Why on earth did American feminists move to Russia in the 1920s?

Thinking in Public
Nina Allender, “America First / Russia First,” from The Suffragist, March 1917

Featuring the research of Dr. Julia Mickenberg

By Saturday, March 24, 1917, word spread to the United States that the Bolsheviks had given Russian women the right to vote. American suffragettes were furious. Nina Allender’s satirical cover of The Suffragist magazine announced to Americans that while in the United States only (certain) men had the right to vote, the new Russian government had granted universal suffrage to its people. It was this policy—along with legalized abortion, simplified divorce procedures, equal pay, and socialized housework (public laundries, dining halls, and nurseries)—that inspired hundreds of American feminists to go to the “new Russia,” where they could witness and take part in the most dramatic events on the world’s stage..

Julia Mickenberg’s American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dreamtraces the journey of American girls—relief workers, journalists, performers, educators, artists, and adventurers—barging into the Red capital to witness and take part in the “new life.” Celebrated dancer Isadora Duncan arrived in 1921 to start a dance school. Photographer Margaret Bourke-White made the first of several trips to the Soviet Union in 1930, determined to document Russia’s industrial progress. Twenty-two African-American women and men, including notable Harlem Renaissance figures like Dorothy West and Langston Hughes, traveled to Moscow to act in a film showing “the first authentic picture of [American] Negro life.”

So why has this fascination with revolutionary Russia been forgotten? Partly because the “Soviet dream” became a nightmare. State violence and censorship created an environment of paranoia. By the late 1930s, these concerns could no longer be rationalized as necessary “side effects” of socialism. Unlucky Americans who tried to live out their lives there gave up their American citizenship and found themselves trapped. Some wound up in the gulag or died. Nearly all who stayed lost the idealism that initially drew them there.

The “Russian chapter” in American feminism reminds us that balancing motherhood, domestic duties, and meaningful work has never been simple. A desire for fulfilling and equal romantic relationships transcends a generation and a nation. Women risking it all to attempt to build a more just society has a long and richly textured history worth remembering.

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