Clara Zetkin and International Working Women’s Day

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03/03/2017 by socialistfight

By Angela Byrne


We are approaching the hundredth anniversary of the first, February, Russian Revolution. On International Women’s day 1917 (23 February Russian Julian calendar, 8 March in the west) hungry women struck work and 90,000 marched on the Duma to demand bread and peace, the demoralised army mutinied and in just over a week the Tsar was gone from power.

Clara Zetkin moved the adoption International Working Women’s Day on 8 March of at the second International Conference of Women Socialists in 1910 in Copenhagen and such was the international authority of the German Social Democracy and her own fame that it began to be honoured the following year worldwide with strikes and demonstrations. Initially it was specifically anti-capitalist but today the ‘working’ bit is lost from the title and the anti-capitalist nature of the struggle for women’s liberation is denied in various bourgeois and petty bourgeois ‘Intersectional Feminist’ movements. We find this definition online:

“The view that women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity. Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society. Examples of this include race, gender, class, ability, and ethnicity.”

Clara Zetkin spoke powerfully in 1886 at the Gotha Conference, published later as a pamphlet, Only in Conjunction With the Proletarian Woman Will Socialism Be Victorious. Of course, she did not dream of putting women’s oppression in a list that included “class” as merely another form of oppression and not the source of ALL oppression.

And the oppression of women is in a certain sense more fundamental to capitalist property relations than all other forms of oppression. Engels explains in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State that patriarchy is essential to capitalist property, the laws of inheritance demand the oppression of women, the care of children in the monogamous family is always primarily the woman’s work and without socialised free child care and socialised domestic tasks that is everyone’s responsibility women’s oppression cannot be ended. The capitalist state itself is a reflection and an enforcer of all social oppression resting on capitalist property relations.

Zetkin showed the breath of her understanding of women’s oppression; it applies to ALL women in ALL classes – and she differentiates brilliantly between the oppression of proletarian women, middle class women and even the oppression of the women of the ruling class itself. Surely it was by reading and ingesting such works that Lenin arrived at the brilliantly succinct revolutionary passage in his What is to be Done? in 1905 which fights alike against the backward syndicalism/workerism of the trade unionists and the reformist defence of capitalism as quoted above from the intersectional feminists:

“In a word, every trade union secretary conducts and helps to conduct “the economic struggle against the employers and the government”. It cannot be too strongly maintained that this is still not Social-Democracy (then a revolutionary party – AB), that the Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”

Of the proletarian woman she wrote that their paid employment had given them a measure of economic equality, even though the capitalist factory sought women workers in order to drive down wages by competition but in Germany their struggles had won the right to organise. But:

“As a result of all this, the proletarian woman has achieved her independence. But verily, the price was very high and for the moment, they have gained very little. If during the Age of the Family, a man had the right (just think of the law of Electoral Bavaria!) to tame his wife occasionally with a whip, capitalism is now taming her with scorpions.”

Of the middle class and professional intellectual woman she wrote:

“In these circles women are not equal to men in the form of possessors of private property as they are in the upper circles. The women of these circles have yet to achieve their economic equality with men and they can only do so by making two demands: The demand for equal professional training and the demand for equal job opportunities for both sexes. In economic terms, this means nothing less than the realization of free access to all jobs and the untrammeled competition between men and women… All other reasons which are listed against the mental work of women, such as the smaller brain of women or their allegedly natural avocation to be a mother are only pretexts.”

Of the bourgeois woman she wrote:

“We would, however, perform an injustice to the bourgeois women’s rights movement if we would regard it as solely motivated by economics. No, this movement also contains a more profound spiritual and moral aspect. The bourgeois woman not only demands her own bread, but she also requests spiritual nourishment and wants to develop her individuality.”

Coincidentally in googling Zetkin’s reference above to “the law of Electoral Bavaria” (an example of extreme backwardness when the husband is allowed to whip his wife) there appeared the latest news from Bavaria, it is the first German state to propose to ban the wearing of the veil (obviously, a reaction against Muslim migrants) meaning that it is still the most backward region of Germany on these matters!

Zetkin finishes with a revolutionary flourish:

“Only a Socialist society will solve the conflict that is nowadays produced by the professional activity of women. Once the family as an economic unit will vanish and its place will be taken by the family as a moral unit, the woman will become an equally entitled, equally creative, equally goal-oriented, forward-stepping companion of her husband; her individuality will flourish while at the same time, she will fulfil her task as wife and mother to the highest degree possible.”



We will leave it to the reader to decide if this 1914 speech is an example of the struggle against the oppression of all women, of proletarian woman, of middle class and professional intellectual woman or of bourgeois women. Or is it an early example of intersectional feminism?


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