The third in a series of articles about the German socialist women's movement 1890-1914 written in 2005 - originally published here.
What is often seen as one issue - referred to at the time as the ‘woman question’ - actually developed quite differently amongst women of different classes.
Women of the new capitalist class had a sharp experience of sexist discrimination, living alongside men of their own class who had achieved many of the political, educational and economic rights that they were still, as women, denied. These were women who did not share all the privileges of aristocratic women; but who (unlike working-class women) saw all the discrimination they faced originating from their sex, rather than their class.
The bourgeois women’s movement came together as a loose federation in the League of German Women’s Associations (Bund Deutsche Frauenvereine), founded in 1894. Its radical wing, represented in the 1890s by the ‘left liberal’ Women’s Welfare Association (Verein Frauenwohl) wanted to work with the socialist women.
Working-class women and socialist politics
Socialists disagreed about whether to work with the bourgeois women’s movement. Clara Zetkin opposed cross-class collaboration, and this view predominated amongst the socialist women.
Why? Socialists believed that women’s oppression was rooted in class structure. Capitalism has a drive to exploit labour as cheaply as possible, and a trend to shift production to the factory whilst social reproduction (taking care of workers, rearing children) remains within the home. Capitalism had not invented women’s oppression, but had made its own ‘woman question’ from sexual oppression inherited from previous class societies.
At the founding congress of the Second International in 1889, Clara Zetkin argued that under capitalism, woman was enslaved to man, as the worker was to capital. Economic independence would enable working-class women to play their part in class struggle, but without pressing the struggle forward to socialism, this would only replace slavery to a man with slavery to an employer. So the key to achieving women’s emancipation was a fundamental change in property relations - production had to be owned and controlled collectively, the household economy had to be socialised to free women from the domestic burden. The socialist programme for women’s liberation had to be a programme for the abolition of class society.
Working-class political independence
Zetkin’s stance was also influenced by the Marxist argument for working-class political independence. As socialism had to be an act of self-emancipation, the working class could rely only on itself. However progressive a section of the capitalist class may be, it would still defend its own interests by defending capitalism.
Unless it acts independently, the working class is likely to be politically dominated by any section of the ruling class with which it collaborates. Eleanor Marx argued that “whenever working women meet together with bourgeois, it is the former who come under the influence of the latter”.
Within the socialist women’s movement, Lily Braun campaigned for co-operation with bourgeois feminists. She argued that “there are some modes of oppression which all women suffer, regardless of their class, and therefore that some collaboration with women not in the party was desirable”.
Jean Quataert has written extensively about the German socialist women’s movement. She agues that Lily Braun “symbolized their feminist consciousness” and that “In Zetkin’s victory, class loyalty triumphed over sex identity.” Quataert labels the German socialist women ‘reluctant feminists’, and pursues a constant theme of a conflict of priority for working-class women between class and gender interests.
But does this conflict of interests really exist? Take a practical example. When working-class women fight for higher wages for women workers, there is no apparent conflict between class and sex interests. A woman capitalist, though, may wish to see women’s pay reach equality with men’s, but her class interests will oppose wage rises for workers. It is bourgeois women (and, in some ways, working-class men) who face a conflict.
But socialist women did face difficulties. Conflicts arose over the relative priority of issues; arguments in the Party over its support for women’s emancipation; and hostility from many socialist men towards the involvement and demands of their women comrades.
Socialist women consistently argued that women’s involvement strengthened the workers’ movement, and that women’s oppression served the interests of the ruling class. In the working-class movement, women demanded that men put their class interests before their sex interests.
On different sides
In 1896, Clara Zetkin presented the report on the ‘woman question’ to SPD congress. The bourgeois women’s movement, she argued, was engaged in a struggle against the men of its own class. Working-class women, on the other hand, were fighting alongside working-class men for socialism.
For Zetkin, working-class women’s interests lay in overthrowing class society. The interests of women of the capitalist class, though, lay in preserving class divisions, albeit in a less sexist form. Working-class women were fighting a class struggle, and bourgeois women were on the other side.
A simplistic reading of this argument might infer that Zetkin exonerated working-class men from any part in oppressing women. But she recognised and fiercely opposed the sexist behaviour of working-class - and some socialist - men. Neither did she believe that only working-class women suffered oppression as women.
Zetkin’s critics have argued that her policy led to missed opportunities. They urged co-operation with bourgeois feminists in, for example, the 1896 garment workers’ strike.
Some bourgeois women did genuinely support the strikers’ demands. But their agenda was that of ‘social reformers’: they wanted to improve the lot of the most exploited workers in order to dampen class conflict. But socialist women sought to heighten the strikers’ class consciousness. How could they inspire working women to fight against capitalism if they were in alliance with a section of their exploiters? With women who supported the wage-slavery system under which they were exploited?
On one major issue of class interests and of the real living conditions of working women, the bourgeois and socialist women took opposing stances. The SPD proposed several measures for legislation to protect women workers - for example, barring women’s work around the time of childbirth. Even ‘progressive’ bourgeois parties, such as the Centre Party, failed to support them.
Bourgeois feminists wanted the law to be ‘sex-blind’, not to interfere in women’s ‘right to work’. They believed that working was better than not working because it freed women from domestic slavery. However, for working-class women, industrial labour was not a means of ‘getting out of the house’ but an economic necessity - they needed to earn wages in order to survive. Neither did it necessarily free women from domestic slavery - usually, it just added to it.
The bourgeois women’s attitude flowed from a privileged class position. They were not economically conscripted into the sort of dangerous, exhausting, unpleasant, unrewarding jobs that working-class women were. Their main concern was to escape boredom and frustration, rather than financial survival.
For socialists, women’s entry into the industrial workforce was progressive, but full emancipation had to mean more than being exploited in the same conditions as male workers. The appalling condition in which many women worked, including during pregnancy, did not represent liberation: it represented suffering and enslavement at the hands of capitalism.
A question of priorities
Even where socialist and bourgeois women agreed on demands, their respective priorities were very different. The SPD women called for various measures concerning women at work - the need for female factory inspectors; equal pay for equal work; the abolition of the system of domestic servants. There were further demands relating to women as mothers - support for women absent from work after childbirth; and removal of discrimination against unmarried mothers and their children.
Bourgeois feminists concentrated forcefully on ‘equal rights’ issues, such as property rights. Before 1908, German law held that a woman needed her husband’s permission to work outside the home; that she had to turn over to him all her property and income; and that she was under the legal guardianship of her father, then her husband.
Engels argued that for the working class, the demand for ‘equal rights’ had two possible meanings. It could be an expression of outrage at social inequality, and thus an articulation of revolutionary instinct. And it could be a means to mobilise people to demand the equality which capitalism promises, but only socialism can deliver. He concluded that “In both cases the real content of the proletarian demand for equality is the demand for the abolition of classes.”
Engels warned that if it is not understood in this class context, ‘equal rights’ becomes an illusion, even a prejudice.
Jean Quataert argues that “Socialist women became reluctant ... feminists in their effort to balance the alternating pulls on working-class women’s identity”, and that “German socialist women were reluctant feminists because most of them regarded the feminist cause as a secondary concern overshadowed by the larger task of the class struggle.” The suggestion is that their commitment to women’s liberation was less genuine and enthusiastic than that of bourgeois feminists.
The socialist women were committed to ending class exploitation, private ownership, and all forms of inequality. The bourgeois feminists may have advocated women’s equality, but they defended the class system which condemned millions of women to exploitation and oppression. It is hard to imagine an easy co-operation between socialist women and a movement which shared no other aspect of their political beliefs or aspirations.