Protection of Women and Children in Soviet Russia


At the time of the October Revolution, women formally came into their own in the U.S.S.R. The reasons were many, the ostensible one being that according to Communist theories any society which countenanced a group of inferior people was bound to fail; and therefore it was necessary in working out the Soviet State that women be in all senses equal to men. Equalising men and women was, of course, a much more difficult task than it seemed; but even so, Russian women had a great deal on their side. In the first place, there had for a long time been an ease in the social relations between men and women which is almost unbelievable to the Westerner who knew Russia only through stories of the very Europeanised Russian Court which had so little in common with the folk-ways of the Russian people of all classes. There was an intellectual and social liberty among the small bourgeoisie and intelligentsia groups which amounted almost to license and women were as free to do as they pleased as were the men. In accord with the popular social freedom which existed in spite of ancient and strict laws to the contrary and the vigilant eye of the Church, there was innovated in 1907 what amounted to divorce by mutual consent, a step which at that time seemed incomprehensible to the rest of the world. Just why Russian women enjoyed so much freedom is not known but the answer probably is that the Russians never had really taken very seriously the Western ideals of celibacy and consequently the old matriarchal social orders had not so completely vanished as they had in the West. Though little research has been done on the subject, strong evidences of matriarchal influence can still be detected and without doubt account for the ease with which the Russian peoples of all classes are able to apply so whole-heartedly the social deductions of Marxian principles to themselves. In addition a great many women fought in the army during the Revolution; in fact, they were almost as active as men from the end of the war until October, 1917, during which time there was so much trouble in Russia that women could hardly expect any special consideration, so when they were in the army they were treated exactly as the men. Consequently, the insuring of freedom to women was not so difficult as it might have been, for they had taken freedom upon themselves during those troubled years when there was really no Government. At the time of the Kerensky regime and afterwards, it was necessary only that women legalise the freedom they had acquired during the Revolution and before. Although women until near the end of the Czarist Russian regime were universally considered inferior and were absolutely subject to men in everything, still the women in the working and peasant classes did as much physical work as did the men, which means that they were a very important economic factor. A peasant had the right to beat his wife and daughters and he could perhaps kill them if he liked without incurring any particular amount of trouble from his Government; but as a matter of actual necessity to him, he had to see to it that they were in good enough condition to work in his fields or he would not have had enough to eat. Russian women were strong and proved themselves by becoming indispensable to the successful carrying out of the Revolution, a task which required the co-operation of all. Their legal status followed inevitably in the path of their social achievements.

The Russians began passing laws on Women's Rights in 1917. They are still modifying those laws, but basically they are as follows: Every person, whether man or woman, must have an equal chance at those advantages which his society affords. Both men and women must have the right to earn their own livings. They must have equal opportunity of educating themselves, and one group must not discriminate against the other in the matter of recreation. As one Communist told me: "We want life to be like an open table from which the individual, regardless of his sex or mentality, can take that which interests him."

The real problem came when women joined the ranks of industrial workers. It is all very well to say that women should have the same social and cultural advantages as men, for that is comparatively easy to accomplish; but, as has already been pointed out, it is quite another matter when industry must be burdened with persons who are not always up to physical standards. Any employer knows that the most expensive thing in his business is the training of new employees to their work. That is why Henry Ford decided to pay higher wages to his workmen: he found it cheaper to raise their wages and thus insure their permanency, than to be constantly training new workers to their jobs. Any employer who hires women has an especially difficult and expensive task before him. In the first place, a woman's efficiency fluctuates throughout the month, but more important still, every woman is liable to become pregnant, which means that she will have to leave her work to someone else who will require expensive training to take her place. There are very few industries anywhere in the world which permit a woman to return to her job after she has had a baby, and working women know that having children is an impossibility to them if they must earn their living. I have recently discovered that even in some of the department stores in New York City, which are supposed to have the most modern and humane treatment of employees, once a woman has had a child she definitely loses her position. In most States in the United States married women are not allowed to teach in the schools, the ostensible reason being that they might take jobs away from younger people whose need might be greater, but this is hardly logical in view of the fact that no Board of Education discriminates against widows and married men. This is simply another example of how expensive it is to the employer to train new workers or hire substitutes. Psychologists have always maintained, for obvious reasons, that on the whole married women with children are more suited to teach in the elementary schools than unmarried ones. And yet the State cannot afford to run the risk of having to hire substitutes in case its regular teachers become pregnant; therefore, it is forced to sacrifice the well-being of the pupils to economy.

