FiLiA 2017 conference presentation: “Unanimous in Our Enthusiasms”: Female Friendship in the Russian Revolutionary Movement

Well, FiLiA feminism conference 2017 is officially over. I think I’ve only just now recovered. It was incredible to be in such a female-driven space, and to speak as a peer among women whose research and passion I’ve admired for years. I remember staying up well into the night reading Sheila Rowbotham’s Women, Resistance, and Revolution, writing down relevant quotes for my forthcoming project. I never imagined then that I would meet Sheila, or that it would be as a fellow panelist on Revolutionary Women at the largest feminism conference in Europe. Truly, I am humbled – and inspired. (If one can be both at once, then I definitely am!)

Revolutionary Women Panel
Revolutionary Women panel, l to r: Nadia Plungian, Leda Garina, Rahila Gupta, Angelina Lesniewski, Sheila Rowbotham, and chairwoman Anna Zobnina.                                                       Photo credit: Pamela Grąsiorowski, European Network of Migrant Women

The conference ran on a tight timing schedule, so I wasn’t able to cover fully or at all some of the subjects I’d originally intended. So I thought I would post here a “best of both worlds” version: the research at its fullest, the fiction excerpt as strong as I can make it. Enjoy!

“Unanimous in Our Enthusiasms”: Female Friendship in the Russian Revolutionary Movement

title slide

Today I’m discussing sisterhood in the Russian revolutionary movement. Camaraderie, is, of course, a vital theme in revolutionary narratives, but typically in a masculine context. By not recognizing radical women and their support of one another, we not only misunderstand our history but lose out on models for our own personal relationships and public movements.

My research focuses on the often neglected women in the Russian revolution. For nearly 40 years, from the 1870s until 1917, women played important and varied roles for their parties and each other. Through political and personal turbulence, they were each other’s nurses, confidantes, theorists, and everything in between. I will discuss some of them today, before reading an extract from my novel which they inspired. But first, a quote.

“At meetings with men…women usually keep quiet; we feel shy, and so we don’t say anything. But maybe with practice we’ll learn to develop our thoughts logically, and then we won’t be afraid to speak in public. A woman’s circle would be a place where we could learn.”

bardina and figner
Sofia Bardina                                                                                         Vera Figner

Sofia Bardina mentioned a women’s study group to Vera Figner in 1872, highlighting the insecurity women can feel when speaking in front of men. Here, too, is the kernel, from the very beginning of the revolutionary era, of socialist feminism. Recognition that when women work, learn, and think together, they also nurture and inspire each other.

sophia_perovskaya
Sofia Perovskaya

From its inception as a study group to its final days as the organization responsible for assassinating Tsar Alexander II, Sofia Perovskaya was a member of Narodnaya Volya – and a leader.

Praskovia Ivanovskaia
Praskovia Ivanovskaya

Praskovia Ivanovskaya recalled meetings with her fondly, saying “Sofia always gave us a warm, friendly welcome; she acted as if we were the ones with stimulating ideas and news to share rather than the reverse.” Perovskaya understood the importance of boosting morale. When Lila Terenteva felt restricted by propaganda and asked for more dangerous assignments, “A shadow fell across Perovskaya’s weary face…then she tenderly stroked [Lila’s] ardent head [saying]: ‘Don’t think…that the press is any less necessary and valuable to the party’s work than throwing bombs.’” Perovskaya took on a dual role, political and pastoral, fostering both the emotional strength and the radical convictions of the women around her.

luibatovich gelfman
Olga Liubatovich                                                                                 Gesia Gelfman

This support went both ways. Olga Liubatovich shared a secret apartment with Mikhail Grachevsky and Gesia Gelfman. Soon after the failed attempt to blow up the Tsar’s train, Perovskaya appeared in their flat. “[She] was generally very reserved,” Liubatovich wrote, “but after Grachevsky left and she found herself alone with us women, the words began to spill out and she emotionally told us the story of the Moscow attempt…” To break down in front of a male comrade meant risking her authority. Only among the women did she feel sure of both respect and understanding. They happily gave both.

