USA feminists who went to the Soviet Union

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.


Julia L. Mickenberg:
But the particular appeal to women is something that nobody had talked about. And the fact that all these things that were happening right after the revolution that put women on equal footing with men were something that American women—particularly American women who were interested in everything from equal rights to better employment job opportunities to more relationships based on women being on equal footing with men in relationships—were interested in. Right after the revolution, within the first few years, not only did women get the vote but abortion was made legal and free. In marriages, men sometimes took their wives’ names or women and men could just keep their own names. Women gained property rights, there were laws passed mandating equal pay, divorce was made easy, they built dining halls, laundries, nurseries, with generous maternity leaves so that you could get nine weeks off before and after childbirth. And all of these are really designed so that more women can enter the workforce. These things we still don’t have in this country.

Even though looking back at it, you can see all the ways that none of it really worked as they said it was going to, you can imagine it being very appealing at the time, to see what was going on there and how that was happening.

Kelly Faircloth:

It was really interesting to look at the conversations around children and childcare. A lot of women went as famine relief workers, and there was this set of ideas and talk about, you know, “we need to take care of these Russian children and help these children of the future.” And there’s also this group of women that are very interested in the idea of pioneering these new ways of taking care of children, having daycare centers and nurseries and communal ways of organizing things.

It seems like to some extent this is a lost history—the American women’s movement is often thought of in isolation, as opposed to thinking about this international movement. And I was wondering whether this is where childcare gets that patina of redness. Even now people are really weird about daycare, and I wondered whether partly that’s the ghost of this moment.

Julia L. Mickenberg:
Rebecca Onion, who is a former student of mine who is a journalist who writes for Slate, just published a piece on this and asked me for suggestions for references about where that goes back to, this idea that daycare is socialist or whatever. And certainly, at the most extreme, there was talk about abolishing the family in the Soviet Union. Most people weren’t arguing for that. But I do think that the great interest in nursery schools and cooperative childrearing, what they were doing with children is really quite fascinating and really quite radical. The unschooling movement today—there were experiments like that in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, although interestingly some of them were looking at educational reformers in the United States. They were really interested in John Dewey, who had this idea of project-based learning. It goes back to, if you’re interested in challenging authority, then you have to start at the very base of the arbitrary authority of parents over children.

It’s very complicated to talk about it, because you go from some very exciting utopian experiments in the 1920s to that being totally shut down by the 1930s. And even in the 1920s, there was violence, there were arbitrary arrests, there were major problems from the beginning. And I should make clear that I’m aware of that.

In that chapter that you’re referring to, the people who went as relief workers, I was really trying to explore this tension between this very idealized picture of Soviet children—there were so many depictions of red-cheeked, happy, free, self-reliant, some of them were even pointing to they can’t even afford pencils, they can’t afford books, but look at these amazing educational experiments they’re doing by going out in nature and drawing and deciding themselves! And also raising children cooperatively. And I can see that being threatening to the discourse of right-wing family values, if we’re going to raise children to be thinking communally and at a very young age taking them out of the family—you can see how the conservative reaction to that kind of thing, which became really quite vocal in the 1970s. But you see people as early as the 1920s and 1930s becoming anxious about it. And childcare and nursery schools have been controversial. I don’t know if it’s specifically because that’s what they were doing in the Soviet Union, but I think that might be argued.

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