I read somewhere that Peter the Great wanted that women participated more actively in the society. But I can not find a reliable source to confirm this, nor why or how he did this.

I think this is why he did this: He wanted men to go to Europe for trade and for science, so if women participated more actively in the society, the men could leave home more safely.

I do not know how he did this, but I guess it has something to do with the employment of the women – they worked in a place where only women worked before as far as I know.

In short: I'd like to know if, how and why Peter took the Great care of the rights for women and made them more active participants in the society.


3 Answers 3


The short answer is he didn't, not really. By "participated more actively", your source likely just means socialisation, rather than women's rights or activity in general society. To be sure, some of his policies had a positive impact on the welfare of women, but that is more incidental than intentional.

Basically, it is a bit of a stretch to describe his reign as "took care of" women's rights.

Social Interactions

As is well known, Peter the Great implemented sweeping modernisation reforms in Russia, inspired by the Enlightenment. He was heavily influenced by the West in this endeavour, and accordingly sought to introduce much western cultural and social norms.

One part of the Petrine social engineering was the introduction of new fashion styles. Both men and women were ordered to adopt western wardrobes. Specifically for women, in 1700:

Peter ordered the women as well to adopt Western dress, giving them until January 1, 1701. The aristocratic women in particular disliked the new dress, with garters to hold up the stockings, high-heeled shoes, low necklines, and worst of all, uncovered hair.

- Bushkovitch, Paul. Peter the Great: The Struggle for Power, 1671–1725. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

More substantially, this set the stage for Peter to create a Western-style court. He accomplished this by bring the traditionally secluded Russian noblewomen into the social life at his capital.

Peter breached the walls of the terem, forcing elite women to leave its seclusion in order to socialize in public at European-style evening parties ... they were expected to perform Western dances, to display appropriate social skills, and to converse with men in French.

- Engel, Barbara Alpern. Women in Russia, 1700-2000. Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Peter promoted such socialisation beyond the royal court, as well. In 1718 he issued an edict on "assemblies", public social functions, which were to invite women.

Peter hoped to introduce refinement and rational ways fo passing the time to his countrymen. The 1718 decree cited French practice, and orderd the nobility to put on something between an open house and a ball ... The "assembly" had to include women, a break with the traditional all-male banquets and drinking parties.

- Bushkovitch, Paul. Peter the Great: The Struggle for Power, 1671–1725. Cambridge University Press, 2001.


Another aspect of the Petrine reforms concerned marriage. Peter broke the customary monopoly of Muscovite parents in arranging marriages for their children. Whereas before, brides and grooms might only meet for the first time on their wedding night, now Peter demanded freely given consent from both parties.

[I]n 1724 the Synod promulgated the tsar's decree requiring that before the marriage of their children or servants the respective parents or guardians or masters must swear and oath that they consented to the marriage, that the persons about to marry 'ardently' wished to do so, and that no form of pressure had brought to bear on them.

- Cracraft, James. The Church Reform of Peter the Great. Stanford University Press, 1971.

Additionally, Peter forbade women from taking the veil before the age of 50. This prevented fertile women from wasting their reproductive potential; but it also meant that husbands could no longer dispose of inconvenient wives by forcing them to enter monasteries (as Peter himself had done).

Conclusion: Not that Rosy

Some of these reforms have inspired writers to speak of an emancipation of women under Peter the Great. In reality, care should be taken to not overstate this.

The Petrine Revolution ended the seclusion of noble women and benefited some others in very specific ways. It did not particularly promote women's rights or welfare in general. The subordinate status of women remained within contemporary European molds.

Authority remained in the hands of husbands and fathers ... women enjoyed no independent civil status. As was the case elsewhere in Europe, a woman's status was determined by the rank of her husband or father. The law continued to deal far more harshly with women than with men.

- Engel, Barbara Alpern. Women in Russia, 1700-2000. Cambridge University Press, 2004.

The 18th century did see a gradual recovery of women's property rights in Russia, but few of this could be unequivocally credited to Peter's reign. For example, Peter's 1714 Law of Single Inheritance actually prohibited women from receiving lands as dowries. Moreover, while women were theoretically empowered to control their own dowries, the subordinate status of women in civil life meant that their husbands could exercise de facto control.

