Alexandra Kollontai 1921

The Labour of Women in the Evolution of the Economy

Source: Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai, Allison & Busby, 1977;
First Published: 1921, as a pamphlet;
Translated: by Alix Holt.

In its search for new forms of economy and of living which meet the interests of the proletariat, the Soviet republic has inevitably committed a number of mistakes, and has a number of times had to alter and correct its line. But in the sphere of social upbringing and the protection of motherhood, the labour republic from the first months of its existence has marked out the right direction for developments to take. And in this sphere a deep and fundamental revolution in morals and attitudes is being achieved. In this country, where private property has been abolished and where politics is dictated by the desire to raise the level of the general economy, we can now deal in our stride with problems that were insoluble under the bourgeois system.

Soviet Russia has approached the question of protecting motherhood by keeping in view the solution to the basic problem of the labour republic – the development of the productive forces of the country, the raising and restoration of production. In order to carry out the job in hand it is necessary, in the first place, to tap the tremendous forces engaged in unproductive labour and use all available resources effectively; and, in the second place, to guarantee the labour republic an uninterrupted flow of fresh workers in the future, i.e. to guarantee the normal increase in population.

As soon as one adopts this point of view, the question of the emancipation of women from the burden of maternity solves itself. A labour state establishes a completely new principle: care of the younger generation is not a private family affair, but a social-state concern. Maternity is protected and provided for not only in the interests of the woman herself, but still more in the interests of the tasks before the national economy during the transition to a socialist system: it is necessary to save women from an unproductive expenditure of energy on the family so that this energy can be used efficiently in the interests of the collective; it is necessary to protect their health in order to guarantee the labour republic a flow of healthy workers in the future. In the bourgeois state it is not possible to pose the question of maternity in this way: class contradictions and the lack of unity between the interests of private economies and the national economy hinder this. In a labour republic, on the other hand, where the individual economies are dissolving into the general economy and where classes are disintegrating and disappearing, such a solution to the question of maternity is demanded by life, by necessity. The labour republic sees woman first and foremost as a member of the labour force, as a unit of living labour; the function of maternity is seen as highly important, but as a supplementary task and as a task that is not a private family matter but a social matter.

“Our policy on the protection of maternity and childhood,” as Vera Pavlovna Lebedeva correctly notes, “is based on the picture of woman in the work process, which we keep constantly before our mind’s eye.”

But in order to give woman the possibility of participating in productive labour without violating her nature or breaking with maternity, it is necessary to take a second step; it is necessary for the collective to assume all the cares of motherhood that have weighed so heavily on women, thus recognising that the task of bringing up children ceases to be a function of the private family and becomes a social function of the state. Maternity begins to be seen in a new light. Soviet power views maternity as a social task. Soviet power, basing itself on this principle, has outlined a number of measures to shift the burden of motherhood from the shoulders of women to those of the state. Soviet power takes responsibility for the care of the baby and the material provision of the child, through the sub-department of the Protection of Motherhood and Childhood (headed by comrade V.P. Lebedeva) and the section of Narkompros (the Commissariat of Education) which deals with social upbringing.

The principle that Soviet power accepts in tackling the problem is that the mother be relieved of the cross of motherhood, and be left with the smile of joy which arises from the contact of the woman with her child. Of course, this principle is far from having been realised. In practice we lag behind our intentions. In our attempts to construct new forms of life and living, to emancipate the labouring woman from family obligations, we are constantly running up against the same obstacles; our poverty, and the devastation of the economy. But a foundation has been laid, the signposts are in place; our task is to follow the directions firmly and decisively.

The labour republic does not limit itself to financial provisions for motherhood and the distribution of benefits. It aims, above all, to transform the conditions of life in order to make it fully possible for a woman to combine motherhood and social labour and to preserve the baby for the republic, surrounding it with the necessary care and attention. From the very first months of the existence of the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia, worker and peasant power has been striving to co ver the country with a network of institutions for the protection of motherhood and the social upbringing of children. The mother and the child became a special object of concern in Soviet politics. During the first months of the revolution, when I held the position of People’s Commissar of Social Welfare, I considered it to be my main task to chart the course that the labour republic should adopt in the sphere of protecting the interests of woman as a labour unit and as a mother.

It was at this time that the board which deals with the protection of motherhood was set up and began to organise model “palaces of motherhood”. Since then, comrade Vera Pavlovna Lebedeva has worked ably and energetically, and the cause of the protection of motherhood has flourished and established firm roots. From the early stages of the working woman’s pregnancy, she receives the assistance of Soviet power. Consultation centres for pregnant and nursing mothers are now to be found across the length and breadth of Russia. In tsarist times only six consultation centres existed; now we have about two hundred such centres, and a hundred and thirty-eight milk kitchens.

