Women’s Education Reform in the USSR

The development of women’s education in the Soviet Union was a cultural, political, and religious issue (Khalid 198). As Lenin stated in the First Congress of Teachers in 1918, “the victory of the revolution can only be consolidated by the school—the training of future generations will anchor everything won by the revolutions” (Lapidus 135). The education reforms would allow women some relief from a life of domestic work and provide an opportunity to participate as productive members of working society, bringing all of the Soviet Union into a more modern mentality (Lapidus 135). On paper, the statistics for the growth of educated women are impressive (Lapidus 139-140). However, even in more modern times, the improved educational opportunities for women beginning in the early 1920s have not brought women to the “powerful positions in decision making bodies” that men have historically and continuously held (Usha 141).

At the dawn of the Soviet Union, laws that prevented education based on gender were dissolved and the free, co-educational Unified Labor School was established, announcing that all children entering the school would learn on a more even playing field (Lapidus 137). The census of December 1927 showed that female students made up 37.5% of the student body of primary schools; 44.3% of seven-year schools; 50% of nine-year schools; and 28.2% of higher educational institutions (Lapidus 139). These percentages increased drastically by the late 1930s, and all remained close to a ratio of 50% into the 1970s in urban areas (Lapidus 140).

In more rural areas, such as in Uzbekistan, young girls who were allowed an education typically studied in religious schools, or maktabs (Kamp 93). For the Jadids, a modernist reform group who “tied their advocacy of progress and civilization to a reform of Islam,” national progress was impossible without changing the status of women, a change they believed could be accomplished through education (Khalid 2, 6, 198). This mentality stemmed from the notion that women could not be good Muslims without an education (Khalid 197-198).

Once the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (TASSR), established in 1918 and dissolved in 1924, was settled by the Soviets, the Soviet Education Commissariat took over pre-existing Jadid and Russian state schools and opened new institutions (Kamp 60-61, 85). In the early 1920s, the Soviet Government increased supervision on madrasas and waqfs, religious institutions, but kept “temporary retreat from radically antireligious [sic] policies… a strategic move to decrease anti-Soviet opinion” (Kamp 85). This blurred the lines between religious, Jadid, and Soviet schools, and in order to ensure the Soviet ethos was present in all educational institutions, the Soviet Education Commissariat made retraining teachers top priority (Kamp 85-86).

The re-education of teachers led to a direct increase in primary education (Kamp 86). Graduates of the Bilim Yurti, a Jadid institution referred to as the “Women and Girl’s House of Knowledge,” were the first female teachers with the new training (Kamp 86, Khalid 200). The quickly expanding school offered several month long teacher-training courses to women from teenagers to those in their middle ages, with an emphasis on literacy as “a cornerstone of the Communist Party’s program for transforming society throughout the Soviet Union” (Kamp 88, 90). The first alumni of the Bilim Yurti graduated after only three years, as Uzbekistan’s tradition of early marriages and emphasis on family life asserted that women should not be in school past a certain age (Kamp 88-89). Despite low graduation rate, even those who did not graduate were placed in teaching positions to fill the great need for teachers (Kamp 89). Those who did graduate “included some ambitious women who became leaders of the Uzbek intelligentsia,” while others went on to open other schools for girls (Kamp 89).

The All-Russian Extraordinary Commission to Abolish Illiteracy in Turkestan, and later in Uzbekistan, made it easier for women to become teachers, especially if they were already literate (Kamp 90). Even otins, female Muslim teachers, were quickly trained and given modern literacy teaching positions (Kamp 76, 90). The re-educating of otins and their male counterparts, dolmas, led to the exclusion of all religious instruction in Uzbekistan schools by 1927, with some teachers forced to officially reject religion (Kamp 77, 91). While some teachers maintained a covert practice, performing religious rites and rituals, they were hesitant to teach young girls during the strong anti-religious movement, ending religious teachings to new generations (Kamp 92-93).

Despite the progress of reform, the numbers of educated women varied greatly depending on religion, ethnicity, and familial status within the Soviet Union (Lapidus 141). However, the gap continuously narrowed, and by 1970 there were 830 female students enrolled in secondary school for every 1,000 male students (Lapidus 141). The emphasis on improving literacy rates in order to support exponential industrialization throughout the Soviet Union resulted in a jump in female literacy rates from 42.7% in 1926 to 81.6% in 1939 (Lapidus 136). Contrastingly, the male literacy rate only increased by 22% over the same time span (Lapidus 136).

Given the efforts to increase educational opportunities for women, the results unfortunately did not lead to equal progression of the cultural mindset towards women (Usha 160). This was in part due to the stereotyping of gender roles portrayed in children's books, as well as the existence of home economic course requirements for female students and metalworking course requirements for male students, emphasizing that women should remain the primary homemakers (Lapidus 144). K.B. Usha, a Russian and Central Asian scholar, claims that despite the Soviet Union’s efforts to reform women’s rights, there was no effort made to rewrite the role of women in society (160). The Soviet education reforms set women up for future success, but they did so in a society that was not prepared to have women exist on an equal plane with the male population (Usha 160).

Contributor: Jesse Sentivan

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

Khalid, Adeeb. Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Early USSR. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2015.

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

Usha, K.B. “Political Empowerment of Women in Soviet Union and Russia: Ideology and Implementation.” International Studies, vol. 42, no. 2, 2005, pp. 141-165.