“Weren’t We Women First Out on the Streets?": The Incomplete History of 1917

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One hundred years on from the Russian Revolution we look back at the events that turned the world upside down and how they resonate today.

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International Women's Day, Petrograd, 1917.

In the year of the pussy, and also coincidentally the centennial of the Russian Revolution, perhaps it was inevitable that someone would characterize the revolution as primarily about pussies. In the New York Times, Professor Yuri Slezkine recently wrote — in one of the few articles that esteemed publication has featured about the Russian Revolution — that: “Most of the revolutionary leaders were young men who identified the revolution with womanhood.” But really, according to Professor Slezkine, it’s all about male revolutionaries’ lust for and hot sex with female revolutionaries. Male is the norm. Men are the actors; women the acted upon.

To accept this characterization is to ignore the ways in which the revolution was about not some imaginary ideal of womanhood, but about many real women demanding their rights and in the process changing history. The February Russian Revolution and its aftermath represent, to use current language, the original Pussy Riots, women entering the public sphere in large numbers, demanding full citizenship rights and more. Leading the victorious Bolsheviks in seizing state power, Lenin from the beginning grappled with the social transformations necessary to challenge patriarchal institutions on all levels of society. That it ultimately failed to accomplish such an enormous task should not cause us to trivialize or render invisible the effort. It is important to understand the revolutionary year of 1917 and the history of the Soviet Union by including the actions of politically conscious women.

1917 is the most researched year in twentieth-century Russian history. Yet, with a few exceptions, accounts of the revolutionary year remain largely baritone and bass. Despite the advances made by historians of women overall, the question of the role of women and gender in the key Russian historic events of 1917 is still understudied and too often accords with traditional and/or Soviet-inspired stereotypes.

Consciousness about women and gender is not a matter of political correctness. It is a matter of accuracy. A full picture of 1917 must include the role of members of the majority of Russia’s population as well as the gender assumptions operative in critical events of the year. Much progress has been made in researching and writing about women and gender in the early twentieth century, during the late Tsarist period and the early Soviet years. But this scholarship has not been integrated as deeply as it should into the dominant narratives and classroom teaching. While much about 1917 would benefit from a more thorough gender analysis, the outbreak of the February Revolution, the March 19th suffrage demonstration, the creation of the Women’s Battalion, and the Constituent Assembly elections, are especially significant occasions where women’s and gender scholarship illuminates the 1917 narrative.

Women’s suffrage is an important and understudied theme informing women’s activism in the revolutionary year. Attention to the relatively quick and successful achievement of suffrage in Russia in 1917 enriches discussions of citizenship and complicates notions of Russia’s backwardness. No account of 1917 in Russia can be complete without mention of the ways in which the fight for women’s suffrage, the most sweeping democratic reform of the twentieth century, was an important theme and rallying point in the revolutionary fervor of that year. The successful campaign in Russia for women’s suffrage is rooted in the nature of Russia’s opposition movements. From the mid-nineteenth century, Russian radicals and dissidents, unlike their counterparts in most other countries, made the “woman question” a major concern in their writings. Russia was not isolated from the west; Russian women participated fully in international women’s suffrage conferences and Russian female students enrolled in western European universities, often outnumbering local women students. Women were prominent in the revolutionary movement and their agency was critical in extending the vote and the right to run for office to women. Provisional Government and Soviet leaders did not simply grant suffrage to women. They responded to demonstrators’ demands. And they did so much more quickly and completely than leaders in the U.S. and elsewhere in the west.1

International Women’s Day, The February Revolution, and Suffrage

There is general agreement that the February Revolution began in the imperial capital Petrograd on International Women’s Day (February 23 by the Russian calendar). Discussions of the role of women in 1917 downplay any connection between women’s activism and women’s rights. Working and peasant women, according to this narrative, were largely concerned with their economic needs. If they are assigned any role in the February Revolution, women are depicted as spontaneous bread rioters, instead of conscious political actors. The fact that the women’s demonstrations which sparked the February Revolution took place on International Women’s Day is considered less important than the role of male workers as the revolutionary vanguard.

