Women’s Rights and the Cold War – Re-approaching the Women’s International Democratic Federation’s Historical Role

By Yulia Gradskova

Even though the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF) has disappeared from discussions on women’s rights since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, its history remains relevant to our understanding of state feminism and transnational women’s rights. Indeed, by the end of the Cold War, the WIDF—founded in Paris in 1945 by women from about 40 countries—became one of the world’s biggest transnational women’s organizations, known for its activity for women’s rights, peace, and anti-colonialism. However, the WIDF occupies an ambiguous position within the history of the women’s movement. While known to researchers as both an important actor in the struggle for women’s rights in a global context, it has been criticized for uncritically praising women’s emancipation under state socialism, while ignoring the double burden and lack of political freedom that women experienced there. The federation was thus an active participant within the Cold War and, during a certain period of time, its victim: accused by the American government of Communist activities between 1954 and 1967, the federation was deprived of its status as a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) in the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the UN.  

Figure 1. Cover of the WIDF magazine Women of the Whole World, 1985, Issue 2.

What were the organisation’s achievements and problems? And why did it eventually become almost invisible in historical accounts? In what follows, I propose a few answers to these questions. 

The third WIDF Congress, which took place in Copenhagen in 1953, adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Women. The Declaration demanded quite an impressive bill of rights for all women, regardless of their race, nation or class. These rights included, amongst others: the right to work and the right to choose a profession or occupation, equal pay for equal work, the right to the state protection of maternity and childhood, the right to education and the right of the peasant women to own land.[1] Within their historical context, such demands were brave and challenging. Indeed, parts of Africa and of Asia continued to be occupied as colonies of European countries, where universal rights to education or maternity protection did not exist. In many European countries the principle of equal pay for equal work was far from being realized: in Sweden, for example, special salaries for women (kvinnolöner) ceased to exist only in 1960. Such a broad declaration of rights attracted many new supporters to the organization and, not least led to the WIDF becoming one of the initiators of the International Year of Women, 1975, and an important actor behind the UN’s adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). [2]   

On the other hand, looking at the history of the WIDF compels us to confront the problem of the ‘Soviet fronts’ (or, organizations sympathizing with the USSR, according to Peterson), and their fellow travelers.[3] The question about how much the Soviet Union and other countries of the Eastern bloc influenced this organization continues to be asked by the historians even now, 30 years after the end of the Cold War[4].

Figure 2. The WIDF’s foundation was controversial, due to its association with the Soviet Union. This WIDF communiqué condemns the French Government’s 1951 attempt to dissolve the WIDF.

The materials in the Moscow archive are particularly interesting in this respect. The files of the Committee of Soviet Women, a member of the federation, have preserved not only the protocols of WIDF board-meetings and congresses, but also a lot of classified reports that the representative of the Soviet Committee working in the WIDF Secretariat (from 1951 in East Berlin) wrote to Moscow. These reports suggest that Soviet expectations of WIDF activities included promoting a positive image of the Soviet Union and its foreign policy. The Soviet female employees involved in the work of the WIDF were organized through a hierarchical structure and received a salary from the Soviet state. 

Soviet employees in the WIDF were charged with informing the Soviet state about the WIDF’s internal operations and, in particular, individual opinions and conflicts with respect to the development of the organization and international politics. One report informed Moscow about the position concerning the ‘struggle for peace’ that was taken by one of the WIDF leaders, vice-president, Dr. Andrea Andreen from Sweden.[5] According to the letter, Andreen:

Considers it important that while organizing cooperation with other women’s organizations we [the WIDF] should take the position that is different from one insisting that everything in the USSR is good and everything in the USA is bad. We have to criticize both. She also suggested to make an appeal to the governments of the USA, UK and the USSR demanding a ban of atomic weapons.[6]

It is easy to suppose that such a position did not fully correspond to Soviet expectations. The report shows however, that in the case of Andreen, like in many others, the Soviet representatives did not have the power to give orders or demand certain behaviour from activists from different countries. Still, such classified information helped Moscow to choose their strategies, first of all with respect to cadre issues and the drafting of the WIDF’s official documents. 

During the 1960s, the WIDF underwent significant changes due to many factors, including increased membership of women from newly independent countries or countries involved in anti-colonial struggles. The 1970s-1980s saw the WIDF’s biggest international success in this regard. As previously mentioned, during this period the WIDF was active in the UN, in particular before and during the UN Decade for Women (1975-1985). The WIDF continued to be active not only at the first UN conference in Mexico, but in all further conferences until the end of the Cold War.[7] For example, the WIDF’s General Secretary, Vire-Tuominen, in her report for the WIDF council in 1980, proudly stated that the WIDF had accomplished a lot during the NGO forum in Copenhagen: 

Figure 3. A 1975 Bulletin on the WIDF’s activities

WIDF organized 17 seminars, 2 film projections, and wide distribution of our printed materials including a special issue of our journal prepared during the forum. Our president, Freda Brown, chaired two panels, and our experts participated in several panels.[8]

On the other hand, the development of mass, grassroots radical feminist movements in Western Europe and the USA, often referred to as ‘second wave feminism’, influenced changes in how gender differences were seen by society. In many countries, feminist activism led to changes of legislation on marriage, divorce, work, abortion, as well as on taxation, contributing to more gender equality, and recognition of LGBT rights.[9] Due to these changes in legislation, practice, and grassroots mobilization, the language of the discussions around gender inequality and discrimination in many countries of Western Europe and North America became both more radical and more specific than that which the WIDF could offer. 

The growth of grassroots activism was also in contrast to the WIDF’s centralized structures. Thus, the federation was forced to confront criticism on its lack of internal democracy. In the 1960s such a critique was made by the Italian delegates, and in the early 1980s the organization of French women demanded more democracy in the WIDF’s working routines. The Declaration of the National Bureau of the Union of French Women addressed participants of the WIDF’s 1980 bureau meeting, expressing the French contingent’s discontent with the lack of democratic decision-making.[10] The document also criticized the WIDF’s unlimited support for the viewpoint of the ‘socialist countries’, and the use of the experiences of these countries as a positive example for other countries to follow. The declaration stressed, for example, that the WIDF congresses had to be transformed into a real space for discussion and decision-making, while the role of the administrative bodies like the Secretariat should be diminished.[11]

 After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 the WIDF headquarters at Unter den Linden 13 in East Berlin was closed, the WIDF periodical ceased publication, and in the years that followed, the organization’s centre moved to Latin America. However, paradoxically, one of the last issues of the WIDF journal published in 1991 contains an article by Javier Perez de Cuellar, Secretary General of the UN, who noted that during all these years, the federation had played an important role in promoting equality of women’s rights and wished ‘all the success in your work’ to the WIDF on the occasion of its 45th anniversary.[12]  Thus, it is possible to say that the WIDF’s importance for international women’s rights became particularly visible internationally at the very moment when the Cold War confrontation, which had been crucial to the WIDF’s existence, came to an end. 

Yulia Gradskova is Associate Professor in History, Department of History, Stockholm University. She defended her dissertation in History in Södertörn University/Stockholm University in 2007. You can read more about the WIDF in her book, which is forthcoming through Routledge in 2021: The Women’s International Democratic Federation , the Global South and the Cold War. Defending the Rights of Women of the ‘Whole World’.


[1] Za ravnopravie, schastie, mir. Berlin: WIDF. 1953, 254-255.

[2] de Haan, F., The Global Left-Feminist 1960s. From Copenhagen to Moscow and New York”. In: Ch. Jian, M. Klimke, M. Kirasirova et al. (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of the Global Sixties. Between Protest and Nation-Building (London: Routledge, 2018), pp. 234-236.

[3] Petersson, F. (2013). Caught Between Nostalgia, Anti-Colonialism, International Communism, Transnational Networks and Radical Spaces: A Re-Assessment on the Historiography of the League against ImperialismCoWoPa – Comintern Working Paper, 28, pp. 1-31.

[4] See for example, de Haan, F., Continuing Cold War Paradigms in Western Historiography of Transnational Women’s Organizations: The Case of the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF), Women’s History Review, 19:4 (2010), pp. 547-73.

[5] The Soviet government usually presented itself internationally as a country aspiring for peace and détente. However, as it is widely known the USSR also participated in arm race and the development of atomic weapons.

[6] GARF 4 106, pp. 36-38.

[7] Ghodsee, K., Revisiting the United Nations Decade for Women: Brief Reflections on Feminism, Capitalism and Cold War Politics in the Early Years of the International Women’s Movement, Women’s Studies International Forum, 33 (2010), pp. 3-12; Ghodsee, K., Second World, Second Sex (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018).

[8] GARF 3 5077, p. 90

[9] See Gildea, R., James, M. & Warring, A., Europe’s 1968. Voices of Revolt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[10] GARF 3 5077, pp. 268-279.

[11] GARF 3 5077, p. 277.

[12] Zenshchiny mira 1991 (1), p. 9.

Images are the author’s own. Figures 2 and 3 were taken at Arbetarörelsens Arkiv och bibliotek and IISH respectively, and should not be reproduced without the express permission of both Gradskova and the relevant archive.

