To free or not to free?

This post earned a "red star" award from the editorial team.

This post earned a “red star” award from the editorial team.





Women went through several phases during the Soviet period in which they were encouraged to leave the home, then discouraged, and so on. With each decade that went by, the flip-flopping continued. The emancipation of women can be viewed in two ways: either as the constant progression of women’s rights or as a series of reversals.

Women at the Wheel (1957)

Women at the Wheel (1957)

When Lenin came to power, he emphasized freeing women from “domestic slavery”. As I discussed in my week three post Social Women: This one’s for the Girls, Lenin focused on not only creating a revolutionary society, but on liberating women from their traditional roles in the house. One of Lenin’s most important contributions to the liberation of women was the Family Code of 1918, which legalized abortion, gave women property rights, and the right to divorce. Many of these reforms had the added benefit for Lenin of providing him with more workers. These changes did not make for immediate equality for women, but they did set society in the right direction.

In 1924, when Lenin died, the hope for women to become liberated from the home did not die, but it was pushed to the back burner. In 1936, Stalin enforced a ban on abortions, and publicly spoke about women doing their duty by having and taking care of children. The consumer economy also began encouraging female values that were centered around the home by selling ways for women to “pretty up” their apartments and selves.


An example of the advertising aimed at women from 1954

An example of the advertising aimed at women from 1954

The war also had a significant effect on the relationships between men and women, as I talked about last week in For the Motherland?. Traditional roles crept back up in a society that was supposed to have disappeared due to socialism. In a way, this period froze progress for women until Stalin’s death in 1953.

Part of the “Thaw” that happened after Stalin’s death was the re-ignition of the women’s civil rights movement. May 8 was declared International Women’s Day in April 1956, and the announcement declares that over 50% of doctors, teachers, and scientists are women. Other improvements include the ban on abortions being repealed, and journals began to write about the rights of women, including an article called It Is Her Right in Literaturnaia gazeta, which showed the first glimmers of the idea of the “double burden” of women, which became a more accepted idea in the 1960s. In this article, the author argues through case studies of women workers that they have the same burdens as men in the workplace and the added work of taking care of the home.

Video on women’s role in the Women’s Work Collective.

Some other interesting views of women’s rights in the USSR in the period directly after Stalin’s death come from A Poor Attempt, an article written in Oct 1956. This article refutes an article written in “Free Labor World” which accused the USSR of violating labor laws by making pregnant women work in mines until a month before their delivery. It does not say that the women do not work in the later stages of pregnancy, but it argue that the capitalist system is more detrimental to the rights of women by laying them off when they become pregnant.

These are the three big reversals for women: the start of Lenin’s policies, the start of Stalin’s policies, and the death of Stalin. In another way, women were constantly progressing in society. Even under Stalin, there were periods of brightness in which women were allowed to shine, such as the recruitment of women pilots during WWII.

4 thoughts on “To free or not to free?

  1. Looking at the development of women’s rights over the course of the Soviet period like this really highlights the complexities of the big shifts you outline and suggests that legal / structural norms were always enmeshed (and often in conflict) with social constructions of gender roles. And that tension is especially in evidence from the fifties on out! One wonders how the proud, productive women on the assembly line in the video juggled their domestic duties and work as wives and mothers. Did they see the “double burden” as emancipatory or burdensome?

    • Based on A Poor Attempt, the article I found, I think that it was much more burdensome than emancipatory. The Article describes some very successful women who are also single mothers, and makes the point that they do not have time to read magazines or take their children on outings because they have the double burden. An interesting connection to the Soviet “double burden” is the equivalent phenomenon of the same name that happened in China. It seems as if these communist nations, while claiming to liberate women, also clung to their old ideas about femininity. Of course, this similarity is most probably due to the fact that Mao followed the Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist model and therefore encountered both the same successes and the same failures.

  2. Thanks for those comparisons between China and the Soviet Union. That makes a lot of sense. And I agree on the double burden — the key word there is “burden.” It’s from a later period, but one of the most famous indictments of this era is a novella by Natalya Barnaskaya called “A Week like Any Other” ( You can find it on the web pretty easily. It will make you tired.

  3. Pingback: Melting Down and Moving Forward | 20th-Century Russia Fall 2014

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