Alexandra Kollontai 1916
First Published: 1916, as a pamphlet;
Source: Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai, Allison & Busby, 1977;
Translated: by Alix Holt;
Transcribed: by Aaliyah Zionov.
Mashenka is the factory director’s wife. Mashenka is expecting a baby. Although everyone in the factory director’s house is a little bit anxious, there is a festive atmosphere. This is not surprising, for Mashenka is going to present her husband with an heir. There will be someone to whom he can leave all his wealth – the wealth created by the hands of working men and women. The doctor has ordered them to look after Mashenka very carefully. Don’t let her get tired, don’t let her lift anything heavy. Let her eat just what she fancies. Fruit? Give her some fruit. Caviare? Give her caviare.
The important thing is that Mashenka should not feel worried or distressed in any way. Then the baby will be born strong and healthy; the birth will be easy and Mashenka will keep her bloom. That is how they talk in the factory director’s family. That is the accepted way of handling an expectant mother, in families where the purses are stuffed with gold and credit notes. They take good care of Mashenka the lady.
Do not tire yourself, Mashenka, do not try and move the armchair. That is what they say to Mashenka the lady.
The humbugs and hypocrites of the bourgeoisie maintain that the expectant mother is sacred to them. But is that really in fact the case?
In the same house as the factory director’s wife, but in the back part in a corner behind a printed calico curtain, huddles another Mashenka. She does the laundry and the housework. Mashenka is eight months pregnant. But she would open her eyes wide in surprise if they said to her, “Mashenka, you must not: carry heavy things, you must look after yourself, for your own sake, for the child’s sake and for the sake of humanity. You are expecting a baby and that means your condition is, in the eyes of society ‘sacred’.” Masha would take this either as uncalled-for interference or as a cruel joke. Where have you seen a woman of the working class given special treatment because she is pregnant? Masha and the hundreds of thousands of other women of the propertyless classes who are forced to sell their working hands know that the owners have no mercy when they see women in need; and they have no other alternative, however exhausted they may be, but to go out to work.
“An expectant mother must have. above all, undisturbed sleep, good food, fresh air and not too much physical strain.” That is what the doctor says. Masha the laundress and the hundreds and thousands of women workers, the slaves of capital, would laugh in his face. A minimum of physical strain? Fresh air? Wholesome food and enough of it? Undisturbed sleep? What working woman knows these blessings? They are only for Mashenka the lady, and for the wives of the factory owners.
Early in the morning before the darkness has given way to dawn and while Mashenka the lady is still having sweet dreams, Mashenka the laundress gets up from her narrow bed and goes into the damp, dark laundry. She is greeted by the fusty smell of dirty linen; she slips around on the wet floor; yesterday’s puddles still have not dried. It is not of her own free will that Masha slaves away in the laundry, she is driven by that tireless overseer – need. Masha’s husband is a worker. and his pay packet is so small two people could not possibly keep alive on it. And so in silence, gritting her teeth, she stands over the tub until the very last possible day, right up until the birth. Do not be mistaken into thinking that Masha the laundress has “iron health” as the ladies like to say when they are talking about working women. Masha’s legs are heavy with swollen veins, through standing at the tub for such long periods, She can walk only slowly and with difficulty. There are bags under her eyes. her arms are puffed up and she has had no proper sleep for a long time.
The baskets of wet linen are often so heavy that Masha has to lean against the wall to prevent herself from falling. Her head swims and everything becomes dark in front of her eyes. It often feels as if there is a huge rotten tooth lodged at the back of her spine, and that her legs are made of lead. If only she could lie down for an hour ... have some rest . . . but working women are not allowed to do such things. Such pamperings are not for them. For, after all, they are not ladies. Masha puts up with her hard lot in silence. The only “sacred” women are those expectant mothers who are not driven by that relentless taskmaster, need.
Mashenka the lady needs another servant. The master and mistress take in a lass from the country. Mashenka the lady likes the girl’s ringing laughter and the plait that reaches down below her knee, and the way the girl flies around the house like a bird on the wing and tries to please everyone. A gem of a girl. They pay her three rubles a month and she does enough work for three people. The lady is full of praise.
