THE “WOMAN QUESTION,” to which Kollontai would add her socialist feminism, had a rich history in Russia. It began to develop in the 1830s and 1840s, when the intelligentsia read the work of Charles Fourier, the utopian socialist who asserted the right of women to equality with men. The controversial woman novelist George Sand was also influential, although not permanently so, for her free love theories consisted largely of a demand for recognition of woman as an erotic creature. Sand did not make a systematic analysis of woman’s position, nor did she support any fundamental reform in the legal and political spheres; still, she and the utopian socialists were discussed by Russian intellectuals in prologue to the emergence of a debate on the woman question in the late 1850s.
Throughout Europe, feminism began as a question of emancipation for upper- and middle-class women. Peasant women in Russia, as elsewhere, were too downtrodden to rebel. They endured all the privations of poverty and endless labor which their menfolk suffered, and they were burdened with abuse by those men, who felt themselves entitled to treat their wives as chattels. To upper-class women, however, Russian society allowed some small independence, and that fact may help explain the rise of feminism there. A degree of ambivalence in a society’s judgments of women’s capacities and roles may be required to enable women to formulate demands for change that do not meet with total rejection. Russian women could own property, a right for which early feminist movements in England and the United States struggled. Women managed extensive estates and controlled their inheritances. They also ran charities, organized schools for peasant children, and collected money for revolutionaries.
Such liberties were allowed to an upper-class woman so long as she performed her duties as wife and mother, the roles for which she was believed suited by virtue of her allegedly innate capacities to be submissive and maternal. She could keep her property, but she was taught to be subordinate and she was hedged in by legal and social restrictions to guarantee her status. A married woman could not apply for a passport without her husband’s permission, a serious limitation since passports were required for movement within Russia as well as abroad. If a marriage failed, divorce was difficult; the Church recognized as grounds only adultery, desertion, impotence, or criminality, and successfully bringing any of these charges was more difficult for a woman than a man. In order to prove impotence, for instance, a woman had to establish her virginity; proof of adultery required two witnesses to the act. In court, a woman’s word was valued less than a man’s, for the law read, “When two witnesses do not agree, the testimony of an adult outweighs that of a child, and the testimony of a man that of a woman.”1
These legal impairments enforced woman’s inequality. So too did the lack of educational opportunities; until the 1870s most upper-class women had access only to finishing schools and domestic tutors who taught social graces and a smattering of languages, history, and mathematics. It was to education that advocates of improvements in woman’s position turned their attention in the late 1850s, when Aleksandr II launched the reform debates preceding the emancipation of the serfs. The initial articles discussing educational reform came from N. I. Pirogov, a pedagogue who argued that women should develop their minds so as to be better mothers. His was a position common throughout Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, when middle-class literature was stressing motherhood as a vocation for which women should be trained. Advocates of such professionalized domesticity wanted not an alteration of women’s traditional roles, but a development of women’s “feminine” capacities. Pirogov was a moderate reformer; his objective was a literate wife and mother.
M. L. Mikhailov, a poet, presented far more thoroughgoing proposals for the emancipation of women in the late 1850s. He called for equality in civil rights, education, and the professions, and justified these demands by arguing that woman was man’s equal intellectually, emotionally, and morally. Any seeming inferiority in will or intelligence sprang from inadequate education. If given freedom to develop her potential, she would be a better mother and a partner in marriage, rather than a dependent. Mikhailov did not call for the abolition of the traditional family, but neither did he stop at Pirogov’s well-educated helpmate. He proposed equalizing the relations of women and men by removing the restrictions on women. It was a liberal program, influenced by Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill and addressed to the upper classes. Mikhailov did not openly consider extending the luxuries of equal opportunity to the en- serfed peasantry. He also accepted Pirogov’s stress on education, seeing it as a principal means to female emancipation.2
Mikhailov did influence more radical thinkers, however, most notably Nikolai Chernyshevskii, author of the famous didactic novel What Is to Be Done? (1862). Dedicated to social good, rational to a fault, totally selfless, the protagonists of this novel furnished generations of young Russians with models of revolutionary personalities. Vera Pavlovna, the central figure, was a sheltered young woman who left her home to become the organizer of a dressmaking shop where profits were shared among the workers. Thus liberated, she went on to study medicine in preparation for a life dedicated to the people, a life she shared with a husband of equally lofty purpose. This vision of woman’s emancipation, together with the emerging revolutionary activity of the Russian intelligentsia, marked the beginning of a radical position on the woman question in the 1860s. Pirogov and Mikhailov advocated moderate to liberal changes for upper-class women. Without fully realizing it himself, Cher- nyshevskii linked female emancipation with the emancipation of all society. Women influenced by Vera Pavlovna’s example drew two conclusions —that their bondage was part of the general injustice of Russian society, and that they could become free by working for the liberation of all people. When radicals organized illegal political groups, called “circles,” in the 1860s, therefore, women joined. In the 1870s they comprised twenty to twenty-five percent of the populist movement.3 Women who became involved in populism were aware of their own inequality, they saw it as related to the inequality of the masses of the Russian people, and they thought improvement was possible only through revolution.4
Thus as discussion of the woman question continued into the 1860s, a fundamental difference of opinion emerged between the reformers, on the one hand, and the revolutionaries, on the other. The reformers, represented by Pirogov and Mikhailov, sought education as an immediate goal, peaceful change as the means. From this position came Russian feminism, a movement which had female equality as its primary objective. By the 1870s, through applying pressure in intellectual journals and petition drives, female and male feminists had secured the establishment of segregated secondary schools (gymnasia) for women, advanced lectures affiliated with the major universities, and a medical school. Aleksandr III closed the medical school and refused further concessions, but after his death in 1894 feminist groups began to organize again. The most prominent, the Russian Women’s Mutual Philanthropic Society, was led by a physician, Anna M. Shabanova, and was dedicated to educational reform and charity work. The Society also favored political and legal equality for women, but its members could not openly work for those ends without risking arrest. They concentrated instead on politically less sensitive issues —prostitution and the dreadful living and working conditions of factory women. Generally their efforts took the form of housing, feeding, and tutoring those girls who found their way to shelters in the major cities. By the turn of the twentieth century, therefore, Russian feminism had much in common with feminism elsewhere in Europe; it favored reform rather than revolution, sought education first, then civil rights, and appealed largely to upper-class women, although it attempted to reach across class lines and ameliorate the problems of the poor.5
The radical position on the woman question dismissed feminism as a self-interested effort by bourgeois women to gain equality with their bourgeois brothers. Socialists believed that women would be liberated only when all people were free, and that the means to that end was the abolition of private property through revolution. Russian populists and Marxists scorned the feminists’ charity projects, just as they scorned all attempts to improve a fundamentally unjust social order. Handouts could not better the lot of the poor, and the people who gave them did so out of guilt and a selfish desire to quiet the masses. In the feminists’ efforts to emancipate women, therefore, the revolutionaries saw, with some justice, a program aimed at the needs of the propertied classes. The Russian socialists, like their comrades elsewhere in Europe, considered the woman question to be part of a larger problem of social injustice and sought its resolution in the restructuring of the entire society.
Kollontai had come to revolutionary politics because she was dissatisfied with her life as wife and mother, and because she believed that revolution would liberate women and men. So completely had she subsumed the woman question in the general question of emancipation that her early writings paid no special attention to women workers in Finland or to any particularly female issue. Kollontai accepted the socialists’ low evaluation of feminism, and therefore when feminist groups became politically active in 1905, she attended their meetings to argue against them.
In that revolutionary year the Russian Women’s Mutual Philanthropic Society openly called for female political equality. It was joined by new feminist groups, the Women’s Progressive Party and the Union for Women’s Equality, which were composed of younger and more impatient professional women. The Union, organized in Moscow, made a strong effort to build an alliance of women from all classes by coupling its demands for equal rights with calls for a constituent assembly and land reform, and by organizing clubs to aid poor women. Kollontai viewed these initiatives with alarm, for she perceived that the feminists were moving away from what she judged to be their narrowly bourgeois concerns toward appeals to the working class, and she saw them gaining support thereby. Such activity had the potential for weakening the appeal of the Social Democrats.
Responding to this threat, Kollontai attended feminist meetings and publicly branded feminism bourgeois. She also attempted to counter the feminists’ organizing activities with Social Democratic programs, and in that effort she met with failure. Although the party platform called for complete female equality and for reforms in working conditions which included maternity and child care benefits, the party was making little effort to draw women into its ranks. When Kollontai argued that something must be done to prevent the feminists from wooing away the female proletariat, her comrades responded that all their activities were open to the entire working class. Women were as welcome as men to attend meetings, read party propaganda, and become members.6
This argument overlooked the fact that proletarian women were not flocking to Social Democracy in numbers representative of their participation in the labor force. Although the largest source of employment for women was still domestic service, women made up a significant percentage of the employees in textile mills, tobacco factories, bakeries, and luxury goods workshops. Numbering between twenty and thirty percent of the Russian working class, women endured more difficult living and working conditions than the men.7 Generally, they held the least skilled jobs. Where they did the same work, they were paid less than men, and in addition to enduring the dirt, noise, danger, and disease of Russia’s factories, they had to cope with pregnancy, child care, and household chores. A pregnant woman either continued working or risked losing her job. Management docked her pay for days missed when the baby came. After the birth the mother could turn her child over to a relative or to a local babysitter or simply lock it at home all day. Many women were the sole support of their families; they often went undernourished in order to feed their children on starvation wages. Forced to contend with all these difficulties, working-class women had no time left at the end of the day for attending socialists’ meetings.
Furthermore, working-class women lacked the political awareness of men. They had learned to be submissive, they did not consider it proper for their sex to be involved in politics, and they had little confidence in their own abilities. The men among whom they worked, including those involved in radical politics, discouraged their wives and other women from moving beyond the narrow world of factory and home. Thus, because of their special burdens and the traditional attitudes of the proletariat, women were less responsive than men to the revolutionaries who appealed to the industrial labor force. Those women who went to the shelters run by the feminists of the Union for Women’s Equality or signed Union petitions for the vote probably did so because the Union made an effort to talk to them, and because the charity projects were tailored to their immediate needs.
