The Limits of Liberation; The ideals and realities of early Soviet family policy

1925 Poster: ‘Everyone should vote; women together with men must root out the bourgeois.’

Soviet ideas of women’s liberation were progressive and bold for their time. Soviet women were working side by side with men when American women were still fighting for the right to vote. The declarations of women’s equality with men were a triumph in post-Revolutionary Russia, but the fundamental applications of these ideals were much more complicated. Women’s liberation consisted in several parts, all of which were contingent upon one another. The 1918 Family Code, based on Marxist ideas set up a system that sought to make the family a thing of the capitalist past. The years of 1917 to 1934, have been proven by history to be an experiment that failed. The conclusion was that the family is the basic unit of society, which is why almost all of these policies were eventually reversed when they went horribly amiss.

Marx’s Formula for Women’s Liberation

1) Free union: This meant that marriages were based on love and not money and that both parties were free to leave whenever they choose.
2) Women entering the workforce: Only when women began to make their own money and be active in the community could they be liberated from their role as dependents.
3) Socialization of housework and child care: Everyone would have their own personal maid/cook/nanny—the state.
4) Disintegration of the family: The confines of family would wither away once women began to enter the workforce—giving up their children to be raised in communal child care.

The 1918 Family Code
After the Bolsheviks overthrew the tsarist regime, they proceeded to overthrow the institution of family as it had heretofore been known:
1) Marriage became a civil union: this extracted the Church from the equation.
2) Divorce was made accessible for both parties: before it was virtually impossible for women to get a divorce.
3) Illegitimate children given equal rights: No child would be denied care simply because they were born out of wedlock.
4) Adoption forbidden: Envisioning socialized child care, the Bolsheviks believed that the state would be raising the children and they didn’t want orphans to be bought and used as slaves.
5) Spouses support themselves: Because both partners would be working and making their own wages, alimony and child support would become obsolete.

With the new ‘free union’ laws, women were no longer the property of men. This poster shows a woman leaving her oppressive husband saying, ‘I’m not yours anymore…He takes me to the Soviet council to listen to Lenin’

The Family Code’s progressive ideals were ahead of the rest of Europe. Russia became the first country in Europe to make abortion legal, which it did in November of 1920. Women ended up having to use abortion more and more often as the ideals that were meant to liberate them crumbled leaving them buried beneath the rubble.

Many of the above ideals are contingent upon other ideals being manifest. For example, in order for their to be no need for the family, both parties have to be able to support themselves and their children have to be taken care of by the state. Women were expected to go to work and this would be possible considering that the children were being raised elsewhere. So much is contingent upon women’s former work being covered so that they can go work with the men. What happens when that doesn’t happen? Soviet history 101.

This is a poster encouraging peasant women to put their children into the day care to be raised by the commune. The new family policies were especially destabilizing for the more traditional peasant families.

While Russian women were some of the first in the world to work side by side with men, own their own property and so on, they became victims of the system’s fundamental flaws.

Wendy Goldman’s book Women, the State and Revolution; Soviet family policy & social life, 1917-1936 gives an in depth analysis of the statistics, studies and documents pertaining to women’s issues in Bolshevist Russia. These are a few of the realities of the woman’s lot in these years of supposed liberation according to the book:

With the civil war ended and the budget cuts of NEP, many of Soviet womens’ jobs were given to veterans with higher skill levels. Between 1921 and 1927 the number of unemployed women surged from 60,975 to 369,800. Furthermore, in the workplace women made only 65% of what their male counterparts made. This made women more dependent on a husband’s higher wages.

Free Unions and Divorce
The new divorce laws may have seemed liberating for the women who were making decent wages. But the fact that husbands could now come, impregnate and go as they pleased left many women in poverty. Alimony was a symbol of woman’s dependency on men, and was therefore looked down on. With the new lax ideals about sex and marriage men went around fathering children, and women went through hell to try and get alimony or child support.

Thus women were left without a job, without a husband and with a child to support they resorted to the most ancient female profession: prostitution.  Prostitution, which was subsiding in the early years after the revolution, flourished once again when women became the expendable employees under the NEP budget cuts.  Most of the prostitutes were women with no education or skills, whose husbands had divorced them and who were unable to find other work.  But many of these prostitutes were young girls who had grown up on the streets, who hadn’t enjoyed the material security promised them under the family code.

‘Stray Children’The civil war and famine of the early 1920’s left the socialized kitchens and child care overwhelmed. The New Economic Policy of 1921 shut down many of these socialized institutions to help the economy recover. Women were supposed to put their children in day care to be raised communally, but the day cares didn’t have enough money to feed or clothe the children. The children’s homes were flooded with orphans and conditions were often so bad that the children preferred to live on the streets. This led to the problem of bezprizornost, which could be translated at ‘stray children’. In 1922 there were an estimated 7.5 million ‘starving and dying’ children in Russia.

Before 1921, when abortion was legalized, women were terminating pregnancies with homemade and makeshift abortions. This poster warns that such abortions could maim and kill and that those who participate in these shady abortions would be prosecuted.

Abortion and Population Crisis

Abortion was made legal and accessible for women. With women being forced into the workplace to support themselves and no one to look after the kids, it makes sense that women utilized abortions as much as they did. In Moscow the number of abortions rose from 19 abortions per 100 births in 1921 to 271 abortions per 100 births in 1934. And this is just the statistic for legal abortions.

In theory, Soviet women were liberated through lofty idealogy.  All that the Bolsheviks had hoped for would have been liberating had it worked properly.  Famine, war and economic crisis meant that there was no money left to run the socialized housework and day care that was meant to free women from the hearth.  The new policies completely uprooted the peasant way of life and left the agricultural farms in a state of disaray.  Work became for women, not so much a sign of their liberation, but a reinforcement of their inferior status.  At the end of the day someone had to make the food, clean the house and take care of the children, which meant that women had double the burden and were enslaved all over again.  Soviet women’s liberation was contingent on services that the state could not provide, the result was destitution in a liberation disguise.

Wendy Goldman sums up this divide between the noble ideals about women’s liberation and the realities of post-revolutionary Russia:

“Unemployment, low skills, lack of social services and terrible poverty all mitigated against women’s independence from the family unit. The idea of ‘free union’ had tragic and unforeseen consequences for women as long as they were unable to support themselves and their children. The law, born out of the socialist-libertarian tradition, was painfully at odds with life. In Stel’makhovich’s own words, “The liberation of women…without an economic base guaranteeing every worker full material independence, is a myth.” (Women, the state and revolution 143)

5 thoughts on “The Limits of Liberation; The ideals and realities of early Soviet family policy

  1. Just passing by.Btw, you website have great content!

    Don’t pay for your electricity any longer…
    Instead, the power company will pay YOU!

  2. hello ~ happily stumbled upon your blog today and would love to know where you’re writing now, as I see you haven’t been here in some time.

    I’m an American Orthodox christian, learning and loving much that Russian Orthodoxy has brought to my life… & very thankful to have a Russian Orthodox Monastery near to me in WV … would love to connect with you.

    Peace be to you~

  3. Reblogged this on Situation Nominal and commented:
    Do we ever learn from history? Doesn’t it seem like we are just going down the same path all over again?

  4. Thank you for this review; it was very interesting and insightful for me. You are an excellent writer and–obviously–a very intelligent person. It is fascinating to me that you have so much love for Russian culture but are still able to objectively critique it.

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