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The Ostensive Step Forward in Gender Equality in 1920-30s Soviet Art and Sculpture

By Jeremy Wolfers

WWI saw major changes to the socioeconomic position of women in the workforce and new fashions in their wake, emphasising a new, “modern” womanhood based around entrance to the previously male-dominated labour market (Roberts, 1993, p. 660). Fashions, as well as depictions of women, carried political messaging, and in France the femme moderne was hystericized during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, with more pressing political matters of Bolshevism and the post-war structures being somewhat overshadowed. Bolshevism itself perhaps was a cause for the concerns around fashion, as Soviet artwork and theory generated a new image of the Soviet woman as having been given the ability to participate in public spaces and serve as a productive, rather than, or as well as, a reproductive agent. In particular, emphasis was placed on allowing women to escape domestic life in text, but the imagery of soviet art and the realities of Soviet society instead reinforced traditional gender roles (Turton, 2018, p. 70). In particular, the 1930s Five-Year Plan, which set high production goals and reintroduced women to some industrial labour, saw women being portrayed less and less in industrial settings and saw them experiencing worse labour conditions and fewer services (Schrand, 1999, p. 1456).

Soviet propaganda poster portraying a woman in red clothing in front of several signs saying "workers clubs, libraries, cafeterias, universities and a home for her child".
“This is what the October Revolution has given to the working and peasant women”, 1920. International Museum of Women (2021). http://exhibitions.globalfundforwomen.org/exhibitions/women-power-and-politics/appearance/emancipated

This 1920 poster depicts a female industrial worker, who thanks to the Bolshevik revolution has been given “workers clubs, libraries, cafeterias, universities and a home for her and her child”. This embodied the duality of Soviet imagery on gender roles, simultaneously portraying her independence and participation in work and public spaces whilst emphasizing her reproductive role at home. Of note, however, is the lack of depiction of any radical fashion accompanying her position; her red dress is a striking representation of communism, but her and the babushkas in the background are dressed in traditional peasant clothing.

The political image of the emancipated woman in the soviet context is thus free from the gender constraints of capitalism, but remains in many ways “traditional”, and lacked the appeals to modernism and new “freedom of movement” that were embodied in contemporaneous French fashions (Roberts, 1993, pp. 661, 675-678). Russian constructivist fashions were present in this period, but were unpopular and never made it to the forefront of Soviet realist art or sculpture, because they were primarily made by female artists who were often restricted in their access to painting materials (Kiaer, 2009). Additionally, the aesthetics of constructivism borrowed from the capitalist French fashions of the late 1910s/1920s, which were visually and ideologically counter to Soviet realism. The “Prozodezhda” constructivist outfits, inspired by industrial uniforms and functional design, were unsuccessful, and more modern fashions akin to the Flapper fashions were stigmatized due to their capitalist connotations. The cartoon below from the Soviet Women’s magazine “Zhenskii Zhurnal” portrays women with modernist, “flapper” fashion as scowling jealously at a woman with more domestic and less “dynamic” clothing. As such, whilst advertising and concepts existed for more modern style fashion, it had little place in the propaganda posters which retained the traditional portrayal of women as mothers, peasants and in traditional clothing; productivity and its governing factors of health and naturality was emphasized (Rudova, 2014, p. 391).

A magazine cartoon portraying some women in "flapper" fashion looking scathingly at a woman in more traditional middle class "domestic" clothing.
“Zhenskii Zhurnal”, Issue 11 (1928), p. 9. Rowley Soviet Ephemera, Blavatnik Archive.
A Soviet poster portraying a peasant woman, coloured red and standing tall and forebodingly, denying "Priests and Kulaks" access to a Collective Farm.
N. Mikhailov, In Our Kolkhoz [Collective Farm] There is No Place for Priests and Kulaks (Original printed in 1930). https://blogs.miamioh.edu/havighurst/2016/12/16/revolutionary-sources-part-i-propaganda-the-peasant-woman-and-the-transformation-of-soviet-propaganda-1917-1930/

Progressively through the 1930s the emphasis shifted from opening opportunities for women to consigning them to specific spaces, especially peasant work and domesticity/reproduction (Schrand, 1999, pp. 1455-8). The Zhenotdel Women’s Department, the Soviet government’s women’s pressure group, was dissolved, which reduced the influence women had on policy. Most of the party higher ups were apathetic when it came to actually providing emancipatory policies and services for women in employment. Portrayals such as the above poster for collective farms portrayed women as powerful productive agents, but in more traditional settings of peasant work. Her tall stance and red colouring represent her as a powerhouse for soviet production compared to the “priests” and “kulaks”, other traditional figures of pre-revolutionary Russia with no place in the system. As a result, the traditional image of the female peasant worker was propagated despite many other traditional societal roles being extinguished.

