How Women Workers in Russia Sparked a Revolution
International Women’s Day in 2017 is the most politicized in years, with marches and strikes organized around the world. Haymarket’s Dana Blanchard looks back to when, a century ago today, such action set off a chain of events that would culminate in the world’s first proletarian revolution.
One of the greatest lessons the Russian state learned on March 8, 1917 was never to underestimate the women of Petrograd. On that fateful morning, International Women’s Day, women workers threw down their tools and walked out of the factories and into the streets. They were met by thousands more women, many of them soldiers’ wives tired of watching their children slowly starve, who were protesting the endless war and the long bread lines that had been a feature of the city since the war began in 1914. This was a powerful economic and political statement—women workers were 47 percent of the workforce in Petrograd at the time—and inspired male workers to walk off the job too, effectively shutting down the city’s economy and putting the government of Tsar Nicholas II on notice that the women and the workers wanted fundamental change.
While the actions of women on March 8 seemed to many to be spontaneous, they were actually part of a rich tradition of women workers organizing in the textile industries, combined with the struggle of women demanding equal rights and greater access to social services. Case in point, this was not the first International Women’s Day protest that had occurred in Russia. Women first recognized the day in 1913 by leading mass marches in cities across the country demanding the right for women to vote.
Beginning in the late 1800s, women had been consistently organizing not only for suffrage, but also for access to education and an end to the oppressive system of passports that required women to be accompanied by a male relative any time they traveled or changed jobs. Women workers, in particular, also frequently resisted on the job, as Alexandra Kollontai noted in her 1926 book Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman:
“At the end of the 1890s and the beginning of the 20th century there were a number of disturbances and strikes at factories employing mainly women: at tobacco-processing factories (Shanshai), at spinning and weaving mills (Maxwell) in Petrograd, etc. The working-class movement in Russia is gaining strength, organizing itself, taking shape. So also is class resistance among the female proletariat.”
The severe lack of food available to the poor was an additional catalyst for the actions on March 8. As the social crisis deepened during WWI, shortages of food led to riots. In more than one instance, women broke the windows of bakeries, took the bread inside and delivered it to the crowds in the streets. During the war years, women in Petrograd could spend up to ten hours a day roaming the city, waiting in lines for bread only to be given enough to last a family a day or two. The tsarist secret police had in a way predicted this would one day explode, warning that it was women—mothers of families, exhausted from the long lines at shops and suffering at the sight of their half-starved, ill children—that formed a “mass of flammable material which needs only a spark for it to burst into flames.”
While the actions of women on March 8 were not totally unexpected, what was perhaps surprising was the way in which the women’s strike, bread riots and antiwar demonstrations exploded into a cohesive mass strike across Petrograd that lasted several days and ended up forcing the Tsar to abdicate.
As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the end of tsarism in Russia, let us not forget that it was women who led the charge, and who will be the backbone of movements for economic and political justice in the struggles of today as well.