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Women Rights in the USSR

Updated: Nov 26, 2022

Written by Avjin Aktop


Women have been subject to sexism, racism, and economic inequality for years especially after humanity settled down. With the agricultural revolution in the Neolithic Period, the matriarchal society structure gradually surrendered to patriarchy, and sexual freedom disappeared as the concept of private property emerged for the first time in history. That the man who owned the property had to restrict the sexual intercourse of the woman so that he could know that his children— whom he would inherit from his private property— was the underlying reason of the enslavement of women. The only and sacred job of women for centuries has been determined as motherhood by men; no other job has been assigned to them other than housework; they have not found a place in any social area other than the home; and worst of all, the concepts of morality and honor have always attributed to them by objectifying their bodies.


The women's problem has been the bleeding wound of the world for centuries but still has not been fully resolved. Since the issues that women encounter every day are varied across religions, cultures, and territories; it is hard to manifest one system over another. However, today, we will closely look into what socialism offers in the country which is the most known instance of where socialism was practiced, or at least, tried to be practiced, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Although some reformations has been made in women’s rigths at the time when it was first established, the inhumane conditions and heavy burden of Gosplan (5-year economic plan) receded not only women’s rights, but also all living on this bureacratic territories.


Socialism is primarily a political-economic theory that proposes the abolition/ socialization of private ownership of the means of production.[1] Socialism first appeared in the 19th century with thinkers Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, and William Morris, but its real impact spread through Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels' (1848) book The Communist Manifesto. Described as a transitional system between liberal capitalism and communism, socialism found the opportunity to show itself in practice with the USSR, former Russian Federation, reigned between 1917 and 1991. Whether or not socialism has found a solution to the women's problem can also be observed from the laws and actions of the USSR.


According to the advocates of socialism, patriarchy and capitalism benefit from each other. The concrete foundation of patriarchy is reflected not only in raising children in the family, but also in all structures that allow men to control women's labor: they receive free service at home; they have a privileged position in the labor market vis-à-vis women.[2] Karl Marx emphasized the importance of the social position of women for uplifting society as a whole and asserted that women will pioneer the change in regimes.[3] As in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, women did so: they, who had no place in social life in the old administrative structure, rose to a cultural, economic, and social level that they had never been before until Stalin came to power in the newly founded socialist regime. However, when the USSR collapsed in 1991, there was no wholesale development of women's rights, looking at the last century as a whole. Although there are many parameters affecting this situation, the fact that socialism was not implemented in practice in the USSR was perhaps one of the most striking reasons. However, to make any kind of comparison, it is necessary to look at the situation of women living in the Russian Empire first.


Women were under the pressure of husbands, religion, and the Tsarist power during the reign of the Empire. No laws effectively protected women and their labor, and it was this deprivation of rights that determined the general conditions that they were in.[4] Even the reducing working hours to 11 hours a day was won as a result of great struggles. With all mental occupations close to them, more than 85% of women were already illiterate. In cultural and social life, women had difficulties in finding a place for themselves.


The day after the Great October Revolution, the communist party—led by the proletariat— destroyed dogmas and made men and women equal before the law, declaring that this was only the beginning of the long-term revolution. At the same time, new executive bodies were established in order to enforce representation and active participation of women in this novel system.


Rosenberg, one of the famous socialist feminists, mentioned in her book Women and Perestroika, that about 15 thousand women were the heads of collective production enterprises, about 500,000 were representatives, and 27 thousand women were either in the position of chairman or vice-president of the local Soviets.[5] Apart from representation and active participation, the Soviet power also dealt with the issues of women's labor, protection of mother and child, childcare and socialization of domestic activities, even in the first week of the revolution. In the previous regime, schools and courses were opened for the rest of the society, the majority of whom were illiterate, their working hours were shortened for their active participation, and their children were given care. In these schools, women not only learned to read and write, but also learned vocational information. As a result of such steps taken in the USSR towards the economic independence of women, the number of women literate in the 1930s dramatically increased.[6]


In the years it was founded, the USSR was one of the most progressivist countries for women to make decisions about their own body. In 1920, it became the first country to grant women the legal right to abortion, and the number of women who had abortions reached 700 thousand in 1934. The rights of men and women in the case of divorce were equalized, besides, divorces started to increase with the removal of justice from the influence of religion, and women were able to receive alimony with the new law arrangements. Being able to receive alimony was of vital importance for women who at that time had no other source of income other than their father and their husband. Thus, women who had nothing to sell but their fertility were prevented from prostitution.[7]












'Housework is slavery. 'Working woman, be an active participant Give yourself a new life!' (1931) in industrial and social life!'(1933)

At the same time, women were directed to working life, and facilities were provided for mothers. Maternity leave has been extended to 112 days, and breastfeeding leave was given every 3 hours for working mothers. Women were forbidden to work in coal mines and keep watch during night shifts not to do harmful work to their health.[8]


Unfortunately, these acquisitions did not last forever: many of the gains made with the revolution faltered as Russia fell into a state of isolation in the despair of war and internal devastation. Under the dictatorship of Stalin, who remained the sole authority at the end of the 1920s, the country was perhaps in a worse situation than the last decade of the empire, from which, women and family life were affected at the highest level. The issue of improving women's rights was pushed into the background, and even discussion of this issue was forbidden.


