The Ultimate Teacher’s Guide: reviewing The Women’s Revolution: Russia 1905-1917 by Judy Cox9 min read
The Women’s Revolution by Judy Cox is a short primer on women of the Russian Revolution. Pocket-size and only 132 pages, it acts as an informative little pamphlet into some of the lesser-known heroes of the Russian Revolution. Some of the women that Cox includes in the book are Elena Stasova, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Inessa Armand, Sophie Krukovsky, Anna Jaclard, Elizabeth Dmitrieff, Vera Figner, Vera Zasulich, Feodosiya Drabkina, Maria Spiridonova, and Alexandra Kollontai – to name a few. Cox includes detailed biographies of many of these women organizers and writers at the end of the book.
Cox introduces the uprisings of the Russian Revolution by writing that “the 1904 war with Japan brought terrible conditions to the countryside and thousands of peasant women rebelled in what were sneeringly known as ‘Babi Bunti’: peasant women’s riots.” When 900,000 workers striked in the Vyborg District of Petrograd on International Women’s Day, they were told that protest was “‘not the business of Babas’.” Women were infantilized and belittled even as critical figures in organizing effective large-scale protests. Either they were pitted against each other the way Nadezhda Krupskaya and Inessa Armand were (as Lenin’s wife and possible lover) or reduced to cranky old grandmothers.
Cox writes that “the language used to describe socialist women is frequently steeped in sexist assumptions. Women revolutionaries are judged by how sexually attractive they were. Ugly old maids and irritating mothers-in-law are dismissed while the physical attributes of beautiful women are lingeringly dwelt on.” This could explain how a century later, why not many continue to be recognized for their accomplishments. This could explain why many were silenced early on for a gender-blind industrial workers-only narrative of the Russian Revolution.
The lives of Russian revolutionaries to counter neoliberalism
What I loved about this book is that it explores a revolutionary kind of feminism that is for everybody, not just the working woman. It is a critical lens for redefining the role of women in society. I would argue that a 21st-century approach to feminism, at least in the Western world, is about closing the pay gap and filling the ranks of leadership at important companies or nations as somehow the answer to misogyny. However, in what we have seen in the West is women in higher positions failing to adequately address basic material needs, through gross, often ironic, exploitation.
Is it really feminism when a woman president enacts austerity measures on her people? Is it really feminism when a female CEO exploits sweatshop workers or if a female Defense Attorney incarcerates parents for low-level drug offenses? Between 1914-1917, thousands of Russian women were thrusted into the industrial workforce to replace the men who were conscripted and while they rightly fought for paid leave, adequate working conditions, and rioted when there were food shortages- the neoliberal ideal of “men’s jobs are for women too!” seem a little misplaced.
In sharing the lives and works of these women, Cox writes that women in the villages and cities frequently organized uprisings when they observed a food shortage or the unnecessary military draft between 1905 and 1917. To say that women are acutely attuned to the needs of their children and families may seem antiquated, but Cox seems to suggest that that is exactly what women have done in all the rebellions of the Russian Revolution. Their earnest protection of the family, marriage, and schooling is exactly how they championed so many causes.
Nadezhda Krupskaya developed the first socialist public education model. Free and universal education was mandated for all children and “the number of schools at least doubled within the first two years of the revolution… for the first time, schools were created for students with learning and other disabilities. Literacy campaigns were launched… In the Red Army, illiteracy rates decreased from 50 percent to only 14 percent three years later.” Feminist policies are at the core, the most humane policies. Education, literacy, child labour, and rights for children should not solely be the plight of women, but rather, of society as a whole.
Much memorable legislation was enacted by women, with a demand to create the legal precedent for they yearned for in and out of the household. In April of 1917, the first All Russian Muslim Women’s Congress took place, with 59 delegates meeting in front of 300 women to debate sharia law, polygamy, and the role of the hijab. Cox goes on to describe that “six weeks after the revolution, civil marriage was legalized, and divorce was made legal and accessible for all… the couple could choose either surname when they married… allowed both spouses to retain the right to their own property and earnings, abolished all distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate children, and made divorce available… By 1920, Russian women had the right to abortion – 53 years before the USA and 47 years before Britain. The Ministry for the Protection of Maternity and Childhood included support for working mothers, including 16 weeks paid maternity leave.”
