The Importance of the October Revolution for Women’s Liberation


Dorte Grenaa

Report to the ICMLPO Seminar on the significance of the October Revolution, Stuttgart, June 2017, delivered by Dorte Grenaa, Chair of the Workers ’ Communist Party of Denmark APK

The October Revolution of 1917 and the struggle to build a whole new society without exploitation remains a great source of experience and inspiration for the world’s working class and working people. The October Revolution meant a fundamental change in women’s lives and opportunities. The decisive factor for this was that state power was in the hands of the working class, leading directly after the abolition of the cause of the special oppression of women – the right of private property.

“Ever since private property in land and factories has been abolished and the power of the landowners and capitalists overthrown, the tasks of politics have become simple, clear and comprehensible to the working people as a whole, including working women. In capitalist society the woman’s position is marked by such inequality that the extent of her participation in politics is only an insignificant fraction of that of the man.” (Lenin, The Tasks of the Working Women s Movement in the Soviet Republic, September 1919)

By organizing the whole society around the principle of abolishing the exploitation of people, the Soviet state under the dictatorship of the proletariat worked to abolish all forms of economic, social, cultural and political inequality, including the inequality between men and women that exists in any class society.

The tasks of the young workers’ power, to build the new society after the October Revolution, were enormous. Until then, society had only been developed to serve a small, rich upper class under the czarist regime, the landlords and church.

Most of the population lived in the countryside, in a semi-feudal barbaric society. They lived in poverty, where hunger, sickness, ignorance, oppression and brutality prevailed, where relationships between people were marked by deeply ingrained feudal features. The woman was considered the slave and property of the family and the man. It was said that the peasant treated his animals better than his wife and daughters. In the Central Asian republics, polygamy and the sales of brides were quite normal.

Socialist social development took place at an unprecedented pace and scale, despite all attempts to destroy it both by internal reactionary forces and the surrounding imperialist world. The October Revolution was a tidal wave of revolutionary social power and energy. It set millions in motion to develop the productive forces to create a better material basis for a new society. At the same time, a dialectical process was set in motion to create the most important force – the new free human being.

For the Bolshevik party and the revolutionary movement, it was obvious that this should apply to both men and women.

The Soviet state was aware from the beginning that special efforts had to be made to create conditions to change the situation of women. The State not only put forward equal legal rights, but it created the social structures necessary for women to use these equal rights and practice real equality. Lenin described this both in principle in and concrete detail.

2. The principles of equality in the Constitution, the law and the family

A few months after the October Revolution, a completely new legal system was developed, the foundation of which was women’s full equality in society, work and family life.

A new marriage law was introduced in which the old concept of the “head of the family” was banned and all laws based on the slavery of woman were abolished. Marriage became a private matter between two persons. There was no legal distinction between married and unmarried, registered and unregistered marriages. Also, the hideous patriarchal term “illegitimate children” for children born out of marriage was abolished. All children were given equal rights and considered equal. Men and women were equal in inheritance.

Both women and men were free to choose their life partner, their job and profession. Both parties could retain their original citizenship, their name and their right to self-determination in every detail. Women and men also had the same rights concerning divorce. Both parents were obligated to the care and education of their children regardless of marital status. The Soviet Constitution was the first state in the world to introduce the right to vote to all persons of both sexes over 18 years of age.

The introduction of the principles of equality in the constitution and legislation was a huge sign of a whole new view of the woman as an equal fellow human being and citizen.

3. Women’s work changes character

The Soviet State introduced equal pay for equal work. What capitalism has not yet managed to do for more than a century since the demand was raised, the working-class state implemented in a few months. It gave women the opportunity to achieve economic independence, which they knew from bitter experience was so necessary for their independence.

Many labour rights in production were introduced. The working day was continuously reduced by several hours in the following years. At the same time, it was a working day that included time for vocational education. Social rights covering sickness, unemployment, pregnancy, disability and family support in case of death as well as a national state pension were introduced.

Recognizing that women can also have children, special labour rights and social security were introduced for working women. Many considerations for occupational safety were taken already at the start of pregnancy. Maternity leave was introduced – two months for physical work, six weeks for intellectual work. When she went back to work, the mother had the right to have to breast-feed her baby. Mothers received full pay during maternity leave, as well as special support to cover additional expenses and childcare during the first nine months after the birth of her child.

A society that lacked almost everything, and at the same time reduced working time – something like that had never been seen before. A planned economy was introduced, free of anarchistic capitalist over-production and over-use of resources. In the summer of 1930 it succeeded in eliminating unemployment. The former offices for the payment of unemployment benefit were transformed into centers for planned distribution of labor power.

