Alexandra Kollontai 1919

On the History of the Movement of Women Workers in Russia

Source: Alexandra Kollontai: Selected Articles and Speeches, Progress Publishers, 1984;
First Published: in A. Kollontai, On the History of the Movement of Women Workers in Russia, Kharkov 1920, p. 311;
Transcribed: Sally Ryan for, 2000;
Proofed: and corrected by Chris Clayton 2006.

What year could be said to mark the beginning of the working women's movement in Russia? In its essential nature, the movement of women workers is inseparably linked with the entire proletarian movement as one indivisible whole. The woman worker, as a member of the proletarian class, as someone selling her labour, also rose in revolt with the workers every time they opposed the violation of their human rights, participated together and on an equal footing with the workers in all worker uprisings, in all the factory revolts so hated by tsarism.

For this reason, the beginning of the movement of women workers in Russia coincides with the first signs of the awakening of class self-consciousness among the Russian proletariat, and with its first attempts, by means of combined pressure, strikes and walk-outs, to achieve more tolerable, less humiliating and miserly conditions of existence.

Women workers took active part in the worker revolts at the Krenholm factory in 1872 and at the Lazeryev textile factory in Moscow in 1874. They were involved in the strike in 1878 at the New Cotton-Spinning Plant in Petrograd and led the weavers' strike in the famous workers' demonstration in Orekhovo-Zuyevo, during which factory buildings were wrecked. As a result, the tsarist government was compelled to hurry through its legislation prohibiting night work for women and children, which came into force on 3 June, 1885.

It is indicative that the spontaneous wave of strikes that shook proletarian Russia in the 1870's and the early 1880's affected mainly the textile industry, in which the majority of the work force is made up of cheap female labour. The disturbances of the 1870's and early 1880's occurred for purely economic reasons, provoked by unemployment and the continuing crisis in the cotton industry. However, is it not remarkable that this downtrodden 'factory girl', without rights, oppressed by labour beyond her strength and politically ignorant, despised even by the female half of the urban petty bourgeoisie and held at arm's length by peasant women who clung tenaciously to old traditions, should be in the front ranks of those fighting for the rights of the working class, for the emancipation of women? The harsh conditions of life itself compelled the factory girl to oppose openly the power of the bosses and the enslavement of capital. However, in fighting for the rights and interests of her class, the woman worker was unwittingly also preparing the way for the emancipation of women from those chains that still weighed upon them in particular and created inequality of status and conditions among men and women workers, even within the framework of one single working class.

During the new and intensified wave of worker disturbances in the mid- and the late 1890's, working women were once again invariably active participants in worker revolts. The April revolt at the Yaroslavl factory in 1895 received vigorous support from the women weavers. Nor were women workers less active than their male comrades during the economic strikes of 1894-1895 in St Petersburg. When, in the summer of 1896, St Petersburg became the scene of the historic strike by textile workers, the women weavers courageously and unanimously walked out of the workshops together with the men weavers. What difference does it make that at home hungry children are waiting for their working mother? What difference does it make that this strike brings with it the threat of dismissal, of exile or prison? The common class cause is more important, more sacred than maternal feelings, concern for the family, for personal and family well-being!

At a time of disturbances and strikes the woman worker, oppressed, timid, without rights, straightens up to her full height and becomes equal as a fighter and comrade. This transformation takes place unconsciously, spontaneously, but it is important and significant. It is the path along which the workers' movement is leading the woman worker to liberation, not only as one who sells her labour, but also as a woman, a wife, a mother and a housewife.

At the end of the 1890's and the beginning of the 20th century there were a number of disturbances and strikes at factories employing mainly women: at tobacco-processing factories (Shanshai), at spinning and weaving mills (Maxwell) in Petrograd, etc. The working-class movement in Russia is gaining strength, organising itself, taking shape. So also is class resistance among the female proletariat.