Summer Round-Up!: May-July 2019

Tom Shillam

Communism and State Violence

As the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre passes, it seems apt to begin this round-up by considering state violence. Writing in The Conversation, Chongyi Feng explores the divisions in the Chinese Communist Party of 1989 over how to approach the million-strong protests, which called only for mild government reforms. A ‘hard-line’ faction came to view the protests as symbolising ‘a conspiracy of hostile forces backed by Western powers to create turmoil and divide China’ while a ‘moderate’ faction welcomed them as ‘patriotic’.

On the topic of hard-line authoritarian leaders, Alan Taylor has compiled a brilliant series of photographs of ‘Cold War Bunkers’ in Albania which the increasingly paranoid head of state Enver Hoxha began to construct from 1968. These bunkers spanned the country and were intended as shelters from a potential Soviet attack or invasion by a neighbour. Many still stand, some nestled among high mountains and others grouped on seashores.

Moving towards popular experiences of Communism, Arnos Chapple constructs a similar photo archive which conveys everyday life in Hungary from the 1940s through to the 1980s. From bears visiting delis to divers on the Danube, we get a very broad picture of how ordinary citizens (and animals) laboured, loved and lived in Hungary during these years.  Finding creative outlets in song and dance, the population was nevertheless subject to relentless state surveillance throughout.

Indeed, authorities in communist Eastern Europe did not just monitor citizens but sometimes stole their stuff. Writing in The Art Newspaper, Catherine Hickley reports on a pilot project by the German Lost Art Foundation which considered the acquisitions of several Brandenburg museums between 1945 and 1989. It transpires that ‘between 1% and 8% of their inventories’ may have been ‘unethically acquired’ – books, sculptures, paintings and furniture which had often been taken from the homes of people who fled East Germany in the late 1950s subsequently found their way into local museums.

The visual history of the Cold War has also been discussed in great detail on our own blog by Agata Fijalkowski. In the final post in her series, she considers how, towards the end of World War Two, pro-Soviet forces in the Polish eastern territories looked to remodel the legal system. Photographs of new courts which the regime constructed ‘convey an air of watchfulness’ which was intended to keep judges in line with the ideological dictates of the new regime. The authorities distrusted pre-war judiciaries and created special schools to ‘train the new judges on aspects of people’s justice’.

Art, Culture, and Space

Considering the hit new historical dramatisation Chernobyl, The University of York’s Sam Wetherell asks why the bureaucratic doublespeak of the post-war Soviet Union sounds so familiar in a British accent. Though, as he suggests, the comparison should not be pushed too far, the authoritarianism of a state or social system can often be discerned through studying its use of empty abstraction and failed formulae. Wetherell draws interesting parallels between Soviet industrialisation – with its efficiency units and 5-year plans – and what cultural theorist Mark Fisher calls the ‘market Stalinism’ of the contemporary British state, with its relentless and stultifying resort to a complex of measures and metrics with which to evaluate university, school, and hospital performance.

Indeed, such moments frequently presage episodes of popular mobilisation and grassroots creativity. Once upon a time, before news of Stalin’s purges among other atrocities spread, the Soviet Union provided hope and inspiration to oppressed groups worldwide in its apparently progressive and inclusive political credentials. Owen Walsh describes how a significant group of African American writers, activists and journalists, frustrated with ‘white creative control and racial stereotyping’ in Hollywood, took up an invitation in 1932 to travel to the Soviet Union and produce a film about US racism. Unfortunately for the group, the plan failed – largely due to the governmental cynicism and economic rationalism discussed above. The Soviets needed American materials for their infrastructure projects and feared the geopolitical consequences of such a film being released.

Progressive artist groups later in the 20th-century – both within the Soviet Union’s borders and beyond – sought an escape from governmental and societal constraints on creative expression . Arianna Cantarelli studies how philosopher Timur Novikov acted as a ‘frontman for Russia’s wild youth’ during the 1980s and 1990s, experimenting with futuristic technology and art which was anathema to Eastern bloc realism. Of course, as formal dissent began to grow in the Eastern bloc from the 1960s onwards, subcultures and resistance movements also grew in the West. One of these was the LGBTQ movement. As the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots passes, Christopher Giola probes ‘grassroots organising’  among activists in the aftermath of the riots. George Lakey recalls how opportunities disappeared and doors shut when he came out in the US in the early 1970s, but that he also stepped ‘into a new place of freedom’, agreeing with the feminist injunction that ‘the personal is political’ and ‘the political, personal’.

Indeed, it was not just state and political violence which activists confronted as the 20th-century wore on but also private and domestic violence. Cara Diver pens a piece for History Workshop about Irish feminists in the 1970s who raised awareness of marital violence and ‘shattered the illusion that the home was always a site of safety for women (and their children)’. The problem had been side-lined with whispers about ‘troubled couples’, but various groups including ‘Women’s Aid’ now formed, which amplified the voices of abused wives.

Civil Society, Race and Internationalism

Vigorous civil societies provide one of the means by which oppressed groups can mobilise – even in dire social and political conditions. Harry Merritt, writing for Peripheral Histories, investigates Latvian Jews who served in the Red Army during the Second World War as part of the 201st Latvian Rifle Division. Facing hostility from gentiles who feared their presence, and soon to encounter horrific German atrocities against Jews upon retaking their homeland in 1944,  a ‘diverse and engaged civil society’ offered hope to Latvian Jews, even as the horrors of war took their toll. Among the ideas that moved them were socialism, Zionism, and fusions of the two ideologies.

Tiffany Florvil, for Black Perspectives, studies how Black Germans among other racialised communities, used international book fairs in the 1980s and 1990s as platforms through which to discuss ‘the return of German ethno-nationalism’ and racist politics and discourses more broadly. These annual fairs of ‘Radical Black and Third World Books’ allowed intellectuals from across different continents to come together and forge a Black internationalism which in turn drew on other internationalisms represented at the events.

For those more interested in the 19th century and in individuals rather than networks, Kevin Duong puts together a fascinating piece about little-known French feminist and internationalist Flora Tristan. Tristan self-published a successful book entitled The Workers’ Union, which argued for ‘workers of both sexes to come together to form a common international union’ in 1844. In the book, Tristan drew on utopian socialist currents in challenging ‘conventional ideas about women and social organisation’. Duong suggests that such internationalisms are neglected as compared with 20th-century liberal internationalisms associated with the UN among others.

If you have written a blog which pertains to any of the above themes and would like to be included in a future round-up, please tag us @authlanguage or me @tomshillam! Comments, advice and feedback all welcome. Thanks for reading!

Tom Shillam is PhD student at the University of York who holds a Departmental Scholarship from the Department of History. His research considers how mid-20th century South Asian intellectuals synthesised anti-authoritarian ideas of their own with those of writers elsewhere to propose a different decolonising politics to the dominant developmentalist dogmas of the time. Catch him on Twitter @tomshillam.

Citoyennes of the patrie? Gender and the mobilisation of France during the revolutionary wars, 1792-1799

Beth Fisher

The execution of Louis XVI in 1792 left a gaping void in French patriotic representation, leaving revolutionary leaders, such as Maximilien Robespierre, with the monumental task of recreating the body politic. Compounding the matter was the fact that France was at the same time embroiled in a war against Austria, and would later war with Prussia, Russia and Britain. To continue the war effort and stabilise society, revolutionary leaders needed to orchestrate a national mobilising mission, aimed at both men and women in order to boost morale and prevent desertion.

This raised the question: should there be a national figurehead? The revolutionaries were wary of reverting to old regime representations of a paternal figure, and in 1792 there was no one unifying leader as Napoleon would become a decade later.[1] The answer, therefore, was to replace paternity with fraternity, allowing revolutionaries to mobilise the nation around an idea – the fatherland – rather than a father.[2] Indeed, the iconography of the radical period of the Revolution featured virtually no emblems of fatherhood and nor did it mythologise a living leader. Leading revolutionaries like Robespierre, Danton, Lafayette and Marat passed from public office without establishing a personality cult, and tended to be depicted more often in death than in life.[3]

Just as paternity was replaced by fraternity, so religion was replaced by the human condition. Instead of worshipping the perfection of a Christian God, the revolutionaries now looked to the perfection of man. In his study of The Old Regime and the Revolution, the 19th century French historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, observed that the Revolution created a new kind of faith that made its ideas accessible, in order to rally large swathes of citizens:

If, with regard to religion, the French who made the Revolution were more unbelieving than we, at least there was left in them one admirable belief which we lack: they believed in themselves. They did not doubt perfectibility, the power of man; they readily became impassioned for his glory, they had faith in his virtue […] they did not doubt in the least that they were called to transform society and regenerate our species. These feelings and these passions had become a kind of new religion for them, which […] tore them away from individual egoism [and] encouraged them to heroism and devotion.[4]

Though at first sight, this replacement of Christianity may not seem particularly relevant to the gender dynamics of military recruitment, as Tocqueville alludes to, faith in the perfection of man helped form an imagined community whereby a ‘modern’ masculinity became inextricably linked with fraternity and a devotion to the fatherland – an idea for which citizen-soldiers were willing to die.[5]

Although self-sacrifice and military duty were central to the new religion of the revolution, the roots of the concepts are found in antiquity. The revolutionaries drew inspiration from classical republicanism, and the duties citizens owed to their patrie (homeland/fatherland) was one such ancient idea.[6]

It is no surprise then, that in much of the radical iconography, the citizen-soldier was portrayed in the guise of the classical youth. In many paintings from the revolutionary period, such as David’s The Oath of the Horatti (Figure 1), the young soldier exudes a Roman-style, militaristic masculinity.

oath of horatii
Figure 1: The Oath of the Horatii, by Jacques- Louis David.