[H]usbands [in practice] frequently could force their wives to comply with their wishes. Court cases from the eighteenth century recount many instances in which husbands beat or tormented their wives to force them to agree to mortgage to sell their dowries or dissipated their wives' dowries without their knowledge.

- Pushkareva, Natalia. Women in Russian History: From the Tenth to the Twentieth Century ME Sharpe, 1997.

Similarly, Peter the Great did not promote the employment of women outside traditional roles. A woman's role in Petrine Russian society remained domestic, with her main responsibilities to the family. The reproductive emphasis did cause women's education to be deemed important for the betterment of the next generation. However, proposed schemes to educate women all amounted to nothing under Peter's reign.

Peter even proposed to send noblewomen abroad to learn languages and social graces. But in this case, fierce parental opposition forced him to retreat. An edict of 1722 required basic literacy of women by forbidding a woman to marry if she could not sign her name. No one appears to have paid attention.

- Engel, Barbara Alpern. Women in Russia, 1700-2000. Cambridge University Press, 2004.

  • A complete answer probably needs to go into why he took the actions that ultimately led to multiple female empresses, something that was unthinkable before he came to power.
    – user15620
    Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 23:14
  • 1
    @StevenBurnap I did discuss his bring of elite women into the public life. The long term effects from years after his own death is not really relevant to the question of women's rights in general under his reign.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 5:31
  • 2
    @StevenBurnap - I would not say it was unfinkable. Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 10:40
  • 1
    Paul Bushkovitch was one of my college professors, and you're better read in his work than I am.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 16:05

It is a very strange idea that Peter the Great was promoting somebody's rights. The Western customs enforcement in Russia was superficial, like dress code, shaving, smoking, drinking etc. This includes participation of women in social events. But as everything Peter did this was enforced, and had nothing to do with anybody's rights.

EDIT. It is true that new customs introduced by Peter lead eventually to some "emancipation" of women. For example, after his death there was a 70 year period (with 3 years interruption) when women ruled the empire. But I am sure this was an unintentional consequence of Peter's rule. And this was not a novelty introduced at the time of Peter. After all, he came to full power by overthrowing his sister...

  • 1
    Agreed. Even the fact that he abolished slavery was just because he wanted that more people had to pay tax, not because he hated slavery and wanted rights for people.
    – wythagoras
    Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 14:18
  • 1
    @wythagoras: Peter abolished slavery??? I have never heard of this.
    – Alex
    Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 14:31
  • I didn't know it until today. Before asking this question, I came across this one: history.stackexchange.com/questions/16915/…
    – wythagoras
    Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 14:33
  • There was not really much difference between slavery and serfdom in Russia. This was a purely bureaucratic change.
    – Alex
    Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 18:32
  • 1
    I know. I read that post.
    – wythagoras
    Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 19:24

Yes he did, at the highest level. That is, he made his wife Catherine a "reigning" Empress, with rights to succeed him directly, instead of leaving the throne to his sons (he had one with a previous wife).

This led to not one, but four Russian Empresses: Catherine, Anna, Peter's daughter Elizabeth, and above all, Catherine the Great, the wife of Peter's grandson.

  • This is not what I meant but a nice twist indeed. (+1)
    – wythagoras
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 16:19
  • @wythagoras: Maybe he didn't do it in the "conventional" sense, but what Peter did do was the greatest of all. The United States (unilke e.g. India or Germany) has still not elected a woman President. Peter certainly "made them more active participants in the society."
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 17:19
  • 1
    By the standard you propose, women's rights in Pakistan exceed those in the USA; I think that is a counterfactual position. You are correct in facts, but I don't think that an Empress changes the position of women in society.
    – MCW
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 17:33
  • @MarkC.Wallace: There were four Empresses "created" by Peter the Great. Surely one of them did (or at least could have) make changes in society that benefited women. Sometimes it's better to allow someone to fish than give them a fish.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 17:57
  • instead of leaving the throne to his sons They were both dead... I suspect making skeletons emperor was a bit too too scandalous even for Peter. Also, it still took essentially a coup by Alexander Menshikov to put Catherine on the throne after his death.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 18:11

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