The zhenskie sovety (women's councils), or zhensovety in shortened form, were set up after 1958 under Nikita Khrushchev as part of his attempt to mobilize the Soviet people around issues concerning their lives. Involvement in trades unions, comrades courts, and citizens' volunteer detachments was also encouraged during this period. The zhensovety were part of Khrushchev's "differentiated approach" to politics, according to which women's organizations were now acceptable again on the grounds that they targeted one particular group of citizens, just as other organizations dealt with particular groupings, such as youth and pensioners. From 1930 when Stalin declared the "woman question" to be solved, separate organizations for women, with the exception of the movement of wives (dvizhenie zhen ), were closed down on the grounds that they smacked of "bourgeois feminism" and were divisive of working-class unity. Now it was recognized that the political education of women was one of the weakest areas of party work and in need of attention.
Zhensovety were formed in factories and offices and on farms. They were set up at regional (oblast ), territory (kray ), and district (rayon ) levels of administration. Their sizes varied from around thirty to fifty members at regional levels and fifteen to twenty at district level to smaller groups of five to seventeen in factories and farms. There was no uniform pattern across the women's councils, as some were closely affiliated with the party, others with the soviets, and still others with the trade union. They divided their work into sections such as daily life, culture, mass political work, child care, health care, and sanitation and hygiene. Their activities usually reflected official party priorities for work among women.
The zhensovety continued to exist on paper in the years of Leonid Brezhnev's leadership but in fact did very little. They were formal in most areas rather than active. As part of his policy of democratization, Mikhail Gorbachev revived and restructured them. In 1986, at the Twenty-Seventh Party Congress in Moscow, Gorbachev called for their reinvigoration. By the spring of 1988, 2.3 million women were active in 236,000 zhensovety. As in the past, each women's council was preoccupied with issues of local concern. Their work was divided into the typical sections of "daily life and social problems," "production," "children," and "culture."
At the nineteenth All-Union Conference of the CPSU in June 1988, Gorbachev argued that women's voices were not heard and that this had been the case for years. He regretted that the women's movement was at a "standstill," at best "formal." He placed the zhensovety for the first time under the hierarchical umbrella of the Soviet Women's Committee. In 1989 Gorbachev reformed the electoral system. In the newly elected Congress of People's Deputies, the zhensovety had 75 "saved" seats among the 750 seats reserved for social organizations.
See also: feminism; marriage and family life
Browning, Genia. (1992). "The Zhensovety Revisited." In Perestroika and Soviet Women, ed. Mary Buckley. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Buckley, Mary. (1996). "The Untold Story of Obshchestvennitsa in the 1930s." Europe-Asia Studies 48 (4):569–586.