Propaganda poster for international working women's day in Germany.

Women’s Emancipation: From Marx and Engels to the Russian Revolution

This article is part of an ongoing series on Marxism and the struggle against oppression:


Socialists have long been at the forefront of the struggle for gender equality. In fact, the utopian socialist Charles Fourier is credited with coining the term “feminism,” as far back as 1837. However, it was Marx and Engels who put socialism on a scientific basis and developed a materialist approach to the question of women’s emancipation.

The First International

In their writings and work, Marx and Engels showed that women’s oppression is a function of class society, and therefore, the struggle against women’s oppression must be an integral part of the struggle against capitalism. In the “Rules and Administrative Regulations” of the First International they explained, “That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves; that, the struggle for the emancipation of the working classes means not a struggle for class privileges and monopolies, but for equal rights and duties, and the abolition of all class rule.”

While fighting for reforms to improve conditions for working women and all of the oppressed, they always linked this to the broader labor movement and the struggle for socialism. Furthermore, they always took an internationalist approach and did not limit their perspectives to a particular layer of the workers in a particular country. Socialism must be international, or it is nothing.

Marx and EngelsMarx and Engels explained the role of the bourgeois family and women’s oppression under capitalism.

In theoretical writings such as The Communist Manifesto, Capital, and The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Marx and Engels traced the genesis of women’s oppression, which in the final analysis is the result of private ownership and control of the means of production. They explained how capitalist society depends on the bourgeois family for the reproduction of class relations, with the resultant subordination of women to men within it. This gives rise to double oppression of women as both workers and as women, and the specific forms this takes: sexualized violence, gender roles, and so on. The capitalists also use the (cheaper) labor of women, immigrants, and even children to divide the working class and drive down wages for all workers.

As they wrote in the Communist Manifesto:

The bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production are to be exploited in common, and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion than that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to the women. He has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.

Recent anthropological research has completely vindicated what Engels wrote nearly a century and a half ago in The Origin of the Family:

The overthrow of mother-right was the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude, she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children. This degraded position of the woman, especially conspicuous among the Greeks of the heroic and still more of the classical age, has gradually been palliated and glossed over, and sometimes clothed in a milder form; in no sense has it been abolished.

In their practical work in the First International, they fought for concrete reforms to improve the lives of all workers, and in particular, women workers and children. Marx’s daughter, Eleanor was a renowned and respected labor activist, focusing in particular on the conditions of women working in the cruelly exploitative sweatshops of London. She was personally involved in many of the key events during the rise of the British labor movement, including the London matchgirls’ strike in 1888.

The Socialist International

With the rise of the Second International, the “women’s question” was again an important focus both practically and theoretically. In his seminal work, Woman and Socialism, August Bebel wrote: “The Socialist Party is the only one that has made the full equality of women, their liberation from every form of dependence and oppression, an integral part of its program; not for reasons of propaganda, but from necessity. For there can be no liberation of mankind without social independence and equality of the sexes.” Bebel was also the first elected political figure in the world to come out publicly in favor of equal rights for homosexuals.

As Rosa Luxemburg explained, “Women’s suffrage is the goal. But the mass movement to bring it about is not a job for women alone but is a common class concern for women and men of the proletariat. Germany’s present lack of rights for women is only one link in the chain of the reaction that shackles the people’s lives.”

However, as the Second International degenerated into reformism and class collaboration, its approach to women’s emancipation was also transformed. Even before the social democracy’s abominable betrayal at the outbreak of World War I, the conflict between the proletarian wing and the liberal-reformist wing of the struggle for women’s rights—by that time already referred to as “feminists”—was evident.

Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg waged an implacable struggle
against reformism in the fight for women’s emancipation.

Clara Zetkin, a leading Marxist of the era fought against the reformists and liberals and unambiguously linked the struggle for women’s emancipation with socialism. She outlined her views powerfully in articles such as “The German Socialist Women’s Movement”:

The most prominent feature of the socialist women’s movement in Germany is its clearness and revolutionary spirit as to socialist theories and principles. The women who head it are fully conscious that the social fate of their sex is indissolubly connected with the general evolution of society, the most powerful moving force of which is the evolution of labor, of economic life. The integral human emancipation of all women depends in consequence on the social emancipation of labor; that can only be realized by the class war of the exploited majority.

Therefore, our socialist women oppose strongly the bourgeois women righters’ credo that the women of all classes must gather into an unpolitical, neutral movement striving exclusively for women’s rights. In theory and practice they maintain the conviction that the class antagonisms are much more powerful, effective and decisive than the social antagonisms between the sexes, and that thus the working-class women will never win their full emancipation in a struggle of all women without difference of class against the social monopolies of the male sex, but only in the class war of all the exploited, without difference of sex, against all who exploit, without difference of sex.

