Segment from Seeing Red

A Win for Women

Brian talks with historian Julia Mickenberg about the establishment of women’s suffrage in Revolutionary Russia, and how American suffragists sought to use that example to push for the vote in the United States.


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JULIA MICKENBERG: When Czar Alexander II was assassinated, it was by a woman. And there were a number of famous instances of political assassinations that had been undertaken by these female revolutionaries in Russia.

JOANNE: Now, Mickenberg says many American women praised these Russian women for their bravery and political ambition, and even invited some of these female revolutionaries to the United States and organized speaking tours for them.

ED: In February of 1917, the long struggle to overthrow the czar finally succeeded.

Now, this wasn’t the Bolshevik Revolution that would ultimately lead to the Soviet Union. That would come several months later, at the end of 1917.

Though these democratic reformers were mostly men, one of the first things they did was grant Russian women the right to vote.

BRIAN: Julia Mickenberg says that 1917 was a turning point for suffragists. Suddenly the nation that they had seen as being backwards and oppressive appeared to be more democratic than the United States.

Mickenberg told me that one group of suffragists wasted no time in making that contradiction clear. When the revolution hit, they had already been picketing outside the White House.

JULIA MICKENBERG: They were perceived as an annoyance, but nobody was really doing too much about it. But in June of 1917, you had two women hold up a banner that was greeting a delegation from Russia’s provisional government, who had been invited to the United States to discuss what Russia’s role would be continuing in the war.

BRIAN: This is right after the US has entered the war. Is that correct?

JULIA MICKENBERG: Yeah. So the protest was in June of 1917, and we had just entered the war that April.

So these two suffragists held a big banner in front of the White House, and the banner said, “To the envoys of Russia. They say we are a democracy. Help us win a war so that democracies may survive. We, the women of America, tell you that America is not a democracy. 20 million American women are denied the right to vote. President Wilson is the chief opponent of their national enfranchisement. Help us make this nation really free. Tell our government it must liberate its people before it can claim Free Russia as an ally.”

BRIAN: That banner must have been pre-bumper-sticker era. I don’t know if you could fit that on a bumper sticker.

JULIA MICKENBERG: No, it’s definitely much bigger than a bumper sticker. It’s a pretty large banner.

So within a minute of them getting this banner up there, an angry crowd rips the banner down. And this really sets off a tremendous amount of anger, because here are women embarrassing the United States in front of a crucial war ally.

BRIAN: Were they are accused of being traitors to the war?

JULIA MICKENBERG: Yes. They were being– they were accused of being traitors.

Interestingly, though there was a cartoon published shortly after this, and it had a picture of all the chaos in the crowd. And it was captioned, “making the Russians feel at home”– “making the Russian envoys feel at home”– because they had become so used to all this violence and chaos with the revolution.

BRIAN: But Julia, you call this a turning point. Can you spell out exactly why it was a turning point?

JULIA MICKENBERG: This becomes a turning point because this pressed kind of a raw nerve. Part of it was the coincidence of the Russian Revolution and the war. Suffrage is ultimately passed as a so-called war effort.

But part of it was that here, the country that had been sort of showcased as a bastion of its lack of democracy was giving women the vote before the United States. And this was our ally and it becomes increasingly a national embarrassment. And suffragists were very savvy about picking up on this.

BRIAN: So later in that year, in October, the Bolsheviks take over. That had to change something, right?

JULIA MICKENBERG: So the Bolshevik Revolution, sometimes called the October Revolution, is received in the United States very differently from the February Revolution.

The February Revolution is widely hailed. The Bolshevik Revolution was quite unpopular. And there were fears that this was a tremendous radical takeover.

Right after the revolution, Russia withdrew from World War I. They called for the nationalization of all private property.

On the other hand, within the suffrage movement, you don’t really see any kind of negative reaction to the Bolshevik Revolution. And in fact, part of that was because the rights for women that had been granted to women under the provisional government were retained by the Bolsheviks. And Lenin especially spoke quite vocally about what the Bolsheviks were doing for women in 1919.

He made this claim that was then republished in The Nation that, you know, no bourgeois government in the world is doing a tenth of what we’re doing for women to release them from household drudgery. They’re setting up nurseries for children that would allow women to keep working. Abortion was not only legalized, but made free. Divorce was made much easier. Women could keep their names after marrying.

So a slew of regulations passed pretty quickly under the Bolsheviks that were seen by many as benefiting women.

BRIAN: So unlike many other Americans, the suffragists aren’t condemning the Bolsheviks. Do they take a lot of heat for that?

