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Changing Roles of Women: Effects of the Feminist Movement

Info: 2749 words (11 pages) Essay
Published: 5th Aug 2019 in History

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The Role of Women through the centuries and the effects of the Feminist movement

This essay will discuss the changing role of women through the 18th Century until the current time and how this was affected by the initial feminist movement in the 18th Century. During the reign of Peter the Great from 1682 until 1725, major reforms happened in the lives of women ranging from the nobility to the lower classes. These changes were felt by the noblewomen first due to their proximity to the Tsar. The Petrine reforms changed women’s lives not only legally but also socially, as their participation in society became more prevalent. In the pre-Petrine era, the societal role of women, similar to that of their European counterparts, was focused on the home. Women suffered great inequality in comparison to men, as their only role in life was to marry and bear children. During the Petrine era, this role changed for women, while the women in Europe did not feel these changes until late in the Victorian Era. In his attempt to westernise his country, Peter the Great set about reforming the education system. For women this meant taking lessons at home in learning how to manage and keep a household. Education for noble men and women alike was not deemed important but was begrudgingly introduced by the upper class when literacy was made a requirement for advancement in state service. However, equality in education was not reached until the time of Catherine the Great, when the Smolny Institute for noblewomen and the Novodevichii Institute for lower class women were established in 1764 and 1765 respectively. The Smolny Institute was the first outlet for female education in Russia and took their role from its singular function as managers of a household, to literacy[1].

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Marriage reforms were a significant part of the Petrine era with younger marriages becoming more infrequent with the average marrying age being between 15 and 18 years old. However, prior to marriage, girls were required to live in separate quarters to men, usually in a “terem” in the case of noble families. “Terems” were separate living quarters within a household, accessed either by an outside passageway or a separate stairway. These were designed to keep women “pure”, inexperienced and more desirable for marriage. For the women of lower classes, a “terem” was virtually impossible to have as lower class houses had very little space and more often than not, women could not be separated from the men also living in the house. The lives of these women was different to that of their noble counterparts, with them engaging daily in intensive labour usually reserved for men. Along with their domestic duties, they were also required to help on the land when harvest time came around[2]. Due to their poor status, peasant families could not afford to hire farm hands, as a result these duties fell to the women. In the pre-Petrine era, the amount of sons a woman had improved her status to her husband as this ensured the longevity of their property and also their family name[3].

However, during the reign of Peter the Great, one of the most important reforms made was the introduction of the Law of Single Inheritance in 1714. The law established that any immovable property would be passed down to one son or in the absence of a son, to one daughter. Any movable property would then be divided between the remaining children of both sexes. In the absence of a will, the immovable property would be left to the eldest son. In the case of any of the daughters being married, they were not entitled to any inheritance due to their dowry. The introduction of this law almost guaranteed the right of a daughter to be a legitimate heir to patrimonial property. Another aspect of the law was the right given to unmarried women in choosing where they should live. In the event that an unmarried daughter did not wish to live with the heir of the immovable property, she was within her right to take her portion of the movable property and live elsewhere, as long as this desire was expressed in the presence of witnesses. In the same respect, if she wished to remain in the property, she could do so until marriage or in the event that she not marry, she could also remain living with the heir[4]. However, this law was repealed in 1731 by Peter the Greats successor, Anna Ivanovna. The law returned to the principle of giving each child an equal share of the inheritance.

Inspired by the 18th Century equality movements in Europe, Russian feminist movements began. With more freedom and independence being given to women, the popularity of Russian female writers and poets rose. However, it was not until the 19th century that real change was seen.1859 marked a pivotal time for Russian women as they were allowed to attend university in St. Petersburg, just 4 years later this right would be revoked. Led by a group of 3 philanthropists,  Anna Filosofova, Nadezhda Stasova and Mariia Trubnikova, petitions were sent to universities and prominent male figures in society to reserve the right to higher education for women. This culminated into the founding of the Bestuzhev courses in 1878. This was the first institution of higher education in Russia for women and allowed women to compete with men for jobs in the medical, teaching and law spheres. By the turn of the century, Russia had more women competent in these fields than in any other European country. Proximity to bigger cities was of a major benefit to women at this time as in rural areas literacy levels were only slowly improving. Peasant women still had a long way to go in reaching the equality that was developing in higher classes[5].

The 19th Century for Russian women was a time of great change. Women were now being recognised for their academic abilities and being offered roles previously only suited to men. Anna Filosofova proved to be a leading figure in the feminist movement as she not only lobbied for higher education for women but also helped to organise the All-Women’s Congress of 1908. This congress aimed to awaken the consciousness of women and rally them together to fight prejudice and join forces against the societal norms. On the other hand,  it wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th Century that the focus of the Russian feminist movement shifted to the lower classes. In 1907, the all-Russian League for Women’s Equality was established. Serving until the October Revolution in 1917, the league was restricted to female membership and fought for the rights of women in terms of inheritance and until the October Revolution they continuously campaigned for women’s suffrage. After numerous failed attempts, by March 1917 women in Russia were given the right to vote and hold positions of political power. Following on from the October Revolution, Vladimir Lenin realised the potential that women had and saw the advantages to having women as equals to men. This in theory was good news to the feminists in Russia but in practice left a lot to be desired.