That does not mean at all that they undervalue the importance of the political emancipation of the female sex. On the contrary, they employ much more energy than the German women-righters to conquer the suffrage. But the vote is, according to their views, not the last word and term of their aspirations, but only a weapon—a means in struggle for a revolutionary aim—the socialistic order.

The socialist women’s movement in Germany is inspired with the monumental dictum of Karl Marx: ‘The philosophers hitherto have only interpreted the world in different ways; what has yet to be done is to change the world.’ It strives to help change the world by awakening the consciousness and the will of working-class women to join in performing the most Titanic deed that history will know: the emancipation of labor by the laboring class themselves.

Gains of the Russian Revolution

The victory of the Russian Revolution and the formation of the Third (Communist) International sent shockwaves around the world and again put women’s struggle on a clear proletarian footing. The February 1917 revolution that toppled the tsar and culminated in the overthrow of capitalism in Russia was initiated by women workers striking and demonstrating against the privations of World War I on International Working Women’s Day. This working-class holiday was created by the Socialist Party USA in 1910, in the aftermath of the “Great Revolt” strike of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) in New York City.

Among the first decrees of the new Bolshevik government were measures aimed at guaranteeing equality of the sexes and abolishing the centuries-old enslavement of women to their husbands and fathers. In 1919, the Communist Party Program declared, “The party’s task at the present moment is primarily work in the realm of ideas and education so as to destroy utterly all traces of the former inequality or prejudices, particularly among backward strata of the proletariat and peasantry. Not confining itself to formal equality of women, the party strives to liberate them from the material burdens of obsolete household work by replacing it with communal houses, public eating places, central laundries, nurseries, etc.”

This was a dramatic reversal from the state of affairs under tsarist law, which decreed: “The wife is held to obey her husband, as the head of the family, to remain with him in love, respect, unlimited obedience, to do him every favor, and show him every affection, as a housewife.”

First issue of Rabotnitsa, the Bolshevik newspaper aimed at organizing women workers in struggle against capitalism.First issue of Rabotnitsa, the Bolshevik magazine aimed at women workers.

Lenin and Trotsky were keenly aware of the decisive role of working women in the socialist revolution. Lenin had a lifelong, burning hatred of every kind of oppression, and although he acknowledged the role working men must play in easing the burden on women workers, even within the limits of capitalism, he also understood that real equality was impossible as long as society remained divided into classes.

Both before and after the revolution, the Bolsheviks produced special newspapers aimed at women workers, such as Rabotnitsa, in order to organize, broaden, and unite the workers in struggle against capitalism and cultural and economic backwardness. As Lenin explained in 1920 (as quoted by Clara Zetkin), “We must create a powerful international women’s movement, on a clear theoretical basis. There is no good practice without Marxist theory, that is clear. The greatest clarity of principle is necessary for us communists in this question.”

He continued:

Our ideological conceptions give rise to principles of organization. No special organizations for women. A woman communist is a member of the Party just as a man communist, with equal rights and duties. There can be no difference of opinion on that score. Nevertheless, we must not close our eyes to the fact that the Party must have bodies, working groups, commissions, committees, bureaus or whatever you like, whose particular duty it is to arouse the masses of women workers, to bring them into contact with the Party, and to keep them under Its influence. That, of course, involves systematic work among them. We must train those whom we arouse and win, and equip them for the proletarian class struggle under the leadership of the Communist Party. I am thinking not only of proletarian women, whether they work in the factory or at home. The poor peasant women, the petty bourgeois—they, too, are the prey of capitalism, and more so than ever since the war. The unpolitical, unsocial, backward psychology of these women, their isolated sphere of activity, the entire manner of their life—these are facts. It would be absurd to overlook them, absolutely absurd. We need appropriate bodies to carry on work amongst them, special methods of agitation and forms of organization. That is not feminism, that is practical, revolutionary expediency.

According to Nadezhda Krupskaya:

In the course of his revolutionary activities Lenin often wrote and spoke about the emancipation of working women in general and peasant women in particular. To be sure, the emancipation of women is inseparably bound up with the entire struggle for the workers’ cause, for socialism. We know Lenin as the leader of the working people, as the organizer of the Party and Soviet government, as a fighter and builder. Every working woman, every peasant woman must know about all that Lenin did, every aspect of his work, without limiting herself to what Lenin said about the position of working women and their emancipation. But because there exists the closest connection between the entire struggle of the working class and improving the position of women, Lenin often—on more than forty occasions, in fact—referred to this question in his speeches and articles, and every one of these references was inseparably bound up with all the other things that were of interest and concern to him at the time.

