Women's movement

Image - Union of Ukrainian Women presidium (with Milena Rudnytska in the centre)

Women's movement. In Ukraine the development of organized groups of women sharing common goals and common interests was hampered by the nonexistence of a Ukrainian state and the severe limitations placed upon Ukrainian community organizations by various foreign authorities. Nevertheless, from the 1880s on, Ukrainian women managed to create effective organizations under all the states that occupied Ukraine—the Russian Empire and Austria-Hungary and interwar Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and even the USSR. Women’s organizations were also established by immigrant women in Europe and the New World. Ukrainian women’s organizations were primarily self-help and community-oriented in nature. The members were not initially interested in feminism, women’s liberation, or traditional women’s causes such as the struggle against prostitution and the promotion of philanthropy, education, and suffrage. Instead the thrust of the women's movement in Ukraine was similar to that under all colonial regimes: it addressed the needs of the entire community, and not only of women. Organized Ukrainian women sought to expand the role of women in existing institutions and the national-liberation struggle and to ameliorate poverty, disease, and illiteracy. They adapted to existing institutions and mores and, instead of challenging society, highlighted the importance of the family and of the economic and socializing role of the mother. They also, however, maintained their political independence and did not become adjuncts of male-dominated political parties. As the women’s organizations grew, opposition forced women to articulate a feminist agenda. Interest in feminism among those women developed as a result of their activism.

The beginnings of the Ukrainian women's movement date from the tsarist suspension of the Higher Courses for Women in Kyiv in 1886. The ban led to the creation of the first independent women’s study circle, on the initiative of O. Dobrohraieva. The society was informal because all organizations had to be sanctioned by the police. Attempts by Kyivan women to gain permission for the creation of a ladies’ club from the 1880s on succeeded only after the Revolution of 1905. Women in Kyiv and Kharkiv established branches of imperial women’s organizations, such as the Society of Mutual Aid for Working Women and the Society for the Protection of Women. The Ukrainian branches developed distinctive forms of activity. In Kharkiv women founded schools under the aegis of the Kharkiv Literacy Society. There Khrystyna Alchevska became the major spokesperson for adult education and ran the oldest and largest adult literacy school in Ukraine. In the 1870s, women in Kyiv organized the Hospice for Children of the Working Class; it functioned until 1917.

The women's movement in Kyiv was characterized by close co-operation between Ukrainian, Jewish, and Russian women. There in 1901 an exclusively Ukrainian women’s organization, the Women's Hromada in Kyiv, was founded. Because specifically Ukrainian organizations were banned by the tsarist regime, the hromada, and other such groups that sprang up in the major cities of Russian-ruled Ukraine and in Saint Petersburg (where there was a large Ukrainian community), functioned clandestinely and met under the guise of ladies’ teas. After the Revolution of 1905, when public organizations were legalized, the hromada’s members functioned openly; they successfully lobbied the Union of Equality for Women for recognition of the rights of non-Russian women and for a federal structure in the imperial organization. Women joined Prosvita societies and the co-operative movement that sprang up following the revolution and frequently established women’s sections in local Prosvita and co-operative branches.

In Austrian-ruled Galicia community organizations were able to develop legally. Institutes for widows and orphans, founded under Austrian pressure by Ukrainian Catholic clergy in the early 1800s, sought to alleviate the position of women in priests’ families. The institutes accustomed women to take interest in public and economic concerns. In some Galician towns, such as Peremyshl, the institute and the women connected with it were instrumental in establishing schools for girls. In 1868, when the first Prosvita society was created in Galicia, women created an unofficial auxiliary force to it. The first woman formally inducted into the Prosvita society was I. Sembratovych-Osterman, in 1871. The first separate women’s organization with a formal statute and structure was the Society of Ruthenian Ladies, founded on 14 December 1878 in Lviv. The society remained technically in existence until 1939, but in the early 1880s it came under the domination of a conservative faction who sought to circumscribe the role and activities of women.

On 8 December 1884 Nataliia Kobrynska, under the influence of moderate socialism and J.S. Mill’s On the Subjection of Women, organized the first public meeting of Galician women in Stanyslaviv. About 100 women from various Galician towns and villages attended the meeting and officially established the short-lived Society of Ruthenian Women. In 1887 Kobrynska and Olha Kosach, who wrote under the pen name of Olena Pchilka, published, with the help of Ivan Franko, the first literary miscellany by Ukrainian women living under both Austrian and Russian rule, Pershyi vinok (First Wreath). Kobrynska’s feminist socialism was not popular, however, and her subsequent publishing and organizational ventures had little support. But the Society of Ruthenian Women, with its program of the enlightenment of women, the creation of community day-care centers, and publishing for women, caught the imagination of Western Ukrainians. Branches of the society were formed, and other women’s organizations with similar programs later emerged in several Galician towns. The most influential were the Club of Ruthenian Women, founded in Lviv in 1893 and modeled on British ladies’ clubs, and the Circle of Ukrainian Girls, founded in Lviv in 1901 and renamed in October 1905 the Circle of Ukrainian Women. Affiliates of both organizations were established in the towns and villages of Galicia, and the two organizations fused in 1909 into the Women's Hromada in Lviv. The Women's Hromada in Bukovyna was created in 1906 in Chernivtsi.

