By Chantal Sundaram
When thousands of women textile workers celebrated International Women’s Day in Petrograd, Russia in 1917 with a strike to demand bread, little did they know they would spark a revolution.
By the old Russian calendar, March 8 fell on February 17, 1917, and food was in short supply due to WWI. The women from the textile factories were soon joined by other factory workers, then by women in their homes. It was a groundswell that even caught the Bolsheviks by surprise; in fact the women were ignoring the advice of party leaders to “keep cool” to avoid repression.
But once they were in the streets, the Bolsheviks went all out to build their struggle. Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky would later write, “Women’s Day passed successfully, with enthusiasm and without victims. But what it concealed in itself no one had guessed even by nightfall.”
By October 1917 workers had taken power and began to enact legislation on women’s rights still unmatched by any government today: free abortion on demand, divorce on demand, paid maternity leave, free government-funded childcare, the decriminalization of homosexuality and prostitution. The first few years of the revolutionary government saw the beginning of communal nurseries, dining rooms and socialized laundries.
It was a huge project for a fledgling state facing economic collapse, starvation and a devastating civil war after 1917, which threatened the very survival of the revolution. But the Bolsheviks did not see combating women’s oppression as something that could wait for more stable times. They believed that the very success of the revolution depended on women playing an equal role.
All of this was reversed with the rise of Stalin in the late twenties and thirties. The very unity between men and women workers upon which the revolution had relied became a threat to the counter-revolution led by Stalin and the new ruling class that emerged out of the economic devastation of the Soviet Union. Women’s newly-won rights were repealed–though not without a fight by both men and women resisting the rise of Stalinism.
But defeat was not inevitable, and the years of revolution did achieve a very important victory. They showed what’s possible and that the fate of women is inextricably linked to the fate of the working class.