The first five-year plan’s technological changes in industrial production created new and different jobs for women. Collectivization of agriculture liberated forces that created a new wave of revolutionary energy and mobilized women in the countryside. The cooperatives gave women completely new opportunities to use their abilities and labor.

Before 1917 under the czarist regime, women’s work during the day was characterized by slave-like work in agriculture and unskilled, low-paid women’s work in factories. After working hours women had to work a second, unpaid job at home and with the children.

The October Revolution changed the character of women’s work into organized collective and social work. The development was fastest in large- scale production and state-owned plants, in which the workplaces were tailored to both men’s and women’s needs. The work was combined with education, with the family and children, with residential areas and transport. This development was naturally slower in the countryside, in the cooperatives and in small-scale farming.

4. Access to education on a mass scale

In a society where the majority was illiterate, education had been a privilege for a very few and production had not been developed, education would be a key issue. It had to be developed on a mass scale and at a fast pace, especially for women who had previously been culturally and socially deprived.

All educational institutions were opened to women so that they could improve their practical, social and intellectual abilities. Special support was given to complete education in all sectors. The Soviet state began the construction of an entire polytechnic school system with associated educational institutions, from schools for children to technical schools and working-class universities. At the same time, workers and peasants organized libraries, reading rooms and education in reading and writing in co-operatives, in factories, in the public sector and in residential areas. The whole community was involved in this giant project. For example, children and young people taught grown-ups to read and write as part of the eradication of illiteracy.

For women in the countryside and the cities, participation in education was an opportunity to qualify for more jobs. But it was also a recognition of the fact that women have minds that want to learn, eyes that want to see, ears that want to hear and voices that want to be heard.

The church and religion, which under the czarist regime were an enormous power and a constant source of oppression and overshadowing of women, were now separated from the educational systems. Religion was considered a private matter.

5. Protection of children and mothers – Access to legal abortion

Before the October Revolution, the great majority women did not have the opportunity to give their children a secure upbringing, or to decide how many children they would have. Child mortality was sky-high, women died in childbirth and from having too many children. Women were ashamed and died from illegal abortions carried out in inhuman conditions by quacks.

In 1920 a law gave women access to abortion within the first three months of pregnancy. It had to be performed only by doctors in hospitals and was free for women workers. It was granted for health or social reasons if it could put either the child or the mother in difficulty. The decision was made by a committee consisting of a doctor and two women workers. Such committees were established at every “Women’s Advisory Centre”.

A decade after the legalization of abortion, the Institute for Maternal and Child Protection found that it had not yet been possible to eliminate all dangerous, illegal abortions. They pointed out two different reasons. First, in some places, there were still many culturally disadvantaged women who did not dare to seek access to legal abortion, especially in the countryside. Second, especially in the cities, there was not enough hospital space for everyone who wanted an abortion. But there had been a reduction in the number of illegal abortions and the mortality rate on a quite significant scale.

In the struggle to eradicate illegal abortions and prevent women from needing to have an abortion, the Soviet Union prioritized several elements. These were: to expand the health and hospital services, to ensure knowledge of and access to contraception and to develop a good social care system – and of course the goal-oriented work to provide all citizens with human conditions.

In 1918, the organization of an extensive Mother-Child Care Program me began. For the Soviet Union, the health of the individual was a social concern. Systems and structures were created to ensure that the best health facilities and expertise were obtainable for everyone in society, especially for pregnant women, infants, children and other groups with special needs. Infant and maternity clinics, maternity homes for mothers with infants were created, courses in infant care and children’s clinics were established.

To ensure child care while the parents were at work, the building of nurseries and kindergartens was also considered a social task. They were developed at the factories, in the residential districts and in the villages. Similarly, schools, youth clubs and youth associations were organized.

All these actions were of major importance to women’s social participation and independence.

6. Socialization of house work and collective solutions

For women to participate on an equal footing with the men in the building and administration of the new Soviet state, it was necessary to address the thousand-year-old problem of the double work of a job and the everlasting repetitive housework. The tying of women to individual housework in each family had to be replaced by collective solutions through the socialization of housework.

Public kitchens as collective eating places, collective laundries and shops to repair clothes were created. In 1923, the Department of Public Nutrition, Narpit, was established. It was an initiative to improve the population’s poor nutritional state and to assist in the development of public eating places.

This issue was also considered in the organization of new homes and cities. In 1917 the housing shortage was serious everywhere. In the old working-class areas in the cities neither gas, electric light, water nor sewers existed. People were crammed together in small, dark and humid homes. Now, new towns were being built, where the most advanced building were collective houses. These had common dining rooms, common libraries and reading rooms, common rooms for children where they could play and study. There were only a short distance between work, home, schools, institutions, shops and leisure sports and cultural houses, all with light, air and green spaces in between them.

