Another story of the Russian Revolution: Reading Judy Cox’s 'The Women's Revolution'

The Women's Revolution

Judy Cox's The Women's Revolution: Russia 1905-1917 was published in Britain in 2017[1]. Its Japanese translation was published in 2022. The English original was one of many works published around the world to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. However, Cox interprets this revolution from a different perspective from many historians, namely from a woman's perspective.

The author is not a professional historian, but a lifelong British socialist and schoolteacher. Although all the sources used are secondary, and no primary Russian-language sources are included, she nonetheless deftly brings together many secondary sources to reveal how important a role women revolutionaries, women Bolsheviks and women workers played in the Russian Revolution, its preparatory process, and in the civil war that followed.

Cox points out that most existing histories of the Russian Revolution and research books have failed to highlight the role of women in the Russian Revolution. And she criticises the fact that even women revolutionaries who played leading roles, with the exception of Alexandra Kollontai, have been evaluated not by their activities, but as Lenin's sisters, wives, lovers or in relation to other male activists. Cox bitterly points out that their appearance, dress and sexual attractiveness have been commented on by male historians.


As well as highlighting some heroic women revolutionaries, Cox reveals that countless unknown women workers played important and often decisive roles in the revolution. After all, it was a massive march by women workers on International Women's Day that launched the February Revolution. As many young men had been sent to war for military service, the mainstay of factory workers and other workers in Petrograd and other large cities at the time was, to a large extent, women. Organising workers meant also organising working women, and many of the workers who rose up were also women.

Opposing the conventional view of the February Revolution as merely a spontaneous outburst from below, Cox points out that grassroots women activists played an important role in creating the movement. Cox quotes a passage from Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution to remind readers of the existence of a 'molecular process' of revolutionary propaganda that was tirelessly and incessantly going on in every factory, union, tavern, hospital and rural area, which led to the February Revolution. Alongside the male activists, it was the women activists who carried out this propaganda work.

Women also played a pivotal role in the process from the February to the October Revolution. Even working women who were regarded as the most backward and submissive, such as maids and washerwomen, organised themselves, fought for their demands and spoke out against the war. Cox presents the amazing story of the laundresses:

On 1 May 1917, a strike of some 4,000 laundresses began in Petrograd. The women were particularly despised and downtrodden, toiling for 14 hours a day, paid a pittance and enduring health conditions such as rheumatism. They demanded an eight-hour day and refused the Provisional Government’s instruction to return to work, choosing instead to tour the city’s laundries extinguishing the fires used to heat the water.

One of the organisers of the laundresses’ strike was Bolshevik Anna Sakharova. Alexandra Kollontai also gave her full support to the struggle. They organised a laundresses’ union, which went on strike for a month. They finally got their bosses to grant their demands. Cox writes:

The laundresses had demonstrated that formerly unorganised and unskilled workers could take collective action and defeat their bosses. The laundresses’ militancy revealed both workers’ growing frustration with the Provisional Government and the political development of women workers.

The October Revolution was thus the result of a struggle (a war of position) from below, which took place in countless factories, streets, laundries, bars, barracks, schools, railway stations, etc. The attack on the Winter Palace by the Red Guards on October 25 was just one symbolic nexus of all these processes. To call the October Revolution a Bolshevik 'coup' means to erase the story of countless grassroots struggles, disputes, dialogues, growth and conflicts, and therefore to erase the existence of those who carried them out, including the women among them.[2]

The October Revolution was also a revolution to liberate women. Thanks to prominent women Bolsheviks, including Kollontai, Krupskaya and Inessa Armand, supported by the voices and movements of grassroots women, the revolutionary government successively abolished old oppressive provisions and implemented various measures for women's liberation.

In old imperial Russia, women were granted almost no rights, especially rural women. Cox writes:

Life for many Russian peasant women had changed little since the medieval period. The exploitation of women was legally condoned, and men proved their love for their wives by beating them regularly. The whip hung on the wall over the bed in many peasant households. Women’s lives were destroyed by multiple pregnancies, miscarriages and high infant mortality rates. They were bought and sold like cattle. They could not inherit or own wealth, and they could not take a job or hold a passport without their husband’s permission.

The October Revolution brought about a fundamental change in this situation. Women's suffrage had already been achieved after the February Revolution, prompted by the demands of women from below, but the post-October revolutionary regime enacted a number of groundbreaking new laws aimed at real emancipation, not just formal equality with men. Civil marriage replaced church marriage, divorce became possible solely on the woman's will (something that has yet to be achieved in Japan today), married couples were recognised as having equal property rights, and discrimination between legitimate and illegitimate children was wiped out. In 1920, the right to abortion was recognised, "53 years before the USA and 47 years before Britain". The penalties for homosexuality in the Criminal Code were also abolished. Sixteen weeks of paid maternity leave for working women was granted and equal pay for equal work for men and women was established (even if many of these progressive provisions were limited or abolished during the Stalin era).

