Women historically have been categorized as submissive, inferior beings that were limited to a very specific position in the private sphere. Before progressive advancements towards equality began, women were confined to a domestic life that limited the ability to make contributions to their community. Widespread gendered expectations reinforced the unequal distributions of power between the sexes; men supported the household while women maintained the family.
Altering this patriarchal hierarchy that was ingrained in almost every society appeared futile, but the determination of individuals seeking equality prevailed, allowing women to acquire access to education, employment, and the public sphere. The Russian and Spanish revolutions were critical catalysts for changing womens’ stagnant placement in society and began the reform for equality.
Before the revolution in 1905, Russia was an underdeveloped, agricultural country that was not industrialized. The country had recently suffered a defeat in a war against Japan, resulting in societal instability. Citizens had little to no rights, especially minorities. Men in the workforce faced unsuitable working conditions and peasants also endured appalling treatment from the upper class, often being regarded as slaves. Women were required to remain in the private sphere and had very little sense of autonomy.
The absence of liberty and the unrest of civilians led to a formal petition to the tzar, Nicholas Ⅱ, and a march to his residence in 1905. Women and children in families of the working class were involved in the march, marking the beginning of participation from women in the political public sphere and multiplying the momentum gaining towards equality. The thousands of civilians that partook in the protest were fired upon, killing and injuring many, furthering the expansion of the revolution.
During the year 1917, after the beginning of the first World War, another revolt occurred, led by the laboring class. On the first day of the February revolution, International Women’s Day, thousands of women led a protest to demand bread and larger rations for military families. Riots also occurred because of a workers’ strike and general widespread anger over the abundant casualties in the war that civilians blamed the tzar for.
After a few days, the army unexpectedly joined the activists’ uprising and refused to subdue the rampage. The tzar was forcefully removed from the autocratic-style government in March, and the Soviet state was then ruled by two different branches. The Petrograd Soviet branch of the government, or the Bolsheviks, represented the army and working class and was led by Vladimir Lenin after he returned to the country from exile.
After the first revolution and throughout the year, women led several demonstrations to voice contempt over the continuation of involvement in the war and objection to poor conditions workers underwent. The Bolshevik party seized all control during the October revolution later in the year and began working toward a classless, communist society. Lenin, the head of the party, initiated radical reform that had significant effects on the citizens, especially women.
Feminism was not one of the Bolshevik’s objectives, although women did benefit from the new regime. During the same year that Lenin came to power, 1917, women over the age of twenty were granted suffrage. Furthermore, the Bolsheviks diminished the importance of the private sphere and abolished class divisions, creating new opportunities for equality in the public sphere and the workplace. Lenin viewed women as unexploited labor that could proliferate the communist party, however, he also concluded that housework and child care prohibited women from earning wages and shackled them to the household responsibilities.
Despite this fairly progressive moment in time for women, Lenin’s motive truly was to reinforce communist ideas. The Bolshevik party discerned that the act of separating mens’ and womens’ needs encouraged individual interests, as opposed to class interests, which contradicted traditional communist values. As a result of these ideals, legislation was passed to support a united society and to weaken the familial standard the following year, under the Family Code.
In 1919, Lenin established the Zhenotdel, or the Department for Work Among Women. Inessa Armand headed the Zhenotdel, which published literature to engage and help women, planned conferences, and dispatched field workers to educate women. Prior to the twentieth century, schooling was difficult to obtain for women that were below the upper class, so this organization was a major development towards education liberation. The group endeavored to increase literacy in women and distribute news.
After Armand’s death in 1920, Alexandra Kollontai, an aristocrat, writer, and revolutionary, succeeded the authority of the Zhenotdel, and had exceptionally more radical points of view. Kollontai advocated for more than economic and political equality for women, adding sexual equality to the list and stating that women needed independence and a separate income to have a truly fair and equal marriage. She also criticized the authoritarianism of the government, challenging discriminatory practices in the government. Because she utilized her platform to denigrate the administration, she was removed from the group two years after joining. The Zhenotdel was disbanded years later, in 1930, when Joseph Stalin asserted that equality between the sexes had been achieved.
In contrast to the Zhenotdel that worked to promote women’s’ liberty was a group known as the Komsomol, or Young Communist League, that sought to educate it’s youth members in Soviet values. This group was established as early as 1918, but survived for nearly 75 years. The Komsomol were explicitly indifferent towards womens’ issues, negating the inequality between sexes. Additionally, the group expressed that they considered women politically backward. Young, female members belonging to this organization were often judged as immoral and promiscuous. Because of the discriminatory and opinionated principles of the Komsomol, many women refrained from joining.
Similar to Russia, in the early twentieth century Spain faced societal division and the burdens of populous agrarian villages in a world that was modernizing around them. Power imbalance and differences between two opposing political groups created social segregation in Spain. Women also faced hardship; they suffered oppression in the workforce, family life, and education. They worked laborious occupations in agriculture, factories, and sweatshops, due to a steep disproportion of literacy between women and men. Because men had the privilege of being educated, they were able to acquire skilled employment that women could not.
Even after women achieved liberation for employment, they were still bound by traditional female gender roles in the private sphere. Women worked difficult, long hours for low wages, and then were expected to return home and complete their domicile duties. Likewise, womens’ marriages were often the product of involuntary relationships, but women had no voice to protest against in until the war, where they had a platform. Despite all of the encumbrance that Spanish women tolerated, they earned the right to vote in 1931, fourteen years after Russian women had.