When Kollontai began to think about countering the feminists in 1905, she soon realized that the Russian Social Democrats had no plans for organizing women workers that would break down the barriers of suspicion and apathy. She decided that she needed to formulate an organizing strategy especially designed for women, and in 1906 she went to the congress of the German Social Democratic Party to ask for guidance. The German Socialists were pioneers in work among women. As early as 1891 they had published a paper for women workers, Die Gleich- heit, sent out agitators trained for female audiences, and lobbied for a woman’s department within the party. Clara Zetkin’s formulation of reforms for women—the vote, legal equality, full funding of maternity and child-care expenses, and working conditions tailored to protect women’s health—had been adopted by most European social democratic parties, including the Russian. Thus in September 1906, when Kollontai went to the SPD congress in Mannheim, she found herself among people dedicated to a cause to which she was just coming, people years ahead of her in experience, yet willing to listen sympathetically.8
Kollontai returned to St. Petersburg much impressed by the German women and determined to establish a woman’s bureau modeled on theirs within the Russian party. After some argument with the party leaders she got permission to hold a meeting to discuss the formation of a woman’s bureau, but when she and her friends arrived at the room assigned to them, they found it locked. On the door was a sign that read, “The meeting for women only has been called off. Tomorrow a meeting for men only."9 Although her small group did eventually manage to meet, Kollontai could not generate enough support within the party to establish a woman’s department. The Petersburg leaders did not forbid her work, but neither did they support her.
For the next two years Kollontai made more modest efforts. Through contacts among the textile workers, thousands of whom were women, she organized lectures and discussion groups in the spring of 1907; but when one such meeting voted a resolution of support for a strike, the police banned them.10 In the fall of 1907 Kollontai established the Society of Mutual Aid for Women Workers, a club patterned after workers’ clubs organized by feminists the year before. It offered lectures, a reading room and buffet, and even summer trips to the country. The Society soon had three hundred members, of whom one hundred were men and women from the intelligentsia and working-class men. Although she managed to attract only a small number of working women, Kollontai hoped that the club would educate them, build their confidence and initiative, and ultimately draw them into party and union activism.11
It is ironic that the police remained tolerant of this venture, while Kollontai had difficulty with her own Social Democratic comrades. Despite her invitations to Bolsheviks and Mensheviks to participate, the local party leadership refused her any help and she had to finance the club with private donations. On opening day Vera Zasulich, one of the most prominent Social Democratic women, told Kollontai that she was wasting time and diverting party strength. Tensions were also developing within the club itself, between the workers and the intellectual organizers. In the spring of 1908 some of the proletarians demanded that nonworkers be excluded from membership. Disgusted with the endless bickering, Kollon- tai quit the project altogether.12
She was enormously frustrated. For two years she had pushed her party to pay attention to women workers. There were precious few working-class women who had any interest in political activism, and the feminists had won many of them over. Even some Social Democratic women were supporting the work of the Union for Women’s Equality, which had organized public dining rooms, aid to the unemployed, and other social projects that in Moscow alone from May 1905 to May 1906 disbursed 10,000 rubles.13 The feminists seemed to be taking all the initiatives toward women workers. When Kollontai spoke on the woman question in 1905, she spoke at feminist meetings. When she organized her own meetings in 1907, she was following the feminist lead. When she established the club in 1907, she was copying an earlier feminist experiment.
Kollontai could take heart only from the continued vitality of the female organizers in the German party. She followed Clara Zetkin’s work closely, and hailed her successes. In the fall of 1907 Kollontai went to Germany to attend the Stuttgart Congress of the Second International. There, in her first speech to the international association of socialist parties, she proclaimed the solidarity of the “Finnish and Russian women- comrades” with the Germans and declared that the feminists in Russia presented a real challenge to “progressive” women who wanted “to drink the blood” of revolution. Feminism was growing, but Kollontai pledged that the revolutionaries would struggle against it.14
When the International passed a resolution calling for women’s suffrage, and also authorized the staff of Zetkin’s newspaper Die Gleichheit to serve as a woman’s secretariat, Kollontai was jubilant. She saw these measures as “a victory for the principle of equality in civil rights for all members of the proletarian family.”15 Enfranchisement would allow women to become more politically active, and the International, in supporting the vote, reaffirmed its commitment to women. Kollontai also backed Zetkin’s demand for the establishment of women’s bureaus in each national party, because, she wrote, women’s bureaus could involve women in the party and goad the men into paying more attention to women. By becoming involved in their own emancipation, women would advance the cause of revolution. This was Clara Zetkin’s position: an attempt to blend socialism and feminism and argue for female autonomy in pursuit of female goals within the working-class movement. Although Zetkin would have strongly denied it, she was a feminist, if “feminist” is defined as a person who seeks female emancipation as a primary objective. She differed from the feminists in her socialist interpretation of the origins of women’s oppression and in her commitment to revolution. Rather than a reformist feminist, she was a socialist feminist, for she dedicated her career to the liberation of women through socialism. By 1907 Kollontai had become her disciple.
The International approved Zetkin’s suffrage resolution and the establishment of a Woman’s Secretariat, but its action did not move the Russian party to support Kollontai’s projects. When she returned from Stuttgart, the reaction to her proposals was as negative as before. Most Russian Social Democrats viewed a woman’s bureau, campaigns for reforms that benefited only women, or even propaganda aimed at women, as feministic. They considered that their platform contained the most far- reaching program for female emancipation advanced by any political party and that their ideology had analyzed the determinants of female oppression fully. Women would be freed by revolution. To achieve that end, they should join the general proletarian movement, not ask for special treatment. Kollontai did not dispute the assertion that revolution was the ultimate emancipator, but she argued that if women’s burdens were not attended to, women would not join the class struggle. Other Social Democrats replied that it was un-Marxist to claim that women suffered any more than men did under capitalism.
For support, Kollontai and her opponents drew on the two classic Marxist analyses of the position of women—Friedrich Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State and August Bebel’s Woman Under Socialism. Kollontai had read the books in the 1890s, as had most of her contemporaries, and it was from them that she took both her attacks on feminism and her advocacy of programs for women. Like so many theoretical statements, however, these two provided no clear strategy for organizing proletarian women. Thus Marxists, varying in their attitudes toward the woman question and in their ideological systems, drew different conclusions from the same texts.
The contents of the two books must be examined in some detail, therefore, before the arguments between Kollontai and the party majority can be understood. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Engels synthesized anthropologist Lewis Morgan’s analysis of family evolution with economic determinism to produce a coherent picture of the historical development of family institutions and the position of women. As a fundamental premise he posited:
According to the materialist conception, the decisive factor in history is, in the last resort, the production and reproduction of immediate life. But this itself is of a twofold character. On the one hand, the production of the means of subsistence, of food, clothing, and shelter and the tools requisite thereto; on the other, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social institutions under which men of a definite historical epoch and of a definite country live are determined by both kinds of production, by the state of development of labor, on the one hand, and of the family, on the other.16
The stages of family development should correspond to the stages in productive relations. Morgan had discovered three general family types: (1) total promiscuity; (2) group marriage; (3) monogamy. Engels added a fourth, the family under communism. He asserted that in the period of primitive communism, before the development of private property, the pattern of relations between men and women was an important, independent social determinant. Then society had changed fundamentally, as private property proved more productive of the means to sustain life than the gender-linked economic forms of the communal stage.
The old society based on ties of sex bursts asunder in the collision of the newly developed social classes; in its place a new society appears, constituted in a state, the units of which are no longer groups based on ties of sex, but territorial groups, a society in which the family system is entirely dominated by the property system, and in which the class antagonisms and class struggles which made up the content of all hitherto written history now freely develop.17
The first two stages of family structure, therefore, are coterminous with primitive communism, and monogamy with the rest of history, indeed with all “written history.” Engels believed that human reproduction had been as important a determinant of social organization in the primitive past as the ownership of property was in historical society. Thus he asserted that society knew two kinds of production, babies and material goods. This declaration threatened to undermine the fundamental postulate of economic determinism, because it introduced into his analysis a noneconomic factor of primary causal power, the human form of organization for physical reproduction.18 Engels never clarified the ambiguity.
Accepting Morgan’s pioneering but incomplete research, Engels erroneously believed that under primitive communism women had lived as equals with men. In some cases he asserted that they even held positions of greater power, for their importance in reproduction brought women honor and power. In fact, later anthropological research has shown women to have been subordinate to men in most tribal cultures, even those using matriarchal inheritance patterns. With the invention of private property, Engels wrote, control over the means of production replaced physical reproduction as the source of power, and patriarchy replaced matriarchy. “The overthrow of mother-right was the world historical defeat of the female sex,” he asserted. “The man seized the reins in the house also, the woman was degraded, enslaved, the slave of the man’s lust, a mere instrument for breeding children.”19
Monogamy then developed as the means to patriarchal control. In the early period of slavery, the stage of history introduced by the invention of private property, women were passed from man to man, and in reaction they pressed for premarital chastity and a single husband. Men were willing to accept the principle of monogamy for women because it made possible the determination of paternity, which is essential for property inheritance. Thus women became monogamous. Men remained promiscuous, by developing the time-honored customs of prostitution and adultery. A piece of property herself now, the wife served as “domestic slave” and bought lover. This process was no minor feature in Engels’s analysis; he saw it as a major element in the creation of social divisions.
The first class antagonism which appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in individual marriages, and the first class oppression with that of the female sex by the male.
In the monogamous family, in all those cases that faithfully reflect its historical origin and clearly bring out the sharp conflict between man and woman resulting from the exclusive domination of the male, we have a picture in miniature of the very antagonisms and contradictions in which society, split up into classes since the commencement of civilization, moves, without being able to dissolve and overcome them.20
The bourgeois family saw this development reach its peak, since capitalism had destroyed the traditions which sanctified marriage and openly revealed its economic essence. Though the worst stage, capitalism was also the last, for the family was disintegrating among the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, prior to its abolition in revolution. After the dictatorship of the proletariat, the universal destruction of private property would remove both the basis for male supremacy and the economic functions of the family. Women would then work as full equals; through their labor they would become free. Public organizations would assume all services previously performed in the home, including child rearing. Engels wrote:
The care and education of the children becomes a public matter. Society takes care of all children equally, irrespective of whether they are born in wedlock or not. Thus, the anxiety about the “consequences,” which is today the most important social factor—both moral and economic—that hinders a girl from giving herself freely to the man she loves, disappears.21
Prostitution and the slave relationship between man and woman would disappear also, but society would not then return to promiscuity. Marriage would continue as an institution based on “sex love” between equals, unlimited by any restrictions save those the couple themselves established. When love ended, the marriage was over. “If only marriages that are based on love are moral, then, indeed, only those are moral in which love continues,” Engels wrote. Sexual intercourse should be “judged” as “legitimate or illicit” by determining “whether it arose from mutual love or not.” In a passage that may reflect personal experience, Engels wrote, “The duration of the impulse of individual sex love differs very much according to the individual, particularly among men; and a definite cessation of affection, or its displacement by a new passionate love, makes separation a blessing for both parties as well as for society.”22
Engels ended his discussion of sexual relations under communism with a theme that would reappear throughout Kollontai’s writing on the subject.
