CLIO TALKS BACK: Clio Commemorates the 1908 All-Russian Congress of Women.

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Group photo of women who organized the 1908 All-Russian Congress of Women
The year 2008 marks the centennial of the first All-Russian Congress of Women, held in St. Petersburg in early December 1908. This was the first “women’s parliament” in Russian history. “Just think,” one contemporary report exclaimed, “women have organised everything and are running the whole congress themselves. Astonishing!”

Finnish women and men obtained the vote in 1906, in conjunction with their newly autonomous status within the Russian Empire. In late June 1906, the first elected men’s parliament in Russia, known as the First State Duma, also debated woman suffrage, and one deputy presented an eloquent argument on behalf of enfranchising Russian women. The tsar’s government abruptly dissolved the First Duma in early July, so no action could be taken. The Second and Third Duma proved dismissive of arguments for “equal rights,” amidst the rapidly deteriorating the Russian political situation.

Early in 1908, the women’s conference organizing committee had to submit their preliminary program to the tsar’s Ministry of the Interior for approval – and those officials initially cut out the “most controversial” paragraph pertaining to “the struggle for political and civil rights at home and abroad” and placed severe restrictions on attendance. Students and foreigners were barred from participating. Men could speak but could exercise no voting rights. Nevertheless, 1053 individuals had enrolled by the opening day of the congress. In addition, representatives of the press (including the foreign press) – and the watchful police monitors – attended. Many questions were considered “out of order” and the congress organizers (including Anna Shabanova, Mariia Pokrovskaia, and Anna Filosofova) remained concerned that the police might shut down the congress prematurely if “forbidden” topics (“the peasant crisis, women in industry, problems of marriage, maternity and morals, women’s suffrage, and the ‘organisational tasks’ of the women’s movement”) were broached. The threat of government censorship, and the use of force, was very real – and intimidating. Russian civil society operated under serious constraints. In particular, freedom of speech and association were constantly monitored.

In its final form, the congress program contained four sections: (1) women’s role in philanthropy and “cultural activity;” (2) women in the economy, family, and society; (3) the political and civil position of women in Russian and abroad; and (4) women’s education. In the last section, delegates enthusiastically endorsed co-education of the sexes and sex education.

One group present, a contingent of 35 working women from St. Petersburg, were (in Linda Edmondson’s words) “committed to opposing the feminist slogans of the congress, and stressing class war as the dynamic of capitalist society. They were conspicuous, from the very opening of the proceedings, by their physical appearance: under-nourished and cheaply clothed, they presented a start contrast to the well-covered women of the upper ranks. They accentuated their distinctiveness by keeping together in one corner of the hall, well away from the congress promoters.” Their leader, Aleksandra Kollontai, would later achieve fame as the promoter of women’s issues within the Communist Party after the demise of the Provisional government of Kerensky (which had granted women the right to vote) and the Bolshevik takeover of Russia in October 1917.

During the 1908 congress, this women Workers’ Group staged a deliberate walkout, over the question of whether women's suffrage should be restricted (according to property qualifications) or "universal." Then the sessions ground to an abrupt halt by Sof’ia Dekhtereva’s unscheduled speech against the death penalty – referring to the numerous executions taking place at the time. Yet the congress had done its work and recorded its transactions – a “first” in the annals of Russian history.

Courtesy of Marianna G. Muravyeva
Organizers & Participants of the 2008 Russian Women's History Conference
Earlier this year, a group of Russian women’s historians organized a commemorative conference in St. Petersburg to honor this historic Russian “women’s parliament” and to discuss new developments in Russian women’s history. Clio enthusiastically awaits the publication and rapid dissemination of their findings.

Source: Linda Edmondson, “The First All-Russian Congress of Women,” in her book Feminism in Russia 1900-1917 (Stanford University Press, 1984), pp. 83-106. Quotations, pp. 104, 88.

Further reading: Encyclopedia of Russian Women’s Movements, ed. Norma C. Noonan & Carol Nechemias (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001); Barbara Alpern Engel, Women in Russia 1700-2000 (Cambridge University Press, 2001); Natalia Pushkareva, Women in Russian History: From the Tenth to the Twentieth Century (M. E. Sharp, 1997).