Equality and Revolution:
Women’s Rights in the Russian Empire, 1905-1917
By Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild
Pittsburgh. PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010, 356 pp., $27.95, paperback
Reviewed by Lisa A. Kirschenbaum
The February Revolution of 1917, which ended more than three hundred years of Romanov rule in Russia and opened the way to the Bolshevik seizure of power in October, began on International Women’s Day, March 8 (February on the Julian calendar in use in Russia). This basic fact is noted in most histories of 1917. But women’s intervention in the revolution is usually narrated in a way that minimizes female agency, emphasizes women’s narrow, appropriately female demands, such as bread for their families, and shoos them from the scene as quickly as possible. Standard narratives of the February Revolution begin with Women’s Day, when thousands of “angry” housewives and factory women poured into central Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) to protest food shortages. But rather than pausing to ask why women ignored the advice of the male labor leaders who had urged them not to organize demonstrations, or how women coordinated gatherings that brought together radical students and workers, the narrative generally jumps to the following day, when some 200,000 Petrograd workers—presumably male—followed the Women’s Day demonstrators into the streets. Troops sent to put down the demonstrations refused to fire and instead began to join the protesters. Seeing no other way to restore order, the tsar’s generals and the leaders of the parliament, who had organized a Provisional Government, persuaded Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate. By March 3, the autocracy was gone.
While the role of women in the February Revolution has been minimized, the demonstration that extracted a promise of support for women’s suffrage from the Provisional Government has been almost entirely ignored, both by historians of the Russian Revolution and historians of global feminism. On March 19, about 40,000 people—in the words of journalist Liubov Gurevich, “factory workers and women doctors, medics and writers, maids and students, telegraph operators and nurses”—descended on the Tauride Palace, where both the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet, the competing centers of power in revolutionary Russia, were meeting.
The leaders of both bodies tried to brush off the marchers, but the crowd refused to disperse. Finally the chair of the Soviet promised to support women’s rights. After much additional delay, two leaders of the demonstration, Poliksena Shishkina-Iavein, the first woman gynecologist in Russia and a longtime feminist activist, and Vera Figner, who had spent twenty years in solitary confinement for her part in the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, went into the palace to meet with Prince Georgii L’vov, the head of the Provisional Government. Initially pleading that the rules for elections had already been announced and therefore could not be changed, L’vov ultimately agreed that “universal suffrage” included women. In July, the Provisional Government approved the electoral law establishing women’s suffrage, and in November, after the Bolsheviks took power, women participated in the elections to the Constituent Assembly.
Thus Russian women won the vote one year before women in Britain and Germany, three years before women in the United States, and 27 years before women in France (and 54 years before women in Switzerland). Yet their achievement has had little impact on interpretations of the Russian Revolution or feminism. In Russian and Soviet history, the Bolsheviks’ and especially Aleksandra Kollontai’s dismissal of feminism as a “bourgeois” cause irrelevant to women workers and peasants has been remarkably effective in pushing the struggle for women’s political equality out of the story of the revolution. Outside Russia, histories of feminism have neglected the suffrage victories in revolutionary Russia, which appear irrelevant to the narrative of feminists’ efforts to win the vote in the democratic West.
Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild’s vigorously argued book works as a strong corrective, contending that feminism, and the struggle for women’s suffrage in particular, was central to the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. Linking equality to revolution and emphasizing the personal and organizational connections among feminism, radicalism, and socialism, she also complicates understandings of the history of women’s rights. The Russian case allows us to view suffrage as not always or simply the result of a gradual, more or less militant struggle to extend the promises of democracy to women. In Russia, the suffrage struggle was instead, Ruthchild emphasizes, “part of the overall movement for a democratic transformation of the state.”
While Ruthchild aims to fundamentally revise overarching political narratives, her method is firmly grounded in the details of women’s lives. Arguing that feminists should not be understood in “impersonal” terms or as a “monolithic bloc,” she takes a biographical approach to reconstructing women’s varied “routes to gender consciousness.”
At the core of Ruthchild’s recovery project stands the remarkable group of women who developed Russian feminism. They benefitted from the efforts of the first generation of Russian feminists to open higher education to women, but nonetheless had to struggle to take advantage of the new opportunities. An unusually large number were doctors. Anna Shabanova, a co-founder in 1895 of the Russian Women’s Mutual Philanthropic Society, overcame numerous obstacles to become a pediatrician. Maria Pokrovskaia also faced opposition to her decision to break with traditional expectations and study medicine. Her journal Women’s Herald, established in 1904, often addressed issues of health and sex, and she became a prominent advocate for the abolition of legalized prostitution. The young Poliksena Nesterovna Shishkina-Iavein, who in 1906 cofounded the League for Women’s Equal Rights, faced similar sexism in her efforts to become a doctor.
