Slavic Review 76, no. 3 (Fall 2017)
© 2017 Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies
doi: 10.1017/slr.2017.177
Women and Gender in 1917
Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild
Let ourselves be beaten anymore? Nobody has the right now.1
Ariadna Tyrkova, 1917
1917 is the most minutely studied of any year in Russian and Soviet history.
Yet despite the many books and articles devoted to the revolutions, the battlefront,
and the home front, an important part of the history remains obscured.
The voices of women arguing for citizenship, equality, respect, and civil
rights are the often silenced or ignored sopranos and altos of Russia; without
them Russian history is all bass and baritone.2 While strides have been
made in making women more visible, too often they are still portrayed as
having little agency. This is true both in post-Soviet and western scholarship.
Consciousness about women and gender is not a matter of political correctness.
It is a matter of accuracy. A full picture of 1917 must include the role of
members of the majority of Russia’s population as well as gender assumptions,
in critical events of the year. Much progress has been made in researching and
writing about women and gender in the early twentieth century, 1917, and the
early Soviet period. But integrating this scholarship into the dominant narratives
and classroom teaching is still problematic. This is particularly true
of such key issues as the spontaneity/consciousness paradigm, class, and
women’s suffrage.
On both sides of the Cold War divide, the events of 1917 are still too often
viewed through an androcentric and Marxist lens. Women’s and gender history
exists on the margins. Inspired by the resurgence of feminism in the
west, historians have produced a number of works challenging this marginalization.
Operating in the hyper-masculine post-Soviet space, Russian historians
of women pointedly critique the new status quo. Pioneering women’s
historian Natalia Pushkareva hails the “revived interest in the history of the
women’s movement and in women’s suffrage.”3 Social historian Irina Yukina
notes that: “We are transitioning to a new official narrative that has shed some
of its Marxist and state-centric legacies.” But, she notes, that narrative “tends
to occlude and obfuscate the activities of women. We are squandering an
important opportunity to represent women as important participants in the
1. Ariadna Tyrkova, Osvobozhdenie zhenshchiny (Petrograd, 1917), 15, cited in Richard
Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism,
1860–1930 (Princeton, 1978), 293–94. The arguments in this essay are partially based on
research for my book: Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild, Equality and Revolution: Women’s
Rights in the Russian Empire, 1905–1917 (Pittsburgh, 2010).
2. See Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild, “Misbehaving Women and the Russian Revolutions
of 1917,” ASEEES NewsNet (March 2017): 2–7.
3. Natalia Pushkareva, “Gendering Russian Historiography (Women’s History in
Russia: Status and” Perspectives)” in Marianna Muravyeva and Natalia Novikova, eds.,
Women’s History in Russia: (Re) Establishing the Field (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2014), 10.
Women and Gender in 1917 695
history of civic activism and progressive movements in Russia, and in essence
to rewrite political history from a gendered perspective.”4
I do not seek to minimize the remarkable flowering of work about women
and gender in Russian and Soviet history before, during, and after 1917. When
I compiled a bibliography on works in English about women in Russia and the
Soviet Union, the list totaled 875 books and articles. And that was in 1993. The
subsequent Association for Women in Slavic Studies bibliography, containing
works in all the European languages about the former Soviet bloc, and published
just a few years later, totaled in the thousands.5
Books and articles by scholars such as Barbara Evans Clements, Linda
Edmondson, Barbara Alpern Engel, Beatrice Brodsky Farnsworth, Rose
Glickman, Adele Lindenmeyr, Natalia Pushkareva, Irina Yukina, Choi
Chatterjee, Chris Ruane, Christine Worobec, Melissa Stockdale, and Elizabeth
Wood, among others, have greatly enriched understanding of issues concerning
women and gender in the early twentieth century.6 Pioneering male scholars
such as Grigorii Tishkin and Richard Stites braved derision from some
of their colleagues to make important contributions to the field.7 A new generation,
including Sarah Badcock, Betsy Jones Hemenway, Sharon Kowalsky,
Karen Petrone, and Laurie Stoff have furthered understanding of women in
1917, and its effects in the center and periphery.8
4. Irina Yukina, “Overcoming Soviet Academic Discourse in the Regions: The History
of Russian Women’s Movements,” in Muravyeva and Novikova, eds., Women’s History in
Russia, 23.
5. Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild, Women in Russia and the Soviet Union: An Annotated
Bibliography (New York, 1993); Irina Livezeanu and June Pachuta Farris, eds., Women and
Gender in Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Eurasia: A Comprehensive Bibliography,
vol. 1. Southeastern and East Central Europe (Armonk, 2007); Mary Zirin and Christine
Worobec, eds., Women and Gender in Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Eurasia: A
Comprehensive Bibliography, vol. 2. Russia, the Non-Russian Peoples of the Russian Federation,
and the Successor States of the Soviet Union (Armonk, 2007).
6. Including everything written by these scholars would be an article in itself, but
here are their representative or recent works: Barbara Evans Clements, A History of Women
in Russia From Earliest Times to the Present (Bloomington, 2012); Barbara Evans Clements,
Bolshevik Feminist: The Life of Aleksandra Kollontai (Bloomington, 1979); Barbara Alpern
Engel, Women in Russia, 1700–2000 (Cambridge, UK., 2004), plus many other books;
Linda Edmondson, Feminism in Russia, 1900–17 (Stanford, 1984); Beatrice Brodsky Farnsworth,
Aleksandra Kollontai: Socialism, Feminism and the Bolshevik Revolution (Stanford,
1980); Rose Glickman, Russian Factory Women: Workplace and Society, 1880–1914 (Berkeley,
1984); Adele Lindenmeyr, Poverty Is Not a Vice: Charity, Society, and the State in Imperial
Russia (Princeton, 1996); Natalia Pushkareva, Women in Russian History: From the
Tenth to the Twentieth Century (Gloucestershire, 1999); Irina Yukina, Russkii feminizm kak
vyzov sovremennosti (St. Petersburg, 2007); Choi Chatterjee, Celebrating Women: Gender,
Festival Culture, and Bolshevik Ideology, 1910–1939 (Pittsburgh, 2002); Christine Ruane,
The Empire’s New Clothes: A History of the Russian Fashion Industry, 1700–1917 (New Haven,
2009); Christine Worobec, Possessed: Women, Witches, and Demons in Imperial Russia
(DeKalb, 2001); Melissa Kirschke Stockdale, Mobilizing the Russian Nation: Patriotism
and Citizenship in the First World War (Cambridge, UK., 2016); and Elizabeth A. Wood, The
Baba and the Comrade: Gender and Politics in Revolutionary Russia (Bloomington, 1997).
7. See Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia; and Grigorii Tishkin,
Zhenskii vopros v Rossii, 50–60-e gody XIX v (Leningrad, 1984).
8. See Sarah Badcock, Politics and the People in Revolutionary Russia: A Provincial
History (Cambridge, Eng., 2007); Betsy Jones Hemenway and Elizabeth Jones Hemenway,
696 Slavic Review
Yet despite the by now extensive body of literature in Russian/Soviet
women’s and gender studies, women remain marginal in recent historical
surveys of the revolution. More attention has been paid to the issues of citizenship,
civil rights, and civil society, but the role of women as conscious political
actors remains invisible in many accounts.9 Nevertheless, women’s rights was
one of the most divisive issues of the time, a source of conflict within all social
classes, and a wedge issue for erstwhile allies in the struggle for democracy
in Russia.10 In this essay I will look at themes interwoven with the history of
1917. Two, spontaneity/consciousness and class, are key elements in historical
surveys of the year. One, suffrage, is not. Discussions of all three, viewed
through the lens of gender, shift our understanding of the revolutionary year
and Russia’s place in the global context.
Challenging the limited role assigned to women in most histories of 1917,
women’s history scholars have significantly contributed to understanding the
gendered aspects of the revolutionary events of February. While the role of
food shortages and workplace dissatisfaction in provoking and fueling the
February disorders should not be minimized, this does not fully explain women’s
activism on International Women’s Day, or subsequent days.
Were the February 23 women’s demonstrations solely spontaneous bread
riots? If so, what is the significance of their taking place on International
Women’s Day? Evidence for planning and organization complicates the usual
narrative. Official accounts and revolutionary memoirs both provide clues.
