Source: Alexandra Kollontai: Selected Articles and Speeches, Progress Publishers, 1984;
First Published: in A. Kollontai, The Social Basis of the Women’s Question, St Petersburg, 1909, pp.1-33,abridged;
Transcribed: Sally Ryan for marxists.org, 2000;
Proofed: and corrected by Chris Clayton 2006.
The book The Social Basis of the Women’s Question (approximately 450 pages) was written shortly before the First All-Russia Women’s Congress, and published in St Petersburg in 1909. In it, Alexandra Kollontai provides a detailed analysis of this issue from a Marxist point of view. After a general survey of the question in the introduction, the author, basing herself on considerable factual material, examines and proffers a solution to such problems as the struggle for women’s economic independence, marriage and the family, protection for expectant and nursing mothers, etc. The author devotes a large part of her book to the issue of the women’s struggle for political rights.
The women’s movement in Russia is passing through a decisive moment in its history: in December 1908 it will be reviewing the creative activity carried out by women’s organisations over the last few years, and at the All-Russia Women’s Congress it must decide upon the ‘course of action’ to be followed by feminists  in the coming years of struggle for women’s emancipation. Complex socio-political problems, which until recently still belonged to the realm of abstract ‘thorny’ issues, are now, as a result of the events that have taken place in Russia, becoming urgent issues demanding energetic practical involvement and solution. These problems include the so-called women’s question. With each passing day a growing number of women are drawn into the search for an answer to three disturbing questions: Which way shall we go? What should we do? How can we make sure that the female section of the population of Russia also receives the fruit of the long, stubborn and agonisingly difficult struggle for a new political structure in our homeland?
The Alliance for Equality, together with the section on women’s voting rights of the Russian Women’s Mutual Aid Society,  have decided to convene the First All-Russia Women’s Congress  in order to give a comprehensive answer to these three questions.
The programme of the forthcoming women’s congress is extremely broad: in the first section it is proposed to undertake an evaluation of women’s activity in various professions in Russia; in the second section it is proposed to examine the economic position of women and investigate the conditions of work in trade and industry and in the domestic services, and also to look at the question of the protection of female labour, etc.; a special subsection will be set up to discuss questions relating to the family, marriage and prostitution; the work of the third section will include the present civil and political position of women and measures to be taken in the struggle for women’s equality in these areas; finally, section four will study questions related to women’s education.
One cannot but welcome this broadened programme of the All-Russia Women’s Congress, particularly when one compares it with the draft programme published in the magazine Soyuz zhenshchin (The Women’s Alliance) No. 3, 1907. This draft programme totally omitted such an important question as the economic position of women in connection with the legal protection of female labour. Was this merely an oversight, an accident? If it was indeed simply an oversight, then it was a characteristic oversight, to forget about the economic aspect of the women’s question, about the situation of working women and the protection of female labour, is the kind of ‘accident’ that would immediately determine the nature of the forthcoming congress and would make the participation of those sections of the female population for whom the women’s question is intimately and inextricably bound up with the overall labour issues of our day both impossible and futile. Now this oversight has been corrected; the second section will be given over entirely to the question of female labour and the economic position of women. Therefore it would not have been worthwhile pausing to comment on such a minor incident had it not been typical of our bourgeois ‘suffragettes’.
With the caution typical of bourgeois feminists, the organisers of the congress hesitated for a long time: what should the nature of the congress be? The omission from the draft programme of the point dealing with the economic position of women is, in our opinion, closely connected with these hesitations. At one of the meetings on the forthcoming congress, individuals with considerable influence in the feminist world insisted that the congress should not become involved in ‘propaganda work’ but should concentrate on concrete issues such as the fight against alcoholism. Thus until quite recently the organisers of the congress still did not know whether it ought to assume the nature of a benevolent ‘ladies’ conference concerned with moral and charitable activities, or whether an attempt should be made to break through women’s indifference to their own fate and draw them into the ranks of those fighting for women’s emancipation. However, under the influence of the more clear-thinking supporters of equal rights, the second tendency gradually won the upper hand. The slogan chosen for the forthcoming congress is the traditional feminist rallying cry: the union of all women in the struggle for purely female rights and interests.
The congress has served as a spur to feminist organisations. The female ant-hill has stirred. One after the other such feminists as Pokrovskaya, Kalmanovich, Shchepkina, Vakhtina and others delivered speeches and lectures whose content could be summed up in the same women’s rallying call: ‘Women from all classes of the population, unite!’
However tempting this ‘peaceful’ slogan may sound, however much it may appear to promise to the poor younger sister of the bourgeois woman – the working woman – it is precisely this slogan so beloved of the feminists that compels us to pause and examine in greater detail the forthcoming women’s congress, and to subject its objectives and fundamental aspirations to a careful appraisal from the point of view of the interests of working-class women.
