“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”, “Proletarians of the World, unite!”, “To each according to his contribution”. Above are common slogans of the Communist party. Each was said to emphasize the importance of equality; rich or poor, young or old, man or woman, all people will be distributed the same amounts. History has shown that these words are more idealistic than realistic, from Stalinist Russia to the Kim regime’s Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Communism is flawed in the fact that it has not been able to exist without an Authoritarian leader, and yet the existence of the Authoritarian leader goes against the very foundations of Communism in that the proletariat do not rule. This causes a question to arise: how effective has Communism proved to be in establishing Gender Equality? Two famous (or perhaps, infamous) examples of Communist regimes, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, illustrate the social changes brought for women.
The rise of the Bolsheviks in 1917 brought a new constitution stating the equality of women. Divorce was enabled in 1918, and women were officially given equal rights as men in the household. In 1919, the Zhenotdel was established under the auspices of Lenin, taking place as the women’s only department of the Bolshevik party. Slowly, opportunities rose for women to take professions traditionally seen as those of men. In 1929, Stalin imposed a 14% quota on those entering higher technical education, this was pronounced to be for women. The roles of women increased somewhat further with the start of the Second World War; with the conscription of male soldiers, women were expected to fulfill the job vacancies in the collective farms and factories. Although a small minority, women trained as engineers and technicians were also expected to be on active duty. While women were initially discouraged from active services, the initial loss of Russia to Germany during the war and the efforts of determined women forced the Soviet Union to change its alignment and accept a greater amount of women. Thus, auxiliary regiments for women were established. Some women such as Marina Raskova became famous for their roles as female pilots, while other such as Nina Alexeyevna Lobkovskaya and Ukrainian Lyudmila Pavlichenko became invaluable as snipers. Later on after the war, women started working alongside men in construction brigades during the process of rebuilding war-torn cities.
On the other hand, the People’s Republic of China stated that men and women were to have equal rights in their 1954 Constitution. In fact, a Marriage Reform Law was introduced in 1950, not only requiring the consent of both genders in marriage but also proclaiming equality in the household. This meant that men were no longer allowed to keep concubines, and women were allowed to sue divorce. Practices that contradicted with the rights of women, such as foot binding, prostitution and the disposal of female infants were illegalized. Parallel to that in Communist Russia, women were also expected to work in collective farms alongside men. By the mid-1950s, about 20% of family income was by women. As with the Zhenotdel, a Women’s Federation was initiated by the Communist Party in order to carry out social policies that enabled women to have an equal status to men. During Mao’s era, the roles and status of women increased as more were encouraged to have an education and join the labour force, from jobs that vary from peasant labourers to officials. Apart from all his faults, it cannot be denied that Mao achieved great progress when it came to gender equality.
However, social policies do not equal to social change and this was proved in both societies to a certain extent. Income inequality often occurred among men and women, and political power was limited for women. Despite the efforts of both governments to elevate the status of women, social values did not change and women remained of lower status to men. This treatment of women was especially obvious in Stalinist Russia. Stalin had encouraged gender equality in order to de-emphasize the woman’s role of a housewife and thus move family-based values to state-based ones; one belief of Communist Russia was that it was the state, not the household, that was the fundamental unit of society. However, such plan soon backfired as the number of abandoned children rose and population growth halted, partially due to the ease of abortion and divorce. As a result, the Zhenotdel was abolished in 1930 as the ‘Great Retreat’ took place. Family values were once again emphasized and abortion was illegalized in 1936.
Meanwhile, although China made much social progress, the traditional thoughts regarding women were difficult to change. In the famine under the Great Leap Forward(1958-1962), many girls died as families chose to save their sons over their daughters. Discrimination subconsciously existed in society, no matter what policies were implemented. The most devastating was the regression which occurred after Mao’s death. With the start of the One Child Policy under Deng Xiaoping, families aborted female fetuses in order to have their one child as a male that would carry on the family name. This in turn would lead to a disproportionate amount of sexes in China. Consequently, women gained commodity value as brides especially as the lack of female population brought a higher demand for wives. The black market often sold women as brides, where they were soon bought, raped, and trapped to their new ‘husbands’. Rapidly, the progress made under Mao was reversed.
Even today, Russia and China remain ranked at 50 and 90, respectively, in the Gender Inequality Index, perhaps showing high human development in world standards but certainly not high enough from what one would expect from two nations with a Communist history. The history of two Communist nations show how difficult establishing equality between genders is. Russia under the rule of Lenin showed much effort to elevate the status of women, effort that would soon grow half-hearted under Stalin. China under Mao struggled to achieve equality, and made great progress – progress that would break down under Mao. However, what this teaches us is that whether it is Communist ideologies or not, social change can only occur when a country is truly determined and committed to thos idealogies.