Socialist revolution and women’s liberation

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Socialist revolution and women’s liberation


This article first appeared in March 2005′s Socialism and Liberation magazine.

In 1949, the story of a young woman named “Gold Flower” became known around the world as an example of the path toward liberation taken by millions of Chinese women.

Civil war was raging between the Communists and the bourgeois nationalist Kuomintang forces led by Chiang Kai-

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 A poster in 1971 China promotes birth control.

Shek at the time. The war receded with the triumph of the revolution on Oct. 1, 1949.

Gold Flower’s story was made famous by journalist Jack Belden in his 1949 book “China Shakes the World.” Belden wrote about a small village in northern China that was transformed by the Chinese Communist Party and the Red Army before the triumph of the revolution.

Gold Flower is the English translation of the woman’s name, Kinhua. She was forced into an arranged marriage despite her love for another man. Her husband and father-in-law routinely abused her.

In 1945, a representative of the Red Army came to the village and called the women together to form a women’s association. Though Kinhua feared attending the meeting, a friend in the newly formed association came to her and asked about her suffering. Kinhua told her story.

A few days later, four women from the women’s association visited her father-in-law to discuss his treatment of Kinhua. When he screamed at them to go away, they summoned 15 more women with clubs and rope. When he refused to change his ways, they tied him up and held him prisoner at the women’s association.

Three days later, they convened a general meeting of women in the village to decide his fate. Kinhua testified about her suffering. Feeling the power of the women in the room, the father-in-law promised to reform.

Upon returning to her husband’s home, Kinhua’s behavior changed. She didn’t go back to the old ways of docility and servitude. She was elected to lead a group of ten women who investigated the treatment of other women in the village.

When the nationalist offensive against the Red Army grew stronger, she struggled with men in the village who did not want their wives working in the fields. The women grew food to feed the Communist soldiers. They encouraged their husbands to fight with the Red Army, recognizing their new freedoms as a product of the ongoing revolution.

Young men and women began to marry freely. Women challenged the centuries-old traditions and customs with the women’s association to back them up against their husbands’ physical threats.

Kinhua’s father-in-law still wanted to beat her back into submission. Defiant, Kinhua summoned her husband. When his father filled him in, he threatened to beat Kinhua to death. She went to the women’s association and brought several women back to the house.

Her husband was belligerent, so the women tied him up and brought him to the women’s association. Still unrepentant, the women beat him until he promised to reform.

But when he got home, Kinhua’s husband said he did not support the new society. He threatened to join the nationalists. When he attempted to strike Kinhua, she ducked from his blow and ran to the women’s association.

Finding the chairwoman of the women’s association, she yelled: “My husband is not yet reformed.” The chairwoman went up to the roof of her house and called through a megaphone. “Comrade women! Come at once! Something of importance!”

Women came out from nearly every home in the village. Rushing toward the women’s association building, they heard the chairwoman explain: “Gold Flower’s husband is bad again! Get ropes and catch him!”

With Gold Flower, Kinhua in the lead, forty women ran through the village. But her husband had already fled. The women chased him for three miles, but in the dark he escaped.

Chinese women organized and empowered

There are literally millions of stories like that of Kinhua’s. As the revolution overthrew the landlord and capitalist classes, women were free to liberate themselves from centuries-old traditions of abuse by husbands and landlords.

Across China, women formed mass women’s associations such as the one in Kinhua’s village. They created a people’s court for women. Abusive men were tied up and forced to face large meetings where women could testify about their abuse. The associations also guaranteed that abusive behavior did not continue.

One of the first major laws passed by the revolutionary Chinese government was the Marriage Law. This law outlawed paying for wives, polygamy, concubines and child marriage, prohibited interference in the remarriage of widows, and guaranteed the right of divorce to both parties. By the next year, there were over 20,000 divorces, almost 80 percent of which were initiated by women.

The new government also placed special emphasis on campaigns to raise women’s literacy. In 1950, many cities reported that around 95 percent of illiterate women workers were attending classes.

Classes were also organized in rural areas. In Shantung Province, there were almost 600 literacy classes for women in 1949. By 1950, the number of classes tripled, involving over 40,000 women. (Ruth Sidel, Women and Child Care in China, 1972.)

Progress for women in China continued in the years after the revolution.

Russian revolution advances women’s rights

The same was true following the 1917 Russian Revolution, the first revolution where the working class successfully took power and held it.

In some of the first legal acts of the new revolutionary government, women gained rights that they didn’t have in the capitalist world, including the right to vote and to abortion on demand. Restrictions around divorce were removed. The Bolsheviks abolished the old laws that enforced gender inequality. They also threw out the anti-gay laws. The new laws passed were designed to give women economic, social and sexual rights.

Despite this incredible progress, it would be a mistake to think that socialist revolution liberates women overnight. But the socialist organization of society seeks to liberate women from the economic slavery they are subjected to in class society. In this way, it is only socialism that offers the complete road to liberation for women.

