Organising working-class women

The second in a series of articles about the German socialist women’s movement 1890-1914, written in 2005, originally published here.


German socialist women placed strong emphasis on education. They set up education clubs for women and girls (Frauen- and Madchen-Bildungsverein), which held meetings, hosted lectures, published articles and pamphlets, and gathered information on women’s working conditions. Each club had between 50 and 250 members, who paid a small monthly fee.

By 1905, 3,000 women were members of education clubs. From 1908, women’s reading evenings (Leseabende) operated in around 150 localities, by 1910 involving 4,000 women. A women’s library (Frauenbibliotek) collected speeches, pamphlets and reprints of newspaper articles.

Most of the leading socialist women – Luise Zietz, Clara Zetkin, Ottilie Baader – were involved in educating other women. And most of the socialist movement’s female public speakers had gained their knowledge, understanding and confidence through socialist women’s education.

Agitation commissions

In August 1889, a meeting in Berlin founded a women’s agitation commission (Frauen-Agitationkommission) to co-ordinate political work amongst women. Commissions were formed in other towns, and set about recruiting women to the SPD and the trade unions, and convincing socialist men to support the women’s cause. They ran speaker tours, produced literature, and campaigned on issues of interest to working women.

The membership of each commission was limited to three, in an attempt to avoid state persecution. However, after persistent state harassment, the agitation commissions were banned in 1895.

Women organisers

The law banned only political combination, not the activities of individuals. So the socialist women passed the commissions’ role to individual women organisers, Vertrauenspersonen. Their work was co-ordinated by a Zentralvertrauensperson – Ottilie Gerndt from 1895; Ottilie Baader from 1899. In 1900, the Party voted to include the women organisers in its formal structures, and from 1904, paid the central organiser a wage. By 1907, there were 407 women organisers.

Unionising women

Continuing industrialisation in Germany meant that by 1892 there were six million women in the workforce. Only 5,000, though, were members of the Free Trade Unions. In 1894, the SPD produced a plan for a unionisation drive among working women, including appointing women to union positions, and special lectures for working women. Within two years, women’s union membership had risen to more than 12,000.

In 1896, 10,000 garment workers held a major strike, centred in Berlin. Their demands included: fixed wage scales; prompt delivery of materials and collection of finished products; weekly payment of wages; the establishment of arbitration boards; and, most importantly, replacing homeworking with factory-like workshops (Betriebwerkstatten). The socialist women supported the strike by monitoring working conditions; holding mass meetings in Berlin; collecting money for the strike fund; and providing extensive coverage in Die Gleichheit.

Recruiting working women?

Despite the unionisation efforts, the majority of the women recruited to the socialist movement were the wives of men already active in the SPD.

The Party’s women’s congress in Berlin in 1913 addressed this, holding a special session on ‘How do we recruit unmarried women workers?’ The opening speaker noted that:

“For the most part it is only the wives of our comrades who belong to the party organisation. The great mass of female industrial workers is still lacking. I think we’ve been somewhat remiss in directing our women’s recruitment efforts too much at women in their role as housewives and mothers … We don’t have material for agitation among unmarried woman workers.”

Richard Evans – a leading historian of the German socialist women’s movement – argues that the fact that the majority of socialist women were the wives of socialist men “contradicted the ideology of the SPD by disproving the theory of direct mobilisation through factory work”. The SPD’s policy followed Engels’ and Bebel’s line of argument: women’s labour was a progressive development, primarily because it encouraged women to take part in working-class struggle alongside men.

Evans’ mistake is to interpret this as an immediate effect on individual women. He sees the SPD’s theory as meaning that the trend for women to work in factories would politicise only those women working in factories. It is more likely that industrialisation would affect working-class women’s consciousness and mobilisation in a more general, collective way. Simply because a working-class woman did not, at a given time, undertake factory labour, did not mean that industrialisation did not affect her. Women as housewives and mothers felt the effects of prices, taxes, wages and social provision. The economic and political world deeply affects personal lives.

Socialist women’s congresses

From the early 1890s, leading socialist women had put forward the idea of socialist women’s congresses. Beginning in 1893, women delegates held meetings at Party congresses. 20 women attended the first official German socialist women’s congress in 1900, and discussed extending the system of women organisers, agitation amongst women workers, and the attitude that socialist women should take to the bourgeois women’s movement. Women’s congresses were held every two years after that, and grew steadily: 74 women attended the event in 1908.


In 1890, the Party founded a women’s newspaper, Die Arbeiterin (‘The Woman Worker’). A year later, Clara Zetkin took over as editor. The paper’s name was changed to Die Gleichheit (‘Equality’), subtitled ‘for the interest of the woman worker’. With Zetkin as editor for the next 25 years, it was by far the most important publication for German socialist women.

Die Gleichheit’s aims were: to provide material for socialist women agitators; to heighten the political consciousness of working-class women; to intensify class struggle by sharpening class differences; and to act as a communication channel. It included a regular column, ‘The Working Women’s Movement’ (Arbeiterinnen-Bewegung), a noticeboard for meetings and events. The paper published reports on women’s working conditions, and information on employment legislation, so that women could exercise their (limited) legal rights. There was supportive coverage of working women’s strikes in Germany and elsewhere.

