When Soviet Women Won the Right to Abortion (For the Second Time)

After a liberalization period following the Russian Revolution, the Stalin-era Soviet Union drastically restricted women’s right to abortion. But in the 1950s Soviet women won free and legal terminations — achieving the right to choose before almost all of their sisters in the West.

Members of Moscow's Soviet, Communist, and civic organizations attend an International Women's Day meeting in 1973. (Wikimedia Commons)

In today’s Russia, feminism is often regarded as something imported from the West after the collapse of the Soviet Union, just like foreign finance or the internet. In this context, the story of how Soviet women won the right to abortion is a sad case of lost memory — it having been forgotten that it was achieved here earlier than in Western countries. Yet this fight was an important example of Soviet women’s political activism — and a story that helps us reconstruct a wider history of socialist feminism in the USSR.

Such a reading runs against the long-dominant “totalitarian” approach to writing Soviet history. This latter assumes that the USSR was a wholly top-down entity where everyone simply obeyed the orders of a monolithic party, and nothing else. Clearly, such an undifferentiated landscape leaves no place for the history of the women who fought for their rights. While since the 1980s this approach has faced a strong revisionist challenge, it remains persistent in gender history.

The influence of this approach is visible in the way that the chronology of Soviet gender politics is usually structured. Focusing on the main changes of political leadership, this chronology comes to an end with the abolition of the Zhenotdel (women’s department) in 1930 — a move which brought the near-complete exclusion of women from political participation. Yet further exploring women’s agency in Soviet gender politics, we can see that the history of feminist struggle never stopped — for it never reached final victory.

The decriminalization of abortion in the Soviet Union in 1955 is indicative, in this regard. This is especially true when we ask what this particular change tells us about the kinds of political subjectivity that the dominant Soviet discourse on gender equality enabled. This discourse —an essential part of the Soviet project — created the “Soviet woman” as a political identity, which in many contradictory ways really could serve the promotion of women’s interests.

Here, we’ll leave aside the question of whether this subjectivity was an expected outcome — or else worked against the actual intentions of male party leaders. Instead, we’ll focus on a woman leader, Maria Kovrigina, who was one of the main actors in the decriminalization of abortion. In a sense, she had a biography typical of the Soviet nomenklatura. But her story also shows how, for all its limits and hypocrisy, even the official Soviet vision of women’s empowerment really did contribute to the decriminalization of abortion.

From Liberation to Criminalization

Abortion on social and medical grounds had first been legalized in 1920 — making the young Soviet state the first country in the world to provide such a right. This did not mean a positive view of women’s right to choose. Rather, women’s need to resort to abortions was seen as the result of social conditions resulting from Tsarism, which would disappear with the development of socialism. For this reason, as Susan Gross Solomon shows, the women’s department saw no contradiction between anti-abortion propaganda and the legalization of abortion.

The 1920 “Decree on Women’s Healthcare” declared illegal abortion a “serious evil to the community”; it insisted that extensive social protections for maternity and infancy could secure “the gradual disappearance of this evil.” But since both “the moral survivals of the past and the difficult economic conditions of the present still compel[led] many women to resort to this operation,” it was necessary to provide it to women through the health care system, rather than allow its continued illegal practice.

This liberalization was not to last. In 1936, abortion on social grounds was criminalized again, in favor of a narrow list of medical criteria. Women who transgressed the ban not only risked serious injury or worse by having an illegal abortion, but if caught they also faced imprisonment. The new “Decree on the Prohibition of Abortions and the Improvement of Material Aid to Women in Childbirth” emphasized that improved social conditions meant women no longer “needed” abortions — and, in any case, they had to uphold their role as mothers.

As this text reversing abortion rights insisted, “In no country in the world does woman enjoy such complete equality in all branches of political, social and family life as in the USSR. In no country in the world does woman, as a mother and a citizen who bears the great and responsible duty of giving birth to and bringing up citizens, enjoy the same respect and protection from the law as in the USSR. Only under conditions of socialism, where exploitation of man by man does not exist and where woman is an equal member of society, while the continual improvement of the material well-being of the toilers constitutes a law of social development, is it possible seriously to organize the struggle against abortions by prohibitive laws as well as by other means.”