In concrete terms, the question is whether working-class women should respond to the call of the feminists and participate actively and directly in the struggle for women’s equality, or whether, faithful to the traditions of their class, they should go their own way and fight using other means in order to free not only women but all mankind from the oppression and enslavement of contemporary capitalist forms of social life.
Before going on to answer this question, however, I believe it necessary to state the basic propositions that serve as the starting point for the arguments I am about to present.
Leaving our right honourable friends, the bourgeois scholars, to examine more closely the question of the superiority of one sex over the other, or to weigh the brain and calculate the intellectual make-up of men and women, the supporters of historical materialism fully recognise the naturally existing differences between the sexes and demand only one thing, namely that each individual, man or woman, be given the real possibility of achieving the freest and fullest self-determination, that the widest possible opportunities be provided for the development and application of all natural talents. At the same time, the supporters of historical materialism deny the existence of specifically female issues apart from the overall social issue of our day. Certain economic factors once led to the subordinate position of women, with her natural characteristics playing a purely secondary role. Only the total disappearance of those (economic) factors, only the evolution of those economic forms that once caused the enslavement of women, can effect a radical change in their social position. In other words, women can only become truly free and equal in a world that has been transformed and based on new social and economic principles.
This assertion, however, does not rule out the possibility of a partial improvement in the life of women within the framework of the existing system, although a truly radical solution of the labour problem is possible only with the complete restructuring of existing production relations. Nonetheless, such a view of the situation should not act as a brake upon reform work aimed at satisfying the immediate interests of the proletariat. On the contrary, each new gain by the working class is a rung in the ladder leading mankind to the kingdom of freedom and social equality; each new right won by women brings them closer to their goal – total emancipation.
One further comment: in discussing the question of women’s emancipation, one must, as with any other socio-political question, base oneself firmly upon the actually existing relationships. Everything that pertains to the realm of ‘moral aspirations’ or other ideological structures we willingly leave at the disposal of bourgeois liberalism. For us, the emancipation of women is not a dream, nor even a principle, but a concrete reality, a fact coming into being with every day that passes. Step by step, modern economic relations and the entire future course of development of the productive forces are assisting and will continue to assist the liberation of women from centuries of oppression and enslavement. One need only look around to see that this is so. Everywhere, in almost every sphere of production, women are now working alongside men. In England, France, Germany, Italy and Austria, of the 81 million individuals employed in manufacture, 27 million are women.  The number of women leading an independent existence and their proportional relationship to the total female population in civilised countries is shown in the following table; according to the most recent national censuses, the percentage of the male and female population living on its own earnings was as follows: 
|Great Britain and Ireland||27%||58%|
On turning from proportional evaluation to absolute figures we discover that, although the number of women in Russia who live on their own earnings is lower than in other countries, that number is nonetheless fairly large. According to the last census, of the 63 million female population in Russia, more than six million live on their own earnings; in the cities two out of eight million (i.e. 25 per cent) earn their own living; in rural areas four million of the total 55 million female population are independent. If one considers the total gainfully employed population in Russia (i.e. the population living on its own earnings) then of the 33 million gainfully employed individuals, 27 million are men and six million women…
In Russia, female labour is particularly widespread in the textile industry, in every branch of which female labour predominates over male…  In addition to the textile industry, female industrial labour in Russia is also widely used in such branches of industry as food processing, and in particular bakeries – 4,391 women and 8,868 men; in the chemical industry, in particular cosmetics – 4,074 women and 4,508 men; in the glass industry – about 5 thousand women; in the china industry – about 4 thousand, in the tile and brick industry about 6 thousand. Only in the metal-processing industry is the number of women small.
The figures quoted above are, in our opinion, sufficient to show that female labour is widely used in Russian industry. Moreover, it must be remembered that Russia moved to large-scale capitalist production comparatively recently, and that, as the sphere of capitalist economics expands, its industry will draw in an ever greater number of women workers.
Even now, in the bigger towns and cities of Russia that have large-scale capitalist enterprises, female labour, and in particular female proletarian labour, constitutes, taking account of female labour reserves, a fairly considerable proportion of the total work force. In St Petersburg, for example, according to the 1900 census, for every 100 men living by their own labour, there were 40 women…
Women are most numerous among those who earn their living by proletarian labour: for every 269 thousand working men there are 74 thousand working women, and for every 40 thousand ‘single’ men, there are 30 thousand ‘single’ women. Who are these ‘single’ women? Naturally they constitute the most exploited section of the petty handicraft workers: seamstresses, knitters, flowergirls, etc., who work at home as supposedly independent workers for capitalist middlemen and are subjected, as a result of their isolation from each other, to the harshest enslavement by capital. There are considerably fewer women employed in the professions – 13 thousand for every 74 thousand men – while only 13 thousand women for every 31 thousand men come under the heading ‘proprietor’.
The proportions within female labour of the various social groups in other countries, and the position of male and female industrial workers among those who earn their living independently, is shown in the following table.
As can be seen from this table, in Austria the number of women workers exceeds the number of men: for 4.4 million men there are more than 5 million women. In Germany, the number of women workers amounts to over half the number of men. The same is true for France and England. Only in America is this correlation somewhat less favourable to women.
|Country||Year of Census||Total Population||Industrial Population||Including Industrial Workers|
|England & Wales||1891||14.1||14.9||8.9||4.0||5.4||3.1|
…The growth in female labour naturally means a continuing growth in the role of women in national production. Already women produce about 1/3 of the total world production of goods for the world market. This constant growth of female labour arouses fear in many bourgeois economists, forcing them to see in the woman a dangerous rival to the man in the sphere of labour and to react with hostility to the expansion of female labour. Is such an attitude justified, and is the woman always merely a ‘threatening’ rival to the man?
The number of working women is constantly increasing, but the continuous development of the productive forces also demands a larger and larger work force. Only at certain moments of technological revolution is there either a reduction in the demand for new workers, or a replacement of one category of workers by another: women replace men only to be replaced in their turn by children and juveniles. However, each step forward in technological progress eventually causes the rate of production to intensify, and this new surge in production inevitably brings with it a new demand for workers of every category. Thus, despite temporary lulls and, at times, sharp fluctuations, the number of workers drawn into industry ultimately grows with the growth of world productive forces. The growth in the number of both categories of workers-men and women – is absolute, whereas the more intensive growth of female labour in comparison to male labour is only relative…
Viewed overall, what is happening on the labour market is not the replacement of male labour by female labour, but rather the grouping of the labour forces of both these categories according to profession: some professions and branches of industry are employing more and more women (domestic service, the textile industry, the clothing industry), while others rely mainly on male labour (mining, the iron and steel industry, the machine industry, etc.). Moreover, there can be no doubt that the quantitative growth of female labour is also taking place thanks to a drop in child labour, and this is something that one can only welcome. With the promulgation of new laws to protect young children and raise the age at which children may be employed in industrial labour, the regrouping of the labour forces undoubtedly involves an increase in the number of women workers.
Thus the assertion that women are men’s most dangerous labour rival can only be accepted with a number of reservations. Leaving aside the question of the competition existing in the professions, we will note only that in the proletarian milieu, the woman worker only constitutes a rival to the man when she is isolated, not involved in the joint proletarian struggle. The woman worker is a rival to the male, a ‘threatening’ rival who lowers his wages and mercilessly destroys the fruit of his successes in his organised struggle against capital, only when she is not drawn into the general class and professional movement. However, is not every unorganisedproletarian just such a rival, whether he be a hungry village ‘yokel’, a ‘has-been’ pushed out of his profession, or simply a worker deprived of a permanent job? The woman worker has a detrimental effect upon the conditions of work insofar as she is, as yet, the less organised section of the working class. Capital readily makes use of her to counter the more conscious and united section of the working class. However, the moment she enters the ranks of the organised fighters for working-class liberation, the assertion that she – the woman worker – is the worst rival of the working man – ceases to be categorical. The organised proletariat of whichever sex loses his or her capacity for harming class comrades.
Having made these preliminary reservations and looked very briefly at some statistical examples, we will now seek the answer to the questions posed earlier. We refer those who wish to acquaint themselves more fully with the conditions of female labour, the growth of the female work force and its significance in the economic life of the nations to special works written on this subject. Here we wish merely to stress once again the close link which undoubtedly exists between the desire for emancipation on the part of women and the trends that can be observed in the economic development of society. Keeping these trends constantly in mind will enable us to discover more easily the path that should be followed by the woman who has a broad understanding of what must be done to achieve the full and comprehensive emancipation of women.
In answer to the question, what must be done by women who wish to defend their violated rights and interests, the bourgeois ideologist hastens to reply: ‘Unite with another socially weak element, organise and join together in the struggle against the male oppressors’…
Such advice has not fallen on stony ground. Over recent years we have seen feminist organisations spring up one after the other. Feminism in Russia, including feminism as we traditionally understand it, is indisputably a new phenomenon. The first feminist publication Zhenskoye dyelo (The Women’s Cause) appeared in 1899.  For many years the desire for emancipation on the part of Russian women was limited to calls for equal educational opportunities. From the 1860s, when the women’s question was first raised in Russia, up to the present, the women’s movement has been nothing other than the history of the struggle to improve and expand the level of female education, and primarily higher education. In the successes obtained in this sphere the women of the bourgeois classes saw, and not without reason, one of the principal methods of extending the sphere of female professional labour, the basis of their economic independence.
With the abolition of serfdom, which radically altered both economic and social relations in Russia  and compelled a large section of the population to seek the means of existence, the women’s question also arose in Russia. The post-reform system began to toss onto the labour market not only the professional male worker, but also a hitherto unknown type of woman who, like her male colleague, was also seeking work in order to earn her daily bread. The traditional women’s slogan ‘freedom to work’ became, when adopted by Russian women, a demand for the freedom to receive education, without which all the doors of professional employment remained closed. Naturally, having completed their higher education, women then demanded free access to state and private employment, and this demand was satisfied on the basis of purely economic considerations as private enterprise and state institutions began to realise the advantages of employing the cheaper and more amenable female work force.