That [i.e., the sexual behavior of communist society] will be settled after a new generation has grown up, a generation of men who never in all their lives have had occasion to purchase a woman’s surrender either with money or with any other means of social power; and a race of women who have never been obliged to surrender to any man out of any consideration other than that of real love, or to refrain from giving themselves to their lovers for fear of the economic consequences. Once such people appear, they will not care a rap about what we today think they should do. They will establish their own practice and their own public opinion . . . and that’s the end of it.23
The other classic Marxist analysis of the position of woman was August Bebel’s Woman Under Socialism, a book that went through multiple editions and numerous translations, to become more widely read than Engels’s study. Bebel followed Marx’s and Engels’s theory that female subjugation arose with the institution of private property, but he explored the history of women in more detail. He saw the Middle Ages as a period of liberalization, marked by a “healthy sensualism” of which Luther was the prime spokesman.24 Calvinism killed this spirit by introducing the inhibited, repressed sexual attitudes that came to dominate the nineteenth century. Simultaneously, capitalism produced the dehumanizing system in which sexuality was fettered by considerations of property and, for males, vented in widespread prostitution. Bebel excoriated prostitution as the prime example of bourgeois society’s double standard, for although officially condemned, it was tolerated to a degree that almost sanctified male promiscuity. Furthermore, since most prostitutes came from the working class, Bebel believed that they had been forced to sell their bodies by poverty, and he contended that their existence was one more example of capitalist exploitation. Like Engels, Bebel saw that woman was the ultimate victim, for government punished her and not the men who bought her.
This protection by the State of man and not woman, turns upside down the nature of things. It looks as if men were the weaker vessel and women the stronger, as if woman were the seducer, and poor, weak man the seduced. The seduction-myth between Adam and Eve in Paradise continues to operate in our opinions and laws, and it says to Christianity: “You are right; woman is the arch seductress, the vessel of iniquity.” Men should be ashamed of such a sorry and unworthy role; but this role of the “weak” and the “seduced” suits them;—the more they are protected, the more may they sin.25
Bebel followed Marx and Engels in believing that the bourgeois family structure was disintegrating. To support his argument, he cited a decreasing birth and marriage rate, rising divorce rate, and the presence of more women than men in national populations. In the proletariat the necessity to work outside the home had broken up marriage and family, leaving in its wake “immorality, demoralization, degeneration, diseases of all natures, and child mortality.”26 Out of this morass and out of the proletariat’s growing consciousness the new family was emerging, based on the common struggle of husband and wife for the liberation of society.
Bebel’s analysis of contemporary conditions included an examination of female personality, in which he attempted to establish that woman’s “inferiority” to man, that is, her emotional and physical “weaknesses,” stemmed from centuries of deprivation. Human personality had evolved in a process of natural selection, the desired characteristics determined by social values, which in turn were determined by property relations. Throughout history man was taught to develop his reason and will, woman her emotionalism. “As a consequence,” Bebel wrote, “she suffers from a hypertrophy of feeling and spirituality, hence is prone to superstition and miracles,—a more than grateful soil for religion and other char- lataneries, a pliant tool for all reaction.” Confined to her house while her husband grew in contact with society, the woman became “mentally stunted and sour.”27 But just as her brain had evolved toward its emotionalism in response to societal demands, after the revolution it would develop new characteristics. Surely few men set so ambitious a project for socialism—to alter the structure of the human brain.
Of course it is easy to find foolishness in the ignorance of another age, and Bebel’s belief in “natural female deficiencies” should not obscure the truly liberating message emanating from his phrenological jargon. In his view woman under socialism would be fully equal in law and work. Maternity would be considered a social function, and therefore the services necessary to insure healthy pregnancy and childbirth would be provided to all. Likewise, education would be universal, but the family would continue to exist, and parents, free of economic worries, would have leisure time to devote to their children. They would also have democratic control over the institutions caring for and educating those children.
Without property, sexual relations would be based on love, “which alone corresponds with the natural purpose.” Bebel thought the sex drive, “the impulse to procreate,” was a natural human instinct on the same level as the need to satisfy hunger and thirst. To develop normally, humans had to gratify it. But, like Engels, Bebel did not preach promiscuity. Under socialism a couple in love would marry; to have intercourse without “spiritual affinity and oneness” was “immoral.”28
On what grounds can a materialist characterize one form of sexual union as moral and others as immoral? For Bebel and Engels, the standard seems to have rested on “the natural,” a legitimate materialist position: whatever is natural is right, whatever unnatural, wrong. Then, unconsciously true to their own bourgeois Victorian sensibilities, they unhesitatingly declared that heterosexual, monogamous love relationships were the most “natural.” Engels and Bebel accepted the long-lived Western norm that pleasurable gratification must have a purpose—procreation —and must be based on a “higher,” nonphysical, nonanimal source— “spiritual affinity.”
If married partners ceased to love one another, Bebel believed that their relationship became immoral and should be dissolved. The dissolution should not require elaborate divorce proceedings or state intervention. Bebel, like Engels, believed strongly that marital matters were private and should be regulated only to prevent disease, injury, or exploitation. All other aspects of love relationships were the concern only of the lovers.
Bebel concluded with a ringing summary of the socialist position on female emancipation.
The complete emancipation of woman, and her equality with man, is the final goal of our social development, whose realization no power on earth can prevent,—and this realization is possible only by a social change that shall abolish the rule of man over man—hence also of capitalism over workingman. Only then will the human race reach its highest development.29
Engels, Bebel, and, to a lesser extent, Marx equipped socialism with a thorough analysis of the position of women. Despite its shortcomings it surpasses in depth and scope the analyses furnished by other political philosophies. Why then did Kollontai meet such resistance when she attempted to persuade her comrades to support efforts to reach working women? It was in part because Marx, Engels, and Bebel were committed to the emancipation of the entire working class, within which they considered women the more backward element. Of the three men, only Bebel really put a high priority on organizing proletarian women, and all three theoreticians favored a unified movement of the entire working class. Despite the fact that they acknowledged women’s conservatism and the difficulties of women’s lives, the socialists did not want to admit that propaganda aimed at “the entire working class” reached primarily men. To examine that fact too closely would call into question the myth of proletarian solidarity. The working class was a “brotherhood,” united across all barriers of religion, nationality, and gender by its common misery, and destined to draw from that unity the strength necessary for successful revolution. A demand for separate organizations for any group within the proletariat, therefore, threatened to weaken the movement.
Furthermore the call for special programs for women had the heretical implication that women carried a special burden—sexism—in addition to the capitalist yoke they shared with men. Engels and Bebel recognized the existence of gender-based discrimination, of course, and they posited that it, like capitalist exploitation, derived from private property. They implied that women suffered under the dual oppression of sexism and capitalism, but they wrote far more often about the common struggle of all workers. Their followers could therefore argue that since men and women were equally downtrodden, women should make no special demands. They would be freed by revolution; until then they should work with men to foment revolution.
Thus Kollontai met resistance because many of her colleagues judged her efforts a separatist threat to socialist unity. Given the Marxist analysis of revolutionary change, that charge had considerable ideological validity. Were there other, nonideological reasons for it? Were the Marxists in fact sexists who harbored a judgment that women were basically less important than men? In terms of their ideology, the answer is no. Nowhere did Marx, Engels, or Bebel allow the notion of female inferiority to influence their analysis of the past or their predictions for the future. Aside from Engels’s naive assertion that men are naturally more promiscuous than women and Bebel’s attempt to analyze female hysteria through phrenology—a standard fixture of Victorian medicine—there are remarkably few sexist judgments in their writing. Even these lapses are not integral to the ideology of either thinker; they are merely unfortunate asides.
In their personal behavior, the great theoreticians were no more consistently liberated toward women than they were consistently revolutionary. Marx, Engels, and Bebel all lived conventional bourgeois lives full of conventional bourgeois peccadilloes. Marx treated his wife like a servant, Engels was attracted to working-class women, and Bebel thought women weak and hysterical.30 Of course none of this would be significant were it not symptomatic of the socialist movement as a whole. While the Second International paid lip service to female emancipation, few of its members saw any more need to translate that commitment into concrete action than did the founding fathers. They genuinely believed organizing efforts to be dangerously separatist, they thought the woman question would be resolved through revolution, and they did not consider women’s problems an issue of great importance because they harbored traditional attitudes toward women. Thus they refused to acknowledge the obvious truth of Kollontai’s charge that the party’s programs were not attracting the female proletariat. Some socialists even shrank from the degree of female emancipation advocated by Marx, Engels, and Bebel, believing instead that woman’s proper roles were marriage and motherhood. And finally, all these attitudes, common among European socialists, were heightened in the Russian party by its chronic shortages of members and funds. The Russians had to allocate their meager resources where they felt they would be most effective in gaining workers’ support, and most Russian socialists, for the combination of ideological, personal, and practical reasons discussed above, did not consider organizing working women to be a worthwhile investment.
Why did Kollontai disagree? What made her advocate work among women ? At first the feminist threat seems to have been decisive. Kollontai believed the Social Democrats were neglecting half the proletariat. Thus she studied the Germans’ programs and attempted to convince her party to adopt them. Failing in that effort, she tried some unsuccessful organizing of her own. In the course of this work she moved from her initial belief that the party should do more to attract working women to Zetkin’s notion that women should organize within Social Democracy to press for their rights now. In 1908, when feminists announced a congress to bring together women’s groups from all over Russia, Kollontai decided to counter the feminists with a book presenting the socialist position on the woman question. Here for the first time she developed at length her argument for socialist feminism.
