Soviet social and economic policy concerning women 1917-60

The position of women within Soviet Russia was one which saw a substantial amount of fluctuation. The basic tenants of communism were ones which provided equality for women. According to Marx and Engels, the architects of communist ideology, one of the first examples of class oppression was that of women to men in the household. This ideology was initially reflected in Soviet policy from the offset of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, with promises made including ones to put women on par with men economically by allowing them to have employment on an equal basis with men. These promises were reflected officially in the first Soviet Constitution of 1918, with article 22 promising establishing the equality of Soviet citizens regardless of sex, race or nationality, and article 64 allowing women to have equal rights as men to be elected to Soviet organisations of vehicles of government. Lenin in particular took an interest in women’s right, stressing the link between class and gender issues, and how communism was the way by which both issues could be resolved.

Women’s increased participation within the Soviet economy was cemented with measures such as the first Five Year Plan put forth by Stalin in 1928-32. This marked an increase in the number of women employed in heavy industry, as well in the more traditional area of light industry, where women made up two-thirds of the workforce. During the period of the drive to industrialise under Stalin in the period 1929-41, more than ten million women entered the workforce; with the percentage of them within the number of workers as a whole rising from twenty-four to thirty-nine per cent. During the Second World War, women had an increased role within heavy industry. A substantial amount of women were assigned to work in the iron and steel industries; making up forty per cent of the workforce by 1944. In the same period, women made up a similar percentage of the workforce in the oil fields, and were employed in other traditionally male dominated professions such as construction work, welders and miners. After WW2, the loss of a significant portion of the male population meant that the participation of women in these professions still remained as important. This is best illustrated by the fact that in 1959 there were twenty million more women than men, which meant that in the period women easily made up half of the workforce. Although this can be seen as a positive development, the problem of women facing a double burden – having to go out and work for the state and then come home again and complete the household duties – is one that was still apparent. Thus raising the question of how much policy had affected traditional thinking on the role of women.

In terms of social policy, Soviet Russia became the first country to legalise abortion freely; with the period between 1920 and 1936 being one in which women in the Soviet Union could freely obtain an abortion free of charge and at her own request. This was revolutionary legislation at the time, and suggested that the Soviet Union was taking a radical approach on the position of women and women’s rights. However, the abortion legislation was reversed in 1935 by Stalin when the need for more manpower for industrialisation and later, WW2, became apparent. Linked into this, procuring birth control became more difficult, which was also meant to encourage higher pregnancy rates. This marked a reversal in the earlier more liberal policies concerning women that had come about under Lenin. As well as the abortion policy, this had also included divorce legislation. After the Revolution in 1917, divorce proceedings were simplified, with parties being able to get a relatively simple divorce through registering their request through the court. Alternatively, if both parties agreed to the divorce, the request was registered with the Registry Office and again divorce was granted. The procedure was made even simpler in 1926, when what was known was ‘postcard divorces’ were apparent. Either party would simply announce their desire for a divorce, either orally or by written notification. If the request was sent to the Registry Office, then the other party would be notified of the divorce by written notice three days later. However, like with abortion policy, crackdowns came in 1936 when new legislation made it more difficult to obtain a divorce. Again, this aimed at trying to stabilise the nuclear family in order to encourage population growth to support an ever-expanding Soviet Russia. This was made even harder in 1944, with a two stage court procedure being implemented by which the party or parties wanting the divorce had to set out their reasons for wanting the divorce in a public hearing. If this hurdle was passed, then the petition would then be sent to a higher court, who would give their ruling on the request.

The social and economic policy of the Soviet Russia towards the position and role of women explored here raises an interesting question of the extent to which ideology can practically be applied to society. The communist ideal as presented by Marx and Engels was one that could only be partially realised, especially when the needs of the further industrialisation of the state were taken into consideration in the late 1930s, both in direct terms of women being in the workforce themselves and their role in producing the next generation of workers.


Heer, D.M. ‘Abortion, Contraception, and Population Policy in the Soviet Union’ Demography, 2 (1965), 531-539.

Moskoff , W. ‘Divorce in the USSR’, Journal of Marriage and Family, 45, 2 (1983), 419-25.

Schuster, A. ‘Women’s Role in the Soviet Union: Ideology and Reality’, Russian Review, 30, 3 (1971), 260-267.

Suny, G.R., The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR and the Successor States (Oxford 1998).


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