The period of Lenin’s rule (from 1917- 1925) was a time of great social change in the USSR. The October 1917 revolution paved way for the ‘rule of the proletariat’. The oppressed classes benefited from wide-ranging social, legal and political reform that enabled them to lead a better life. In this atmosphere, women’s rights also came under attention. Lenin wrote prolifically on the issue of female emancipation. After Lenin’s death, Stalin came to power in 1929. Though he didn’t write much on this subject, one can see a clear shift in policy. There is also a perceptible shift in basic ideas regarding women’s rights.
It is to be noted that Lenin’s writings are more visionary, being in the period of the Revolution. They reflect a discourse on certain basic issues. In Stalin’s time, the framework had already been established, so his writings consist mostly of public statements given at gatherings.
For instance, Lenin reported on the International Socialist Congress (1907) in favour of the resolution that women workers should campaign for suffrage. He rejects the Austrian Viktor Adler’s opinion that until men get suffrage, women’s right to vote should not be considered. This shows that Lenin subscribed to universal adult franchise as a matter of principle.
Lenin shows a remarkable ability to arrive at the root cause of social issues like prostitution. His anger against the international delegates who espouse the use of police force and the influence of religious morality to control prostitution is palpable. In his view, until socio-economic equality is assured, all other measures to tackle prostitution will be in vain. It is a symptom of class oppression. The hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie who react to this view with ‘women do not deserve higher wages’ is unbearable for him, as he believes in equal wages for both genders. But much later, he asks Clara Zetkin why the German Socialists are concentrating on mobilizing prostitutes while they could do so with working women. He dismisses them with strong words. Here, he is not willing to deal with this issue presently when more important things have to be taken care of.
He was also unequivocal in his criticism of the burden of housework for women. He says “Notwithstanding all the laws emancipating woman, she continues to be a domestic slave, because petty housework crushes, strangles, stultifies and degrades her’’. His solution was to set up public facilities like community kitchens and nurseries which will take over the provision of these services. Interestingly, Lenin says that in a system of collective property, there would be ‘large scale socialized domestic services’. He sees women in the role of property guardians in the capitalist system- taking care of individual units without respite. But in a collectivised system, the state takes on the role of service and welfare-provider.
The question of property and its effect on women’s status has been dealt with by Lenin. He says that a system of private property leads to the oppression of women. He means that when there is private ownership, the stewardship role falls on women. Women bear children who become assets in this system, and so she comes under patriarchal control. Lenin encouraged industrial employment of women because it allowed exposure and financial independence. In traditional peasantry, the acquisition of property is given importance, resulting in the oppression of women. He also detested the influence of patriarchal ideas of religion among the peasantry, exemplified by the proverb ‘Each man for himself and god for all’. Here, the belief in divine blessings for all is a convenient excuse to concentrate on individual profit, which translates to vulnerability of women.
Lenin has written about working women and their conditions. He acknowledges the additional pressure faced by them because of having to also take care of the housework and children. His government passed laws allowing for nurseries and kindergartens to be set up in workplaces so that the child could be taken care of. Timely breaks for breastfeeding were made mandatory. All these measures along with relief from housework (see above) encourages more women to come out and work. They no longer have to worry about managing innumerable tasks simultaneously.
Lenin demanded (as part of constitutional rights) prohibition of female workers from any factory work that would be injurious to their health, and night shifts. While at first glance, prohibition as a right seems baffling, it is the result of an entanglement of class rights and gender equality. Factory workers are exposed to unhealthy conditions and women shouldn’t be victims of this blatant disregard of worker-health.
His stance on abortion is intriguing. He supports abortion rights, but firmly disagrees with the ‘Neo-Malthusian’ espousal of contraception that is based on the idea that the future generations will endure poverty and suffering. He says ‘we are ardent optimists in what concerns the working-class movement and its aims. We are already laying the foundation of a new edifice and our children will complete its construction’. Lenin’s ideas about reform originate from belief in what the movement can achieve. He sees Neo-Malthusianism as a tool used by the bourgeoisie to repress the worker’s movement. But he still wants people to make informed decisions and therefore supports distribution of medical literature on contraception. Lenin desires individual autonomy of women within the larger movement.
In Lenin’s time, divorce was made easier. Divorce proceedings were abolished and only one partner’s request was necessary. Lenin felt that these avoided the ‘debasement and hypocrisy’ involved in traditional divorces. He said that opposing divorce went against democracy and socialism, placing a personal matter in the public context of inequality and oppression. The idea was to enable women to escape abusive marriages but it backfired; men used the provision to leave their wives. As it became easier to annul marriages, many children were abandoned on the streets.
Lenin’s view on the issue of illegitimate children was replicated by Stalin. Lenin felt that the bourgeoisie attitude towards this was ‘feudal’, exacerbating divisions in society. He was against the use of discriminatory terms like ‘illegitimate or out of wedlock’ . For him, all children are Soviet citizens who will take forth the movement. This attitude is reflected in Stalin’s aid for unmarried mothers.
Women’s role in public life was immensely valued by Lenin, as shown by his statement ‘If we do not draw women into public activity, into the militia, into political life ..,then it is impossible to secure real freedom, it is impossible even to build democracy, let alone socialism’. He advocates female participation in administration, in decision-making in the Soviets. He demands administrative training for working women so that they can prove their potential in this area.
It is his view that with women decision- makers, ‘the police functions of the state’(welfare provisions like care of the sick) would be more effectively handled. Decision making involves political autonomy, but this seems to reinforce the traditional roles of women as welfare providers. While speaking out against the drudgery of housework, Lenin still advocates women being responsible for the same kind of work in the public sphere. Of course, the work is shared here while housework is an individual burden. But what is striking is how traditional gender roles have become symbols of liberation in the public sphere.
But to be fair, he also thinks military conscription for both men and women (16-55) is a good idea, as it is imperative that women do not merely participate in politics, but also engage in public service; otherwise, ‘there is no use in democracy or socialism’. Here, he understands democracy as everybody having equal rights to work for the common good. It is an example of how the quest to ensure gender equality can subsume previously- held autonomy in some areas. The narrative of striving for the movement and the state makes it a matter of pride. It is an opportunity to help the State and protests will be seen as unpatriotic.
With Stalin’s ascendance to power, the stance towards women’s rights hardened. He emphasized on the family as the basic unit of Soviet society. This was partly in response to the large number of homeless children, due to easy divorces and huge casualties in the World War 1 and Civil War. The state tried to bring them up in orphanages, but due to the economic problems caused by the wars, there was a shortage of funds. These youth formed criminal gangs and terrorized the cities. Studies pointed to family disintegration.
Divorces became harder to obtain. Approval of both parties became mandatory and the costs increased with subsequent divorces. The government actively discouraged divorce with paying married couples a child allowance, which could sufficiently increase real income. Another measure was to increase the amount of child maintenance to dissuade divorces. But it didn’t work that well as fathers were hard to track down. The use of economic incentives to preserve an institution is interesting.
Children were seen as assets of society, as a section of the population that could supply the country with efficient workforce in the future and thereby help in the process of nation-building. Abortion was made illegal in 1936. Seeking to make childbirth attractive, newspapers carried information on methods that could lesson the pain of pregnancy and interviews of enthusiastic mothers. Medals like Mother Heroine (for mothers of 10+ children) and the Order of Maternal Glory (for mothers of 7-9 children) were instituted to encourage and glorify motherhood.
Tellingly, when listing the areas in which women have succeeded, Stalin includes motherhood and it’s ‘honorable role in educating the child’. When all the other instances of success involve external mechanisms, the biological characteristic of women is seen as a success in itself. Motherhood becomes an achievement.
Mothers can also be tools of propaganda. In one instance, Stalin refers to women as ‘a huge army of workers who will bring up our children’. A mother’s role is seen as strengthening the country by feeding children the Soviet ideals in all matters.
The equation of women’s role in administration with democracy reflects a recurrent theme in the Soviet discourse- because the regime stands for the rights of the proletariat, the oppression of women is also granted importance. The award of Stalin medals for women’s achievements in literature, art and science shows respect for intellectual capabilities of women. For a country seeking to assert itself on the world stage, knowledge signified power, irrespective of who owned it.
He reasons out women’s political education by saying that if they are ignorant in this matter, they will drag down the whole state. The negative tinge to the statement points out differences: for Lenin, gender equality was essential for the success of the state. For Lenin, female rights were an essential part of the movement; whereas for Stalin it was merely something to be done so that all the hard work doesn’t go to waste.
The Stakhanov movement was based on the glorification of strenuous physical labour. The existence of woman Stakhanovites and their being acknowledged by Stalin shows that women were taking up challenging physical work and were being recognized for their ability to perform as well as men. But thinking further, it is not really empowerment but rather leads to an increased burden on women because of the emphasis on family. They ultimately end up doing more work. Although nurseries were set up on farms and factories, women still ended up doing most of the work at home.
Stalin’s policy makes a clearer distinction between working-women and peasant women than Lenin, who spoke about urban women’s participation and the exploitation of peasant women, but it was not a recurrent theme. Stalin distinguishes between the development of working women and the still-impoverished conditions of the peasant women.
One common strand of both Lenin and Stalin is that they emphasize time and again on the role of the Soviet regime in woman emancipation, contrasting it with the bourgeoisie system. In a sense, therefore the women’s movement is just a subset in the larger class movement, a tool to mobilize more support.
This essay has explored Lenin and Stalin’s views and measures to tackle women’s issues, while trying to bring out the similarities and differences in their ideas.
1. The bulk of the material for this essay has been sourced from various writings of Lenin and Stalin found in the Women and Marxism section of the Marxist Internet Archive. Link: https://www.marxists.org/subject/women/index.html
2. B. Armstrong’s assessment of Stalin, (was-life-better-or-worse-for-women-under-stalin.pdf) [notes on women in Soviet USSR] was helpful in realizing policy differences
3. Mothers in the Motherland: Stalinist Pronatalism and its Pan-European Context, by David Hoffmann from Ohio State University helped better understand Stalinist policy in the global context.