In the modern world it is becoming increasingly necessary for women to work: first because the cost of living is continually rising with the standard of living; and secondly, because women are beginning to think that they are just as capable as men and that it is their duty to themselves and to their civilisation to do a little bit more than bear children and keep house. And when women in England and United States insisted on being legally emancipated, they could hardly expect the protection and care which is due the helpless.

When Russia needed women as well as men in her factories and on her farms in order that the country might return to normal as quickly as possible, it was necessary that the organisers of industry make up their minds to the fact that working women would not pay as well as working men, and that they should make the necessary allowances at the expense of the industries involved and not the women labourers. At the time of the October Revolution, the first need of the U.S.S.R. was a new and healthy generation. To obtain this, every healthy man and woman had to be encouraged to have a family. Considering the poverty of everyone at that time, and the suffering through which they had gone, not very many persons were anxious or willing to bring new children into the world. It was necessary, therefore, for the Government to promise, in 1917, that the care of children would be its first concern; in fact, that children would receive consideration even before the parents themselves. It was then that the concept grew in the U. S. S. R. that laws affecting adult women and children under three years of age must necessarily be the same, for in order to insure healthy citizens for the future the women of the present had to be protected.

At the first step towards this end was the establishing of social insurance. A small percentage of the wages of each worker was kept out of his pay and invested in social insurance by the employer. Today every wage-earner, whether he is employed by private individuals or by the State, whether he is a manual labourer or an intellectual, has social insurance in his name which is paid for out of his wages. This insurance greatly affects the status of women, for it means that when a woman becomes pregnant she can take eight weeks off from her work with pay; that she has the use of the State Maternity Hospital free of charge; and that her child receives approximately thirty dollars at birth and thirty more in small amounts during the first year of its life when expenses are the greatest. It means that the working woman, as soon as she goes back to work, can put her child into a State-run nursery free of charge, and that her child will receive free medical care as well as free education until it is eighteen years of age. It means also that the wives of working men have access to free maternity homes and to general medical attention, even though the wives themselves may not be working except in the home. This insurance cares for disabled men and women when there is no one else to care for them, and it guarantees a comfortable stipend to these who are too old to work. The insurance company, as yet, makes no profit, for its surplus goes into building new hospitals, creches, etc. It is hoped that as the Russian Government becomes more secure financially, social insurance will subsidise factories and co-operative farms to the extent of paying for the losses they incur by employing women who from time to time are forced to stop work because of pregnancy and other normal female disorders. At the moment, however, all industries have to stand these losses themselves.

In 1921, laws concerning Women's Rights were made specific, and have occasionally been modified though no serious changes have been made since 1926. Since that time no employer has had the right to refuse a woman a position simply because of her sex. Also since that time women could not be hired to work for more than eight hours in every twentyfour, nor are they allowed to do night work except in the case of certain easy office work. In certain industries, too, which involve especially difficult and dangerous labour, it was recommended that women should not be employed.

The regulations of 1921 gave women in the following professions a sixteen week vacation with full pay, eight weeks before giving birth and eight after:

1. Telegraph and telephone employees. (These sometimes work at night.)

2. Masseuses.

3. Doctors and nurses in hospitals for the insane.

4. Doctors and nurses in villages.

5. Doctors and nurses in surgical hospitals, hospitals for infectious diseases, and maternity hospitals.

6. Doctors and nurses working in districts afflicted with famine and epidemic.

7. Dentists.

8. Staff workers in colonies for defective children.

9. Teachers in village schools.

10. Teachers in boarding schools and other (closed) institutions.

11. Athletic instructors.

12. Educational workers in prisons.

13. Artists, newspaper writers, and theatrical people.

14. All women working at night. (These usually are office employees.)

15. Women in commerce.

16. Traveling inspectors and instructors.

17. Post Office workers. (These sometimes work at night.)

18. Factory workers and manual labourers.

All other pregnant women who earn their livings are allowed twelve weeks' vacation for confinement, with pay. There is no definite list as to just who these other workers are, but roughly they seem to include stenographers, secretaries, teachers in city day schools, cooks, housekeepers, other domestic employees, and. women who work on co-operative farms. The Russians classify university students as workers when they hold scholarships, which include a yearly stipend for living expenses paid by the State. Pregnant women students, therefore, are allowed twelve weeks away from the university for confinement, during which time they receive their usual stipend.