Understanding the history of International Women’s Day is important in understanding the 1917 Petrograd celebrations. The first and only socialist women’s holiday was new; it had been just proclaimed on August 26, 1910. Searching for ways to attract more women to the cause of socialism worldwide, leading socialist women’s activist Clara Zetkin called for the establishment of “a special Women’s Day,” whose primary purpose would be “to promote Women's Suffrage propaganda," at the Second International Conference of Socialist Women, held in Copenhagen. Zetkin came to view suffrage as a democratic reform advantageous to the proletariat. In naming the holiday, Zetkin used the word women, and not women workers, acknowledging that women were a separate organizing category.

Many socialist women leaders evolved on suffrage. Initially they were hostile, considering voting rights a bourgeois demand. Or as Alexandra Kollontai wrote in 1908: “’The woman question—say the feminists—is a question of ‘rights and justice.’” ‘The woman question—answer the women workers—is a question of a crust of bread.” In time, noting the appeal to women workers of the suffrage movement, key activists reconsidered and reframed the issue of suffrage. The proclamation of International Women’s Day, the first and only socialist women’s holiday, demonstrates this change, as suffrage was recast as a key goal for the female proletariat.

Russian celebrations of International Women’s Day started in 1913. From the beginning, its commemoration in Russia sparked conflict as activists across the feminist-socialist spectrum claimed the holiday. Feminists emphasized the cross-class organizing of women and socialists viewed the day as a way to mobilize working class women to join with their brothers in the revolutionary struggle. Thus, in 1917 International Women’s Day already had resonance among disparate sectors of Petrograd’s female population. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that the largely male Petrograd socialist leaders expected the celebration of International Women’s Day to be the catalyst for revolution.

The theme of the uncontrollable female can be found in several male socialists’ memoirs about the outbreak of the revolution. Angry about the women who went out on the streets on February 23, Trotsky complained: “Despite all directives, the women textile workers in several factories went on strike.”  The Bolshevik Vasilii Kaiurov claimed that the night before, he had urged the women workers to show “restraint and discipline, yet suddenly here was a strike.”

The trope of the undisciplined, disobedient women existed side by side with the image of the backward female worker, who needed guidance from her more enlightened male comrades. Only one socialist leaflet was distributed for International Women’s Day. The leaflet, the work of the Petersburg Inter-District Committee, has been the subject of much scholarly debate. That debate has largely centered around its initial slogans: “Down with the Autocracy! Long live the international solidarity of the proletariat! Long live the united RSDLP!” But further down, the leaflet defines the pecking order of the proletariat: Women had “only recently became part of the family of workers” and “often still are afraid, and don’t know, what and how to make demands.” Owners exploit the “darkness and timidity” of women workers, who should join in the struggles already initiated by male workers. Women workers were still suspect, as “backward” elements of the proletariat susceptible to feminist siren songs of sex solidarity. Underscoring concerns about the revolutionary aptitude of the female proletariat and the feminist threat to class unity, the Inter-District Committee leaflet departed sharply from the original intent of the Socialist women’s holiday, focusing on class, and omitting any mention of suffrage. The holiday’s name, International Women’s Day, morphed into “Woman Workers Day (Zhenskii rabochii den’),” or the “Woman’s ‘May Day’ (Zhenskoe ‘1-go maia’)."2

As Elizabeth Wood has argued, assumptions about women as backward, impulsive, and untrustworthy were very much part of the debates about women’s roles once the Bolsheviks took power. But in the early stages of the February Revolution, as Choi Chatterjee and Irina Yukina have shown, women’s actions belied the stereotypes. Women put into practice their revolutionary lessons more thoroughly than did their male comrades. Often the women were bold and the men hesitant; the women urged their proletarian brothers to lay down their tools and join them.

The Invisible March

The March 19th Petrograd women’s suffrage march is invisible in almost all Russian and Soviet histories. If mentioned at all, the demonstration is demonized as a “bourgeois feminist” affair. Pictures of that march are incorrectly identified as part of the February demonstrations. The March 19th demonstrators then become generic examples of angry women spontaneously taking to the streets. In fact, a closer study of this march can tell us much about women’s agency, debates about citizenship, and the connection between women’s suffrage in Russia and the global suffrage movement.

