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Stasova, Nadezhda (1822–1895)

Stasova, Nadezhda (1822–1895)

Leading 19th-century Russian philanthropist and feminist. Pronunciation: Na-DEZH-da Stas-O-va. Born Nadezhda Vasil'evna Stasova on June 12, 1822, in Tsarskoe Selo, Russia; died on September 27, 1895, in St. Petersburg; daughter of Vasilii P. Stasov (a court architect and academician); mother's name unknown; sister of Vladimir Vasilievich Stasov (an art critic) and Dmitri Vasilievich Stasov (a prominent lawyer); aunt of Elena Stasova (1873–1966); educated at home until age 16; never married; no children.

Ran Sunday School for working women (1860–62); helped establish Society to Provide Cheap Lodgings for women in St. Petersburg (1861); co-founded women's Publishing Workshop (1863); promoted the establishment of the Vladimir Courses (1870); was first director of the Bestuzhev Courses (1878); served as chair of the Society for Assistance to Graduate Science Courses; was president of the Russian Women's Mutual Philanthropic Society (1894); helped establish Children's Aid Society in St. Petersburg (1894).

When Nadezhda Stasova was in her mid-20s, she experienced a personal crisis which was to change the course of her life. "My youth was extraordinarily light-hearted and without seriousness," she later recalled. "All my thoughts inclined to entertainment." Like most women of her privileged class, she had been brought up with only one purpose in mind—marriage, after which her life would be a pleasant if mindless one of child rearing and social functions. Nadezhda was duly engaged to a handsome guards officer but then, just before their scheduled marriage, he left her to marry a younger woman of better position and greater beauty. Stasova, embarrassed and devastated, suffered a nervous breakdown. With the help of hypnosis, she recovered but vowed never to marry. She devoted much of the next decade to caring for her invalid sister Sofia Stasova and then, after the latter's death in 1858, she turned her attention to less privileged women in Russian society. This took the form first of charitable activities in St. Petersburg and then of promoting the cause of higher education for all Russian women. For over 35 years, she was one of the leaders of the nascent women's movement in Russia.

Nadezhda Stasova was born on June 12, 1822 (o.s.) in Tsarskoe Selo, an aristocratic and genteel community surrounding one of the tsar's residences where her father Vasilii Stasov served as court architect. The family's standing was reflected in the fact that the tsar, Alexander I, agreed to be Nadezhda's godfather. Even privilege could not protect her mother who died of cholera in 1831. Her five brothers received an excellent gymnasium education during the 1830s; one of them, Vladimir Stasov, went on to become a progressive and renowned music and art critic later in the century. Nadezhda and her sister Sofia, however, were treated differently. "My father," she later wrote, "although he was an intelligent man, still thought (as they all did then), that we did not have the same needs as our brothers." As a result, she was given a home education which stressed the good manners and social graces needed by an aristocratic wife. Surreptitiously, however, she sampled the writings of the philosophes and of the men of the enlightenment found in her father's excellent library. It was perhaps this reading which motivated her to devote her life to improving the lot of less fortunate women after the collapse of their marriages.

Another formative influence in the development of Stasova's feminism was Mariia Trubnikova whom she met in 1859, shortly after Sofia's death. Trubnikova, who had been in contact with feminist groups in Western Europe, was concerned about the plight of well-born but impoverished women in the Russian capital. Together with Anna Filosofova , Trubnikova and Stasova formed the "Society to Provide Cheap Lodgings and Other Assistance to the Needy Population of St. Petersburg"—one of Russia's earliest and most successful charitable organizations. In 1861, the Society opened a hostel which offered respectable, clean and inexpensive accommodation for widows, abandoned mothers, and other middle-class women. The key to helping these women stand on their feet was employment. Since few respectable professions were open to Russian women at this time, Trubnikova and Stasova established a co-operative Publishing Workshop in 1863 where women worked as translators, editors, binders and typesetters. Stasova also showed an interest in the fate of lower-class women. In 1860, she opened a Sunday School which gave a basic education in the evenings to a limited number of young shop girls and factory workers. When this venture was closed by the government in 1862, she sought to encourage vocational training and better medical treatment for St. Petersburg's increasing number of prostitutes.

After a decade of charitable work, "the Triumvirate"—Filosofova, Trubnikova and Stasova—came to the conclusion that only better education could provide the skills women needed to be self-sufficient. As Stasova remarked, new Russian women "desired not the moonlight, but rather the sunlight" which higher education could offer but which up to then was denied them. In 1868, she was instrumental in drafting a petition to the rector of the University of St. Petersburg requesting the establishment of a women's university or at least the holding of classes for women at the present university. The suspicious government responded that women were inadequately prepared for university-level instruction and that until such time as they were prepared they would have to be satisfied with less rigorous evening lectures in an off-campus setting with no governmental support. When the so-called Vladimir Courses opened in 1870, Stasova served as their patron, and she housed their library in her apartment. The Triumvirate continued to function as an aristocratic pressure group seeking through tact, patience and good contacts to win further educational concessions. In 1878, the government finally allowed professors to offer women separate university-level courses leading to formal degrees. Stasova was the first director of these Bestuzhev Courses, and she was instrumental in raising money to help women pay for their much-needed higher education.

After the reactionary government of Alexander III forced her out of these positions in 1889, and in recognition of over 30 years of service to the Russian women's movement, Stasova was chosen to be president of the new Russian Women's Mutual Philanthropic Society which functioned both as an upper-class women's club and as a provider of accommodation, meals and childcare for their less fortunate sisters. Nadezhda Stasova's role in this body, which Richard Stites has called "by far the most important feminist institution [in Russia] prior to 1905," was cut short by her sudden death in 1895 at the age of 73.

sources:

Engel, Barbara Alpern. Mothers and Daughters: Women of the Intelligentsia in Nineteenth-Century Russia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Goldberg (Ruthchild), Rochelle Lois. "The Russian Women's Movement, 1859–1917." Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Rochester, 1976.

Stites, Richard. The Women's Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism, 1860–1930. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977.

suggested reading:

Stasov, Vladimir. Nadezhda Vasil'evna Stasova: Vospominaniia i ocherki (Nadezhda Vasil'evna Stasova: Reminiscences and Sketches). St. Petersburg, 1899.

R. C. Elwood , Professor of History, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada

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