These are the foundations of the movement. Some even made these dynamics the lynchpin of their political platforms.

Alexandra Kollontai3
Alexandra Kollontai

Alexandra Kollontai became a socialist in the 1890s fighting what she deemed “bourgeois suffragettes” whose idea of enfranchisement extended only to women of their own privileged class. “For me,” Kollontai said, “‘what I am’ was always of less importance than ‘what I can’, that is to say, what I was in a position to accomplish. …I, too, had my ambition and it was…the abolition of the slavery of working women.” She took many roles in the movement: writer, strike organizer, speechmaker, stateswoman – championing the economic, social, and sexual rights of working women.

Global socialism also meant global feminism. During her near decade of self-exile, she collaborated with others in the socialist/feminist struggle around the world, even those with whom she often disagreed: Louise Bryant, Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman. She credited these women – and a few men – with helping define her principles.

bryant luxemburg goldman armand
Louise Bryant              Rosa Luxemburg                      Emma Goldman                           Inessa Armand

After the revolution, she was the first woman in the Bolshevik Central Committee (having defected from the pro-war Mensheviks), and set up the Zhenotdel, or Women’s Department with Inessa Armand, building women’s needs into the new government – albeit temporarily. She organized the International Conference of Communist Women in 1920 with Clara Zetkin, Lyudmilla Stal, and Liliana Zinaida, and worked closely with the deputies.

kollontai womens conference
Kollontai with Clara Zetkin, Lyudmilla Stal, and Lilina Zinaida                    Kollontai with deputies.

She became the first female ambassador, to Norway, then Mexico, and Sweden; really it was administrative exile by Stalin for joining the Workers’ Opposition party against Lenin’s later policies – though it in no way diminishes her accomplishment. Her memoir, incredibly brief for such a rich life, depicts a revolutionary who felt that “women’s liberation could take place only as a result of the victory of a new social order and a different economic system.”

Kollontai 1st all Russian session of owrkers' and soldiers' deputies petrograd june 1917
Kollontai at the First All Russian session of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies. Petrograd, June 1917

We should not forget the words of Sofia Bardina a generation before. Kollontai had no qualms about being the sole female voice in a room full of men.

Spiridonova and the 6[2]
Maria Spiridonova, Maria Skholnik, Anastasia Bitsenko, Alexandra Izmailovich, Rebecca Fialka, Lydia Ezerskaya
Maria Spiridonova was 21 when she was arrested and imprisoned for assassinating the governor of Tambov in 1906. There is much speculation over her motives and even more about her brutal treatment from the Tsarist authorities. For now, I’d like to leave those salacious elements for their unexpected result: the friendship between her and other terrorist women of the Social Revolutionary party. These women: Maria Skholnik, Anastasia Bitsenko, Alexandra Izmailovich, Rebecca Fialka, Lydia Ezerskaya along with Spiridonova gained celebrity status during the 1905 revolution and were dubbed shesterka or “the six”.

The first contact between them were smuggled notes from their prison cells; the terrorist wing at that time featured many more attempted assassinations than successful ones, so Spiridonova was popular.

the six1

Their train to Siberia was constantly stopped so peasants could greet them with cheers and flowers. They won over guards and male comrades. But mostly they stuck together, from their arrival in 1906 until the amnesty in 1917, a commune of female political prisoners.

shesterka 1916-1917
1906-1917

Per Bardina’s now distant observations, it’s noteworthy that Bitsenko went on to represent the SRs at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (then joined the Bolsheviks), while Spiridonova led the delegates at the Second Peasant Congress. Both took leadership roles in rooms of men.

bitsenko rep
Anastasia Bitsenko, SR representative at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, 1918.
spiridonova rep
Maria Spiridonova, SR leader at Second Peasant Congress