The revolutionary regime nonetheless understood these legal reforms alone would not be enough for true women's liberation. As long as women were left to do the cooking, washing, cleaning and childcare at home, there could be no real sex equality. The Soviet government therefore launched an initiative to create communal laundries and canteens, and built crèches and day-care centres in various parts of the country. According to Cox, "By 1919, some 90 percent of Petrograd’s population had access to public restaurants, washing facilities and childcare".

In relation to these measures for women, the combined character of the Russian Revolution is strikingly evident. Not only did it implement leapfrog measures in terms of formal and legal sex equality (which in Japan was only acquired after World War II), but it also included socialist measures. Generally, a mechanical distinction is often made between the February Revolution as a bourgeois democratic revolution and the October Revolution as a proletarian socialist revolution, but in fact the October Revolution was the one that truly realised the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution and at the same time immediately implemented measures beyond it. In this sense, the October Revolution was a combined democratic and socialist revolution.[3]

Although not mentioned by Cox, another huge historical task embarked upon by the Soviet government was the effort to eradicate prostitution. Beyond the moral level of a mere legal prohibition, it saw it as a proper responsibility for the workers' government to eradicate prostitution socially. (Sweden was the first capitalist country to set such a task for itself, but that was more than 80 years after the Soviet government set out on it.) And here, too, it was the women Bolsheviks, especially Alexandra Kollontai, who were at the forefront of this effort. In her report to the third all-Russian conference of heads of the Regional Women's Departments held in 1921, Kollontai declared in high-minded terms that:

Prostitution continues to exist and threatens the feeling of solidarity and comradeship between working men and women, the members of the workers’ republic.… It is time that we faced up to this problem. It is time that we gave thought and attention to the reasons behind prostitution. It is time that we found ways and means of ridding ourselves once and for all of this evil, which has no place in a workers’ republic.[4]

Prostitution was very common everywhere in pre-revolutionary Russian cities. The Soviet regime saw it as an insult to women and an evil that fundamentally undermined sex equality and workers' solidarity, and worked to eradicate it. It achieved considerable success and many foreigners who visited Soviet Russia in the 1920s testify to this.[5]


The role of women was also important in the harsh civil war that followed the revolution. According to Cox, by 1920, some 50,000 to 70,000 women had joined the Red Army. These tens of thousands of women soldiers were all volunteers, as women were not subject to conscription. These women served - and died - in dangerous missions on many fronts and in the rear. Some of them even became military leaders. Cox takes up the story of Evgeniya Bosch, a now largely forgotten female Bolshevik.

Bosch was born, coincidentally, in the same year as Trotsky (1879), and in the same Ukraine, and was also of Jewish origin. Both she and her sister were exposed to socialist ideas at a young age, became adherents of them and became lifelong revolutionaries. At the age of 22, she became a member of the newly formed Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. She then joined the side of the Bolsheviks during the split at the Second Party Congress in 1903.[6]

She had married a bourgeois businessman and had two daughters, but in 1906 she “packed up her daughters, left a note for her husband and headed for Kiev, where she became secretary of the Russian Social Democratic Group”. From then on, she became one of countless underground activists, following the customary harsh course of numerous arrests, imprisonment, banishment, and exile. During this time, she divorced her husband and met and became the partner of Georgy Piatakov, a Bolshevik official who later became a left-wing opposition figure (Cox does not mention this fact, probably because she wanted to treat Bosch an individual female revolutionary). She also suffered from tuberculosis thanks to her hard life in prison, an illness that tormented her for the rest of her life.

When the February Revolution broke out, she and Piatakov immediately returned to Russia and went to her native Ukraine, where they vigorously organised a revolution. Cox presents a very impressive account of one aspect of their activities:

In October 1917, Bosch got permission to address a regiment of soldiers stationed in a town in central Ukraine. They were known as ‘The Wild Division’, and when she arrived they were armed and had been drinking heavily. Undaunted, Bosh spoke for two hours as she explained the need to replace the failing Provisional Government with a soviet government. When she eventually left, their band rushed to find their instruments so that they could see her off in style.

What an inspiring scene! Bosch won this division ideologically to the side of the revolution. When another regiment stationed 20 miles away at Vinnitsa mutinied, the Russian Army ordered the Wild Division to crush the rebels. Bosch went to the Division again to persuade them not to follow this order. And what happened? Cox writes:

The soldiers stood packed in a square in the freezing rain listening to her, and the following day she returned to Vinnitsa at the head of a mutinous artillery company intending to join the mutineers instead of crushing them. After a few days of fighting the town fell to Bosh and her rebels.

