Women Workers Struggle For Their Rights: In Place of a Foreword (1918)

Three Woman Figures
Kazimir Malevich, “Three Woman Figures” (1930).

The following prefatory material to Alexandra Kollontai’s Women Workers Struggle For Their Rights, first published as a collection in 1918, was translated by Celia Britton for a 1971 edition of the text from Falling Wall Press. That edition included the full text of the original pamphlet along with an introduction by Sheila Rowbotham and notes by Suzie Watkins.

This pamphlet I am publishing is not new. It is a reprint of my articles which were published before the war. But the question of organization which was put at the Congress of Women Workers brings onto the agenda of our party work a means of agitation among the mass of working women in order to draw them into the Party and thus prepare new forces for the construction of Communist Russia.

Meanwhile we are suffering from an acute lack of material, which could help our party comrades who are involved now in the organization of the commission for agitation and propaganda among women workers by giving them access to information about the history of the socialist movement of women workers and about how and what was done in the field of organization of the women proletariat in other countries. The poverty of our party literature on this particular question obliges me to agree to the reprint in hurried format of my previous articles without being able to rework them. If I were to write again on these same facts I would evaluate many of them differently. The war and world revolution have brought essential changes in the character and form of all workers’ communist movements; ‘the ideal type’ of German party work, adapted exclusively to the period of peaceful parliamentary activity, has ceased to be a model for us. 1 The revolutionary struggle has generated new problems, new fighting methods of work. The war and the revolution have shaken what seemed to be the most stable foundations of life. And also, the position of woman has changed before our eyes.

Up until the war, the process whereby women were drawn into the people’s economy was carried out with considerably less speed than it has been for these last four and a half years of feverishly rapid development and the growth of female labour in all fields of industrial life. The old family, too, seemed firm and unshakeable; the Party had to fight against its way of life and traditions every time it wanted to bring the woman worker into the class struggle. The fact that housework was dying out and the transition to the state education of children, were regarded not as mature, living, practical problems of the present day, but as a ‘historical tendency’, as a lengthy process. The feelings of the women workers were strongest in the economic field – the inequality of men’s and women’s pay – and in the political field – the absence of voting rights and the inequality in citizenship.

This inequality, on economic and political grounds, together with the enslavement of the woman to her family and the running of the house, created a psychological division between men and women workers, and provided the soil from which grew those independent organizations of women workers which sprang up in all countries alongside the general workers’ socialist parties, in the form of societies or unions of women workers, clubs and so on. The more actively the socialist parties became engaged in the business of propaganda amongst women workers, the quicker these specialized organizations for women workers died out. 2

But only a radical change in the whole existence of the working class woman, in the conditions of her home and family life, as she acquires equal status with men in civil law will wipe out once and for all the barrier which to this day prevents the woman worker letting her forces flow freely into the class struggle.

The war provided an impulse towards a radical break in the social position of women. It remains for the revolution to complete this task. The war drove the ‘wet-nurse’ to the front; ninety women out of a hundred were forced to provide for themselves and their children. The problem was becoming acute: what to do with the children of all those millions of women who had to spend the greater part of their day in preparing military supplies – grenades, shrapnel and bullets? It was in this way that the question had to be posed – not as a theoretical problem and not as something desirable in the remote future, but as a practical measure: state security for maternity and childhood. The capitalist class governments were forced to worry about the fate of the ‘soldier children’ and unwillingly, and half-heartedly, they brought about a situation in which the care of children is the responsibility of the state.

The departure of bridegrooms and fiancés to the war, and the woman’s fear for the fate of her loved one, provided a natural reason for the increased number of babies born outside marriage. And once again the bourgeois capitalist state was forced, under the pressure of war, to inflict upon itself a blow, to encroach upon one of its most sacred rights – on the prerogative of legal marriage. It was forced for the sake of the soldiers’ well being to make equal under the law both legal and extra-marital mothers and children. Germany, France and England were eventually forced to this revolutionary act.

The war not only disrupted the sanctity and stability of the indissoluble church marriage, but also encroached on yet another of the foundations of the family-housework. Rising prices, queues which exhausted the housewife, the system of delaying stocktaking until supplies had run out-all this led to a situation in which the women themselves hastened to do away with the domestic hearth, preferring to use communal facilities.