Women’s higher education courses in Petersburg and Moscow often attracted unruly women and nurtured a “feminist subculture,” says Ruthchild. Praskov’ia Arian rebelled against the constraints of her Orthodox Jewish upbringing to graduate from the Bestuzhev Courses; from 1899 until at least 1913, she published the First Women’s Calendar, a compendium that brought together everything from nutritional advice to lists of businesses hiring women. Anna Miliukova, from a family of Orthodox priests, similarly rebelled against the expectation that she marry a priest; she supported herself while attending courses in Moscow. In 1905, she emerged as an important feminist voice within the liberal Constitutional-Democratic (Kadet) party; indeed she was the primary voice contesting (her husband) Paul Miliukov’s opposition to including a women’s suffrage plank in the party platform.
Ruthchild is keen to demonstrate that these women were not “bourgeois” as their socialist opponents so often charged. She notes that most of the feminists—like Kollontai, their most vocal critic—are best understood as representatives of the intelligentsia, a socially heterogeneous group of educated Russians defined by their alienation from the state and dedication to serving “the people.” Politically, Russian feminists, like Russian liberals generally, tended to be more supportive of socialist concerns such as paid maternity leave than their supposed opposite numbers in the West. They revered, even if they had no desire to emulate, the earlier generation of populist revolutionaries personified by Figner.
Moreover, socialists and feminists often had personal as well as institutional ties, and a single biography could include commitments to both feminism and radicalism. Shabanova, who led the staid Mutual Philanthropic Society for 22 years, had as a teenager been jailed for her involvement in radial circles. Ariadna Tyrkova, who was, from 1906 to 1917, the only woman on the Kadet Party Central Committee, led a life in many ways more radical than that of her school friend Nadezhda Krupskaia, Vladimir Lenin’s wife. It was Tyrkova who was expelled from gymnasium for being a “troublemaker” and who took the bold and difficult step of leaving her husband and raising her children alone. Little in these intelligentsia women’s lives easily fits the mold of “bourgeois housewife.”
Few historians would disagree with Ruthchild’s characterization of feminists as representatives of the intelligentsia rather than the bourgeoisie. However, unlike other historians of Russian feminism, Ruthchild understands the socialists’ charge as evidence that feminism appealed to working class women. When Kollontai derided “bourgeois feminists” or mocked their “ladies congress,” she aimed to delegitimize feminist activism. Such efforts to brand feminism as perpetuating class privilege, Ruthchild argues, stemmed from feminists’ successes in organizing working women and socialists’ fears that feminism posed a potential threat to working-class solidarity.
Despite Ruthchild’s emphasis on the appeal of feminism for working women, the central actors in her story remain the intelligentsia women who provided leadership for the feminist movement. She draws extensively on their published journals, correspondence, and memoirs. The clearest evidence of workers’ involvement in feminism comes in her discussion of the Revolution of 1905.
During the revolution, the Women’s Equal Rights Union, founded in Moscow in early 1905, moved furthest in the direction of linking women’s rights to broader social change. Bringing together women from across the political spectrum, its local chapters organized well-received, if short-lived, women’s groups in the factories. In 1905 when the union instructed members to join only parties that supported suffrage, it effectively asked feminists to align themselves with the socialists. However, the enthusiasm for working-class causes should not be overstated. Many feminists responded with relief when in January 1906 the Kadets finally approved a suffrage plank.
By then the tsar had issued the October Manifesto, granting a legislature (Duma) and universal male suffrage. The possibility of revising the election law quickly faded. The tsar prorogued the first Duma in July 1906 and the second in June 1907 before either considered women’s rights legislation. The third Duma was elected on a substantially narrowed franchise. In these circumstances, the feminist rank and file withered away, although one of the union’s founders, Maria Chekhova, managed to publish its journal virtually singlehandedly from 1907 to 1909. Leaders remained in close touch and continued to lobby for legislation that, like a proposal concerning women’s access to universities, rarely touched working women’s lives. Still, even in this period Ruthchild finds evidence, notably at the First All-Russian Women’s Congress held in 1908, of working-class women’s support for women’s suffrage.
Ruthchild also emphasizes that the socialists conceived of International Women’s Day as a means of countering the “success of the feminist message among women workers.” The first Russian Women’s Day celebrations in 1913 brought together feminist and socialist activists with a wide range of political affiliations. By 1914, socialist organizers were downplaying the holiday’s connection to suffrage. Nonetheless, feminists and socialists continued to cooperate. Such cooperation helps to explain women’s desire and ability to organize their own demonstrations on the most famous of Women’s Days, in 1917.
As Ruthchild recognizes, some feminist concerns held little meaning for working women. But such cases, and the interest of feminists’ political opponents in highlighting them, should not, she argues, be allowed to obscure working women’s support for women’s rights. The women who took to the streets of Petrograd in March 1917 to demand the vote serve as a powerful reminder that even when the demands—the right to vote or more recently the right to marry—seem tame or “bourgeois,” feminism can be revolutionary.
Lisa A. Kirschenbaum is professor of history at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches courses in modern Russian/Soviet history as well as women's studies. She is the author of two books: Small Comrades: Revolutionizing Childhood in Soviet Russia, 1917-1932 (2001) and The Legacy of the Siege of Leningrad, 1941-1995: Myth, Memories, and Monuments (2006).