In The Oath of the Horatii, the brothers prepare to fight their enemies, the Curatii, despite the siblings of the two families being linked by marriage. As in the French Revolution, the Horatii put love for the fatherland before familial love, ignoring the pleas of their weeping sisters.

Artists like David almost never depicted actual battle scenes or the gruesome consequences of war. Instead, by drawing upon allegorical and classical references, artists were able to paint the perfect vision of man as a virtuous, selfless soldier. By idealising sacrifice (rather than mutilation or death in battle), the army was ‘one with’ society, mobilising men in defence of the republican nation, inspired by the glory of ancient Rome.

Classical republicanism was equally influential upon depictions of women in the radical iconography used to rally the nation for war. Unlike men, women tended to be depicted in far more abstract forms, usually representing the motifs of liberty, maternity, or the fatherland, rather than appearing as an individual woman. [7]

Patriotic representations of individual women also drew inspiration from the Spartan mother – an ancient Greek concept of womanhood in which females were authoritative and tasked with raising warrior sons. This ancient image was revived by Rousseau during the Enlightenment and subsequently became the basis of republican education. In Emile, Rousseau puts forward the idea that the ideal republican woman is one who is willing to sacrifice her sons for the greater good of the fatherland:

A Spartan woman had five sons in the army and was awaiting news of the battle. A Helot arrives; trembling, she asks him for news. “Your five sons were killed.” “Base slave, did I ask you that?” “We won the victory.” The mother runs to the temple and gives thanks to the gods. This is the female citizen.[8]

Rousseau’s thoughts on women’s ability to mobilise the nation were not just lofty ideals, but found real influence in revolutionary culture. Revolutionary festivals organised by women’s clubs were often variants on this theme, admonishing their sons and husbands to bravely defend the nation, and staging balls and banquets in honour of the volunteers who signed up to the army.[9]

The chaste republican mother became central to the project of social regeneration. In stark contrast to the depictions of scheming, gossiping aristocratic women of the Ancien Régime ‘bitchocracy’, women were now allegorised as the glue that held the nation together.

Figure 2: Leave Your Arrow and on Some Familiar Tunes Learn my Cherished Moral; be no longer the son of Venus, become the lover of the fatherland, unknown artist.

Ironically, the fatherland was always depicted as a mother, rather than a father (probably because of the negative connotations associated with a king-like figure). In Leave Your Arrow and on Some Familiar Tunes (Figure 2), a womanly figure of La Patrie instructs Cupid to sever his ties with Venus and instead serve the nation. Here, Cupid serves as a latent representation of the French boy, who must learn to reject frivolous love and channel his passion into a love for his nation.

The way in which women were represented in revolutionary iconography ­– as chaste, sacrificial, Spartan – evolved in tandem with the state of warfare. In Devotion to the Fatherland (Figure 3), Pierre-Antoine de Machy depicts the patriotic fervour of 1793, just after the introduction of the levée en masse. In it, mothers offer their infant sons to the enthroned woman, representing La Patrie. The soldier at the far right of the painting has learnt the lesson enshrined in Leave Your Arrow, and ignoring the protestations of his lover, pledges his love and sacrifice for the nation.

devotion to the fatherland
Figure 3: Devotion to the Fatherland, by Pierre-Antoine de Machy

This optimistic fervour later gave way to a more fearful undertone as the French army faced the Second Coalition and the very real threat of invasion.[10]  The Fatherland in Danger (Figure 4) encapsulates the severity of the situation and the even greater need for mobilisation.

the fatherland in danger
Figure 4: The Fatherland in Danger, by Guillaume Guillon-Lethière.

Painted in 1799, The Fatherland in Danger does not show the sorrowful women that are often founded in earlier paintings, but instead portrays women as leading the urgent mission of mobilisation. Surrounded by tricolour flags, the women this time encourage their lovers to join the battle, with one woman even appearing to carry weapons towards the seated figure of La Patrie.

Gender had a profound impact on the iconography of the revolutionary wars. Drawing inspiration from classical republicanism, revolutionaries deified masculinity in the guise of the citizen-soldier, and femininity in the form of the Spartan mother. Ideals of gender were used both to regenerate society, and to mobilise it for total war. Even in Georgian Britain, it became noticed that French soldiers were increasingly more patriotic and masculinised than its own. British masculinity had usually been defined in contrast to French ‘effeminacy’, but during the revolutionary wars the attitude of British officers toward their enemy began to change as they recognised Napoleon had harnessed a formidable military power.[11]  Increasingly, the British army reflected upon the national differences between themselves and Spanish and Portuguese soldiers, whom they had fought alongside in the Peninsula War.[12]

However effective gender may have been in mobilising France, the fact that both masculinity and femininity were used to define what it meant to be patriotic republican shows that, as the country experienced large-scale war, the citizen-army became inextricably linked to civil society. The soldier was no longer simply a man fulfilling an occupation, but a warrior who inherited the ancient duty to protect his community, ushering in the modern age of ‘total’ war.

Beth Fisher is currently an MA student in Modern History at the University of York, having completed her undergraduate degree in History last year at the University of East Anglia. She has specialised in the French Revolution and modern European diplomatic history, and is currently researching a Master’s dissertation on Labour Party foreign policy towards Nazi Germany, 1936-1939.


Figure 1: Jacques-Louis David, The Oath of Horatii, oil on canvas (1784), taken from https://www.jacqueslouisdavid.org/The-Oath-Of-The-Horatii-1784.html, date accessed 20.3.2019

Figure 2: Unknown artist, Leave Your Arrow and on Some Familiar Tunes Learn my Cherished Moral; be no longer the son of Venus, become the lover of the fatherland, unknown artist (c. 1793), taken from Landes, ‘Republican citizenship’, p. 102.

Figure 3: P.A. de Machy, Devotion to the Fatherland (1793), taken from Landes, ‘Republican Citzenship’, p. 108.

Figure 4: Gillaume Guillon-Lethière, The Fatherland in Danger, oil on canvas (1799), taken from http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/d/19/, date accessed 21.3.2019


[1] Alan Forrest,‘Citizenship and Masculinity The Revolutionary Citizen-Soldier and his Legacy’, in S. Dudink (ed.), Representing Masculinity Male Citizenship in Modern Western Culture (Basingstoke, 2007), p. 112.

[2] Lynne Hunt, The Family Romance of the French Revolution (Abingdon, 1992) p. 53.

[3] Ibid, p.71.

[4] Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the Revolution, edited by F. Furet (Chicago, 1998), p.208

[5] Joan Landes, ‘Republican citizenship and heterosocial desire: concepts of masculinity in revolutionary France’, in S. Dudink, K Hagemann and J. Tosh (eds.), Masculinities in Politics and War (Manchester, 2004), p. 98.

[6] Marisa Linton, Choosing Terror Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution (Oxford, 2013), p. 34-35.

[7] I am yet to find a single refence to a ‘motherland’. Interestingly, France was always referred to as a ‘fatherland’, but it was common for contemporary artists to depict France as a maternal figure. It is not entirely clear why this was the case, but some historians, such as Joan Landes, have suggested that female depictions were used to bolster heteronormative behaviour, particularly within the army which, during this era, became an exclusively male space.

[8] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile or On Education (New York, 1979), p. 40.

[9] Susan Desan, The Family on Trial in Revolutionary France (Berkeley, 2004), p. 78.

[10] Landes, ‘Republican Citzenship’, p. 106.

[11] Catriona Kennedy, ‘John Bull into Battle: Military Masculinity and the British Army Officer during the Napoleonic Wars’, in K. Hagemann and J. Rendall (eds.), Gender War and Politics: Transatlantic Perspectives on the Wars of Revolution and Liberation, 1775-1830 (Basingstoke, 2010), p. 128.

[12] Ibid, p. 139.

Blog Round-Up!: January-February 2019

Tom Shillam

The beginning of 2019 has seen much commentary on authoritarianism, political violence and student activism across the academic blogosphere. Here, I summarise some pieces that draw on new research by promising scholars, which will hopefully offer food for thought and debate!

A fitting place to start might be Brexit and the political wrangling, factionalism and jingoistic posturing it continues to unleash. Not only are leading Brexiteers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg becoming more strident; those who oppose Brexit in the major parties are splitting away to form an ‘Independent Group’ which straddles both.