In case a woman has an abortion performed, she has the right to three weeks' vacation, with pay, from any work in which she may be employed.

These holidays are not only allowed but required of all pregnant women and their main purpose is to decrease the high infant and maternal mortality. It is not the purpose of the Soviet Government to enforce idleness, for that would be much worse than hard work. Rather, these vacations are required in order to insure adequate rest to the woman when she needs it, by allowing her time in which to prepare for her child, by making clothing, etc., and by learning at her local Museum of Mother and Child, Trade Union meetings, creche meetings, etc., those points of medical and physical hygiene which are necessary to her and her husband in order that they be intelligent parents.

During the first year after a woman has borne a child, and before she has weaned it, she has a right to leave her work every three hours for the purpose of nursing her baby, during which time she receives full salary. Considering the fact that the working day in Russia is never more than eight hours, no woman ever leaves her work oftener than twice a day for the purpose of nursing, because she can combine one feeding with her own lunch period.

Unemployed women who have worked at one time or another and who, at the time of their pregnancy, are trying to get jobs receive a small sum from the Social Insurance Company, and free care during their confinement. The amount of money allotted to these women is determined according to their individual economic conditions. However, they never receive more than an amount which barely allows them to live, unless they or their husbands are socially insured.

The wife of a worker, a soldier, or an invalid who was a former worker, also has the right to social insurance money during confinement. The wife of a soldier receives money from the insurance company only if the birth of her child takes place more than three months after the husband has joined the army.

All pregnant women who have any claim whatsoever to social insurance receive complete medical attention throughout their lives. Other women must pay for this attention whenever possible; however, medical care is never denied anyone because she is too poor to pay for it.

Social insurance, therefore, insures that a woman is given every possible chance to be both a healthy mother and at the same time a self-supporting individual. The good results of this type of social insurance can be understood when we realise that before the Revolution forty per cent of the children of working women died during their first year of life, and that that percentage has now been decreased to about four and a half per cent.

It might seem to us that the practical benefits of social insurance would be adequate to make all women desire to become workers, without the added stimulus of advertising, and this may be the case. However, the Soviet Government is so anxious in its desire to make proletarians of its entire population that it is considered necessary to continually advertise the benefits allotted to a working woman and a mother. To this end the Institute for the Protection of Mother and Child has established small offices known as "Judicial Consultation Rooms," for the purpose of explaining to women what they can expect from the Soviet Government provided they are willing to work. These are found in clubhouses, worker unions, Museums of Mother and Child, medical clinics, lecture halls, marriage courts, parks, and any other place where women are likely to gather together. There locations are widely advertised by brilliant posters which can be seen everywhere on the streets. Legal consultations can be had not only throughout the working day, but also in the evenings, so that women will lack no opportunity of gaining whatever advice they might need. There is always a legally trained person, usually a woman, in attendance in these consultation rooms, someone who is well schooled in the legal and social phases of Women's Rights. These advisers usually are qualified lawyers, but even if they are not, they are fully capable of advising any woman who comes to them for help, and are able to explain to them what course of action is legal and why such a course is desirable under a Communistic regime. They do not stop at merely giving personal advice, but attempt to explain the theories underlying the status of women and children in the Soviet State. On the walls of these rooms are posters and graphs portraying the status of women in other countries, with the purpose of teaching the Russian woman how much better off they are under a Communistic rather than a Capitalistic Government. From time to time, those who are in charge of the Judicial Consultations for women give formal lectures, and they are continually organising informal discussions with the women of their neighbourhood.