The Petrograd governor, A.P. Balk, received reports about several lively
gatherings of “many ladies, and even more poor women (mnogo dam, esche
“Mothers of Communists: Women Revolutionaries and the Construction of a Soviet Identity,”
in Andrea Lanoux and Helena Goscilo, eds., Gender and National Identity in Twentieth-
Century Russian Culture (DeKalb, 2006), 75–92; Sharon Kowalsky, Deviant Women:
Female Crime and Criminology in Revolutionary Russia, 1880–1930 (DeKalb, 2009); Karen
Petrone, The Great War in Russian Memory (Bloomington, 2011); and Laurie Stoff, Russia’s
Sisters of Mercy and the Great War: More than Binding Men’s Wounds (Lawrence, 2015); and
Laurie Stoff, They Fought for the Motherland: Russia’s Women Soldiers in World War I and
the Revolution (Lawrence, 2006).
9. See for example, Mark R. Baker, Peasants, Power, and Place: Revolution in the
Villages of Kharkiv Province, 1914–1921 (Cambridge, Mass., 2016). A theme of this book is
addressing the invisibility of the rural populations and the regions in the years of war,
revolution, and civil war. But the remedy does not extend to women and gender. Peasants
are presumed to be male. In the rare instance in which women are mentioned (they are
not in the index), it is in passing. For example, “during the war women led almost all
large-scale actions in which peasants participated, though they rarely acted alone.” The
implications of women’s leadership in these actions is not examined (19). In contrast,
Mark Steinberg, in his The Russian Revolution, 1905–1921 (Oxford, 2017) incorporates
scholarship about women and gender into his narrative rather than ignoring them or
separating them from the main story.
10. For one example of the way in which the debate over women’s rights contributed
to the “conflict and fragmentation” of Russian educated society, see William G. Wagner,
“Ideology, Identity, and the Emergence of a Middle Class,” in Edith W. Clowes, Samuel D.
Kassow, and James L. West, eds., Between Tsar and People: Educated Society and the Quest
for Public Identity in Late Imperial Russia (Princeton, 1991), 149–63.
Women and Gender in 1917 697
bol΄she bab), students, and fewer workers compared to previous demonstrations.”
These were not spontaneous gatherings; they were planned. Crowds
formed in the center of the city, on Znamenskaia Square, Nevskii Prospekt,
and at the City Duma, as well as in the workers’ districts. Znamenskaia Square
was near the offices of the Russian League for Women’s Equal Rights. Initially,
the participants were well-behaved, laughing, talking to each other, but also
chanting in a restrained, plaintive way, “Bread, Bread.” Balk had no idea why
the groups had gathered on that day, and why there were so many women in
the crowds.11
These were not the only demonstrations. A number of commemorations of
International Women’s Day took place on February 23. The organized protests
which surprised Balk and other tsarist officials, involved women from different
classes. But there was also coordination between radical students and
workers. Bolshevik worker Anna Kostina, for example, remembered that a list
of speakers for International Women’s Day events had already been prepared
before the holiday. Requests to have them address workers’ meetings were
funneled through the apartment of the Bestuzhev student Tolmacheva.12
Understanding the background of International Women’s Day helps
explain the different February 23 demonstrations in Petrograd. The first
and only socialist women’s holiday was new; it had just been proclaimed on
August 26, 1910. From its inception, the holiday was connected to the suffrage
struggle. Searching for ways to attract more women to the cause of socialism
worldwide, leading socialist women’s activist Clara Zetkin called for the
establishment of “a special Women’s Day,” whose primary purpose would
be “to promote Women Suffrage propaganda,” at the Second International
Conference of Socialist Women, held in Copenhagen. Clara Zetkin came to
view suffrage as a democratic reform advantageous to the proletariat. In
naming the holiday, Zetkin used the word women, and not women workers,
acknowledging that women were a separate organizing category.
Many socialist women leaders’ views evolved on suffrage. Initially they
were hostile, considering voting rights a “bourgeois” demand. In 1908,
Aleksandra Kollontai claimed that the feminist focus on “rights and justice”
was incompatible with women workers’ focus on “a crust of bread.” In time,
noting the appeal to women workers of the suffrage movement, key activists,
including Kollontai, recast the female vote as an important proletarian goal.