While Spiridonova received letters from many fellow prisoners in 1906, Alexandra Izmailovich wrote most. Spiridonova, she said, “didn’t know us, but…indicated she already loved us as fellow [SRs]”. From this moment, we can trace a friendship which lasted the rest of their lives.

spiridonova and izmailovich2
Maria Spiridonova                                                         Alexandra Izmailovich

In the aftermath of 1917, the SR’s felt the Bolsheviks had betrayed the revolution and worked against them – none harder than Spiridonova,of whom Louise Bryant recalled, “I have not met her equal in any country.” When she was re-arrested and went on hunger strike the panicked Bolsheviks fetched Izmailovich from another prison; they wanted her consent for force-feeding. She was outraged.

Spiridonova, Ismailovich, Karpovich making tea in Akatuyev
Spiridonova and Izmailovich, Siberian exile under the Tsar.

“[H]ere were officials reading out her death sentence to me who stood closest to her, and asking me politely for my signature, in order to shift the responsibility of her death from themselves to me.”

She refused forcible feeding, saying it would bring back memories of Spridonova’s abuse from police in 1906, and added:

“There is no doubt whatever that the application of forcible feeding would precipitate a catastrophe because of the reawakening of memories of violence done to her in the past. I definitely refuse to be associated with forcible feeding…[and] I wish once more to place on record my conviction that the sole responsibility for Spiridonova’s death is borne by the present rulers of Russia.”

Izmailovich nursed her, while Emma Goldman and Clara Zetkin petitioned for their release. For ten years they were subjected to the caprices of the Bolshevik government, repeatedly released and re-arrested in a cat-and-mouse game. Finally, during a Stalin-era purge, they were exiled again, forming an SR family with Irina Kakhovskaya and Ilya Mayorov.

Spiridonova Izmailovich Kakhovskaya Mayorov
l to r: Ilya Mayorov, Maria Spiridonova, Alexandra Izmailovich, Irina Kakhovskaya

When the Germans invaded in 1941, Stalin would risk no opposition. Spiridonova, Izmailovich and countless others were executed.

The encouragement and empathy these women showed each other most informs the following scene, an extract from my novel Do Unto Others set in Russia leading up to the 1905 revolution.

novel slide

 

“I didn’t think I’d see you again,” said Katya, moving a stack of papers off a chair. Her flat was small and cluttered, and Marguerite had the impression she wasn’t home much.

“You’re in good company,” Marguerite said, sitting by the table. “I wasn’t sure I’d get out.”

“I couldn’t believe it when I heard they’d got you. I thought: we’re lost without a leader.”

Marguerite shook her head. “It’s Channer’s group, not mine.”

Katya turned from the samovar and scoffed. “He may have started it, but it’s yours. We all know it. That’s why I joined, and why do you think it started falling apart after you were arrested?”

Marguerite stared at her hands. All she wanted was to be part of the work; she’d never seen herself as a leader. But Katya had, and maybe others, too. What was this about it breaking up?

Before she could ask, Katya set a glass of tea in front of her and wrapped thin arms around her neck, pressing their faces cheek to cheek. “Was it very awful?”

Something small and frightened stirred in the pit of Marguerite’s stomach. It had been hard enough telling Varvara, her oldest, dearest friend; she hadn’t even told Channer the worst. Whenever her mind strayed back to her cell there was a flutter like wings in her chest, and the prospect of telling Katya made her throat tighten so she might never force words out. But from the start she’d recognized Katya’s clear, quick thinking, and she realized they could never truly be comrades if Marguerite withheld the facts. And, she thought, Stepan’s prison stories helped me…maybe my experience could help her someday.

