Gender (In)equality During the Communist Era

Women’s Day meeting at the Bolshoi Theater. From left: N.P. Rygaeva, L. Brezhnev, V. V. Tereshkova and R. F. Dementieva. March 1973. Vladimir Akimov. Wikimedia Commons.
Inessa Armand in 1916. Wikimedia Commons.

She was born in Paris as a daughter of an artistic mother (an actress) and father (opera singer), and was brought up by two Russian grandmothers, both teachers. Like many female revolutionaries, Inessa Armand, pictured above, led quite a traditional life at first. She married early, a rich factory owner, with whom she had four children. But then she divorced, to marry her ex- husband’s brother, but most of all to devote her life to revolutionary struggle for social justice. By 1919, Inessa Armand was one of the most powerful women in Moscow. Devoted revolutionary, Lenin’s confidante, and his alleged lover, Armand was first and foremost a proponent of women’s suffrage, known for her words:

“If women’s liberation is unthinkable without communism, then communism is unthinkable without women’s liberation.”

She was among the historical group of women who had a chance to make women’s equality an institution. Inclusive of German Social Democrat Clara Zetkin, Russian thinker and activist Alexandra Kollontai, the members of this group were foremothers of socialist feminism, active participants of the gendered revolution, and pioneers of modern “state feminism.”

Transformation and Protest

Various economic and demographic processes have led these women to believe that the “woman’s issue” is crucial for the grand transformation that they were after. In early 20th century Russia, industrialization and the migration of women from rural to urban areas resulted in women being 32% of industrial workers in 1914, and that number increased to 43% in 1917. At the same time, the working conditions of women did not improve; there was no childcare, no protection of pregnant women. Women rarely engaged in street protests – they did so mostly during food shortages – and they made up only 10% of union members; their male colleagues considered many of them to be conservative and apolitical.

Yet it was the female Russian factory workers’ protest, instigated by bread shortages that sparked mass demonstrations, and, shortly thereafter, a revolutionary riot on February 23, 1917, in the Russian city of Petrograd (modern St. Petersburg).

After the revolution, the new government made it a principle to introduce a number of provisions that were designed to establish the full economic and political emancipation of women. Civil marriage and recognition of children from outside of marriage complimented full political and economic suffrage leading to a situation of potentially full economic and civic independence of women from men. And, in 1917, the Communist Party established the Women’s Department (Zhenotdel). Led by Inessa Armand, the Department spread communist agitation and propaganda among women in Russia. At the same time, Alexandra Kollontai was appointed a Commissar for Social Affairs.  In 1918, women’s rights were written into the constitution and in 1920 abortion became legal in Russia (abortion was then banned during Stalin’s rule between 1936 and 1955).

Communism and Women’s Emancipation

The communist model of emancipation differed from liberal feminism in a number of ways.   Bolshevik women made it clear that, in their opinion, the middle-class emancipation movement is destined to fail where mass emancipation is concerned. “However apparently radical the demands of the feminists” wrote Alexandra Kollontai in 1909,

“One must not lose sight of the fact that the feminists cannot, on account of their class position, fight for that fundamental transformation of the contemporary economic and social structure of society without which the liberation of women cannot be complete.”

Collectivism was part of the way in which communists thought of emancipation and reproductive rights alike. Early post-revolutionary Russia repealed all laws criminalizing homosexuality along with other laws regulating sexuality, claiming they were contradictory with proletariat morality. However, it was the society’s well-being, rather than individual women’s rights and bodily autonomy that are the heart of the Alexandra Kollontai’s plea for legal abortion. In 1919, she wrote,

“Abortion exists and flourishes everywhere, and no laws or punitive measures have succeeded in rooting it out. A way round the law is always found.”

She argued for abortion to be allowed in medical state facilities to secure state’s control over reproduction. Motherhood, to the communist mind, was a “social obligation” and women’s reproductive health was the state’s responsibility. “Abortion, when carried out under proper medical conditions,” Kollontai claimed, “is less harmful and dangerous, and the woman can get back to work quicker (…) Soviet power realizes that the need for abortion will only disappear on the one hand when Russia has a broad and developed network of institutions protecting motherhood and providing social education, and on the other hand when women understand that childbirth is a social obligation.”

As it was governed by the idea that “legal equality, while crucial, did not achieve liberation in everyday life within the family,” post-revolutionary emancipation aimed at resolving a number of issues related to social reproduction by making them “public.” That included housework and childcare. Lenin himself was a devoted proponent of such solutions, as he perceived house chores to be “unproductive, petty, nerve-racking, stultifying and crushing drudgery.” Public catering establishments, nurseries, kindergartens were established to decrease inequality and enable society to re-evaluate women’s role in social production and public life. The State was, in the mind of revolutionary women and men, a main recipient of emancipation claims, and an institutional platform through which emancipation could be implemented.

The communist project of emancipation evolved overtime and was implemented differently in various geopolitical contexts. Against the ambitious post-revolutionary goals of fully incorporating women into the labor force and taking full responsibility of the social reproduction by the state, emancipation shifted over the decades. During the Stalinist era, the state withdrew from public responsibility for domestic labor, and reframed the ideal of emancipation to fit a picture of a “Soviet Mother” who combines her traditional roles of mother and caregiver with a more modern role of a worker.