The sphere of female professional labour gradually expanded, but women still continued to call for ‘the freedom of education and choice of profession’. There could be no question of demanding political equality, for at that time even the men lacked political rights. As regards women’s civil rights, the position of Russian women in this regard was fairly tolerable as compared with that of their Western European colleagues,  and thus there was little obvious ground here for feminist agitation.
It goes without saying that the women’s movement here under discussion was distinctly bourgeois in nature: it involved only a fairly narrow circle of women, mainly from the nobility, with a few representatives of the raznochintsy, (the new ‘middle classes’).  No socialist ideals found expression in the demands put forward by the leading champions of female equality in Russia. It was indeed true that every year Russian industry was employing thousands more proletarian women, but it seemed that an unbridgeable gulf separated the emancipated, educated woman and the woman worker with calloused hands, and that no contact whatsoever was possible between them.
The women from these two opposing social camps were brought into contact only through philanthropic activity. From the very beginning of the women’s movement in Russia – as, indeed, everywhere where women’s organisations had still not arrived at self-determination – philanthropy was in the forefront.  Almost all the women’s organisations in Russia over recent years have been essentially philanthropic. Women organised themselves and set up women’s societies not in order to win reforms in the sphere of women’s rights but in order to carry out individual acts of charity. From the Society to Supply Material Support for Women’s Higher Educational Courses – the largest in terms of the scope of its activity to the first women’s club founded by the Women’s Mutual Aid Society, all such societies, as their names indicate, pursued philanthropic aims.
The above is not meant to accuse Russian women of indifference towards social and political issues. Can any other country boast of such a host of truly noble and charming nameless heroines’ who gave their strength, their youth. their very life to the struggle for the ideals of social justice and the political liberation of their country? What has history to offer that can rival the inner beauty of the ‘repentant gentlewoman’ of the 1870s who put aside not only her finery but also all the privileges of her ‘noble birth’ in order to merge with the people and repay at least part of the debt owed them by her class… And later, when, as a result of repression, any protest inevitably turned into a bitter struggle against the old order, there emerged from among the women of Russia innumerable heroines who amazed the world with their selflessness, their inner strength and their limitless dedication to the people… Following upon the ‘repentant gentlewoman’, with her gentleness and inner beauty, came the fearless raznochinka, and thereafter an endless stream of martyr women workers who fought for the emancipation of their class… The list of women martyrs fighting for the ideals of social justice is constantly being replenished by the names of new victims and the future historian writing about our age will only be able to bow his head in respect before these noble examples of women-fighters and women-martyrs…
However, this is not the central issue here. Here we are speaking of those women who are struggling for what is called ‘female emancipation’. In this particular area, the objectives and aspirations of our first feminists were extremely narrow and limited. Philanthropy and education constituted, until recently, the sum total of the activity undertaken by women’s organisations. Even the first women’s congress planned for 1905 was to limit its objectives to these two areas. 
The picture changes sharply following the memorable events of January.  The revolutionary upsurge which swept through all sections of the population also affected the feminists, hitherto modest in their claims. Women’s circles became more active, stirred into life. Bold speeches and radical demands could be heard. Declarations, resolutions and petitions were dispatched to rural and urban councils and to radical organisations, and this was followed by a series of conferences and meetings which adopted decisive political resolutions. In 1905, it seemed that there was not a corner of Russia where women were not, in one way or another, making themselves heard, reminding society of their existence and demanding that they too be granted new civil rights. The feminists, until recently so modest in their demands, became aware of the fact that the regeneration of Russia and the establishment of a new state system were the essential prerequisites of female emancipation…
The women’s movement is abandoning its former, modest course and adopting a new path of social action. This, of course, did not happen without friction. Among the new members who had poured into the women’s organisations two tendencies were becoming clearly distinguishable: some, more to the left, insisted upon the need to clearly define the political credo of the women’s movement and gave priority to the struggle for political equality for women, those to the right, on the other hand, remained faithful to the old traditions, not wishing to bring ‘politics’ into their narrowly feminist aspirations. In April, 1905, the more left-wing elements formed the Alliance for the Equality of Women – the first women’s organisation in Russia to adopt a clear political platform. Meanwhile the right-wingers continued to group themselves around the Women’s Mutual Aid Society and the Zhensky vestnik (Women’s Herald), pursuing the idea of politically neutral feminism. The Alliance for Equality set up a broad network of branches across Russia, and as little as one year later, in May, 1906, its bureau estimated its membership at around 8,000.  The Alliance hoped to rally together women from all social classes on the basis of its vague slogans, and just as the Cadets had, in their early days, spoken in the name of the whole people, so the Alliance for Equality declared that it was voicing the needs of all Russian women.