This brings to mind Andrew Heath’s piece for History Matters, based at the University of Sheffield, on whether the American Civil War can teach us anything today. Heath proposes that the splits we are seeing in 2019 Britain resemble those wrought by the ‘slavery question’ in the 1850s United States – dominated similarly by two political parties – though he is careful not to elide today’s Europe question with slavery in scale or moral consequence.

What is clear is that domestic political discourse around Brexit is deeply imbued with authoritarian and violent undertones which speak to the importance of submerged, brutal histories. Karis Campion, observing the bitter hostility and ridicule meted out to Labour MP Diane Abbott on the BBC’s Question Time of 17 January – and the routine sexist and racist abuse directed at her on social media – employs the concept of  ‘misogynoir’ in considering how ‘both sexism and racism manifest in black women’s lives to create intersecting forms of oppression’.

The history of British colonialism explains this. Noting that lighter-skinned black women such as Meghan Markle receive comparably less abuse, Campion explores the histories of Caribbean plantation societies. Here, while black slave women were routinely raped, mixed-race women were used as an ‘intermediary between black and white’, sometimes becoming part of new managerial classes. Campion proposes that these ‘historical societal structures’ explain ‘misogynoir’, which ‘systematically devalues darker-skinned women’.

At the same time as history excludes some, it serves others. Kojo Koram focusses on the irony of Brexiteer MPs employing the language of national liberation in a country which historically understood itself to be too ‘civilised’ for ‘overt nationalism’. In the recent past, the language of national liberation was an anti-colonial one which paternalist British elites scorned; but Koram observes a parity of intent between today’s Brexiteer elite and certain postcolonial elites of the 20th-century, whose rhetoric sometimes concealed lust for newfound political and cultural power. Understanding where such political languages come from, Koram suggests, is one step to exposing dishonest latter-day adherents.

Other interesting pieces on the themes of race, resistance and authoritarianism in colonial history include Marlene Daut’s article on the Kingdom of Hayti, and Teju Cole’s article in the New York Times on the camera as an instrument of imperialism. Daut’s is a readable and informative piece on ex-slave Henry Christophe who became king of the first free black state in the Americas. Cole’s thorough and profound piece makes powerful arguments about how photography and photojournalism – which, when paired with a ‘political freedom of movement’, has often served to ‘aestheticize suffering’ – practiced more carefully can catalyse public action on key issues.

Ayona Datta, writing in The Conversation about how young women living on the outskirts of Delhi are using selfies to challenge standard orderings of public space, agrees with Cole that photography can be both a liberating and dangerous act. The locations where young women snap selfies, and their immediate surroundings, provide insights into control over women’s bodies in contested urban settings. Datta suggests the selfies express deeper yearnings and anxieties than ‘a simple rendition of a millennial trend’.

Indeed, studying the political arguments and expressions of the young matters to understanding contemporary politics on several continents. Dan Hodgkinson and Luke Melchiorre highlight the agency of radical students in 1960s and 1970s Africa in pushing alternate pan-Africanist and socialist decolonisation projects which authoritarian postcolonial states combatted.

Elsewhere, Associate Professor of History Elspeth Brown explores the history of Canada’s first gay student organisation, the ‘University of Toronto Homophile Association’, founded in 1969. The body prefigured today’s LGBT liberation movements in the region, and Brown includes audio clips from lead activist Jearld Moldenhauer which shine a light on the challenges – including unemployment – Moldenhauer faced for his agitation.

Finally, returning to the theme of the language and concepts employed to stigmatise disadvantaged groups and populations, Kate McAllister of the University of Sheffield writes about the history of mental health treatment in Britain. Charities like Mind are currently calling for ‘parity of esteem’ between mental and physical health conditions as politicians move painfully slowly – if at all – to recognise the country’s ongoing mental health crisis. McAllister investigates how in early 20th-century welfare legislation, the concept of the ‘unconscious’ was used to brand mental health problems imaginary. Again, the detailed study of history and its organising concepts and narratives offers crucial insights into today’s problems.

Tom Shillam is PhD student at the University of York who holds a Departmental Scholarship from the Department of History. His research considers how mid-20th century South Asian intellectuals synthesised anti-authoritarian ideas of their own with those of writers elsewhere to propose a different decolonising politics to the dominant developmentalist dogmas of the time. Catch him on Twitter @tomshillam.

‘An amoral lifestyle’ – criminalizing female sexuality in the Soviet 1960s

by Mirjam Galley

That the USSR did not turn out to be the utopia of gender equality that some revolutionaries had dreamt of in 1917 can no longer really surprise anyone. A glimpse into how the Soviet authorities dealt with juvenile delinquency allows us to fathom the extent to which boys and girls were thought of and treated differently. Looking at how deviance and sexuality were addressed in the 1960s also point to the limits of so-called ‘liberalization’ under Nikita Khrushchev.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, Soviet leaders were left with a difficult legacy. His successor Khrushchev had to find a way of reinventing Soviet socialism and removing the taint of Stalinist terror. To prevent the destabilization of the Soviet regime, Khrushchev needed to come up with a way to ensure public order and impose certain norms of behaviour without ubiquitous state terror.

The Soviet 1960s were shaped by a fear of deviance, a fear which was rekindled time and again by actual or perceived waves of juvenile crime. These fears were predominantly evoked around the image of unsupervised youths hanging out in the streets, in staircases, and in the dvory (courtyards), where they were thought to be drinking, smoking, and gambling, all seen as gateways into delinquency and crime.[1]

These anxieties were often personified by the ‘hooligan.’[2] The ‘hooligan’ was the concept most widely invoked in Soviet society to label deviant behaviour. As Brian LaPierre has shown, hooliganism was mainly a ‘crime’ committed by working class

Group of young people walking through Moscow, 1964 (courtesy of CREEES, UVA, via Wikimedia Commons)

men. This might suggest that in the Soviet Union, deviance was ‘male’. A closer look at convictions of underage boys and girls, however, shows that there was also ‘female’ deviance, and that Soviet notions of delinquency and deviance were deeply gendered. Archival documents reveal surprisingly conservative notions of gender roles and sexuality within the Soviet system of justice and even among youths.

At first glance, this seems surprising in a state claiming to have ‘freed’ women and reached the equality of the sexes. Instead, bureaucrats worked with crude impressions of ‘fallen women’ and resorted to victim blaming in cases of sexual abuse and rape. Although there were also girls who committed crimes, it seems like girls were mostly sent to institutions for delinquent minors (reform colonies or ‘special’ schools) for promiscuity (amoral behaviour), or even prostitution – if they could prove that money had been exchanged. Boys, on the other hand, would be sent away most frequently for hooliganism, theft, or assault.

To compare these gendered notions of deviance, I will look at two inspection reports from 1962 about so-called collection and distribution points (priemniki), one for boys in Leningrad and one for girls in Pushkin. Minors would be brought to these places by the police, and wait there to be transferred to an institution. The Leningrad priemnik mostly held boys waiting to be sent to a reform colony. These boys were accused of theft, hooliganism, drunkenness, and ‘refusing to study or work.’ The report also mentions particularly bad previous cases, such as stealing state property, breaking into apartments, organizing gangs, escaping from a colony, and rape.[3]

In contrast, the report about the 11 girls waiting in the Pushkin priemnik for their place in a colony shows most interest in their sexual behaviour, which is vividly described. The girls would either roam around at night or had left home to stay with some guy. The men in question are named as shady people, foreigners (in one case Swedish tourists), soldiers, delinquent people, ‘unknown’ men, people from the Jazz scene – covering every possible stereotype of a bad match for ‘good Soviet girls.’ According to the report, most of the girls were either skipping school, misbehaving or drinking and smoking. Five of them lived in a boarding school, two were students, four had dropped out or were between jobs. Their families (often single parents) are mostly described as drinkers, as leading ‘an amoral lifestyle,’ or as mentally ill.

The report emphasizes cases in which girls exerted a bad influence on their environment, either literally by catching (and potentially spreading) venereal diseases – two of them had been hospitalized for gonorrhoea – or more metaphorically by ‘having amoral conversations in her boarding school’s dorm,’ and ‘tainting’ the other girls at her school. Another common feature is the failure of other agencies to influence or re-educate them, be it schools, factory ‘collectives’, the Komsomol, the police or house committees.

Only one of the girls committed an actual crime; aside from all of her deviant acts, she committed a rather grim act of cruelty against animals.[4] Although the boys and

Young women walking through Revolution Square, Moscow, 1964 (image courtesy of CREEES, UVA, via Wikimedia Commons)

girls found themselves in similar institutions and came from similar social(ly destitute) backgrounds, they are convicted for very different offenses and could hardly have been described more differently.

Another such case demonstrating the gendered notions of deviance is the conviction of a 14-year-old girl to a reform colony for leading an ‘amoral life style’, which included running away from school and petty theft. The Latvian prosecution chose to protest against this conviction, as the story behind it is rather tragic, and the girl was not known for misbehaving. A 20-year-old man had (illegally!) started a relationship with this girl and was terrorizing her emotionally. When her schoolmaster found out that the girl was sexually active, he persuaded her mother to send her to a boarding school. The man continued pursuing the girl and threatened to break up with her if she did not come to see him at once.

