Revolutionary Women

Women – especially those who led or participated in uprisings or revolutions – are often left out of the history books. In this article – the first of a series, hopefully – I’m going to discuss some of the women who played important roles in two major twentieth-century socialist movements: the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the Cuban Revolution.

The Russian Revolution

Nadezhda Krupskaya worked as an adult education teacher in a factory district before she was exiled to Siberia for her leadership in the Social Democratic Labor Party. As a teacher, she became heavily involved in the underground workers’ movement. After she left Siberia, she started working for the Iskra newspaper and served as secretary for the Social Democratic Party. While she was living as an emigre in Europe due to the harsh restrictions on political activists in Tsarist Russia, Nadezhda organized the underground communications of the Social Democratic revolutionaries inside and outside of Russia. When the party split, Nadezhda sided with the Bolshevik faction and continued her work. Although she was frequently on the run from the police, she made it back into the country after the February revolution. When the Bolsheviks took power in October, Nadezhda became a leader in the new government, serving as deputy to the Commissary for Education. Throughout her life as a revolutionary, she worked closely with her husband Vladimir Lenin to organize and lead the Bolshevik Party.

Nadezhda Krupskaya - Wikipedia
Nadezhda Krupskaya

Alexandra Kollontai was a prominent Social Democrat who joined the Bolsheviks in 1915. She came from a liberal family but took to Marxism because of its emphasis on the worker-led revolution. Alexandra was originally in the Menshevik faction of the Social Democratic Party, but by the time the February revolution took place, she was one of Lenin’s closest followers. In the new government, she briefly served as Commissar for Social Welfare. Alexandra was an ardent feminist and worked to improve the lives of women in the Soviet Union by founding the Women’s Department.

Aleksandra Kollontai.jpg
Alexandra Kollontai

Inessa Armand was regarded as the closest associate of Krupskaya and Lenin. As a young woman, she was very involved in feminist causes and radical politics. Inessa founded an organization to help poor women; she also taught peasant children. After joining the Social Democratic Party, she worked alongside Lenin and became his right-hand advisor. She made a highly risky trip into Russia to act as a go-between for Lenin and the Social Democrats who remained in underground circles in the country. Inessa was a leader of the Moscow Soviet after the revolution, and helped Alexandra Kollontai organize the feminist Women’s Department.

Inessa Armand - Wikipedia
Inessa Armand

Larisa Reisner was a journalist who joined the Bolsheviks and later served as a soldier in the Red Army. During the First World War, she wrote and published a pacifist newspaper with support from her family. Under the Kerensky regime after the February revolution, Larisa worked as an adult education teacher. She joined the Bolshevik Party after they took power, and helped to set up arts programs. Larisa fought in the Red Army. She witnessed the German revolution in 1923 as a journalist. Later she served as Commissar of the Naval Staff Headquarters and other government positions.

Larisa Reisner | Osip e Nadezhda Mandelstam | Pinterest
Larisa Reisner

Natalia Sedova was a Marxist writer and member of the Bolshevik Party who participated in the revolution. During the Tsarist repressions, she was forced to leave the country, and worked with the Social Democratic emigres in Europe where she met her future husband Leon Trotsky. In the Bolshevik government, Natalia served in the Commissariat of Education and worked to preserve historical sites.

Natalia Sedova
Natalia Sedova

The early twentieth century was still a difficult time for women who wanted to get involved in politics. Fortunately, the Bolshevik Party and the early Soviet government had progressive ideas about women’s rights. They saw the struggle of working-class women as a fundamental result and injustice of capitalist society. The Bolshevik government liberalized divorce and abortion laws, and pursued women’s equality. However, few women served in high positions of the Soviet government, and some of the initial feminist policies were later revoked. But there were many women who were actively involved in the revolution and helped shape leaders’ attitudes towards women’s rights.

