Well I hope you’re all celebrating Internation Women’s Day in your own way, us History Girls won’t be together, we’ll be holed up working on our respective PhD’s, but we will both be raising a glass to our comrades in arms across the world. Talking of comrades, did any of you know that International Women’s Day was initially a communist Russian holiday? Let’s chat about the one and only Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1852), the revolutionary who helped make the 8th of March every year ours (the rest of the year is the patriarchy’s).
Alexandra Kollontai was born in St Petersburg, Russia in 1872. It’s worth noting that at this point Russia is still very much pre-revolution, and is run by the Romanovs, who were completely bonkers and are therefore worth reading about for entertainment purposes (see Simon Sebag Montefiore’s 700+ page tome on the subject, simply entitled The Romanovs, for many many hours of royal gossip). Alexandra was from a well-off family who packed her off on a tour of Europe when she fell in love with Vladimir Ludvigovich Kollontai, an engineering student, at the age of 19. All parents should be informed that explicitly forbidding your teenager from doing something, is in fact, a really great way to ensure your daughter does exactly what you’re telling her not to do. Alexandra obviously had to marry the alluring Vladimir now and they went on to have a baby together called Mikhail. Alexandra is a woman who is not here for your bullshit and so she spent her time as a newlywed getting radical about communism.
A few years later Alexandra was bored of reading and the whole wife-and-mother thing (Kollontai wasn’t a big fan of the nuclear family, she saw it as a way to trap women into a life of domestic drudgery and childbearing), so she shipped off her son to be cared for by her parents and divorced her husband, becoming a full-time student of economics in Zurich. To be fair, she was on the run and I made the child-dumping thing sound very cold, apologies. After hiding out in Europe after Bloody Sunday, Alexandra returned to Russia in 1917 when the Romanovs had been deposed (they wouldn’t be executed until 1918). She became a Bolshevik and a member of the Worker’s Opposition, and in 1923 she became the Soviet Ambassador to Norway, the first woman to hold such a high-status position (even though she was given the job so Lenin could get shot of her for a bit). It would be rude not to acknowledge that over the course of her career Alexandra would become a supporter of Stalin after Lenin’s death, but frankly what choice did she have, have you seen The Death of Stalin?! He was not the sort of chap one disagreed with. But what does all this have to do with International Women’s Day and notorious sex-positive and radical-socialist-feminist Alexandra Kollontai? Well, I’ll tell you.
In 1913 International Women’s Day was enshrined by Russia after they discussed it for a couple of years with their communist pals, and on the International Women’s Day of 1917 it all properly kicked off. The women working in Russia’s textile factories called a general strike, encouraged by people like Alexandra, kicking off the February Revolution and the actual Russian Revolution. This led to the Tsar being sent packing, and we all know how well that ended for him. Women were also granted the vote after the mass protests, making Russia the first international power to give women the chance to have a say in elections, and Alexandra became head of the Russian governments’ Women’s Department where she encouraged education of women and children and good old fashioned activism and workers rights. Alexandra’s radical feminist views weren’t appreciated by everyone in the communist party and she remained a controversial figure until her death in 1852. Not all of her views were great, she held some opinions which wouldn’t really stand today, like putting sex-workers into forced labour camps for ‘labour desertion’ as their work wasn’t perceived as productive… BUT she galvanised the women’s rights movement in Russia, encouraged women of all social classes to see themselves as independent and equal to men, and was a genuine radical revolutionary.
I’ve only just scratched the surface here, and have done most of my research online using various articles whose bias and accuracy may be called into question, so apologies for any errors dear reader. I also used the section on Alexandra in Hannah Jewell’s excellent 100 Nasty Women of History, well worth a read if you liked this blog post, although for adult readers only. I am very much looking forward to finding out more about Alexandra, her life was packed with drama. For further reading see Alexandra’s brilliantly titled, The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman, and Cathy Porter’s biography for starters, I will certainly be giving them a read, as should you comrades.
Happy International Women’s Day 2018,