In the aftermath of the toppling of the tsarist government, as part of the widespread post-revolutionary fervor for implementing democratic reforms, the cause of suffrage resonated across class and gender barriers. Suffrage was an issue of interest not only to the educated women of the intelligentsia, but also to female workers and peasants. Arguments for extending suffrage emphasizing working women’s prominent role in revolutionary events in the capital became an important argument in the arsenal of women’s rights supporters on the left. Prompt action on women’s rights was not decried as a frivolous demand of “privileged women” but as a natural consequence of women’s courageous actions in sparking the initial demonstrations and then moving revolutionary events forward.

Support for suffrage in that time proved unifying, a demand to be championed by defenders of the proletariat. Alexandra Kollontai added her voice to those arguing that granting women equal rights would complete the revolution, repeating this theme in her first article in Pravda after her return from exile on March 18. “Weren’t we women first out on the streets?” wrote Kollontai, “Why now…does the freedom won by the heroic proletariat of both sexes, by the soldiers and soldiers’ wives, ignore half the population of liberated Russia?”3

Dissatisfaction over the failure of the Provisional Government to act quickly and decisively on the issue of suffrage led to the second major foray of women into the public arena, on March 19, 1917. Poliksena Shishkina-Iavein, the first female gynecologist in Russia and the President of the League for Women’s Equal Rights, organized the largest women’s demonstration in Russian history, demanding suffrage. An estimated 35–40 thousand women took part. The march began at the City Duma on Nevskii Prospekt, in the heart of the city, and headed toward the State Duma, at the Tauride Palace. Ninety organizations joined in sponsoring the demonstration. Shishkina-Iavein and Vera Figner led the march, standing in an open car.

The march and its consequences offer an opportunity to see how the Provisional Government and the Soviets worked together in the early days of the Revolution. The feminists were determined and militant, but they were in a relatively powerful position. In the fluid situation of the first weeks after the revolution, the Soviet and Provisional Government leaders had few options. The use of force against a women’s march so soon after the revolution was unthinkable and impossible.

The women in the earlier revolutionary actions of 1917 are heard but not identified. March 19th is the first time a woman leader is named and confronts powerful men at a public demonstration. An account written by Olga Zakuta, a member of the Women’s League, provides details of the interaction between Shishkina-Iavein, the Provisional Government and Soviet leaders. Shishkina-Iavein led the crowd in demanding that the Chair of the Soviet Nikolai S. Chkeidze and the President of the Duma Mikhail V. Rodzianko give a definitive answer on the issue of giving women the right to vote. In the end, with the concurrence of Prince L’vov, head of the Provisional Government, the women won their demand, with the leaders of the Provisional Government and the Soviet in agreement. The electoral law of July 20 ratified the right of Russian women to vote and run for office in the upcoming Constituent Assembly elections.4

Why did the Provisional Government leaders capitulate after one demonstration when in many of the established western democracies countless suffrage demonstrations achieved little? In Russia, several factors played their part. Unlike politicians in many of the older democracies, neither the Provisional Government nor the Soviet leaders were opposed to women’s suffrage. Even those who, like the Kadet leader Paul Miliukov, initially opposed the female vote, had long since changed their positions. Support for women’s rights became standard in the platforms of socialist and other left parties. And more conservative members of the government, like Rodzianko, now recognized that women’s suffrage was part of what defined the modern state.

The Constituent Assembly Elections and the Women’s Vote

By the time Lenin arrived at the Finland Station on the evening of April 3, his April Theses denouncing any Bolshevik cooperation with the Provisional Government and/or other socialists, women’s suffrage was well on its way to becoming law. Six and a half months later, Lenin and the Bolsheviks had seized power in the second and decisive 1917 Russian revolution. In most accounts, the night of October 24, when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government, marks the end of democracy in general, as “under a one-party system, the right to vote had little political substance.”5 But the imposition of one-party rule took time. In the initial post-October period, the direction of the Revolution was not so clear. Hopeful for a popular mandate, Lenin permitted the Constituent Assembly elections to be held, beginning on November 12 and extending through most of that month. Women taking to the streets powerfully influenced the course of events in 1917, but these actions, although they had ramifications for the entire country, initially took place in Petrograd. Voting affected all adult Russian women. Again, the standard argument is that women didn’t care about the vote. But the evidence, especially the research of historian Lev Protason, challenges this narrative.

