“Can a poor but honorable girl expect to earn a lot by honest work?” Marmeladov inquires in Crime and Punishment (6:17; Pt. 1, Ch. 2), the answer already obvious. To support her destitute stepmother and siblings, Sonya, his daughter, has taken a yellow ticket. Registering herself as a prostitute permits her to peddle her body on the St. Petersburg streets. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Russia's educated public raised similar questions about women's remunerative labor. Together with other issues involving women's place in the family and society, they collectively became known as the “woman question,” a term to which Dostoevsky's characters sometimes refer, but rarely in a way that gains the reader's sympathy. While Dostoevsky was genuinely sympathetic to some of the concerns encompassed by the “woman question,” in particular women's lack of economic options and their resulting sexual vulnerability, he responded more ambivalently to other dimensions, at least initially.
A European-wide phenomenon, the “woman question” was adapted by Russians to suit their particular circumstances. The economic consequences of the emancipation of the serfs (1861) profoundly affected how they interpreted it. In the middle of the nineteenth century, with the exception of civil servants – those chinovniki who inhabit so many Russian novels, Dostoevsky's included – the overwhelming majority of the population depended for their livelihood on a family economy. Women might perform a vital economic role in that economy, and not only in the peasant family, where wives labored alongside husbands in the fields. Wives of merchants presided behind the counters of their husbands’ shops and as widows might run the business; wives of craftsmen managed a household in which apprentices and journeymen lived and worked; wives of landed nobility often superintended the agricultural economy of their husbands’, or, in a substantial minority of cases, their own estates. In this latter respect, Russia was unusual. In most of Europe, women's right to own and manage their own property usually ended at marriage. In Russia, by contrast, married women retained their property rights. This is why Marfa Petrovna can make a gift of money to her husband, Svidrigailov, in Crime and Punishment (1866), and why Varvara Stavrogina in Demons (1871‐2) can pay her husband an allowance – after marriage, a wife remained in control of her finances.