The Social Bases of the Woman Question explored four themes: “the fight for the economic independence of women, marriage and the family problem, the protection of pregnant women and women in childbirth, and the struggle of women for political rights.” Each chapter presented Marxist theory and program, then attacked the feminists for insensitivity to the needs of working women. Kollontai began by discussing the economic position of women because, in Marxist fashion, she believed that economic factors caused women’s subordination. She supported her position with an examination of women’s history based on Bebel and on a study by the German feminist and socialist Lily Braun, which reinforced Bebel’s analysis with a detailed examination of the role of women in medieval society. Braun’s work was condemned in Germany by Karl Kautsky and Clara Zetkin, because she and her husband Heinrich were revisionists, and because she talked about cooperation with feminists, but Kollontai found her research valuable. Using examples from Braun, Kollontai asserted that medieval women were relatively free because they were able to become self-supporting as artisans or as ladies of the manor. The development of cottage industry reduced poor women to a new dependence, from which the factory system later began to release them. Female consciousness rose with the economic autonomy women gained when employed outside the home, and working-class women thus awakened participated in the French and American revolutions.
By contrast bourgeois women remained quiet. Only in the nineteenth century, as capitalism impoverished more and more of the middle class, did women of the bourgeoisie feel a need to earn their “crust of bread.” When they tried to enter the professions controlled by their brothers, the men resisted. Kollontai wrote, “This struggle bred ‘feminism’—the involuntary struggle of bourgeois women to unite, to rely on one another, and with common strength to rebuff the common enemy—man.”31 These were the decisive characteristics of feminism—a perception of men as the enemy and a campaign for bourgeois privileges by bourgeois ladies. The feminists were unaware that the proletariat had begun the fight when it entered the factories, and that without that fundamental change feminism would not have arisen.
Although she believed that women advanced historically when they left the home, Kollontai did not romanticize their lives. “Labor leads woman on the straight road to her economic independence, but current capitalist relations make the conditions of labor unbearable, disastrous to her; these conditions plunge her into the most abysmal poverty; they acquaint her with all the horrors of capitalist exploitation and force her every day to know the cup of suffering, created by conditions of production that are destructive to health and life.”32 Kollontai produced data from the industrialized nations to document the miserable lot of women workers. She pointed out that women were paid less than men, not because of female physical weakness but because society automatically valued women’s labor less than men’s. Often women worked in formerly domestic industries, where the stigma of “woman’s work” stayed with the enterprise even after it moved out of the home. Furthermore, employers assumed, erroneously, that since men were the main support of the family, women needed less money. Even where equally skilled men and women received the same pay, it generally meant that the men’s wages had fallen, and not that the women’s had risen.
To correct these inequities, women and men in the unions should work together to achieve the reforms advocated in the Social Democratic party platform—an eight-hour day, a forty-two hour week, a ban on overtime and most night work, the end of female labor in dangerous industries, free pre- and postnatal care, ten weeks’ maternity leave, nursery facilities in all factories, and breaks in the work day for mothers to nurse their babies.33 Kollontai did not admit openly in The Social Bases of the Woman Question that her own party refused to push for enactment of these reforms. She only testified to the existence of inner-party resistance in her appeals throughout the book for a unified proletarian struggle on behalf of working women.
The second theme of Kollontai’s polemic was “marriage and the family problem.” She began with a Marxist axiom which not all Marxists accepted: “To be truly free, woman must throw off the contemporary, obsolete, coercive form of the family that is burdening her way.”34 The abolition of the bourgeois family was as important as equal pay or political rights, for the bourgeois family encouraged man to rule woman.
Kollontai repeated the fundamental argument of Engels and Bebel that in bourgeois society woman could choose only between marriage and prostitution, two forms of the same bondage. She praised the decision of some women not to marry, but she added that “the subjective resolution of this question by single women does not change things and does not brighten the generally gloomy picture of family life.” Hope did lie, however, in the fact that the development of capitalism was eroding the economic functions of the family, so that the bourgeois family currently served only to pass property from one generation to another. The proletarian family did not even have property functions, since it owned nothing, and drunkenness, debauchery, and prostitution were destroying it. “In the sight of the whole world,” Kollontai wrote with ill-disguised glee, “the home fire is going out in all classes and strata of the population, and of course no artificial measures will fan its fading flame.”35
Kollontai attacked bourgeois feminists for prattling about “free love” rather than proposing genuine alternatives for the masses. Free love among the proletariat would mean that the poorly paid single woman would have to deal with the backbreaking responsibilities of child care alone. The only meaningful changes for her would be those which transferred the rearing of children to public institutions. Then the working woman could begin to know a truly free relationship with a man. Kollontai did not oppose the notion that sexual relationships could be spontaneous and unfettered, but she thought that such independence could be achieved only after fundamental economic change, i.e., revolution.
Kollontai went on to argue that in bourgeois society, individuals did not know how to love. Until men and women were reeducated, love relationships were doomed, because society taught men to treat women like possessions and women learned to subordinate themselves. A woman who wanted to be free would have to remain alone, “an individualist in the very essence of her experience.” She might work with “a collective,” or group enterprise, but that would not compensate her for her isolation. Only after a revolutionary change in human personality would men and women find the community they presently sought, unsuccessfully, in heterosexual love.36
This discussion of love and socialism in The Social Bases of the Woman Question was tentative and brief, but it foreshadows the full development of Kollontai’s ideas several years later. She would return again and again to the theme of the individual seeking relief from solitude in a love relationship, then fleeing possession, in a fruitless attempt to find solace in a “collective.” Kollontai was obviously generalizing from her own experience; she was an individualist who could not reconcile independence and dependence and who therefore looked for a solution in a communal future. She was coming to see the revolution as a transfiguration of human relationships that would remove the possessiveness from love and create a genuine community. Kollontai, like the earlier utopian socialists, wanted human beings to live together harmoniously in groups that had reconciled eros and agape; her ultimate goal was not technological modernization or political power, but communalization. In 1908 she was just beginning to develop these ideas; it would take another three years before she shaped them into a sensitive portrait of woman’s solitude.
The section on maternity and child care in The Social Bases of the Woman Question reiterated the Social Democratic proposals for public financing of childbearing and child rearing. The final chapter examined the suffrage question. Kollontai repeated her denunciation of feminism, then defended her own advocacy of the vote for women. She wrote that fighting for universal suffrage was an aspect of the class struggle which could involve women workers in politics for the first time. Female participation would, in turn, enlarge the ranks of the active proletariat and thereby strengthen the workers’ political victories.
Kollontai then lapsed into a tedious attack on the feminists. Anyone who considered the vote an end in itself was a feminist, and feminists were bourgeois. Those who were willing to settle for less than universal suffrage as a step toward the final objective she accused of pursuing class interest. Those who appealed to all classes and refused to compromise she accused of hiding their true intentions. Then she trotted out the Marxist charge that no bourgeois could ever rise above class interest. It was an odd claim coming from an aristocrat, but Kollontai did not seem to see the irony.37
She was on weak ground in her attack on the feminists, chiefly because she herself wanted the vote as part of the package of Social Democratic reforms for women. She tried to justify women’s suffrage as a means to greater proletarian strength, as did Zetkin and other socialist feminists. They sought it, however, not just because it would enhance the class struggle but because they thought it was a woman’s right. They argued that women should be allowed to organize separate sections within Social Democratic parties to push for emancipation because they valued emancipation. Here Zetkin and Kollontai came perilously close to the feminists they despised. In their defense, they argued that an autonomous effort by socialist women to gain reforms for their sex would advance the working- class movement by raising female consciousness and female participation. Kollontai wrote:
The separation of the struggle of the female proletariat for its emancipation into a special sphere of the general class struggle, independent to a certain degree, not only does not contradict the interests of the working [class] cause, but is of immeasurable benefit to the general struggle of the proletariat, as the practice has shown in those countries where such a separation has already been carried out.38
Kollontai reaffirmed that the vote was a “weapon,” not an end in itself. “For the woman proletarian, political equality is only the first stage to a further achievement; her goal is not female rights and privileges, but the liberation of the working class from the yoke of capitalism.”39 Thus Kollontai called for special attention to the problems of women while maintaining at the same time that those problems had no special priority. Suffrage was not a right, it was a tactic. Equal pay, decent working conditions, and maternity care were not merely elementary justice; they were the means to a healthy younger generation. And any reforms for women were part of the revolutionary process, which was, finally, the only true means to female emancipation. The argument was awkward, a bit disingenuous, and less consistent ideologically than the antiseparatist position. Repeatedly in the coming years, Kollontai would argue both for reforms and for revolution, as she attempted to reconcile her feminist commitment to improvements for women now with her socialist belief that women must seek liberation through subordinating their goals to those of a united movement. In 1908, she concluded her book by reaffirming the relation between female emancipation and revolution:
In her difficult procession to the bright future the woman proletarian— this slave so recently oppressed, without rights, forgotten—at the same time learns to throw off all the virtues imposed on her by slavery; step by step she becomes an independent worker, an independent personality, a free lover. This person, in common struggle with the proletariat, wins the right to work for women; this person—“the little sister”—stubbornly, per- sistently, opens the way to the “free,” “equal” woman of the future.40
Maxim Gorky’s press, Znanie, accepted The Social Bases of the Woman Question for publication. The editors scheduled it for release shortly before the Woman’s Congress in December 1908, but they ran into delays in mailing the manuscript to Capri where Gorky lived, and the book did not appear until 1909. Meanwhile Kollontai had begun organizing a Social Democratic delegation for the Woman’s Congress.
Although she knew the feminists would dominate the meeting, Kollontai saw it as a good opportunity to present the Marxist position in a national forum while giving women workers who were delegates valuable political experience. Most of her colleagues did not share her optimism. When she went to the St. Petersburg party committee for support, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks accused her of collaborating with the bourgeoisie. Neither faction approved of participation in the Woman’s Congress. Kollontai therefore turned to the textile workers and the Trade Union Bureau. Gathering together many of the women with whom she had worked before (Antonova, Solov’eva, Klavdiia Nikolaeva), Kollontai began to organize delegate elections, chiefly among the textile workers.
