Date of Thesis



Although aristocratic and noble women have historically participated in Russian society in realms outside of the household as writers, and by holding positions of power, the politics of gender at the heart of Russia’s traditional patriarchal society led to the dismissal or appropriation of women’s voices in all social classes. In other words, authorship was traditionally considered a male endeavor and women’s voices were often unheard in a hierarchical male-centric society, despite their presence. In fact, only select educated noble women such as Karolina Pavlova, had the opportunity to reflect on their position as women through literature. Although Pavlova managed to gain some literary recognition, her ideas were heavily criticized by male authors. Rather than listening to the ideas of Russian women, Russian male authors looked toward the West for ideas on the position of women. A combination of Western and traditional Russian male ideas about women led M.L. Mikhailov to raise the “woman question” in 1852, which brought to the forefront the subordinate position of women in the realms of work, education and marriage in Russian society. The woman question became a popular topic in Russian literature which led male authors to engage in a male debate over the position of women in Russia, strictly from a male perspective. However, the male debate over the woman question, by itself, did not cause women of all social classes to gain a voice by the end of the 19th century. I argue that the male debate over the woman question, in conjunction with the Alexander II’s era of great reforms, particularly the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, altered traditional male-centric ideas about women, which allowed for women to gain a voice. My argument consists of three main points: (1) Alexander II’s emancipation of the serfs in 1861, following Russia’s military embarrassment in the Crimean War, served as the main catalyst in the great social and demographic transformation which exposed the gender inequalities that existed in traditional Russian patriarchal society under serfdom. In the midst of this widespread societal transformation, many peasant women migrated to cities and joined the work force. The gap between the nobility and the peasants lessened and Russia’s traditional patriarchal and hierarchical society collapsed; (2) In the male debate over the woman question, male authors questioned the traditional subordinate position of women in the realms of marriage, education and work from their traditional male perspective. However, this male debate alone could not have given a greater voice to women of all social classes, without the emancipation of the serfs, since the debate was dominated by men speaking on behalf of women. Only noble “feminist” women who favored their status in the old patriarchal, hierarchical structure attempted to answer the woman question prior to the emancipation of the serfs, and sought to better their own education. The male debate on the woman question without the emancipation of the serfs only gave noble women a feminist voice; (3) Both the woman question in Russia and the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 led women of all social classes to be heard in society. Literature alone was not effective enough to give women a respectable voice in society; it was necessary for women to change their male-dominated stereotypes by dressing more masculine and becoming doctors as nihilist women, and by joining men in the revolutionary cause, as radical women. The participation of radical women in Russian society demonstrates that women began to unite over a new common cause ˗˗the radical cause˗˗ rather than fighting strictly for their social status or female cause, indicating that women of different social classes found a new common ground as active members of Russian society. The participation of women of lower social status by the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century is indicative of the aftermath of a full societal transformation, in terms of social class and gender, following the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 under Alexander II.


The woman question, Reform of 1861, Male debate, Feminists, Nihilists, Radicals

Access Type

Honors Thesis (Bucknell Access Only)

Degree Type

Bachelor of Arts


Languages, Cultures & Linguistics

Minor, Emphasis, or Concentration

Russian Studies

First Advisor

Slava Yastremski

Second Advisor

Ludmila Lavine