Story posted March 14, 2010
Social revolution. Sexual liberation. Economic parity. During Women's History Month, Associate Professor of Gender and Women's Studies Kristen Ghodsee salutes one woman who helped to shape a new world order.
Q: Who is your favorite unsung heroine of women's history?
KG: I found out about her, and her writings on free love and revolution, while preparing materials for a class I teach called Sex and Socialism. Kollontai writes about how marriage is a bourgeois trap for women and how people should only marry for love, not economic benefit. She believed there was no shame for a woman to be passionate. She put forth the radical idea that women have sexual desires that they should be able to act on as freely as men, and thought everyone should be free to have sex outside of the constraints of marriage.
Ultimately, the sexual revolution in Russia failed, and her ideas were trivialized. A lot of people had sex, babies were born out of wedlock, but women didn’t have the ability to take care of them. Without birth control, free love turned out to be a lot better for men than it was for women.
Still, my students get a kick out of her writing. She’s writing over a hundred years ago,, and yet she's talking about the kind of sexual culture that exists today. The students can relate to it.
Q: How is she thought of today?
KG: Public opinion of her in Russia is that she was a bit off the deep end, but she was a woman of privilege who chose to become a committed revolutionary. She was sent into exile for her political work, studied at a university, wrote books, advocated for the sexual revolution, and railed against bourgeois feminism. She's the kind of new Soviet woman they were trying to imagine. At least parts of it. She even came to the U.S. for a four-month speaking tour where she gave 123 lectures in four different languages. In terms of women's history in the U.S., there are the prominent figures like Emma Goldman, but because Kollontai was Russian not many people know about her. Interestingly, when I was in eastern Germany last summer I noticed there are still streets named after her.
Read a translation of Kollontai's "Sexual Relations and the Class Struggle."
Kristen Ghodsee is a distinguished international scholar of post-socialist cultural studies and transnational feminisms. She is author of several books, most recently, Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Transformation of Islam in Postsocialist Bulgaria (Princeton University Press, 2009).