Lenin encouraged women to become part of the labour force and by 1930 there were around 885,000 women working as compared to 423,200 in 1923. This sharp rise in employment gave women a new sense of independence and assisted them in becoming economically free from men. The 1920s proved to be the time of greatest change for women. Their minimum wage was made equal to that of men, abortion was legalised, divorce became an option and a lengthy maternity leave was offered. However, in practice these rights weren’t always granted and this eventually led to the breakdown of these rights in the 1930s when abortion was made illegal (and eventually reinstated after Stalin’s death), divorce was harder to get and the women’s role once again returned to the traditional as they focused on jobs within the home. This traditional role continued well into the 1940s until the time of World War II. During this time many women were left widowed and without the ability to support themselves. As many men were drafted into the army, they had to leave their jobs in state farms, this resulted in many women taking up these jobs and they consequently made up a considerable amount of the labour force once again. Women were seen to be the epitome of patriotism and doing all that they can for the bettering of the motherland.

Women in Soviet society still fell victim to inequality despite the increase in women now being employed and fully educated to a high level. They were not seen in positions of high power or influence as the majority of high ranking jobs were filled by men. Along with inequality in the workforce, women also had to face a great deal of sexism. Although women had the ability to work, it was still expected of them to return from a days work and still carry out the traditional duties of a housewife. The 1970s were a crucial time around the world for women as the fight for equal rights raged on but women under communism didn’t necessarily see their own inequality as a problem. For the most part they felt they had two duties, one to their work and one to their home. It wasn’t until the 1980s and the introduction of “Glasnost” by Gorbachev, that women began to embrace feminism again. The new found freedom of speech brought about by “Glasnost” encouraged women to empower each other in their pursuit for equal rights. Women were pursuing more advanced jobs and looking for equal pay for equal work. They were also rallying for more women to be present in politics. Despite their motivation to fight for these rights, they weren’t being listened to and were still expected to carry out two jobs, one for an employer and one for their household. The benefits offered to women during the Soviet era such as long maternity leave and childcare, were the same benefits that deterred employers from hiring women. This led to a crises point in the 1990s when around 80% of unemployed Russians were women. The jobs made available to these women were the same jobs that offered significantly more pay to men in the same job.

In the post-Soviet era, women are still subjected to traditional stereotypes, with discrimination still rife within the labour force. Under the labour law in Russia’s constitution there are 456 jobs that women are prohibited from working as they are considered too labour intensive and are potentially dangerous to women’s health. Most notably, it is this same law that states that an employer can not refuse work to someone on the grounds of gender. More worryingly however, was the supposed return to more extreme traditional values by decriminalizing domestic violence for first time offenders in January 2017. The maximum penalty that had been in place prior to the decriminalization was a 2 year prison sentence, now offenders face 15 days in police custody[6]. The reverting back to these gender stereotypes is described by a lawmaker with the United Russia party, Oksana Pushkina, as “a massive impediment in the development of women’s rights… and completely [hold] back the strength and position of Russian women in society”[7]. The movements started in the 18th Century that were continued on by the philanthropists, Anna Filosofova, Nadezhda Stasova and Mariia Trubnikova were not to no avail but there is still ground to be covered in the march for equal roles for men and women. Although women’s roles have changed over time and the gender stereotypes that plagued women over the centuries are still present in today’s society it is still clear to see the impact the women of Russia have had on their country and their strength and courage during times of strife are to be admired by women all over the world. In the words of Nelson Mandela “Freedom can not be achieved unless the women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression”[8].


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[1] Bisha, Robin, and Jehanne M Gheith. 2002. Russian Women, 1698-1917. Indiana University Press: 162-301

[2] Pushkareva, N. L, and Eve Levin. 1997. Women In Russian History. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe.

[3] Engel, Barbara Alpern. 2004. Women In Russia, 1700-2000. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 50

[4] Farrow, Lee A. “Peter the Great’s Law of Single Inheritance: State Imperatives and Noble Resistance.” The Russian Review 55, no. 3 (1996): 430-47. doi:10.2307/131793.

[5] Ruthchild, R. (2010). Equality & revolution : Women’s rights in the Russian Empire, 1905 1917 (Series in Russian and East European studies). Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press: 235

[6] Ferris-Rotman, Amie. 2018. “Putin’S War On Women”. Foreign Policy. https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/04/09/putins-war-on-women/.

[7] Ferris-Rotman, Amie. 2018. “Putin’S War On Women”. Foreign Policy. https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/04/09/putins-war-on-women/.

[8] https://www.makers.com/blog/quotes-prove-nelson-mandela-was-feminist?guccounter=1


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