Review of Women at the Gates

Review of Women at the Gates: Gender and Industry in Stalin’s Russia

[This is a re-upload of an old article. We have edited it slightly. It fits the occasion of International Women’s Day a few days ago.]

Prairie Fire

Goldman describes the complex contradictions of Soviet society during the Stalin era, especially in regards to women. She describes the conflict between those who wanted the party to focus on byt or lifestyle issues for females and those who wanted to place byt issues on the back-burner and focus exclusively on the economy. Eventually, Stalin would solve byt problems and production problems together.

The adoption of the first five year plan encouraged those who wanted to focus on the transformation of byt. Feminist activists were joined by planners, writers and architects in imagining a world transformed by socialist industrialization. Activists spoke of the need for public housing where traditional women’s work was socialized by means of common dining halls, day cares and laundries. Feminist activists put byt at the forefront of the party’s agenda. Ultimately, it would be Stalin’s five year plans that opened the gates of power for females.

One particularly interesting struggle is the struggle between the unions, under Tomsky, and the feminist movement. The union workers wanted to keep their status as “pure proletarian” to the exclusion of other groups: non-traditional workers, females and the declassed from the countryside. This had the objective effect of keeping power in the hands of traditional male Russians to the exclusion of females, non-Russians and the declassed. The unions argued that since it was a worker’s dictatorship, that the “pure proletarians” ought have disproportionate power. Now, not only did this exclude the majority of people from certain rights and representation, it also hindered economic growth. The economy was facing bizarre problems because the unions were making it difficult for females and other to get jobs reserved for “pure proletarians” only. The unions did this mostly through red tape and bureaucratic means. Eventually an underground economy evolved so that managers could match the ever growing labor demands due to the industrialization with un-enrolled laborers (females, those from the countryside, declassed elements). The party turned a blind eye. Due to the unions and their chauvinism, odd problems arose. For example, they were, in part, responsible for the odd situation of a labor shortage and unemployment problem at the same time.

So, on the one side there were feminist activists demanding the party address the problems of women. On the other side, were the unions protecting their status as “pure proletarians.” It was Stalin who widened the notion of proletarian in the Soviet Union in order to 1. solve economic problems of the labor shortage and unemployment. This also eliminated corruption and evolving black labor markets. And, 2. give women, non-Russians and the declassed, the autonomy, rights and power. Often times syndicalists make the criticism that “Stalin suppressed the independence of Unions” as though there was something undemocratic about that in itself. In fact, Stalin actually opened up the proletarian status and unions to the vast majority of people. This was very democratic.

The main problem with Goldman’s book is that it tacitly criticizes Stalin for not moving quickly enough on feminist issues and byt, problems eventually solved, to various extents, through industrialization and expanding access to political power. There are two things to say here. First, there were real contradictions involved. Stalin could not just “will” whatever he wanted; he could not create utopia with a magic wand. There were contradictions among the people that needed to be resolved. This takes time and struggle. Secondly, the book seems to imply that Stalin didn’t go far enough. However, if you look in the index, you find not a single reference to World War 2. Stalin could not risk totally alienating the unions or risking production setbacks. As he famously said, “we must industrialize in ten years or be annihilated.” Overall, the book is excellent in getting into the real complexities that Stalin faced. It is very useful in answering syndicalists. It also shows clearly how democratic the Stalin period was. Stalin opened up the gates of power to the vast majority, including females.

This book intersects well with another book that covers gender issues, the better known Sheila Fitzpatrick’s Everyday Stalinism. Stalin’s critics often say that he “strengthened the marriage laws” as a way of claiming that Stalin was somehow making a conservative turn and supporting patriarchy. As reported by Fitzpatrick, the real story is that there was grass roots support from females to strengthen these laws. In fact, the marriage laws were strengthened to prevent a soviet version of dead beat dads. The industrialization created great mobility and men would have several wives and forget their old families. Females generally welcomed the move to strengthen the laws. The party, still thinking of feminism in liberal terms, actually tailed behind on this issue. To understand these gender issues, one has to get beyond western liberal notions and look at the complex contradictions that actually existed in the Soviet Union. These books represent new scholarship on the topic of Stalin that should be studied by serious students of socialist history.

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