Clara Zetkin—women’s suffrage and socialism

Lucy Honan continues the Solidarity series on the lives and politics of revolutionary women

The German socialist, Clara Zetkin (1857-1933) is probably best known as the woman who led the call to establish International Women’s Day (IWD). She was a pioneer fighter for women’s liberation, putting a radical argument (even for socialists at the time) to the 1889 Paris International Workers’ Congress  that women should not be subject to domestic slavery, but should have the right to work.

Her subsequent role in the struggle for universal women’s suffrage remains instructive for those of us campaigning today for formal, legal equality and rights—to legalise same-sex marriage, to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act, or to take abortion out of the criminal codes in QLD and NSW.

As Zetkin argued, unless a strong, working class basis for such demands is openly argued for, a progressive campaign can quickly be over-ridden to reinforce the power of the middle and ruling classes.

The power and radicalism of the women’s movements that developed in Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s depended largely on their political relationships with trade unions. In France, an “anti-woman” attitude in the unions kept women membership low and socialist women’s organisation even lower.

In Britain, the New Union movement brought thousands of into trade unions in the late 1800s, the leadership of socialist organisations was either conservative or confused. Some even opposed women’s suffrage. Others encouraged collaboration with upper class women. Feminist organisations such as the Women’s Social and Political Union degenerated into simply advocating the vote for women with property.

In contrast, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) sought to fully integrate women workers into trade union and political struggle. Zetkin successfully argued for the SPD to understand women’s oppression as a struggle for the entire working class to embrace.

At a 1906 SPD women’s conference Zetkin argued, “There was never greater urgency than at the present time for making the question of woman suffrage one of the chief demands of our practical programme in politics”. But she was careful to add, “how we [as socialists] are totally separated from those who only agitate for this from the view of middle class women.” The difference was crucial.

Middle class feminists

Bourgeois feminist organisations in Germany, like the Association for Women’s Rights demanded only “ladies suffrage”—votes for women with property or who paid taxes.

The Association for Women’s Rights went as far as to campaign for the National Liberal candidates in Bavaria who were sworn opponents of any kind of women’s suffrage.

Zetkin understood that these feminists wanted only to compete equally against men of the propertied class. Their aim was to participate in capitalist society without being legally disadvantaged. But never did they want this if it meant strengthening the working class.

For socialist and working class women, however, Zetkin argued, “We demand equal political rights with men in order that, with them, we may together cast off the chains which bind us, and that we may thus overthrow and destroy this society.” The value of suffrage was not its power to legislate against women’s oppression—that would continue regardless of the vote, and particularly for working women. Fighting for, and achieving, some political power for the mass of working women would require working class mobilisation against the sexism of capitalist society.

Liberation, not just from unequal laws, but from the drudgery of their work at home and the workplace, could become a goal and a possibility, for women and men.

Zetkin was adamant that compromising with the bourgeois feminists over the question of whose rights they were fighting for could only take the working class backwards. She was soon to be proved correct. With the outbreak of World War One, Zetkin opposed the war, but the SPD abandoned internationalism, supporting Germany’s war effort. The SPD women’s movement also shifted to collaborating with feminist organizations, to support their own ruling class.

The strident class politics of Zetkin were silenced. Socialist women once active in the struggle were drawn into pro-war women’s auxiliary committees dedicated to delivering welfare services. The working class women’s movement was so politically disarmed that the post-war mass sackings of women was justified by SPD’s women leaders as the lesser of two evils. Women were encouraged to take on unpaid social work, and Gleichheit, the once revolutionary women’s magazine became Women’s World, with the content shifting to fashion, cookery and patterns.

The locus of international struggle for women’s liberation now shifted to Russia with the IWD demonstration in 1917 detonating the Russian revolution.

But the fast disintegration of the German women’s movement must be remembered in today’s campaigns. The potential energy of those struggles is certainly powerful but unless that fight is linked to a struggle to transform capitalist society itself, it can fall short. As Zetkin argued about women’s liberation, ”The end goal of her struggle is not free competition against men, but bringing about the rule of the working class. Hand in hand with the men of her own class the working class woman fights against capitalist society.”


Solidarity meetings

Latest articles

Read more

Time for a reckoning with the system that breeds sexism

Jess Hill’s Quarterly Essay The Reckoning is an assessment of the #MeToo movement in Australia.

Editorial: Labor is shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic

Another round of infighting has broken out inside the parliamentary Labor Party as the reality of defeat this September finally sinks in. Factional hack Laurie...

Protests in India take on sexism and rape

The horrific gang rape of a woman by six men on a public bus in Delhi, India, sparked angry protests across the country in...