However, the continuous growth of class self-consciousness and the inevitable differentiation among the various social strata of the population led to a further regrouping within women’s social organisations also. The political bloc that fulfilled specific purposes in the heyday of the Union of Unions  was becoming increasingly unsatisfactory, particularly as many of the suffragettes had, as a result of their convictions, aligned themselves with certain political parties. Thus, as early as the spring of 1906 the St Petersburg branch of the Alliance split into two parts: the ‘left-wing’ feminists who aligned themselves, as a result of their political convictions, with the revolutionary parties, and the ‘right-wing’, who founded the Women’s Progressive Party  similar in spirit to the Party of Peaceful Renovation,  almost as small in number and just as ineffectual. Both of these women’s organisations marked the beginning of their activity by establishing political clubs – the first of a more or less democratic nature,  the second still preserving its bourgeois nature, with high membership fees, etc.
The process by which women of various social strata gathered around politically and socially diverse banners took place spontaneously, regardless of the will or desires of those who struggled passionately to unite women in one, universal women’s organisation. The Women’s Progressive Party in fact expressed the demands and requirements of the big bourgeoisie and, while continuing to argue the need to unite all women without any distinction of class and political conviction, elaborated its own political programme corresponding to the desires of that social stratum of which it was, in fact, the mouthpiece. The Alliance for Equality united women representatives of the liberal, ‘Cadet-type’ opposition; around it there gathered, and continue to gather, women from the middle bourgeoisie, mainly members of the intelligentsia. The Women’s Political Club in St Petersburg won the approval of the more radical elements, but here also the possibility of forming a political bloc led to vagueness in its objectives and, indeed, in the very nature of the organisation.  Although they had dissociated themselves from all the more moderate women’s organisations, the members of the Women’s Political Club were, however, unable to define for themselves or for others whose class interests they expressed or what were their immediate objectives. Should they defend the interests of the proletarian women, of peasant women, or simply of all ‘working women’? Should they pursue specific feminist goals, or operate on a general political basis? Hesitation between these basic objectives marked the whole of the short-lived activity of the Women’s Political Club. When the club discussed the question of handing in to the first State Duma a petition demanding that voting rights be extended to women – a petition that had been signed mainly by women workers from the city – the members found themselves seriously embarrassed: the club was unable to make up its mind which political party was closest to it in spirit and finally decided to send the petition to the Trudoviks. 
As women continued to argue the need for a women’s bloc, the actual facts of life were clearly and irrefutably revealing the illusory nature of such a plan. Women’s organisations, as men’s organisations, underwent a rapid and irresistible process of differentiation. The champions of women’s unity could do nothing to prevent the grouping of women into various feminist organisations distinguished by varying degrees of political radicalism as a result of the inevitable growth of class consciousness in the whole of Russian society. The age of the women’s political bloc came to an end shortly after the demise of the men’s liberal bloc. Yet feminists and suffragettes of every hue continue to shout about the need for women’s unity, the possibility of a broad-based women’s party pursuing its own specific goals…
Such a proposition would, however, only have any meaning if not one of the existing political parties had contained in its programme the demand for total female emancipation.
When arming themselves against the indifference, or even hostility of men towards the question of female equality, feminists turn their attention only to the representatives of every shade of bourgeois liberalism, ignoring the existence of a large political party which, on the issue of women’s equality, goes further than even the most fervent suffragettes. Since the appearance of the Communist Manifesto in 1848, Social-Democracy has always defended the interests of women. The Communist Manifesto was the first to point to the close link between the overall proletarian problem existing today and the women’s question. It traced the process whereby capitalism gradually draws woman into production and makes her a co-participant in the great struggle waged by the proletariat against oppression and exploitation. Social-Democracy was the first to include in its programme the demand for equal rights for women; always and everywhere, by the spoken and written word, it demands the abolition of all limitations restricting women. It is only as a result of this pressure that other parties and governments have been compelled to introduce reforms to the benefit of the female population… In Russia also this party is not merely a theoretical defender of women’s interests, but always and everywhere pursues in practice the principle of women’s equality.
What, then, is preventing our suffragettes from standing beneath the protective shield of this experienced and powerful party? While the right-wing feminists are frightened by the ‘extremism’ of Social-Democracy, the Alliance, which went so far as to speak of Constituent Assembly, should find the political position of the Social-Democrats perfectly to their taste. However here lies the catch! Despite all their political radicalism, our suffragettes continue to base themselves on the aspirations of their own bourgeois class. Political liberty is now an essential prerequisite of the growth and power of the Russian bourgeoisie; without this political liberty, its economic prosperity will prove to be built on sand. Capital requires certain norms and guarantees if it is to grow and flourish; these norms can be ensured only with the participation of bourgeois representatives in the government of the country. Next comes the attainment of political rights equally important for both men and women. The demand for political equality is, for women, a necessity dictated by life itself.
