Many people remember Alexandra Kollontai as the world’s first female ambassador. However, her accomplishments extended far beyond that; she also held another government post and was an esteemed writer, orator, and activist in the era of the Bolshevik Revolution. Today, Kollontai is frequently and affectionately referred to as the original socialist-feminist, and it is a label she deserves given the extent of her dedication. Although she often clashed with the Russian feminists of her day, Alexandra Kollontai was fiercely dedicated to the welfare of women – and she fought tirelessly to improve their well-being in addition to that of the entire working class.
First allied with the Mensheviks and only later with the Bolsheviks, Kollontai became a political exile from Russia and traveled for many years throughout Europe and America. During that period she was in contact with the Menshevik faction of the Russian Parliament and helped draft legislation to assist working women. Her autobiography, The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman, detailed this in addition to her time spent serving as an official delegate to numerous conventions, including the Second International Conference of Socialist Women in 1910 and the International Socialist Congress in 1912. Also while abroad, Kollontai served her cause as an orator in countries ranging from France to Belgium to Sweden, where she was sent to promote anti-militarism.
Kollontai later joined the Bolsheviks, and after they took power in Russia she was appointed to the post of People’s Commissar of Social Welfare. In 1919 she oversaw clinical hospitals for women and a multitude of educational institutes for young women. According to the account in her autobiography, she felt that her most important act while at that post was to found the Central Office for Maternity and Infant Welfare, which was a move to establish a nationwide series of centers for free prenatal care and free child care.
It was Kollontai’s views on sexuality and family life, which she sometimes called the “sexual crisis,” that were least understood by her contemporaries. Kollontai railed against double standards and the culture of possession that were constantly reinforced by society and the traditional family unit. The notion that one partner possessed the other included emotional possession as well as physical possession and she asserted that this practice extended the idea of property rights to the human being. Instead, Kollontai argued for what she termed “Winged Eros.” Kollontai described the plight of culturally enforced relationship standards in a paper also called Winged Eros: “The woman loves one man ‘with the heights of her soul,’ with her thoughts, strivings, and wishes in harmony with his. Another strongly attracts her by the force of physical affinity. In one woman, a man tests the feelings of thoughtful attraction, of concerned pity, in another he finds support and understanding for the best strivings of his ‘ego.’ To which of the two must he devote the fullness of his Eros? And why must he tear and maim his soul, if only the presence of both one and the other spiritual tie gives him the completeness of being”?
It was true that Alexandra Kollontai clashed with the feminists of her day and even felt antipathy toward them. In an essay called The Soviet Woman – A Full and Equal Citizen of Her Country, she asserted that “‘purely female’ feminist organizations only weakened the women’s democratic movement.” However, she also wrote in her autobiography that helping convert women to socialism and working for the liberation of women, were what she considered to be her primary tasks. Despite clashes with the feminists of her day it’s clear that Alexandra Kollontai was one of the great feminists of the 20th century.
Alexandra Kollontai, The Soviet Woman – A Full and Equal Citizen of Her Country. Marxists.org.
Alexandra Kollontai. The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman.
Alexandra Kollontai. Winged Eros.