is was meant to be written as part of the Women’s History Month Cranky Ladies of History blog tour.
… But I didn’t get there, which is all sorts of tragic and sad, because this lady is outrageously and fabulously fantastic. So, in brief, because I can’t stand to have this post sitting in my head and not share it:
If a memoir was published as “The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Woman” in 2014, there would be, I think, three possibilities: it’s ironic, and actually about the difficulties of sex & the city; it’s the story of a woman from [insert stereotypically sexually-repressed religious group] discovering sex; it’s a woman who’s been living under a rock and missed the last fifty years of women and sexuality.
However… use that as your title in 1926? That makes you a seriously Cranky Lady. So does being centrally involved in a political revolution and then being the sole woman in a political administration.
Alexandra Kollontai was a firm believer in Marxist ideology, and its commitment to bettering the world via bettering the place of the proletariat. A Russian, she joined the Social Democratic Labour Party in 1899, but didn’t follow either the Mensheviks or the Bolsheviks when the party split in 1903. She did eventually join the Bolsheviks in 1915, and was appointed Commissar for Social Welfare in the new Bolshevik administration after October 1917. From about 1920 on, she began to have some problems with the directions being taken by Lenin and his closest allies. Rather than sitting back, Kollontai helped to form the Workers’ Opposition. Yes, she formed a group within the young Communist Russia that could be seen as directly opposing Lenin. How many others can claim that? Sadly, Lenin managed to close them down, and from this point Kollontai started getting pushed out. And she was even less welcome by Stalin, who got rid of her by sending her out of the country. But this wasn’t exile, and there was no ice-pick to the head (oh Trotsky); instead, she was invested as the USSR ambassador to Norway, then Mexico, then Sweden.
She was the first female ambassador not of Russia, but in the world.*
World’s first female ambassador. In 1923. As a way of getting rid of her. Lady, you are awesome. Stalin, you are… a bit of a dope.
Of course, it wasn’t just Kollontai’s political politics that some people had a problem with. It was her social politics that really stirred things up. Marxist and feminist theory have worked together in understanding the marginal place of women in the home as being a similar thing to the class problems of the proletariat: Engels suggested that women’s subordinate place in the home was part of the capitalist machinery. And Kollontai ran with this. And – note the autobiography’s title – she believed that this applied to sexual relationships as well. Some people got all antsy about her being all free-lovin’ and so on, but I don’t think she was a proto-hippy. I think she was in favour of monogamy, but not as a way of tying women down. As a partnership of equals.
Alexandra Kollontai is an aspect of the Russian Revolution that too often gets overlooked – as does what she and other women achieved for women in general. I understand that the legislative changes don’t make up for the lived horrors of those first few years, but when we ignore them (like when we ignore the radical changes to divorce laws in the French Revolution, in favour of concentrating on the Terror), we’re ignoring a significant part of history – and attempts to change the world should be regarded seriously, even if they get overshadowed by famine and war.
*Her Wikipedia page, which is wickedly short on details, calls her the first ambassador of modern times, stating Catherine of Aragon was briefly an ambassador to England before her marriage.