The elections took place in September and October 1908, in union rooms and private apartments, usually under the pretext of mathematics or sewing lessons. Women workers were afraid of illegal activities, so experienced organizers reassured them by holding small gatherings among friends. In the two months Kollontai and her colleagues arranged fifty meetings, “which at that time was considered colossal work.”41 The task became more difficult when Kollontai learned that the police were seeking her arrest for a pamphlet on Finland, in which she had called for revolution. In the midst of the conference work she went underground, staying with friends and assuming aliases.
Party opposition remained a problem also. Angered by both her defiance and her success, the Petersburg Committee issued a proclamation that women workers should boycott the Woman’s Congress. When the committee realized that Kollontai’s group had found support, it reversed itself, approving Social Democratic participation; an organizer, Vera Slutskaia, was sent to Kollontai’s group, and a new chairman for the delegation was appointed. Kollontai later wrote, “But we had already done the main work in preparation for the congress with the support of the Central Trade Union Bureau.”42
She never frankly revealed how she handled this last-minute attempt by the Petersburg Committee to co-opt her months of work; she offered only a clue: “Shortly before the opening of the Woman’s Congress,” Kollontai wrote in 1919, “the representatives of the workers’ organizations . . . organized themselves into a separate group of women workers.”43 Separate, that is, from the feminists who would dominate the congress. Kollontai then stressed that the union women drew up their own resolutions, and she implied that Slutskaia was in the group only as a representative of the Petersburg Committee. It seems likely, therefore, that Kollontai encouraged the union women to lead the faction, while subordinating the Social Democratic members of the delegation to the newly arrived committee emissaries. The blessing of the party would enhance their activities at the Woman’s Congress, but Kollontai would not allow party interference to change their tactics or rewrite the resolutions they had prepared.44
When the congress convened, the Workers’ Group numbered forty- five in a total gathering of over a thousand women, most of them middle- class professionals or the wives of professionals.45 At each point in the debate one of the women workers rose to attack the feminists. The proletarians repeated the fundamental argument that only the class struggle would free women and declared that middle-class feminists knew nothing about the life of working women. Finally Zinaida Mirovich, a conference organizer, shouted in irritation, “Those who don’t think it’s possible to go along with us shouldn’t be at the congress. We didn’t invite you.”46
The Workers’ Group presented a number of resolutions calling for complete legal and political equality for women, reform in working conditions, and public maternity and child care. In a statement read for her by another member of the delegation, Kollontai reaffirmed her socialist principles:
There is no independent woman’s question; the woman question arose as an integral component of the social problem of our time. The thorough liberation of woman as a member of society, a worker, an individual, a wife, and a mother is possible therefore only together with the resolution of the general social question, together with the fundamental transformation of the contemporary social order.47
Since women were divided along the same class lines as men, they could not join a political organization with people of alien interests, regardless of minor concerns held in common. Kollontai concluded that women had to produce the same “value” as men to be equals in the labor force, so they required reforms in wages, working conditions, and maternity care, which would be achieved as part of the general emancipation struggle.48
On the last day of the congress, the Workers’ Group walked out of the meeting in protest. It was an anticlimactic gesture; members of the delegation had been unable to agree among themselves on the best time to leave, and several women lingered on awhile to hear more of the stormy debate.49 Nevertheless, Kollontai was satisfied that they had clearly drawn the line between Social Democracy and bourgeois feminism.50 She had to enjoy the triumph alone, for her presence in the delegation would have meant certain identification by the police. On December 15 Kollontai fled Russia. In her absence her Social Democratic colleagues in St. Petersburg allowed organizing among women to lapse. They criticized the congress delegation for being too doctrinaire, for not using the forum to win over other leftists to Social Democracy. Beyond that, they praised the basic goal of reaching working women, but did not suggest continuing the work.51
Alone, Kollontai left Russia. “I remember a wintry, snowy, frosty night at the Verzhbolovo station,” she wrote, “and the endlessly long hour when the document check went on. Wrapped up in the collar of my fur coat I walked up and down the platform, which was covered with hoarfrost, with one persistent thought: will I succeed in slipping away or will I be arrested?”52 The police returned her papers without detecting that they were forgeries and Kollontai went into exile.
Kollontai remained abroad for eight years, during which she lectured and wrote and traveled. She went first to Germany, intending to work with Clara Zetkin. Kollontai did not yet realize that the SPD, which had led the way in establishing work among women, had begun merging the woman’s bureau into the party apparatus. Most German Social Democrats were as suspicious of female separatism as the Russians, and Zetkin had won their support primarily because German law forbade women from joining political parties. Any organizing efforts among women had to be separate from legal party structures. In 1908, when the German government legalized female participation in politics, Social Democratic leaders began pushing for an end to the woman’s bureau, contending that now separate organizations for women were unnecessary. The leadership and some women members as well had never accepted Zetkin’s argument that the woman’s bureau should be an advocate for women within the party. Thus gradually Zetkin and her comrades were moved aside, until in 1912 the bureau was abolished altogether.53
When Kollontai arrived in Germany, Zetkin was still unaware of this effort to undermine her activities. Kollontai established a close working relationship with her and accepted the German party as the leader in work among women. Her admiration for the SPD was strengthened by a trip to England in the spring of 1909, where Kollontai and Zetkin met with British socialists and argued against British feminists. Kollontai was horrified by the British socialists’ moderation. “The English have their own logic, different from ours,” she wrote. “They are able to accept the facts, and they only try to make the most beneficial use of them for their own cause.”54 She felt more at home in Germany because the Germans seemed far more resolute and revolutionary.
Returning to Germany, Kollontai established her home base in Berlin. Her son Misha was now attending a gymnasium in Russia, and he visited his mother on summer vacations. Although her cosmopolitan background and command of languages enabled Kollontai to adjust rather easily to émigré life, she was occasionally homesick. In April 1909 she wrote to a friend:
At times I am irresistibly drawn to you, to Russia, in spite of the fact that for these past months I have lived a highly interesting, intense life, that very different impressions have come one after another, that new, often interesting faces have flown past me, “silhouettes of people” so to speak, who live, in a word, with every fiber of their being. Nevertheless I wish now and then to be by myself, and do the things that I believe in there, at home, among my own.55
In 1910 Kollontai went with Zetkin to the congress of the Second International at Copenhagen, as a representative of the St. Petersburg textile workers, with whom she maintained intermittent communication. At the woman’s conference preparatory to the full congress, she supported Zetkin’s efforts to put the International on record again as favoring female suffrage and to establish March 8 as International Woman’s Day, a holiday on which socialists would demonstrate for issues of concern to women, particularly the vote.
Kollontai disagreed with Zetkin only over the resolution for maternity insurance. It called for the package of reforms that had been standard among Social Democrats since the 1890s—an eight-hour day for adults and less for children, the abolition of female employment in industries harmful to women’s health, full pregnancy and maternity care paid for by worker insurance plans, sixteen-week maternity leave on full wages, educational classes on child care, free day care.56 Kollontai, joined by a few Finnish representatives, was of the opinion that the maternity benefits should be extended to unwed mothers. She also wanted the payments to be financed through taxation rather than through contributions to group insurance funds. Kollontai was advocating, therefore, full public funding of pre- and postnatal care for all working-class women, because, she argued, childbearing was a service to society, for which society should pay. “It was important for the conference authorities to stress that maternity be recognized as an independent social function not dependent on the form taken by marital or family life,” Kollontai wrote. “This would help clear the way for those new moral norms that are arising in the working- class environment.”57 The majority of delegates disagreed, feeling that to extend benefits to unmarried women would encourage promiscuity and that capitalist society would not accept the financial burden of the tax plan. The argument for complete funding had been raised by Lily Braun as early as 1902; once again Kollontai was following her lead, despite the fact that Zetkin had ridden Braun out of the SPD women’s movement years before.58
Regardless of her disappointment over this issue, Kollontai thought the conference was a success. She hailed the growth of women’s organizations within Social Democracy and she reaffirmed the necessity for them to remain separate.
There is every reason to hope that the woman’s socialist movement, this inseparable and yet independent part of the general workers’ movement, at the next, third conference will take on still broader and more impressive dimensions. With full clarity and incontestability it has shown that only with the preservation of a certain independence for the woman’s socialist movement can one hope to fill the ranks of organized workers with the “second army” of women workers, fighting for “the general cause” and for their “special” interests.59
Kollontai’s optimism also grew from her personal success at the congress. A life-long friend, I. M. Maiskii, described her then: “She was thirty-eight at that time, but she looked like a young girl. Beautiful, intelligent, energetic, full of a spring-like joy in life, Kollontai drew many people to her.”60 At a reception given by the Danish party at the close of the congress, Kollontai particularly impressed her comrades by giving a short talk in German, then translating it into English and French.61 Her eloquence earned her an invitation to a rally held in Stockholm that same week. Kollontai must have been greatly flattered to be in the company of the leading Social Democrats of the International, among them Jean Jaurès and Keir Hardie. In her Stockholm speech she declared that the revolution in Russia still lived, and the audience responded enthusiastically. A Swedish reporter for the socialist newspaper Arbetet noted, “Our Russian brothers could not have been represented by anyone more beautiful than the noble personage of Mrs. Kollontay.”62
She had less success among her countrymen. After the congress Kollontai conferred with some colleagues about organizing a Woman’s Day celebration in Russia. The work among women which she had started in St. Petersburg had not been continued, for the party leadership was not interested in it and most of her co-workers, including Maria Burko and Antonova, had been arrested. All Kollontai could do was write articles which criticized feminist activities such as the conference on prostitution held in St. Petersburg in April 1910.63 Woman’s Day therefore seemed an opportunity to start a new project, a venture blessed this time by the prestige of the International.