The work of destroying the social slavery of women as it was then, was carried through by the great workers’ revolution. Women workers and peasants participated in the great liberating struggle on an equal footing with men. The former specializations of the female sex collapsed as the social structure rocked on its twin pillars, private property and class government. The great fire of the world uprising of the proletariat called woman from her baking tins into the arena of the barricades, the fight for freedom. Woman ceased to feel secure in her own home, alongside her familiar flagstones, drinking troughs and cradles, when all around bullets were whistling and, amazed, she heard the cry of the worker fighters: ‘To arms, comrades! All of you who cherish your freedom, who have grown to hate the chains of slavery and deprivation of civil rights! To arms, workers, to arms, women workers! …’

The revolution accustomed women workers to great mass movements, to the struggle for the realization of communism. The revolution in Russia won full political equality and equality of citizenship for women. The revolution fulfilled the demands of women workers from all countries: equal pay for equal work. The revolution made it impossible for women ever again to be tied to their families. 3 The revolution also abolished the previous forms of workers’ movements, which had been shaped by the age of peaceful parliamentary rule. We are cut off from the period of the Second International not only by four years, but a whole geological shift in the field of social and economic relations. 4

And from this point of view, many of the articles printed here are out of date. But the main issue is not out of date. It is still very much alive. That fundamental theme which I have tried to make the main thread running through these articles-namely, the necessity of special work among the women proletariat, separate within the party framework, and the setting up in the Party of a special party machine – a commission, bureau or group – for this purpose.

However profound are the changes which have been accomplished be-fore our eyes in the life and economic structure of our country, brought about by the war and the revolution, however far Soviet Russia has marched forward along the road to communism, the legacy of the capitalist order has still not been eradicated; the conditions of life, the working class family’s way of life, the traditions which hold captive the mind of woman, the servitude of housework – all these have still not died away. And in so far as all the factors which prevented a working class woman from taking an active part in the liberating movement of the proletariat before the war are still operative, in so far as even now the Party still has to take into account both the political backwardness of women, and the bondage of the woman worker to her family, so the necessity of intensive work among the women proletariat, with the help of a party machine set up specifically for this purpose, remains as pressing as ever.

The setting up of a commission for agitation and propaganda among women workers in the centre and in the provinces will undoubtedly speed up this work. There was a time when the thought of specialised work within the Party, which I had been advocating since 1906, met with opposition even among my own comrades. But now, after the decision carried by the All Russian Congress of Women Workers and approved by the Party, it only remains for us to get down to its practical implementation. Our Party does not allow a separate women’s movement or any independent unions or societies of women workers, but it has never denied the efficacy of a division of labour within the Party and the setting up of such special party machines as would promise to increase the number of its members or deepen its influence among the masses.

At the moment Soviet Russia is in need of many new fresh forces both for the struggle with the enemy and for the construction of the communist society. 5 To create, to educate these forces from the many millions of the female working population – such are the tasks of the party commission for agitation and propaganda among women workers.

I would hope that this pamphlet might serve as some guidance for those of my comrades who intend to devote themselves to work among the female proletariat in particular. I hope that they will get from it the certainty that in taking upon themselves this difficult and sometimes thankless work, they are serving not the idea of the ‘specialization’ of women, not a narrowly feminine business, but the whole task of building a united, strong, world-wide workers’ party which before our very eyes is achieving the bright new world of international communism.

This article is part of a dossier entitled “Comrades, Rally Around Your Soviets!”: The Centenary of the October Revolution.


1 Kollontai is referring here to the First World War and the changes brought about in the international socialist movement by the war and the Russian revolution. Before the First World War, all the socialist parties were organized in the Second International. In 1918, when this pamphlet was published, negotiations for affiliation to the Third International were underway. This Third Communist International (the Comintern) was initiated by the Bolsheviks after the revolution, and European socialists at this time had to choose between two distinct forms of organizing. Those who continued their affiliation to the Second International were committed to socialism by reform, while those who joined the Third International were committed to socialism through revolution.
2 By “independent organizations of women workers” she means organizations outside the socialist parties. The “special organizations” to which she refers are these same organizations, not the separate women’s sections within the parties. This is made clear later in the pamphlet.
3 See Sheila Rowbotham’s introduction on Kollontai’s underestimation of the resilience of old attitudes and culture.
4 See note 1 above.
5 I.e., the White Russians and the foreign interventionist troops (including troops sent by England, which were used both to fight against the Red Army and to train the White Russian forces).

Author of the article

(1872-1952) was a Russian social democratic revolutionary who participated as a Bolshevik in the events of 1917 and subsequently worked in the Soviet government. She published extensively on party strategy, the "women's question," and communist social policy. She also wrote The Workers Opposition (1921), in defense of the soon-banned faction of the same name, as well as Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman (1926).