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Clara Zetkin and women's liberation

Norwan Karyar

April 8, 2016

Clara Zetkin was a prominent feminist revolutionary leader, closely linked to the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the late 19th and early 20th century. As a founder of International Women’s Day she argued that women’s oppression took its roots in capitalism and that socialism was a necessary condition for women’s genuine and complete emancipation. 

In 1892 Zetkin became the editor of a SPD newspaper for socialist women called Gleichheit, which she pursued for a quarter of a century until 1917. She was a central figure in advocating the SPD’s left wing and radical policies and defended women’s full participation in the socialist party. 

Fighting for women’s rights

Since the industrialization and urbanization of Europe, women were able to take up jobs in factories and places outside of their traditional work in the home. 

But working women mothers then faced a new obstacle: the burden of double responsibility of working both inside and outside the home in conditions that were exploitative and which further undercut their personal freedom and rights. Working women were obligated to perform all the domestic house work and take care of the children, in addition to being employed in the industry which was ruthlessly unfair, sexist, and dehumanizing. 

Many proletarian women all over Germany were mobilizing in the fight for better working women’s employment/living conditions, fairer wages, and the right to participate in unions and various political organizations. This was happening at the same time as many German states refused women’s participation in legal and political activities and organizations, and the Anti-Socialist Law aimed at opposing and dismantling the SPD through banning many of it’s revolutionary policies and outlawing its trade unions. 

Until 1908, many German/Prussian states upheld repressive laws that excluded and banned women entirely from participation in political meetings and organizations. It felt threatened that women’s involvement in legal and political issues would jeopardize the very social foundations of its hierarchical structure. The authoritative Prussian state of the time feared that if women stopped regarding their husbands’ and fathers’ superiority as preordained by God then, in a similar light, this would stir a rebellion among the lower classes since workers would begin to question the idea of the upper classes as their god-ordained human superiors. 

The Anti-socialist Law affected working women the hardest since they experienced the injustices of being paid disproportionately lower wages compared to their working male counterparts. Zetkin worked hard to educate and organize working class women and successfully propelled many rallies and demonstrations in Germany that brought these issues at the forefront of SPD’s meetings and to the public consciousness.

As Zetkin wrote, “without the help from the men—even against the will of the men—the women rallied under the socialist banner. Under this banner they will struggle for their emancipation, for recognition of their rights as equal human beings. Just as the worker is subjugated by the capitalist, so woman is subjugated by man. And she will remain subjugated as long as she is not economically independent. The essence of the traditional bourgeois family is that the husband is supposed to be the provider and thus the boss of the family. The wife is his private servant in the family and his subordinate…The great struggle in which vast masses of people are challenging vast financial interests requires that men and women together dedicate all of their strength and power to this struggle. Only together with women—not by excluding them, and certainly not against them—can the working people win this struggle!”

Bourgeois feminism and revolutionary socialism

Both the bourgeois and working-class women shared common ground on some issues but they were incompatible and conflicting on many of their interests and goals. 

Bourgeois women prioritized the improvement of women’s education (cultural and moral endeavours) and the access of women to all occupational fields. They also focused on the issue of suffrage but it only included bourgeois women and men and ignored all the various struggles and difficulties that working class people—especially working mothers—were heavily burdened with. 

Unlike working class women, bourgeois women had the opportunity to develop their individuality and cultivate their spiritual interests but they were still confined to patriarchal family laws that thwarted their independence and kept them completely under their husbands’ control. Bourgeois feminist ideology reflected bourgeois interests and at the same time it claimed to unite all women in a joint sisterhood. This was obviously meaningless, Zetkin argued, because the bourgeois feminists and working class women were divided amongst class lines and were fundamentally unbridgeable with regards to what they were striving for. 

A conflict which Zetkin argued separated the bourgeois feminist and working class women’s movement from each other is the battle for legal protection and sexual equality for working mothers and their children.

Bourgeois women opposed this specific legislation that provided special legal protection for working class women in an attempt to dismantle false prejudices and stereotypes that treated women in the work place differently based on maternity and their female nature. They argued that special legal protection was infantilizing and would further perpetuate inequality since it granted special rights to women and treated them differently from their male working peers. Zetkin refused this argument on the grounds that ignoring biological differences defeated the whole motive of equality. For example, working mothers were overworking themselves to the point of exhaustion, which severely undermined their freedom and rights. 

Clara Zetkin, alongside many other socialist women leaders, played a central role in guiding the women’s revolutionary movement. Socialist women focused on the interests of the working class women (i.e. improving working and living conditions in factories and in the employment industry and fighting for equal and fairer pay.) 

Zetkin argued that working men and women needed to organize and recognize their shared struggle against the oppressive capitalist class and seize control over the means of production. Women make up the heart of working class movements and in order to successfully overthrow capitalism and set up the conditions of a truly democratic socialist society, we need working class women to organize themselves and fight back in solidarity with their working male counterparts. It is the working class women who make up the very heart of the socialist movements that can emancipate themselves and bring about real socialist change though their joint unification and through class struggle: 

As she wrote, "The proletariat will be able to attain it's liberation only if it fights together without the difference of nationality and profession. In the same way, it can attain it's liberation only if it stands together without the distinction of sex. The incorporation of the great masses of the proletariat women in the liberation struggle of the proletariat is one of the prerequisites for the victory of the socialist idea and for the construction of a socialist society."

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