From the very dawn of Soviet power and development, due to a series of tragic events, women significantly outnumbered men by about 20 mln. The Revolution of 1917, first World War, Stalin’s political repressions, second World War, tough recovery periods — all of this contributed to the number of men steadily decreasing. Not only it affected the marriage market — it had a few more severe implications to the canvas of the Soviet life altogether.
Firstly, industrialisation was extremely labour intensive, and with manpower shortages, women had to step in to keep the processes going. It didn’t matter too much whether the jobs were mundane, or physically demanding, or simply tough — they had to be done. Thus women were trained as construction site workers, crane or digger operators, foundry workers, oil rig workers, asphalt layerers and so on — there was not a job considered “too manly” or female unsuitable.
The Revolution of 1917 gave the women their right to vote, be educated, and, in contemporary jargon, have equal employment opportunities. This allowed the Soviets to call the USSR one of the most advanced feminist country in the world. However, all of the industrialisation of the USSR never provided women with enough of the home help — and women, coming home after an 8-hour shift at a factory, still had to take care of their families.
Everyday appliances, like washing machines, so widespread in the West, were still scarce in the USSR — and, according to the statistical data, on average a Soviet woman would spend another 6 to 8 hours a week hand-washing, ironing and mending clothes. These extra 8 hours of unpaid labour did not include cooking or cleaning time. Scary, really.
Very few women of those times were officially housewives. Firstly, anybody without a job could easily be labelled a vagrant, and that was a jailable crime in the USSR. More importantly, the wages were still fairly low and a family of four would need two incomes to survive. The state would also try hard to get as many people out into the workforce as possible; hence the image of a housewife was far from a Western pin-up beauty with a steaming hot pie in her hands.
Quite the opposite: in the Soviet books and movies, housewives were portraited as slothful women of no education, lacking social graces and ambitions — in other words, not good citizens at all. To be fair, though, the state would provide financial maternity support — women can stay at home to look after the newborns for up to three years. In a way, that was a win-win situation: women could stay home providing they popped a baby every fourth year, and the state had its birth rates up. Not too bad, after all.
As the marriage market was skewed due to the lack of men, the government, in a bid to raise the birth rates, issued a bylaw, allowing the men not to pay alimony on their children born out of wedlock, thus indirectly encouraging single motherhood and, in a way, adultery. Financial support was provided by the government, as well as a range of social security measures.
Being a woman was challenging. All those pretty shiny things that women need were not to be found in the Soviet shops. The state, however, realised that and issued appropriate propaganda lines. Like, spending time on beautifying was announced to be wasteful, as this time could be spent on education and self-improvement.
All in all, there is much to be continued about here. The list of issues and challenges that women faced in the USSR can be extended for many pages, from Soviet cosmetics industry to the basic non-existence of hygienic goods; the high morale of a woman-member of the Communist Party and double standards in the society. Stay tuned. Also, if there is anything that particularly interests you, please let us know — new topics for investigation are always welcome.