Throughout the 1890s, Die Gleichheit was owned privately by the Dietz publishing company, as the SPD refused to finance, or even subsidise, it. Despite this, the paper clearly identified itself with the Party, and with the politics of the Party’s left.

The paper’s circulation grew rapidly: from 2,000 in 1891 to 11,000 in 1903/4 to 125,000 in 1914. The major cause of the big rise after 1904 was that the SPD (by then in control of Die Gleichheit) began distributing the paper free to socialist women and to the wives of SPD men. Good quality printed material was important, since women were less likely than men to go to meetings. Die Gleichheit played a central role in organising the socialist women’s movement, in shaping its politics, and in developing the theoretical and practical work of German social democracy on the issue of working-class women’s emancipation.

How ‘heavy’?

Disagreement arose over the theoretical ‘weightiness’ of Die Gleichheit, as some complained that it was not populist enough. Clara Zetkin, Ottilie Baader and others, though, defended the paper’s approach. They argued that it was aimed at the ‘more advance women comrades’, and that recruitment should be achieved through pamphlets and organisational work. The socialist women’s movement needed not just general propaganda; it also needed a journal that could develop theory and educate its activists.

If Die Gleichheit were to be ‘watered down’, they argued, it become less effective as a tool for organisers. And it may not necessarily gain mass appeal. Socialist publications should not aim just for high circulation, but had a definite purpose:

“The characteristic standpoint, that of class struggle, must be keenly and unambiguously stressed in a magazine for the interests of proletarian women … Education of proletarian women precisely for the class struggle … will also in future be the chief task of Die Gleichheit.” (Die Gleichheit vol.11 no.1 1901)

In 1902, the SPD took ownership of Die Gleichheit, and the Party leadership, agreeing with the paper’s critics, began to force changes. From January 1905, supplements were included ‘For our housewives’ and ‘For our children’. Die Gleichheit’s editors and activists must have felt gutted.

Suffrage campaigning

The Party campaigned for laws to protect women workers. In the 1880s and 1890s, it repeatedly called for the appointment of female factory inspectors. In 1895, the new draft Civil Code included a section on family law that legislated power within the family to the husband and discriminated against unmarried mothers and their children. The SPD almost alone in the Reichstag opposed these new laws, whilst the socialist women mobilised actively against them.

The Party first advocated votes for women following its 1891 congress. In 1894, the SPD introduced a bill for women’s suffrage to the Reichstag, and the socialist women held rallies to support the bill in Berlin and other major cities. The bill was defeated, but campaigning continued.

In 1898, Die Gleichheit began a regular column on women’s suffrage. The women published several pamphlets and booklets, and articles in socialist papers. Clara Zetkin’s pamphlet The Question of Women’s Suffrage, published in 1907, was translated into Russian, English, Polish and French.

Outside Germany, socialist movements were not always so firm on this issue. Austrian socialists did not include women in their campaign to extend the franchise. British and Belgian socialist women welcomed votes for women with property as a positive, but inadequate, reform. Zetkin, though, argued that the vote for propertied women was not an extension of rights to women as women, but the extension of rights to the whole of the propertied classes, whether men or women. It was not a ‘first step’ for women, but a ‘final step’ for owners of property, strengthening their political power over workers.

Going international

The German women took the initiative in building international links between socialist women. At the International Socialist Congress in 1896 in London, women delegates met, and resolved to establish regular correspondence. But it was a further eleven years before the first official international congress of socialist women took place. It was held in 1907 in Stuttgart, convened by Clara Zetkin. 59 women from 15 countries attended.

The second international socialist women’s congress, in 1910 in Copenhagen, resolved to hold an annual International Women’s Day. But that’s another story.

Rosa Luxemburg

One of the most vocal women in German social democracy – and one of the leaders and greatest theorists of its revolutionary wing – was Rosa Luxemburg. She avoided involvement in the women’s movement.

Luxemburg’s biographer Nettl offers this explanation:

“Rosa Luxemburg was not interested in any high-principled campaign for women’s rights – unlike her friend Clara Zetkin. Like anti-semitism, the inferior status of women was a social feature which would be eliminated only by the advent of Socialism; in the meantime there was no point in making any special issue of it.”

What Luxemburg omits is that the inferior status of women also holds back the fight for socialism. Like anti-semitism, sexism divided the workers’ movement: it also impaired the confidence and material capability of women to become involved in the workers’ movement.

A successful strategy?

By 1914, the SPD had 174,754 women members – 16.1% of the Party total. The crucial factor in their success was that they devised and carried out a specific strategy for working-class women. This could not come just from theory, but needed a day-to-day involvement in the lives and struggles of working-class women.

There was another crucial factor: the ‘target audience’ should not be treated as a stage army. The movement involved women as activists, not as passive consumers. The debate over the nature of Die Gleichheit and the commitment to women’s political education showed that leading socialist women such as Clara Zetkin were committed to building a movement of educated, skilled women, who were well-versed in socialist theory and able to speak confidently and contribute assertively to debate.

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