The slogan ‘freedom of profession’ has ceased to appear all-embracing in the eyes of women; only the direct participation of women in the running of the state promises to help ensure a rise in their economic well-being. Hence the passionate desire of women from the middle bourgeoisie to finally attain access to the ballot box, hence their hostility to the present bureaucratic system…
However, our feminists, as their sisters abroad, go no further than demands for political equality. The broad horizons opened up by the doctrines of Social-Democracy are, for them, alien and incomprehensible. The feminists are striving for equality within the framework of the existing class-based society and without in any way encroaching upon its foundations; they are fighting for their female prerogatives without striving to achieve the abolition of all existing prerogatives and privileges…
We are not blaming the representatives of the bourgeois women’s movement for these ‘unwitting sins’; they are the inevitable consequence of their class position. Nor do we wish to minimise the importance of feminist organisations for the success of the purely bourgeois women’s movement. However, we would like to caution the female proletariat against enthusiasms for narrowly feminist aims. Insofar as bourgeois women limit their activity to arousing the self-awareness of their own sisters, we can only applaud them. However, as soon as they begin to call into their ranks women workers, Social-Democrats should not, dare not, remain silent. One cannot stand by and watch this futile dissipation of the forces of the proletariat. One must then put the question directly: what benefit could an alliance with their bourgeois ‘sisters’ bring the women workers, and what, on the other hand, could women workers achieve through their own class organisation?
Is a united women’s movement possible, and in particular in a society based on class antagonisms?…
The world of women, as the world of men, has divided into two camps: one, in its aims, aspirations and interests, sides with the bourgeois classes, while the other is closely linked to the proletariat, whose aspiration to freedom also involves the solution of the women’s question in all its aspects. These two groups of fighting women differ in their aims, interests and methods of struggle, even though they are both acting on the basis of the common slogan ‘the emancipation of women’. Each of these militant groups unconsciously proceeds on the basis of the interests of its own class, which gives a specific class colouring to its aspirations and objectives. One individual woman may be capable of standing above the interests of her own class and of disregarding them in the name of the triumph of the aims of another class, but this is impossible for a united women’s organisation reflecting all the real needs and interests of the social group that had founded it. However radical the demands of the feminists may appear, it must not be forgotten that, by virtue of their class position, the feminists cannot struggle to achieve a fundamental restructuring of the present economic-social structure of society, and that without this the emancipation of women cannot be complete.
Whereas in individual instances the immediate objectives of women of all classes coincide, the ultimate objectives determining the direction of the movement and the very tactic to be used differ sharply. For the feminists, the achievement of equal rights with men within the framework of the contemporary capitalist world is a concrete ‘end in itself’  ; for proletarian women equal rights is merely a means to be used in the continuing struggle against the economic enslavement of the working class. For the feminists, the immediate enemy are men as such, who have arrogated to themselves all rights and privileges and left women only bondage and obligation. Each victory of the feminists means that men must concede their exclusive prerogatives in favour of the ‘fair sex’. The proletarian woman, however, has a completely different attitude to her position: in her eyes men are not her enemy and oppressor but, on the contrary, first and foremost a comrade in sharing a common, joyless lot, and a loyal comrade-in-arms in the struggle for a brighter future. The same social relations enslave both the woman and her comrade; one and the same hateful bonds of capitalism oppress their will and deprive them of the happiness and pleasures of life. It is indeed true that certain specific characteristics of the present system weigh doubly upon the woman; it is also true that the conditions of hired labour sometimes transform the woman friend and worker into a menacing rival of the man. However, the working class knows who is to blame for these unfortunate conditions.
The woman worker, no less than her brother in suffering, loathes that insatiable monster with the gilded maw which falls upon man, woman and child with equal voracity in order to suck them dry and grow fat at the cost of millions of human lives… The woman worker is bound to her male comrade worker by a thousand invisible threads, whereas the aims of the bourgeois woman appear to her to be alien and incomprehensible, can bring no comfort to her suffering proletarian soul and do not offer women that bright future on which the whole of exploited humanity has fixed its hopes and aspirations… While the feminists, arguing the need for women’s unity, stretch out their hands to their younger working-class sisters, these ‘ungrateful creatures’ glance mistrustfully at their distant and alien female comrades and gather more closely around the purely proletarian organisations that are more comprehensible to them, and nearer and dearer to their hearts.
Political rights, access to the election booth and a seat in parliament – this is the real aim of the bourgeois women’s movement. But can political equality in the context of the retention of the entire capitalist-exploiter system free the working woman from that abyss of evil and suffering which pursues and oppresses her both as a woman and as a human being?
The more aware among proletarian women realise that neither political nor juridical equality can solve the women’s question in all its aspects. While women are compelled to sell their labour force and bear the yoke of capitalism, while the present exploitative system of producing new values continues to exist, they cannot become free and independent persons, wives who choose their husbands exclusively on the dictates of the heart, and mothers who can look without fear to the future of their children… The ultimate objective of the proletarian woman is the destruction of the old antagonistic class-based world and the construction of a new and better world in which the exploitation of man by man will have become impossible.