The transition from individual, small farms to cooperative ones meant the abolition of centuries-old slavery for poor peasant women. Collective farm machinery replaced harsh physical work for women. In the cooperatives, women worked on an equal footing in all kinds of work, such as driving tractors. The cooperatives created crèches, kindergartens and schools. Women gained access to knowledge and education.

In the Soviet Asian republics with deeply ingrained patriarchal feudal clan class societies, it was the youth and young women who took a leading role in the women’s movement, often at great risks. In these republics, it was necessary to create special clubs, schools and reading rooms for women only.

A special form of information work among the nomads was called “the red tents”. With a midwife, librarian and teacher, they went from place to place and taught women to read and write as well as childcare and legal issues. They also organized a workers’ union for women carpet weavers in the existing home industry. In the mountains, similar “mountain cabins” were established.

The issue of women’s liberation and collective life are inextricably connected. Life in small, individual family groups is far more limiting for women than for men. For women, it is harder to overcome the concern for the small family in order to participate in public and social tasks because of her main responsibility for the family’s well-being.

Collective living with shared childcare, household and culture released an immense amount of energy and resources, when millions of women could be exempt from hours of individual work with home and children every day. The Bolshevik Party applied this viewpoint through the power of example and by creating the material conditions for this to be possible.

7. Women’s participation and organization in the revolution

Women workers played a major role in the revolutionary movement from the uprising of 1905. The Bolsheviks worked to organize the women into trade unions. They fought for women’s rights and for the unity in the working class against backward prejudices among many male workers. Mass strikes and demonstrations were organized among the women workers. Women’s demands for equal pay, maternity leave, kindergartens and protection against abuse and violence became an integral part of the Bolshevik Party’s political programme.

In 1914, women accounted for 25% of the industrial workforce; in 1917 it grew to 40%. During the First World War, unskilled women were primarily drawn into the textile industry and the metallurgical war industry. In the October Revolution of 1917, the masses of poor women in the countryside joined the demands for peace, bread and land. The population in the countryside at the time represented 80% of the entire population.

Lenin’s and Stalin’s Bolshevik Party were fully aware that a revolution could not be carried out without women’s participation and support and that special systematic work among women was necessary to achieve this. Either the masses of women would be won for the revolution or lost to reaction.

The Bolshevik women participated in the illegal revolutionary work. Like the men, many of them were arrested and sent into exile in Siberia. During the October Revolution of 1917, Bolshevik women took part in the revolutionary activities. They participated in the armed struggles and fought and died side by side with the men in the Red Guard.

The Bolsheviks’ line in the organization of women was to raise demands for equality and to fight against women’s oppression; but at the same time to explain that the prerequisite for implementing this was a socialist revolution. The newspaper Rabotnitsa, with Krupskaya1 and Kollontai2 as editors, played a special role in training, raising and mobilizing women around this and their role in the revolution.

Even before the October Revolution, the Bolshevik Party had a relatively large proportion of women members, because the Communist Party paid attention to work among women and insured that their abilities and energy would be set free. Conferences were organized to discuss with women workers and peasants how best to carry out this work.

After the October Revolution, the centre of special work among the masses of women under the leadership of the Party became the so-called “delegate assemblies of women workers and peasants”. In each enterprise and everywhere, one delegate was elected for every ten women. The “delegate corps” was formed whose duties were: 1) to inform women about their rights and teach them how to use them, 2) to increase their political understanding, and 3) to prepare them to participate in the work for the socialist society.

The prominent Bolshevik Nadezhda Krupskaya described how women and men changed with the development of the revolution and felt like “masters of production”. In a speech at the joint plenary session of the Communist Party in 1927, she emphasized the enormous and constant continuing development of consciousness that resulted from the October Revolution:

“If we compare a modern village with an old village, we will see that, maybe, in the sense of wealth it has not gained so much, but what do we see? We see the village busy with enormous organisational work. We see a lot of organisations there – village councils, committees of mutual assistance, the Komsomol, Women s Section, etc. We see cooperation that holds a tremendous upheaval in the economy of the village. And so, when you see how the whole village is committed to the new principles of reorganising their lives, then one recalls the words of Vladimir Ilyich – the nail of building socialism is in organisation.”

The Bolshevik Party also made great special efforts to involve and secure women’s participation in the leading bodies of Soviet power at all levels, from top to bottom, and in all sectors to ensure the true democracy that the power of the working class – the dictatorship of the proletariat – created.