Reliving it, sharing it, was exhausting, a physical as much as emotional task, but it was easier this time. Now there was a sense of narrative to the chaos. She explained the structure of her days, the method of the interrogations, and how they saw her as more woman than revolutionary. “That,” she said, “was their mistake.” Indignities were detailed with indifference. Though when she explained about Kira, that precious girl she’d borne, birthed, and loved and who they’d taken, who was lost, her body rioted, fighting to keep the memory of her daughter in. But her voice barely wavered. Katya’s eyes glittered and swam. Marguerite’s were dry. There, she thought, I’ve conquered it. It can’t hurt me now. But the empty glass clanked a little too hard when she set it on the table.

“Can’t you…can’t you get her back?”

“No. And I don’t want to.”

She met Katya’s eyes and braced for a storm of outrage and disappointment like Varvara had unleashed…but it didn’t come.

“I understand,” she said, looking at the dregs in her glass. “It’s not safe for a baby, not with us lot. Besides, mother and revolutionary are full-time jobs.”

It wasn’t the whole truth, but it was near enough. Gratitude, warm and soft, settled in her and she took Katya’s hand. “You don’t know what that means to me. It’s funny, you always made me feel so ashamed… But you understand.”

Me?”

“You were so dedicated,” Marguerite said, “you did whatever was asked of you, and never let personal relationships interfere with work, while I…”

“I wasn’t brave enough!” Katya said. “You were. You didn’t just take notes and write their letters like they wanted. I looked up to you – I do, I mean.” Brazen, unflappable Katya actually blushed. “Anyway, if I loved someone, it’d be different. You and Channer love each other and the cause, too.”

Marguerite leaned back and sighed. “I don’t know what cause he loves. He seems content to just sit back and wait for change to come, he doesn’t realize he has to make it. You can call for change all your life, but revolutions aren’t wished for, they’re created. And me, I’m suffocating trying to make him see that, trapped in a group whose aims are muddled and whose methods I’ve lost faith in.”

Katya nodded. “Pamphlets are alright for consciousness raising but they don’t work on their own.”

Marguerite looked at her…and then the idea came, so clear and powerful it left her momentarily speechless. She leaned over, and as she studied Katya’s narrow, impish face, she felt a swoop of sure success. “Well then…why don’t we do it ourselves?”

 

****

Thanks again to the FiLiA organizers and to the European Network of Migrant Women for this incredible opportunity. I learned many fascinating things, and am always happy to share the stories of these incredible women.

Russian revolutionary women presentation

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Shameless self-promotion: “It is a Sin to Start a Family: Motherhood and Radicalism in Revolutionary Russia” article now online.

With three days left until the presentation at the FiLiA conference in London (eep!), I’d like to do a little self-promotion for my article on Russian revolutionary motherhood published in University of Kent’s Litterae Mentis magazine last month. It includes two women I’ll be discussing on Saturday, Olga Liubatovich and Alexandra Kollontai, and hopefully sheds a little light on this critical but undervalued aspect of these women’s public, political, and personal lives. Thanks for reading!

https://www.kent.ac.uk/english/postgraduate/LitteraeMentis/index.html?tab=volume-4-absence

Exciting announcement!

On October 14th I’ll be presenting on female friendship in the Russian Revolution at the FiLiA feminism conference in London (October 14-15)! I will also be reading a short excerpt from my novel inspired by these radical women.

It is an honor to be approached, and the two-day symposium promises lots of incredible learning and networking opportunities for all.

Tickets and panel info will be available September 1. I’ll post more information as it comes in, but do check the charity’s site periodically for updates.  https://filia.org.uk/timetable-2/

More soon!

“Not Woman, But Avenger Now”*: International Working Women’s Day and the start of the Russian Revolution, 100 years on

The women of Petrograd took to the streets on March 8, 1917 (February 23, Old Style), International Working Women’s Day, demanding bread and an end to the war; within a week, the Tsar had abdicated, ending 300 years of Romanov rule and many centuries more of Russian autocracy, and women had won the right to vote. It was the beginning of a long, bitter struggle, whose optimistic beginning was so at variance with its bloody conclusions. But it is worth remembering that the fight for peace, land, and bread – those fundamental human needs which would come to be a successful (if co-opted) slogan for the Bolsheviks – began with the women of the Russian capital translating their outrage into action.