Then the factory director begins to glance at the girl. His attentions grow. The girl does not see the danger; she is inexperienced, unsophisticated. The master gets very kind and loving. The doctor has advised him not to make any demands on his lady-wife. Quiet, he says, is the best medicine. The factory director is willing to let her give birth in peace, as long as he does not have to suffer. The maid is also called Masha. Things can easily be arranged; the girl is ignorant. stupid. It is not difficult to frighten her, She can be scared into anything. And so Masha gets pregnant. She stops laughing and begins to look haggard. Anxiety gnaws at her heart day and night.
Masha the lady finds out. She throws a scene. The girl is given twenty-four hours to pack her bags. Masha wanders the streets. She has no friends, nowhere to go. Who is going to employ “that kind of a girl” in any “honest” house? Masha wanders without work, without bread, without help. She passes a river. She looks at the dark waves and turns away shivering. The cold and gloomy river terrifies her, but at the same time seems to beckon.
There is confusion in the factory’s dye department; a woman worker has been carried out looking as if she is dead. What has happened to her? Was she poisoned by the steam? Could she no longer bear the fumes? She is no newcomer. It is high time she got used to the factory poison.
“It is absolutely nothing,” says the doctor. “Can’t you see? She is pregnant. Pregnant women are likely to behave in all sorts of strange ways. There is no need to give in to them.”
So they send the woman back to work. She stumbles like a drunkard through the workshop back to her place. Her legs are numb and refuse to obey her. It is no joke working ten hours a day, day after day, amidst the toxic stench, the steam and the damaging fumes. And there is no rest for the working mother. even when the ten hours are over. At home there is her old blind mother waiting for her dinner, and her husband returns from his factory tired and hungry. She has to feed them all and look after them all. She is the first to get up in the mornings, she’s on her legs from sunrise. and she is the last to get to sleep. And then to crown it they have introduced overtime. Things are going well at the factory; the owner is raking in the profits with both hands. He only gives a few extra kopeks for overtime, but if you object, you know the way to the gates. There are, heaven be praised, enough unemployed in the world. Masha tries to get leave, by applying to the director himself.
“I am having my baby soon. I must get everything ready. My children are tiny and there is the housework; and then I have my old mother to look after.”
But he will not listen. He is rude to her and humiliates her in front of the other workers. “If I started giving every pregnant woman time off, it would be simpler to close the factory. If you didn’t sleep with men you wouldn’t get pregnant.”
So Masha the dye-worker has to labour on until the last minute. That is how much bourgeois society esteems motherhood.
For the household of Masha the lady the birth is a big event. It is almost a holiday. The house is a flurry of doctors, midwives and nurses. The mother lies in a clean, soft bed. There are flowers on the tables. Her husband is by her side; letters and telegrams are delivered. A priest gives thanksgiving prayers. The baby is born healthy and strong. That is not surprising. They have taken such care and made such a fuss of Masha.
Masha the laundress is also in labour. Behind the calico curtain, in the corner of a room full of other people. Masha is in pain. She tries to stifle her moaning, burying her head in the pillow. The neighbours are all working people and it would not do to deprive them of their sleep. Towards morning the midwife arrives. She washes and tucks up the baby and then hurries off to another birth. Mashenka is now alone in the room. She looks at the baby. What a thin little mite. Skinny and wrinkled. Its eyes seem to reproach the mother for having given birth at all. Mashenka looks at him and cries silently so as not to disturb the others.
Masha the maid gives birth to her child under a fence in a suburban backstreet. She enquired at a maternity home, but it was full. She knocked at another but they would not accept her, saying she needed various bits of paper with signatures. She gives birth; she walks on. She walks and staggers. She wraps the baby in a scarf. Where can she go? There is nowhere to go. She remembers the dark river, terrifying and yet fascinating. In the morning the policeman drags a body out of the river. That is how bourgeois society respects motherhood.