A statue by Vera Mukhina for the 1937 Paris International Exhibition, portraying a male factor worker with a hammer and a female peasant with a sickle united.
Vera Mukhina, Worker and Collective Farm Woman (1937) https://en.opisanie-kartin.com/description-of-the-monument-to-vera-mukhina-worker-and-collective-farm-woman/
Last Accessed 10th February 2021

Perhaps the most iconic piece of Soviet Realist sculpture was the iconic Worker and Collective Farm Woman produced for the Paris International Exhibition in 1937. Whilst a dynamic image highlighting the freedom of the peasant woman, and the steel plated construction highlights the industrial modernism of the Soviet people, the woman is a farm worker, specifying her space in the fields where women had worked for a much longer time. Additionally, women’s remaining role in industrial labour was both smaller and less well regulated, with 50% of women, 28% of the industrial work force, being unemployed due to a shift away from light industry. An increase in women’s employment came in informal, unskilled labour following sudden shortages into 1930. Women’s tasks in industry were perhaps intentionally unclear and often they were only portrayed on breaks and not actually working, a trope outlined in the 1935 Thematic Plan, which dictated the approved artistic direction for Soviet artists (Reid, 1998, p. 138). With decreased funding for day-cares and nurseries, women were consigned back to domesticity, in contrast to the supposed goals of equality of the Bolsheviks and the initial aims in the 1910s and 20s.

Soviet practice of gender equality never quite reached its goals, as the productivity of the Soviet system declined such that the funding for nurseries and day-cares that would allow women into productive labour was cut. As a result, the 1930s saw women increasingly being coded as peasants, and their real opportunities declined as the decision making of the USSR more or less ceased its already surface-level commitment to gender equality. Fashions and goods for women were discouraged in propaganda, and as such women’s role was conveyed to be increasingly domestic and in line with traditional gender roles.

Bibliography

Christina Kiaer, “The short life of the equal woman”, Tate-etc, Issue 15 (2009). https://www.tate.org.uk/tate-etc/issue-15-spring-2009/short-life-equal-women. Last accessed 10th February 2021

Susan E. Reid, “All Stalin’s Women: Gender and Power in Soviet Art 1930s”, Slavic Review, Vol. 57, No. 1 (1998), pp. 133-173

Mary Louise Roberts, “Samson and Delilah Revisited: The Politics of Women’s Fashions in 1920s France”, The American Historical Review, Vol. 98, No. 3 (1993), pp. 657-684

Larissa Rudova, “’Who’s the fairest of them all?’ Beauty and Femininity in Contemporary Russian Adolescent Girl Fiction”, The Russian Review, Vol. 73, No. 3 (2014), pp. 389-403

Thomas G. Schrand, “Five-Year Plan for Women’s Labour: Constructing Socialism and the ‘Double Burden’, 1930-1932”, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 51, No. 8 (1999), pp. 1455-1478

Katy Turton, “Gender and Family in the Russian Revolutionary Movement”, in Melanie Ilic, The Palgrave Handbook of Women and Gender in Twentieth-Century Russia and the Soviet Union (Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2018), pp. 69-82

Primary Sources

N. Mikhailov, In Our Kolkhoz [Collective Farm] There is No Place for Priests and Kulaks (Original printed in 1930).  https://blogs.miamioh.edu/havighurst/2016/12/16/revolutionary-sources-part-i-propaganda-the-peasant-woman-and-the-transformation-of-soviet-propaganda-1917-1930/. Last Accessed 10th February 2021

Vera Mukhina, Worker and Collective Farm Woman (1937) https://en.opisanie-kartin.com/description-of-the-monument-to-vera-mukhina-worker-and-collective-farm-woman/. Last Accessed 10th February 2021

“This is what the October Revolution has given to the working and peasant women”, 1920. International Museum of Women (2021). http://exhibitions.globalfundforwomen.org/exhibitions/women-power-and-politics/appearance/emancipated. Last Accessed 10th February 2021

“Zhenskii Zhurnal”, Issue 11 (1928). Rowley Soviet Ephemera, Blavatnik Archive.org. Last Accessed 23rd May 2021.

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