Like women in the Britain and the US, World War I opened up a vast array of opportunities for Russian women to enter further into the world of work, including fields traditionally dominated by men. By 1917, women in Russia accounted for more than 47% of the labour force. The struggle, of course, was that now working women were fulfilling three full-time roles: as working women, covering for the missing male workers, and still carrying the full burden of domestic duties such as minding the children, keeping the house, balancing the books, and finding food. It was an impossible task, one repeated in industrial and agricultural centres alike. And as the tide turned at the front, while Russia’s casualties mounted and victories grew rare, as prices rose and goods became scarce, the mood of the Russian people, and particularly the women, began to turn sour, and, in the words of historians Jane McDermid and Anna Hillyar, “pushed the women to dissolve the already tenuous division between ‘economic’ and ‘political’ demands” (146). Women had been striking throughout 1916, protesting their working conditions, their pay, and their treatment by management. Thus, the events of March 8, 1917 did not spring from a void; it was the finale of one movement and the opening act of another.

The underground radical movement in Russia, manifested in myriad left-wing illegal political parties, had, thus far, largely failed to tap into the rich vein of feminine dissatisfaction. The Bolsheviks and the Inter-District Committee had gone furthest in this direction, with some women actively campaigning among working women, raising political consciousness and attempting to organize them along political lines. The war had been a turning point in the party’s efforts to recruit women, and it had been the women in the party who had recognized the opportunity it presented.

“This circle, which had been carrying out agitational work in factories [in the Vyborg district] where large numbers of women were employed, grasped that the depth of feeling would allow them to make the connection between the women’s traditional concern of the food supply and the destructive effects of the war… […] [A] brief appeal was issued, which stated simply that the women were no longer prepared to suffer in silence, but that their pent-up anger at war profiteering had become increasingly political as they realized that the small shopkeepers had not caused the war, and indeed that many of them were suffering too because of the collapse of the transport and distribution systems. Hence, the female Bolsheviks pointed to big business and the government that together they portrayed as a gang of robber and murderers.” (Midwives, 148)

Yet despite being the party of ardent feminists Alexandra Kollontai and Inessa Armand, the Bolsheviks still failed to see the women’s concerns as valid. As Hillyar and McDermid point out:

“the issues which appealed to women workers, and around which revolutionaries agitated, were rarely acknowledged by them as political. Instead, they were seen as fundamentally material concerns, which could only draw women to the class struggle temporarily. To recruit the minority of politically conscious women workers to revolutionary organisations, their awareness had to be raised from such ‘bread and butter’ concerns to the higher plane of politics” (Revolutionary Women, 149-150).

Working women, as gentle but emotional and ill-educated creatures, weren’t considered worth the trouble of recruiting at this stage. Working women were about to prove their mettle in no uncertain terms.

In fact, several women, such as Bolshevik Maria Vydrina, were eager to make a display on Women’s Day. The party insisted that the workers weren’t intellectually prepared for any immediate action, and planned a demonstration for May Day; the women could wait until then. Vydrina, who had been a Bolshevik for five years, since the age of seventeen, disagreed, and helped organize the march in the city for International Working Women’s Day. And she was not alone. Anastasia Deviatkina had been a Bolshevik for 13 years, and she also stepped up to lead a demonstration that day.

Revolution was in the air.

J. Butler Wright, an American diplomat, noted the shifts taking place. “The Cossacks are again patrolling the city on account of threatened strikes – for the women are beginning to rebel at standing in bread lines from 5.00 A.M for shops that open at 10:00 A.M., and that in weather twenty-five degrees below zero.” One tsarist official informed his superiors at the end of January that it was women, “mothers of families, who are exhausted by the endless standing in line at the stores [are] a store of combustible material. One spark will be enough for a conflagration to blaze up.” Another American, photographer Donald Thompson, saw “dozens of machine-guns” had appeared on the roofs of Petrograd buildings during the night of February 22nd.