When Kollontai broached the idea to fellow Russians, however, she was told that it smacked of feminism. “The general political atmosphere, the tsarist government’s repression, the lack of active women workers ..., the skeptical attitudes of local comrades to the idea of a woman’s day, delayed its taking place for two whole years,” Kollontai wrote.64 The only positive response she found was a receptiveness among the Social Democratic Duma delegation to her drafting a bill on maternity protection, and she set about gathering information on that project in the fall.65
For the rest of 1910 and 1911 Kollontai traveled and wrote. She spent most of the time in Paris, but she also toured Russian émigré colonies in Western Europe, gave lectures at the school A. V. Lunacharskii and A. A. Bogdanov had organized in Italy, worked in Germany on the first Woman’s Day celebration, and joined French and Belgian demonstrations against high food prices and military expenditures.66 She also wrote a book on her experience as an agitator, and she explored female personality in several articles. The hasty quality of many of Kollontai’s publications notwithstanding, the quantity of her work is impressive. After a lengthy tour, burdened with daily speeches and all the inconveniences of travel, she was able to return home and write prolifically.
In the spring of 1911 Kollontai settled in Paris and began drafting a record of her trips in 1909 and 1910, basing it on her recollections and on excerpts from her diaries.67 The book she produced, Around Workers’ Europe, was refreshingly nondidactic, for Kollontai functioned as an observer and her ideology intruded very little into the narrative. She described the towns through which she passed, the people she found there, and especially the party workers and the proletariat. Of the audiences at a socialist meeting she wrote:
Where have they disappeared, the tired, hopeless expressions of the listeners? The eyes shone with joy—joy and faith in the nearness of deliverance, in the inevitability and truth of victory. How could they live and struggle, where would they get the strength and energy for the difficult, daily battle, without this fortifying, animating faith?68
At the same time she recognized the despair of factory life, the brutal conditions that weakened the spirit. On occasion, the misery she saw caused her to question the worth of her mission as lecturer. She described her mood on leaving a mill town:
And these nineteen days, endless work, already seemed like a dream, a vision. Were they? Perhaps I only read about them. The images of the pale, exhausted faces of the women, the hopeless apathy in the eyes of the men, rose up, flashed before me, revived. Tedious factory cities and towns, the busy hubbub at the party bureau, the gloomy, stuffy workshops.
A hopeless, monochrome life. After I leave, everything will go on as before, from day to day, from year to year. The joy of life will cool, grow dim.69
Party organizers in particular did not fare well in Around Workers’ Europe. Kollontai generally portrayed them as revisionist parliamentarians, too fond of doctrine. In her account, they spend most of their time fumbling over the arrangements for her lectures and giving orders to the workers. In one typical scene a party functionary advises a factory employee on the slate of candidates in an upcoming election. The party man wants the worker to be careful about choosing people of the proper class affiliation so that the campaign will be effective. Impatient with the outsider’s dogmatism, the worker breaks in, “I am a proletarian myself, I drink from this cup every day, and I know that it wasn’t agitational speeches but life itself that drew me onto the path of struggle.”70
This kind of criticism of the German party appeared repeatedly in the book, and it infuriated German leaders when Around Workers’ Europe was published in 1912. In 1911, however, that storm lay ahead. Upon completing the book, or perhaps while she was still working on it, Kol- lontai began a series of articles on female emancipation. Discussions of sexuality were common then in European intellectual circles, from Freud’s Vienna to Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury. Kollontai had read extensively on the subject, particularly in literature, and she was also recovering from a love of her own.
She had had an affair with Petr Pavlovich Maslov, a Menshevik economist five years her senior. He had grown up in the Ukraine and had been active in illegal politics since 1889, making a name for himself as a theoretician on agrarian problems. In 1906 Maslov was one of the chief spokesmen for the Menshevik position that land should be “municipalized,” that is, turned over to the peasants to administer through elected committees. The Bolsheviks favored “nationalization,” or peasant land seizure under governmental supervision. Later, Maslov worked with Martov and other Mensheviks on a collection of scholarly Marxist articles, The Social Movement in Russia at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century, to which Kollontai was a contributor. He also published his own attempt at elaborating Marxist economics, The Theory of the Development of the National Economy.
A scholar of some reputation, Maslov was also a married man with a sickly wife and five children. He and Kollontai had been colleagues for years, but in 1909 they apparently became lovers. They managed to meet at conferences, during her many trips, and occasionally when she left her work to see him. The affair lasted about two years, until she ended it, even though he offered to divorce his wife. Kollontai told him that she could not take on the responsibility of someone else’s children, and she cabled him not to follow her to Paris.71
Kollontai said years later that she had been drawn to Maslov by his intellect, and that her sexual longing for him grew out of a need for spiritual closeness to an admired comrade. She felt that his interest in her was only sexual; when he was physically satisfied, he could no longer understand her need to be with him. Nor would he treat her as an intellectual equal, preferring to discuss economics with male colleagues. Gradually the affair soured, as Kollontai found herself interrupting her precious work to minister to a man who loved only her physical presence. He was incapable of thinking of her as an equal, and when she accused him of ignoring her feelings, he replied, “If I do it, it’s unconscious, inadvertent. I don’t want inequality at all.”72
Maslov may well have been unable to deal with women as both equals and sex partners; few men of his generation had tried to make such an adjustment. On the other hand, if Kollontai herself harbored doubts about her intellectual abilities, she may have magnified his thoughtlessness into prejudice. She may also have blamed him for her own inability to be intimate without feeling trapped. She was a solitary person. Her aloneness came from her fierce need to be independent and was her way of being independent. He was insensitive, she needed autonomy, they could not live together in peace. Wounded by that failure, Kollontai wrote several articles elaborating the theme of woman’s isolation which she had introduced in The Social Bases of the Woman Question: “Sexual Morality and the Social Struggle” and “On an Old Theme,” published in the journal Novaia zhizn' in 1911, and “The New Woman,” published in Sovre- mennyi mir in 1913.73 Taken together, these important pieces presented Kollontai’s fully developed exploration of female personality.
In contemporary society, Kollontai asserted, woman’s inferiority was imbedded in the pattern of erotic love, the most private of human relationships. She accepted Engels’s observation that bourgeois marriage was a fraud based on property and prostitution, but she added that it also destroyed individuality. The married couple, male and female, thought that being married entitled them to possess one another body and soul. No secrets, no privacy, not even close friends were tolerable. In the past, society had chosen monogamy as a way to guarantee the peaceful inheritance of property and had therefore converted woman into one of the male’s possessions; bourgeois culture carried that development to the extreme of proclaiming the right to possession of her soul as well.
Was this not the very spiritual closeness Kollontai had demanded from Maslov? No, because the woman had to sacrifice her individuality, while the man did not, to the same degree. He demanded all of her but was unable to give of himself. Indeed, men were taught to devalue intimacy, and they learned to treat women as prostitutes. Seeking only physical satisfaction in sexual activity, they disregarded the needs of the woman. “It [prostitution],” Kollontai wrote, “distorts our ideas, forcing us to see in one of the most serious moments of human life—in the love act, in this ultimate accord of complex spiritual feelings—something shameful, low, coarsely animalistic.” Man saw woman as an object through which he could achieve personal satisfaction and therefore “with startling naivete . . . ignore[d] the physiological experiences of the woman in the moment of the most intimate act.” Kollontai wrote:
The normal woman seeks in sexual intercourse completeness and harmony; the man, reared on prostitution, overlooking the complex vibrations of love’s sensations, follows only his pallid, monotone, physical inclinations, leaving sensations of incompleteness and spiritual hunger on both sides.74
Men and women needed intimacy, because in modern society all people were dreadfully alone; thus they reached out to each other in their search for someone to break down their isolation.
We, the people of the century of capitalist ownership, the century of sharp class contradictions and individualistic morals, live and think under the heavy yoke of inevitable spiritual solitude. This solitude among the masses of the crowded, pressing-raging, crying-noisy cities, this solitude even in a crowd of close friends and comrades-in-arms, forces contemporary man with sick greed to snatch at the illusion of a “congenial soul,” a soul belonging of course to a being of the opposite sex.75
Isolation had a particular poignancy for Kollontai: it reminded her of her childhood. Her need for companionship and intimacy made her feel the solitude of urban society and caused her to respond strongly to the elements of Marxism that promised community in the future. It also made her see erotic love as an important human activity, for she realized that she sought a “congenial soul” to push back the loneliness. Yet this search was doomed to failure, because lovers in the era of capitalism could not avoid attempting to possess one another, and that possession meant treating the other as an object, destroying his or her integrity. Even “free love” did not solve the problem, if those practicing it had been reared on the old values. “Without fundamental re-education of our psyches,” Kollontai wrote, “the problems of the sexes will not be solved.”76
The urge to possess would be overcome when man learned to respect woman as an equal and woman learned to behave as an equal. For generations woman had devoted her life submissively to man. All her education taught her to distrust her own abilities and find satisfaction only in marriage. She gave up her individuality to man’s demands because that was what society said she should do, “as if she herself has no value, as if her personality was measured only in relation to her husband’s.”77 Her virtues were the passive ones of modesty, chastity, spirituality, and acquiescence.78
Kollontai knew from personal experience the pull on a woman of her traditional upbringing. She railed against the “eternally female,” “the soft female soul, suppressed, loved, full of feminine contradictions.”79 She realized that a woman’s social identity demanded a role more circumscribed than a man’s, since for her to be fully female, she had to be subordinate. Practically speaking, that meant being a wife and mother, since any other activity challenged male supremacy. Thus contemporary sexual relations, from their most intimate expression in coitus through the interaction of man and woman in the family, were dependent on male superiority, and bourgeois society considered a woman true to her sex only if she adhered to those strict requirements.
Kollontai’s examination of sexual relationships seems far from Marxism, far even from the work of Engels and Bebel. To their analysis of the economic base of bourgeois marriage, she added a lament on urban solitude and the psychological dimensions of female inferiority. She returned to the masters, however, to find a solution; she wrote that all the problems of contemporary sexuality would be resolved by the new morality emerging in the proletariat. As had Engels and Bebel, Kollontai believed that the values of socialist society were developing among the working class. She went a step beyond her teachers, however, in asserting that a new morality must develop before the revolution could be successful. Relations based on “comradely solidarity,” and therefore equality, were part of the class struggle.