Scared, she ran away from school, stole some clothes to wear, and went to meet him. She was picked up by the militsiia (police) and brought back to school, where the headmaster chose to put her in ‘quarantine’ for three weeks and then had her sent to a colony, bullying her mother into agreeing to this. At the time of the prosecution’s protest, the girl was stuck in a priemnik, awaiting transfer. The prosecutor demanded for her to be sent back, and for the security forces to charge the guy who had abused and pressured her instead, as seemingly no one had thought of this before. The commission in charge followed that recommendation, although this came quite late for the girl: the trail of documents suggests that between the decision to send her to a colony and its reversal a whole year had passed.[5]

The tendency to blame girls for having sex even goes as far as influencing the outcome of rape trials. In the 1960s in Latvia, a rapist was charged but not arrested, because the victim had been a ‘promiscuous’ girl – which is a gross, but sadly familiar, trivialisation of rape.[6] In a discussion about juvenile crime among senior Latvian education, health, and juvenile justice officials, a law scholar considers rape a serious problem amongst minors. He inexplicably links it to the phenomenon of uneducated single mothers, somehow implying that it is the father’s job in a family to tell his sons not to rape anyone, or that such basic moral ground rules require a certain level of schooling. To explain the status of rape among such youngsters, the scholar evokes the case of three boys being tried for raping a 26-year-old. Towards the end of the trial, one of the accused admitted that he actually did not take part in the crime, but asked the court ‘not to tell anyone because it would embarrass him in front of his friends.’[7]

These examples bear witness to an underlying culture of criminalizing female but not male sexuality, and of victim blaming in the case of rape – a culture so widespread and unquestioned that not to rape a girl could apparently be cause for embarrassment.

Mirjam Galley is a third-year PhD student in Sheffield’s History Department. Her doctoral research deals with children in care in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death in 1953, exploring both how the Soviet leadership sought to ‘form’ children in institutions into productive workers, and how children coped in these institutions. Her research interests include cultural history, especially the history of everyday life, of violence, and of marginalised groups. She is one of the co-founders of the Sheffield Modern International History Group. You can reach her on Twitter @M_E_Galley.


[1] Susan Reid, ‘Building Utopia in the Back Yard. Housing Administration, Participatory Government and the Cultivation of Socialist Community,’ in Karl Schlögel (ed.), Mastering Russian Spaces: Raum und Raumbewältigung als Probleme der russischen Geschichte (Munich, 2011), (149-186), pp. 171-172.

[2] Deborah Field, Private Life and Communist Morality in Khrushchev’s Russia (New York, 2007), p. 22.

[3] GARF, f. A385, op. 26, del. 203, ll. 126-133. (1962)

[4] GARF, f. A385, op. 26, del. 203, ll. 119-125. (1962)

[5] LVA, f. 270, ap. 3, lie. 1982, pp. 7-8. (1963)

[6] LVA, f. 270, ap. 3, lie. 2283, (86-115), p. 100. (1964)

[7] LVA, f. 270, ap. 3, lie. 2283, (86-115), p. 100-101. (1964)

Full Image Attributions

Image 1: By CREEES.UVA (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: By CREEES.UVA (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

‘Girls with Low Social Responsibility’: Putin, Pre-Revolutionary Policing, and Prostitution in the Language of ‘Immorality’.

by Siobhán Hearne

Last month, the internet went wild about Vladimir Putin’s defence of Donald Trump, particularly his dismissal of the validity of the Trump-Russia dossier. Observers seemed most amused by Putin’s comments regarding Moscow sex workers, particularly his remark that they are ‘of course, the best in the world’. This has been quoted again and again in online news outlets, and the soundbite has been retweeted thousands of times on Twitter.

What was, more interesting about this portion of the speech, were Putin’s comments about the connections between prostitution and morality. Referring to sex workers as ‘girls with low social responsibility’ (devushki s ponizhennoi sotsial’noi otvetstvennost’iu), he suggested that they were somehow disinterested in engaging with society and instead, ostracise themselves from their wider communities by engaging in sexual labour. He also claimed that those who write so-called ‘fake news’ in an attempt to damage political regimes were ‘worse than prostitutes’. Here, sex workers’ ‘immorality’ apparently makes their political and social disengagement somehow deliberately subversive.

With these remarks, Putin seems to suggest that the only way to be socially and politically engaged in an appropriate manner is to be supportive of the current government. Crucially, Putin failed to mention the detrimental impact that corrupt policing practices, poorly funded health services and homophobic legislation have on the safety of Russian sex workers, especially those who identify as LGBTQ.

This classification of sex workers as ‘immoral’ and ‘removed from society’ helps Russian law enforcement agencies to justify their regressive policies and policing practices. This is by no means new. These ideas were replicated in official and popular discourse at a point when prostitution was legally tolerated in Russia. From 1843 until 1917, the tsarist authorities regulated prostitution under a system often referred to simply as nadzor, or supervision. Prostitutes could work legally as long as they registered their details with their local police and attended weekly gynaecological examinations.

Registered women then received an alternative form of identification, known as the ‘medical ticket’ (meditsinskii bilet). The system was implemented with the official aim of preventing the spread of venereal diseases, but the medical ticket’s accompanying regulations suggest that the authorities also endeavoured to control prostitutes’ movement and visibility within urban space. The system also rigidly defined prostitution as a transaction between a female prostitute and a male client.


List of women registered as prostitutes in Tallinn in 1908. The columns ask for her name, social class, occupation before prostitution, nationality, age, address, where she was registered as  a prostitute, how long she had worked as a prostitute, and the name of her current brothel. (Source: EAA.21.2.5037)

The vast majority of registered prostitutes in late imperial Russian cities were lower class female migrants, either peasants, lower-class urban dwellers or soldiers’ wives born outside the city in which they worked. Removed from their husbands and fathers, these women fell outside the patriarchal authority of traditional family structures.

Regulation allowed the authorities to monitor the lives and bodies of these ‘unheaded’ women. Due to the prevalence of lower class women on the police lists, policing practices and discourses on prostitution in this period also reflect assumptions about gender, class and morality. In light of this, ‘lower’ class women were often typecast as morally lax and in need of state surveillance.

Headshots of prostitutes in Tartu c.1900. (Source: EAA.325.2.585)

Despite ‘prostitute’ being a distinct legal identity and a recognised profession, moral condemnation permeated official discussions of prostitution. Regulatory legislation used the terms prostitute (prostitutka) and ‘woman engaged in debauchery’ (zhenshchina zanimaiushchaiasia razvratom) interchangeably. Local officials in charge of implementing regulation often conflated prostitution and extramarital sexual activity (considered ‘promiscuity’), using women’s sexual behaviour as evidence for their need to be registered onto the police lists.

In May 1915, a Riga police agent conducted a raid on a suspicious property and found Agaf’ia Iuran naked and sleeping in a bed with her partner, Aleksandr Ianulevich.[1] As Agaf’ia had worked as a prostitute two years previously, they ignored the couple’s objections and registered her back onto the police lists. Likewise, in January 1911, Elena Lukshanova was registered onto the Riga police lists after a local police officer found her in a rented room with a ‘strange man’.[2]

Divorce cases granted by the Holy Synod in the early 1900s show how the authorities linked apparent sexual immorality, as well as taboo behaviour, such as drinking, with prostitution. In September 1914, Pavel Baranov, a peasant from Astrakhan province in southern Russia, was granted a divorce from his wife Evfimiia. Three eyewitnesses claimed that she led an ‘adulterous life’, drinking heavily and having sex with various men ‘like a prostitute’.[3]

Urban residents also linked immorality and prostitution. On 20 November 1915, the Riga police received a petition from a city pharmacist, protesting against the forced registration of Amaliia Soo.[4]  The pharmacist insisted that Amaliia was an ‘honest and moral’ woman, who was not working as a prostitute. Another petitioner wrote about her niece, Elena Vannag. She asked the police to remove Elena from the lists and promised to ‘monitor [her niece’s] morality personally’.[5]

By typecasting women who worked as prostitutes as immoral, the imperial authorities were able to legitimise police repression and interference into the lives of lower class women. These ideas worked to further stigmatise women who worked as prostitutes, meaning that the authorities often dismissed cases of prostitutes’ abuse at the hands of law enforcement agents. Unfortunately, ideas about the ‘immorality’ of sex workers continue to influence policing practices today, in Russia as elsewhere across the world. By closely reading the language used by leaders like Putin, we can see how contemporary speech mirrors the political conditions of the past.

Siobhán Hearne is a third-year PhD student at the University of Nottingham. Her thesis ‘Female Prostitution in Urban Russia, 1900-1917’ explores how prostitutes, their clients and wider urban communities experienced, and resisted, the system of regulated prostitution that remained in place until 1917. She is also interested in early Soviet campaigns to eradicate prostitution and venereal disease in the 1920s, and is part of the Peripheral Histories? editorial team. 

Next month, Siobhán will be hosting the two-day conference ‘Gender and Sexuality in Russia, Eastern Europe and Eurasia: Past and Present, to mark International Women’s Day.


[1] LVVA, f. 51, op. 1, d. 23557, l. 238.

