On ‘Women and Communism’, by Alun Thomas

On 3rd December 2014 I organised an afternoon workshop at which speakers were invited to present on the topic of ‘Women and Communism’ at the University of Sheffield.  I’d not anticipated quite how much work would go in to holding an event like this, but attendance was gratifyingly high.

Las trece rosas

Wikimedia Commons

As I said when welcoming everyone to the event, despite studying Soviet history at doctoral level now for over three years, I’d still blush if someone were to ask me to define Communism. Most likely I’d take the coward’s way out and answer that question with more questions: what kind of Communism? Communism in theory or Communism as practiced? When and where, and according to whom? Very often this kind of obfuscation is code for ‘I don’t know’.

This brings me to my reasons for organising the event. Sometimes it’s easier to understand something if we talk not about what it is, but what it does. Perhaps, I thought, a good way to learn about Communism would be to hear more about what the ideology did, historically, to or for women, and what women did to or for the ideology.

Why women? As I have seen in my own research, Communism originated in a particular collection of dissatisfactions with prevailing political and economic circumstances. These frequently (though not always) included animosity towards conventional gender relations. When communists came to power, they often sought to effect changes in the status of women that were as radical as any reforms to the economy or political system.

Our guest speakers at the event all gave excellent papers, with topics ranging from female Soviet citizens who corresponded with the Communist Party; women in the writing of the Turkish far left; Communist women in the prisons of Franco’s Spain; and left-wing British feminists responding to Nazism. Far be it from me to summarise any one of these talks, I have made so bold as to draw up some general, personal observations:

  • First, there may be ample irony in having a man supervise and summarise an event on ‘Women and Communism’, but there is also ample historical precedent, even in communist circles.
  • Communism has, at times, been staggeringly prescient (rather than ‘ahead of its time’, which intimates a value judgement). Many of the policies related to women endorsed by Communists early in the 20th Century would not become associated with other political creeds until decades later, but are now mainstream.
  • On the other hand, Communism seems to have been consistently blind, across cultures and periods, to particular aspects of the female experience which we might nowadays deem obvious. In particular, the Communist’s faith in the emancipatory power of material equality would likely today be considered of secondary importance to issues of sexual conduct, courtesy and domestic duty, which were not always prioritised in Communism.
  • Though Communism is not inherently a feminist movement, it has at times acted as a powerful political alternative to explicitly misogynistic ideologies. It is perhaps Communism’s maximalist critique of the status quo which has placed it in direct contention with Fascism and other reactionary phenomena emphasising tradition and hierarchy.
  • Given the diversity of topics under discussion on the 3rd, it is natural to remark also on the variation of Communist thinking in the 20th Century alone. Nevertheless, communist thinking also seems to have been more consistent across cultures and spaces than I would have expected.

Looking back on the workshop, I feel I’m slightly closer now to a working definition of Communism, aided by my newly gained knowledge of the movement’s effect on women in the 20th Century.

I’ve learnt too that next time I have a pressing question, organising an event at which other scholars can tell me the answer will likely be the most expedient solution!

The ‘Women and Communism’ Workshop took place on 3rd December and included the following papers:

Hannah Parker – ‘The Expression of Unhappy Emotions in Women’s Correspondence with the Soviet State, 1920-1941’
Alun Thomas – ‘The Red Yurts: Educating Women in Soviet Kazakhstan’
Michael Erdman – ‘Women as a Measure of Modernization in the Writings of Turkish Maoists, 1971-1980’
Ruth Littlewood – ‘Emblematic Figures in the Life Writing of Female Communist Prisoners in Spain’
Julie Gottlieb – ‘British Women’s War on Fascism’

Hannah Parker, the first speaker, also reflects on the day:

‘My thesis examines the ways in which women in the Soviet Union in the 20s and 30s responded to the ’emancipation’ of women by the state, considering the language they use in letters to the state, and what this can tell us about their perceptions of their own identity as women, and what they understood the ‘new Soviet woman’ to be. Being mid-way through my primary research process, Women and Communism was a really good opportunity to discuss my findings so far for one of the chapters of my thesis, on women’s negative emotions in their correspondence with the Soviet state in the 20s and 30s; how women appeared to cope with and legitimise these emotions in a state which only really recognised progress and happiness as part of the Soviet project, and different tactics that were taken to communicate negative emotions to state organs and officials. Presenting at the event was a great opportunity to contextualise my findings about women’s experiences of communism, and I was interested to see the similarities in how women were treated by the discourses across different regimes, as well as the opportunities this presented women for participation. For me, a particularly striking example of this was the apparent persistence of essentialised conceptions of gender – something which formed a strong thread through each of the papers of the day.’

Women and Communism

Women at work in a large textile factory. Picture extracted from the article ‘Woman at Work’ on the much improved participation of women in work after the October Revolution.
“Женский журнал” (Women’s Journal), 1928.

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2 Responses to On ‘Women and Communism’, by Alun Thomas

  1. ninaschmidt says:

    Thank you for an interesting post, Alun; makes me all the more sad I missed the event itself! I seem to be vaguely aware that there were a number of women/ feminists in the 1970s and 80s in Germany who felt excluded from men’s debates on politics, esp. communism. Verena Stefan (based in West-Berlin at the time) and Christa Reinig (GDR) are just two names of female authors that come to mind here for criticising the Left’s sexism at the time. Was this different elsewhere in Europe? Were women elsewhere more welcome to participate in communist/ political circles? I get that impression from your post, but don’t know much about it!

  2. Alun says:

    Hi Nina, thanks for your comment!

    From my very partial knowledge, there was considerable variation in the inclusion of women in Communist movements. I’ve yet to come across a Communist group which did not at least pay lip service to the betterment and empowerment of women (Michael Erdman’s paper was particularly interesting in this regard) but on a practical level women were not always able to participate fully.

    Given the disparity between rhetoric and practice, you might say this is the principles of the ideology in competition with the social realities of the movement. In the early Soviet Union, for example, all Party branches formally endorsed gender parity, but their passion for it often depended on the nationality they represented.

    Speculating further, another variable might be the nature of Communism on offer. At times Communism has been more of a cultural movement, emphasising praxis and sharing features with Anarchism, and here women may have been more explicitly included. At other times Communism has been a more theoretical, economic body of ideas, in which case perhaps women’s historically lower levels of education may have meant that they were perceived to have nothing to contribute.

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