8. The importance of the October Revolution for the women of the whole world

The October Revolution changed the view of women and their view of themselves. A new image of women – as equal citizens and fellow-fighters – was created, and it reverberated among all the women of the world.

The official history of the European Union states that European women were given the right to vote because they showed themselves as equal partners during World War I. This is complete hypocrisy and deception. They were not given anything. It was not the least the pressure of the October Revolution and the new view of women that forced most capitalist governments to give in to the women’s long struggle for the right to vote.

Millions of women in the western world had been drawn into production as part of the working class during the First World War. However, without the October Revolution, this would have been regarded as a temporary historical phenomenon. Instead the October revolution meant a great inspiration for the struggle and social participation of women and the working class for their rights and for a revolutionary change.

Only two decades later, Soviet power succeeded in destroying fascism in the victory over Nazi Germany. One of the reasons for this was the changed situation of women under socialism. Women were trained and prepared not only to go into war production and fight behind the lines, but to carry out the same military and civilian tasks as men. The women were no longer only a reserve that could be taken in. The Soviet people had doubled their strength by women advancing as equals.

With the revisionist seizure of power after Stalin’s death and the progressive restoration of capitalism, many of women’s great achievements were also reversed and replaced by setbacks. Today, women of the former Soviet republics face all the problems that women’s oppression under capitalism leads to. The previous great achievements of the October Revolution and the building of socialism are being kept hidden, in the capitalist as well as the former socialist camp.

The enormous progress achieved under socialism demanded an exertion of great dimensions that are hard to imagine today. The society lacked everything that could create the conditions for a better life – bricks to build kindergartens with, books and lights to learn to read, sufficient food for the children, water to wash, machines to produce, raw materials, power plants, infrastructure – and not the least education of an entire population to build a whole new society.

In addition, the progress of women required a showdown with centuries of religious, patriarchal, feudal and male-chauvinist thinking, whose influence had spread into the ranks of the working class itself, and thus, also into the Bolshevik party’s own ranks. The struggle for women’s liberation was and had to be put forward as part of the continuing class struggle under socialism.

If one asks: Did women achieve full equality and liberation in the period of building socialism after the October Revolution, then the answer must be no. It was simply not possible in the historically short period and under such conditions to create and achieve the complete material, political, social and cultural conditions for full equality in all fields. But the fact is that they achieved more than anyone had done before or since.

The October Revolution fully confirmed the theses about the women’s struggle for liberation that the great German Communist leader, Clara Zetkin,3 has summarized. Some main conclusions are:

1) that the struggle for liberation of women workers cannot be separated from the overall struggle of the working class and the revolutionary struggle for socialism; 2) that women’s final liberation can only be won through revolution and the building of socialism under the leadership of the communist party; 3) that women’s involvement and participation are crucial to the victory of the revolution and socialism and that special systematic work among women must be organized and implemented to ensure this.

This is still true in 2017. The ICMLPO’s platform for women’s struggles is based on the same basic theses.

For today’s young women in the European countries, gender equality in legal terms seems to be a matter of course. They have not known anything else. But at the same time they see that the prerequisites for this equality in practice depends on the woman’s class situation and that, as a human right, women’s rights do not apply to all people.

Millions of working women in the European countries and the EU face mass unemployment, inequality, poverty, loss of social rights, the breakdown of the public health, education and social systems that are being privatized only for those who can afford them. Women face violence, maltreatment and sexual molestation; they fear for the future of their children, the threat of war and environmental disasters.

The October Revolution confirms the complete superiority of socialism as a social system, as long as the working class has power. And although socialism does not exist as a system today, we still live in the era of imperialism and socialist revolution, where socialism is on the agenda.

Friedrich Engels, in his work, “The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State”, from 1884, referred to the introduction of private property as the world historic defeat for women. The October Revolution, with abolition of private property, showed and shows the way to women’s world-historic victory.

1) N. Krupskaya (1869-1939) was one of the leaders of the revolutionary Bolshevik movement. After the October Revolution, she played a key role in the development and construction of the new education system, and was Deputy People’s Commissar for Education responsible for adult education and for the development of public libraries. Krupskaya was a member of the Supreme Soviet, of the CPSU(b) leadership and also Lenin’s life partner.

2) Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952) was a Russian communist revolutionary and from 1915 a member of the Bolshevik Party. She became the world’s first woman minister \ after the October Revolution. She was People’s Commissar for Social Welfare and later ambassador to Norway, Mexico and Sweden.

3) Clara Zetkin (1857-1933) played a major role in the organization of German women workers, both as a theorist and leader of the international socialist women’s movement and in the German and international communist movement. In 1910, Clara Zetkin organized International Women’s Day on March 8.

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