Think Piece

The Changing Status of Women and the Countryside in Early 20th-Century Russia

by guest contributor Valeria Peshko

By Valeria Peshko

In September 1904, the private women’s agricultural school (Vysshie zhenskie sel’skokhozi͡aĭstvennye kursy) was established in Saint Petersburg, then the capital of the Russian Empire. It was the first institution to offer university-level instruction in this discipline, and its creation was the result of a decade-long campaign led by agriculturist Ivan Stebut, who had published numerous pamphlets and newspaper articles and given speeches at conferences to convince officials and the public to support his venture. A few months later, revolution would erupt and result in the creation of the first Russian Parliament, the State Duma. At the same time in another part of the Empire, the Grand Duchy of Finland, the revolution encouraged women to seize the moment and secure full political rights, marking the first such success in Europe. As historian Irma Sulkunen has argued, the success only became feasible due to the mass participation of women in gender-integrated voluntary organizations such as temperance and other reform movements, which taught men and women to cooperate to reach specific goals. Similar to this argument, I suggest here that Stebut’s initiative and many other related movements to broaden women’s access to education in Russia not only provided an experience of cooperation, but also nourished a hidden tradition of Russian republicanism without which the sweeping political changes of the first revolution would have not have been possible.

When Stebut first published his manifesto-like essay, Do Women of the Intelligentsia Need Special Training in Agriculture? (Nuzhdaetsi͡a li russkai͡a intelligentnai͡a zhenshchina v spet͡sial’nom sel’skokhozi͡aĭstvennom obrazovanii?) in 1891, the question the essay posed was probably not deemed the most pressing of the day. Although educated upper-class women who were members of the Intelligentsia and active in the women’s liberation movement demanded access to universities, very few dreamed of becoming agriculturists. Indeed, the most active campaigning on their part concerned the study of medicine, while the most famous private school for women (Bestuzhevskie kursy), which offered an alternative to a university degree, had only two faculties—the Faculty of History and Philology and the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics. Class distinctions in education also worked against Stebut’s plan: elite women mostly sought training in liberal arts or medicine, while vocational or technical disciplines—to which agriculture was attributed—were considered to be more appropriate for the lower classes.

Officials, meanwhile, were ambivalent about granting Russian women opportunities for higher education. The idea of women’s higher education contradicted conservative family values espoused by government ministers and, most importantly, Tzar Alexander III. On the other hand, as Richard Stites has shown, the radicalization of women who pursued their studies abroad was perceived as a real threat, so officials were willing to make some concessions to keep women inside the Empire and under close observation. In this context, Stebut’s message had to tread a fine line between popularizing agriculture among women and playing it safe in the eyes of those in power.

Class at the Women’s agricultural school, c. 1909. Source: Niva, 1909, #47.

While Stebut’s answer to the question the title of his essay posed was unambiguously affirmative, his justifications were not designed to advance the goal of women’s liberation. Indeed, one does not find any arguments about the emancipating potential of agricultural education in his work. This may seem surprising, given that his cause received support from professional women and early feminist activists, including Nadezhda Dolgova, Anna Filosofova, Nadezhda Stasova, and others who were also members of the Society for Assistance to Women’s Agricultural Education (Obshchestvo sodeĭstvii͡a zhenskomu sel’skokhozi͡aĭstvennomu obrazovanii͡u). The latter organization funded women’s participation in agricultural courses through membership fees and private donations, which supported the initiative alongside the course fees paid by students. Stebut, by contrast, did not dedicate much space to the issue of women’s independence, neither intellectual nor financial. Although women in Russia could legally own and buy property, Stebut imagined women becoming the sole proprietor of land only as a result of a misfortune, e.g. through the death of a husband or a father. However, he did argue that in such an event knowledge of agriculture would help a woman support herself and her remaining family. He even suggested that women-agriculturists could be hired to run an estate—but to him, both scenarios were clearly abnormal. To Stebut’s credit, he did not question women’s general ability to become independent professionals; in his view, agricultural education simply had a different goal.

