Returning to Russia she became a leader in the movement of women workers, a role that put a price on her head and forced her into exile in 1908. Whilst in exile, Kollontai continued her political work in England, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, America and spent 1914 in Germany and Austria fighting against the impending world war.
Returning to Russia in 1917 Kollontai was elected to the executive committee of the Petrograd Soviet. Whilst in prison she became the only woman elected to the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks and, with the Revolution of October 1917, was appointed by Lenin as People's Commissar for Social Welfare.
Working with other leading female Bolsheviks, like Inessa Amand, Kollontai founded the Zhenotdel (or "Women's Department") in 1919. They introduced contraception, abortion and divorce on demand, and equal rights for both partners in a marriage. They turned into communal duties all the chores that had bound women to the home. Suddenly Russia was decades ahead of every other nation in terms of social welfare.
As if all of this was not achievement enough, Kollontai was also a talented fiction writer. Her works such as ‘A Great Love’ and ‘Sisters’ are fascinating, both for the insight they provide into life in revolutionary Russia and their deep exploration of the themes that Kollontai campaigned over.
Eventually political disagreements drove Kollontai and Lenin apart and this, coupled with the rise of Stalin, meant that Kollontai was sidelined into diplomatic work. She became the world’s first female ambassador in 1943 and, having spent most of her last years in Norway, died in Moscow in 1952.
Famed for love affairs and outspoken views on sex, relationships and the family, Kollontai is dismissed by her critics as an extremist, lascivious troublemaker. This could not be further from the truth. Her life was dedicated to fighting inequality - between men and women and between rich and poor.
In her pamphlet 'The Social Basis of the Woman Question' Kollontai explores the origins of women’s oppression and shows how women can only be truly free once capitalism – a system that lies with ‘double weight’ on women - has been overthrown. The limited feminist fight for equality between men and women is simply not enough because, as Kollontai perfectly puts it:
“For the majority of women of the proletariat, equal rights with men would mean only an equal share in inequality.”
Her work reads as relevantly as if it had been written this morning and not one hundred years ago. Kollontai’s courage in tackling the issues that others feared and the huge improvements in social welfare that she achieved, make her an icon for our times as well as her own. Enjoy!
Read "The Social Basis of the Woman Question" here.