Thus, this unit was won to the revolution in practice as well. This kind of struggle was taking place everywhere in the vast lands of Russia and Ukraine. It was one of the greatest revolutions from below experienced by humankind — the opposite of a coup d'état in every sense of the word.

Bosch organised the First Congress of Ukrainian Soviets in Kharkov in December 1917, where she was elected as a provisional head. Bosch thus became the first woman head of state in modern history. It was decades earlier than in any other capitalist country (recall that there are still no women heads of state in the US or Japan). Later, when the Ukrainian Soviet Republic was established, she became its People's Commissar for Internal Affairs, leading the fight against counterrevolution and Ukrainian nationalists. During the Brest dispute, Bosch belonged to a left-wing communist group that was firmly opposed to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which ceded the western part of Ukraine to Germany, and also organised a workers' battalion that fought a guerrilla war against the German army.

In the civil war that followed, Bosch went to various fronts and led the fighting. It should be recalled that she suffered from tuberculosis, so this work is likely to have been gruelling. Nonetheless, she travelled around the front lines and took part in battles. Cox refers to a Bosch review by Victor Serge, a Bolshevik-supporting anarchist, who described her as 'one of the most capable military leaders at the time'. In his autobiography, Serge recalls Bosch as follows:

The Civil War, the Ukraine (where, together with Piatakov, she headed the First Soviet Government), the troubles in Astrakhan, which she dealt with severely, the peasant counterrevolution of Perm, armies under her command: through it all she slept with a revolver under her pillow. [7]

Bosch became one of the first members of the Left Opposition after Lenin fell ill (Cox mistakenly writes 'after Lenin's death'). Her signature can be found on the Declaration of 46 (a statement of dissent, signed by 46 members of the Russian Communist Party and handed to the party's Politburo) in October 1923. But the harsh years of underground activity, imprisonment, revolution and civil war certainly wore her down. And the malady of Stalinism, which spread rapidly through the Bolshevik Party and the Soviet state after Lenin retired from the front line due to illness, also took its toll on her spirit. The state created by the revolution for which she had devoted her life was far from her ideal. Suffering from both her own physical illness and that of the party, she gradually became despairing and feeble. Cox concludes Bosch's story: “In January 1925, when Trotsky was ousted by Stalin from his position as leader of the Red Army, Bosch took her own life.”

Serge bitterly notes in his memoirs that the death of Bosch, an oppositionist, was treated rather poorly by the party bureaucracy of the time.[8] Nevertheless, after Bosch's death, various buildings and streets in Ukraine were named after her, but they were all erased and renamed after the collapse of the Soviet Union and especially under Ukraine's anti-communist law in 2015.


[1] Judy Cox, The Women’s Revolution: Russia 1905-1917, Counterfire, 2017. A US edition was subsequently published by Haymarket Books in 2019. Judy Cox, The Women’s Revolution: Russia 1905-1917, Haymarket Books, 2019.

[2] According to Cox, 30,000 women were already members of the Bolsheviks by October 1917.

[3] For this point, see my book Marx's Capital and the Russian Revolution (Tsuge Shobo Shinsha, 2019). In this book, I define the Russian Revolution as a combined revolution of six revolutions: (i) a revolution for peace, (ii) a democratic and republican revolution, (iii) a workers' revolution, (iv) a women's revolution, (v) a revolution of the oppressed ethnic minorities, and (vi) a socialist revolution.

[4] Alexandra Kollontai, Prostitution and ways of fighting it,

[5] For example, see V. F. Calverton, The Bankruptcy of Marriage, New York, 1928. But this, too, as Trotsky points out in The Revolution Betrayed, regressed considerably during the Stalin era. Trotsky said, “[f]rom these same accidental newspaper remarks and from episodes in the criminal records, the reader may find out about the existence in the Soviet Union of prostitution – that is, the extreme degradation of women in the interests of men who can pay for it. …Here there can be essentially no question of ‘relics of the past’; prostitutes are recruited from the younger generation. No reasonable person, of course, would think of placing special blame for this sore, as old as civilization, upon the Soviet regime. But it is unforgivable in the presence of prostitution to talk about the triumph of socialism.”

[6] Cox incorrectly writes that "[s]he joined the Bolsheviks in 1901", but in 1901 a faction called the Bolsheviks did not yet exist.

[7] Victor Serge, A Memoirs of a Revolutionary, New York, 2012, p. 228.

[8] Ibid., pp. 228-229.