Books of the Month

Women’s emancipation requires ending domestic servitude

August 26, 2019
Women attend literacy class in Soviet Union in early 1920s during Russian Revolution. “A radical reform of the family, and of the whole order of domestic life, ” Leon Trotsky writes,“ requires a great conscious effort on the part of the whole mass of the working class.”
Women attend literacy class in Soviet Union in early 1920s during Russian Revolution. “A radical reform of the family, and of the whole order of domestic life, ” Leon Trotsky writes,“ requires a great conscious effort on the part of the whole mass of the working class.”

Women and the Family by Leon Trotsky, is one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for August. Trotsky, a leader of the Russian Revolution, fought to continue the communist course of V.I. Lenin after his death, in the face of a bureaucratic counter-revolution led by Joseph Stalin. The excerpts are from the chapters: “From the Old Family to the New” and “A Letter to a Moscow Women Workers’ Celebration and Rally,” both written in 1923. Copyright © 1970 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.


In politics and economics the working class acts as a whole and pushes on to the front rank its vanguard, the Communist Party, accomplishing through its medium the historic aims of the proletariat. In domestic life the working class is split into cells constituted by families. The change of political regime, the change even of the economic order of the state — the passing of the factories and mills into the hands of the workers — all this has certainly had some influence on family conditions, but only indirectly and externally, and without touching on the forms of domestic traditions inherited from the past.

A radical reform of the family and, more generally, of the whole order of domestic life requires a great conscious effort on the part of the whole mass of the working class, and presumes the existence in the class itself of a powerful molecular force of inner desire for culture and progress.

A deep-going plow is needed to turn up heavy clods of soil. To institute the political equality of men and women in the Soviet state was one problem and the simplest. A much more difficult one was the next — that of instituting the industrial equality of women and men in the factories, the mills, and the trade unions and of doing it in such a way that the men should not put the women to disadvantage. But to achieve the actual equality of man and woman within the family is an infinitely more arduous problem. All our domestic habits must be revolutionized before that can happen. And yet it is quite obvious that unless there is actual equality of husband and wife in the family, in a normal sense as well as in the conditions of life, we cannot speak seriously of their equality in social work or even in politics. As long as woman is chained to her housework, the care of the family, the cooking and sewing, all her chances of participation in social and political life are cut down in the extreme. …

The physical preparations for the conditions of the new life and the new family, again, cannot fundamentally be separated from the general work of socialist construction. The workers’ state must become wealthier in order that it may be possible seriously to tackle the public education of children and the releasing of the family from the burden of the kitchen and laundry. Socialization of family housekeeping and public education of children are unthinkable without a marked improvement in our economics as a whole. We need more socialist economic forms. Only under such conditions can we free the family from the functions and cares that now oppress and disintegrate it. Washing must be done by a public laundry, catering by a public restaurant, sewing by a public workshop. Children must be educated by good public teachers who have a real vocation for the work. Then the bond between husband and wife would be freed from everything external and accidental, and the one would cease to absorb the life of the other. Genuine equality would at last be established. The bond will depend on mutual attachment. And on that account particularly, it will acquire inner stability, not the same, of course, for everyone, but compulsory for no one. …

The problem of women’s emancipation, both material and spiritual, is closely tied to that of the transformation of family life. It is necessary to remove the bars from those confining and suffocating cages into which the present family structure drives woman, turning her into a slave, if not a beast of burden. This can be accomplished only through the organization of communal methods of feeding and child-rearing. …

There are two paths leading to the transformation of everyday family life: from below and from above. “From below” denotes the path of combining the resources and efforts of individual families, the path of building enlarged family units with kitchens, laundries, etc., in common. “From above” denotes the path of initiative by the state or by local Soviets in building group workers’ quarters, communal restaurants, laundries, nurseries, etc. Between these two paths, in a workers’ and peasants’ state, there can be no contradiction; one ought to supplement the other. The efforts of the state would come to naught without the independent striving toward a new way of life by the workers’ families themselves; but even the most energetic display of initiative by individual workers’ families, without guidance and aid by the local Soviets and state authorities, could not bring great success either. The work must be carried on simultaneously both from above and from below.

An obstacle in this path, as well as in others, is presented by the scarcity of material resources. But this only means that actual success will not be as rapid as we would have wished. It would be totally inadmissible, however, if on the grounds of poverty we began to brush aside the question of building a new kind of life.

Inertia and blind habit, unfortunately, constitute a great force. And nowhere does blind, dumb habit hold sway with such force as in the dark and secluded inner life of the family. And who is called upon first of all to struggle against the barbaric family situation if not the woman revolutionist? By this I do not mean to say at all that conscious workers are relieved of the responsibility to labor toward the transformation of the economic forms of family life, above all the forms of feeding, child-rearing, and education. But those who fight most energetically and persistently for the new are those who suffer most from the old. And in the present family situation the one that suffers most is the woman — the wife and the mother.