Not only do socialist governments and states turn all of the laws upside down, socialism lays the economic basis for real liberation. This comes from freeing women of what binds them to the home—the burden of child rearing and housework. These tasks assigned to women in class societies keep women from fully participating in economic, social, political and cultural life.

By socializing and collectivizing these functions, women can be liberated from the home and the nuclear family unit. Responsibilities can be shared, not only with men, but with a community.

No one recognized this more than the leaders of the socialist revolutions. In “A Great Beginning,” written in 1919, V.I. Lenin wrote: “In this field, not a single democratic party in the world, not even in the most advanced bourgeois republic, has done in decades so much as a hundredth part of what we did in our very first year in power.

“Notwithstanding all the laws emancipating woman, she continues to be a domestic slave, because petty housework crushes, strangles, stultifies and degrades her, chains her to the kitchen and the nursery, and she wastes her labor on barbarously unproductive, petty, nerve-racking, stultifying and crushing drudgery. The real emancipation of women, real communism, will begin only where and when an all-out struggle begins (led by the proletariat wielding the state power) against this petty housekeeping, or rather when its wholesale transformation into a large-scale socialist economy begins.”

The Soviet government set up communal eating-places, laundries and childcare to begin the process of changing the role of women in society. The vast majority of Soviet women gained equal access to education and work outside the home. They received four months paid maternity leave and childcare.

Although the new government could take concrete steps in support of women, it was impossible to overturn the old patriarchal system and the old family by government edict. All of the social ties that bound and hindered women’s development could only be undone over time. The old patriarchal “family” system could not be abolished in the circumstances of poverty and scarcity.

The Russian revolutionaries of that time, men and women alike, understood that the material basis for women’s oppression must be eliminated to achieve liberation.

Some of the gains that women made were eroded later under less revolutionary Soviet governments. But throughout the USSR’s 70-year history, women made great advances as scientists, engineers, doctors and managers. Socialist revolutions did not occur in countries where capitalism was the most advanced. They triumphed in countries where capitalism was newer and weaker.

Though this meant that the overthrown ruling class was weaker, it also meant that these countries were less economically and industrially developed. This fact, combined with unending military aggression and economic blockade by the capitalist countries, has meant that socialism has not been free to realize its full possibility.

The revolutions in Russia, China and elsewhere suffered from scarcity. Centuries of feudalism and colonial domination weighed heavily on societies that had not experienced even a bourgeois revolution. Overcoming these elements is inextricably connected to the liberation of women.

With the counterrevolutions in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe from 1989 to 1991, these governments fell into the hands of a fundamentally different class, a new capitalist ruling class. The negative impact could not have been more evident than with the changed status of women.

Today, women make up 80 percent of the unemployed in the former Soviet Union. Access to childcare, education and health care has greatly deteriorated. More teenage women are having children. Drug and alcohol abuse and violence against women is rising. Overall life expectancy for women has shortened.

Cuba: ‘A revolution within the revolution’

After the collapse of the socialist bloc, many did not believe that the Cuban government and social system could survive in the face of the global tide of counterrevolution. Having lost its main allies, and its economic partners, Cuba was suddenly isolated.

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Women celebrate May Day, Santiago de Cuba.
Photo: Bill Hackwell

Cuba is a small, poor country that faces a daily military and economic war waged by the strongest imperialist country in the world just 90 miles away. The Cuban government works hard to provide food and housing for everyone. It struggles to develop and survive.

Despite all of these obstacles, Cuba has survived. It has achieved the highest literacy rate and lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America. Women make up over half of students in medical, law and other professional schools in Cuba. Women’s representation in government positions is one of the highest in the world.

The leaders of the Cuban Revolution also recognize the struggle and process that must take place after a socialist revolution to change women’s status in society. Cuba has called the struggle for women’s equality a “revolution within the revolution.”

A year after the 1959 revolution, the Federation of Cuban Women was formed to address women’s issues. It helped to establish childcare, paid maternity leave, free medical care, expanded educational opportunities, and made it possible for women to enter every area of the workforce.

In 1975, the Federation was instrumental in shaping the Family Code. This code made it the legal obligation of men to share in the housework and child-rearing responsibilities. There have been countrywide discussions of the Family Code, through congresses, educational material and the mass media.

The Family Code and similar laws cannot be strictly or fully enforced. But they lay the basis for a different societal norm. They are seen as a tool for education and change. Federation of Cuban Women President Vilma Espin is aware that laws and good intentions alone, no matter how revolutionary, cannot change society. Espin fought in the guerilla movement with Fidel Castro and others before the triumph of the revolution. She has been a member of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party since it’s founding in 1965.

Lasting social changes “could not be achieved purely by our wanting [them],” said Espin. But the legal changes, coupled with Cuba’s revolutionary economic reorganization, lay the basis for women’s liberation.

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