Working-class women and the revolutionary movement

The status of working-class women in the Jewish revolutionary movement was seen as an important part of the general liberation struggle, unlike that of semi-intelligentsia females or, as already mentioned, of working-class women among Russian revolutionaries. The inferior status of working-class women, even in comparison to their male co-workers, was a source of discontent to male worker activists. The particular problems of women workers were recognized as such and were specifically addressed.

For example, the regulations of the Vilna Tailors' Fund from 1887 include a comment on how the workers' struggle could be jeopardized by male feelings of superiority over their female comrades. According to the regulations, these feelings provided employers with ample opportunities to exploit the resulting hostility between male and female workers for their own interests, thus disadvantaging workers of both genders. The regulations attempted to deal with the mutual distrust between men and women that resulted from past discrimination of women on the shop floor. The regulations proposed allowing male workers to elect one of the fund's officials, while female workers elected the other. The fund also asked for a lower fee from female workers due to their lower salaries.17

The founders of the fund, presumably Social Democrats,18 considered it important for the workers' movement to create solidarity among both male and female workers, an attitude that was not common among non-Jewish trade unionists.19 The cigarette-maker Ruvim Friedman wrote that after he became a socialist, he became aware of the gender-based exploitation in his factory and how wrong it was. Male cigarette-makers who complained about being exploited by the factory owner were employing female helpers whom they in turn exploited and paid very little. According to Friedman, socialist propaganda made male workers more aware of how wrong this arrangement was.20

Socialist ideas circulating among workers heightened awareness of gender discrimination against working women and the commitment to fight this discrimination. The revolutionary culture also supported women in their attempts to change their inferior status in the community. As Yakover wrote about a small shtetl called Ol'gopol: 'We embarked on an attempt to free the women workers. At that time guys and girls could not walk together. The girls also were not supposed to listen to what the guys talked about.'21 The politicization of women workers was very difficult under such conditions; young activists had to struggle against traditional communal mores enforcing the separation of the sexes. Some young female workers, like Friedman's wife (who in fact politicized her husband), were ready and willing to change those mores.

Geographical mobility resulting from a changing job market was made easier by the networks of the youths' milieu, and in large cities the old sexual mores were not necessarily upheld. Social Democrat Livshitz-Riminskii mentioned living with his girlfriend, who was also an activist.22 I encountered no women workers who mentioned that their male comrades challenged their right to be politically assertive. The one exception had more to do with ethnic than gender issues and involved Polish workers preventing a Jewish female worker from having a more machine-based and therefore better paid job, claiming that their problem was that she was a woman rather than that she was a Jew.23 The woman, anarchist communist Lia Frankfurt, seemed to suspect that both gender and ethnicity were involved, but the antiJewish aspect was downplayed because the politicized Polish workers found it embarrassing.

In any case, the youth culture was liberating for working women. These women could count on their male peers to support their aspirations for independence. Expressing these aspirations through the socialist ideological framework also meant that, for them, independence was part of acquiring a new and respected social identity as fighters for the rights of the downtrodden rather than as bad daughters egoistically hurting their families.24

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