The Constituent Assembly elections were the first elections in which Russian women over the age of twenty could not only vote but run for office, the freest elections ever held in Russia until after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Over forty million votes were cast.6 Oliver Radkey estimated the voter participation rate as about fifty-five percent. This is remarkable given the chaos and uncertainty of the period, immediately after the Bolshevik seizure of power in October.7 Factors such as women’s motivation, male peasant resistance, voter intimidation, and minority group mobilization all influenced female voters’ turnout. Despite the obstacles, large numbers of women seized the opportunity to exercise their newly won rights as citizens.

In contrast to countries such as the U.S., where formal and informal racial and class barriers to voting affected the total vote, such barriers for the most part did not exist in multi-ethnic revolutionary Russia. In urban areas like Baku, the number of Muslim women voting totaled 77%, with overwhelming majorities for the Muslims of Russia list.8 Female participation often exceeded that of men. Protasov cites newspaper articles reporting gender differences in turnout. According to these sources, the percentage of rural female voters reached 77%; the male total was 70%. Urban centers, with their much higher concentration of educated and politically aware women, were expected to have higher female participation. Even so, the gap between male and female turnout was wider than expected. In the cities of Moscow province, for example, 56% of women voted as compared to 50% of men. In Yaroslavl 46.5% of men voted, and 67.5% of women.9 The number of soldiers still at the front no doubt affected the male turnout percentages. Overall, despite wartime conditions, Russians went to the polls at higher rates than in the U.S., an established western democracy where the first national election in which women voted was held in peacetime. Scholars of the U.S. Presidential election of 1920, estimate that the female turnout averaged about 37% while men’s participation averaged about 55%.10

With the Bolshevik triumph, feminist organizations and feminist journals disappeared, as the new Soviet government closed any autonomous independent groups and publications.11 Once in power, the Bolsheviks claimed ownership of the women’s suffrage victory, as part of their overall effort to claim all women’s liberation achievements and efface and demean the work of the feminists.

Twenty-six years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Bolshevik narrative too often remains unchallenged. Links between the events of February 1917, when Petrograd women took to the streets on International Women’s Day to spark the revolution, the March 19 suffrage demonstration, the creation of the Women’s Battalion, the July electoral law that granted full democratic rights to Russian women and the Constituent Assembly elections deserve further exploration. Indeed, women’s suffrage is the most consequential achievement of the Provisional Government.12 And as a result of the suffrage victory, Lenin and the Bolsheviks gained control of a state in which women already had an experience of formally performing citizenship, through voting.

Integrating information about women’s entry into the public sphere in 1917, through study of their participation in demonstrations, political marches, the various forms of female activism, and the battle for women’s suffrage, enhances the understanding of the revolutionary year in relation to questions of citizenship, democratic reform, and conceptions of gender and female agency. The history of 1917 in Russia requires a full range of voices, and attention to the entire spectrum of human emotions and experiences, within the masses as well as the elites.

Notes:

1. The great majority of African-American women in the southern U.S. did not get the vote until after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, partially gutted by the Roberts-led Supreme Court in 2013. Native Americans were finally authorized to vote by the Snyder Act of 1924. But because the Constitution left it up to the states to determine voting eligibility, it was only in 1962 that New Mexico became the last state to enfranchise Native Americans.

2. The leaflet is in D.A.Longley, “The Mezhraionka, the Bolsheviks, and International Women’s Day: In Response to Michael MelanconAppendix F(“Pechatnyi listok Peterburgskogo Mezhduraionnogo Komiteta posviashchennyi Mezhdunarodnomu dniu rabotnits─23 fevralia 1917g.). Soviet Studies 41, no. 4 (1989): 625-645.