Nonetheless, until the momentous year of the first Russian revolution the movement was basically economic in nature. Political slogans had to be concealed or advanced in disguised form. A healthy class instinct prompts the woman worker to support strikes, and not infrequently the women themselves organise and carry through 'factory revolts'. However, no sooner had the wave of bitter strike struggle passed, no sooner had the workers returned to work, victorious or defeated, than the women were once again isolated from one another, still unconscious of the need for organisation, for constant comradely contact. In those years it was still exceptional to find a woman worker in the illegal party organisations. The broad objectives of the socialist workers' party had still not seized hold of the working woman, and she remained unresponsive to universal political slogans. The life led by six million proletarian women in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century was still too dark, too unenlightened, and their existence too much in the grip of hunger, deprivation and humiliation. A 12-hour, or at best an 11-hour working day, a starvation wage of 12-15 roubles a month, accommodation in overcrowded barracks, the absence of any form of assistance from the state or society in case of illness, pregnancy or unemployment, the impossibility of organising self-help as the tsarist government savagely persecuted any attempts at organisation by the workers – these were the conditions surrounding the woman worker. Her back was bent by the intolerable burden of oppression, and her soul, terrified by the spectre of poverty and starvation, refused to believe in a brighter future and the possibility of fighting to cast off the yoke of tsarism and capital.

At the beginning of the 20th century, women workers avoided politics and revolutionary struggle. The socialist movement in Russia can, it is true, take pride in an abundance of charming and heroic women who, by their energetic work and selflessness, helped to consolidate the underground movement and prepared the way for the revolutionary explosion that occurred in the years that followed. However none of these women, from the first women socialists such as Sofia Bardina or the Leshern sisters, full of charm and inner beauty, to the iron-willed Sofia Perovskaya, were representatives of the female proletariat. In the majority of cases these were the young girls to which Turgenev dedicated his prose poem 'The Threshold', girls from a wealthy, aristocratic background who left their parental homes, broke with their prosperous past and 'went to the people' to spread revolutionary propaganda and fight against social injustice, striving to redeem the 'sins of their fathers'. Even much later, in the 1890's and the beginning of the 20th century, when Marxism had already put down deep roots in the Russian workers' movement, the number of women workers involved in the movement was very small. The active women members of the underground organisations in those years were not women workers but women from the intelligentsia - students, teachers, medical assistants and writers. It was rare to find a 'factory girl' at an illegal meeting. Nor did the women workers attend the Sunday evening classes held just outside the city limits of Petrograd, which were then the only legal method of spreading, under the innocent guise of geography or arithmetic, the ideas of Marxism and scientific socialism among the broad working masses. Working women still fought shy of life, avoided combat ... still believed that their lot was the oven, the wash-tub and the cradle.


The picture changes radically from the moment when the red spectre of revolution first overshadowed Russia with its fiery wings. The revolutionary year of 1905 sent deep shock waves through the working masses. The Russian worker sensed his strength for the first time, for the first time realised that he was bearing on his shoulders the whole national wealth. The Russian proletarian woman worker, the unfailing collaborator in all the political demonstrations of the proletariat in the revolutionary years of 1905-1906, was also awoken from her slumbers. She was to be found everywhere. If we wanted to relate the facts of the mass participation of women in the movement of the time, enumerate all the active manifestations of protest and struggle by women workers, recall all the selfless actions undertaken by proletarian women, their loyalty to the ideals of socialism, then we would have to reconstruct scene by scene the entire history of the Russian revolution of 1905.

Many still remember those years full of romanticism. The image of the woman worker, still 'incomplete', but already stirring into life, with her searching, hope-filled eyes turned on the speaker at crowded meetings charged with infectious enthusiasm, lives once again in the memory. The faces of women, filled with concentrated energy and unshakable resolution, can be seen among the serried ranks of the workers' procession on the memorial on the memorable 9 January, bloody Sunday. A sun, unusually bright for St Petersburg, illuminates this purposeful, solemn and silent procession, highlighting the women's faces, so numerous among the crowd. The penalty for naive illusions and childish trustfulness strikes the women; the woman worker, young girl, working wife, is a common figure among the mass victims of that January day. The slogan 'General Strike' that flies from workshop to workshop is picked up by these women, yesterday still lacking class consciousness, and compels some of them to be the first to walk out.