Russian celebrations of International Women’s Day started in 1913. From
the beginning, the commemoration of International Women’s Day in Russia
sparked conflict as activists across the feminist-socialist spectrum claimed
the holiday. Feminists emphasized the cross-class organizing of women, and
socialists viewed the day as a way to mobilize working-class women to join
with their brothers in the revolutionary struggle. Thus, in 1917, International
Women’s Day already had resonance among disparate sectors of Petrograd’s
11. Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution (New York, 1990), 274; “Gibel΄ tsarskogo
Petrograda: Fevral΄skaia revoliutsiia glazami gradonachalnika A.P. Balk: Vospominaniia
A.P. Balka iz arkhiva Guverskogo institute voiny, revoliutsii i mira (Stenford, SShA),
1929 g.,” Russkoe proshloe 1 (1991): 7–72, 26.
12. E.N. Burdzhalov, Vtoraia Russkaia Revoliutsiia: Vosstanie v Petrograde (Moscow,
1967), 119.
698 Slavic Review
female population. Nevertheless, none of the largely male Petrograd socialist
leaders expected the celebration of International Women’s Day to be a catalyst
for revolution.
We will never have conclusive evidence about all the factors which motivated
women to take to the streets on February 23, but an exclusive emphasis
on spontaneity denies the possibility that women were acting as a conscious
political force. As Sarah Badcock has observed in her study of soldatki (soldiers’
wives): “Sympathy offered in the democratic press to these ‘poor, illiterate
women’ implied or stated directly that the soldatki were a wholly unconscious
group, who operated only on basic instinct. . . . This reflects the way in which
the (exclusively male) local government leaders and journalists refused to recognize
soldatki as a political force in their own right.”13 Badcock’s analysis
applies to more than the soldatki. New histories of the year must move beyond
simply including a section on women and strive to integrate the majority sex
as conscious political actors in 1917.
Class and Gender
A class analysis is not sufficient to explain the oppression of women, as women
are in all classes, both inside the family and in the workplace. In the words of
historian Hilda Smith, women “have always been close to the centers of power
but prevented from exercising this power themselves.”14 Is it accurate even
to use the term “bourgeois feminists,” as Soviet and many western scholars
were wont to do in their histories of this period? Questions of the intersection
of class and gender complicate the matter for women. Can a woman automatically
be assigned the same class as her husband, brother, or father? The
early 20th century conflict over extending equal rights and especially voting
rights to women clearly made gender a defining issue for many women, causing
them to create a different set of political priorities than many of their male
kin and comrades.15
Before and certainly after the February Revolution, a growing number of
women began to see the connections between their economic situation and
the need for political rights. Activist Olga Zakuta, from the largest feminist
organization, the League for Women’s Equal Rights (hereafter the Women’s
League), noted that at early meetings after the February Revolution orators
primarily emphasized raising women’s economic status but with time, more
13. Badcock, Politics and the People in Revolutionary Russia, 67.
14. Hilda Smith, “Feminism and the Methodology of Women’s History,” in Berenice
Carroll, ed., Liberating Women’s History: Theoretical and Critical Essays (Urbana, 1976),
369–84, 374.
15. On “bourgeois feminism,” see Marilyn J. Boxer, “Rethinking the Socialist
and International Career of the Concept ‘Bourgeois Feminism,’” American
Historical Review 112, no. 1 (February 2007): 131–58; Françoise Picq, “’Bourgeois Feminism’
in France: A Theory Developed by Socialist Women before World War I,” translated by
Irene Ilton, in Judith Friedlander, Blanche Wiesen Cook, Alice Kessler-Harris, and Carroll
Smith-Roseberg, eds., Women in Culture and Politics: A Century of Change (Bloomington,
1986), 330–343; and Ruthchild, Equality and Revolution, 55–61.