On visiting the Judicial Consultation Rooms in Moscow I was told that they have up to the present time come in contact with eighty per cent of the female population of that city, at one time or another, and that they have aided in straightening out the affairs of about twenty per cent of the Moscow women. About seventy-two per cent of the women seeking advice from Judicial Consultations are factory workers: twenty per cent office workers: two per cent peasants temporarily residing in the city: two per cent craftsmen and artists: one and a half per cent students; and the remaining two and a half per cent miscellaneous (mostly private traders). These figures are not particularly interesting in themselves, but I think they serve to illustrate a much-disputed point in the theory of Communist Government, in that they show how much more informed are factory and office workers regarding active communism, than are the other elements of the population. The diminishing but still enormous number of private traders and farmers in the U.S.S.R. is well known; therefore, it is interesting to note that not more than two and a half per cent of the number of women who seek advice at the Soviet Judicial Information Rooms are from this class. It probably means that they find themselves so socially inferior to the proletariats and are so antagonistic that they are little informed as to their personal rights, or that they either do not know about, or are loath to use those social facilities which are offered by the Communist Government.

This type of judicial advice is becoming increasingly important in Moscow, and it has already spread to the co-operative towns and villages where corners of club rooms are used as places of judicial advice for women. With the Russian liking for that type of social work known as home inspection, they have even sanctioned home visiting by the advisers in the Judicial Consultation Rooms. This is no doubt a very good idea, since it means that the advisers can become personally acquainted with the women of their neighbourhood, and with home conditions. However, it seems to me that a good proletarian woman who avails herself of all the social and medical facilities offered her by her Government, must be constantly overwhelmed by the onslaught of home visitors whom she is forced to receive. But I never heard a Russian woman complain of them, and so perhaps they are not as numerous as they seem. In ally case, the work of the home visitor is mainly to interest those people who have not previously taken advantage of the medical and social institutions at their service.

Judical Consultation Rooms In Moscow
Year Number of
Such Institutions
Number of Women to Whom
Advice Was Given
1925 11 10,234
1926 18 14,689
1927 30 20,940
1928 35 25,689

[Note: All figures regarding Judicial Consultation were taken from the posters on the walls of the Judicial Consultation Rooms in Moscow. There are no later figures.]

In the year which ended October, 1926, the Judicial Consultation Department of the "Institute for the Protection of hlother and Child" gave one hundred and twenty public lectures on their work in Moscow; from October, 1926, to 1927 they only gave one hundred and thirteen such lectures: and from 1927 to 1928, two hundred and twelve lectures on Women's Rights were given.

1924-1925 384
1925-1926 1,1183
1926-1927 1,153
1927-1928 1,852

On the table in each of these Consultation Rooms are small pamphlets which can be taken home by the women. They contain the following advice:

When getting a divorce, remember:

1. If you are unavoidably unemployed after your divorce, you can get alimony for six months from your former husband, if he is at work.

2. If you are incapacitated for work, you can receive alimony from your divorced husband for one year. 3. If you are unable to support your children, you can make their father do so, for it is required by law that if he is working, he give up to one-third of his income to the support of his children until they are eighteen years of age.

4. If your marriage is not registered, it is better for you to register the father of your child at your local marriage court during your pregnancy.

5. When giving the name of the father of your child in the marriage court, your claim will be made legal, if the man you say was your husband does not deny his fatherhood of your child within two weeks of the day you file claim. The marriage court registrar will inform the man concerned by postcard.

6. In case the man you say is the father of your child or children denies your claim, you may carry the matter to the Common Pleas Court where you will be required to produce two witnesses who will testify to the effect that you lived with the man concerned not less than one night at a time which would account for the child's birth.

7. Cohabitation and marriage are synonymous, and COHABITATION IMPLIES ALL OF THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF MARRIAGE.

8. If you are not socially insured, you can require your divorced husband to support you and his child during your confinement. Apply to the Common Pleas Court in case he refuses your Common Pleas Court in personal request.

9. The October Revolution has put a stop to the inequality of Children. There is no such thing as an illegitimate child born in the U. S. S. R. today, so do not shun motherhood.

10. Register your marriages. It is safer, and in case of divorce, will save you trouble; also vou should do it for your child's sake, for the fathers must support their children and if they do not they are deprived of their liberty. But first you must be sure that the Soviet officials know who your husband was.