The women workers in the provinces did not lag behind their comrades in the capital. In the October days, exhausted by work and their harsh existence on the edge of starvation, women leave the factories and, in the name of the common cause, courageously deprive their children of their last piece of bread... With simple, moving words the woman worker appeals to her male comrades, suggesting that they too leave their work; she keeps up the spirits of those on strike, breathing energy into those who waver... The woman worker struggled tirelessly, protested courageously, sacrificed herself heroically for the common cause, and the more active she became, the more rapidly was the process of her mental awakening achieved. The woman worker began to take note of the world around her, of the injustices stemming from the capitalist system. She became more painfully and acutely aware of the bitterness of all her sufferings and sorrows. Alongside common proletarian demands one can hear ever more distinctly the voices of the women of the working class recalling the needs and requirements of women workers. At the time of the elections to the Shidlovsky commission in March, 1905, the refusal to admit women as worker delegates provoked murmurs of discontent among women: the sufferings and sacrifices that they had only recently passed through had brought the men and women of the working class closer together, put them on an equal footing. It appeared particularly unjust at that moment to turn to the woman fighter and citizen and underline her age-old lack of rights. When the Shidlovsky commission refused to recognise the woman chosen as one of the seven delegates from the Sampsoniyevsky textile works, the indignant women workers representing several textile works decided to present to the commission the following protest declaration: 'Women deputies representing women workers are not allowed onto the commission under your chairmanship. We believe such a decision to be unjust. Women workers predominate in the factories and mills of St Petersburg. The number of women employed in spinning and weaving mills is increasing every year because the men are moving to factories that offer better pay. We, the women workers, bear a heavier burden of work. Because of our helplessness and lack of rights, we are kept down more by our comrades, and paid less. When this commission was announced, our hearts filled with hope; at last the time is coming - we thought - when the woman worker in St Petersburg will be able to speak out to the whole of Russia in the name of all her sister workers about the oppression, wrongs and humiliations of which the male worker can know nothing. And then, when we had already chosen our deputies, we were informed that only men can be deputies. However, we hope that this is not your final decision...

The refusal to allow women workers the right of representation and their expulsion from political life constituted a blatant injustice for all that section of the female population that had carried on.its shoulders the burden of the liberation struggle. Women workers repeatedly attended pre-election meetings during the election campaigns for the First and Second Dumas, and noisily protested against a law that deprived them of any voice in a matter so important as the election of a representative to the Russian parliament. There were instances, for example in Moscow, when women workers came to meetings of electors, broke up the meeting and protested against the way the elections were being conducted.

That women workers were no longer indifferent to their lack of rights is also shown by the fact that, of the 40,000 signatures on petitions addressed to the First and Second State Dumas demanding that electoral rights be extended to women also, a large majority were those of women workers. The collection of signatures was organised by the Alliance for Female Equality and other bourgeois women's organisations, and was conducted at plants and factories. The fact that women workers willingly signed petitions drawn up by bourgeois women also reveals that the political consciousness of women workers was only just awakening, that they were taking their first, hesitant steps, still stopping half-way. The women workers were becoming aware of their deprivation and lack of political rights, but were still unable to link this fact with the common struggle of their own class, were unable to find the correct path that would lead proletarian women to their full and comprehensive emancipation. The woman worker still naively accepted the hand held out to her by bourgeois feminists. The suffragettes turned to the working women, hoping to draw them onto their side, get their support and organise them into purely feminine, supposedly non-class, but essentially bourgeois alliances. However, a healthy class instinct and a deep mistrust of the 'fine ladies' saved women workers from being attracted to feminism and prevented any long or stable fraternisation with bourgeois suffragettes.

