This is a version of the presentation I gave on the Salem College 2012 International Women’s Day Panel, which was themed this year “Women at the Time of Revolution.” I was asked to speak about the experiences of women in the Russian Revolution and the 2011 Uprisings.
If history has shown us anything about the nature of revolution, it has exposed the dialectical relationship between revolution and the liberation of oppressed groups. To win a strike, or demands in a movement, to succeed in radically altering the structure of a society without the active participation and leadership of women is unthinkable. Women comprise more than sixty percent of the world’s workforce, so the question becomes not one merely of adequate representation, but a real question of power.
In September 1917, on the doorstep of a revolution that would, for a time, tear down the inequality between men and women, the Bolshevik leader Lenin wrote, “Unless women take an independent part not only in political life generally, but also in daily and universal public service, it is no use talking about full and stable democracy, let alone socialism.” Lenin’s theoretical assertions on the absolute necessity of women’s place in the revolution were firmly grounded in historical experience. It was, after all, the working women of Paris who, alongside a soldiers’ mutiny, revolted in 1871, and secured power for the Paris working class. While this experience was a more dramatic example of the power working women have, it was hardly the only one.
It was a series of women’s labor struggles in the United States that led to the first International Working Women’s Day in 1911. Women in the United States inspired women around the world to take to the streets. As Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai noted: “Its success exceeded all expectation. Germany and Austria on Working Women’s Day was one seething, trembling sea of women. Meetings were organized everywhere–in the small towns and even in the villages, halls were packed so full that they had to ask male workers to give up their places for the women…Men stayed at home with their children for a change, and their wives, the captive housewives, went to meetings. During the largest street demonstrations, in which 30,000 were taking part, the police decided to remove the demonstrators’ banners: the women workers made a stand. In the scuffle that followed, bloodshed was averted only with the help of the socialist deputies in parliament.”
Even within the long and varied history of struggle against women’s oppression, the Russian revolution presents a very special case of what is possible. Just as the American women had inspired women around the world less than a decade before, Russia women were the catalysts behind the 1917 Russian Revolution. On International Women’s Day 1917, working women who had gathered for a series of political meetings, encouraged by the waves of political strike action, took to the streets, calling out to men working in the factories as they went. More than 50,000 joined the strike when called down by the women. Gordienko, a Bolshevik worker at the Nobel Machine Construction Factory, recalled the following scene:
On the morning of February 23 one could hear women’s voices in the lane which the windows of our department overlooked: “Down with the war! Down with high prices! Down with hunger! Bread for the workers!” Myself and several comrades were at the windows in a flash…. The gates of No. 1 Bol’shaya Sampsion’evskaya Manufaktura were wide open. Masses of women workers filled the lane, and their mood was militant. Those who caught sight of us began to wave their arms, shouting: “Come out! Quit work!” Snowballs flew through the window. We decided to join the demonstration…. A brief meeting took place outside the main office near the gates, and we poured out into the street…. The comrades in front were seized by the arm amidst shouts of “Hurray!”, and we set off with them down Bol’shoi Sampsion’evsky Prospekt.
Women continued to play a central role in the revolution for through October, and as Elizabeth Schulte notes, “Women workers took the lead in the struggle, as did their demands, and after the October Revolution, Russian revolutionaries put into effect reforms that could have a real effect on the lives of women workers, such as equal pay for equal work, freedom to divorce, paid maternity leave and taking laws off the books that criminalized homosexuality. And they attempted as best as they could, considering the shortage of resources in Russian society, to create the conditions in which liberation could begin to blossom. This meant in large part freeing women from the double burden they bear in the home–by building communal restaurants, child care centers and laundries.” The Bolsheviks also passed a declaration on women’s health that provided—for the first time in history—free abortion on demand. Abortion had been illegal before the revolution, punishable by up to 5 years in prison. After legalization, the mortality rate from abortions in the Soviet Union dropped from 4% to 0.28%.
As we know, of course, the Russian revolution was not to last and the same times other workplace, social, and democratic gains were being rolled back by the Stalinist state capitalist bureaucracy, women were stripped of their rights.