Nevertheless, the women persisted.

Two things happened simultaneously: in one part of town, as observed by Thompson and his colleague Florence Harper, a large crowd gathered at the Field of Mars, the drill ground and site of military memorials; in the Vyborg district, women textile workers downed tools and left their factories, taking to the streets.

The gathering crowd at Field of Mars, which governor of Petrograd A.P. Balk described as “ladies from society, lots more peasant women, student girls and, compared with the earlier demonstrations, not many workers”, was a planned demonstration for International Working Women’s Day. Historian Helen Rappaport described the scene: “Although some carried banners with traditional suffrage slogans, such as ‘Hail, women fighters for freedom’ and ‘A place for women in the Constituent Assembly’, others bore improvised placards referring to the food crisis ‘Increase rations for soldiers’ families’, or even more openly revolutionary calls for an end to the war – and the monarchy” (49). The striking women of the factories were calling for similar demands across the river: “Down with the war! Down with high prices! Down with hunger! Bread for the workers!”

Field of Mars: Thompson and Harper watch as several men and women are hoisted onto the shoulders of their comrades, shouting, ‘Let’s stop talking and act.’ Some of the women began signing the Marseillaise, that song of the French Revolution which had embedded itself in the heart of socialists the world over. “It was a queer Russian version that one couldn’t quite recognize at first,” said Florence Harper. “I have heard the ‘Marseillaise’ sung many times, but that day for the first time I heard it sung as it should be. [T]he people there were the same classes and were singing it for the same reason as the French who first sang it over a hundred years ago.”

Vyborg district: women in the streets call for reinforcements, and refuse to be ignored. They called upon other women, and men, to join them. They threw snowballs, sticks, and stones at windows, calling for solidarity and action. I.M. Gordienko, a worker at the Nobel factory and a Bolshevik, recalled: “Masses of militant women workers flooded the narrow street. Those who noticed us began to wave their hands and shouted, ‘Come on out! Down your tools!’ Snowballs were thrown through windows. We decided to join the demonstration. […] The women workers greeted the Nobel’s workers with shouts of ‘Hooray!’” And the men did join them, from factories across Petrograd, everyone fed up with the war and the tsar, calling for an end to both. One woman was arrested after shouting at police: “You don’t have long to enjoy yourselves – you’ll soon be hanging by your necks!”

No mere bread riot, this.

tdih-march08-HD

Women of the February Revolution, carrying banners: “For a Raise in the Allotment of Soldiers, Defenders of Freedom and the People’s Peace” and “Feed the Children of the Defenders of the Motherland”

The women in the Vyborg district were ready to head into the city, but they faced opposition, first from their male comrades who said “it is not the business of babas [women]”, and then from police who closed the bridges in an effort to keep them from crossing. But it was still winter in Petrograd, and so they crossed the frozen Neva on foot. “In skirmishes with police and troops, some were killed, buried in common graves, their names unrecorded” (Midwives, 125). The women needed more bodies in their ranks, and more power on their side. So they turned their attention to the tram systems, and to the soldiers.

The war had depleted the stock of able-bodied men, and so women had largely taken over the running of the Petrograd tram system. And these women, as overworked, underpaid, and underfed as their counterparts in the textile factories, had had enough and were ready to take a stand. One, “who admitted that she feared the outcome of the demonstration…recalled that she shouted along with the rest ‘Down with the tsar!’” She did not know what would replace the tsar, but she knew the time had come. Another tram conductor, Alexandra Rodionova, recalled her excitement: “I yelled ‘Down with the tsar!’ and it seemed to me that I had lost touch with solid ground and flew in giddy uncertainty. Yes, I had participated in many strikes and demonstrations. But this had happened secretly; I had never taken a clear political position. And suddenly, all at once, the unknown future became real.” When the conductors had joined the crowd, the women took to destroying the trams to be used as barricades against the police, forcing them to stop, evacuating passengers, throwing control handles into the snow and tipping the cars ‘until the blocked cars extended all the way along the Sadovaya to the Nevsky Prospekt’, barricading themselves against the police and troops which would be sent to disperse them. And the passengers, including one of wounded soldiers and nurses, joined in, singing the Marseillaise along with the crowd.