The baby of Masha the dye· worker is stillborn. It has not managed to survive the nine months. The steam the mother inhales at the factory has poisoned the child while it was in the womb. The birth was difficult. Masha herself was lucky to come through alive. But by the evening of the following day she is already up and about, getting things straight, washing and doing the cooking. How can it be otherwise? Who else will look after Masha’s home and organise the household? Who would see that the children were fed? Masha the lady can lie in bed for nine days on doctor’s orders, for she has a whole establishment of servants to dance round her. If Masha the dye-worker develops a serious illness from going to work so soon after the birth and cripples herself as a result, that is just too bad.
There is no one to look after the working mother. No one to lift the heavy burdens from the shoulders of these tired women. Motherhood, they say, is sacred. But that is only true in the case of Masha the lady.
For Masha the lady, motherhood is a joyful occasion. In a bright, tidy nursery the factory owner’s heir grows up under the eye of various nannies and the supervision of a doctor. If Masha the lady has too little milk of her own or does not want to spoil her figure, a wet-nurse can be found. Masha the lady amuses herself with the baby and then goes out visiting, goes shopping, or to the theatre, or to a ball. There is someone at hand to look after the baby. Motherhood is amusing. It is entertainment for Masha the lady.
For the other Mashas, the working women – the dyers, weavers, laundresses and the other hundreds and thousands of working-class women – motherhood is a cross. The factory siren calls the woman to work but her child is fretting and crying. How can she leave it? Who will look after it? She pours the milk into a bottle and gives the child to the old woman next door or leaves her young daughter in charge. She goes off to work, but she never stops worrying about the child. The little girl. well-intentioned but ignorant, might try feeding her brother porridge or bits of bread.
Masha the lady’s baby looks better every day. Like white sugar or a firm rosy apple; so strong and healthy. The children of the factory worker, the laundress and the craft-worker grow thinner with every day. At nights the baby curls up small and cries. The doctor comes and scolds the mother for not breast-feeding the child or for not feeding it properly. “And you call yourself a mother. Now you have only yourself to blame if the baby dies.” The hundreds and thousands of working mothers do not try to explain themselves. They stand with bent heads, furtively wiping away the tears. Could they tell the doctor of the difficulties they face? Would he believe them? Would he understand?
Children are dying. The children of working men and women die like flies. One million graves. One million sorrowing mothers. But whose children die? When death goes harvesting spring flowers, whose children fall to the scythe? As one would imagine. death gathers the poorest harvest amongst the wealthy families where the children live in warmth and comfort and are suckled on the milk of their mother or wet-nurse. In the families of royalty, only six or seven of every hundred new-born children die. In the workers’ families, from thirty to forty-five die. In all countries where the capitalists control the economy and the workers sell their labour power and live in poverty, the percentage of babies to die in early childhood is very high. In Russia the figures are higher than anywhere else. Here are the comparative figures for the number of children that survive early childhood: Norway 93%. Switzerland 89%. England 88%. Finland 88%. France 86%. Austria 80%. Germany 80%. Russia 72%. But there are several provinces in Russia, especially those with many factories, where 54% of children die at birth. In the areas of the big cities where the rich live, child mortality is only 8-9%; in working·class areas the figure is 30-31%. Why do the children of the proletariat die in such numbers? To grow healthy and strong ayoung child needs fresh air, warmth, sun, cleanliness and careful attention. It needs to be breast-fed; its mother’s milk is its natural food and will help it grow and grow strong. How many children of working-class families have all the things we have listed?
Death makes a firm place for itself in the homes of working-class families because such families are poor, their homes are over-crowded and damp, and the sunlight does not reach the basement; because where there are too many people, it is usually dirty: and because the working-class mother does not have the opportunity to care for her children properly. Science has established that artificial feeding is the worst enemy of the child: five times more children fed on cow’s milk and fifteen times more children fed with other foods die than those who are breast-fed. But how is the woman who works outside the home, at the factory or in a workshop to breast-feed her child? She is lucky if the money stretches to buying cow’s milk; that does not happen all the time. And what sort of milk do the tradesmen sell to working mothers anyway? Chalk mixed with water. Consequently, 60% of the babies that die, die from diseases of the stomach. Many others die from what the doctors like to call “the inability to live”: the mother worn out by her hard physical labour gives birth prematurely. or the child is poisoned by the factory fumes while still in the womb. How can the woman of the working class possibly fulfil her maternal obligations?
