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Historian Rochelle Ruthchild On Crucial Role Of Women In The Russian Revolution

A demonstration of workers from the Putilov plant in Petrograd (modern day St. Peterburg), Russia, during the February Revolution.
State museum of political history of Russia
A demonstration of workers from the Putilov plant in Petrograd (modern day St. Peterburg), Russia, during the February Revolution.


Women played a central role in the Russian Revolution, but their importance was largely erased from history after the Bolsheviks took power.

Historian Rochelle Ruthchild wants to change that.

“Women went out on the streets to for International Women's Day to demonstrate. And that actually sparked the Russian Revolution which led to the toppling of Tsar Nicholas II,” Ruthchild told KGOU’s World Views.

Much of Ruthchild’s research is focused on the women’s movement in Russia and the Soviet Union, and she wrote the book Equality and Revolution: Women’s Rights in the Russian Empire, 1905-1917.

Ruthchild says 35,000 to 40,000 women and men marched on February 23, 1917 as part of International Women’s Day. The provisional government in the early days after the revolution agreed to give women the right to vote, in part as a result of women’s participation in the demonstration.

“Russian women actually got the vote in 1917 and Russia was the first major power to give women the vote. U.S. women didn't get the vote until 1920,” Ruthchild said. “There were women of the suffragists in the United States who protested outside the gates of the White House saying Russia is free and are not.”

Ruthchild says Vladimir Lenin and his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, were very interested in liberating women. Lenin issued several proclamations, including equal pay and the ability for parents to choose either of their surnames for their children. He also made proclamations for paid maternity leave and he decriminalized homosexuality.

“But as they soon learned, it's one thing to make proclamations and it's another thing to actually change behavior,” Ruthchild said.

Throughout the Soviet period, there were times of support for women, and periods when that support waned. Ruthchild says Soviet rule under Joseph Stalin brought more traditional views of women. Leonid Brezhnev encouraged open discussion about what the role of women should be. Mikhail Gorbachev talked more about the importance of women in the home and as mothers.

“That's partially connected to the demographic crisis that the Soviets were having at that point where they had a very low birth rate,” Ruthchild said.

Russian women faced a double burden. They were able to participate in the workforce and earn a living, but they still had the responsibility of childcare and food preparation.

Ruthchild says there are some distinct differences between the Western women’s liberation movement and that in Russia. In the West,the movement was more grassroots. In the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc countries, it was state policy.

“You could almost say it was imposed from above,” Ruthchild said. “Given these structural problems, given the double burden, that led many women to be a more accepting of this notion of returning to the home, moving away from the paid labor force.”

During the post-Soviet economic downturn, women were often the first ones who were fired.

“When they were to be hired the ads would say things like, ‘Women should be without complexes,’ meaning you would sleep with your boss. That was almost a requirement,” Ruthchild said. “So you had a real retrenchment in that period and you have a real retrenchment to this day.”

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