11. Remember that all which belonged to you before marriage belongs to you afterwards, and articles obtained during marriage are the joint property of you and your husband.

12. If your husband is disabled or unemployed, and you are working, you will be required to contribute to his support to exactly the same extent that he is required to contribute to yours.

13. In order to obtain a divorce you must apply to your local marriage and divorce court. You need give no special reason, and your husband will be notified by the court.

14. If there is a question as to who shall have the care of the children, the Court of Justice will decide it.

At first glance, it seems that the foregoing list of advantages now held by women in Russia hardly gives the men a chance, but a careful study of the Russian marriage laws and their effects, reveals that this is a very important check against promiscuity in matrimonial relations, for marriage in Russia involves much more than the writing of names in book. Cohabitation alone incurs all the responsibilities of marriage, both social and financial; therefore, it is easy to see that not many men and women can afford to be promiscuous, for it must be remembered that in case the children live with the father after the parents are divorced, which is very seldom the case, the mother is liable to contribute to the support of the children up to one-third of her income, exactly as would be done by the husband in case the mother had the care of the children.

The giving and receiving of alimony is a responsibility of a special bureau in the marriage and divorce courts; but if it fails to make the men or women concerned pay what they owe, the matter is taken up in other civic courts.

There has been much discussion in the Western World concerning the marriage and divorce laws of the U. S. S. R. This subject is perhaps greatly misunderstood by those who have not had the opportunity of studying not only these laws but also the effect they have on the Russian people. Mr. Hindus, in Humanity Uprooted, gives an excellent and unbiased picture of matrimony in Russia as it is today. I think, however, that a few things can be added to what he has written, namely, the basic theories underlying marriage and divorce in the ideal Communistic State, and a comparison of those theories with the actual state of affairs in the U. S. S. R. today.

In a truly Communist State as in Heaven, there can be no "marrying, or giving in marriage," for the individual would be free to do as he liked with his personal life, his first concern being not himself and his pleasures, but his duty to the society in which he lives. Soviet Russia is far from having achieved that goal and therefore it has been found necessary to have laws governing the relationships between men and women. In 1917, those who formed the new Government tried their best to do away with those recognised evils which have always harmed society, one of the outstanding of which is the illegitimate child. Making children suffer the ignominy of illegitimacy simply because parents had relationships out of wedlock, is unfair to the child and does not in the least curb those relationships, especially where they are encouraged by poverty. Because, according to Communist theory society is responsible for excessive poverty in certain groups, it has no right to punish those who take what they can from their meager lives. That seems only fair, and perhaps the situation could be greatly remedied by increasing the financial standing of society in general. However, there would still be illegitimate children, for we find them even in the wealthiest groups. The parents, it can be argued, should be punished for indulging in illicit sexual relations, but again why should the children bear that punishment? Simple humanity on the part of any open-minded thinker demands that every child who comes into the world should be equal to every other child at the time of his birth, and that he should be given a fair chance to make himself a useful member of society. Punishing parents by calling the off-spring of their illegal relationships "illegitimate" has never done very much to curb promiscuity, so it seems a useless and harmful check on morals. The October Revolution, therefore, destroyed the illegitimate child, and no one born today in Russia starts with such a social handicap.

Since the fear of having an illegitimate child has always been one of the most important checks on sexual relations, as well as one of the most important reasons for legal marriage, it was necessary for the Russians to reconstruct the whole idea of marriage if they were not to have illegitimate children. If marriage was to exist at all, it had to exist whenever there was a sexual act, and therefore cohabitation, to all practical purposes, became synonymous with marriage. But just to say that cohabitation and marriage are synonymous is very difficult, for it implies no responsibility: and children are a responsibility. The few Soviet laws on this subject are brief and to the point, and in spite of their apparent laxity they are in reality infinitely more severe than those of most countries, for their first concern is for the children involved. It is possible for two people who wish to live together, to register their names in a book in their local marriage court: but this does not necessarily make them married, for cohabitation can and does occur without registering the relationship. Registering a marriage is only a convenience to the Government for statistical purposes, and is not really important, for it requires no more responsibility or expense than does unregistered cohabitation.