There was a time not so long ago, a time that our grandmothers remember, when women were only involved in work at home: in housework and domestic crafts. The women of the non-property-owning classes were not idle, of course. The work around the house was hard. They had to cook, sew, wash, weave, keep the linen white and work in the kitchen garden and in the fields. But this work did not tear the women away from the cradle; there were no factory walls separating her from her children. However poor the woman was, her child was in her arms. Times have changed. Factories have been set up; workshops have been opened. Poverty has driven women out of the home; the factory has pulled them in with its iron claws. When the factory gates slam behind her, a woman has to say farewell to maternity, for the factory has no mercy on the pregnant woman or the young mother.
When a woman works day in day out over a sewing machine, she develops a disease of the ovaries. When she works at a weaving or spinning factory, a rubber or china works or a lead or chemical plant, she and her baby are in danger of being poisoned by noxious fumes and by contact with harmful substances. When a woman works with lead or mercury. she becomes infertile or her children are stillborn. When she works at a cigarette or tobacco factory, the nicotine in her milk may poison her child. Pregnant women can also maim or kill their children by carrying heavy loads, standing for long hours at a bench or counter, or hurrying up and downstairs at the whim of the lady of the house. There is no dangerous and harmful work from which working women are barred. There is no type of industry which does not employ pregnant women or nursing mothers. Given the conditions in which working women live their work in production is the grave of maternity.
If children are to be stillborn. born crippled or born to die like flies. is there any point in the working woman becoming pregnant? Are all the trials of childbirth worthwhile if the working woman has to abandon her children to the winds of chance when they are still so tiny? However much she wants to bring her child up properly, she does not have the time to look after it and care for it. Since this is the case, is it not better simply to avoid maternity?
Many working women are beginning to think twice about having children. They have not got the strength to bear the cross. Is there a solution to the problem? Do working women have to deprive themselves of the last joy that is left them in life? Life has hurt her, poverty gives her no piece, and the factory drains her strength; does this mean that the working woman must give up the right to the joys of having children? Give up without a fight? Without trying to win the right nature has given every living creature and every dumb animal? Is there an alternative? Of course there is, but not every working woman is yet aware of it.
Imagine a society, a people, a community, where there are no longer Mashenka ladies and Mashenka laundresses. Where there are no parasites and no hired workers. Where all people do the same amount of work and society in return looks after them and helps them in life. Just as now the Mashenka ladies are taken care of by their relatives, those who need more attention – the woman and children – will be taken care of by society, which is like one large, friendly family. When Mashenka, who is now neither a lady nor a servant but simply a citizen, becomes pregnant, she does not have to worry about what will happen to her and her child. Society, that big happy family, will look after everything.
A special home with a garden and flowers will be ready to welcome her. It will be so designed that every pregnant woman who has just given birth can live there joyfully in health and comfort. The doctors in this society-family are concerned not just about preserving the health of the mother and child but about relieving the woman of the pain of childbirth. Science is making progress in this field, and can help the doctor here. When the child is strong enough, the mother returns to her normal life and takes up again the work that she does for the benefit of the large family-society. She does not have to worry about her child. Society is there to help her. Children will grow up in the kindergarten, the children’s colony, the creche and the school under the care of experience nurses. When the mother wants to be with her children, she only has to say the word; and when she has no time, she knows they are in good hands. Maternity is longer a cross. Only its joyful aspects remain; only the great happiness of being a mother, which at the moment only the Mashenka ladies enjoy.
But such a society, surely, is only to be found in fairy tales? Could such a society ever exist? the science of economics and the history of society and the state show that such a society must and will come into being. However hard the rich capitalists, factory-owners, landowners and men of property fight, the fairy-tale will come true. The working class all over the world is fighting to make this dream come true. And although society is as yet far form being one happy family, although there are still many struggles and sacrifices ahead, it is at the same time true that the working class in other countries has made great gains. Working men and women are trying to lighten the cross of motherhood by getting laws passed by taking other measures.
The first thing that can be done and the first thing that working men and women are doing in every country is to see that the law defends the working mother. Since poverty and insecurity are forcing women to take up work, and since the number of women out working is increasing every year, the very least that can be done is to make sure that hired labour does not become the “grave of maternity.” The law must intervene to help women to combine work and maternity.
Men and women workers everywhere are demanding a complete ban on night work for women and young people, an eight-hour day for all workers, and a ban on the employment of children under sixteen years of age. They are demanding that young girls and boys over sixteen years of age be allowed to work only half the day. This is important, especially from the point of view of the future mother, since between the years of sixteen and eighteen the girl is growing and developing into a woman. If her strength is undermined during these years her chance of healthy motherhood are lost forever.
The law should state categorically that working conditions and the whole work situation must not threaten a woman’s health; harmful methods of production should be replaced by safe methods or completely done away with; heavy work with weights or foot-propelled machines etc. should be mechanised; workrooms should be kept clean and there should be no extremes of temperature; toilets, washrooms and dining rooms should be provided, etc. These demands can be won – they have already been encountered in the model factories- but the factory-owners do not usually like to fork out the money. All adjustments and improvements are expensive, and human life is so cheap.
A law to the effect that women should sit wherever possible is very important. It is also important that substantial and not merely nominal fines are levied against factory owners who infringe the law. The job of seeing that th law is carried out should be entrusted not only to the factory inspectors but also to representatives elected by the workers.
The law must protect the mother. Even now, Russian law (Article 126: “conditions in industry”) gives working women in large factories the right to four weeks’ leave at childbirth. This, of course, is not enough. In Germany, France and Switzerland, for example, the mother has the right to eight weeks’ leave without losing her job. This, however, is not enough either. The workers’ party demands for women a break of sixteen weeks: eight before and eight after the birth. The law should also stipulate that the mother has the right to time off during the working day to feed her child. This demand has already become law in Italy and Spain. The law must require that creches be built and other adequately heated rooms be provided by the factories and workshops, where babies can be breast-fed.
However, it is not sufficient for the law to protect the mother merely by seeing that she does not have to work during the period of childbirth. It is essential that society guarantees the material well-being of the woman during pregnancy. It would not be much of a “rest” for the woman if she were simply prevented from earning her daily bread for sixteen weeks. That would be dooming the woman to certain death. The law must therefore not only protect the woman at work but must also initiate, at state expense, a scheme of maternity benefits.
Such security or maternity insurance has already been introduced in fourteen countries: Germany, Austria, Hungary, Luxembourg. England, Australia, Italy, France, Norway, Serbia, Rumania, Bosnia, Herzegovina and Russia. In eleven countries, including Russia, the working woman insures herself at an insurance bureau, paying weekly contributions. In return the bureau pays out benefits money (the amount varies from country to country, but nowhere exceeds the full wage) and also provides the assistance of a doctor and midwife. in Italy the working woman pay her dues and receives help from special maternity bureaux. Further contributions are paid by the owner of the factory where she works, and by the state. Even in this case, however. the working woman has to shoulder the main financial burden. In France and Australia the working woman does not have to take out any kind of insurance policy. Any woman, married or unmarried, is entitled to receive help from the state if she needs it. In France she received benefits over a period of eight weeks (twenty to fifty kopeks a day, sometimes more), besides help from a doctor and a midwife. In Australia she is given a lump sum worth fifty rubles. In France a system of “substitute housekeepers” has also been organised. Towards the end of a woman’s pregnancy, a friend or neighbour who has attended the free courses on the care of pregnant women and young children comes in to help. She continues to make daily visits until the mother is well enough to get up and about again: she tidies the house, cooks dinner, looks after the baby and is paid for this work by the bureau. In France, Switzerland, Germany and Rumania the mother also receives benefits from the insurance bureau during the period she is breast-feeding her children. The first steps have thus been made towards providing security for mothers.
Akk that is being done at the moment is, of course, too little. The working class is trying to see that society takes upon itself the difficulties of childbirth. The working class wants to ensure that the law and the state shoulder the most pressing worries of the working woman – her material and financial worries. Although the working class realises that only a new society, the large and friendly family mentioned earlier, will take upon itself the full care of the mother and child, it is possible even now to ease the life of the working-class mother. Much has already been won. But we have to struggle on. If we work together we shall win even more.