[2] LVVA, f. 51, op. 1, d. 23539, l. 38.

[3] RGIA, f. 796, op. 199, otd. IV, st. 3, d. 547, l. 2, 3, 5.

[4] LVVA, f. 51, op. 1, d. 23557, l. 597.

[5] LVVA, f. 51, op. 1, d. 23477, l. 666.

‘It is not the Maghreb that Islamised itself… It is Islam that maghrebised itself’

By Imen Neffati

Located on the Western tip of the Arab world, Tunisia shares with Algeria and Morocco certain historical and cultural characteristics. They are all Arab Islamic societies of Berber ancestry. They all experienced a period of French colonization before becoming independent nation-states in the mid 1950s to the early 1960s. And, crucially, nowhere in the Maghreb was there a broad-based, grassroots women’s movement demanding the expansion of women’s rights; rather, such action came from the top.[1]

President Habib Bourguiba (Source: Wikicommons)

In Tunisia, national family law took the form of the Code of Personal Status (CPS) in 1957, a series of progressive laws aiming to establish equality between women and men in the public and the private domains, and instituted by Habib Bourguiba, the first President of Tunisia after independence in 1956. [2]

The Code, drafted (even before the Constitution) by fifteen jurists —all Arabic speakers, under the supervision of the Minister of Justice Ahmed Mestiri— outlawed polygamy and abolished repudiation. It entitled women to file for divorce on the same grounds as men, and increased mothers’ custody rights. In the years following independence, women obtained the right to work, move, open bank accounts, and establish businesses without the permission of their husbands. The Code was followed by other endorsing measures: the contraceptive pill was made freely accessible throughout the country. July 1st 1965 saw a law allowing abortion, for social as well as medical reasons. Wearing the veil at school was also forbidden.

High-profile religious leaders protested. A fatwa of fourteen members of the former Islamic tribunal denounced the new policies as ‘religiously reprehensible and incompatible with the Quran’, to which Bourguiba responded that ‘this change represented a choice in favour of progress …the end of a barbaric age and the beginning of an era of social equilibrium and civilization, [we must] fight anachronistic traditions and backward mentalities.’[3]

Bourguiba removes the veil of a female onlooker (image source: ina.fr)

The Code was thus revolutionary, with one exception: inheritance law, which remained unchanged and based upon Islamic principles.[4] Bourguiba yielded to conservative wishes, ignoring pressure from his entourage and members of his government who wanted to reform inequality in heritage. Muslim scholars explain this by looking at Islamic law in its entirety, which bestows the responsibility and accountability on men to provide for women.

Another explanation is that Islam decrees that women, upon marriage are entitled to a ‘dowry’ from the husband (in addition to any provision by her parents). The ‘dowry’ is, therefore, essentially an advance of inheritance rights from her husband’s estate (the CPS clearly kept the dowry as it was).

In 1956, upon gaining sovereignty, Tunisia faced pressure from two authoritative spheres when it came to developing its national institutions: the immediate kin-based community or tribe,and the world Islamic community.[5] I believe that the kin-based structure of Tunisian society in the pre-colonial and colonial periods was an important factor in the failure of the CPS to modernize inheritance/property law.

In fact, until the beginning of the twentieth century there had been a history of tension between whichever social group held power in the political centre, and autonomous local collectivities resisting its control. Pre-colonial states, with varying degrees of administrative capacity, expanded and contracted depending on how much control they could have over tribal areas on the periphery. The resistive nomadic way of life is often glorified in Maghribi culture, and even today, it is not uncommon to hear that whoever has Bedouin blood (i.e., nomadic ancestors), belongs to the authentic core of Maghreb society.

Reflecting on the importance of kin-based solidarities in the Maghreb, there has recently been a revival of the work of Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), who was concerned with what held a collectivity together, gave it strength and power, and prevented its atomization. His concept of asabiyya, is useful for the analysis of Maghrebin society. Asabiyya is often translated as “solidarity” with an emphasis on unity and group consciousness. A more accurate translation, proposed by David Hart, is ‘unifying structural cohesion’ or ‘agnation in action’.[6]

What mattered for the history of any group was the strength of its asabiyya: its ‘unifying structural cohesion’ based on ties among agnates, or male kin in the paternal line. The groups with the greatest asabiyya were those best capable of resisting control by others, including central authority, sometimes even displacing central authority altogether. The French anthropologist Germaine Tillion captures this linkage between kinship and politics effectively, referring to the many ‘republics of cousins’ in the traditional political order of the Maghreb. Throughout the Maghreb after independence, political leaders faced the challenge of transforming locally based societies into centrally integrated nation-states.

As is the case with other world religions, Islamic principles and local cultures have intermingled over the course of history. This has combined with various interpretations of the original texts by religious scholars to give rise to different schools of thought within Islam.[7]

The school called Maliki has historically predominated in the Maghreb because it has been the best adapted to the social structure of Maghribi societies, allowing them to adopt Islam with minimal adjustments to kinship structure so that it conforms to the extended patrilineage.[8] According to Emile Felix Gautier : ‘It is not the Maghreb that ‘Islamized itself . . . it is Islam that ‘maghrebized’ itself.’

Bourguiba surrounded by women (Source: Wikicommons)

As the old Tunisian saying goes: ‘Angels and men work towards unity. The devil and women work towards division’. This captures the culture of kinship in the country. Two contradictory principles have historically operated: a principle of unity, based on ties among men in the agnatic lineage, and a principle of division, introduced by the necessity of accepting into the kin group a number of women from other lineages.

The particularism of conjugal units represents a potential threat to the solidarity of the agnatic kin group, since conjugal units may break away and thus bring division. Many of the social norms governing kin and gender relations have functioned to strengthen the unity among the men of a lineage and to keep at bay the threat of division, symbolized by women. Clearly, when women marry into a different family, they should be restricted on how much property they are allowed to take out of their own lineage and in to the husband’s lineage.

In one of his most famous speeches in Jericho in 1965, Bourguiba explained his policy as follows: ‘It often happened to me to resort to the “policy of stages” when I found myself in the obligation to be the master of certain situations’. Bourguiba is famous for refuting the policy of the ‘whole or nothing’ that characterised the Arab world political vision for a long time – particularly in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

CPS did not radically change the inheritance law but it did eradicate the vision of the family as an extended kinship group built on strong ties crisscrossing a community of male relatives, and replaced it with the vision of a conjugal unit. Bourguiba never pretended to be a radical.

Imen Neffati is a PhD student currently at the end of her first year of study. Her thesis, Beyond Charlie: Anticlericalism and Freedom of Speech, explores how stock themes and images migrate across the anticlerical press, challenging contemporary boundaries of good taste and ideas of radical and moderate politics. She has previously been awarded the Fulbright Scholarship 2012-13 at the University of Scranton Pennsylvania, where she also taught Arabic at intermediate level. Imen has also taught EFL with the Ministry of Tunisia. Find her on Twitter at @Carmen_2505.


[1] Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president, argued that family laws in Tunisia were a ‘state matter, an act that must be supervised by public law and society in its entirety’.

[2] After independence, Bourgiba  ruled until 1987. He is known as the liberator and negotiator of independence from French colonisation. He was very progressive, and made Tunisia an exception in the Arab world in terms of liberties. In my own opinion, he turned into a dictator in the 1970s and 80s.

[3] The term ‘fatwa’ means a ‘formal legal opinion’. Although in the West the term is frequently understood as a death sentence against those who blaspheme, its actual definition is much broader.

[4] The Koranic text was clear: ‘A male’s share shall equal that of two females’. Surat Al-Nisaa (fourth chapter) verse 11.

[5] The term “tribe” refers to the social organisation based on kin grouping which constituted the basic community in the Maghreb, where there are entire regions in which individuals continue to identify themselves as members of a tribe.

[6] The tracing of common descent exclusively through the male line.

[7] Four major legal schools have developed within the dominant Islamic Sunni tradition. They present slight, yet noteworthy, variations in legal regulations pertaining to women, family, and kinship. The four schools are also called the four “rites” of Islam. Imam Abu Hanifa of Kufa, Imam Malik bin Anas of Medinah, Imam Muhammad al-Shafi of Medinah, Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal of Baghdad. Religious authorities within each school consider different scholastic interpretations of the doctrine acceptable and trustworthy.

[8] A group of descendants traced through men on the paternal side of the family

Image credits:

President Habib Bourguiba: Wikicommons

Bourguiba removes veil: ina.fr

Bourguiba surrounded by women: Wikicommons

Reformable Victims? The Language of Commercial Sex during the First Decade of Soviet Power

By Siobhán Hearne

Prostitution was rife in early twentieth-century Russia. The tsarist authorities installed a system widely known as the ‘supervision of prostitution’ (nadzor za prostitutsiei) in 1843. In order to legally work, prostitutes were required to register with their local police and attend obligatory weekly medical examinations. These women were given a medical ticket as identification which attested to their sexual health. The state regulation of prostitution continued until 1917, when it was abolished by the Provisional Government following the February revolution.

