Stalin and women: this conjunction usually evokes salacious details of Stalin’s somewhat active life as a young man, leaving a number of offspring across Russia. But in this he was no different from many other young Georgian males.
Far less known is the way he came to see, later in life, the importance of socialism for women. On many occasions, he addressed women’s congresses, let alone framing the Constitution of the USSR (1936 revision) to address explicitly equality of the sexes. Article 132 of what has been called an ‘affirmative action’ constitution reads:
Women in the U.S.S.R. are accorded equal rights with men in all spheres of economic, state, cultural, social and political life. The possibility of exercising these rights is ensured to women by granting them an equal right with men to work, payment for work, rest and leisure, social insurance and education, and by state protection of the interests of mother and child, prematernity and maternity leave with full pay, and the provision of a wide network of maternity homes, nurseries and kindergartens.
They often struggled to live up to ideals expressed and often acted hypocritically, as Alexandra Kollontai points out, but you can’t fault the ideals. Needless to say, the USSR is usually written out of the history of feminism – as with so many other matters. As the constitution was in its final stages of being formulated, Stalin addressed a gathering of collective farm women shock workers. His speeches at earlier women’s congresses may have been somewhat patronising, but here the issue of socialism and women gains clear expression:
Comrades, what we have seen here today is a slice of the new life we call the collective life, the socialist life. We have heard the simple accounts of simple toiling people, how they strove and overcame difficulties in order to achieve success in socialist competition. We have heard the speeches not of ordinary women, but, I would say, of women who are heroines of labour, because only heroines of labour could have achieved the successes they have achieved. We had no such women before. Here am I, already 56 years of age, I have seen many things in my time, I have seen many labouring men and women. But never have I met such women. They are an absolutely new type of people. Only free labour, only collective farm labour could have given rise to such heroines of labour in the countryside. (Works, vol. 14, p. 85).
This picture comes from the gathering itself:
Not a few posters were produced on a similar theme, such as this one for the actual congress: