Clara Zetkin, socialism and women's liberation


In 1910, German revolutionary socialist Clara Zetkin put a proposal to the International Socialist Women's Conference that the date March 8 become a day dedicated to fighting for women's rights.

Since that time, International Women's Day (IWD) has been an annual date to mobilise for women's rights.

Zetkin was a pioneer theorist of women's status in capitalist society. Her first major analysis on this issue was presented in an 1889 speech delivered at the Paris International Workers Congress. She argued that women should not be subject to domestic slavery, but should have the right to work.

At the time, this was a radical proposal even for socialists. It was thought that women entering the workforce would undermine the struggle for workers' wages and conditions — similar to modern arguments relating to migrants.

Zetkin was also involved in campaigns for the right of women to vote. The suffrage movement involved working class, middle-class and capitalist women.

Class perspective

Zetkin analysed the different class perspectives within the suffrage movement, and stated at the 1906 Social Democratic Women's Congress: "The middle-class women really wish to obtain this social reform because they think it is a measure which will strengthen and support the whole of middle class society.

"The working women demand the suffrage not only to defend their economic and moral interests of life, but they wish for it as a help against the oppression of their class by men and they are particularly eager for it in order to aid in the struggle against the capitalist class."

Born in 1857, it was as a student in Leipzig that Zetkin came in contact with the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). One of her teachers was a Russian emigre Ossip Zetkin, who introduced her to the theories of Marx and Engels and encouraged her to live with workers. Although they never married, Clara and Ossip had two children before Ossip died in 1889.

In 1878, the anti-socialist law was passed and the SPD was forced underground. Initially involved in illegal activities, Zetkin went into exile first to Austria then Paris, where, with Ossip, she lived in extreme poverty.

In the same year, she was chosen to be a member of the organisation committee to help prepare the founding congress of the socialist Second International. She was elected to represent the working women of Berlin at the congress. She was one of just eight women out of 400 delegates from 19 countries elected to the congress.

At the congress, Zetkin raised the issue of working women. She was critical of many socialists who opposed the entrance of women into industry and for blaming women for the lowering of wages and lengthening of the working day.

She argued that working women, like working men, suffered under long working hours and extremely low wages. Because the fundamental interests of working women were identical with those of working men, it was clear that liberation for working class women could come by allying with working men under the banner of socialism.

Although the speech generated tremendous applause, the congress passed a resolution calling for work for women to be forbidden "in all branches of industry where the work is particularly damaging to the female organism". Night work for women was to be forbidden as well.

However, the congress also declared "that male workers have a duty to take women into their ranks upon a basis of equal rights, and demand in principle, equal pay for equal work for the workers of both sexes and without discrimination of nationality."

In 1891, she started editing Die Gleichheit ("Equality"), the Social-Democratic women's journal, which she did for 25 years. Clara argued that the goal of Gleichheit should be to school female comrades in the principles of Marxism as opposed to bourgeois feminist views. There was coverage of strikes, labour activity and working conditions.

At that time in Europe, many women worked in factories from 11-14 hours per day, 6 days a week. Their diet consisted largely of black bread and potatoes, supplemented by cabbage of various kinds.

Meat was included only occasionally in lunches, in very small quantities. The result was widespread anaemia, susceptibility to disease and stunted growth.

Gleichheit's circulation was impressive, rising from 11,000 copies in 1903 to 125,000 by 1914.

International movement

Zetkin became sought after as a speaker for trade unions in Germany and abroad. It was estimated that some years she delivered over 300 speeches to crowds sometimes in the thousands.

The first International Socialist Women's Conference was held in conjunction with the 1907 Stuttgart International Socialist Congress. Fifty-nine women from 15 countries established the first International Women's Bureau. Zetkin was elected secretary and Gleichheit designated the official organ.

At the second congress in 1910, Zetkin proposed March 8 for IWD. The date was chosen because of a demonstration that occurred in 1908 in the US.

Under the leadership of women workers in the New York needles trades, hundreds gathered in Rutgers Square in the heart of Manhattan's lower east side to demand the vote and urge the building of a powerful needles trades\' union.

Zetkin's proposal was adopted by the majority of the delegates and the following year, 1911, the first International Women's Day took place.

In the lead up to World War I, political differences developed in the SPD. Zetkin lost her position on the leadership to a more moderate woman. Along with Karl Leibknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, Zetkin remained in the revolutionary wing of the SPD.

The moderate, reformist wing of the SPD argued that capitalism had developed a capacity for adjustment that insured the possibility of infinite capitalist expansion, accompanied by a trend toward more equitable distribution of wealth. The revisionists were systematically abandoning Marxist beliefs, especially that of the class struggle.


In 1914, the SPD voted in favour of Germany's entry into World War I — a betrayal of the formal anti-war positions adopted by the international socialist movement, including the SPD.

Zetkin campaigned against the war through Gleichheit. In 1915, she organised an "illegal" women's conference attended by 28 delegates from eight countries.

The manifesto, addressed to "Women of the Working People", asked: "Where are your husbands? Where are your sons?"

"For eight months now", it stated, "they have been at the front … Millions are already resting in mass graves, hundreds upon hundreds of thousands lie in military hospitals with torn up bodies, smashed limbs, blinded eyes, destroyed brains …"

"Who profits from this war?", it asked. "Only a tiny minority in each nation: The manufacturers of rifles and cannons, of armour-plate and torpedo boats, the shipyard owners and suppliers of the armed forces' needs … This war is beneficial for the capitalists in general … The workers have nothing to gain from this war, but they stand to lose everything that is dear to them."

The manifesto ended with the ringing call: "Down with war! Break through to socialism!"

Zetkin was arrested for distributing the manifesto and held in "protective custody" for four months. She was removed as editor of Gleichheit in 1917. Luxembourg and Leibknecht were murdered after a failed workers' uprising in 1919.

The executive committee of the Communist (or Third) International, formed in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution, appointed Zetkin its "International Secretary of Communist Women" in 1920, aged 62.

Partly for work and partly to receive special medial care, Zetkin subsequently spent much of her time in the Soviet Union. She often met with V.I. Lenin, and produced the pamphlet Lenin on the Woman Question.

Final German speech

Despite blindness, illness and Nazi threats on her life, Zetkin returned to Berlin in 1932. Her last public appearance in Germany was on the occasion of the opening of the Reichstag, while Hitler was manoeuvring to assume control.

In accordance with the tradition that each new Reichstag be convened by its oldest member, Zetkin was entitled to open its first session on August 30, 1932. Although Nazi terror was already enveloping the country, she came out of hiding and made a dramatic appearance on the rostrum.

In her speech, which lasted over an hour, she vehemently denounced fascism, and appealed for "the formation of a united front of all workers in order to turn back fascism".

She closed her final speech in her native land with "the hope that despite my current infirmities, I may yet have the fortune to open as honorary president the first Soviet Congress of a Soviet Germany."

By the time Hitler had seized power in January 1933, Zetkin had returned to the Soviet Union, where she died on June 22 that year.

The British journal Labour Women had written in 1915 of Zetkin: "She is socialist in her very fibre and she is a fighter ready to face death rather than give way in any issue of import in the people's struggle."

Zetkin was able to exert a powerful influence in the formation of socialist policy on women's rights, and on the policy of a number of trade unions toward women workers.

She wrote in Gleichheit in 1893: "… the labour movement will surely commit suicide if, in the efforts to enroll the broad masses of the proletariat, it does not pay the same amount of attention to female workers as it does to male workers."

Even today, women face barriers to becoming political leaders; but there were many more barriers for women in Zetkin's era. The fact Zetkin and others like her had the courage to stand up for the rights of women and workers has laid the basis for much greater involvement of women in politics and society.

We can look back on the lives of people like Clara Zetkin and draw inspiration for the ongoing struggle for liberation of all women, working people and the oppressed around the world.

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