This post earned a “red star” award from the editorial team.
We hear discussions about gender a lot today, what it means to be masculine, to be feminine, the difference between gender and sex, and how social construction influences these things. But this isn’t a new topic or discussion. While the narratives may change, throughout history people have been told what it means to be a “good” man or woman. But what happens when the definition you grew up internalizing changes? Or when society tells you that you should be aspect 1 and aspect 2, but these ideas seem contradictory? The story of women in Russian society during the 1930s tells this tale.
The 1930s were a conflicting time for women in Russia, in some ways they had more freedom than they previously had, but in others new restrictions were being put in place. The differences between men and women in society were decreasing in some ways, “between 1926 and 1939, the literacy rate among rural females aged 9-49 in the Russian republic increased from 39 percent to 80 percent. Fifty percent of the students enrolled in rural secondary schools in the Russian republic in 1939 were girls” (Clements 217). The Five Year Plan and Soviet ideals meant that the ideal “Soviet women” would be a productive working member of society. While most women were still working jobs in, “clerical work, education, food service, and textiles, which were paid less than male preserves like metalworking” there were women who entered fields that had been predominantly male, like engineering and press operating (Clements 213). The photo I chose is actually from 1942, however it connects to the idea that the Soviet government “conducted campaigns to move women into better jobs, the most famous of which was the effort to sign them up as tractor drivers (Clements 218). These women were supposed to be working members of society contributing to the financial welfare of the state, while still doing their reproductive “duty”. For example, “Occupations that were judged detrimental to women’s reproductive health…were closed to them” (Clements 213).
Not only were Soviet women expected to match their male counterparts in the workforce, “the leadership [Soviet] also felt it necessary to address itself to the domestic side of women’s lives, and so its spokespeople began encouraging wives to create cozy homes, teach socialist values to their children, and provide emotional support to their husbands” (Clements 222). A law created in 1936 entitled “On the Protection of Motherhood and Childhood” tightened rules surrounding divorce and prohibited abortions in almost all cases (Siegelbaum). Included in the divorce regulations, was the increase of cost of divorce and requiring that both spouses be present at court in order to divorce (Clements 225). The new law also promoted women having more and more children (due to a decreased birth rate in Russia at the time) by giving a stipend to mothers with seven or more children (Clements 225). The law also restricted abortion to only those expectant mothers who would perish if they did not abort, many women had serious issues with this new law, “Working class women did so because they said they were too poor to support many children. Better-educated, more economically secure women argued that they should be permitted to limit their childbearing in order to work outside the home and thereby emancipate themselves” (Clements 225).
The women of the 1930s faced an interesting dichotomy in femininity: to be a strong and helpful worker, and to be a homemaker who constantly had children to support the Soviet regime. It makes me wonder what I would have done if I had been in their shoes.
Clements, B. E. (2012). A history of women in Russia: From earliest times to the present. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Accessed March 18, 2018
Siegelbaum, Lewis. “Abolition of Legal Abortion” Soviethistory.MSU.edu http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1936-2/abolition-of-legal-abortion/ Accessed March 18, 2018
WWII Russia Women at Work. (1942). AP Images .http://www.apimages.com/metadata/Index/Watchf-AP-I-RUS-APHSL39959-WWII-Russia-Women-At-Work/3e7d486373af4509b2a7b51d37fd683c/1/0. Photo. Accessed March 18, 2018