This was not the only Stalin-era “reform” of reproductive rights. Following the devastation wrought by World War II, authorities made a fresh bid to push up birth rates, with the new Family Edict of 1944. As Mie Nakachi shows, the initial goal of this law (articulated only in a supplementary note) was to increase the number of children born even outside of marriage — this being seen as the only solution for the gender imbalance (i.e., a relative lack of men) which resulted from the war. The mechanism for achieving this was not just to give more support to women, but to liberate men from any responsibility for children born outside of an official marriage.

As against a previous system whereby children had enjoyed the same rights whether they were born inside or outside of wedlock, the 1944 law introduced the category of single mothers. Now, when a child’s parents weren’t married, the line on the birth certificate for the father’s name would simply be left blank. According to the statistics presented by Nakachi, this didn’t lead to the expected growth in the Soviet population, but the opposite. The result was a dramatic increase in the number of illegal abortions — bringing around four thousand deaths a year in 1949–1955 — as well as of supposed “orphans” whose parents were, in fact, still alive.

Feminists’ Agency — and Its Limits

But this served as a call to action. Faced with the problems of declining population growth and high illegal abortion rates, numerous interministerial commissions were established, with women in leading roles. One such woman was Maria Kovrigina (1910–1995), a professionally trained medical doctor and hospital administrator. She was a member of the Soviet Women’s Anti-Fascist Committee, an organization established in 1941 to propagandize internationally for the Soviet gender equality project.

In these commissions, Kovrigina consistently advocated for legal changes, indeed ones broader than the mere expansion of the criteria for legal abortion (and its ultimate decriminalization). But she could only get her proposals through after 1954, when she became the Soviet health minister.

She achieved this the following year with the 1955 law on “The Abolition of the Prohibition Against Abortion,” which proclaimed that changed circumstances allowed the lifting of the ban. As it put it, “The measures taken by the Soviet Union to promote and protect children and to continuously increase the awareness and culture of women who are actively involved in all spheres of the national economic life of the country now allow for the abandonment of prohibited abortions by law. This may be due to the expansion of state measures to promote motherhood, as well as educational and awareness-raising.”

Notable, here, is the fact that like its predecessors (whether legalizing or criminalizing abortion) Kovrigina’s text was again framed as a protection of motherhood and childhood. For this reason, scholars have tended to regard the 1955 law as part of the USSR’s pro-natalist policies, designed to push up birth rates. But the fact that the 1950s debates on abortion were strongly connected with research on women’s living conditions and childcare facilities can also be seen within the socialist-feminist frame of reproductive justice.

Such a frame (later developed, in their own ways, by Marxist feminists like Tithi Bhattacharya) established a connection between the right to make decisions and the material opportunities to afford having children. Hence while looking at Soviet gender politics in terms of the liberal feminist agenda of “rights” may not show us a great deal, adopting the perspective of socialist and Marxist feminists may help provide a more nuanced picture.

Moreover, as Nakachi shows, there was also a gap between the way abortion was discussed in the professional medical community, including by Kovrigina herself, and the way it was portrayed in the final draft of the law, which she presented to the Communist Party’s Central Committee. For example, while in a discussion within the professional community Kovrigina had said that “Women should be given the right to decide for themselves,” but in framing the final law she instead used the rationale and language of past, more restrictive legislation.

This shows us the limits to both women’s agency and the possibility of changing the dominant discourse on gender equality in the Soviet Union. Some forces in Soviet society did, indeed, resist change — Nakachi suggests that a conservative position, opposed to any discourse of the “right to choose” was widespread at all levels, including within the Central Committee.

In this sense, Kovrigina’s appeal to the dominant discourse may have been a conscious strategy for helping to push her favored legislation. Such a strategy resembles researcher Wang Zheng’s concept of the “politics of concealment,” as deployed by the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF) in shaping gender politics under Mao Zedong. As Wang puts it, in “articulating [the ACWF’s] strong support of the Party’s ‘central tasks’, state feminists often embedded a ‘hidden script’ that intended to advance women’s diverse interests . . . camouflaging a feminist agenda with dominant Party language.”

Forced to Be Empowered

As a prominent example of a woman political leader in the 1950s USSR, Maria Kovrigina’s biography shows how even women who reluctantly entered the political domain could become real political subjects — and promote women’s interests within the Soviet state.

