The congress led to the creation of Commissions for Agitation and Propaganda among Working Women. Their special methods of political work were elaborated by Kollontai at the Eighth Congress of the party in March 1919. She explained that because women were politically backward, the party had not had much success in trying to approach and recruit them based on general political appeals. Furthermore, she argued that it was women's oppression, which led to their lack of involvement in political life; the cares and concerns of the family and the household robbed the woman worker of her time and energy and prevented her from becoming involved in broader political and social pursuits.
Kollontai proposed that the way to attract women to Bolshevism was to draw them into socially useful projects, such as day nurseries, public dining rooms and maternity homes, which would serve to liberate women in their everyday lives. In September 1919 the Bolshevik central committee changed the Commission for Agitation and Propaganda among Working Women into the Womens Section or Department of the Party (ot del, or), part of the central committee secretariat, under the leadership of Inessa Armand. Local branches of the Zhenotdel were attached to the party committees at every level, staffed by volunteers recruited among party women, and charged with conducting activities among the unorganized women in factories and villages, drawing them into public affairs. Inessa Armand drew up a list of guiding principles for the Zhenotdel which she submitted to the first International Conference of Women Communists which took place in Moscow in July 1920. The Zhenotdely, by aiming to involve women who were not members of the Bolshevik Party, attempted to overcome the shortage of women party members: the total number of women in the party in 1920 was only 45, 297, or 7. 4 per cent of all members.
(Rothchild-Goldberg, pp. 134-5) The basic organizing unit was a Delegates Conference of Worker and Peasant Women. The conference was modeled on the soviets. Elections were organized among women workers and peasants to select delegates one for every five workers or twenty-five peasants, who would attend meetings and courses of instruction under party guidance and then be assigned to a variety of state, party, trade union and co-operative agencies. The delegates were involved in organizing communal institutions for dining, hospitals, maternity homes, children's homes and schools. Delegates also served in the peoples courts, sometimes in the capacity of judges.
Delegates served for short terms usually two to three months. The number of women actively involved was large. In the latter half of 1923, the Zhenotdely reported that the total number of delegates was about 58, 000. (Rothchild-Goldberg, p. 103) In addition, the Zhenotdel campaigned to mobilize women for support work in the civil war. Women performed medical services, served in the political departments of the Red Army, worked on communications, served in Saturday and Sunday work brigades, organized campaigns against desertion and epidemic diseases, and provided aid to the families of Red Army soldiers and to homeless children.
(Rothchild-Goldberg, p. 129) One of the most important activities of each Zhenotdel was the spreading of literacy. An illiterate person, declared Lenin stands outside politics. He must first learn his ABC. Without that there can be no politics; without that there are rumors, gossip, fairy-tales and prejudices, but not politics.
(Quoted in Rothchild-Goldberg, pp. 144-S) The literacy schools did not limit themselves to instruction in reading and writing, but became important vehicles for the dissemination of political, cultural and general educational work. One of the leaders in the movement for women's literacy was Nadezhda Krupskaia. Before the revolution, she had taught workers in evening schools.
Now she devoted even more attention to this activity. Bolshevik women leaders with their own particular responsibilities and interests such as V. P. Lebedev a (maternity), Krupskaia (education) and Maria Uly anova (journalism) interlocked their activities with those of the Zhenotdel.
Inessa Armand drove herself to exhaustion, working sixteen hours a day or more. She was ordered by the party to the Caucasus for a rest. There, in October 1920, she caught cholera and died. Kollontai was chosen to succeed her. Her role ended after a year when she joined the Workers Opposition.
Then in 1922, she was assigned to a diplomatic post in Norway. Just as women, and men, in society were split along class lines, so women, and men, within the Bolshevik party split along political lines in relation to democratic working-class power. Their resulting attitude to women's rights was determined by their politics, not their gender. The women and men revolutionaries in Russia who stood for the widest social democracy and the fullest personal liberation did so through the Bolshevik party. Their achievements were brief, and not without flaw, which was due to a lack of resources to root out backwardness, not an inevitable case of Bolshevik men behaving badly. The women of the Bolshevik party were strong, liberated, fully human people that they were, and the models that they can be for today's women in movements for progressive social change..