German socialist women’s movement 1890-1914: conclusions

The last in a series of five articles written in 2005 – originally published here:

Divided loyalties

Socialist feminists are continually accused of ‘divided loyalties’, challenged to declare which is our priority: class or sex. It makes a lot more sense to direct this challenge at feminists who defend capitalism, or at socialist men.

All working-class people share a common interest in overthrowing capitalism and achieving socialism. Nevertheless, some groups enjoy a degree of privilege within capitalism. Their benefits may be marginal and short-term, but could still influence working-class men’s attitudes to the struggles of working-class women. Will they – as socialists would wish – oppose sexism and unite with women in the pursuit of a common goal? Or will they defend their privileges as men at the expense of working-class unity and struggle? Women’s organisation, and socialists’ input, can be crucial in determining the answer.

A strategy for women

Socialists need to devise and implement a strategy to relate to working-class women. For the German socialist women, this included having definite bodies and individuals with a remit to organise work amongst women. Together with women’s political education, publications, congresses and international work, this strategy reaped great rewards.

But this is not just about structural set-ups, nor about recruiting female foot-soldiers. The struggle for socialism is about self-activity. So we need a women’s movement based on rank-and-file activism. This is why Clara Zetkin insisted that Die Gleichheit was not simply for entertainment: the paper was a tool for activists – an agitator, educator and organiser.

A working-class women’s movement

The German socialist women stand out from other women’s movements in one crucial way. In other cases, cross-class women’s movements did not have a mass appeal amongst working-class women, and came to represent the interests and aspirations of middle-class women.

Even if this is not an argument for an entirely separate movement for working-class women, it is a convincing good case for orienting any existing women’s movement towards alliance with the workers’ movement. Without this, a women’s movement can easily swing politically to the right.

But the decisive point is this. Even if women of all classes experience oppression as women, the form and degree of this oppression – and its solution – is so different that any commonality of women’s interests does not override class differences.

The left and the right

The German experience also shows that the fortunes of the women’s movement are closely linked to the fortunes of working-class struggle. Within a mass workers’ party, political conflicts affect, and find expression in, the women’s section.

In German social democracy, the left showed genuine support to the aspirations of working-class women, whilst the revisionist right did not. Worse, the Party’s bureaucracy was prepared to crush the women’s organisation as part of its battle against the left and against the rank and file.

An accessible movement

To fulfil the potential of women’s contribution to its struggles, the labour movement must make itself accessible to women. It should purge sexism within its own ranks, and fight effectively for working-class women’s interests. The experience of the German socialist women’s movement shows that organisational autonomy for women contributes greatly to making the socialist movement accessible and attractive to women. It helped develop women’s confidence and skills, and enabled them to put their demands onto the agenda of the socialist struggle.

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