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Sheila Fitzpatrick, “The Wives’ Movement”

January 23, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

“The Wives’ Movement”

Sheila Fitzpatrick

From Chapter Six, Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s, 1999. [PDF]

“Wives” were an almost unrecognized entity in the first decade and a half after the revolution. An emancipated woman did not define herself by her status vis-à-vis her husband but by her work and activity outside the home. Educated revolutionary women despised housework and tended to consider the upbringing of children as a community rather than family responsibility. For a woman to concern herself primarily with home and family was “bourgeois.”

Although housewives had the vote, they often seemed to be treated as second-class citizens. “Sometimes I thought that we housewives were not even considered human,” one woman complained. Another wrote:

In all my documents it says: housewife. It has been ten years since I graduated from high school and got married, and here I am still putting it down as my meaningful “occupation.” During the elections to the soviets I, a healthy young woman, was sitting together with the old people and retired invalids. I suppose that’s fair. I am “unorganized population.” [62]

In addition to resenting the inferior classification as “housewife,” the wives of high-powered industrial managers were often bored, especially when their husbands were posted at new plants in the middle of nowhere with no amenities. In a little volume of personal stories put out by some of the wives (mainly from southern steel plants), they wrote with feeling of the emptiness of life before the wives’ movement, when the only events were visiting the hairdresser and going to parties with the same guests and nothing to talk about. Time hung heavy on the wives’ hands, and they often quarreled with their husbands because of the latters’ involvement in their work. Wives from a prerevolutionary intelligentsia background—as many of the engineers’ wives still were—suffered particularly from the loneliness and lack of culture around them, all the more if their husbands developed close relationships with the Communists with whom they worked. One of them recalled her chagrin at finding that, while her husband had a common language with the Communist managers, she had none:

The more time [my husband] spent at the factory, the more he participated in construction, the larger was the distance between us. He made new acquaintances. They were not just engineers—industrial administrators and party workers began to frequent our house. . . . Ever since childhood, I had been taught to entertain guests. . . . I remember the time when I was an expert at this art. But it turned out that it was not enough to be able to make conversation; one had to know what to talk about. . . . Once, as I was trying to carry on a conversation [with a Communist], I looked at my husband and stopped short. His eyes were full of anxiety and terrible pity. [63]

For wives like this one, seeking an occupation and a way of connecting with the new Soviet society, the emergence of the wives’ volunteer movement was a godsend. The movement, known by the name of its journal, Obshchestvennitsa, which means woman activist, originated in heavy industry under the patronage of Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Minister of Heavy Industry, and went national in May 1936, when a “conference of wives of managers and engineers in heavy industry” was held in the Kremlin. Stalin, Ordzhonikidze, Voroshilov, and other leaders attended the conference and graciously accepted gifts and effusive tributes from the delegates. Wives of army officers and railroad managers were soon organizing in a similar manner. [64]

One of the problems of organizing housewives in the past had always been the lack of a good basic unit of association on which to build. “Street committees,” mobilizing women on the basis of residence, had not been a success. The great discovery of the wives’ movement was that wives, like everyone else in Soviet society, could be organized through the workplace—in this case, the husband’s workplace. Not only the husband’s workplace but also his work status was crucial to the movement’s internal structure: in any local branch of the movement in industry, it was usually the enterprise director’s wife who took the lead.

It was the wives’ task to make society in general and their husband’s workplace in particular more “cultured.” According to one account, the whole movement started when Ordzhonikidze was touring the Urals and noticed a square that the wife of a local industrial manager, Klavdia Surovtseva, had planted with flowers and bushes. Wives were encouraged to furnish workers’ dormitories and barracks, organize kindergartens, nurseries, and camps and sanatoria for children, set up literacy schools, libraries, and public baths, supervise factory cafeterias, plant trees, and in general do their best to improve the quality of life at their husbands’ plants. Their work was generally unpaid, and the (generally unstated) premise on the financing of their projects was that it would be done by a domestic version of blat, that is, getting the director-husbands of the wives to release funds from the enterprise budget. [65]

The wives also did their best to improve their own quality of life, which at distant provincial construction sites, railroad depots, and military bases was often extremely dismal. In Magnitogorsk, the local wives (headed by Maria Zaveniagin, the director’s wife) set up a “cultured” cafe in the local theater and acted as patronesses of the arts. At the “Red Profintern” plant, wives set up a fashion atelier. At Krivorog, wives set up a dressmaking shop where a worker could have a dress made for 7 or 8 rubles, and then added a more fashionable atelier for elite women where a dress might cost from 40 to 100 rubles. [66]