Every experience of history teaches us that the working out of the ideology of a social group, and consequently the sexual morality, is accomplished in the very process of the highly difficult struggle of the given group with hostile social forces. Only with the help of its new spiritual values, created in the depths, answering the needs of the arising class, will this struggling class strengthen its social position, only by means of new norms and ideals can it successfully win power from the social groups antagonistic to it.80
These concepts of ideology as a weapon in the class struggle and of new social relations developing within the existing capitalist order were not original with Kollontai. Marx, Engels, and Bebel had all made tentative, unsystematic statements about emerging proletarian morality. Aleksandr Bogdanov, a Russian Marxist with whom Kollontai worked in 1911, had developed a theory of the role of class ideology precisely like hers.81 She put the ideas together. It accorded perfectly with her beliefs to see that the transformation of human relationships so important to her had already begun, and she continued to stress that the primary change producing proletarian consciousness was the economic deterioration of capitalism.
Because capitalism made traditional family life impossible, the proletariat had been forced to adjust “instinctively.” Often the workers chose the same behavior as other classes—prostitution, late marriage, even infanticide—but sometimes they practiced new ideas—free cohabitation, female equality, and above all “comradely solidarity.” Here was the new morality. When the bourgeoisie tried to institute sexual reform, they contradicted the basic need of their class for monogamy. On the other hand, when the proletariat abolished monogamy, they served their class interests by allowing women to become “independent representatives of the class.”82
How could Kollontai believe that such processes existed among the workers? Proletarian men were scornful and often brutal toward their wives, and proletarian women were notoriously submissive. Kollontai knew that, but far more decisive than such behavior, which she attributed to the peasant heritage of the proletariat, was the fact that among the working class, more women were earning a living outside the home than ever before. Kollontai posited, but did not prove, that new economic activity created a new psyche for these women. She ignored that the truly independent “new woman” was the middle-class feminist, who also often held a job. Kollontai concentrated instead on the working class, and stressed that the proletarian woman was economically self-sufficient. That she barely earned enough to survive did not matter; she earned enough to give her a greater degree of independence than women of the past. Because she could support herself, she learned that she could live without total dependence on a man, and that knowledge gave her a sense of worth which her grandmothers lacked. “She is only a poor, single factory girl,” Kollontai wrote, “but she is proud . . . of her inner strength, proud that she is herself.”83
The new woman preserved her own integrity, her own “I,” to use Kollontai’s oft-repeated word, and as a result she was often alone. “She goes away, quietly smiling to him at parting, she goes to seek the dream of happiness she planned, she goes, carrying her own soul with her, as if she were alone.” Solitude, the curse of modern existence, became for her a badge of achievement, for she had learned that she could live on her own resources, regardless of the cost. And cost there was; the new woman must overcome many obstacles, not the least of them her own traditional longing to be dependent on men. “The old and the new are found in the soul of woman in constant enmity. The contemporary heroines therefore have to fight a battle on two fronts, with the outside world and with the inclination of their forebears which is deep within them.”84
The new woman did not solve the problem of sexual relationships by avoiding them, however; she could enjoy her sensuality rather than deny it as her mother did. She differed from her mother in that she did not see monogamous marriage as the goal of her existence. For her there was whatever work she had chosen, and affairs with men became only “a phase of life,” not its sole purpose.
But when the wave of passion sweeps over her, she does not renounce the brilliant smile of life, she does not hypocritically wrap herself up in a faded cloak of female virtue. No, she holds out her hand to her chosen one and goes away for several weeks to drink from the cup of love’s joy, however deep it is, and to satisfy herself. When the cup is empty, she throws it away without regret and bitterness. And again to work.85
The new woman was constantly leaving men because she made demands on them which they could not meet. She demanded that they satisfy her physically, and they could not. She demanded that they allow her to be free, and they tried to reduce her to the old dependence. “The very woman with whom a man falls in love because of her bold flight, the originality of her soul, he seeks to fasten to him, to put out ‘the sacred fire’ of that exploration which is dear to her, to bring her down to the level of object of his joy, his enjoyment.”86 Frustrated that men would not respect her integrity, the new woman searched from one to another, not realizing that she would find her ideal only in the future, when human beings had learned to love.
Kollontai saw the existence of the new woman and the new morality she demanded as signs of the socialist ideology developing within capitalism. When the revolution began, the new morality would come of age, and the problems of the new woman in traditional society would be solved. Then human beings would learn how to love. Here Kollontai reintroduced Engels’s and Bebel’s concept of purified monogamy, based on mutual respect, containing eroticism and affection. Couples would live together so long as love lasted and would separate when it ended. The new society would honor and protect motherhood as a social function unrelated to marriage, and a new joy would suffuse a transfigured sexuality. “Love, in and of itself,” Kollontai wrote, “is a great, creative force; it broadens and enriches the psyche of him who feels it and him on whom it is bestowed.’” Indeed, the communal world of communism would increase the human’s ability to love his fellow creatures. “There is no doubt that love will become the cult of future humanity,” Kollontai declared.87
She would cling to this vision throughout her life. Its individual elements were not particularly unique; she combined the ideas of Engels and Bebel with the concepts of emancipated womankind then under discussion in feminist circles, added Bogdanov’s notion of the role of ideology in the class struggle, and developed a relatively consistent analysis of female liberation and sexuality. She blunted the effectiveness of her analysis by scattering it over three articles that were also intended as book reviews, but most other Russian Social Democrats, including Lenin, also buried their ideas in harangues on contemporary writers long since forgotten. It is unfortunate, but characteristic of her eternal haste, that Kollontai never brought her ideas of 1911-13 together into a single statement.
Nonetheless, there was lasting merit in her analysis. Particularly important was the force and sophistication of her realization of the ways in which female subordination was imposed by sexual relations. Few contemporaries saw that sexual intercourse often served the man without satisfying the woman. Few contemporaries (Bebel is an exception) admitted that female sexual needs should be satisfied. Fewer still realized that the disregard for the woman’s sexuality sprang at best from a judgment that she was less erotic than a man, at worst from a feeling that her needs did not matter as much as a man’s. Every aspect of her relationship with him, even the most intimate moment of apparent harmony, depended on her subordination. If she rebelled, she doomed herself to a life-long battle with society and with her own conception of her sexual identity.
This was Kollontai’s second great perception, that woman had learned to be a slave. She accepted her inferior status as her due, and every time an ostensibly free woman attempted to love a man, she found herself slipping back into the “eternally feminine”—debilitating dependency. Only by becoming economically independent could she begin to establish the independent worth which was the measure of true individuality.
Other contemporaries, most eloquently Virginia Woolf but also feminists such as the Pankhursts, knew the price of female emancipation, but of the Marxists, only Kollontai gave it a place within the ideology. Into a socioeconomic theory that valued rationality as the road to social liberation, Kollontai introduced an emotional understanding of woman alone in an isolating world. With sometimes excessive sentimentality, she felt the sadness of modern society for women and she tried to incorporate that understanding into Marxism. She did not break free of the comforts of ideology into a poet’s tragic view of existence. She continued to see the problems of solitude and woman’s struggle for independence as economically determined and therefore as soluble. She remained resolutely an ideologue and an optimist.
From her efforts in 1905 to organize working-class women, Kollontai had moved to accept Clara Zetkin’s socialist feminism. She then worked, first in Russia and later abroad, to establish an autonomous women’s movement within the larger socialist movement. Now she had produced an analysis of sexuality and female emancipation which blended orthodox Marxism with her own understanding of women’s oppression. These were the two aspects of Kollontai’s socialist feminism—advocacy of reforms for women achieved by women’s organizations and exploration of the psychology of subordination. While she was occupied with her writing about psychology, the opposition of her Russian comrades to work among women began to soften.
In 1912 and 1913 Kollontai studied in depth the question of maternity insurance, in order to advise the Social Democratic Duma delegation on drafting a bill and to prepare a book of her own on the subject. Apparently the Mensheviks were now willing to work to achieve at least some of the reforms advocated in the party platform. At the same time, the attitude of the party toward organizing working-class women also began to change, and Kollontai found that Konkordiia Samoilova, Inessa Ar- mand, and Nadezhda Krupskaia had become interested in women workers. This was not an unmixed blessing, for these women were all Bolsheviks, and now factional rivalry became a hindrance to effective cooperation as well as a spur to organizing women.
Kollontai wrote later that the new attitudes toward work among women came as a response to the increased activism of the Russian proletariat. The deceptive quiet between 1908 and 1911, enforced by tsarist repression, exploded in 1912 in a wave of strikes, to which the government responded with force. The revolutionaries observing this violence believed that more working women were taking part in the demonstrations than ever before. Moreover, the government, bowing to union pressure, had recently decided to allow female workers to vote in elections for the factory committees that administered worker insurance funds. This combination of new activism and new power for proletarian women alerted Social Democrats to the possibilities of organizing them.88
At the same time Bolshevik-Menshevik competition was growing more intense, as each group sought support within the unions and as Duma elections neared in the fall of 1912. In both campaigns the Mensheviks came out ahead of the Bolsheviks, and they seemed to command the votes of activist women more than did the Bolsheviks. They may have had an advantage with women because they were supporting maternity legislation, but the exact reason for their popularity and even the extent of that popularity remain unclear. What is certain is that in 1912 and 1913 several Bolshevik women believed that the other faction of the party was winning over the female proletariat.
The first Bolshevik to reach this conclusion was Konkordiia Nikolaevna Samoilova, an editor of Pravda. Born in 1876 in Irkutsk to a priestly family named Gromov, she had attended a gymnasium and moved easily into the Marxist and populist circles of her home town. Her ambition, rare in a woman of her social level, took her to St. Petersburg in the mid-nineties to study in the lecture courses for women given by university professors, the Bestuzhev-Riumin courses, which Kollontai also had attended. Arrested at a student demonstration in 1901, Samoilova served a brief jail term, then went to Paris to study with Marxist émigrés. Between 1903 and 1909 she worked as a Bolshevik in various cities throughout European Russia. She also married a colleague, A. A. Samoilov. By 1912 she had settled in the capital.89 A calm, organized, persuasive woman with a talent for compromise, Samoilova decided in the winter of 1912-13 that her faction must make some overtures toward working women.