Naturally, this ultimate objective does not exclude attempts on the part of proletarian women to achieve emancipation even within the framework of the existing bourgeois order, but the realisation of such demands is constantly blocked by obstacles erected by the capitalist system itself. Women can only be truly free and equal in a world of socialised labour, harmony and justice.
The above is something the feminists cannot and do not wish to understand. It seems to them that if they can attain formal equality as recognised by the letter of the law, they will be perfectly able to make their way, even in the ‘old world of oppression and enslavement, groans and tears’. And this is true, to a degree. Whereas for the majority of women workers equality of rights with men would simply mean equality in ‘lack of rights’, for bourgeois women it would indeed open the doors to new and hitherto unprecedented rights and privileges that until now have been available only to the male members of the bourgeoisie. However, each such success, each new prerogative attained by the bourgeois woman, only puts into her hands yet another instrument with which to oppress her younger sister, and would merely deepen the gulf dividing the women from these two opposing social camps. Their interests would clash more sharply, their aspirations become mutually exclusive.
Where, then, is this universal ‘women’s question’? Where is that unity of objectives and aspirations of which the feminists talk so much? A sober examination of reality reveals that this unity does not and cannot exist. In vain the feminists seek to convince themselves that ‘the women’s question is in no way a question of political party’ and that ‘it can be solved only with the participation of all parties and all women’, the argument advanced by the radical German feminist Minna Cauer. The logic of the facts refutes this feminist reassuring self-delusion.
It would be pointless to try to convince all bourgeois women of the fact that the victory of the women’s cause depends on the victory of the common proletarian cause. However, appealing to those among them who are capable of abandoning the narrow objectives of ‘short-term politics’, who are able to take a broader view of the destiny of all women, we insistently urge you not to summon into your ranks your proletarian sisters alien to you in spirit! Throw off the finery of idealistic phraseology in which you – the women of the bourgeois classes – so love to dress yourselves, and, arming yourselves with the sobering lessons of history, look yourselves to the defence of your own class rights and interests, leaving the working women to follow their own path, struggle by their own methods for the freedom and happiness of women. Whose path is the shorter and whose means the more certain will be shown by life itself…
2. Feminism – a bourgeois women’s movement which sought equal rights for women within the framework of the bourgeois state. The feminists demanded that women be accorded the right to elect and be elected, the right to engage in commerce and business operations.
3. The Alliance for Female Equality – a feminist organisation formed in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century. The alliance demanded that women be given political equality and the right to enter various professions. The Alliance was dissolved after the defeat of the first Russian revolution of 1905-1907.
The Russian Women’s Mutual Aid Society – a bourgeois women’s organisation which was founded in 1899 and was exclusively of a charitable-cultural nature. Its members came from the intelligentsia – teachers, physicians, translators, etc., and it disseminated its ideas through such magazines as Zhenskoye Dyelo (The Women’s Cause) and Soyuz Zhenshchin (The Women’s Alliance).
4. The First All-Russia Women’s Congress, organised by bourgeois societies, took place in St Petersburg from 10 to 16 December, 1908. It was attended by 700 delegates, including a group of 45 women workers. The feminists, who organised the congress, intended to conduct it under the slogan: ‘The women’s movement should not be either bourgeois or proletarian, but a single movement animated by one spirit.’ In their speeches, the women worker delegates exposed the class-opposite nature of the proletarian and the bourgeois women’s movements. Despite the fact that they were in the minority, the women worker delegates were able to persuade the congress to adopt resolutions on the protection of female and child labour, on the protection of peasant mothers, and others. The women workers also introduced a resolution demanding universal, equal, direct and secret voting rights. The presidium refused to put foreward this resolution, and replaced it with another, drawn up in the liberal-bourgeois spirit. The group of women-worker delegates then left the congress in protest.
Kollontai was one of the organisers in charge of preparatory work with the women worker delegates prior to the congress, in which she herself took an active part. A speech which she had prepared was read at the congress by V. I. Volkova, a woman worker, as Kollontai had been forced to flee abroad as a result of police surveillance.
5. Cf.T. Schlesinger-Eckstein, Women at the Beginning of the 2Oth Century, P. 38 – in Russian. – A.K.
6. Cf. Prof. Y. Pirstorf, Women’s Labour and the Women’s Question, St Petersburg, 1902, p. 27 (in Russian). – A.K.
7. Statistical Handbook, Issue III, 1908 (in Russian). – A.K.
8. In 1881 in St Petersburg there were 27 women living by their own labour for every 100 men; in 1890 there were 34 women, and by 1900 this figure had risen to 40. (Levikson-Lessing, On the Employment of Women in St Petersburg According to the Censuses of 1881, 1890 and 1900, pp. 141-147-in Russian.) – A.K.
9. Prior to this, starting from 1898, there existed only the annual Zhensky kalendur (Woman’s Almanac). The magazine Zhenskoye dyelo (The Women’s Cause) appeared for only two years and was replaced in 1904 by the feminist Zhensky vestnik (Woman’s Herald). This was replaced in turn by the magazine Soyuz zhenshchin (Women’s Alliance). – A.K.
