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On the 100th International Women's Day there will be no meetings at bookshops in London or parades on the streets of Paris for Inessa Armand. Indeed, few feminists have ever heard of her.

Inessa Armand

Yet almost a century ago Armand had the power to dictate laws which would affect 150 million people - and used that power to give women the rights and resources to divorce, to have abortions and to participate in the highest echelons of government.

She opened mass canteens, laundrettes, factory crèches, mother and baby care centres, kindergardens, medical centres and provided free baby food to allow working women the daily freedom to participate in politics and culture.

Women were legally equal to men for the first time. Prostitution was decriminalised. By 1921, 93 percent of Muscovites ate in public dining halls.

She wrote in 1919: “Until the old forms of the family, domestic life, education, and child rearing are abolished it is impossible to obliterate exploitation and enslavement, it is impossible to create the new person, impossible to build socialism.”

Yet her pivotal role in the most radical advance for women has been forgotten almost entirely by history: buried under Stalinist reaction, eclipsed by the more flamboyant Alexandra Kollontai, ignored by western feminism and debased by irrelevant sexual tittle tattle by academics.

This is desperately sad considering Armand almost single handedly drove through legal reform and unprecedented change affecting millions of Russian workers in the wake of the revolution, according to Ralph Carter Elwood's 1992 biography.

At the height of her powers Armand was chairwoman of the Zhenotdel, the Women's Section of the Central Committee, had established women's sections in every party district, and was head of the First International Conference of Communist Women.

The feminist-turned-revolutionary-socialist introduced internships at the highest levels of the civil service and industry in what is now called “affirmative action” and launched a mass circulation newspaper - Woman Worker - to give women the confidence to change social attitudes.

The French revolutionary died in 1920 in dire poverty. Her funeral reduced Lenin, the iron Bolshevik leader, to an emotional wreck. Yet the memory of Armand is dimmed despite the fact her life should shed such revealing light on current feminist thought and socialist practice.

Above all, she is the embodiment of the fact that revolution per se will not deliver equality for women naturally or automatically: it was deadly hard practical work by women socialists which drove through reform in the teeth of chauvinism and conservatism within the Bolshevik party.

Indeed, inspired by Armand's work, Lenin said: “It is true to say of many of our comrades, 'scratch a Communist and find a Philistine'. Of course, you must scratch the sensitive spot, their mentality as regards women.”

Activists like Armand can, and sometimes are, convinced by socialism on the basis of some deferred promise of the emancipation of women after revolution.

But the most confident and effective leaders will be engaged by current day activity and by gaining positions of influence within political parties so everyone is working to drive through reforms for women while transforming society in toto.

Armand was a metropolitan intellectual. She was financially supported by her ex-husband, a wealthy factory owner. She was recruited to Marxism from the feminist movement. And she became Lenin's closest confidant and political fixer: today there is no reason why future socialist leaders must only be found on factory shop floors.

Today, we are still fighting for a real and thorough transformation in women's lives: the end of grotesque poverty and war around the world, subjugation and objectification at home.

We would do well to rekindle the memory of Inessa Armand and what she achieved. She could do all this only because she worked within the mechanism of a Marxist revolutionary party.

The popular books about Armand today revel in the public school fascination with speculation that the charismatic and talented Armand had “sexual relations” with Lenin and preached “free love.”

Elwood claims the cottage industry around the story of “Lenin's lover” are based entirely on gossip put around by an unreliable French spook. At the same time, Lenin's letters to Armand show that by free love she meant love free from sexual, domestic, social and economic enslavement to men.

However, this tittle tattle serves a real purpose: to distract from Armand's formidable achievements for women which, if it were not for the defeat of the Russian revolution, could have transformed the lives of all women everywhere.

A side effect of such gossip is it debases the unparalleled respect Lenin had for Armand and the genuine emotional bond that existed between the two central committee members.

The white heat of revolution forged a love and friendship of historic proportions, driving Armand to write: "I could cope without your kisses if only I could see you...To talk with you sometimes would be such a joy and this could not cause pain to anyone. Why deprive me of that?"

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