A good deal of what the wives did was reminiscent of the charitable activities of upper-class women under the old regime. Some of them, indeed, had been involved in philanthropy before the revolution. Of course the analogy was firmly denied by spokeswomen for the movement, even though the Old Bolshevik Nadezhda Krupskaia (Lenin’s widow) came close to making it explicit at the founding conference. “We do not have charity. We have social activism,” asserted the movement’s journal defensively. [67]

But the high-society, “charity ball” aspect of philanthropy in “bourgeois” society was certainly not absent from the Soviet version. The Magnitogorsk wives organized masked balls that were by invitation only, with “undesirable elements” excluded. Moreover, both local and national branches of the movement cultivated close relations with local political leaders, whom they often addressed in gushing and adulatory tones. The choice of tasteful gifts for political patrons like Lazar Kaganovich, Minister for Transport, was a major concern of the wives, as Galina Shtange’s diary attests. In Leningrad, seamstresses at the “Rabotnitsa” factory complained to the local party committee that the local managers’ wives were only interested in getting themselves honors and publicity and had wasted the workers’ time and the state’s money by having workers embroider a picture of comrade Stalin at a cavalry parade as a gift to him. All the workers were indignant at being exploited for the glory of the “wives,” the letter claimed. [68]

As this letter implies, the wives’ movement had a distinct class base: it was explicitly a form of organization for elite wives, not ordinary working women. The wives’ upper-class manners could grate on Communist managers and workers. Even within the movement, it was sometimes admitted that the wives’ relationship with their husband’s workforce left something to be desired, since they “still behave in an arrogant manner . . . and speak in the tone of a boss.” The addition of wives of Stakhanovite workers to the roster of volunteers did not significantly change either the movement’s actual upper-class character or popular recognition of it. [69]

Nevertheless, the wives’ movement really did provide an important Soviet socialization experience for many of its members. The wife, quoted above, whose husband had felt “anxiety and terrible pity” for her earlier efforts to entertain Communist visitors now had something to talk about with them and found new common interests with her husband. She and the other volunteers were also inducted into specifically Soviet rituals that their lack of contact with a Soviet workplace had previously denied them. The diary of Galina Shtange, wife of a railroad engineer, chronicles her growing acquaintance with the world of meetings, conferences, publicity photos, and even business trips to other cities, and makes it clear that these rituals were a source of particular enjoyment, satisfaction, and self-respect. Meetings and other formal gatherings of the wives (like those of Komsomols, Young Pioneers, and other voluntary associations) were conducted strictly according to Soviet conventions for “real” business meetings. As Galina Shtange reported her official visit as representative of the wives’ movement:

The room . . . had been decorated with flowers and slogans. In the middle of the room stood a large table, covered with a red tablecloth. The whole Wives’ Council, plus stenographers, was already there waiting for us. . . . They seated me at the center of the table, and we had our picture taken. . . . Then the activists from each brigade reported on their work. [70]

One of the major themes of the wives’ movement was the obligation of wives to make a comfortable and well-ordered home life for their husbands. “Becoming volunteers, these women did not cease to be wives and mothers,” said one delegate at a conference of Red Army wives, and this motif was repeatedly emphasized, particularly in the early phases of the movement. The ideal was represented by someone like the wife of Professor Iakunin, a member of the Moscow regional council of scientists’ wives, who did not let her new volunteer duties interfere with her basic vocation as a support to her husband:

Neither the important and serious business, nor the bulging briefcase, nor the endless telephone calls, give Professor Iakunin any reason to complain about lack of attention to the home from his wife. In her room there is exemplary order and warm, feminine comfort. As before she and she alone manages all the housework; as before, arriving home, her husband meets a welcoming, attentive wife. [71]

But it was not so easy to combine these things in real life. “N. V.”—wife of an engineer in Magnitogorsk—started a lively discussion when she wrote in to Obshchestvennitsa to ask how she could reconcile her husband’s strong desire that she remain at home, look after their child, and, above all, look after him as his “secretary, adviser, nanny, and confidante,” and her own feeling that she was wasting her education and being left out of all the exciting things happening in the country. [72]