She talked about the problem with her co-workers on Pravda, and with Inessa Armand, who was then in St. Petersburg. Inessa, as she was usually called, had been born Elizabeth d’Herbenville in 1874 in Paris, the daughter of a Frenchman and a Scot who were music hall performers. After her father died, her mother sent Elizabeth to Russia with her aunt and her grandmother. The two women worked as tutors to the children of Evgenii Armand, and the wealthy and generous Armand family practically adopted the young Inessa. She grew up near Moscow and was educated with the Armand children. By the time she was eighteen, she had a fluent command of English, German, French, and Russian, was a skilled musician, and a beautiful woman. She then married her benefactor’s second son, Aleksandr.90
Elizabeth lived with her husband for seven years and bore him five children, but she, like Kollontai, was not satisfied with a traditional life. She moved through a Tolstoian phase of ministering to the peasants on the Armand estate, then worked on the rehabilitation of prostitutes in Moscow. Finally she decided to leave Armand in 1904 so that she could study socialism abroad. She came back to Russia in 1905 as a Bolshevik, taking Inessa as a pseudonym, and began the usual round of party work, followed by arrest, followed by more party work, followed by arrest. In 1909 she left Russia, and she settled in Paris in 1910. There she became a friend of Lenin and Krupskaia, his wife. It was as Lenin’s emissary that she returned to Russia in 1912.91
Inessa was already interested in work among women when she began to discuss the question with Samoilova. In 1911 in Paris she and Krupskaia attempted to organize a school for Russian women working in the city. Lenin approved the idea, but other Bolsheviks responded with the usual criticism that such specialized efforts were feminist; the resistance forced Inessa and Krupskaia to abandon the project.92 In St. Petersburg in 1912 Inessa and Samoilova worked together on Pravda, until Inessa was arrested. She managed to escape abroad in 1913, going to Cracow, where Lenin and Krupskaia were living, and carrying with her a determination that the Bolsheviks should set up some programs for working women. By the fall of 1913, when Lenin held a meeting of the Central Committee and the Bolshevik Duma delegates in Poland, Krupskaia had come to support Inessa. Krupskaia told the Duma delegates that they should publish literature on problems of concern to women workers, establish study circles for them, and bring their own wives to party conferences abroad. A member of the delegation, G. I. Petrovskii, recalled:
She asked [me] to put her in touch with the deputies’ wives and to help them write to her about the needs of the workers’ families; she tried to convince me that the Bolsheviks should organize a woman’s movement and not concede to the Mensheviks in this matter; she recommended that I make contact with the women doing illegal work in Russia. “This is very important for the party,” said Nadezhda Konstantinovna. “We may be driving away those comrades who will lay the foundations for work among women.”93
Krupskaia, the third Bolshevik to join the new work, had been born in 1869 in St. Petersburg. Her mother was a governess, her father an army officer, and they introduced her early to populism. In the mid-1890s she was working in the Sunday school movement in the capital, where she met Lenin. Arrested in 1896 for strike activity, she went into exile with the young Ulianov, they married, and she spent the rest of her life in his shadow. She is usually described as his secretary, although she herself preferred to say that she was a party secretary.94 Her chief independent activity was her work in education, but she was also interested in work among women. It was she who wrote the first Russian pamphlet on the subject, The Woman Worker, in 1900. It was she who discussed the problem with Inessa in 1911 and pushed the Duma delegation in 1913. She remained suspicious of female separatism, repeatedly cautioning the people in St. Petersburg against feminist deviations, but she stood strongly for the need to establish organizing efforts for women within the Bolshevik faction.
Samoilova took the first initiative by holding a celebration of International Woman’s Day in February 1913. To disguise the political character of the meeting, the organizers called it “a scientific morning” to discuss various issues of concern to women. Samoilova even had fake five kopek tickets printed. The meeting consisted of speeches by women workers on subjects of socialist concern—factory conditions, prostitution, peasant life, and the Revolution of 1905. Apparently the police in attendance realized the revolutionary intent of the speakers, for later that night they arrested several of them.95
This helped to subdue the organizers, and for the remainder of 1913 neither Bolsheviks nor Mensheviks did any work among the female proletariat. Inessa and Krupskaia were conferring abroad, however, and Samoilova wrote to them suggesting a special newspaper dedicated to proletarian women. The number of letters that Pravda received from women had grown so large that the newspaper could no longer print them all, and this allowed Samoilova to argue that a publication for working women would be well received. Krupskaia and Inessa approved the proposal from Petersburg, and Lenin agreed with them. When Inessa left Cracow for Paris in the fall of 1913, they had decided that she and Liudmilla Stal' should draft a plan for the first issue of Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker), then send it to Krupskaia, who would act as liaison with Samoilova and the other editors in Russia.96
Meanwhile the Mensheviks were making plans to publish a newspaper for women. Kollontai was gratified by the new, though tentative legitimacy that organizing efforts among the female proletariat had acquired. No one was talking about a woman’s bureau yet, but at least some Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were willing to allow publications and meetings for women. Kollontai exhorted the two factions to coordinate their activities in various articles printed in Pravda in 1913 and 1914. She aimed her appeals at those Social Democrats who continued to see the work as feminist, arguing that the party needed not only organizing efforts but a full-fledged woman’s bureau. The bureau would involve women in the party and give them a means to work for their own needs: “motherhood, the protection of children, the standardization of child and female labor, the battle with prostitution, . . . the achievement of political and civil equality for women.” Only if they were fully equal could women become partners with men in the revolutionary struggle, able to participate under conditions of “comradely feelings between the sexes with full economic independence from one another.”97
Many Bolsheviks, including Krupskaia, had not accepted Kollontai’s argument for a woman’s bureau. They did not oppose the improvement of life for working women; the party had been committed to reforms such as maternity care for years, but leading Bolsheviks still denied the utility of any new effort to secure those reforms. Such an effort would only divert scarce resources from the revolution itself; the goal now should be to involve women in the general revolutionary movement. In an article for the first issue of Rabotnitsa Krupskaia wrote that “the woman question for men and women workers is a question of how to draw the backward masses of women workers into the organization, how to explain their interests to them better, how to make them comrades in the general struggle sooner.”98 She admitted the need for direct agitation among women, but she continued to resist Zetkin’s idea of a woman’s bureau which would push for reform now, act as an advocate for women within the party, and in the process raise women’s political consciousness.
So did a great many Mensheviks. There was no unanimity on the issue in either faction, since some Bolsheviks such as Samoilova stood closer to Kollontai that did many of her own Menshevik colleagues. Nonetheless, in the winter of 1914, when planning began in St. Petersburg for the two newspapers and for the second celebration of International Woman’s Day, the Menshevik staff of Novaia rabochaia gazeta began to argue with the Pravda people. The Mensheviks wanted the Woman’s Day demonstrations to be run primarily by women and to demand reforms for women, especially passage of the maternity insurance bill. The Bolsheviks called instead for rallies dedicated to rights for all people; in other words, they wanted to turn a day set aside for women by the Copenhagen Congress into a general political protest. Samoilova wrote in Pravda that special attention to women was feminism.99
Given tsarist attitudes, the debate proved academic. Five days before Woman’s Day, on February 18, the police broke into a meeting of the Rabotnitsa staff, arrested all the women there, and seized the articles they were editing. Of the organizers, only Anna Elizarova, Lenin’s sister, remained free, and she managed to put together a newspaper in time for the holiday. Meetings were held in St. Petersburg, Samara, Saratov, Ivanovo-Voznesensk, Kiev, and Moscow with varying degrees of success. In Moscow, the organizers could only have “fleeting gatherings” because the police had refused them permission to meet publicly, and in Kiev for the same reason the women resorted to the custom common among revolutionaries of meeting in a field outside the city.100
Rabotnitsa published six more issues, under constant police scrutiny. Elizarova had difficulty paying for the printing because influential St. Petersburg Bolsheviks disliked the notion of a newspaper for women. She managed to fund it with some party support and worker contributions, but in the summer the government outlawed it. At least Rabotnitsa succeeded in publishing seven issues; the Menshevik Golos rabotnitsy appeared only twice before the police moved in.
While Elizarova was fighting for the newspaper in Russia, Inessa and Kollontai were coming into conflict abroad. In 1910 the International had named Kollontai a member of the Woman’s Secretariat and assigned her to report on maternity insurance at the next meeting, scheduled for August 1914. In 1910 Kollontai was the only Russian attending the women’s meetings. In late May or early June of 1914, Inessa was appointed to the Woman’s Secretariat “in the name of the women’s organizations of the RSDRP and the group of Social Democratic women taking part in the trade unions and organizations of the RSDRP, and also in the name of the journal Rabotnitsa.” Krupskaia signed the accrediting mandate.101 Since the Bolsheviks firmly refused to allow any “women’s organizations” within the party, it it difficult to know precisely what Inessa represented other than the newspaper, but it is not difficult to understand why she was appointed. Sometime before July 9 Lenin wrote to her:
As regards a common or a separate delegation from the liquidators [Mensheviks], I advise you not to decide now, that is, not to say “The delegates themselves decided.” (Of course we shall take two different [delegations]; by the regulations of the International we must first try it together and if they [the Mensheviks] do not agree, then the Bureau decides the distribution of the votes.)
As regards Kollontai’s report, I agree with you; let her stay, but not from Russia. And you will take the floor first or second in the discussions.102
Inessa was going to the meeting intending to split the delegation, then present the Bolshevik position in opposition to Kollontai and perhaps even attempt to discredit her as a representative of Russian Social Democracy. Presumably she would argue against special efforts for women workers that detracted from the revolutionary struggle.
In Berlin Kollontai was working on preparations for the conference, aware that there would be a fight, but not anticipating the full extent of Lenin’s intentions. In April representatives of the Woman’s Secretariat met in her apartment to make speaking assignments and to complete the preliminary organizational work. After the meeting they held an antiwar rally, but Kollontai could not appear because the police were following her. Life in Berlin was further complicated that spring by the fact that she was arguing with some of her Menshevik colleagues over proper tactics toward the Bolsheviks.103 In July she decided to go to Bavaria for a weeks’ rest prior to the meeting of the Woman’s Secretariat.
The Woman’s Secretariat never convened, for in July 1914 Europe plunged into World War I, and socialists, including Kollontai, postponed work among women for the duration. She had come a long way since her first tentative steps toward the female proletariat in 1905. She had become an advocate for a woman’s movement within Social Democracy, she had written eloquently on women’s oppression and emancipation, and she had seen the foundations laid for work among women in the Russian party. She had also found her calling. Kollontai was well on the way to becoming one of the leading feminists of the Social Democratic movement.