Women were also the prime, although not the sole, force behind the formation of the Ukrainska Zakhoronka society for day-care centers in 1901 and the Domestic Servants' Aid Society in 1903. Ukrainian women were among the first in the Austrian Empire to draft petitions for the right of women to attend state gymnasiums and universities and to organize prosuffrage rallies (some of them jointly with Polish and Jewish women). Between March and December 1908 they published the socialist women’s semimonthly Meta, revived in 1919–20 as Nasha meta (Lviv). They also edited a supplement to the most influential Galician Ukrainian newspaper, Dilo, under the title Zhinoche dilo.

The women set up day-care centers, sewing and other trade courses, and co-operatives; experimented with cooking, gardening, and poultry-raising courses in the villages; ran subsidized cafeterias and emergency kitchens; and founded dormitories for girls. Societies for domestics were established in the towns to help peasant girls adjust to urban life. Sometimes Greek Catholic parish priests initiated the creation of women’s social clubs in an attempt to offset Polonization. The first Marian society was founded in Lviv in 1904, and spread to other cities; its members engaged in Christian philanthropy and self-betterment.

Organized women repeatedly discussed the need for unity, and a number of conferences were held in attempts to initiate it. The women also expected to be included in the leadership of the Ukrainian movement in Galicia. After Ukrainian community leaders refused to have women’s organizations represented at a major gathering, representatives of leading women’s organizations, reinforced by Ukrainian women university students, held a clandestine meeting of their own on 14 December 1912, at which they expressed the need for organized armed struggle for Ukraine’s independence in case of war and set up a national emergency fund and first-aid and military training for women.

During the First World War Western Ukrainian women served as nurses in the Austrian army and fought in the ranks of the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen. During the First World War under Russian rule, Ukrainian women ran hospitals under the auspices of the Tatiana Society and the Society to Aid Victims of War in Southern Russia. They also helped the many Western Ukrainians who were forcibly evacuated east during the Russian occupation of Galicia.

After the February Revolution of 1917, women on the territory of the Ukrainian National Republic organized the All-Ukrainian Women’s Hromada, whose members were active in community and relief work, education, public health, and care of orphans. That organization affiliated itself with the International Council of Women and sought outside medical aid for the epidemic-ravaged country. In the Western Ukrainian National Republic a similar organization of women arose, and the two attempted to work together. Ukrainian independence did not last long enough for the organization to develop fully. During the Ukrainian-Soviet War, 1917–21 many women were engaged in combat and military reconnaissance activity; some even headed their own units and became legendary figures.

Under Bolshevik rule all independent women’s organizations were disbanded and banned, and women who had been in their forefront (eg, Olena Pchilka) were excluded from public life. The only sanctioned organizations were those that were affiliated with the CP(B)U and had as their goal the mobilization of support for the Party. Russian and Jewish Bolshevik women, who were not, by and large, sympathetic to Ukrainian autonomy and culture, were brought into the countryside to work with the peasants. They experienced serious opposition, especially from peasant women who did not understand Russian. Only in 1924, when M. Levkovych became head of the Women’s Section (Zhinviddil) of the CP(B)U, did those organizations make headway in the villages. They sought to politicize women through mass rallies, introduced literacy programs, initiated two women’s journals, Selianka Ukraïny (1924–31) and the Russian-language Rabotnitsa, and provided programs of health care and hygiene and information on the new law codes legalizing gender equality. The Zhinviddil also used women to glean information on anti-Soviet conspiratorial activities and to find out which peasants hid food and harbored priests. In 1926 M. Levkovych was replaced by the Russian O. Pilatskaia so that any collusion between Ukraine’s increasingly vocal and popular National Communists (see National communism) and women would be prevented. In 1930 the Zhinviddil and its locals were disbanded, and the women’s question was proclaimed solved in the Soviet Union.

Ukrainian peasant women were in the forefront of spontaneous resistance to forced collectivization and grain procurement campaigns. Millions died in the Famine-Genocide of 1932–3 or were sent during the Stalinist terror of the 1930s to concentration camps, where they perished.

Under Soviet rule women gained formal equality, but not real autonomy or full human rights. In 1945 the All-Union Soviet Women’s Society was established, mainly to participate for propaganda purposes in international gatherings of women. Women in Soviet society, while legally equal, in effect bore the double burden of the need to work outside the home and at the same time to care for the family and the home in conditions of extreme want, with shortages of basic necessities and food. Many of the laws benefitting women were abolished in the 1930s, and thereafter the traditional role of the woman as mother was bolstered by a series of incentives and distinctions awarded to women who bore six or more children (‘mother-heroines’).