Readers reacted in various ways. Some were sharply critical of the husband. One critic was reminded of “the country nobleman who will not go to sleep unless a serf scratches his heels” and recommended that N. V. liberate herself as soon as possible from a suffocating, exploitative marriage. Another thought the husband would cope better than N. V. feared if she became active outside the home, citing the example of her own husband, who had learned to shop, cook, and clean now that she worked, without cost to their relationship (“If there has been a change, it has been for the better.We have become closer.We have more in common.”) If N. V. did decide to liberate herself, readers were divided as to whether she should go out to work or just become an activist in the wives’ movement. [73]

The tentative and sometimes disapproving approach of the wives’ movement to women’s paid employment was one of its most curious features. After all, this was a decade in which millions of women were entering the workforce and being encouraged to do so. The regime was doing its best to increase the number of women in higher education and the professions and, with less success, to promote women to administrative positions. Women in the Soviet Union were brought up to think they should have careers: as a Harvard Project respondent reported, “at meetings and lectures they constantly told us that women must be fully equal with men, that women can be flyers and naval engineers and anything that men can be.” [74]

In “backward” groups, like peasants and Central Asians, the regime was still urging women to stand up for their rights against oppressive husbands and fathers; “wifely duty” was not a theme commonly discussed in Soviet propaganda (outside the wives’ movement) in this context. Indeed, even Obshchestvennitsa recognized that in the lower classes men were likely to retain attitudes so unenlightened that the issue of women’s emancipation still had priority, reporting with respectful sympathy on the hard lives of workingclass women who had had to contend with abusive, bullying husbands. All this underlines the elite nature of the wives’ movement and suggests that the movement’s characteristic themes and attitudes came at least as much from the elite wives themselves as from the regime.

By 1939, in any case, the earlier homemaking emphasis of the wives’ movement was giving way to a focus on women learning to do men’s work and entering the workforce. This was both an internal development within the movement and a response to the imminence of war and the likelihood that men would soon be conscripted. The journal Obshchestvennitsa gave readers many accounts of daring, path-breaking women, high achievers in formerly “male” professions and activities, like the ship’s captain Anna Shchetinina, Polina Osipenko’s team of female aviators, and the dauntless female automobile drivers who participated in the long-distance race Moscow-Aral Sea-Little Kara-Kum-Moscow. Toughening the body on skis, bicycles, and long hikes was particularly favored in the military branch of the wives’ movement. But the women volunteers of the Kuznetsk metallurgical plant were not far behind: under the theme “Ready for anti-chemical [warfare] defence,” eleven women activists set off for a hike wearing gasmasks. [75]

Women learned to shoot, drive a truck, and fly planes in the wives’ movement. They studied in courses to become “chauffeurs, communications operators, stenographers, accountants.” Early on, this was usually represented as a means of making the wives fit partners for their husbands, but it soon became an end in itself, closely linked with preparation for war. Even in 1936, sixty engineers’ wives in Gorky learnt to drive “so that at a crucial moment for the native land they can militantly take the wheel.” In 1937, Kaganovich told the transport wives (in Galina Shtange’s diary rendition) “how we need to be aware of the international situation and be ready at any moment to take the places of our husbands, brothers and sons if they go off to war.” By 1939, getting ready to take the men’s places in time of war had become one of the central motifs of the volunteer movement, with exhortations directed to mothers as well as wives of prospective soldiers. [76]

By 1938, Obshchestvennitsa was writing almost as if a stint as a volunteer was a preparatory stage for wives bound for further education or promotion to administrative work—a kind of elite wives’ equivalent of the “workers’ faculties” that used to prepare worker promotees for university entrance. Wives’ councils sought support for various kinds of training courses that would give the women specialized skills and thus enable them to move into paid employment. Under the heading “A battle plan for women volunteers,” Obshchestvennitsa editorially deplored both the reluctance of industrial managers to appoint women volunteers to responsible administrative positions and the fact that the leaders of the movement themselves had “limited the range of activities and [had] not prepared the activists for permanent positions in the economy. . . . It is important to understand that a woman who has spent, say, two years as a volunteer, receives training roughly equivalent to one year of political education, and that the experience of volunteer work will be of great help when she gets a permanent position.” [77]

