Celebrating International Women’s Day 100 Years On


As our contribution to International Women’s Day we are examining the role of women in starting the February Revolution in Russia in 1917. Our research demonstrates that working class women not only played a major part in the revolution but did so in class terms – something opposed by Russian middle class feminists in the various women’s suffrage organisations. It was a mirror image of the struggle in the UK where Christabel, and her mother Emmeline, Pankhurst led the Women’s Social and Political Union(WSPU) whilst Sylvia Pankhurst(1), living and working amongst women in the East End of London, came to see the struggle in the context of the class war against capitalism.

During the First World War Sylvia Pankhurst’s organisation evolved from the Women’s Suffrage Federation to the Workers’ Socialist Federation (1918) whilst in 1917 her paper the Women’s Dreadnought changed its name to the Workers’ Dreadnought in support of the February Revolution. This was not the course taken by her mother and sisters who called off the struggle for votes and began instead to recruit men to die in the trenches “for King and Country”. Again, the parallels with Russia are striking. After the events detailed in the article below, the middle class women of the Russian League of Women’s Equality organised a 40,000 strong demonstration demanding votes for women. Alexandra Kollontai witnessed this and was dismayed to find that all the speakers were calling for support for continuing the war. Eventually managing to get her voice heard she called out “All power to the Soviets” but was dragged off “by a patriotic ruffian paid to keep order on such occasions”.(2)

The Provisional Government saw the propaganda power of promising women the vote (purely a theoretical step as there was no parliament) and even encouraged them to join the Armed Forces in the hope that it would persuade the demoralised Russian Army to fight on.

Real progress for women would have to wait until the October Revolution, which not only recognised working women as having the same workplace and political rights as men, but also legalised (and made easy) divorce, maternity leave, and child care, as well as job security during pregnancy. Crèches and communal canteens were brought in to end some of the drudgery of housework and common property in marriage (i.e. male control) was ended. It was not perfect and it did not last, as with the Revolution itself. Stalin unravelled as many of these advances as he could after 1928.

Not a deal of progress can be recorded for 51% of humanity since then. In the current world situation violence against women is rising dramatically everywhere. Whether it is in US colleges where a quarter of all women are “sexually assaulted” in their first term, in Africa where female genital mutilation is widespread or via the codified violence of states like Saudi Arabia and Iran who blame the victim for rape, there has been a culture of violence against women which we have to fight as part of the general struggle for human liberation. Additionally, the breakdown of many states under the pressure of economic collapse and imperialist proxy wars in places like the Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic (the list goes on and on) means that rape has become a policy of war. This is also true for Boko Haram and IS who use rape against those they regard as unbelievers when they are not forcing them into “marriage” with their fighters as “a perk” of the job. Against this, demanding “rights” for women in this society is not enough. Male violence is a societal problem not some marginal “woman’s issue”. The class war against imperialist war is the cause of all humanity but can only be led by the one class found everywhere – the working class, which alone has the potential to bring down capitalism. We need a shift in attitudes as well as institutions and the only way that will come about is via a revolution. As Marx explained:

… for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of human beings(3) on a mass scale is, necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.

So, looking back on the hopes opened by the February Revolution in Russia is not for us an exercise in nostalgia, but an indication that things can be different …

The February Revolution 1917

On International Women’s Day (February 23 old style/ March 8 today) 1917(4), women workers from both home and factory took to the streets of Petrograd. Five days of strikes, demonstrations and over 1300 deaths later, Tsarism had crumbled. In these events, hundreds of thousands of men also took part but,

It was the women who initiated the action in most cases, primarily working women from the textile mills.(5)

The final straw for the women workers had come with the breakdown in the supply of bread which began at the start of February when only half the food ordered for Petrograd arrived.

Long lines stretched in front of shops and bakeries. A winter unprecedented in severity had set in, filling the streets with ice and piling snowdrifts on the roofs of homes, sidewalks and bridges of the city. Shivering from cold, poorly dressed young people, women and old men waited hours for bread and often went home empty-handed. Food shortages provoked an even greater ferment among the masses … the queues had the same force as revolutionary meetings and tens of thousands of revolutionary leaflets. The street had become a political club.

