Legitimizing Soviet Trade: Gender and the Feminization of the Retail Workforce in the Soviet 1930s

Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 2004


Oxford University Press


In the 1930s the Soviet retail workforce was increasingly feminized. At the same time, Communist leaders launched a campaign to establish “Soviet trade”—-what they hoped would be a distinctly non-capitalist state-organized system of “socialist” retail trade. This article explores the feminization of the retail workforce as a window on the Soviet regime’s efforts to mobilize retail trade and women in new ways in the 1930s. It argues that the feminization of the retail workforce resulted in more than an influx of women workers; it turned out to be critical to attempts to remake retail trade. As the trade campaign got under way and the female workforce grew, authorities rationalized women’s employment by constructing a new woman retail worker who carried out “revolutionary Bolshevik work.” They identified “feminine” qualities with excellence in retailing. Highly valued attributes of the idealized new system of socialist trade that reportedly distinguished it from capitalist retailing and the already existing state-controlled system became coded as feminine. As a result, this article argues, the feminization of the retail workforce contributed to the legitimization and gendering of Soviet trade. Moreover, because feminization was accompanied by a new discourse about women that involved a positive reimagining of the feminine and the domestic, it also buttressed a larger transformation in official understandings of women’s roles and womanly characteristics in the building of Soviet socialism.