When promotion of women occurred in real life, there were likely to be conflicts with husbands and the concept of wifely duty fostered by Obshchestvennitsa in its early phase. In the case of Klavdia Surovtseva, the original volunteer gardener noticed by Ordzhonikidze back in 1934–35, this meant getting rid of the husband. Their married life had suffered from her public success with the gardening project (“like many people, he lost his perspective from close up”), and he had been unhappy when she went to Moscow for the 1936 meeting in the Kremlin. At that meeting, Klavdia had taken the pledge to study (following a Stakhanovite rather than volunteer model: in 1936, nobody was stressing study for activist wives), promising “that she would study, would become an engineer. That would be her expression of gratitude to the country for the high award—the order of the Labor Red Banner.” In a “Where are they now?” article in 1939, Obschestvennitsa revealed that Klavdia was indeed studying in Moscow at the Stalin Industrial Academy. Moreover, she had a new husband, also studying, with whom her relations were on a much more equal basis than her old one: “My husband has taught me how to organize my studies. He is a good friend and a sensitive comrade. We are at the same level. . . .” Showing her college transcript to the reporter, Klavdia said happily, “This is my passport to a new life.” [78]

There was a gulf between the elite women of the wives’ movement and ordinary working women, or even the wives of ordinary workers, and it was not only social but also ideological. For elite wives, duty to husband and family and the task of homemaking were seen as paramount, particularly in the early stage of the movement. Yet these ideals could hardly be applied without qualification to lower-class women who (it was acknowledged) still had to defend themselves against abuse and oppression by unenlightened husbands and fathers. Moreover, such ideals were at least potentially in conflict with an economic goal dear to the regime’s heart—that of expanding the labor force by drawing in large numbers of urban women who had not previously worked for wages.

Of course the regime’s message about the importance of family responsibilities was not limited to or even mainly directed toward elite wives. As the law against abortion made clear, it was the responsibility of women of all social classes to bear children, whether or not they worked or had adequate housing for their families; and it was the responsibility of their husbands to support them in this endeavor. As far as lower-class women were concerned, however, it was the duty to family, not the duty to husbands, that was usually emphasized. Lower-class husbands were too often delinquent in their own performance of family duties to be a suitable object for too much wifely duty—with the interesting exception of Stakhanovite workers who evidently deserved the same level of support as elite husbands. [79]

At all levels of the society, though most notably at its lower levels, women took the brunt of the manifold problems of everyday life in the Soviet Union— feeding and clothing the family, furnishing and organizing its dwelling space, achieving a modus vivendi with neighbors in communal apartments, and so on. In some cases, the woman who performed these tasks was not the wife and mother of the family, especially if she was educated and worked outside the home, but the grandmother or domestic servant; it should be noted that for all Obshchestvennitsa‘s efforts, emancipated Soviet women of the younger generation did not take at all kindly to housework. Still, women were increasingly accepting the role of the family’s specialists on consumption and taste as well as the upbringing of children. This meant knowing how to get goods, both legally and by blat, and how to judge their quality.

A voice noticeably muted, if not silent, in the 1930s was that of educated women with a profession, a job, and an ideology of women’s emancipation who did not define themselves as wives. Such women had been visible and vocal in the 1920s, often in connection with the Communist Party’s Women’s Department (closed down in 1930); Stalin’s young wife, Nadezhda Allilueva, was one of them until her suicide at the end of 1932. They were a minority, to be sure—only about 10 percent of senior administrative jobs were held by women, who constituted about 15 percent of party membership—but then they had also been a minority in the 1920s. Their much lower profile in the 1930s is often attributed to a withdrawal of regime support for the women’s cause; yet, if the cause is defined in terms of support for women’s entry into higher education, the professions, and responsible administrative jobs, support was not withdrawn, at least at the rhetorical level, though it obviously was not one of the regime’s top priorities. It seems at least as likely that the muting of this group had practical causes, notably the great difficulties and hardships of everyday life that fell with particular force on working women with dependents. After marriage, or more precisely after the birth of a child, women who worked usually had no time to be activists, regardless of ideology. For this reason, the percentage of Komsomol members who were women (34 percent in 1935) was more than double that of Communists. [80]

was one of them until her suicide at the end of 1932. They were a minority, to
be sure—only about 10 percent of senior administrative jobs were held by
women, who constituted about 15 percent of party membership—but then
they had also been a minority in the 1920s. Their much lower profile in the
1930s is often attributed to a withdrawal of regime support for the women’s
cause; yet, if the cause is defined in terms of support for women’s entry into
higher education, the professions, and responsible administrative jobs, support
was not withdrawn, at least at the rhetorical level, though it obviously was
not one of the regime’s top priorities. It seems at least as likely that the muting
of this group had practical causes, notably the great difficulties and hardships
of everyday life that fell with particular force on working women with dependents.
After marriage, or more precisely after the birth of a child, women who
worked usually had no time to be activists, regardless of ideology. For this reason,
the percentage of Komsomol members who were women (34 percent in
1935) was more than double that of Communists.80

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