The workers’ party in every country demands that there should be maternity insurance schemes that cover all women irrespective of the nature of their job, no matter whether a woman is a servant, a factory worker, a craftswoman or a poor peasant woman. Benefits must be provided before and after birth, for a period of sixteen weeks. A woman should continue receiving benefits if the doctor finds that she has not sufficiently recovered or that the child is not sufficiently strong. The woman must receive the full benefit even if the child dies or the birth is premature. Benefits must be one and a half times higher than the woman’s normal wage; when a woman has no job she should receive one and a half times the average wages of women in that are. It should also be written into the law – and this is very important – that benefits be no lower than one rube a day for large towns and seventy-five kopeks a day for small towns and villages. Otherwise, if a woman’s wage were thirty kopeks, she would receive only forty-five kopeks. And can a mother and child be expected to live properly on forty-five kopeks a day? Can a mother get everything she needs for life and health with forty-five kopeks? The mother should also be drawing benefits from the bureau for the entire period she is breast-feeding her child, and for not less than nine months. The size of the benefit should be about one half the normal wage.
Benefits should thus be paid out both before and after birth, and should be paid directly into the hands of the mother or some person authorised by her. The right to receive benefits must be established without any of the conditions which are in force at the moment. According to our Russian law, for example, a woman must have been a member of the bureau for three months in order to be eligible. A woman must be guaranteed the free services of a doctor and midwife and the help of a “substitute housewife” as organised in France and to some extent in Germany and England.
Responsibility for ensuring that the law is observed and that the woman in childbirth receives everything to which she is entitled must lie with delegates elected from among the working women. Pregnant and nursing mothers must have the legal right to receive free milk and, where necessary, clothes for the new baby at the expense of the town or village. The workers’ party also demands that the town, zemstvo or insurance bureau build creches for young children at each factory. The money of this should be supplied by the factory owner, the town or the zemstvo. These creches must be organised so that each nursing mother can easily visit and feed her baby in the breaks from work that the law allows. The creche must be run not by philanthropic ladies but by the working mothers themselves.
The town, zemstvo or insurance bureau must, at its own expense, also build a sufficient number of: (i) Maternity homes. (ii) Homes for pregnant and nursing mothers who are alone and have no work (these already exist in France, Germany and Hungary). (iii) Free medical consultations for mothers and young children, so that the doctor can observe the course of pregnancy, give advice and instruct the mother in child-care. (iv) Clinics for sick children such as have been built by the Women’s Labour League in England. (v) Kindergartens where a mother can leave her young children – the two to five year olds – while she is at work. At the moment the mother returns from work tired and exhausted, needing peace and quiet; and immediately she has to start work again coping with her hungry, unwashed and untidy children. It makes all the difference for the mother to call for and collect her children well-fed, clean and happily full of news, and to have her older ones, who have been taught to help at the kindergarten and are proud of their know-how, giving a hand around the house. (vi) Entrance-free courses on child-care for young girls and mothers. (vii) Free breakfasts and dinners for pregnant and nursing women, a service which has already been started in France.
These measures must not be stamped with the bitter label of “philanthropy.” Every member of society – and that means every working woman and every citizen, male and female – has the right to demand that the state and community concern itself with the welfare of all. Why do people form a state, if not for this purpose? At the moment there is no government anywhere in the world that cares for its children. Working men and women in all countries are fighting for a society and government that will really become a big happy family, where all children will be equal and the family will care equally for all. Then maternity will be a different experience, and death will cease to gather such an abundant harvest among the new-born.
How are all these demands to be won? What action must be taken? Every working-class woman, every woman who reads this pamphlet, must throw off her indifference and begin to support the working-class movement, which is fighting for these demands and is shaping the old world into a better future where mothers will no longer weep bitter tears and where the cross of maternity will become a great joy and a great pride. We must say to ourselves, “There is strength in unity”; the more of us working women join the working-class movement, the greater will be our strength and the quicker we will get what we want. Our happiness and the life and future of our children are at stake.