Women and Gender in 1917 699
of those at the rallies “became staunch supporters of women’s participation
in the Constituent Assembly.”16
As I have noted in my own work, dissatisfaction over the failure of the
Provisional Government to act quickly and decisively on the issue of suffrage
led to the second major foray of women into the public arena. On March 19,
three weeks after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, Poliksena Shishkina-
Iavein, President of the Women’s League, organized the largest women’s
demonstration in Russian history, demanding suffrage. An estimated thirtyfive
to forty thousand women took part. The march, led by Shishkina-Iavein
and revolutionary heroine Vera Figner, began at the City Duma on Nevskii
Prospekt, in the heart of the city, and headed toward the State Duma, at the
Tauride Palace. Ninety organizations joined in sponsoring the demonstration.
By the end of the day, Soviet and Provisional Government leaders agreed to
extend suffrage to women.17
Pictures and a newsreel of the March 19 demonstration show clearly that
this was a cross-class crowd. Those wearing hats and those wearing kerchiefs
mingled freely among the demonstrators. The march was not, as some historians
have argued, merely a momentary diversion from working women’s
class-driven politics. As I will discuss more in the next section, suffrage was
an issue of importance throughout most of 1917.18
Historians of 1917 have also failed to understand the significance, range,
and impact of feminist leaders’ politics. It is simply not true (as Rex Wade
argues in his otherwise important history of the Russian Revolution) that
most leaders were “closely identified with the Kadet Party, and were either
suppressed or forced to flee the country after 1917.”19 In fact, the feminists
were not monolithic; many identified as socialists. A majority of the leaders
stayed in Russia, often working as physicians or teachers. Some were later
honored by the Soviet government.
The leaders of the feminist movement were largely part of a new, emerging
group, the female intelligentsia. Given the relatively recent availability of
higher education opportunities for women, they were likely the first females
16. Olga Zakuta, Kak v revoliutsionnoe vremia vserossiiskaia liga ravnopraviia zhenshchin
dobilas΄ izbiratel΄nykh prav dlia russkikh zhenshchin (Petrograd, 1917). For a complete
English translation of this pamphlet, see “Kak v revoliutsionnoe vremia vserossiiskaia liga
ravnopraviia zhenshchin dobilas΄ izbiratel΄nykh prav dlia russkikh zhenshchin (How in the
revolutionary time the All-Russian League for Women’s Equal Rights won suffrage for Russian
women),” Intro. and Trans. by Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild, Aspasia 6 (2012): 117–24.
17. Liubov Gurevich, Pochemu nuzhno dat’ zhenshchinam takiia zhe prava, kak muzhchinam
(Petrograd, 1917), 2; Irina Yukina and E. Guseva, Zhenskii Peterburg: Opyt istorikokraevedcheskogo
putevoditelia (St. Petersburg, 2004) 13, 261.
18. Stephen A. Smith, in his recently published history of 1917, argues that the March
19 demonstration was “a rare moment when gender rather than class was the axis of organization.”
See: Stephen A. Smith, Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890 to 1928
(Oxford, 2017), 140. Other scholars have made similar arguments. Barbara Alpern Engel in
her survey Women in Russia argues that: “When in the aftermath of the February Revolution
lower-class women grew more assertive, they rarely pursued women’s political rights
as such. . . .” (Engel, Women in Russia, 1700–2000, 134). For more coverage of the suffrage
struggle, see Clements, A History of Women in Russia from Earliest Times to the Present,
19. Rex Wade, The Russian Revolution, 1917, 3rd ed., (Cambridge, Mass, 2017), 123.
700 Slavic Review
in their families to attend or complete medical or university courses. Seeking
higher education, or any education, challenged traditional notions of women’s
roles in family and society. For many, enrolling in a higher education
course was their initial act of rebellion. Often their families were opposed “to
girls running through the streets to some kind of unthinkable knowledge,” as
one feminist reminisced.20
Still, the intelligentsia were a small part of the population, no more than
about ten thousand in an overall female population of sixty-three million at the
turn of the twentieth century. Judging by the size of demonstrations, and the
Constituent Assembly popular vote, the appeal of political rights for women
extended across the country, to workers and to peasants far from the metropolitan
centers. This was not an issue which died after one demonstration.21
Women’s Suffrage
Women’s suffrage appealed to a broad range of activists throughout 1917. As
mentioned above, the newsreel of the March 19 women’s suffrage demonstration
shows the intersectionality of the feminist appeal, with women from the
working and middle classes marching. Socialists reframed suffrage as support
for the revolutionary female proletariat.22 In her first article for Pravda,
Aleksandra Kollontai, recently returned from exile on March 18, argued for
the female vote as a reward for women’s activism: “Weren’t we women first out
on the streets? Why now . . . does the freedom won by the heroic proletariat of
both sexes, by the soldiers and soldiers’ wives, ignore half the population of
liberated Russia?” Among the masses, suffrage as an issue resonated among
both women and men, and all over revolutionary Russia. Meetings demanding
women’s suffrage were so popular that at some places the halls had to be emptied
three times to accommodate all those who wished to hear the speakers.