Above all else, Ivan Stebut was an agriculturist. He served as a professor at Petrovskai͡a Academy, the highest institution for forestry and agriculture, from its founding in 1865 until 1894. Between 1898 and 1905, he was chair of the Scientific Committee of the Ministry of Agriculture and State Property, the chief scientific body of the Empire, which held considerable weight in a still primarily agrarian country. Simply put, Stebut’s work lay the foundations of agricultural science in Russia: he created the first classification of Russian crops, developed farming systems appropriate for different cultures and soil types, and demonstrated the benefits of soil fertilization and amelioration efforts.

While conducting his extensive research, Stebut could not escape the realization of the dramatic decline of the Russian countryside. The Russian authorities were not blind to this problem either, which is exactly why experts like Stebut were invited to cooperate with the Ministry of Agriculture. Besides disseminating knowledge about how to increase crop yields and promoting more effective land use, another issue loomed large for scientists and ministers alike: adapting the countryside to the new social and economic reality after the emancipation of serfs in 1861. Legislators tried to act in the interest of the gentry and included provisions to alleviate the reform’s consequences for landowners, such as redemption payments. Even so, as Roberta Thompson Manning has demonstrated, by 1890 only 60% of the landowning gentry could fully support their families with the revenue from their estates. In these circumstances, many gentry families moved to the cities and either leased or sold their property. Partially responsible for this decline in profitability was a lack of agricultural and economic expertise among landowners, and it was this shortcoming that galvanized Stebut’s efforts to popularize agricultural education.

Yet Stebut was also concerned with the demise of the rural way of life more broadly, and he saw women as both one of the main culprits behind this demise and a potential hope for reversing it. As he wrote in his 1891 manifesto, “For the exodus from the countryside, our woman of the intelligentsia is to blame, who, because of her upbringing, could not cope with country life, nor with agriculture, which meant nothing in her spiritual world and could not fulfil her learned vanity.” Stebut was convinced that the way contemporary women were raised made them dependent on the comfort and pleasures of urban lifestyle, and when their husbands faced difficulties with running the estate, they persuaded them to leave the countryside altogether. In Stebut’s texts on women’s higher agricultural education, the longest chapters are always dedicated to its positive effects on the landowner’s wife. Although in Stebut’s view, the landowner was responsible for the majority of important decisions made within the estate, his wife should not simply submit to her husband’s vision, but rather fulfill a complimentary function with the common goal in mind. As such, he argued in his manifesto, she was supposed to not only oversee traditionally feminine tasks, such raising children, managing the household, nursing farm animals, dairying, poultry keeping, and gardening. She was also to act as an expert advisor to her husband, and to be critical of his plans if necessary.

Ivan Stebut and Women’s agricultural school students in Petrovsko-Razumovskoe, c. 1910. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

However, the wife’s positive influence was not limited to her professional expertise. Stebut insisted on women’s key role in strengthening morale within the family and its rural identity. “Most importantly,” he wrote, “being interested in agriculture and, hence, in country life, she will not drag her husband to the city and instead keep him in the countryside or near it. As a mother, she will raise children in the country to be physically healthy, intellectually and morally strong, in love with agriculture, working life and peasants…” (Russkie vedomosti, 1891, #92). Knowingly or not, in his passages on improved estate management and harmonious marriage, Stebut employed tropes that were also common to the republican tradition forged by some of his contemporaries. French Third Republic politicians, for example, who supported the expansion of high schools attendance to girls, argued that secularly educated women would not transfer religious superstitions to their children and thus raise them as proper citizens. As Françoise Mayeur’s work has shown, they also believed that equal education opportunities would strengthen the bond within the family through bridging the intellectual gap between the spouses. Furthermore, almost a century earlier, another young republic—the United States—had articulated the ideal of the Republican Wife and Mother: a virtuous woman, a meaningful companion to her husband, keeping him on the right path, and instilling civic virtues into her children, especially on her sons.