While some of this legislation might have been difficult to uphold, women were involved in every step of the decision-making process, especially in bringing these issues to light. However, Cox did not think that these policies constituted actual liberation. Actual freedom and feminism, in the context of The Women’s Revolution is freedom from domestic duties. That’s why the Provisional Government “launched a drive to create communal laundries and canteens to free women from the burden of washing. They established creches and schools to free women from childcare and enable them to participate in the workforce.” Such a communal-based program, if enacted today, would be absolutely life-changing for so many families.
Liberation for women is having adequate material resources to raise a thriving family. The women of the Russian Revolution were multifaceted in their numerous riots for a better life. A better life for them was a better life for everyone in their household. Patriarchal violence has no place in any home. Ending gender-based violence is one of the many steps towards smashing the patriarchy. I do hope that given the advances of Russian revolutionaries, that a feminist future looks at including sex-workers, nonbinary women, and women of the Global South who may not be so-called productive to society.
Some remarks on the independent publishing of this book
Due to the nature of the editing, I found a few things confusing about Cox’s narrative. The information about Rabotnitsa throughout the book seemed contradictory. In chapter six, Cox writes about how the publication “Rabotnitsa (Women Worker) grew out of the Bolshevik paper Pravda when a special women’s issue was inundated with letters from women, expressing their grievances and demands… On the eve of publication, however, the police raided an editorial board meeting and arrested all the members except for Anna Ulyanova who arrived late for the meeting. Undeterred, she produced the first edition single-handedly. It sold out of 12,000 copies but the paper was definitively shut down in June after seven issues.” In chapter six, Cox writes that “the first issue of Rabotnitsa immediately sold out of 40,000 copies. Rabotnitsa rallies overflowed with thousands of women workers” and goes on to explain how Rabotnitsa worked as an organizing center. It’s unclear which issue of Rabotnitsa sold 12,000 (or 40,000 copies) and who was initially involved in the production.
A few other things about the book are disorienting for the reader. There are multiple typos and grammatical mistakes. With the nature of leftist literature, the emphasis is on spreading the information rather than polishing it in a professional way. Marx-style leaflets are anything but production from a buttoned-up publishing house. The mistakes in The Women’s Revolution were jarring at first, as most readers don’t expect spelling mistakes in a professionally published book. However, I still applaud Haymarket Books for editing and publishing such a great text, especially in the hyper-capitalist literary scene that is the United States.
Another aspect regarding professionalism is that the photos are inserted in the pages at random places, and not fluid within the text. They were also images from a simple Google search since photographers and archives were not credited, as well as they appeared pixelated and in poor resolution. Many were tilted in a different direction, in an aesthetically displeasing way for the reader. It reminded me of the awkward placement of images that most personal computer word processing programs generate.
Aesthetics aside, I still think it’s a great book with great potential as a teaching tool.
For teachers, by a teacher
Cox is a primary school teacher in London. I feel a kind of warm affiliation with Cox as I’m also a school teacher. The language is simple – no academic jargon or unnecessary facts. Each biography is simple and straight-to-the-point. For that reason, I think this would make a great teaching tool in a primary classroom, especially in assisting students to conduct research. The chapters are also short and the book ends with the biographies of many of the women introduced in the book.
Many fourth-grade classes where I first taught in Texas have a Live Museum project where students take on the identities of historical figures and “talk” as if they are those characters. This would make a great opportunity for students who want to choose a revolutionary woman as their character. Teachers can make the material accessible for fourth graders by only including pertinent facts.
Many twelfth-grade students in California take an Advanced Placement US History class simultaneously with an Advanced Placement English Literature class. This book could also serve as a tool for cross-curricular collaboration between teachers with turn-of-the-century literature at the age of industrialization, as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is already frequently taught in American classrooms.
Many students read Ten Days that Shook the World by John Reed as part of International Baccalaureate World History courses and this book serves as a counter-narrative to many of the mainstream accepted stories within that book. It certainly would make an easily digestible anecdote for students who may be critical of what is taught to them about Russia in World History courses, which we know to be dominant of Eurocentric patriarchal narratives.
I’ve used similar books in a Title I art classroom to make my curriculum more academically rigorous and expose students to more “heroes” outside of American figures. Students respond really well to women, especially political agitators, as many students already feel themselves a political dissident within the confines of traditional schooling. Russian history is very fascinating to American students, at least in my observations as a teacher.
The Women’s Revolution was a quick read and I’m interested in the instructional and elementary research capabilities of this short text. I hope to explore this text with students in the future, to use it as a springboard for further primary source research.
Book details: Cox, Judy. The Women’s Revolution: Russia 1905-1917, 2019. Haymarket Books. It is available to buy here.