The Cuban Revolution

Celia Sanchez was regarded as the second-in-command of the Cuban revolution. She coordinated the actions of the urban underground resistance and the Rebel Army in the Sierra Maestra mountain range. Celia’s involvement in revolutionary politics began while she was working for her father, a doctor in the Sierra. Because of this, she had connections with a lot of the rebels among the peasants. Celia was a close associate of Frank Pais – the leader of the urban underground who was murdered by dictator Fulgencio Batista’s troops – and guerrilla leader Fidel Castro. She was the highest ranking woman in the revolution and even led a combat group. After the revolution took power, she served various roles in the government, such as in the Department of Services of the Council of State. She also kept meticulous records of the revolution, which have been a great help to historians.

Celia Sanchez Leading the Cuban Revolution : Fulaba ...
Celia Sanchez

Haydee Santamaria was involved in Castro’s group from the beginning. She helped the militant group that was planning the attack on the Moncada garrison which set the July 26 Movement in motion. Sadly, Haydee’s brother and fiance were killed in the attack, and she was arrested. When she got out, she first helped organize Castro’s revolution from Miami and later joined the guerrilla army where she served in the female combat unit known as the Marianas. After the revolution, she founded the Casa de las Americas, which is a cultural institution where artists from across Latin America and even around the world can collaborate. During her life, Haydee suffered from intense depression, but she did everything she could to help the progressive cause.

Conquistando las teclas: Haydée Santamaría más allá del ...
Haydee Santamaria

Vilma Espin was a brilliant woman who had a degree in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Vilma joined the revolution as a spy, helping the urban leaders communicate with the Sierra group, and later fought alongside Fidel and Raul Castro (whom she married after the victory). During the war, she served as an interpreter for foreign journalists; her bilingualism was also helpful in international affairs after the revolution took power. She held very high positions within the Cuban government as a member of the Central Committee and Politburo, and she also founded the Federation of Cuban Women. Vilma was a very dedicated feminist who helped pass laws relating to women’s equality.

Vilma Espin (Author of Women in Cuba)
Vilma Espin

Aleida March was a member of the urban underground in Santa Clara before her identity was discovered and she fled to the mountains to join the guerrilla army. Although she was allowed to join, she was very frustrated by the sexism she encountered there. Aleida participated in the definitive Battle of Santa Clara, fighting on the streets of her home city, that turned the tide of the war in favor of the rebels. She ended up marrying rebel commander Che Guevara and to this day she still helps publish books of his writings.

International Women’s Day | Russia Without BS
Aleida March

Delsa “Tete” Puebla was only 15 when she joined Fidel’s guerrilla group. She served as a spy, smuggled explosives, and risked her life by going behind enemy lines multiple times. She once arranged a cease-fire between the rebels and Batista’s troops, at age 17. She was a brigadier general, the first woman to attain that rank. Tete was a close associate of Fidel and Che Guevara. She now serves in the National Assembly of People’s Power and is the head of the Office of Veterans’ Affairs.

cubaninsider: Fidel Castro and the Kennedys
Tete Puebla, far left

The Cuban revolutionary movement was well known for is inclusion of women. However, this was not always easy for the women involved, especially those who wanted to join the guerrilla army as soldiers. Many of them were frustrated by the fact that they were still expected to sew uniforms, cook meals, and other traditional duties. There are some records of a peasant woman named Zoila Rodriguez wanted to join the army but wasn’t allowed to, so she took care of the mules. Unfortunately for history, many of these women remain anonymous. Some of the men in the army objected very strongly to the formation of the Marianas (the women’s combat unit) but it was formed anyway with support from Fidel Castro and Celia Sanchez.

Although it wasn’t perfect in its inclusion of women, the Cuban revolution definitely stands out as a very feminist movement. And the laws that they enacted governing equality between men and women were also very progressive for their time. Considering that the United States has never even passed an Equal Rights Amendment, Cuba’s achievements on that front are something to celebrate.

1 reply

  1. It’s incredible to read about so many strong, intelligent and extremely empowering women. It is very unfortunate that we don’t often to get to learn about people like them in schools or collages. When if it wasn’t for the hard work and brave actions of these, women today would have less respect and fewer rights.

    Liked by 1 person

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