Women You Missed in History Class: Alexandra Kollontai

Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952)

If there’s one thing I took away from all those college courses I took on Russia, it’s that Russian history has some of the world’s greatest rebel women.  But like their American counterparts, these amazing women are often overlooked–a paragraph or two in a 20-page reading.  One of my favorite Russian rebel women is the revolutionary feminist, scholar, and politician Alexandra Kollontai.  Shura, as her family called her, was born in St. Petersburg in 1872 and enjoyed a very privileged childhood.  Her mother expected her to embrace the societal norms of Russian femininity and focus on propriety and marrying well, but Kollontai took after her father, developing an interest in politics and social issues.

She was drawn to the ideas of Russian progressive reformers, and eventually joined the socialist cause after meeting Marxist activist Elena Stasova.  In 1899, she joined the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party.  For several years, she traveled around Europe, writing, speaking, and meeting with other leftist leaders.  After the revolution in 1917, Kollontai returned to Russia and began a political career.  As the People’s Commissar for Social Welfare, she was one of the most prominent women in the new Soviet government.  In 1919, she founded the Zhenotdel, the women’s bureau of the party, which focused on improving the lives of Russian women.  In 1923, she became the second woman ever to serve as an ambassador, serving first in Norway, then Mexico and Sweden.

Kollontai was an ardent feminist, and through her work with the Zhenotdel, she pushed the Communist Party to include the needs of women in their social reforms, including legalizing abortion and making it easier for women to file for divorce.  Because of the Zhenotdel and women like Kollontai, the early Soviet period was extremely progressive when it came to gender and sexuality, much more progressive than most Western societies at the time.  Kollontai is probably most famous for her work advocating for free love, by which she meant a radical shift in ideas about human sexuality in order to free it from oppressive gender norms and “bourgeois” ideas about ownership and property.  Her ideas inspired several prominent feminists of the Women’s Liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

In spite of her groundbreaking feminist work and progressive ideas about gender and labor, Kollontai is not nearly as well-known as other feminist writers and leaders.  Appreciation for her life and work is mostly limited to leftists and academics.  I was a senior in college before I came across Alexandra Kollontai in any of my classes.  Though the associations with communism and the Soviet Union might turn some folks away from her, Alexandra Kollontai was a badass feminist and a rebel woman who deserves to be honored this Women’s History Month.


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