Women at Work during Stalin's First Five-Year Plan

Lotte Jacobi photographed women working in various factory, construction, and agricultural jobs in Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, documenting the historic growth of female employment. As Wendy Goldman, Associate Professor of History at Carnegie Mellon University, notes, “in no other country did women come to constitute such a significant part of the working class in so short a time” (Goldman 69). During Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan, “almost 4 million women began to work for wages, 1.7 million of these in industry” (69). Women began jobs in a variety of industries, including construction and mining, as well as factory jobs for electronics, textiles, and machines, often taking on work for unskilled labor, while men protected their “highly skilled” jobs (69-70, 79).

The years leading up to Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan brought many progressive changes in the Soviet Union, including the legalization of abortion, increased childcare resources, and the ability for both husbands and wives to file for divorce, all of which created opportunities for women to pursue education and employment outside of the home (Eaton 75; Lapidus 124, Randall 141-146). The state furthered the growth in female employment as a political strategy, folding it into Stalin’s larger strategies of modernization and industrialization that were central to his First Five-Year Plan (145). While this objective made employment opportunities for women more accessible, made it more socially acceptable for women to leave the responsibilities of the home, and made many women feel adequately educated to enter the workforce, there were unfortunate drawbacks to the government's efforts to bring women into the labor force, including inequalities in the workplace and in compensation (Lapidus 124, 127-128).

Increased employment of women in the Soviet Union began to form a more modern view of women’s place in society, yet it was fueled by “the perception of women as an important national resource for both production and reproduction and the high value attached to both functions” (Lapidus 124; Randall 141). Analyzing the goals of Stalinist propaganda, which positioned family matters for Soviet men as a “secondary priority” to serving Soviet politics and the economy, scholar Amy Randall summarizes the role of Soviet women, stating: “In the Stalin years, as in the 1920s, the ideal New Soviet Woman was a working mother who produced children for the new socialist order; engaged in agriculture, industrial, or other wage labor; and took on public duties to help realize the new society. The New Soviet Woman was also modern and secular, hence not constrained by traditional peasant, ethnic, or religious practices” (141). This picture of the New Soviet Woman was embodied in the political agenda of Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan (141).

In addition to pressure and propaganda encouraging women to modernize and enter the workforce, economic conditions found families that had been able to get by with one working adult suddenly requiring two wages to survive (Randall 145). Furthermore, another facet of Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan, the collectivization of agriculture, resulted in a famine that claimed the lives of millions, leading to a shortage of male workers (147). These conditions, which were contributing factors to the state’s goal of employing more women, led to massive increases in female employment; “between 1929 and 1941, over 10 million joined the industrial labor force and service sector” (145, 147).

Another main effort employed by the Soviet Union to bring women into the workforce was to increase their access to education through women’s education reform, and “beginning in 1928, . . . a rapid expansion of the educational network at all levels was launched to accompany the drive for rapid industrialization” (Lapidus 124, 139). With the effort to increase female employment backed by the government’s plan to modernize the Soviet Union, educational opportunities were increased for all girls and boys in both rural and urban areas (139). Increased access to education partnered with job-oriented training for many women allowed a major, yet traditionally marginalized, sector of the population to enter the workforce at record speed (Goldman 69; Lapidus 124). Women were also able to enter the work force in increasing numbers through the provision of day care centers and schools for young children at collective farms and factories. These services helped ease domestic burdens for women. Single-sex and co-education schools for adults in factories improved women’s access to education as well.

Despite the Stalinist push for women to join the labor force and the resources that were made available to support this transition, in certain industries women were still marginalized and segregated to work jobs that were traditionally seen as women's work (Randall 145). While the strategy of bringing women into jobs “that had previously been designated as male” opened new job opportunities, it failed to inclusively integrate women into the workforce as equals to their male counterparts (146). This created tensions between men and women in the workplace, as well as between management and female employees (146). Although equal pay between men and women was protected by Soviet law, the uneven distribution of women within various fields, as well as the view that women’s work was worth less, led to women’s annual income remaining lower than that of men (Lapidus 127). Scholar Gail Warshofsky Lapidus notes that putting into place protective labor laws that had the intention of providing a safer and a more leveled playing field for women in the workplace “tends to reinforce patterns of occupational segregation based on sex and to inhibit, rather than promote, genuine sexual equality” (128).

The protective labor laws enacted by the government to increase the number of employed women were driven by the perceived differences of women and men and reinforced the mindset that in order to create gender equality, men and women required different treatments based on both “physiological and psychological features” (Lapidus 124-125). The government believed that the female body was not capable of the heavy labor that men performed, and therefore limited the types of work women, especially pregnant women, were allowed to complete and the lengths of time they were allowed work (125-126). These legal restrictions were even greater for pregnant and nursing mothers who were given extensive paid maternity leave, but oftentimes these laws were ignored by employers. Many of the labor laws that were in place to protect women were effectively rendered useless by the frequency with which they were broken (126-128). Instead of valuing the voices and rights of Soviet women, the government simply forced women to join and adapt to a workforce that was built for and catered to men, measuring “women’s success” on increased numbers of employment, not on how the policies and move towards modernization affected the daily lives and welfare of women (Ilič 5-6).

Although the era of Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan saw a drastic rise in the number of women entering the labor force, it was “not necessarily because women wanted to work” (Kamp 223). Scholar Marianne Kamp recounts one member of the Komsomol, the Communist party’s Youth League, Mafrat-xon M., who, commenting on the general mindset of increasing female employment, noted that “after a woman got a job, she was fine. If she did not work, she would not be liberated” (169). With this philosophy fueling the societal motivation to employ women, as well as the government’s aim to modernize the entire Soviet Union and capitalize on women in the production industry, “freedom from unemployment was essentially achieved by 1930” (Lapidus 127). Yet, sex stereotypes continued to promote gaps in wages and unfair treatment in the workplace, and many women still faced barriers to employment outside of the home (127). Despite the gender inequalities that persisted, the increase in female employment that began in the late 1920s and continued for decades “broke the dynamic of women’s seclusion and their exclusion from the public arena,” bringing the Soviet Union closer to the modernization they desired to achieve (Kamp 215). As many more Russian and Central Asian women became visible in the public sphere, Jacobi grabbed the opportunity to photograph an important aspect of life in the USSR during the period of Stalin's First Five-Year-Plan: The New Soviet Woman. 

Contributor: Lillian Rodriguez

Works Cited:

Eaton, Katherine B. Daily Life in the Soviet Union. Westport, Greenwood Press, 2004.

Goldman, Wendy. “Babas at the Bench: Gender Conflict in Society Industry in the 1930s.” Women in the Stalin Era, edited by Melanie Ilič, Palgrave, 2001, pp. 69-79.

Ilič, Melanie. Women in the Stalin Era. Hampshire, Palgrave, 2001.

Kamp, Marianne. The New Woman in Uzbekistan: Islam, Modernity, and Unveiling under Communism. Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2006.

Lapidus, Gail Warshofsky. Women in Soviet Society: Equality, Development, and Social Change. London, University of California Press, 1978.

Randall, Amy. “Gender and Sexuality.” Life in Stalin’s Soviet Union, edited by Kees Boterbloem, Bloomsbury, 2019, pp. 141-147.