10. This is a reference to the abolition of serfdom in Russia in 1861 by the tsarist government, which was compelled to introduce this reform as a result of economic development within the country, and the increase of large-scale peasant actions caused by landowner exploitation of peasant serfs. The objective result of the ‘Peasant Reform’ was, as Lenin wrote, the replacement of one form of exploitation by another, the replacement of serfdom by capitalism.
11. According to Russian legislation a woman, on attaining her majority, is considered fully competent in law: she may undertake civil actions in her own right, become the guardian even of non-relatives, be a witness, etc. The woman disposes of her own property, even if she marries, as the law recognises the independent property rights of each marriage partner. The guardianship of the husband over the wife, as is practised, for example, in France, does not exist in Russia. Only in matters of inheritance is the woman discriminated against in law as compared to the man: in the direct line of descent the daughter inherits only 1/14 of the fixed and 1/7 of the moveable property, while in the collateral line of descent the rights of the women are even fewer. – A.K.
12. Raznochintsy – people from various social strata who, having acquired education, changed their previous social milieu, that of low-ranking civil servants, the petty bourgeoise, merchants, clergy and peasants. With the development of capitalism, the number of raznochintsy increased. Lenin described them as ‘the educated representatives of the liberal and democratic bourgeoisie’.
13. Cf the chapter ‘Women’s Societies and Their Objectives’ in the book The Women’s Movement by Kechedzhi-Shapovalova (in Russian) – A.K.
14. ‘The tasks facing the first congress of Russian women include philanthropy and education. Russian women have long been active in both these spheres, and are therefore able to speak on both issues. (Zhensky vestnik, No. 1 1905.) – A.K.
15. This is a reference to 9 January, 1905, when tsarist troops fired on a peaceful demonstration by workers who were taking a petition to the tsar. More than one thousand people were killed, and two thousand were wounded. This marked the beginning of the first bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia of 1905-1907.
16. Cf Female Equality, Reports and Minutes, 1906 (in Russian). – A.K.
17. The Union of Unions – a political organisation set up by the liberal-bourgeois intelligentsia in May, 1905, at the first congress of representatives of 14 unions: lawyers, writers, physicians, engineers, teachers and others. The congress demanded that a Constituent Assembly be convened on the basis of universal suffrage.
In the spring of 1906, the Women’s Progressive Party was formed from among the right wing of the Union of Unions, and became the mouthpiece for the demands and requirements of women from the big bourgeoisie. The party programme was clearly feminist in orientation. The Union of Unions was dissolved at the end of 1906.
18. This party put out the Zhensky vetsnik (Woman’s Herald), edited by the woman physician M.I. Pokrovskaya. – A.K.
19. The Party of Peaceful Renovation – a moderate-liberal party. Its main aims were: a legal ‘solution’ to the labour problem, and the resettlement of peasants with insufficient land. In 1907 the Party of Peaceful Renovation merged with the Party of Democratic Reforms.
20. ‘A distinctive feature of the Women’s Political Club was its genuinely democratic organisation, which was achieved firstly, by the fact that all meetings were open to anyone who wished to attend, and the entry charge was minimal – 2 kopecks; secondly, by the fact that every group of 25 members, organised according to political party or profession, could have a representative on the management committee to defend its interests.’ (Cf ‘The Women’s Political Club’, article by M. Margulies, in Zhensky kalendar – Woman’s Almanac for 1907.) – A.K.
21. It must, however, be noted to its credit that the Women’s Political Club attempted to organise in St Petersburg the first political clubs for women industrial workers. In the spring of 1906 there were four such clubs, among which the Vasilyeostrovsky was particularly active. It organised lectures and discussions intended to stimulate the interest of working women in the political life going on around them. Together with the other three clubs, it was closed down by the police after only six weeks, following the dissolution of the First Duma. The Women’s Political Club also ceased to exist. – A.K.
22. The Trudoviks – a group of petty-bourgeois democrats formed in April, 1906, from among the peasant delegates to the First State Duma (a representative legislative institution set up by the tsar following the ]905-1907 revolution). The Trudoviks demanded the abolition of all estate and national restrictions, the democratisation of the Zemstvo and city self-administration, and the introduction of universal suffrage for elections to the State Duma. The group existed up to 1917.
23. The very principle of equality is viewed by each group of women according to the social stratum to which it belongs. Women of the big bourgeoisie, who are coming to suffer more and more from property inequality in Russia, for example, in the laws of inheritance – are concerned primarily to secure the removal from the civil code of those clauses inimical to women’s interests. For women from the middle bourgeoisie, equality hinges on ‘freedom to work’. However, both recognise the need to secure the right to have a voice in the running of the country, as without this no achievement, no reform, is secure. Hence the focal point has been shifted to the struggle for political equality. – A.K.