The Spanish revolution consisted of many different political associations, but each political circle supported either party. One of the parties involved in the Spanish civil war were the left-wing Republicans, who supported the Second Spanish Republic and whose members comprised the government. Members of the Republican party varied from individuals seeking democracy to anarchists that were exclusively against the Nationalists.
The Nationalist party was composed of conservatives, Catholics, and the bourgeoisie, who supported the overthrow of the government, resulting in the beginning of the war. Furthermore, an important institution of the Spanish civil war were the milicianas: Republican women who served the in the battalion. Comparably, women were also affiliated with several different rivaling political bodies. The Mujeres Libres was an anarchist group that supported the Republican party and planned to bring upon social revolution and female empowerment.
Members of the Mujeres Libres focused on creating a system of activism, accumulating a large amount of supporters who were ready for war. Another coalition involved in the Spanish civil war was the Sección Femenina, a womens’ branch under the Falange movement. Falangists were categorized as Nationalists, along with aristocrats, Catholics, and Carlists. The major political polarization between the supporters of each party continued to grow, influencing the commencement of the Spanish civil war with both sides fighting for complete power of Spain.
Before and during the war, women participated in organizations that facilitated the effort of including women in the public sphere and politics. Each group may have had similar underlying purposes for their work, but many had a specific cause. The Agrupación de Mujeres Antifascistas, a feminist group, wanted to integrate women into the antifascist cause and repair issues regarding wage discrepancies and maternal work absence. The members generally accepted traditional gender roles; they wanted to advance womens’ part in the war, and better the lives of women in general simultaneously.
The Mujeres Libres’, another association of women that focused on anarchism specifically, had only a few hundred members to begin with, but soon grew to upwards of 20,000 members. The Libres’ “mission statement” was that they wanted to free women from the “triple enslavement to which [women] have been subject: enslavement to ignorance, enslavement as a woman, and enslavement of workers.” The group published a journal, Mujeres Libres, written to educate women with basic general and political knowledge, while enabling them to participate in anarchist schemes.
The individuals in the organization sought to bring women not only impartial emancipation, but also support and guidance towards freedom as women. Milicianas, women who fought in the war, also contributed to the feminist agenda by advocating for more participation and enlistment from women in the war and public sphere. Women who fought on the front line recounted feeling like they had a responsibility to serve their country, and were motivated to defend their rights. Although initially this was seen as brave and honorable, citizens’ opinions changed when propaganda exhibiting womens’ gender roles were brought back into light.
Despite the misfortune of war and violence, significant change followed both revolutions. Accumulating half a million casualties, the death toll in Spain was significantly less than that of the Russian revolution, where millions of people perished. Nonetheless, there were positive outcomes in both cases.
Possibly the most profound impact of the Russian revolution was the monarchy that held reign for nearly two centuries in Russia being dismantled and replaced with the world’s first communist state. The Bolsheviks abolished laws against discrimination of minorities, including women, and implemented new laws to grant women rights to land, autonomy, abortion, and maternal paid leave. The Family Code of 1918 dramatically changed the marriage laws that had been in place under the tzar, such as the abolition of religious marriages and illegitimate children.
Civil marriages were given legal status, which simplified record keeping of marriage licences, divorce papers, and birth and death certificates. After this law was enacted, all children were entitled to parental support, regardless of the relationship status of the parents. Lenin also introduced eight hour work days, which drastically changed the working environment in Russia. A new sexual culture was born out of the Russian revolution, promoting individuality in women, but was not accepted among conservatives. Another result of the Russian revolution was the country now having the ability to commence industrialization and to transform from an agrarian nation into a modern nation.
As education became more available, illiteracy rates plummeted. In 1917, women were given the right to vote under the provisional government, but were allowed to hold government positions after the revolution. The first Working Women’s Congress was held in 1918, which resulted in the formation of the Zhenotdel. Among the negative consequences of the Russian revolution was the beginning of a civil war between those in favor of the tzar and those who opposed the monarchy. Other results of the revolution and civil war were poverty and starvation and tens of millions casualties reported.
The Spanish revolution yielded mostly miserable consequences, with Spain being ruled as a monarchy by Francisco Franco for 36 years. During this time period, Spain suffered from international isolation from other countries, but was invited back into the United Nations in the 1950s. Although women were able to participate in some facets of the public sphere during the war, the oppressive circumstances of the monarchy remained once it had finished, and women were again confined to the private sphere. Propaganda showing typical gendered labor, portraying women as mothers and nurses, was used to amplify the ideas that women belonged in the domestic sphere. Even though women did not make immediate societal progress, one positive consequence from the war and revolution was that many women received education from the Mujeres Libres.
Even though women have been systematically forced to conform to male expectations of femininity, revolutions, such as the Russian and Spanish, have inspired the change that led to the independence that most women are able to enjoy today. Through riots, wars, advocacy, and a great amount of time, the limitation of women to the private sphere has greatly decreased. Without the Russian and Spanish revolution, developments in equality and liberty for women may not have made such substantial progress. Therefore, because of both revolutions, women have incited an innovation in education and in the workforce that will continue to impact the world for centuries to come.