3. Kollontai (A. Kalantai), “Women workers and the Constituent Assembly” (“Rabotnitsy i uchreditel’noe sobranie,”)  Pravda,(21 March 1917), 1-2, 1.

4. For Zakuta’s account, see Rochelle G. Ruthchild, editor and translator, Olga Zakuta, “Kak v revoliutsionnoe vremia Vserossiiskaia Liga Ravnopraviia Zhenshchin dobilas’ izbiratel’nykh prav dlia russkikh zhenshchin (How in the revolutionary time the All-Russian League for Women’s Equal Rights won suffrage for Russian women),” Aspasia, vol. 6 (2012): 117-124.For the text of the electoral law see Robert Browder and Alexander Kerensky, eds., The Russian Provisional Government, 1917. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1961), vol. 1, 454-61. The clause including women as eligible voters is Chapter II, “On suffrage,” 3, on p. 455.

5. Linda Edmondson, “Women’s Rights, Gender and Citizenship in Tsarist Russia, 1860-1920: the Question of Difference,” in Women’s Rights and Human Rights: International Historical Perspectives. Ed. Patricia Grimshaw, Katie Holmes, and Marilyn Lake (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave, 2001), 153-67, 160.

6. Mark Vishniak, The All-Russian Constituent Assembly (Vserossiiskoe uchreditel’noe sobranie)(Paris: Izd. Sovremennyiia zapiski, 1932), 83.

7. For the Constituent Assembly election participation figures, see Oliver Radkey, Russia Goes to the Polls: The Election to the All-Russian Constituent Assembly, 1917. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989, 44-45.

8. L.G. Protasov, Women in the All-Russian Constituent Assembly (Zhenshchina v Vserossiiskoe Uchreditel’noe Sobranie),”  From Male and Female to Gender Research: Materials of the International Academic Conference 20 April 2001 (Ot muzhskikh i zhenskikh k gendernym issledovaniiam: Materialy mezhdunarodnoi nauchnoi konferentsii 20 aprelia 2001 goda. ed. Pavel P. Shcherbinin (Tambov: Tambov State University Press, 2001), 46-54, 47.

9. On the voting percentages, see Protasov,50.

10. J. Kevin Corder and Christina Wolbrecht, “Incorporating Women Voters After Suffrage,” unpublished paper, 22.

11. Évelyne Enderlein, Yesterday was tomorrow: Reflections on the First All-Russian Women’s Congress of 1908 "’Hier Était Demain'": Réflexions Sur Le Premier Congrès Feminine Pan-Russe De 1908," In New sources and new methodologies in women’s studies research (Nouvelles sources et nouvelles methodologies de recherché dans les etudes sur les femmes), ed. Guyonne Leduc, 129-43. (Paris: L'Harmattan, 2004), 139. Évelyne Enderlein was told by Arkadii Vaksberg that the list of feminist organizations and publications to be closed was compiled by Kollontai and is at GARF. I have not been able personally to consult these documents. (Personal conversation, 22 March 2008)

12. Vishniak in Constituent Assembly contends that the Provisional Government’s electoral law was the model for other eastern and central European countries such as Czechoslovakia, Poland, Austria and Germany, and also for Republican Spain. (85)

Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild, Center Associate, The Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University, Resident Scholar, Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center, and Professor Emerita of Graduate Studies, The Union Institute and University, is a scholar specializing in Russian, Soviet, Jewish women’s history, and LGBT history. She is the author of numerous articles and reviews on these topics, as well as the prize-winning monograph Equality and Revolution: Women’s Rights in the Russian Empire, 1905-1917 (2010).  A participant in and student of the U.S. women’s liberation movement, she is an executive producer of the documentary film “Left on Pearl: Women Take Over 888 Memorial Drive, Cambridge,” about the surprise ending of Boston’s 1971 International Women’s Day march. “Left on Pearl” is the winner of the Best Documentary award at the Boston International Film Festival. 

An earlier version of this article was published in the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies Newsnet.