After the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917, they attempted to completely eradicate prostitution from society. Their campaign or ‘struggle with prostitution’ (bor’ba s prostitutsiei) focused on improving the socio-economic conditions that they believed pushed women into prostitution, such as their economic and political inequality. As part of this campaign, the Bolshevik, and later Soviet, government attempted to transform the way in which wider society conceptualised both prostitution and prostitutes by reforming the vocabulary used to describe them.

‘In destroying capitalism, the proletariat destroys prostitution’. Poster available in K. Waschik (ed.), Seht Her, Genossen!: Plakate Aus Der Sowjetunion, (Dortmund: Harenberg, 1982)

As prostitution had been regulated in the imperial period, brothels were relatively integrated within the urban landscape. In late-tsarist Russia, official discourse referred to brothels as ‘houses of toleration’ (doma terpimosti), which reflected the imperial government’s acceptance of prostitution as a necessary evil. Following the criminalisation of brothel-keeping and pimping in the 1922 Criminal Code, these establishments were pushed underground.[i]

Throughout the 1920s, central and local administration referred to brothels as ‘dens’ or even ‘dens of debauchery’ (pritona razvrata), terminology which had only been used by abolitionist philanthropic organisations before the revolution.[ii] This language marked brothels as something illicit and surreptitious, and demonstrated that the Soviet government aimed to destroy, rather than tolerate, brothels.

The ‘struggle’ campaign also attempted to remove the stigma from individual prostitutes in discourse. Aleksandra Kollontai, founder and leader of the Zhenotdel (Women’s Department) marked prostitutes as victims of capitalist exploitation. ‘The roots of prostitution are in economics’ she declared in a 1921 speech, and argued that the combination of women’s economic vulnerability and their conditioning to believe that they must provide sexual favours for material support directly caused prostitution.[iii]

Individual prostitutes were therefore to be reformed, rather than condemned. The Leningrad Council of the Struggle with Prostitution stressed the need to treat women ‘reclaimed’ (otvoevannye) from prostitution with the upmost respect, and ‘categorically prohibited’ Council members from using the word prostitute when referring to them.[iv] Former prostitutes were not to be stigmatised for their previous profession, and instead were to be welcomed into a life of productive labour for the socialist state.

Aleksandra Kollontai (Source: Wikicommons)

Despite attempts to transform opinion through vocabulary, some Soviet administrators clung to pre-revolutionary notions of the ‘deviant prostitutes’. In 1888, one of the most vocal supporters of imperial regulation, Veniamin Tarnovskii, described prostitutes as dangerous social defects who required constant close supervision.[v]

In 1918, thirty years and various revolutions later, local authorities in Petrograd discussed a so-called ‘special category’ of prostitute, whose involvement in commercial sex was a ‘result of degeneracy’ and a ‘painful necessity as a result of mental disorder’.[vi] This divided prostitutes into two camps: those who worked in prostitution out of necessity and could be reformed, and the innately deviant women who were irredeemable. This distinction provided the authorities with an ideological scapegoat in case of failure, as women who did not comply could be lumped into this category.

Other administrators blamed the apparent mental weakness of women for the continuation of prostitution into the late 1920s, and ignored the impact of wider socio-economic factors such as high female unemployment. In Leningrad, local government classified the labour exchange as a dangerous site where women ‘standing on the verge of prostitution’ could be easily seduced by pimps and brothel-keepers.[vii] This could have been an attempt by the Leningrad authorities’ to provide social assistance for vulnerable women, but the vague classification could also have been used to legitimise interference into the lives of any woman they perceived to be vulnerable.

Ultimately Soviet attempts to reform discourse were relatively unsuccessful. The linguistic turn was evident in visual culture, as propaganda posters and films from the 1920s showed the contrast between the ‘victim’ prostitute and the ‘villain’ brothel-keeper or pimp. The film A Prostitute: Killed by Life, for example is a piece of Soviet propaganda about the seduction of a young girl into prostitution. Those who profit financially from prostitution, such as the brothel-keeper and clients are strongly condemned throughout.

Despite this, many administrators clung to pre-revolutionary notions of women’s deviance and weakness to explain the continued existence of prostitution. From the beginning of the first Five Year Plan for economic development in 1928, policy began to move away from the reform of prostitutes and towards their repression and incarceration as class enemies.

Young prostitute Liuba and her brothel-keeper in the 1927 film A Prostitute: Killed by Life (directed by Oleg Frelikh)

Siobhán Hearne is second-year PhD student at the University of Nottingham. Her thesis ‘Female Prostitution in Urban Russia, 1900-1917’ explores how prostitutes, their clients and wider urban communities experienced, and resisted, the system of regulated prostitution that remained in place until 1917. She is also interested in early Soviet campaigns to eradicate prostitution and venereal disease in the 1920s, and is part of the Peripheral Histories? editorial team.


[i]  The Criminal Code of 1922 criminalised those who profited from prostitution, namely pimps and brothel-keepers, with a minimum sentence of three years imprisonment. The 1926 Criminal Code changed the sentence to a maximum of five years.

[ii][ii] G. I. and Ia. I. Lifshits also refer to brothels as ‘assembly points of debauchery’ (sbornye punkty razvrata) their report on the successes of early Bolshevik prostitution policy, see Sotsial’nye Korni Prostitutsii (Yaroslavl, 1920), p. 40.

[iii] Speech by Alexandra Kollontai, ‘Prostitution and Ways of Fighting It’ https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1921/prostitution.htm

[iv] Report of the Leningrad Council for the Struggle with Prostitution 1928, Tsentralnyi Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Sankt-Peterburga (TsGASPb), f. R4370, op. 1, d. 409, l. 193, O Rabote Soveshchaniia po Bor’be s Prostitutsiei.

[v] V. M. Tarnovskii, Prostitutsiia i Abolitsionizm (Saint Petersburg, 1888).

[vi] Minutes from the meeting of the Petrograd Venereal Council for the Struggle with Prostitution, 12 December 1918. TsGASPb, f. R142, op. 1, d. 3, l. 25-26.

[vii] Report of the Leningrad Council for the Struggle with Prostitution 1928, TsGASPb, f. R4370, op. 1, d. 409, l. 193 Protokol zasedaniia Venerologicheskogo Soveta po bor’be s prostitutsiei.

Sensory Disability and the New Soviet Woman

by Hannah Parker

Considerable chunks of my PhD so far have been spent trawling the archives for letters written by women in the Soviet Union to newspapers, organs and officials in order to grasp how women reproduced ideological language in their letters, and what this tells me about their understandings of themselves as reconstructed ‘New Soviet Women’ in the early years of the Soviet state.

“Woman! Learn literacy! Daughter: ‘Eh, mama! If you were literate, you could help me!'” (1923): Literacy was an essential skill for the New Soviet Woman.

I’d initially expected to find an unremittingly uniform collection of correspondence, the analysis of which would be a chore. However, the sheer variety, vitality and honesty in the experiences relayed to officials was captivating and challenged my preconceptions in a number of ways. On one such trip to the archives last year, I stumbled upon a letter from 1939 written by a young woman who would become a “distinguished woman of letters”: Olga Skorokhodova.[1]

Olga, a deaf-blind woman educated in Kharkov, Ukraine, is known to many as a stunning success story of Sokoliansky, the influential surdotiflopedagog (educator of the blind and deaf).[2] Her impassioned and critical letter to the Procurator General, Andrey Vyshinsky, was striking to me in its boldness, so early in her career:[3]

“From year to year it is improving [elsewhere]: for [seeing and hearing children] a new school. New Productions. And here: deaf-blind – invalids, and ‘idiots’! When will this mockery of us end?… I know that you and comrade Molotov are preoccupied with important issues, but, I hope you will not reject children in care.”[4]

This was not the only letter Olga sent on this occasion: her letter to Vyshinsky was accompanied by another to the secretariat of the Sovnarkom (Council of People’s Commissioners), asking them to ensure that her letter was forwarded to Vyshinsky personally: “He is already familiar with the matter about which I write.”[5] Olga’s self-assurance led me to interrogate the conclusions I had drawn so far in my research into the reception of ‘New Soviet Woman’ by women themselves.

Claire Shaw’s fascinating doctoral study on deafness and the New Soviet Person notes that gender was not an issue in the Russian Deaf community, which was notably distinct from its international counterparts in its cultural identity and cohesion. [6] However, the identities of Deaf women as women, as well as (as) Deaf people, are worthy of exploration. Though gender may not have been an issue of contention, it was certainly a crucial facet of one’s individual identity: people tend to identify as more than one ‘thing’.

So, although access to employment outside the home and the value of labour have been well documented as key tenets of the New Soviet Woman, the letters from hearing women that I had found until then conceptualized labour as a right: the right to the means for survival, and to social legitimacy.

Exclaiming: “we are the children of workers and farmers!” Olga reflected another

“The illiterate man is the blind man: Pitfalls and misfortune await him at every turn” (1921): citizens with sensory disabilities contradicted the ideological portrayal of their experiences.

dimension of meaning to this aspect of the New Soviet Woman which I had not fully considered before: labour and employment as part of a collective memory of emancipation by the revolution.[7] Labour and education evidently meant something beyond social legitimacy in the Soviet state to those women with sensory disabilities. As with the hearing women emancipated by the state after the Revolution, we can perceive echoes of the memory of liberation in the way that non-hearing women fiercely defended education and labour, and their right to ‘sameness’, and social equality with men.