When the communist style of emancipation was imposed on many East European states after the end of World War II, so were Soviet laws. “Productivities” of women as a part of the labor force, along with socialization of women’s work at home, remained at the center of the equality project that traveled from east to west. In Poland after the war, civil and family laws were implemented to fit the new vision of the socialist woman who was emancipated economically and free from the cultural domination of the Catholic Church. Making women’s work a public matter was a goal of social organizations, among them the Institute of Household Matters. These organizations worked to create 24h children care centers and kindergartens, cantinas at workplaces, and other social services and cooperatives. Equality at home was to be encouraged by educating boys and girls to equally share household chores and by reminding working women and men that they should share “private” responsibilities in the way that they share workplace responsibilities.

The 1956 post-Stalin “thaw” altered this emancipatory vision of women’s equality at home and at the workplace. The thaw reformulated the socialist political and economic program to fit traditionalist and nationalist ideas of new political leadership. Since the mid-1950s state-ordained women’s organizations, such as the League of Women, promoted a less ambitious program for women’s emancipation, one in which a working woman had to juggle her commitment to the workplace with her obligation towards the family and manage the so-called “double burden.” The function of the state was to help families modernize traditional households and make combine wage work and household responsibilities.  Under similar slogans of “modernization” and “quality of life,” East European countries introduced new laws which made abortion legal and accessible. Abortion was legalized in Hungary in 1953, in Poland in 1956, and in Czechoslovakia in 1957.

East and West

It is important to note that, contrary to popular belief, during the post-war period and throughout the Cold War, women from East European states and the Western world had a chance to meet and exchange ideas about emancipation. Immediately after 1945, Women International Democratic Federation (WIDF), established in Moscow in 1945, served as a platform of exchange between Eastern and Western activists. WIDF’s mission spanned antifascism, international peace, child welfare, and improving the status of women. Over decades, it promoted activism towards peace, economic equality, and the end of racism. It attracted activists from the United States (including a Congress of American Women, founded in New York City in 1946), particularly the proponents of the “positive peace” doctrine. The Positive Peace doctrine, popular among American socialists in the 1930s and 1940s, saw phenomena such as European colonization and Jim Crow laws in the United States as instances of institutional racism and international imperialism that had the same origins as institutional violence against women and discrimination against women.

Wikimedia Commons: USSR postage stamp, 50th anniversary of International Women’s Day, March 8 1960.

Later, during the 1960s and 1970s, activists from Eastern Europe and the West worked on crucial international events devoted to women’s equality. In the 1960s, activists from Eastern Europe initiated crucial documents in the area of women’s rights, including the Declaration on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women, which in 1969 became the Convention on the Elimination of All Form of Discrimination against Women. Eastern European women also collaborated, along with women from the Global South, to organize the United Nations’ International Women’s Year (1985). They worked towards the international recognition of women’s equality throughout the UN Decade on Women (1975-1985), marked by three important international conferences on women’s rights: in Mexico (1975), Cairo (1980), and Nairobi (1985). The Fourth UN Conference on Women took place in Beijing in 1995, several years after the fall of communism.

In sum, one may argue that post-WWII Eastern Europe and the West represented two intersecting paths of women’s emancipation. Communist and socialist emancipation, fully implemented only during the short period after the 1917 Revolution, focused on incorporating women into the labor force, while simultaneously providing working women with public services, such as child and health care. In many areas, these provisions were only partially effective, leaving an impression that communist equality existed only “on paper,” rather than in reality. This was the case of women’s political representation at the higher positions of power. Although women were encouraged to participate in political life and to become members of state-controlled women’s organizations, the higher positions of power were largely unavailable to them.

Without a doubt, in some areas of social life, including economic emancipation, socialist equality succeeded. For example, before German unification in 1990, 90% of East German women worked, in comparison to only 55% of women in West Germany. This was possible due to the network of state-owned childcare facilities. During the socialist times, in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), 80% of childcare facilities were state-owned, compared to only 4% in the West. Importantly, women in the Soviet Bloc were granted a right to legal abortion decades before this was possible in the Western states. With the notable exception of Romania, where abortion was legalized in 1957 and practically de-legalized in 1966, most socialist states introduced legal abortion in the second decade after the WWII, while the western women did not have it until late1960s (for example, abortion was legalized in the UK in 1967, in the US in 1973, and in France in 1975).

It is crucial to note that, in the case of socialist states, these provisions were introduced by the state, and not fought for by the women’s movement. The idea that the state should be responsible for women’s emancipation and equality was compatible with the collectivist vision according to which matters related to reproduction (abortion, childcare) are state affairs, rather than individual rights. The collectivist approach was, and still is, in stark contrast to the liberal conceptions of feminism that developed mostly in Western countries and focused on providing women with rights mainly in the public and political spheres, while letting each individual decide on the issues related to the “private” sphere. In the West, feminism functioned as a social movement, with activists pushing for social change in the area of women’s rights. In the Communist Bloc, the drive for women’s emancipation was fueled by institutionalized efforts from within the state and the ruling political parties. The legacy of collectivism can be traced in contemporary debates on equality in the West and in Eastern Europe, particularly those that highlight the interconnectedness of the production of goods and the production of life – labor and childcare are not two separate spheres, but one interrelated process in which today’s children are workers and citizens of tomorrow.


  • Clements, B. (1979) Bolshevik Feminist: The Life of Aleksandra Kollontai. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.
  • Clements, B. (1994) Daughters of Revolution: A History of Women in the U.S.S.R. Arlington Heights: Harlan Davidson.
  • Kollontai, A. (1909) The Social Basis of the Woman Question
  • Zetkin, C. (1966) Lenin on the Women’s Question