Although the Russian Empire was never politically a republic, it possessed its own republican tradition, with none other than the monarch herself giving it her blessing. Catherine the Great famously claimed that she had a “republican soul,” and before she witnessed the French Revolution and foundation of its First Republic, she “perceived no functional incompatibility between monarchy and republicanism.” Without seeking to change the social hierarchy per se, her legislative efforts aimed at transforming the arbitrary rule of the monarch into the rule of law, where citizens would have liberties to be protected. She also understood that new privileges (in other words, civil rights) would not be effective without the proper formation of citizens through education. When she founded the Society for the Education of Noble Girls (Vospitatel’noe obshchestvo blagorodnykh devit͡s), which was the first of its kind, her aim was not to promote scholarship among women, but rather to uplift society overall by making changes to the structure of the family.

The family was the core unit of society in republican thought. French philosopher Marquis de Condorcet, whose writings from the 18th century were still influential among French politicians almost a century later, notably developed this idea when he characterized the relations within the family in terms of the reliance of children on their parents and the mutual affection of mothers and fathers in return. According to Condorcet, the stable balance the family provided for society was disrupted by the exclusion of women. In particular, the perception of female weakness which allowed men to deny women access to activities, such as war councils and hunting, laid the basis for the foundation of slavery. As Linda Kerber has argued, Condorcet did not go as far as to suggest that women should have political rights, but he believed that the status of women needed to be improved in order to achieve rational government. Interestingly, Stebut echoed this reasoning in the most famous passage of his manifesto:

I say, if you want to support morale among the people— support the family; if you want to preserve a healthy family—this cell of the state organism—support the countryside and agriculture! If you want to support the countryside and agriculture—support upbringing in the country and women’s agricultural education!

In Russia, Stebut was one among many educators and essayists who justified the expansion of women’s education with the notion of improved motherhood, and who conjured up a new generation of citizens raised by educated mothers (see the discussion of other examples in the works of Elena Kosetchenkova, Ivan Ladonenko, and Marina Moskaleva). In practice, however, increased access to education and the entrance of women into the labor market often created conflict rather than contributing to this future utopia. This can be seen in the discussion that occurred within the pages of one of the major early 20th-century newspapers. In 1903, not long before the women’s agricultural school was introduced, the newspaper Novosti featured a letter to the editor sent in by I. M. Stremovsky, which started a whole chain of letters on the subject of women’s employment. “Should a woman strive to compete with a man within his professional fields of activity?,” Stremovsky asked—just to answer it with a definitive “No.” As he claimed, “[a] woman has no right to disfigure nature’s design, to distance herself from family’s hearth, to choose a specialization, a profession, in order to … ‘be independent’”(Novosti, 1903, #82). Although some commentators agreed with Stremovsky, many others did not. One man, who signed his letter simply as ‘Doctor’, wrote: “… we men should sincerely admit that everything we say [to argue that] ‘women are not fit for this or that task’—is nothing more than a fear of competition, a fear of losing a slave-wife” (Novosti, 1903, #98).

The divisiveness of women’s education at the beginning of the 20th century had already made it clear that a republican vision would be difficult to realize in Russia. Nevertheless, the republicanism of Stebut and other educators, which presented women as valuable citizens, contributed to the quick success of the Russian suffrage movement, which was born in 1905 and achieved its goal in just twelve years—a lot faster than their counterparts in the United Kingdom or the United States. Ultimately, however, the future for women-agriculturalists in Russia was not bright: as Olga Elina has pointed out, women rarely occupied prominent positions within Soviet agricultural science—a testament to the fact that Stebut’s and others’ emphasis lay on complimentary rather than equal roles.

Valeria Peshko is a doctoral candidate at the University of Helsinki, department of Economic and Social History. Her research examines women’s economic agency in Imperial Russia. In her PhD dissertation she studies the impact of class, gender and religion on female partners in family firms in the 19th century.

Featured Image: Women’s agricultural school class at the experimental farm Kni͡azhiĭ dvor, 1910. Courtesy of the Saint Petersburg State University of Agriculture.

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