From labor battles to the struggle to abolish slavery, women were critical to every success, and they self-organized when men denied them participatory roles. During these fights, women battled, much like we are now, vicious attack from the ruling class and their conservative ideologues. Increasingly—and due to hard fought struggles—women were attaining greater levels of legal equality. This did not, however, do much to advance the social or economic equality of women because legal remedies only provided a window dressing that covered the real problem—women performed massive amounts of unpaid labor in the home and their labor elsewhere was devalued. This means that today, even though women do seventy percent of the world’s work and grow eighty percent of the world’s food, we only own one percent of the world’s assets. The women’s movement of the 1970s was ravaged by identity politics, racism, and class antagonism—culminating in a series of divisions in the women’s movement, mostly along class lines. The rightwing used this opportunity to go on the offensive, taking back hard fought gains and attempting to go even further in a thirty year period of reaction.
The 2011 happened. From Cairo to Madison, Karala India to Nigeria, working people around the world have taken a stand. Egypt, the second country to topple a long-term dictator in what has become known as the Arab Spring, is still fighting for its revolution. As Elizabeth Schulte noted: “in Egypt, Syria, Greece and other recent sites of revolt and rebellion, women and men mobilized and organized together in unprecedented ways. During struggles on this scale, workers’ ideas change–men’s ideas about women, and women’s ideas about men and also about themselves. In the process of confronting their shared and powerful enemy, such as the state and its police, men and women workers come to see their potential power as a united force.
Ideas like sexism are exposed for what they are–useless and destructive–not only because they are wrong, like misconceptions about what women are capable of, but because they divide the working class. They are exposed for their real purpose–to keep those at the top in power by dividing the masses below.”
Revolutionary Egyptian leader Asmaa Mahfouz recounted Tahrir Square. “This is the first time in my life…I was not sexually harassed in a public square. The thousands of men in that square treated me like a human being.” Here, in the midst of the chaotic whirlwind of activity, women tasted the liberation they had been seeking.
In addition to their full participation in the revolutionary movement, women in Egypt also self-organized. After a woman protester was assaulted by police, women organized an emergency protest and succeeded in turning out a hundred thousand strong march of women.
Asmaa Mahfouz’s call to action, issued in January before the occupation of Tahrir Square, reflected the women in the streets of Russia nearly a century earlier: “Whoever says women shouldn’t go to protests because they will get beaten, let him have some honor and manhood and come with me on January 25th… Go down to the street. Come with us. Bring five people or 10 people…Never say there’s no hope. Hope disappears only when you say there’s none. So long as you come down with us, there will be hope. Don’t be afraid of the government. Fear none but God. God says He will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves. Don’t think you can be safe anymore. None of us are. Come down with us and demand your rights, my rights, your family’s rights. I am going down on January 25th, and I will say no to corruption, no to this regime.”
In Egypt, we don’t know how things are going to turn out, but we do know that a continued commitment to the participation of women in the revolution will be central to any success it may achieve. Without the liberation of the oppressed within a society, there can be no chance of a revolution succeeding, and that is why anyone who considers themselves a revolutionary must take up the fight against sexism, the fight against racism, against homophobia and transphobia, and all other forms of oppression.
For the first time in many of our lives, there is once again, a fighting grassroots women’s movement. The situation is one full of possibility. Standing together we are strong—in the streets, on the shop floor, on the campuses—and we can do what may have seemed impossible in the past—what might have seemed impossible last week. More true than ever are the words of Assata Shakur: “A woman’s place is in the struggle.”
I’ll be speaking at these upcoming events:
March 17 @ Left Forum, Pace University
10 AM: (W607) Reclaiming our Comrades: The Omaha Two
12 PM: (W624) Occupy Greensboro: Report from a Southern City
March 24 @ NC Defend Education Student Organizing Conference
I will be leading an afternoon meeting on strategies for movement building. Register for the NC Defend Education Conference HERE.
April 4, 7 PM in at UNC-Charlotte (more info to come)
The Republican War on Women (and the Democrats who Enable Them)
April 14, UNCC History Forum
An Injury to All: Racism and Miners’ Strikes in Harlan County, Kentucky, 1973-1978