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Woman on the March

Remembering Alexandra Kollontai on International Women’s Day.

Alexandra Kollontai (center) with female deputies at the Conference of Communist Women of the Peoples of the East, circa 1920

Alexandra Kollontai was an influential communist revolutionary, political activist and later a People’s Commissar for Social Welfare – the first woman to hold such a high-ranking governmental position. A champion of women’s equality, Kollontai wrote extensively on political, sexual, family issues and developed her own concept of the “new woman” in line with Marxist feminist thought, which prioritized a woman’s personal liberation, be it sexual, psychological or social, through work and self-discipline.

Coincidentally, it was International Women’s Day that made tremendous social transformations possible in Russia. Its annual celebration was established in August 1910 at the Copenhagen International Women’s Conference, where female delegates from 17 countries agreed upon this idea as a strategy to promote equal rights including suffrage for women. 

Seven year later, on the last Thursday of February (which fell on March 8 on the Gregorian calendar) Russian women gathered on the streets of Petrograd to protest and strike for “Bread and Peace,” demanding an end to World War I and food shortages. These demonstrations led to the mass strike and initiated the Russian Revolution: just seven days later emperor Nicholas II abdicated the throne and a provisional democratic government was established.

After the October Revolution, Alexandra Kollontai, a close friend of Vladimir Lenin and a loyal Bolshevik, became one of the Soviet ministers. In 1919 she initiated the foundation of the Zhenotdel, a full-fledged department of the Russian Communist Party devoted to women’s affairs. While it was tasked primarily with improving women’s living conditions in the Soviet Union through education and literacy campaigns, among other things, Zhenotdel officials managed to secure state legalization of abortions – a first in world history. 

Much of their effort was also directed at educating Muslim women of Soviet Central Asia, who were instructed on their new rights as well as the marriage, education and working laws that had been put in place after October Revolution. At the 1920 Conference of Communist Women of the Peoples of the East, where the photograph above was likely taken, Kollontai affirmed the necessity of economic and cultural liberation of eastern women from “the vestiges of enslaved conditions” by attracting them to trade unions, establishing schools and clubs as well as propagandizing the ideas of self-emancipation and communist values among them.