4 November, 2013
In 1917, women took to the streets of Saint Petersburg on International Women’s Day and demanded “Bread and Peace” in what ultimately initiated the February Revolution. After the October Revolution, Vladimir Lenin made International Women’s Day an official holiday of the Soviet Union. Lenin wrote On International Women’s Day in 1920 that “the main task [of the working women’s movement] is to draw the women into socially productive labour, extricate them from “domestic slavery”, free them of their stultifying and humiliating resignation to the perpetual and exclusive atmosphere of the kitchen and nursery”. During the early days of the Soviet Union, the Bolsheviks turned the country into the most progressive nation in terms of redefining gender. The idea of equality became curtailed in the days of Stalin. In 1936, legal abortions were abolished mainly due to the declining birthrate and concerns about the future population. Stalin propagandized the importance of giving birth and building a large family. While Soviet women may have been seen as progressive due to their status as workers, the push for them to build these large families led to a double burden for them. Women became responsible not only for their working hours, but they also had the “burden” of maintaining the home and family as well.
Seventeen Moments in Soviet History notes in “What’s a Woman to Think?” that many who sought to continue the cause for the female emancipation that began with the October Revolution would have been confused during the 1950’s as traditional gender roles were reinforced. The idea of “femininity” was stressed throughout Soviet culture and women were given role models such as teachers and housewife. Seventeen Moments points to the consumer economy as one reason for these traditional roles being reinforced because it enabled women to buy new items for their homes and their selves.
While it seemed as if Soviet culture was moving away from gender equality, events were also occurring that did not reinforce the traditional gender roles. The Party Central Committee sent out a decree on International Women’s Day in 1954 praising the female workers. An except of the decree, which not only praised the Soviet woman but also denounced the capitalist woman reads, “A numerous army of women specialists is working fruitfully, on equal footing with men, in all branches of the socialist economy, science and culture and in the state apparatus. Soviet women have a prominent place in science and art. More than 2,700,000 women are working in scientific, educational and cultural-enlightenment establishments in our country. Women scientists, engineers and technicians, agronomists and zootechnicians are enriching Soviet science by their research, inventions and discoveries. Women writers, artists and workers in the theater and in cinematography have made important contributions to the development of Soviet arts.”. Of course, we know that the degree of the equality being propagandized here is a bit exaggerated, but the way that the party stresses the woman as a worker is a clear contradiction of any kind of traditional gender role (especially that which existed in the United States during this decade). Later, the decree goes on to mention just how important it is for the Soviet woman to be a mother as she has, “an important and honorable task-the upbringing of children, the future builders of communism”. Surely the party had to have realized that the task of being a worker and a mother was a difficult one. A typical Soviet mother would work a full work day and then come home to an almost equal amount of work in her home. Another major contradiction existed with the repeal of the 1936 abortion ban in 1955. The repeal acknowledged that the woman had a right to choose , but it also acknowledged the governments right to choose to reinstate the ban. While it may have been legal to get an abortion, the government spent a great deal of time denouncing the action of actually getting one. In For You, Comrade Men, Soviet men are discouraged from giving their wife the “right” to make the decision to have an abortion and are told to protect her life and their familial happiness.
The 1950’s were not the first or the only time that the “cult of motherhood” and the ideal soviet worker would clash in Soviet history. The Soviet mother would go on to get a stereotype as a self-sacrificing hard worker whose day seemed to have no end. A question that I would like to pose in regard to the conflicting ambitions giving to women is: Was it a flaw in the Soviet system? Did the government fail to provide working mothers with adequate help in raising the children and working their full work week (Lenin had promised cafeterias, nurseries, and daycare whose usefulness is up for debate) ; or is the double burden just a fact of life for a working mother that is present in every society today?
The main module that I used for this blog post was 1954’s “Whats a Woman to Think?” found at http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1954women&Year=1954 . The modules, “The Double Burden” and “Repealing the Ban on Abortion”, provided a lot of complementary material and can be found at http://www.soviethistory.org/index.phppage=subject&SubjectID=1968burden&Year=1968 and http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1956repeal&Year=1956 .
I used a primary source with the Current Digest of Post-Soviet Press called, “CONCERNING INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY, MARCH 8.-Decree of Party Central Committee” which can be found at http://dlib.eastview.com/searchresults/article.jsp?art=35&id=13843939 .
Some other primary sources that I used were Lenin’s “On International Womens Day” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/mar/04.htm), and L. Aristov’s “For You, Comrade Men” (http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=article&ArticleID=1956men1&SubjectID=1956repeal&Year=1956)
The images that I used are from these websites and are in the order in which they appear: