Clara Zetkin

Proletarian Women
and Socialist Revolution

The following short pamphlet contains Clara Zetkin’s most general discussion of the class lines running through women as a social group and through their movements as ideological expressions. We therefore present in here first, although chronologically it was preceded by the discussion in §3. There is a connection between the two which must be mentioned.

In §3, Zetkin is taking aim at the weak position taken up by the editors of the party organ; it is already critical in tone, on the subject of the editors’ soft attitude toward the bourgeois feminists. Less than two years later, Zetkin came to the party congress prepared to plumb this question in the movement. Her main statement was not presented in the resolution on the subject (which naturally had to be voted on) but in a speech to the congress which she made on October 16th, 1896. A motion was then made and carried that her speech be printed by the party as a pamphlet, and this was done. Thus her views appeared under the party imprint, but not as an official party statement.

The pamphlet was declaratively entitled Only with the proletarian woman will socialism be victorious! – with the subtitle Speech to the Gotha Congress [etc.]. Here we have conferred a somewhat shorter title on it. It is translated from Zetkin’s Ausgewählte Reden und Schriften (Berlin, Dietz, 1957), Volume I. Zetkin’s main concern in this pamphlet is social analysis. We can guess that most of it was presented with the pamphlet publication already in mind, not simply as a speech to the delegates. However, its latter part also presents some proposals on forms of propaganda which should be considered as more directly tied to the Congress’s considerations of the moment.

Through the researches by Bachofen, Morgan and others, it seems established that the social subjection of women coincided with the rise of private property. The antagonism inside the family between the man as owner and the woman as non-owner was the foundation for the economic dependence of the female sex and its lack of social rights.

‘In the family, he is the bourgeois; the wife represents the proletariat.’ [1*] Nevertheless there could be no talk of a women’s question in the modern sense of the term. It was the capitalist mode of production that first broug-h t about the social transformation which raised the modern women’s question; it smashed to smithereens the old family economy that’ in precapitalist times had provided the great mass of women with the sustenance and meaningful content of life. Indeed, we must not apply to the old-time household work of women the conception that is linked with women’s work in our own day, viz. the conception that it is something petty and of no account. As long as the old-time family still existed, within its framework women found a meaningful content of life in productive work, and hence their lack of social rights did not impinge on their consciousness, even though the development of their individualities was narrowly limited.

The age of the Renaissance is the Sturm und Drang period in the growth of modern individualism, which may work itself out fully in different ways. During the Renaissance we encounter individuals – towering like giants for good or evil – who trampled underfoot the precepts of religion and morality and looked on heaven and hell with equal scorn; we find women as the focus of social, artistic and political life. And nevertheless not a trace of a women’s movement. This is especially distinctive because at that time the old family economy began to crumble under the impact of the division of labour. Thousands and thousands of women no longer found the sustenance and content of life in the family. But this women’s question, far from coming to the fore, was resolved to the extent possible by cloisters, convents, and reIigious orders.

Then machines and the modern mode of production little by little knocked the bottom out of household production for use. And not for thousands but for millions of women arose the question: Where are we to get the sustenance of life, where are we to find a serious content of life, an occupation allowing for the emotional side also? Millions were now told to find the sustenance and content of life outside in society. There they became aware that their lack of social rights militated against the defence of their interests; and from that moment the modern women’s question was in existence.

As to how the modern mode of production operated to sharpen the women’s question further, here are some figures. In 1882, in Germany, out of 23 million women and girls, 5½ million were gainfully employed; that is, almost a quarter of the female population could no longer find their sustenance in the family. According to the 1895 census, taking agriculture in the broadest sense, the number of women gainfully employed in it increased by more than 8 percent since 1882; taking agriculture in the narrower sense, by 6 percent; while at the same time the number of men gainfully employed decreased 3 and 11 percent respectively. In industry and mining, gainfully employed women increased by 35 percent, men by only 28 percent; in commerce, indeed, the number of women increased by over 94 percent, men by only 38 percent. These dry statistics speak much more eloquently on the urgency of a solution to the women’s question than the most effusive orations.

But the women’s question exists only inside those classes of society that are themselves products of the capitalist mode of production. Therefore we find no women’s question arising in the ranks of the peasantry, with its natural economy, even though that economy is very much shrunken and tattered. But we do indeed find a women’s question inside those classes of society that are the most characteristic offspring of the modern mode of production. There is a women’s question for the women of the proletariat, of the middle bourgeoisie, of the intelligentsia, and of the Upper Ten Thousand; it takes various forms depending on the class situation of these strata.

What form is taken by the women’s question among the women of the Upper Ten Thousand? A woman of this social stratum, by virtue of her possession of property, can freely develop her individuality; she can live in accordance with her inclinations. As a wife, however, she is still always dependent on the man. The sexual tutelage of a former age has survived, as a leftover, in family law, where the tenet ‘And he shall be thy lord’ is still valid.

And how is the family of the Upper Ten Thousand constituted so that the woman is legally subjected to the man? This family lacks moral premises in its very foundation. Not the individuality but money is decisive in its doings. Its law reads: What capital brings together, let no sentimental , morality put asunder. (‘Bravo!’) Thus, in the morality of marriage, two prostitutions count as one virtue. This is matched also by the style of family life. Where the wife is no longer forced to perform duties, she shunts her duties as spouse, mother and housekeeper onto paid servants. When the women of these circles entertain a desire to give their lives serious content, they must first raise the demand for free and independent control over their property. This demand therefore is in the centre of the demands raised by the women’s movement of the Upper Ten Thousand. These women fight for the achievement of tliis demand against the men of their own class-exactly the same demand that the bourgeoisie fought for against all privileged classes: a struggle for the elimination of all social distinctions based on the possession of wealth.

The fact that the achievement of this demand does not involve individual personal rights is proved by its espousal in the Reichstag by Herr von Stumm. When has Herr von Stumm ever come out in favour of individual rights? This man stands for more than a person in Germany; he is flesh and blood turned capital personified (‘Very true!’), and if he has come forward as a friend of women’s rights in a piece of cheap mummery, it is because he was compelled to dance before the Ark of capital. This same Herr von Stumm is indeed always ready to put the squeeze on his workers as soon as they stop dancing to his tune, and he would only grin complacently if the state, as employer, put a bit of a squeeze on the professors and academics who dare to get involved in social politics. Herr von Stumm strives for no more than a kind of entail on personal property with the right of females to inherit; for there are fathers who made fortunes but carelessly had only daughters for heirs. Capital makes even lowly women sacred, and enables them to exercise control over their wealth. This is the last stage in the emancipation of private property.

And how does the women’s question manifest itself in the ranks of the small and middle bourgeoisie, and in the bourgeois intelligentsia? Here it is not a matter of property dissolving the family, but mainly the phenomena accompanying capitalist production. As the latter completes its triumphal progress, in the mass the middle and small bourgeoisie are more and more driven to ruin. In the bourgeois intelligentsia there is a further circumstance that makes for the worsening of the conditions of life: Capital needs an intelligent and scientifically trained labour force; it therefore favoured overproduction in proletarian brain-workers, and contributed to the fact that the previously respectable and remunerative social position of members of the liberal professions is increasingly disappearing. To the same degree, however, the number of marriages is continually decreasing; for while the material bases are worsening on the one hand, on the other the individual’s demands on life are increasing, and therefore the men of these circles naturally think twice and thrice before they decide to marry. The age limits for starting one’s own family are getting jacked up higher and higher, and men are pushed into marriage to a lesser degree as social arrangements make a comfortable bachelor existence possible even without a legal wife. Capitalist exploitation of proletarian labour power ensures, through starvation wages, that a large supply of prostitutes answers the demand from this same aspect of the male population. Thus the number of unmarried women in middle-class circles is continually increasing. The women and daughters of these circles are thrust out into society to establish a life for themselves, not only one that provides bread but also one that can satisfy the spirit.

In these circles the woman does not enjoy equality with the man as owner of private property, as obtains in the higher circles. Nor does she enjoy equality as a working-woman, as obtains in proletarian circles. The women of these circles must, rather, first fight for their economic equality with the men, and they can do this only through two demands; through the demand for equality in occupational education and through the demand for sex equality in carrying on an occupation. Economically speaking, this means nothing else than the realisation of free trade and free competition between men and women. The realisation of this demand awakens a conflict of interest between the women and men of the middle class and the intelligentsia. The competition of women in the liberal professions is the driving force behind the resistance of the men against the demands of the bourgeois women’s-rightsers. It is pure fear of competition; all other grounds adduced against intellectual labour by women are mere pretexts – women’s smaller brain, or their alleged natural vocation as mothers. This competitive battle pushes the women of these strata to demand political rights, so as to destroy all limitations still militating against their economic activity, through political struggle.

In all this I have indicated only the original, purely economic aspect. We would do the bourgeois women’s movement an injustice if we ascribed it only to purely economic motives. No, it also has a very much deeper intellectual and moral side. The bourgeois woman not only demands to earn her own bread, but she also wants to live a full life intellectually and develop her own individuality. It is precisely in these strata that we meet those tragic and psychologically interesting ‘Neva’ figures, where the wife is tired of living like a doll in a doll house, where’she wants to take part in the broader development of modem culture; and on both the economic and intellectual-moral sides the strivings of the bourgeois women’s-righters are entirely justified.

For the proletarian woman, it is capital’s need for exploitation, its unceasing search for the cheapest labour power, that has created the women’s question ... [2*] This is also how the woman of the proletariat is drawn into the machinery of contemporary economic life, this is how she is driven into the workshop and to the machine. She entered economic life in order to give the husband some help in earning a living – and the capitalist mode of production transforms her into an undercutting competitor; she wanted to secure a better life for her family – and in consequence brought greater misery to the proletarian family; the proletarian woman became an independent wage-earner because she wanted to give her children a sunnier and happier life – and she was in large part torn away from her children. She became completely equal to the man as labour-power: the machine makes muscular strength unnecessary, and everywhere women’s labour could operate with the same results for production as man’s labour. And since she was a cheap labour force and above all a willing labour force that only in the rarest cases dared to kick against the pricks of capitalist exploitation, the capitalists multiplied the opportunities to utilise women’s labour in industry to the highest degree.

The wife of the proletarian, in consequence, achieved her economic independence. But, in all conscience, she paid for it dearly, and thereby gained nothing at the same time, practically speaking. If in the era of the family the man had the right – think back to the law in the Electorate of Bavaria – to give the wife a bit of a lashing now and then, capitalism now lashes her with scorpions. In those days the dominion of the man over the woman was mitigated by personal relationships, but between worker and employer there is only a commodity relationship. The woman of the proletariat has achieved her economic independence, but neither as a person nor as a woman or wife does she have the possibility of living a full life as an individual. For her work as wife and mother she gets only the crumbs that are dropped from the table by capitalist production.

Consequently, the liberation struggle of the proletarian woman cannot be – as it is for the bourgeois woman – a struggle against the men of her own class. She does not need to struggle, as against the men of her own class, to tear down the barriers erected to limit her free competition. Capital’s need for exploitation and the development of the modern mode of production have wholly relieved her of this struggle. On the contrary; it is a question of erecting new barriers against the exploitation of the proletarian woman; it is a question of restoring and ensuring her rights as wife and mother. The end-goal of her struggle is not free competition with men but bringing about the political rule of the proletariat. Hand in hand with the men of her own class, the proletarian woman fights against capitalist society. To be sure, she also concurs with the demands of the bourgeois women’s movement. But she regards the realisation of these demands only as a means to an end, so that she can get into the battle along with the workingmen and equally armed.

Bourgeois society does not take a stance of basic opposition to the demands of the bourgeois women’s movement: this is shown by the reforms in favour of women already introduced in various states both in private and public law. If the progress of these reforms is especially slow in Germany, the cause lies, for one thing, in the competitive economic struggle in the liberal professions which the men fear, and, secondly, in the very slow and weak development of bourgeois democracy in Germany, which has not measured up to its historical tasks because it is spellbound by its class fear of the proletariat. It fears that the accomplishment of such reforms will advantage only the Social-Democracy. The less a bourgeois democracy lets itself by hypnotised by this fear, the readier it is for reform. We see this in England. England is the sole country that still possesses a really vigorous bourgeoisie, whereas the German bourgeoisie, trembling with fear of the proletariat, renounces reforms in the political and social fields. Moreover, Germany is still blanketed by a widespread petty-bourgeois outlook; the philistine pigtail of prejudice hangs close on the neck of the German bourgeoisie.

Of course, the bourgeois democracy’s fear is very shortsighted. If women were granted political equality, nothing would be changed in the actual relations of power. The proletarian woman would go into the camp of the proletariat, the bourgeois woman into the camp of the bourgeoisie. We must not let ourselves be deluded by socialistic outcroppings in the bourgeois women’s movement, which turn up only so long as the bourgeois women feel themselves to be oppressed.

