The Bolsheviks were very successful in promoting gender equality in the new Soviet republic although they could not easily resolve all the problems created by centuries of legal, religious, and patriarchal oppression.
Before the October 1917 revolution, marriage and divorce were controlled by religious authorities. Women were accorded few rights by either Church or state. Divorce was almost impossible to get: according to state law, a wife owed complete obedience to her husband.
Up to 1914, when a limited reform allowed a woman to obtain her own passport, a woman was unable to take a job, get an education, choose her work or residence, or execute a bill of exchange without her husband’s of father’s consent. The power of a husband over his wife was replicated by the legal power of the father over his children.
As soon as the Soviets came to power, the new state sought to realise a new, radical vision of women’s liberation. It envisioned a society in which women would become financially independent, earn equal wages with men, and be freed of the burden of cooking, cleaning, and childcare.
In 1918, the state adopted the most progressive family legislation the world had ever seen. The new Family Code created equality between men and women, gave legal status to civil marriage only, made no-fault divorce available, and recognised the rights of all children to parental support regardless of whether they were born within or outside a civil marriage. In short, it abolished the very concept of illegitimacy.
In 1920, the new state became the first in the world to legalise abortion and make it available in hospitals free of charge. In the countryside, it gave women peasants the right to participate in the skhod, the governing body of the peasant commune, a privilege once reserved solely for men.
The 1926 Family Code went even further in promulgating the idea of “free union” and removing the state from the personal affairs of its citizens. It granted the same legal status to de facto marriage (living together) as it did to civil marriage and transferred divorce from the courts to the registry offices.
At the same time that the Soviet state enacted this radical legislation, it struggled to create employment opportunities for women, to fund childcare centres, and to counter patriarchal customs in the countryside. The country was economically ruined after years of war and famine, and the new state found it difficult to provide a strong material foundation for its new legislation. By 1930, however, it successfully reconstructed the economy and completely eliminated unemployment. Millions of women entered well-paid production work that was once reserved solely for men.
“Stalin’s government made divorce more difficult, cracked down on men who refused to pay alimony, resurrected the family as the basic unit of society, and prohibited abortion.”
By this time, however, Stalin had come to power and the state rejected many of the revolutionary ideas that inspired its early legislation. It continued to support childcare centres and women’s paid employment, but it abolished the Zhenotdel (Women’s Department of the Central Committee), made divorce more difficult to get, cracked down on men who refused to pay alimony, resurrected the idea of the family as the basic unit of society, and prohibited abortion.
Throughout the 1930s, the war and the post-war years, women continued to play an important role in the Soviet economy, but they also struggled with the “double burden” or “second shift” so well known to working women in the West. Women were poorly represented at the higher levels of the Party and other key institutions. Men rarely assumed an equal share of housework or childcare, and women remained hobbled by their responsibilities for home and family. The women’s movement of the 1970s in the West, which boldly challenged gender roles at home and in the workplace, did not develop in the Soviet Union.
Thus the record of the Bolsheviks and the Soviet state was mixed: they provided a vision of women’s liberation which is still relevant today, enacted audacious new legislation, legalised abortion, brought millions of women into well-paid industrial work, and offered exciting new educational opportunities to women (and men). Yet they were less successful at socialising household labour, equalising gender roles in the home and creating the material conditions to free women from the “double burden.”
Wendy Z. Goldman is the author of Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917-1936 (Cambridge University Press 1993) and Women at the Gates: Gender and Industry in Stalin’s Russia (Cambridge University Press 2002).
The answer to this question is not straightforward. It depends on how gender equality is understood, and, hence, what needs to be done to achieve it.
The Soviet vision of gender equality was rooted in classical Marxism. It viewed the oppression of women as a “by-product” of class inequality: as Friedrich Engels wrote in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), 'the world-historic defeat of the female sex' happened with the introduction of private property.'
Patriarchy (the oppression of women) and class oppression go together, as women toil at home for men and for capitalism at the same time.
As women produce/reproduce workers for capitalism (and for any class society), there is an incentive to control their sexuality and reproductive capacities and curtail their autonomy. Patriarchy (the oppression of women) and class oppression go together, as women toil at home for men and for capitalism at the same time. Thus, to liberate women, it was necessary to integrate them into the paid labor force, to make them economically independent. But women’s work participation would be problematic without free (state-supported) childcare, access to abortion and healthcare, paid maternity/parental leaves, affordable summer camps for children and other benefits. These can only be provided through a particular system of resource redistribution, and thus gender equality was also a case for socialism. This also explains why women tend to vote for leftist parties, which promise a broad social welfare, rather than tax cuts, more often than men do. The Soviet system provided multiple benefits for women, but viewed them as potential mothers and working mothers.
This also explains why women tend to vote for leftist parties, which promise a broad social welfare, rather than tax cuts, more often than men do. The Soviet system provided multiple benefits for women, but viewed them as potential mothers and working mothers.
In the West, the concern over gender inequality that arrived with second-wave feminism in the 1970s focused on something slightly different. According to this perspective, the oppression of women results from patriarchy (male domination) in all social domains, from sexuality to economics, to which capitalism adds some important dimensions. Patriarchy, being almost synonymous with culture (i.e. civilization) penetrates all social categories and institutions, such as language (which is not gender neutral), sexuality (with its “compulsory” heteronormativity, the very basis of patriarchal power), domestic violence (an extension of male domination) etc. It is impossible to put an end to the system without deconstructing and reconstructing its main social institutions. It is within this perspective that sexuality and LGBT issues came to the core: they were seen not only a matter of the individual rights of specific people, but as an instrument for a broad social transformation through deconstructing patriarchal heteronormativity. In this system, women are not necessarily viewed as mothers; there is more focus on the recognition of their autonomy and independent subjectivity, while “benefits” for working mothers can be minimal. For example, in the US there is no paid maternity leave for mothers (unless their employers would grant it to them): it is not viewed as a matter of gender equality.
In the West, the concern over gender inequality focused on something slightly different. Women are not necessarily viewed as mothers; there is more focus on the recognition of their autonomy and independent subjectivity, while “benefits” for working mothers can be minimal.
Watch this video for an overview of three "Western" waves of feminism in order to reflect on what we could mean when we use the term "gender equality" in a modern Western context.
So when we ask about "gender equality" in the Soviet Union, we must be careful about what cultural meanings we ascribe to this concept.