Women workers in Kostroma and Iaroslavl, in the Russian heartland, joined
equal rights organizations. In Siberia, an Irkutsk meeting of three thousand
women and men sent a telegram to the Provisional Government demanding
full electoral rights for women in the Constituent Assembly. Typical was a call
to women in Khabarovsk to “take part in the creation of a free Russia,” unite,
and form a women’s union. At one of the many meetings, a union of soldiers’
wives emerged. Slogans supporting women’s suffrage appeared at a number
of large demonstrations. 23
20. Ekaterina Shchepkina, cited in Ruth Arlene Fluck Dudgeon, “Women and Higher
Education in Russia, 1855–1905” (Ph.D. Dissertation, George Washington University,
1975), 109.
21. Ruthchild, Equality and Revolution, 58.
22. The Merriam-Webster definition of intersectionality applies here: “It’s been
around since the late 1980’s but intersectionality is a word that’s new to many of us. It’s
used to refer to the complex and cumulative way that the effects of different forms of
discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, and yes, intersect—
especially in the experiences of marginalized people or groups.” See: “Word We’re
Watching: Intersectionality,” Merriam Webster, at
intersectionality-meaning (last accessed July 6, 2017)
23. For the film of the suffrage march, see: “1917 Petrograd March for Women’s Suffrage,”
YouTube video, 4:13, from the Russian Archives of Films and Photographs, posted
Women and Gender in 1917 701
Compared to the leaders of the major western democracies, the Provisional
Government and Soviet leaders acceded quickly to demands to extend the
franchise to women. In the US and Britain, countless suffrage demonstrations,
petitions, referenda, as well as militant actions achieved little. Several factors
explain the more progressive Russian response. Unlike politicians in many
of the older democracies, neither the Provisional Government nor the Soviet
leaders were anti-women’s suffrage. Even those who, like the Kadet leader
Paul Miliukov, initially opposed the female vote, had long since changed their
positions. Support for women’s rights had become standard in the platforms
of socialist and other parties on the left. More conservative members of the
government, like Rodzianko, now recognized that women’s suffrage was part
of what defined the modern state.24
Revolutionary Russia was more advanced in extending suffrage than any
of its wartime allies. British women over thirty won limited, property-based
suffrage in 1918 and didn’t win universal suffrage for females aged twentyone
and over until 1928. French women won the vote only in 1944. In the US,
President Woodrow Wilson was quick to restrict rights, approving the segregation
of government offices beginning in 1913, but slow to endorse the female
vote. As Russian women were gaining the vote, suffragists picketing outside
the White House with signs comparing “Free Russia” with the US, were being
arrested and jailed under the Espionage Act of 1917. Wilson did not declare
his support for the women’s suffrage amendment until January 9, 1918, and
American women formally won suffrage only in 1920.25
In 1917, Russian women took to using their new rights in great numbers.
Their voting rates in the first election in which they had the franchise compare
quite favorably with the US. The Constituent Assembly elections, starting
on November 12 and extending in some places into 1918, were the first elections
in which Russian women over the age of twenty could vote and run for
by “Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies,” March 27, 2013, at
com/watch?v=LLOQASmngrE (last accessed July 6, 2017). For the Kollontai quote, see:
Ruthchild, Equality and Revolution, 225. See also Ann Bobroff, “The Bolsheviks and Working
Women, 1905–1920,” Soviet Studies 26, no. 4 (1974): 540–67, 558, 560, and Ann Bobroff-
Hajal, Working Women in Russia under the Hunger Tsars: Political Activism and Daily
Life (Brooklyn, 1994), 91. On the Khabarovsk meetings and demonstrations, see Pavel
Shcherbinin, Voennyi faktor v povsednevnoi zhizni russkoi zhenshchiny v XVIII-nachale
XX v. (Tambov, 2004), 475.