In the late 1980s, women became actively involved in Ukrainian political life. In early 1990 new women’s organizations were founded: the revived Union of Ukrainian Women, which focused on national rather than women’s concerns and promotes traditional Ukrainian family values; the Women’s Hromada of the Popular Movement of Ukraine, which focused on ecological issues and issues of political independence; and the Organization of Soldiers’ Mothers of Ukraine, which publicly protested against violations of human rights in the armed forces and the sending of Ukrainian soldiers to serve outside Ukraine. The first non-communist women’s newspaper in Soviet Ukraine, Halychanka, began publication in Lviv in October 1990 with a circulation of 10,000 copies. In 1993 the All-Ukrainian Women’s Hromada was founded; M. Drach was the president, and L. Skoryk was the honorary president.

In Polish-, Czechoslovak-, and Romanian-ruled Western Ukraine and in countries where Ukrainian emigrants settled in the interwar period, Ukrainian women established politically autonomous organizations. The Lviv-based Union of Ukrainian Women (SU, 1921–39) was the largest per capita women’s organization in Europe. Founded through the fusion of a number of existing women’s organizations, it and related organizations outside Galicia developed an effective system of self-help and modernization programs in towns and villages. Under the dynamic leadership of Milena Rudnytska the SU spread to encompass over 100,000 members in Galicia. It organized day care, trade courses, agricultural programs, dormitories, and fresh air funds and instituted women's press publications. Through involvement in the union, women became accustomed to political work. In 1928 Rudnytska was elected to the Polish Sejm, where she was a spokesperson for the Ukrainian cause and was particularly effective in the Educational Commission. Two women, Olena Levchanivska and Olena Kysilevska, were elected to the Polish Senate. The Union of Ukrainian Women of Volhynia (1921–38) and similar organizations in Bukovyna and Transcarpathia co-operated closely with the SU.

The work of the Union of Ukrainian Women (SU) was so effective that other politically diverse women’s organizations emerged. All of them, including the Union of Ukrainian Working Women (1931–9), the Nasha Khata co-operative, and the Marian societies, co-operated with the SU. Most rallied to its defense when it was attacked in the mid-1930s by the Western Ukrainian political right. The Union of Ukrainian Emigrant Women in Poland (1921–39) and in Romania (1923–40) and the Ukrainian Women's Union in Austria (1920–38) and Czechoslovakia (1923–?) had close relations with the SU. Women’s clubs in Canada and the United States fused to create the Ukrainian National Women's League of America (SUA, est 1925) and the Ukrainian Women's Association of Canada (UWAC, est 1926), which worked closely with the SU, patterned their community organizations and self-help programs closely upon those of SU, and materially aided the European groups. In 1937 the World Union of Ukrainian Women was formally inaugurated to co-ordinate the work of all women’s organizations outside the USSR.

During the Second World War all independent women’s organizations were dissolved. Under German rule Ukrainian women managed to create in Lviv the Women's Service to Ukraine, which provided the little help it could to children, women, and forced laborers (Ostarbeiter) sent to Germany, until it was disbanded by the German occupational authorities.

After the war Milena Rudnytska sought to resurrect the Union of Ukrainian Women in the displaced persons camps in Germany and Austria. She was edged out, however, and a new organization, the Ukrainian Women's Alliance in Germany, was established in 1945 through the efforts of Iryna Pavlykovska, who objected to Rudnytska’s refusal to have women support the émigré political parties. Fraternal organizations were soon created in the refugees’ new host countries: the Ukrainian Women's Association of France, the Ukrainian Women's Alliance in Belgium, the Association of Ukrainian Women in Great Britain, the Ukrainian Women's Association of Argentina, the Ukrainian Women's Association in Australia, and the Ukrainian Women's Alliance in Venezuela. The Ukrainian National Women's League of America and the new émigré organizations joined together to create the World Federation of Ukrainian Women's Organizations (SFUZhO) in 1948. That body has since then united all Ukrainian women’s organizations in the West, except the Ukrainian Women's Association of Canada and the women’s section of the pro-communist Association of United Ukrainian Canadians.

Other SFUZhO members are the Ukrainian Women's Organization of Canada (est 1934), the Ukrainian Catholic Women's League of Canada (est 1944), and the Women's Association of the Canadian League for Ukraine's Liberation (est 1952); in the United States, the United Ukrainian Orthodox Sisterhoods (est 1961) and the Women’s Association of the Organization for the Defense of Four Freedoms for Ukraine (est 1967); the Society of Ukrainian Women (est 1951) of the Federation of Ukrainians in Great Britain; the Organization of Ukrainian Women in Brazil (est 1952); and in Argentina, the women’s sections (est ca 1939) of the Prosvita society and Vidrodzhennia society.

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Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 5 (1993).]




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