Harvard professor discusses Russian feminist origins of International Women’s Day
Dr. Ruthchild discussed her scholarly work on historic Russian social justice movements.
Dr. Rochelle Ruthchild, a scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center and at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, led a Zoom lecture on Russian feminism pre-Bolshevik Revolution on Mar. 4.
Ruthchild said the goal of her scholarly work was to challenge the traditional narrative of Russia being “backward and autocratic” when it came to social justice movements. In reality, “the United States and Russia were running side by side in early women’s rights achievements,” she explained. Ruthchild’s lecture was scheduled around International Women’s Day on Mar. 8. Russian feminists created the inaugural International Women’s Day in 1917 as they fought for suffrage in the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik Revolution.
Many Russian feminists in the late 19th century were highly educated and fought to attend university courses in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev, according to Ruthchild. She also pointed out that politically, Russian feminists came from both reformist and revolutionary standpoints towards Tsarism. While reformists acknowledged the issues with the autocracy and sought change while keeping the royal family’s dynasty in place, revolutionaries wanted to overthrow it entirely for Communist leadership. For instance, Sophia Perovskaya, a terrorist who helped assassinate Tsar Alexander II, became the first woman to ever be hanged in Russia in 1881. In contrast, Ruthchild explained that one famous Russian feminist, Anna Filosofova, was married to a Tsarist bureaucrat.
In 1905, Tsar Nicholas II attempted to quash total revolt by creating the Duma, the country's first parliament, which gave Russian men the right to vote for representatives. Ruthchild said that “this shattered the unity between women and men, who [had] felt they were fighting the autocracy together. Men who got the vote accepted it.” Women, who fought alongside men for the end of the autocracy, were still unable to vote.
The attitude of Russian male revolutionaries toward women’s suffrage stood in contrast to revolutionaries in Finland, a semi-autonomous country under the Russian empire. The Finnish Independence movement "insisted on including women in the fight for rights," Ruthchild explained, “and told the Tsar they would not accept any agreement that didn’t include women’s participation and inclusion.” Tsar Nicholas II “didn’t care about Finland, so he gave in and became an unwilling women’s rights pioneer,” she said.
When the standing Duma and the royal family, the Romanovs, were toppled in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Russian men who could vote for Duma representatives stalled on extending votes to women. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Russian women came together to march for suffrage in Petrograd, creating the first-ever International Women’s Day.
Ruthchild showed film footage of the march, which was called “The 1917 Petrograd March for Women’s Suffrage.” That march, she said, “largely disappeared from history.” She explained that trying to get the rights to the footage while she was conducting historical research in the Soviet Union was “like a detective story.” Ruthchild, putting a Russian spin on famous detective character Nancy Drew, nicknamed herself “Nancy Durovna.”
Aina Lagor, the program coordinator of the WRSC, moderated a Q&A session after Ruthchild's lecture. Participants remarked on the lack of conversation on the topic in Brandeis courses. “This is so informative, I had not heard about 80% of what Rochelle is reporting,” one person wrote in the chat. A 1976 Brandeis graduate wrote, “I never learned any of this in Russian history at Brandeis.” In a direct Zoom message to the Justice, this commenter added, “Important info [is] about to be lost if someone doesn’t record it.”
Dr. Ruthchild’s 2010 book on the topic is called “Equality and Revolution: Women’s Rights in the Russian Empire, 1905-1917.” As an aside, Dr. Ruthchild noted how fitting the event's date was: March 4, or “March Forth.”