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Clara Zetkin and the struggle for a working class women’s movement

 

Rabotnitsa, the socialist women's magazine

Rabotnitsa, the socialist women’s magazine

The period of the 1880’s and 1890’s in Germany was a period of rapid industrialisation carried through under the guidance of the repressive German state. It saw the birth and growth of German Social Democracy as the mass workers party. It drew women, and children, into industry on a large scale.

It was in this situation that women within the SPD-particularly Clara Zetkin struggled to lay the basis for a socialist led, working class based women’s organisation. In 1891 the first issue of Die Gleicheit, subtitled ‘for the interests of working women’ appeared. It was an independent paper, with its own editorial board, led and coordinated by Social Democratic women, themselves disciplined party members.

The pioneers of Die Gleicheit faced very particular problems in the Germany of that time. Until 1908 laws in Prussia denied women freedom of association-thus legally barring them from party membership and trade union membership only the liberal states of Hamburg, Bremen, Baden and Wurttemberg did women have full rights of participation in politics. There was hostility in the party to the involvement and demands of militant women. Many trade unionists saw women workers simply as a threat to their jobs and bargaining position.

In this situation Social Democratic women had to find the ways and means of relating the socialist programme to working class women, drawing them into conscious political action under the party’s leadership, despite all of the problems posed by repression, tradition and male hostility. Zetkin herself put it this way:

“If they (the women comrades) wanted to bring socialism to the mass of proletarian women they had to take into account these women’s political backwardness, their emotional peculiarities, their two fold burden at home and in the factory, in short, all the special features of their existence, actions, feelings and thoughts.”

Marxist

Zetkin and her co-thinkers argued strongly against all attempts to transfer the ownership of Die Gleicheit directly to the Social Democratic Party, They resisted pressure from within the party to simplify its format, insisting that the paper existed to provide women comrades in struggle with a clear Marxist understanding of women’s oppression, to enable women in struggle to place themselves on the secure base of Marxist politics. The paper existed, Zetkin argued “to provide (an educational and promotional influence within the movement.” Under Zetkin’s leadership the editorial board struck firmly to this principle, despite complaints that the articles were long and hard to lead voiced by opportunists and bureaucrats. These gentlemen invariably really opposed the Marxism of the paper not its style!

But they also waged a consistent campaign for women’s rights inside the party and the trade unions. In 1890 they secured the right to elect women delegated to party conference from special women’s meetings. They won the adoption of a comprehensive party programme for the protection of women workers in 1891. In 1892 they succeeded in establishing a system of permanent women’s vertrauenspersonen – women’s spokespersons-in the party, whose task was the political education of proletarian women, the organisation of work amongst women.

The work to establish Die Gleicheit and to force the party to seriously address the question of drawing women into struggle laid the basis for the enormous growth of socialist influence among working women in the first years of the 20th century.

Between 1882 and 1907 the proportion of women in the workforce increased from 18.5% to 44.3%. The abolition of the combination laws in 1908 assisted the drawing of women into trade union and political organisations. Between 1895 and 1907 women’s membership of the trade unions increased by 2000%. From 1905­1910 women’s membership of the party rose dramatically from 4,000 to 82,642. Die Gleicheit’s readership increased dramatically too. Its circulation was estimated at approximately 4,000 in 1900 but had reached 23,000 by 1905 and 82,000 by 1910. Die Gleich­eit’s increased circulation went hand in hand with an increase in the number of women members of the party, as sales grew so too did the number of women members of the Social Democratic Party. Within this expansion the institution of female vertrauenspersonen took shape and developed. While there were only 25 registered in 1901, there were 407 by 1907 operating in all parts of Germany.

The network created by Die Gleicheit and the vertrauenspersonen enabled Marxist women to work amongst and organise women still as yet, outside the party. Before the abolition of the combination laws the vertrauenspersonen organised educational associations for working women organisationally though not politically, independent of the party. But, as the growth of party membership among women shows, the organisational independence of Die Gleicheit did not mean that Die Gleicheit was posed as an alternative to tile party, to joining its ranks.

It was not an obstacle to, but rather an entry point, for working women coming towards the party. Within the party women members held their own conference every 2 years, prior to the national conference, and reported directly to the party conference.

This growth of a fighting socialist led women’s movement actively involved in the struggles of working class women coincided with the development of suffrage oriented bourgeois feminism in Germany. Zetkin and the editors of Die Gleicheit waged an independent working class struggle for women’s suffrage. They consistently argued for the complete independence of the working class women’s movement from bourgeois feminism. Refusing to see the oppression of women as a feature of class society, the bourgeois feminists campaigned for the election of left liberals even though they refused to endorse women’s suffrage. While the Social Democracy grew in influence among working women, the bourgeois feminists fragmented ‘and declined in size and authority. By 1908 the Suffrage Union numbered only 2500 in its ranks. By 1914 they had split into three separate and mutually hostile societies. Only one of three splinters fully supported universal suffrage-the German Women’s Suffrage League which had only 2000 members at its height.

An important additional area of conflict between Social Democratic women and the bourgeois feminists was over the question of protective legislation. For the feminists ’emancipation’ meant the right to freely compete with men on an equal basis inside capitalist society. It followed that they condemned all special provisions and protective legislation for women workers and were not prepared to support their struggles. Only Die Gleicheit and the Social Democratic women campaigned for protective legislation for women-whose standards could then be applied to all workers-recognising that women were the weakest and most exploited section of the working class.

But the Social Democratic women did not pose’ universal suffrage, protective legislation as ends in themselves. For Zetkin the right to vote was to be fought for as part of the struggle to draw working class women into an active fight agail1st capitalism as part to the struggle to draw Working women into the battle for socialism.

This position and emphasis increasingly placed Zetkin and her supporters at odds with the general direction of the German Social Democratic party. For the party leadership electoralism, the vote winning work of the party was increasingly counter posed to organising the masses for struggle. This had been pointed out by Rosa Luxemburg in .the first years of the century. As W. Thonnessenent points out in his book on the period the party leaders Were more concerned to assign and win women as election agents and canvassers than they were to support Zetkin’s campaign to commit the party to leading, organising and educating working women in struggle.

It was no accident therefore that Zetkin and a series of other leading women comrades of German Social Democracy were on the left of the party. In 1914 Zetkin and her comrades were to oppose the war and break with Social Democracy definitively in 1918. It was in the German Communist Party, in the Communist International that the tradition represented by Die Gleicheit was to be continued and elaborated although the paper was formally kept alive by the German Social Democrats after the break with Zetkin.

Always politically and organisationally independent of the bourgeois feminists Zetkin struggled to win working class women into struggle for socialism. That was the focus of the agitation of Die Gleicheit and its network of Social Democratic women organisers. They built organisational forms-in and out of the party that related to the specific oppression and particular problems of women workers. But they were never counter posed to winning women workers to play an active role, alongside men, in the party itself, or to winning Marxist leadership in the struggles of working women.

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