In 1897 in an attic in Vilna a group of thirteen revolutionaries met clandestinely to officially create one Jewish workers movement. That movement would represent the needs of the Jewish working class of the Russian empire. Since they were oppressed as Jews, workers and non-Russians, the Jewish working class certainly had the need for a movement to defend their specific needs. Of the 13 who met in the attic, at least two were women – although due to the secretive and illegal nature of the meeting, it is difficult to clarify exactly who was present. What is known is that Marya Zhaludsky and Rosa Greenblat were present at that meeting.
In an age where women had very limited life choices, it may be difficult to understand how these two women managed to not just attend but truly participate in this historic illegal gathering. How and why would women, who in their traditional homes would not be allowed to select their own husbands, find their way into an illegal and rebellious organisation such as the Jewish Labor Bund.
An immediate assumption would be that the socialist nature of the Jewish Labor Bund would encourage the inclusion of women. Perhaps it might be easy to assume that the socialist movement was aiming not just to emancipate Jewish workers from their oppressive work environment, but also to free women from the traditional oppression that would not allow them to act as equals in a future socialist society.
The reason for the active role that women played in the Bund during its founding period was far more practical than it was ideological. As an illegal organisation it was fundamental to use whoever was available to maintain the activities of the movement. More importantly it was valuable to engage with those who were actual members of the oppressed Jewish working class. This meant working quickly to connect with as many members of the working class as possible. The need for a wide network of contacts was important because it was very common for Bund activists to get arrested or to be forced to flee the country. In order for the organisation to maintain its activities they had to be able to find people to fill positions quickly and effectively, no matter their gender. This meant that, for example, when the three members of the Bund’s first central committee were arrested in 1898 two of the slots were filled by women.
It would be impossible to assume that these women achieved this role out of tokenism. The party had to continue to function immediately and effectively or the fledgling movement would have stalled its development. These women and the others that took over were able to continue the work and to further the cause of the Jewish workers movement. Women fulfilled two pivotal but different roles within the movement. Women at the top levels of the movement were middle class intellectuals, while women with working class background were important in the day to day practical activities of organising workers. While working class women held significant roles in the functionality of the movement, only middle class women who could be counted amongst the intellectuals managed to achieve high positions on the central committee of the Bund.
The fact that Jewish middle class women could even receive secular education around this period is a phenomenon that must be examined. According to Iris Parush in her article ‘Women Readers as Agents of Social Change among Eastern European Jews in the Late Nineteenth Century’, women, though mostly of wealthier backgrounds, were able to receive a secular education because of their economic roles in their families. Parush states that, “Because the training of women for their future role in life permitted and even demanded their exposure to knowledge and activities considered undesirable for men, a measure of inconsistency evolved between the status of the woman within the patriarchal framework of Judaism and her real position within the family.”
Women also often were able to receive education overseas. While it was proper for a Jewish male to study Torah and Talmud, in the new modern age if a family was financially able to, they often would send their daughters to places of higher learning across Europe. However, the demand for women’s education did not come from women, but rather from men who had already begun to explore the world of secular ideas and literature. It should be noted that in the 1860s when many men were embracing the period of enlightenment, they found themselves in conflict with their uneducated wives. In Eliyana R. Adler’s article “Women’s Education in the Russian Jewish Press”, she notes that, “as new ideas reached the Jews of Russia, the literate and educated husband found himself at odds with his superstitious and traditional wife in matters ranging from religious practice to education of the next generation.” It was these men who worked for the education of women, in order to ensure that the children of women could be educated in the enlightened fashion.
Finally, women worked in the industries that were first organised by the Bund. Industries such as glove and stocking making were dominated by women. It was important that the new movement not only have intellectual leadership, but also those who knew, understood and had experienced the terrible working conditions of the Jewish working class of the Russian empire. Although most of the central committee were not workers, there was generally a limited imposition of the views of the central committee on the local organisations giving power to the local organisations and workers.
The women of the Jewish Labor Bund not only served a role in the famous revolutionary Jewish movement, but earned their places in the same way as any other revolutionary. Within the movement, women of the Bund achieved their high positions within the party through their abilities and efforts, and not due to tokenism. As passionate supporters for fair and equitable working conditions for Jewish workers, as well as supporters of a democratic socialist regime change in the Russian Empire, some of these women were generally considered to be, at least ideologically, if not always practically, equal to their male counterparts as comrades, workers and intellectuals.