“Down with household slavery! Let there be a new way of life!”

The Bolsheviks were materialists and understood that theoretical exposition and progressive legislation were not enough. To this end, they took concrete measures to begin transforming the material conditions of life, and with this, human relations. As well as expanding access to education and healthcare, they worked to draw all layers of society into economic activity. Religious marriage was replaced by civil marriage, women were granted equality under matrimonial law, unwed mothers received special protections, and all children, whether legitimate or illegitimate, were given equal rights. Women were granted the right to vote, inheritance of property was abolished, and abortion was legalized. They even simplified the process for getting a divorce; all a person wanting one had to do was send a certificate in the mail. They also decreed that homosexual relationships and heterosexual relationships be treated exactly the same by the law.

They faced an uphill battle given the appalling cultural and material backwardness of the country. Nevertheless, they struggled energetically and made concrete advances. The following lyrics from a peasant song, popular in the early years of the revolution, give a glimpse into how structural changes altered the psychology of the masses: “Time was when my husband used his fists and force. But now he is so tender. For he fears divorce. I no longer fear my husband. If we can’t cooperate, I will take myself to court, and we will separate.”

“Equality in life”

In 1920, in the midst of a brutal civil war imposed by imperialism, elections to the Moscow Soviet proceeded as planned. Lenin’s advice to working women was as follows:

It is essential that women workers take a greater part in the elections. The Soviet government was the first and only government in the world to abolish completely all the old, bourgeois, infamous laws which placed women in an inferior position compared with men and which granted privileges to men, as, for instance, in the sphere of marriage laws or in the sphere of the legal attitude to children. The Soviet government was the first and only government in the world which, as a government of the toilers, abolished all the privileges connected with property, which men retained in the family laws of all bourgeois republics, even the most democratic. Where there are landlords, capitalists, and merchants, there can be no equality between women and men even in law. Where there are no landlords, capitalists, and merchants, where the government of the toilers is building a new life without these exploiters, there equality between women and men exists in law.

But that is not enough. It is a far cry from equality in law to equality in life. We want women workers to achieve equality with men workers not only in law but in life as well. For this, it is essential that women workers take an ever increasing part in the administration of public enterprises and in the administration of the state. By engaging in the work of administration, women will learn quickly, and they will catch up with the men. Therefore, elect more women workers, both Communist and non-Party, to the Soviet. If she is only an honest woman worker who is capable of managing work sensibly and conscientiously, it makes no difference if she is not a member of the Party–elect her to the Moscow Soviet. Let there be more women workers in the Moscow Soviet! Let the Moscow proletariat show that it is prepared to do and is doing everything for the fight to victory, for the fight against the old inequality, against the old, bourgeois, humiliation of women! The proletariat cannot achieve complete freedom unless it achieves complete freedom for women.

“Peasant and working women: to the polls! Women and men
together, under the red banner, make the Bourgeois tremble!”

As Trotsky explained:

The physical preparations for the conditions of the new life and the new family, again, cannot fundamentally be separated from the general work of socialist construction. The workers’ state must become wealthier in order that it may be possible seriously to tackle the public education of children and the releasing of the family from the burden of the kitchen and laundry. Socialization of family housekeeping and public education of children are unthinkable without a marked improvement in our economics as a whole. We need more socialist economic forms. Only under such conditions can we free the family from the functions and cares that now oppress and disintegrate it.

Washing must be done by a public laundry, catering by a public restaurant, sewing by a public workshop. Children must be educated by good public teachers who have a real vocation for the work. Then the bond between husband and wife would be freed from everything external and accidental, and the one would cease to absorb the life of the other. Genuine equality would, at last, be established. The bond will depend on mutual attachment. And on that account particularly, it will acquire inner stability, not the same, of course, for everyone, but compulsory for no one.

However, the revolution was isolated in a backward country in conditions of generalized scarcity. This made it impossible to solidify any of these gains and laid the basis for Stalinist degeneration. After the rise of Stalin, Trotsky fought until his dying breath against the degeneration of the Soviet Union and the Comintern. Stalinism was a political counterrevolution, and along with destroying workers’ democracy, it rolled back many of the gains made by women in the early years of the revolution. However, the potential for genuine women’s liberation under socialism was confirmed in practice, not only in theory.

As can be seen from this brief historical overview, Marxists have always fought shoulder to shoulder with the oppressed. Moreover, it is clear that all substantive advances in the fight for women’s emancipation have been the result of class struggle. It is no accident that women were conceded the vote in Britain and the US only after the Russian Revolution!

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