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Journal of Women's History 15.4 (2004) 225-229

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Regendering the Working Class in Stalinist Russia

Basia A. Nowak

Wendy Z. Goldman. Women at the Gates: Gender and Industry in Stalin's Russia. xvi + 294 pp.; ill.; tables. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-521-78064-0 (cl).

During the Soviet Union's intensive industrialization campaign in the 1930s, the composition and size of the working class was forever transformed due in part to women's entrance into the workforce in unprecedented numbers. By 1935, women made up 35 percent of all workers in industry; between 1929 and 1936, nearly 4 million women (1.7 million in industry) became waged workers; and in 1932 and 1933, men left the workforce as women continued to enter. Women's growing presence in the workforce resulted in a regendering of the Soviet economy, a transformation that, according to historian Wendy Z. Goldman, has persisted to the present day.

In her compelling study of gender and work under Stalinism, Goldman examines why, how, and in what types of employment women gained access to the life behind the "gates" in such notable numbers. Women at the Gates paints a complex picture of the industrialization process and changing nature of Russia's working class between the 1917 October Revolution and the end of the Second Five-Year Plan in 1937. Throughout the study, Goldman unpacks the multiple players in the significant transformations that took place. Not only state policymakers, union leaders, and industry managers, but also women workers—a group often overlooked in studies of labor—played an important role in these developments. Using "gates as a metaphor for policy, or, more specifically, for the state's attempts to define and control the size, composition, and behavior of the working class," Goldman details the opening and closing of those gates to the workforce by state leaders, policymakers, women activists, and women workers (278).

Women at the Gates begins with an examination of the Communist Party's attempts at guarding the gates to the workforce through labor policies in an effort "to preserve the purity of the working class" in the 1920s (32). Following her analysis of the feminization of poverty, exclusionary labor practices and policies, and women's struggles to gain access to the labor market, especially with the assistance of the Zhenotdel (the party's women's department, which recruited representatives in the workplace and which the party liquidated in 1930), Goldman delves into [End Page 225] the core of her study, focusing predominantly on the First so-called Five-Year Plan (1929-1932). The gates swung wide open during these years as the unemployment of the 1920s turned to labor shortages in the 1930s; as active recruitment replaced exclusionary labor policies; and as Russia experienced a food crisis, forced collectivization, elimination of private trade, and inflation.

Women were important agents in opening the gates and transforming the working class. Goldman cogently argues that in the beginning it was not initiative "from above" that led to women's entrance into the workforce, as most studies of labor have claimed, but rather initiative "from below," from women themselves. Women entered the workforce "samotek—spontaneously and haphazardly," an issue to which Goldman repeatedly returns (68). At least in the early stages, "the most successful recruiter of women into production . . . was hunger," not ideological campaigning, state propaganda, or party initiative (281). One wage within a family was no longer sufficient for survival. Almost one full year before the party officially declared an end to unemployment and turned to active recruitment of women in fall 1930, women had already begun to enter the workforce in significant numbers. And even during its often disorganized and ineffectual recruitment efforts, women continued to enter through the gates samotek.

In contrast to most works on Russia's industrialization, which stress the centrality of peasants as a labor reserve, Goldman contends that once the state turned to active recruitment of workers and especially during the Second Five-Year Plan, it viewed women from working-class families already residing in cities as...


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