenskaia Street, no. 20.

What is the Russian Woman Waiting For?

Poster advertising a public meeting held by the League on Nov. 18, 1916, “What Is the Russian Woman Waiting for?”

Russian League for Women's Equal Rights

Meeting of the Russian League for Women’s Equal Rights office in St. Petersburg. Poliksena Shishkina-Iavein is seated at center, next to Count Ivan I. Tolstoi, Minister of Education. Ca. 1908.

Shishkina-Iavein Family

Shishkina-Iavein and family in horse-drawn sleigh on Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg, 1909.

In the years leading up to the monumental revolutions of 1917, female political activists in Russia played key roles in a broad spectrum of political circles and developed one of the first successful movements for women’s suffrage in the modern world.  Study of this historical moment, dense with social change and global significance, both introduces students to a dynamic set of historical actors and invites consideration of questions that reverberate far beyond this place and time.            

Students of social studies, history, women’s history, and Russian history on the 7-12th grade level can be invited to consider the following questions:       

  • Can groups with different values but intersecting goals work together?
  • How can elements of individual identity (gender, class, citizenship) inform political values and diverse social movements?

Events in 20th-century movements for women’s rights that are perhaps more familiar to students, such as 1848’s ground-breaking convention at Seneca Falls and the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, were in fact part of a global movement which saw women in Russia gain the right to vote three years before women in North America.  Broadening the lens of study to reveal these interconnections enriches students’ ability to understand dynamics of global historical and political trends, a key 21st-century skill.  

Students can also consider more broadly how revolutionary movements develop in a diverse society.  How do class and gender affect the goals and priorities of individuals during times of political change?  The women who took part in movements for women’s rights in Russia from 1905 to 1917 were acting at the intersections of these different social identities.  While some were part of the radical revolutionary tide that overthrew the tsar (the Slavic term for a king or monarch) and resulted in Soviet socialist rule, others sought individual rights without such large-scale political change.  And while some saw the fight for women’s rights as a critical part of the larger challenge to autocratic governance, others thought demands for women’s suffrage should only be voiced, if at all, after these other goals were accomplished.  How did people with these very different priorities work together?  When did they and when did they not?  How do political authorities and citizens in pluralistic communities decide when, and how much, to compromise with those who hold differing values?   These remain critical questions for the study of diverse political landscapes both large and small.

Click on "Background for Educators" to read more, and "Lesson Plan" for classroom applications.  

For a print copy of this resource, download a PDF of the Women and Revolution Resource Document.