Bowdoin Campus News
March 14, 2010
Social revolution. Sexual liberation. Economic parity. During Women's History Month, Associate Professor of Gender and Women's Studies Kristen Ghodsee salutes one woman who helped to shape a new world order.
Q: Who is your favorite unsung heroine of women's history?
KG: I would have to say Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952), who was a very forward-thinking Russian political activist who wrote about motherhood and marriage, women and socialism, and sexual freedom. These were very progressive ideas in the early 20th century. She was one of the few women appointed in Lenin's government, serving as Commissar for Social Welfare and was a leading figure in the women’s section of the Communist Party. She became a vocal critic of Soviet bureaucratization and got kicked out and sent abroad as a diplomat in Norway, Sweden and Mexico.
Interestingly, she does return to Russia during Stalin's time and he lets her live. She was the only living critic of the Soviet Union that Stalin doesn't touch. It's unclear why, but I think he valued her diplomatic abilities: between 1946 and 1952 he made her an advisor to the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Q: How did you discover her?
KG: I found out about her, and her writings on free love and revolution, while preparing materials for a class I teach called Sex and Socialism. Kollontai writes about how marriage is a bourgeois trap for women and how people should only marry for love, not economic benefit. She believed there was no shame for a woman to be passionate. She put forth the radical idea that women have sexual desires that they should be able to act on as freely as men, and thought everyone should be free to have sex outside of the constraints of marriage.
Ultimately, the sexual revolution in Russia failed, and her ideas were trivialized. A lot of people had sex, babies were born out of wedlock, but women didn’t have the ability to take care of them. Without birth control, free love turned out to be a lot better for men than it was for women.
Still, my students get a kick out of her writing. She’s writing over a hundred years ago,, and yet she's talking about the kind of sexual culture that exists today. The students can relate to it.
Q: How is she thought of today?
KG: Public opinion of her in Russia is that she was a bit off the deep end, but she was a woman of privilege who chose to become a committed revolutionary. She was sent into exile for her political work, studied at a university, wrote books, advocated for the sexual revolution, and railed against bourgeois feminism. She's the kind of new Soviet woman they were trying to imagine. At least parts of it. She even came to the U.S. for a four-month speaking tour where she gave 123 lectures in four different languages. In terms of women's history in the U.S., there are the prominent figures like Emma Goldman, but because Kollontai was Russian not many people know about her. Interestingly, when I was in eastern Germany last summer I noticed there are still streets named after her.
Read a translation of Kollontai's "Sexual Relations and the Class Struggle."
Kristen Ghodsee is a distinguished international scholar of post-socialist cultural studies and transnational feminisms. She is author of several books, most recently, Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Transformation of Islam in Postsocialist Bulgaria (Princeton University Press, 2009).
Kollontai was involved in the creation of the first Soviet family law code, which included the decriminalization of homosexuality, abortion for women, "legitimacy" and support for all children regardless of their parents' martial status, and no fault divorce. Many of the most progressive aspects of this code--like abortion rights and the decriminalization of homosexuality--were stripped away in the 1930s. Her novella The Love of Worker Bees is a very enjoyable read and a great primary source for the tensions between Communism and feminism in Kollontai's experiences as a leading Bolshevik woman.