In the past two decades, there has been a resurgence in the use of the word “feminist,” which now appears on t-shirts, in the titles of best-selling nonfiction, and in interviews with politicians, executives, and celebrities in a way that would have been all but unthinkable in the late twentieth century, with its vapid fantasies of “postfeminism.” Despite this, there have been few recent advances in women’s causes and the United States has seen some remarkable regressions, particularly in reproductive rights. The conspicuous disjunction between public discourse and political practice is partly the result of a hollowing out of terms; the word “feminist” may be used more but often means less. This is demonstrated by the rise of what American ethnographer Kristen R. Ghodsee describes as “‘Lean in’ feminism and #girlboss online activism,” in which an emphasis on improving individual women’s positions within capitalism displaces a project of collective emancipation but retains its vocabulary.
As Ghodsee argues in her latest book, Red Valkyries: Feminist Lessons from Five Revolutionary Women, these developments are the products of a long-standing division between those who “focused on attaining increased rights and privileges for individual women” and those who both sought to dismantle patriarchal structures and worked “side by side with their male counterparts to create a more equitable world for all through collective action.” For much of the twentieth century, Soviet activists were central to the latter struggle. They understood that, because capitalism depends on the exploitation of women, whose unpaid domestic work enables businesses to “off-load the cost of maintaining healthy employees,” their liberation requires fundamental economic change. The fight against capitalism was not a diversion from the attempt to emancipate women but a means of addressing its material foundations. None of the women described in Red Valkyries accepted the individualism prevalent in Europe and North America. It is telling that Alexandra Kollontai, for instance, refused to identify as a feminist, a term she saw as too closely identified with liberalism. Ghodsee respects her decision by describing her subjects as “socialist women’s activists;” she pointedly observes that the “use of the term ‘feminist’ in the subtitle of this book was the decision of the Verso marketing department.” Red Valkyries attempts to recover a broader, more radical history of the struggle against patriarchy, to insist on what “lean in” feminism obscures.
The five figures Ghodsee considers are connected by their commitment to revolutionary practice as well as theory. Lyudmila Pavlichenko “racked up 309 confirmed kills, the highest tally of any woman sniper in history” in the Second World War and Elena Lagadinova was the “youngest girl partisan struggling against the Nazi-allied Bulgarian monarchy,” her pistol worn on a chain around her neck so she would not lose it. Their wartime service challenged gender stereotypes, as Pavlichenko recognized: “[l]ong before scholars such as Esther Newton and Judith Butler theorized gender performativity,” she “explained to her American readers that the traits that they considered masculine and feminine were not natural and fixed but rather situational and fluid.” It also provided a basis for important political work. Pavlichenko went on a successful propaganda tour of America in 1942, during which she befriended Eleanor Roosevelt, and Lagadinova became president of the Bulgarian Women’s Committee and rapporteur at the 1985 United Nations Conference on the Status of Women. Both used the resources of the state to further their objectives, as did the other figures Ghodsee considers. Kollontai served as Commissar for Social Welfare after the Bolshevik revolution and was later the first female Russian ambassador, while Inessa Armand worked alongside her in the Zhenotdel (Women’s Section), and Nadezhda Krupskaya was deputy minister in charge of adult education. Their involvement in government sometimes led them to make significant compromises but it also enabled them to improve the lives of millions of women.
The years after the Bolshevik revolution saw an attempt to introduce laws that would not just ameliorate the immediate condition of women but overturn patriarchal systems. These efforts went far beyond the abstract declarations of legal equality, involving wide-ranging changes to economic and cultural structures. The people involved achieved a great deal, with Lagadinova, for example, helping to ensure that by 1975 Bulgaria “had one of the most progressive social systems in place for working women,” although many early advances in Russia were reversed under Stalin. In 1920, it became “the first country in the world to legalize abortion on demand;” in 1936, it was banned again. As Ghodsee recognizes, the figures she discusses made mistakes and some of their policies had unintended consequences. “[L]iberalized divorce laws,” for example, enabled men to abandon women “at the first sign of a pregnancy” and, as “alimony provisions proved almost impossible to enforce” and wages remained low, many single mothers struggled. The problems did not demonstrate that the objectives of these revolutionary women were mistaken, but that they were unable to pursue their ideas to their logical conclusions. As Orwell recognized in Animal Farm, the tragedy of the Soviet Union was too little revolution, not too much.
Despite “the many troubles with central planning, the massive human costs of the collectivization of agriculture, and the brutal decades of Stalinist rule,” the Soviet Union made considerable advances: life expectancy and literacy rates increased significantly and infant mortality decreased significantly. These developments may not seem important to people who have always been confident their children will survive childhood and learn to read, but they illustrate what could be achieved. The five women Ghodsee represents attempted to use the possibilities of the new state to overturn long-standing injustices. They were not wrong to do so just because they were sometimes defeated; the big battalions are always on the side of the established order. Their ideas and actions not only deserve recognition but serious critical attention. Red Valkyries is a compelling book, a call for a broader understanding of the history of women’s political practice, the ideas that informed it, and its implications for our own time. It reminds us that there were always loftier goals than getting more women into middle and upper corporate management.
Red Valkyries: Feminist Lessons from Five Revolutionary Women
By Kristen Ghodsee
Published July 12, 2022
Ben Clarke is Associate Professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. He is the author of "Orwell in Context," co-author of "Understanding Richard Hoggart", and co-editor of "Working-Class Writing." He is currently editing the "Routledge Companion to Working-Class Literature."