Although women had more rights than before, working conditions were not the same as men: officially they were paid equal wages for equal work, but women's wages amounted to 75% of men.[9] The women’s working conditions were also deteriorated: The report in “Sotsialisticheskaya Industria[10] states that textile factories were built before the revolution: the conditions in showers and toilets were poor, and the loud noises of the machines caused a great deal of hearing loss in women; nevertheless, the factory clinics were dysfunctional. Another report presented in 1987 showed that women do 30-50% of heavy work in the timber, pulp and glass industries, which led to women having great difficulties in giving birth and increasing infant mortality. Although the unions took the initiative and worked to improve these conditions, the recommendations were not accepted by the higher authorities who wanted to make the Gosplan (5-Year Plan) successful.


The Soviets could not put many decisions and amendments in old laws— framed regarding women's rights in 1917-18— into practice. While trying to encourage saving due to the economic trauma experienced from the containment policy led by the US, women whose husbands were working were also fired. The ideological cover was created by stating that the first job of a woman is motherhood in the 17th Congress by Stalin.[11] In 1936, a woman's right to decide about her own body was taken away with the prohibition of abortion. The definition of "Soviet Family'' was made in the Constitution, and an attack on the family institution was considered an insult to the state. It has been made almost impossible for the woman to divorce and receive alimony, and the courts have tried to persuade the couples who want to divorce. The Soviets, describing sexual freedom and abortion as immoral, awarded women who were far from theese with superior maternity medals.


Although Khrushchev and Brezhnev, successors of Stalin, made superficial changes regarding the issues women faced, not much progress could be made.[12] Abortion was legalized again after 20 years, but the surgery conditions were not improved. Women still haven't been able to get jobs in senior professions or in the party. Working conditions in the industry were not enhanced, and pregnant women were subject to average wages on the days they were considered on permission.


Even though Soviet women pioneered the revolution to uplift their living conditions, what happened afterwards hindered the rise. Yet it would be an anachronistic mistake to deny the enormity and significance of these historical struggles.


References: [1] Dagger, Ball, 2022 [2] Karakuş, G. (2019). Sovyetler Birliği’nde Kadının Konumuna Genel Bakış. Akademik Tarih Ve Düşünce Dergisi, 6(3), 1580–1598. [3] Leon Troçki, Women and Family, New York: University of Pittsburgh, 1984, 42. [4] Geridönmez, O. (2017, October 25). Ekim devrimi ve Kadınlar (1). Ekmek ve Gül. Retrieved September 30, 2022, from https://ekmekvegul.net/guncel-dosya/ekim-devrimi-ve-kadinlar-1 [5] ROSENBERG, C., Kadınlar ve Perestroyka, İstanbul: Pencere Yayınları, 1990. [6] Fitzpatrick S. (1994). Stalin's peasants : resistance and survival in the russian village after collectivization. Oxford University Press. [7] Staff, F. L. (2022, June 28). Spousal support (alimony) basics. Findlaw. Retrieved September 30, 2022, from https://www.findlaw.com/family/divorce/spousal-support-alimony-basics.html [8] Buckley, M. (1981). Women in the Soviet Union. Feminist Review, (8), 79. https://doi.org/10.2307/1394929 [9] Pravda, 02.07.1988. [10] Cooper, J. (1984). The application of industrial robots in the Soviet Engineering Industry. Omega, 12(3), 291–298. https://doi.org/10.1016/0305-0483(84)90024-0 [11] Stalin. (n.d.). Report to the Seventeenth Party Congress on the work of the Central Committee of the c.p.s.u.(b.)1. Report to the Seventeenth Party Congress on the Work of the Central Committee of the C.P.S.U.(B.). Retrieved September 30, 2022, from https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1934/01/26.htm [12] Kolchevska, N. (2005). Angels in the Home and at Work: Russian Women in the Khrushchev Years. Women’s Studies Quarterly, 33(3/4), 114–137. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4000442


1. Gazetesi, E. (2017, November 29). Sovyetler birliği'nde Kadınların Yaşamı Nasıldı? Evrensel.net. Retrieved September 28, 2022, https://www.evrensel.net/haber/339194/sovyetler-birliginde-kadinlarin-yasami-nasildi

2. Gazetesi, E. (2017, September 20). Ekim devrimi'nde Kadınlar. Evrensel.net. Retrieved September 28, 2022, from https://www.evrensel.net/haber/332966/ekim-devriminde-kadinlar

3. Karakuş, G. (2019). Sovyetler Birliği’nde Kadının Konumuna Genel Bakış. Akademik Tarih Ve Düşünce Dergisi, 6(3), 1580–1598.

4. Dagger, R. and Ball, . Terence (2022, April 11). socialism. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/socialism

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