However, as Shaw notes, we shouldn’t argue that “Deaf-Soviet selfhood unconsciously mirrored that of the ‘hearing’ population”. Rather, the revolution had been liberating for the Deaf, the collective memory of which informed their relationship with Soviet ideology.[8] Similarly, we shouldn’t view Deaf women as unconsciously mirroring hearing women in their engagement with Soviet ideology.

Though obviously facing distinct obstacles and discrimination in their daily lives, it is possible to contend that the Deaf community represented a particular form of emancipatory politics. That they were relatively unlikely to face severe reproach or criticism from the Soviet state allowed a greater degree of personal agency in the formulation of a critical world view. I’d argue that this is evident in the sharpness of the criticisms contained in letters to officials and newspapers.

Olga begins her letter with the assertion: “I want to remind you about the catastrophic position of the deaf-blind school in Kharkov, about which I have already written to you.” The confidence with which she introduced her complaint expressed a fearlessness absent in letters from the hearing community, whose requests and complaints were made uniform with the introduction: “I am very sorry to bother you, but…”[9]

I am, therefore, keen to explore further the ways in which the identities of Deaf and Deaf-blind girls and women were informed by the Soviet value system, and how we can situate their performative texts amongst women’s texts, as well as the texts of the Russian Deaf and Deaf-blind communities.

In doing so, I would contend that it is important to assess the texts of Deaf women against the values of the New Soviet Woman in particular: collectivism, initiative, consciousness and labour – but also maternalism, social equality and transcendence.

Moreover, broadening Shaw’s conceptualisation of the mutual engagement between Deaf and Soviet social identities as “not unconscious”, I would define it as both conscious and unconscious at different times; in line with the navigation of Soviet discourse apparent in the body of sources utilized for my thesis as a whole.[10]

However, most importantly, by examining the public letters of Deaf and Deaf-blind women in this way, we can begin to locate their social histories amongst a broader social history both of women and of the Deaf community in the early Soviet Union.

Hannah Parker is in the third year of an AHRC-funded PhD at the University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on receptions of the concept of the ‘New Soviet Woman’ by ordinary women in the Soviet Union, through their letters to the state. Reach her on Twitter @_hnnhprkr.   


[1] I. Sandomirskaia, ‘Skin to skin: language in the Soviet education of deaf-blind children, the 1920s and 1930s’, Studies in East European Though, (2008), 60:4, p. 321

[2] Ibid., p. 324.

[3] Olga’s career as an educator and author would begin proper in 1955, when she was approximately 45 (Sandomirskaia, 2008: 321)

[4] GARF, f.5446 op.81a d.22 ll.145-6

[5] Ibid.

[6] C.L. Shaw, Deaf in the USSR: ‘defect’ and the New Soviet Person, 1917-1991, Doctoral Thesis, UCL, p. 25.

[7] GARF, f.5446 op.81a d.22 ll.145-6; C.L. Shaw, Deaf in the USSR: ‘defect’ and the New Soviet Person, 1917-1991, p. 31.

[8] C.L. Shaw, Deaf in the USSR: ‘defect’ and the New Soviet Person, 1917-1991, p. 31.

[9] GARF, f.5446 op.81a d.22 ll.145-6

[10] C.L. Shaw, Deaf in the USSR: ‘defect’ and the New Soviet Person, 1917-1991, p. 29.

Letters to a dictator: ‘speaking Francoist’ in 1940s Spain


by Stephanie Wright

Those who have never had the (dis)pleasure of working with the remnants of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s monstrous state bureaucracy will be unfamiliar with the relentlessly formulaic nature of its documentation.

On my first encounter with Francoist bureaucracy while researching the experiences of disabled veterans of the Spanish Civil War, I had hoped to find reams of letters detailing the personal experiences of wounded soldiers. Unfortunately, the longed-for letters seemed, initially, pretty dull. Confined to a bureaucratic straitjacket of rigid sentence constructions and set phrases, they appeared to tell me nothing at all about the individuality of my subjects.

It was, in fact, in the Francoist state’s interests to prescribe the way in which citizens communicated with it. By adopting the language of Francoism, letter writers acknowledged the regime’s legitimacy and values, and manifested their awareness of their place within the new order. Letters to Franco typically began with ‘His Excellency Generalísimo Franco’ and more often than not signed off with a ‘May God protect you many years’.

In his new compilation of letters written to Franco by ‘ordinary’ citizens, Antonio Sanchez Cazorla offers numerous examples of citizens ‘speaking Francoist’.[1] Ambrosio A., a soldier who accidentally shot his mother while cleaning his rifle, wrote to the

Francisco Franco ruled Spain until his death of natural causes in 1975

Caudillo in November 1938 asking to be sent back to work in his hometown in order to be close to his sister. In doing so, he took care to address Franco as ‘Generalísimo and saviour of our National Spain’ and to sign off with a ‘raised arm and an Arriba España.’[2]

Such highly politicised formulations were very common in letters to Franco and the state more generally, and the readiness with which individuals adopted these phrases is perhaps unsurprising given the repressive climate of Francoist Spain, particularly in its early years.[3]

However, such letters raise questions about the nature of the relationship between the state and its subjects. Although Ambrosio A. clearly adhered to the linguistic expectations of the regime, his insistence that his request be dealt with as quickly as possible, which was repeated in a follow-up letter (in which he also asked for a recommendation letter to include in his appeal to the Ministry of Defence), demonstrated the soldier’s underlying assertiveness.

Assertiveness was not uncommon in the letters sent to Franco or other representatives of the bureaucratic administration. One of the most striking examples of this I have encountered so far is the case of A.C., an ex-soldier whose duties during the war involved relaying messages between different military authorities on his motorbike.[4] In 1938, A.C. sustained an injury to his foot, which led him to apply to join the disabled veterans’ Corps, the succinctly-named ‘Honourable Corps of the Mutilated in the War for the Fatherland’.

The Francoist regime’s policy towards injured veterans aimed to reward those wounded heroically in battle. Therefore, veterans who had sustained wounds in other ways during their period of active service were placed in an uncertain position. This was particularly the case before 1940, after which a decree recognised those injured through accidents during the war (although the nominal distinction between them and the battle wounded was maintained).

The precise origins of A.C.’s foot injury in 1938 are unclear: according to his own testimony in his application to join the Honourable Corps, A.C. had been wounded by ‘enemy shrapnel’, while his superior officer insisted that the injury had in fact occurred as a result of a motorcycle accident.


There are clear motives as to why a soldier might try to obfuscate the true origins of his injury; entry into the Honourable Corps could guarantee the survival of a wounded veteran and his family in the difficult Francoist post-war years. The fact, however, that A.C. was willing to do so in writing is indicative of his awareness of both the state’s expectations of its citizens – most notably, bravery in battle –, and also his confidence in the space for negotiation within the regime’s bureaucratic processes, as long as one understood how to play the game.

In this sense, the dry, bureaucratic language of most citizens’ letters to the state are by no means evidence of a robotic obedience to the Francoist regime. Rather, such letters tell us of the pragmatism of many Spaniards who learnt how to engage with the system in order to meet their own individual needs.

Correspondences such as these also offer an insight into the practical realities of running a state based on rigid understandings of the ideal Francoist male. Both A.C.’s roadside wounding and Ambrosio A.’s tragically incompetent shooting of his own mother contravened the Francoist regime’s rhetorical emphasis on honour and brave sacrifice in battle. Yet that the state dealt with their cases regardless is indicative of a certain flexibility on the part of the regime to incorporate those who perhaps did not fully conform to its propagandistic ideals.

Indeed, from 1940 soldiers who had been injured through accidents during their time in the army were also granted entry into the Honourable Corps. In this way, although one must not forget the regime’s brutal repression of its Republican enemies, its somewhat flexible approach to its own supporters can perhaps offer a helpful perspective on the long-term survival of Francoism until the 1970s.

Stephanie Wright is currently in her second year of a WRoCAH-funded PhD looking at ‘Nationalist’ disabled veterans of the Spanish Civil War and perceptions of masculinity in Franco’s Spain. Find her on twitter @Estefwright.

[1] Stephen Kotkin coined the term ‘Speaking Bolshevik’ in his work on the Soviet Union in the 1930s. This concept referred to the process by which Russian citizens learnt what the state expected of them as individuals, and suggested that it was the population’s willingness to meet such expectations that enabled the Soviet regime to maintain a degree of stability. See Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (London, 1995).

[2] Antonio Sanchez Cazorla, Cartas a Franco de los españoles de a pie (1936-1945) (Barcelona, 2016), p. 38.

[3] Michael Richards’ offers a valuable insight into the dark post-war years in Francoist Spain in his book A Time of Silence (Cambridge, 1998).

[4] Archivo General Militar de Guadalajara, 162-3758, A.C.

The header image is the author’s own.

Image of Franco: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46339117

Image of sign: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=527666