The years 1905 and 1906 were marked by a particularly large number of women's meetings eagerly attended by women workers. The women workers listened carefully to the voice of the bourgeois suffragettes, but what was offered to them did not satisfy the urgent needs of those enslaved to capital, and did not evoke any whole-hearted response. The women of the working class were exhausted by the burden of intolerable working conditions, hunger and the material insecurity of their families; their immediate demands were: a shorter working day, higher pay, a more humane attitude on the part of the factory administration, less police surveillance, more freedom of action. All these demands were alien to bourgeois feminism. The suffragettes approached the women workers with narrowly feminine causes and aspirations. They did not and could not understand the class nature of the emerging women workers' movement. They were particularly disappointed by the domestic servants. On the initiative of the bourgeois feminists, the first meetings of domestic servants were held in St Petersburg and Moscow in 1905. The domestic servants eagerly responded to this call to 'organise' and turned up at the early meetings in large numbers. However, when the Alliance for Female Equality tried to organise them to its own taste, i.e. to set up an idyllic, mixed alliance between lady employers and domestic employees, the domestic servants turned away from the suffragettes and, to the disappointment of the bourgeois ladies, 'hastened to join their own class party, organising their own special trade unions'. Such is the state of affairs in Moscow, Vladimir, Penza, Kharkov and a number of other cities. The same fate befell attempts by another political women's organisation even more to the right, the Women's Progressive Party, which attempted to organise domestic employees under the watchful eye of their mistresses. The domestic servants' movement overflowed the boundaries predetermined for it by the feminists. Look at the newspapers from 1905 and you will see that they abound in reports of direct action by domestic servants, even in the most remote regions of Russia. This action took the form either of mass strike action, or of street demonstrations. The strikes involved cooks, laundresses and maids; there were strikes according to profession, and strikes that united all 'domestic servants'. This protest by domestic employees spread like an infection from place to place. The demands made by the domestic servants were usually limited to an 8-hour working day, a minimum wage, more tolerable living conditions (a separate room), polite treatment by the employer, etc.

This political awakening of women was, moreover, not limited to the urban poor. For the first time in Russia, the Russian peasant woman also raised her voice persistently and resolutely. The end of 1904 and the whole of 1905 is a period of continuous 'petticoat rebellions', sparked off by the war against Japan. All the horrors and deprivations, all the social and economic ills that stemmed from this ill-fated war, weighed down on the peasant woman, wife and mother. The conscription of reserves placed a double burden of work and worry on her already overloaded shoulders, and forced her, hitherto dependent and fearful of everything that lay beyond the circle of her domestic interests, to meet face to face previously unsuspected hostile forces, and to become consciously aware of all her humiliation and deprivation, drain to the last drop the whole bitter cup of unmerited wrongs... Illiterate, downtrodden peasant women left their homes and villages for the first time and hurried into town to wear down the steps of government offices in the attempt to obtain some news of their husbands, sons, and fathers, to petition for financial assistance and defend their interests... The total lack of rights that was the peasant's lot, the lies and injustice of the existing social order, stood in all their naked ugliness before the bewildered peasant woman... She returned from town sober and hardened, bearing in her heart an inexhaustible supply of bitterness, hatred and anger... In the summer of 1905 a whole series of 'petticoat rebellions' broke out in the south. Filled with anger and with a boldness surprising for women, the peasant women attacked military and police headquarters where the army recruits were stationed, seized their menfolk and took them home. Armed with rakes, pitchforks and brooms, peasant women drove the armed guards from the villages. They are protesting in their own way against the intolerable burden of war. They are, of course, arrested, tried and given severe punishments, but the 'petticoat rebellions' continue. In this protest, defence of peasant interests and of purely 'female' interests are so closely interwoven that there are no grounds for dividing them and classing the 'petticoat rebellions' as part of the 'feminist movement'.

Following the 'political demonstrations' by the peasant women there come a series of 'petticoat rebellions' on economic grounds. This is the period of universal peasant unrest and agricultural strikes. The 'petticoats' sometimes initiated these disturbances, drawing the men after them. There were cases when, having failed to involve the men, the women marched to the manors by themselves to present their demands and ultimata. Arming themselves with whatever came to hand, they went ahead of the men to meet the punitive detachments. The downtrodden peasant woman, oppressed for centuries, suddenly became one of the central figures in the political drama. During the whole revolutionary period the peasant women, standing always united with their menfolk, guarded and defended peasant interests, and with amazing tact and sensitivity referred to their special, women's needs only when that did not endanger the common peasant cause.