The war brought 250,000 more women into the Petrograd workforce making the total about a million. Conditions were particularly exacting for women. Many had to work long hours in war industries after their men were conscripted for the front, as well as look after children, and spend what little free time they had in long lines queuing for bread and kerosene. In the days before International Women’s Day bakeries had been sacked and bread shops stoned but what now transformed these bread riots into something more was that women (plus some male) workers held “stormy” mass meetings which wanted to go beyond the traditional demonstration. Having decided to down tools in one factory they then went round others, sometimes throwing snowballs at windows to attract workers’ attention. Men and women poured out of factories to take part in demonstrations. All told that day somewhere between 80,000 and 120,000 workers, the vast majority of them women, went out on strike demanding bread, peace, and an end to Tsarism.

In launching such widespread strike action women workers went against the advice from all the political organisations who thought it was too early to mobilise a fully revolutionary movement. They feared it would lead to a demoralising defeat and wanted to confine this socialist anniversary, as previously, to a formal demonstration against the war. Not that the women workers were without their own political leaders. Bolshevik women, encouraged by Lenin, had even produced their own paper Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker) which ran for 7 issues in 1914. Most socialist organisations had developed their own women’s circles after the 1905 revolution like the Working Women’s Mutual Assistance Association (founded 1907) to carry out “organisation and propaganda among the female factory proletariat”. This organisation had particularly close links with the textile workers who led the way in 1917.(6)

They were opposed throughout by the more affluent traditional middle class women’s organisations who simply wanted votes for women. On International Women’s Day 1916 the middle class feminists of the League for Women’s Equality and the Progressive Women’s Party had gone round tearing down the working women’s posters to prevent strikes. In 1917 the story was different so widespread was the anger. Although organisationally weak, members of the working women’s circles were embedded in the working class districts. Some, like Anna Itkina (not then a Bolshevik), played their part in issuing leaflets calling for strikes and demonstrations. They could not though have predicted where the movement would end up.

Women continued to play an important role in the 5 days that followed. They knew from their experience of 1905 that the key task was to win over the garrison. The softening-up process began in earnest on February 24. Although most of the mounted Cossacks initially did what they were told, there were one or two places where some sort of fraternisation or, more accurately, “sororisation”, took place. It was, again mainly, women who went up to groups of soldiers taking hold of their bayonets, telling them about their lack of bread, explaining that their men were at the Front etc. Their aim was to shame the troops over the role they were playing. It worked and the bulk of the troops gradually came over to the revolution.

Russia now found itself not with one new government but two. The first was the Provisional Government set up by members of the old Parliament (Duma) who had been elected on the rigged voting system of the Tsar. The other was the Soviet. However even the early Soviet was not really representative as it many factories had not sent delegates (some had not even heard the Soviet had been re-formed). Soldiers were vastly over-represented. The early Soviet was thus dominated by the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries who wanted to continue “the war to victory” (Kerensky) and thus handed leadership of the revolution to the propertied classes in the Provisional Government. The revolutionary working class still had to fight against this.

Working women faced a parallel fight. Despite being 40% of the Petrograd proletariat, despite the significant role they had played in the revolution, not a single woman delegate was present in the first Soviet. The working class revolution had only just begun …


March 2017

(1) leftcom.org

(2) Cathy Porter Alexandra Kollontai (Virago 1980) p.239

(3) We have taken the “liberty” of translating “Mensch” here as “human beings” and not “Man” as it erroneously appears in most English translations.

(4) Women’s Day started as an idea of the Socialist Party of America in 1908-9 to celebrate a women workers’ strike and became “International” after Luise Zeitz and Clara Zetkin proposed such a day at the 1911 second International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen. Russian women first celebrated it as a demonstration against war in 1913 (so the next year the Tsarist police arrested the organisers to prevent a repeat). It thus became a festival of the Russian working class like May Day and January 9 (anniversary of Bloody Sunday 1905).

(5) All quotations here are from Russia’s Second Revolution, E.N Burdzhalov (English translation by Donald J Raleigh, Indiana University Press, 1986)

(6) Men could be members of the proletarian women's organisations but were not allowed to hold positions of authority.

The article above is a slightly longer version of one that appears in the current Aurora (No. 40). Some of the same material can be found in our article on the February Revolution already on our website.

The banner in the picture says "If a woman is a slave, there will no be freedom! Long live equality of rights for women!"

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Aurora (en)

Aurora is the broadsheet of the ICT for the interventions amongst the working class. It is published and distributed in several countries and languages. So far it has been distributed in UK, France, Italy, Canada, USA, Colombia.