Kovrigina’s biography was in some ways typical of the Soviet nomenklatura of her generation. Coming from the peasantry, she welcomed the revolution (indeed, her elder brother was a founder of a local Bolshevik organization), and she joined the youth body Komsomol at the age of fourteen, helping to build a local pioneer organization. She had her professional training as a medical doctor, but her career after graduation turned toward hospital administration.

As she worked on organizing the evacuated hospitals in her home Ural region during the war, she was noticed in Moscow, and pushed to take up government positions. She became deputy head of the USSR Ministry of Healthcare (1942–1950), the minister of health care of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (1950–54, RSFSR), and finally the USSR minister of health care (1954–59). She also remained a member of the presidium of the Soviet Women’s Anti-Fascist Committee.

The reader will note that I said Kovrigina was “pushed” toward top roles — for she repeatedly refused such appointments. Not only did she try to resist becoming the deputy head of the USSR Ministry of Healthcare, but she later tried to quit her job as a Minister of Healthcare of RSFSR, because she felt she lacked the knowledge to perform a job with such responsibilities. She thus negotiated with the Central Committee that she would pursue an individual educational program, which she began in 1952.

Such a reaction is easily recognizable as a kind of “imposter syndrome” for a woman pushed to take a top job. But such a striking example also helps us think about how the Soviet state’s need for women in the government — in accordance with a rhetoric of gender equality — could be seen as a form of “forced empowerment” which eventually turned into political subjectivity.

Indeed, the official ideological construction of the “Soviet woman” as emancipated and equal could itself create a certain feeling of empowerment. This is obvious from the way Kovrigina framed abortion in her unpublished autobiography, as a sign of the Soviet state’s respect toward women. She wrote this text in the 1980s, in a work tellingly also including a chapter on abortion. As she put it, “The ban on abortion humiliated the personality of the woman herself, it controlled the intimate side of her life, not to mention the fact that many women paid for it by their health and even life itself.”

International Movement

It’s hardly surprising that Kovrigina internalized Soviet rhetoric about women’s equality — and took such pride in its record. After all, since the early 1940s she had been responsible for the propaganda promoting the Soviet gender project internationally. Here comes into play another important factor in her politicization, namely her active engagement in the work of the Soviet Women’s Anti-Fascist Committee (later renamed Soviet Women’s Committee, SWC) and, through its efforts, her connection with the international women’s movement.

As a member of the SWC, Kovrigina attended various international congresses, for example the founding congress of the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF) in Paris in 1945. The importance of these congresses for Kovrigina is clear from the organization of her archive, submitted to the State Archive of the Russian Federation by her daughter after her death.

Kovrigina’s papers contain artifacts from its congresses which she kept throughout her life, for instance a brochure from the WIDF’s Budapest congress. The importance of these congresses to Kovrigina is also apparent from the way she reflects on them in her memoirs — noting that her first trip abroad was her journey to the WIDF’s founding congress in Paris.

Besides the excitement she recalled at such voyages, these congresses also gave Kovrigina a glimpse — however mediated by the Soviet translation — of the concerns of the global women’s movement. This was especially notable in her observation of the worldwide development of contraception — a theme which was brought back to the USSR and raised during the debate over abortion.

“State Feminism”

There are still many details in the story that need to be clarified: what other factors made such legislation even possible, what forces resisted such changes, and what connected initiatives and debates were there among the group that developed the 1955 law legalizing abortion.

However, Kovrigina’s story itself presents an interesting paradox for any discussion of Soviet feminism. In many ways, she lacked agency in the process of her empowerment. Acknowledgement of this fact would seem to tally with a negative characterization of the Soviet gender equality project as “state feminism” — i.e., as a feminist agenda appropriated by the state and then simply imposed on citizens. Indeed, as we have seen, Kovrigina was promoted against her will, probably for the sake of a formal increase in women’s “representation” in the government.

But the result was that Kovrigina really did become a political actor, fighting for women’s rights. As the history of many other legal initiatives for women in the USSR after World War II shows, she was not the only woman to take up such a position.

For all the limits and hypocrisy of Soviet socialism, its vision of gender equality did enable a certain type of female political subjectivity — one that felt empowered and was able to take part in policymaking. Despite the widespread assumption that women disappeared from Soviet politics after the abolishment of the women’s department, activists like Kovrigina show that their agency was not entirely lacking.