But of course, the most important task is to relieve the working mother of the unproductive labour involved in ministering to the physical needs of the child. Maternity does not in the least mean that one must oneself change the nappies, wash the baby or even be by the cradle. The social obligation of the mother is above all to give birth to a healthy baby. The labour republic must therefore provide the pregnant woman with the most favourable possible conditions; and the woman for her part must observe all the rules of hygiene during her pregnancy, remembering that in these months she no longer’ belongs to herself, she is serving the collective, “producing” from hex own flesh and blood a new unit of labour, a new member of the labour republic. The woman’s second obligation is to breast-feed her baby; only when she has done this does the woman have the right to say that she has fulfilled her obligations. The other tasks involved in caring for the younger generation can be carried out by the collective, of course the maternal instinct is strong, and there is no need to stifle it. But why should this instinct be narrowly limited to the love and care of one’s own child? Why not allow this instinct, which for the labour republic has valuable potential, the opportunity to develop vigorously and to reach its highest stage, where the woman not only cares for her own children but has a tender affection for all children?

The slogan advanced by the labour republic, “Be a mother not only to your child, but to all the children of the workers and peasants,” must show the working woman a new approach to motherhood. There have been instances where a mother, even a communist mother, refuses to breast-feed a baby that is suffering from a lack of milk, only because it is not “her” baby. Is such behaviour permissible? Future society, with its communist emotion and understanding, will be as amazed at such egoistic and anti-social acts as we are when we read of the woman in prehistoric society who loved her own child but found the appetite to eat the child of another tribe. Or to take another case, examples of which abound: a mother deprives her baby of milk in order to save herself the bother of caring for it. And can we allow the number of foundlings in Soviet Russia to continue growing at the present rate?

These problems, it is true, derive from the fact that the question of motherhood is being tackled but has not yet been completely solved. In this difficult transition period there are hundreds of thousands of women who are exhausted by the dual burden of hired labour and maternity. There are not enough creches, children’s homes and maternity homes, and the financial provisions do not keep pace with the price rises of goods on the free market. Consequently working women are afraid of motherhood and abandon their children. The growth in the number of foundlings, however, is also evidence that not all women in the labour republic have yet grasped the fact that motherhood is not a private matter but a social obligation. You who work amongst women will have to discuss this question and explain to working women, peasant women and office workers the obligations of motherhood in the new situation of the labour republic. At the same time, we obviously have to step up the work of developing the system of maternity protection and social upbringing. The easier it becomes for mothers to combine work and maternity, the fewer foundlings there will be.

We have already pointed out that maternity does not involve the mother always being with the child or devoting herself entirely to its physical and moral education. The obligation of the mother to her children is to ensure that a healthy and normal atmosphere is provided for their growth and development. In bourgeois society we always find that it is the children of the well-to-do classes who are healthy and flourishing, and never the children of the poor. How do we explain this? Is it because bourgeois mothers devoted themselves entirely to the education of their children? Not at all. Bourgeois mammas were very willing to place their children in the care of hired labourers: nannies and governesses. Only in poor families do mothers themselves bear all the hardships of maternity; the children are with their mothers, but they die like flies. There can be no question of a normal upbringing: the mother does not have the time, and so the children are educated on the street. Every mother of the bourgeois class hurries to shift at least a part of child-care on to society; she sends the child to a kindergarten, to school or to a summer camp. The sensible mother knows that social education gives the child something that the most exclusive maternal love cannot give, in the prosperous circles of bourgeois society, where great significance is attached to giving the children a proper education in the bourgeois spirit, parents give their children into the care of trained nannies, doctors and pedagogues. Hired personnel take over the role of the mother in supervising the physical care and moral education of the child, and the mother is left with the one natural and inalienable right: to give birth to the child.

The labour republic does not take children away from their mothers by force as the bourgeois countries have made out in tales about the horrors of the “Bolshevik regime”; on the contrary, the labour republic tries to create institutions which would give all women, and not just the rich, the opportunity to have their children brought up in a healthy, joyful atmosphere. Instead of the mother anxiously thrusting her child into the care of a hired nanny, Soviet Russia wants the working or peasant woman to be able to go to work, calm in the knowledge that her child is safe in the expert hands of a creche, a kindergarten or a children’s home.

In order to protect woman as the reproducer of the race, the labour republic has created “maternity homes” and has tried to open them wherever they are particularly needed. In 1921 we had a hundred and thirty-five such homes. These homes not only provide a refuge for the single woman in this most serious period of her life, but allow the married women to get away from home and family and the petty cares of the domestic round and to devote all her attention to regaining strength after the birth and to looking after her child in the first, most important weeks. Later on the mother is not essential to the child, but in the first weeks there is still, as it were, a physiological tie between mother and child. and during this period the separation of mother and child is not advisable. You know yourselves, comrades, how willingly working women and even the wives of important functionaries take advantage of the maternity homes. where they find loving attention and peace. We do not have to use agitational methods to persuade women to use the maternity homes. Our problem is that the material resources of Russia are so limited; we are poor, and this makes it difficult for us to extend our network to cover the entire area of labour Russia with such, “aid stations” for working women and peasant women. There are, unfortunately, still no maternity homes at all in the rural regions, and in general we have done least of all to help the peasant mothers. In fact, all we have done for them is to organise summer creches. This makes it easier for the peasant mother to work in the fields without her baby suffering in any way. In the course of 1921, 689 such creches, providing for 32,180 children, were opened. For mothers working in factories and offices, creches have been set up at factories and institutions, and also at a district and town level. I do not have to emphasise the great significance of these creches for the mothers. The trouble, is that we do not have enough of them, and we cannot satisfy even a tenth of the demand for such aid centres.