This did not mean that the peasant women were indifferent to their needs as women, that they ignored them. On the contrary, the mass emergence of peasant women onto the political arena, their mass participation in the common struggle, reinforced and developed their feminine self awareness. By November, 1905, the peasant women of the Voronezh province sent two of their own deputies to the peasant congress with instructions from the women's gathering to demand 'political rights' and 'freedom' for women on an equal basis with men. [1]

The female peasant population of the Caucasus defended their rights with particular vigour. The Guria peasant women at village meetings in the Kutaisi province adopted resolutions demanding political equality with men. At rural and urban meetings held to discuss the introduction of Zemstvos in Transcaucasia, the deputies representing the local population included Georgian women who insisted upon their rights as women.

While demanding political equality, the peasant women naturally always raised their voices in defence of their economic interests; the question of 'allotments' of land, concerned the peasant woman as much as it did the peasant man. In some regions, peasant women who had enthusiastically supported the idea of expropriating private land, cooled in their support for this measure when the question arose as to whether the women would be included in the count to determine the size of the land allotment. 'If the land is taken from the landowners and given only to the men,' the women argued anxiously, 'then we will face real slavery. At present we can at least earn a few kopecks on our own account, whereas if that were to happen, we will simply be working for the men.' However, the fears of the peasant women proved to be completely unfounded; simple economic calculation obliged the peasantry to insist that land also be given to the women. The agrarian interests of the male and female sections of the peasantry were so closely interwoven that the men, in fighting to abolish the existing agricultural bondage for themselves, inevitably defended at the same time the economic interests of their womenfolk.

However, in fighting for the economic and political interests of the peasantry as a whole, the peasant woman also learned how to fight for her own specific needs and requirements as a woman. The same held true for the woman worker; with her unfailing participation in the whole liberation movement she, even more than the peasant woman, prepared public opinion to accept the principle of female equality. The idea of civic equality for women, now implemented in Soviet Russia, was spread through society not by the heroic efforts of individual women with forceful personalities, not by the struggle of the bourgeois feminists, but by the spontaneous pressure of broad masses of working and peasant women, who had been roused into life by the thunder of the first Russian revolution in 1905.

In 1909, in my book The Social Basis of the Women's Question, I said, arguing against the bourgeois feminists, against whom the whole of my book is directed: 'If the peasant woman does succeed in achieving in the near future an improvement in her domestic, economic and legal position, this will naturally be thanks only to the combined, united efforts of peasant democracy directed at obtaining the fulfilment of those peasant demands which, in one form or another, continue to be heard in the peasant milieu. Attempts by the feminists to "clear the way for women", are here irrelevant... If the peasant woman does free herself from the present agrarian bondage, she will receive more than all the feminist organisations put together could give her.'

These words, written ten years ago, have now been fully vindicated. The Great October Revolution has not only fulfilled the basic, urgent demand of the peasantry of both sexes that the land be transferred into the hands of those who work it, but has also raised the peasant woman to the honourable position of a free citizen equal in every respect, and now enslaved only by old methods of agricultural work and by still persisting family traditions and mores.

That of which the working and peasant women could only dream in the days of the first Russian revolution in 1905 has been translated into reality by the Great October Revolution of 1917.

Woman in Russia has achieved political equality. However she owes this achievement not to co-operation with bourgeois suffragettes, but to a joint, united struggle with her comrade workers in the ranks of her own working class.



1. It is sufficient to recall the historic written requests sent by the peasant women of the Voronezh and Tver provinces to the First State Duma, or the telegram sent by the peasant women from the village of Nogatkino to the deputy Aladyin:

'At this great moment in the battle between right and might, we, the peasant women of the village of Nogatkino, greet the elected delegates of the people who have expressed their lack of confidence in the government by demanding the resignation of the ministry. We hope that the representatives who have the support of the people will give that people land and freedom, will open the doors of the prisons and release those who fought for the freedom and happiness of the people, and that they will win civil and political rights both for themselves and for us, Russian women, who are without rights even in our own families. Remember that a woman slave cannot be the mother of a free citizen.' (Signed - the spokeswoman for 75 Nogatkino women.)