Harper and Thompson continued watching the crowd, now about 90,000 strong, albeit from a safe distance. “The singing by this time had become a deep roar,” according to Thompson, “terrifying, but at the same time fascinating.”

Winning over the soldiers was the next step, and one which was made surprisingly easy by the groundwork done by revolutionaries, especially women, and by the war itself. Many of the men stationed in the capital had come from the countryside as reserves to bolster the dwindling wartime supply; many of the factory women had also come from the countryside, seeking higher pay or war work. Their shared background worked in the women’s favor, for they were able to convince the men not to shoot at their own folk. The working women showed the soldiers that their struggles were mutual ones. Over the course of the week, allegiances began to shift.

“Zhenia Egorova, secretary for the Bolshevik Party in the Vyborg district, agitated among the soldiers, appealing to them to disobey orders to shoot down the demonstrators. The women tried to separate the men from their officers [who] dismissed the women with the insulting term ‘baba’ (which might be translated as ‘old hag’ in this context), but the women refused to give way, and insisted that the be seen as human beings with legitimate concerns for their brothers, fathers and sons serving at the front. Much to the women’s initial amazement, the Cossacks listened to them and refused to obey orders to fire, lowering their rifles instead and lading their horses away from the crowds.” (Midwives, 153-154)

In Petrograd, Zhenya Egorova (born Ella Lepin) distributed leaflets and organized meetings of soldiers within their barracks. (At age 25, she had been a Bolshevik for six years and had already spent a year in Siberia.) Even in Moscow, as things gained momentum, Maria Kostelovskaya, another Bolshevik, assembled twenty-five soldiers with whom she occupied a printing house. There was no underestimating the strategic power of a sympathetic army. And the women had ensured the support was on their side. “On the eve of International Women’s Day, armed soldiers stood outside the depots; by the end of 23 February, they had joined the workers inside” (Midwives, 152).

Meanwhile, in the enclaves of the revolutionary underground, there was chaos and confusion. Their dismissal of women as agents of political change meant they had neither expected the women to rise up so swiftly, coherently, or successfully. They were now left chasing their tails, trying desperately to figure out how to capitalize on an event they had neither the foresight to prepare for by a demographic they now had to begrudgingly respect.

As night fell the crowds dispersed, driven indoors by the cold, but ready now to prepare for the trials ahead. There were skirmishes along the way; bakeries and grocery stores were broken into and looted in a desperate search for bread, and the police, rapidly losing their authority, clashed with protesters several more times before the night was over. But the people of Petrograd, and soon much of Russia, led by the women, had had their baptism of fire, and were galvanized by it. In the words of McDermid and Hillyar,

“Thus women workers and housewives, who were not considered politically conscious enough to be able to lead or organize themselves without male help and guidance, had brought the city’s factories and essential services to a standstill and sown confusion in the military garrison. Within three days, there was a general strike, the army had mutinied and gone over to the revolution and tsarism had collapsed.” (154)

There is much to be said of the aftermath, of course, and it is nearly impossible to analyze the February Revolution objectively in the twenty-first century. But the February Revolution is an enduring reminder of the power of masses of mobilized women, a lesson which is as prescient today as then, one hundred years on. If there is change we want, on local, national, or global levels, then we must act. And as the women of Petrograd showed, solidarity is key.

Happy International Women’s Day. Let’s get to work.

 

 

*Joseph Verey, “Vera Sassulitch” (1880)