24. Rodzianko had experienced the wrath of the Tsar on the issue of universal suffrage.
The autocrat remained opposed to full suffrage and further democratic reforms
even at a time of utmost peril to his rule. Immediately after the start of the February Revolution,
Rodzianko met with the Tsar on March 3, 1917, presenting him with a proposal for
elections to a Constituent Assembly based on the four tail formula. The Tsar rejected it out
of hand, writing in his diary: “God knows who thought up such nonsense!” See: Nikolai
Alexandrovich Romanov, Dnevniki Imperatora Nikolaia II, ed. K. F. Shchhatsillo, B. P. Kozlov,
T.F. Pavlova, and Z. I. Peregudova, (Moscow, 1991), 625.
25. Eleanor Flexner, Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United
States (Cambridge, 1959), 1975, 294–95 on women picketing and getting arrested; 301
on Wilson’s declaration of support. On Wilson and government segregation, see Dick
Lehr, “The Racist Legacy of Woodrow Wilson,” The Atlantic, November 27, 2015, at www. (last accessed July
6, 2017).
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office, the freest elections ever held in Russia until after the collapse of the
Soviet Union in 1991. Over forty million votes were cast.26 The voter participation
rate was estimated by Oliver Radkey to be about fifty-five percent. This is
remarkable given the chaos and uncertainty of the period, immediately after
the Bolshevik seizure of power in October.27 Nevertheless, Russian women in
the wartime conditions of 1917 went to the polls at higher rates than their US
counterparts. The US held its first national election in which (mostly white)
women voted, in peacetime. Jim Crow restrictions for both African-American
women and men limited their overall vote until 1965. Native American women
and men did not win voting rights in all states until 1962. Scholars of the US
Presidential election of 1920 estimate that the female turnout averaged about
37%, while men’s participation averaged about 55%.28
Women’s suffrage is one of the great democratic reforms of the twentieth
century. It is the logical extension to women of the rights of citizenship
articulated by the French and American Revolutions and over the nineteenth
century given to all men in most western countries. Revolutionary Russia
pioneered in extending suffrage to women. And even though elections in the
Soviet one-party state were largely a sham, voting was retained as a hallmark
of a modern state. Given the increased scholarly attention to the question of
citizenship and civil society in early twentieth-century Russia, an analysis of
the role of women’s suffrage and women’s rights as motivating issues, their
intersectionality, their place in the 1917 revolutions, and their domestic and
international impact, is important in complicating and filling in the full history
of this revolutionary year. Suffrage as a motivating factor for women’s
entry into the public sphere can be seen from the outbreak of revolution, on
International Women’s Day, through the demonstrations which culminated
in Russian women winning the vote, to the actualization of this right in local
and then national political participation through the Constituent Assembly.
In sum, issues such as political consciousness, class, citizenship, and suffrage,
all of which became especially significant in the revolutionary outbreak
and the unfurling of events in 1917, cannot be understood without reference to
the role of women and gender. It behooves us as historians, especially as the
current Kremlin ruler seeks to downplay the 1917 revolutions and encourage a
return to “traditional values” in all areas, to provide the most accurate information
we can about the events of that year and the progressive democratic
movements which emerged then, even if they were eventually vanquished.29
26. Mark Vishniak, Vserossiiskoe uchreditel΄noe sobranie (Paris, 1932), 83.
27. For the Constituent Assembly election participation figures, see Oliver Radkey,
Russia Goes to the Polls: The Elections to the All-Russian Constituent Assembly, 1917
(Ithaca, 1989), 44–45.
28. J. Kevin Corder and Christina Wolbrecht, Counting Women’s Ballots: Female Voters
from Suffrage through the New Deal (New York, 2016), 137.
29. Neil MacFarquhar, “’Revolution? What Revolution?’ Russia Asks 100 Years Later,”
New York Times March 11, 2017, A1, A8.