The network of social education organisations which relieve mothers of the hard work involved in caring for children includes, apart from the creches and the children’s homes which cater for orphans and ,foundlings up to the age of three, kindergartens for the three to seven year olds, children’s “hearths” for children of school age, children’s clubs, and finally children’s house communes and children’s work colonies. The social educational system also includes free meals for children of pre-school and school age, Vera Velichkina (Bonch-Bruyevich), a revolutionary to the end of her life, fought very hard for this measure, the introduction of which has as you know helped us a great deal in the hard years of the civil war, and has saved many children of the proletariat from emaciation and death from starvation. The concern of the state for children is also manifest in the provision of free milk, special food rations for the young, and clothes and footwear for children ,in need. All these projects are far from having been realised in full; in practice we have covered only a narrow section of the population. However, we have so far failed to relieve the couple from all the difficulties of bringing up children, not because we have taken the wrong course but because our poverty prevents us from fulfilling all that Soviet power has planned. The general direction of the policy on maternity is correct. But our lack of resources hinders us. So far, experiments have only been carried out at a fairly modest level. Even so, they have given results and have revolutionised family life, introducing fundamental changes in the relationships between the sexes. This is a question we will discuss in the following talk.

The task of Soviet power is thus to provide conditions for the woman where her labour will not be spent on non-productive work about the home and looking after children but on the creation of new wealth for the state, for the labour collective. At the same time, it is important to preserve not only the interests of the woman but also the life of the child, and this is to be done by giving the woman the opportunity to combine labour and maternity. Soviet power tries to create a situation where a woman does not have to cling to a man she has grown to loathe only because she has nowhere else to go with her children, and where a woman alone does not have to fear her life and the life of her child. In the labour republic it is not the philanthropists with their humiliating charity but the workers and peasants, fellow-creators of the new society, who hasten to help the working woman and strive to lighten the burden of motherhood. The woman who bears the trials and tribulations of reconstructing the economy on an equal footing with the man, and who participated in the civil war, has a right to demand that in this most important hour of her life, at the moment when she presents society with a new member, the labour republic, the collective, should take upon itself the job of caring for the future of the new citizen.

Russia now has 524 protection of motherhood and social education sections. This is, nevertheless, insufficient. The transitional nature of the dictatorship places women in a particularly difficult situation; the old is destroyed but the new has not yet been created. The party and Soviet power must during this period pay increasing attention to the problem of maternity and the methods of solving it. If correct answers are found to these questions, not only women but also the national economy will gain.

I would like to say a few words about a question which is closely connected with the problem of maternity – the question of abortion, and Soviet Russia’s attitude to it. On 20 November 1920 the labour republic issued a law abolishing the penalties that had been attached to abortion. What is the reasoning behind this new attitude? Russia, after all, suffers not from an overproduction of living labour but rather from a lack of it. Russia is thinly, not densely populated. Every unit of labour power is precious. Why then have we declared abortion to be no longer a criminal offence? Hypocrisy and bigotry are alien to proletarian politics. Abortion is a problem connected with the problem of maternity, and likewise derives from the insecure position of women (we are not speaking here of the bourgeois class, where abortion has other reasons – the reluctance to “divide” an inheritance, to suffer the slightest discomfort, to spoil one’s figure or miss a few months of the season etc.)

Abortion exists and flourishes everywhere, and no laws or punitive measures have succeeded in rooting it out. A way round the law is always found. But “secret help” only cripples women; they become a burden on the labour government, and the size of the labour force is reduced. Abortion, when carried out under proper medical conditions, is less harmful and dangerous, and the woman can get back to work quicker. Soviet power realises that the need for abortion will only disappear on the one hand when Russia has a broad and developed network of institutions protecting motherhood and providing social education, and on the other hand when women understand that childbirth is a social obligation; Soviet power has therefore allowed abortion to be performed openly and in clinical conditions.

Besides the large-scale development of motherhood protection, the task of labour Russia is to strengthen in women the healthy instinct of motherhood, to make motherhood and labour for the collective compatible and thus do away with the need for abortion. This is the approach of the labour republic to the question of abortion, which still faces women in the bourgeois countries in all its magnitude. In these countries women are exhausted by the dual burden of hired labour for capital and motherhood. In Soviet Russia the working woman and peasant woman are helping the Communist Party to build a new society and to undermine the old way of life that has enslaved women. As soon as woman is viewed as being essentially a labour unit, the key to the solution of the complex question of maternity can be found. In bourgeois society, where housework complements the system of capitalist economy and private property creates a stable basis for the isolated form of the family, there is no way out for the working woman. The emancipation of women can only be completed when a fundamental transformation of living is effected; and life-styles will change only with the fundamental transformation of all production and the establishment of a communist economy. The revolution in everyday life is unfolding before our very eyes, and in this process the liberation of women is being introduced in practice.