JULIA MICKENBERG: Well, yes. Anti-suffragists– known as the antis, really seized upon the Bolshevik Revolution as, look, the suffragists are supporting this clearly dangerous government. We’ve been saying all along that they’re socialists. Now look– they’re supporting these clearly dangerous Bolsheviks. And they just had a field day attacking suffragists.

So this was arguably really damaging to the cause of suffragists.

BRIAN: So I’m confused, because we know the end of the story– women do get to vote. Wilson does change his mind.

Yet you leave us hanging here. In 1918, 1919, things are looking bad for the movement, right? They’ve been associated with this radical movement in the Soviet Union. And 1919 is known by historians as the Red Scare. What happens?

JULIA MICKENBERG: Well, really, by the fall of 1917, arguably before the Bolshevik Revolution, the passage of suffrage is largely seen as a done deal. And also in the fall of 1917, Wilson gives his support to the suffrage amendment as a war measure.

And you know, arguably, the sort of outcry and this really hammering on the Bolshevik thing can be taken less as an indication that the suffrage movement is in trouble and more as an indication that its opponents are really panicking.

BRIAN: I see.

JULIA MICKENBERG: And trying to do everything they can at this point to make the amendment fail.

But what I do think is that the antis did succeed in limiting the feminist agenda. You know, workplace justice, or having free childcare available– those kinds of things are associated with Bolshevism and subversion. And so certainly by the 1920s, tied up with the Red Scare, the National Women’s Party– and feminism in general– has a much more limited meaning.

BRIAN: Julia Mickenberg is a historian at the University of Texas, Austin.

The piece you heard from the top of the show on Stalin coining the term “American exceptionalism” was from a previous BackStory episode, as was my conversation with Mickenberg.

JOANNE: OK, so now we want to switch gears for a moment and read some messages that listeners sent us via email or Facebook or Twitter or our website.

ED: We received a lot of responses to our history grab bag episode two weeks ago. One of the stories that we explored then was about how the Boston public schools had adopted a new map of the world that rescaled the size of the continents.

We wondered why the school system was choosing to show the new Peters projection map alongside the old Mercator projection map, which under-represented Africa’s size so dramatically.

Marissa, a geographer, wrote that “anyone who asserts that there are right and wrong maps should be corrected immediately. All two-dimensional maps contain distortions. I applaud Boston for adding Peters but retaining Mercator to spark discussions about projections– and maybe even learn some of the math that makes them all possible.”

ED: In February, we did a show on immigration restrictions. In that episode, historian Douglas Baynton told us about how people with disabilities were turned away by the US immigration authorities in the late 19th century. The list that could disqualify you from immigration included things such as flat feet and varicose veins.

The interview reminded listener Jeff [? Gorski ?] of his great-grandfather, who emigrated from Ukraine. He had been stopped by the US immigration official because of an eye condition that [? Gorski ?] said was probably conjunctivitis.

Jeff wrote, “the recruiter, for an extra fee, had him pretend to be a ship crewman, and he jumped ship when he got to the US, entering illegally.”

Jeff went on to tell us that not only was he named after his great-grandfather, but that he became an immigration lawyer, interpreting and enforcing immigration law.

BRIAN: Many of you wrote about another show we did on immigration and border control. In that episode, we talked to historian Erika Lee about the invention, in the late 19th century, of illegal immigrants. We noted that after the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, Asians began sneaking across the US-Mexican border.

A listener named Bishop thought our discussions about that history went too far. He wrote that, “my takeaway from this episode seems to be heavy insinuation that Americans have no right to enforce our borders, and that anyone entering the country, legally or illegally, should be allowed to stay.”

What do you guys think?

JOANNE: I don’t think that we were trying to say something so broad as that Americans have no right to enforce our borders, or that anyone can enter the country and be allowed to stay. So I don’t think we made those kinds of big sweeping statements. I think we were really focused on the thing that raises that question, which is that there’s a lot of gray area.

BRIAN: That’s right, Joanne. I do think the listener raises a good point. It’s very hard to get this balance correct. Certainly, every nation has a right to enforce its border.

But nations are constantly deciding who to let in and who not to. And I think we can see, even in the brief snippet of history we covered, that the United States tends to swing between one extreme and the other– in essence, letting anybody in for much of the 19th century, and ending up with complete immigration restriction in effect by the 1920s.

ED: Thanks to everyone who writes us each week. We love hearing your stories, your feedback, and even your corrections. Please keep them coming. Write us at, or visit our Facebook page. Our Twitter handle is @BackStoryRadio.