The less bourgeois democracy takes hold of its tasks, the more it is up to the Social-Democracy to come out for the political equality of women. We do not want to make ourselves out to be better than we are. It is not because of the beautiful eyes of Principle that we put forward this demand but in the class interests of the proletariat. The more women’s labour exerts its ominous influence on the living standards of men, the more burning becomes the need to draw women into the economic struggle. The more the political struggle draws every individual into real life, the more pressing becomes the need for women too to take part in the political struggle.

The Anti-Socialist Law has clarified thousands of women for the first time on the meaning of the words class rights, class state and class rule; it has taught thousands of women for the first time to clarify their understanding of power, which manifests itself so brutally in family life. The Anti-Socialist Law has performed a job that hundreds of women agitators would not have been able to do; and we give sincere thanks-to the father of the Anti-Socialist Law [Bismarck] as well as to all the government agencies involved in its execution from the minister down to the policemen – for their involuntary agitational activity. And yet they reproach us Social-Democrats for ingratitude! (Laughter)

There is another event to take into account. I mean the appearance of August Bebel’s book Woman and Socialism. It should not be assessed by its merits or defects; it must be judged by the time at which it appeared. And it was then more than a book, it was an event, a deed. (‘Very true!’) For the first time, in its pages it was made clear to the comrades what connection the women’s question had with the development of society. For the first time, from this book issued the watchword: We can conquer the future only if we win the women as co-fighters. In recognising this, I am speaking net as a woman but as a party comrade.

What practical consequences do we now have to draw for our agitation among women? It cannot be the task of the party congress to put forward individual practical proposals for ongoing work, but only to lay down lines of direction for the proletarian women’s movement.

And there the guiding thought must be: We have no special women’s agitation to carry on but rather socialist agitation among women. It is not women’s petty interests of the moment that we should put in the foreground; our task must be to enroll the modern proletarian woman in the class struggle. (‘Very true!’) We have no separate tasks for agitation among women. Insofar as there are reforms to be accomplished on behalf of women within present-day society, they are already demanded in the Minimum Programme of our party.

Women’s activity must link up with all the questions that are of pressing importance for the general movement of the proletariat. The main task, surely, is to arouse class-consciousness among women and involve them in the class struggle. The organisation of women workers into trade unions runs into exceedingly great difficulties. From 1892 to 1895 the number of women workers organised into the central unions rose to about 7,000. If we add the woman workers organised into the local unions, and compare the total with the fact that there are 700,000 women working in large industry alone, we get a picture of the great amount of work we still have to do. This work is complicated for us by the fact that many women are employed as home-industry workers, and are therefore hard to draw in. Then too, we have to deal with the widespread outlook among young girls that their industrial work is temporary and will cease with their marriage.

For many women a double obligation arises: they must work both in the factory and in the family. All the more necessary for women workers is the fixing of a legal working-day. While in England everybody agrees that the abolition of the homework system, the fixing of a legal working-day, and the achievement of higher wages are of the greatest importance in order to organise women workers into trade unions, in Germany in addition to the difficulties described there is also the administration of the laws limiting the right of association and assembly. The full freedom to organise which is guaranteed to women workers, with one hand, is rendered illusory by national legislation, with the other hand, through the decisions of individual state legislatures. I won’t go into the way the right of association is administered in Saxony, insofar as one can speak of a right there at all; but in the two largest states, Bavaria and Prussia, the laws on association are administered in such a way that women’s participation in trade-union organisations is increasingly made impossible. In Prussia in recent times, whatever is humanly possible in the way of interpreting away the right of association and assembly has been done especially in the governmental bailiwick of that perennial cabinet aspirant, the ‘liberal’ Herr von Bennigsen. In Bavaria women are excluded from all public assemblies. Herr von Feilitzsch, indeed, declared quite openly in the Chamber that in, the administration of the law on association not only its text is taken into consideration but also the intention of the legislators; and Herr von Feilitzsch finds himself in the fortunate position of knowing exactly the intention held by the legislators, who died long before Bavaria ever dreamed of some day being lucky enough to get Herr von Feilitzsch as its minister of police. This doesn’t surprise me, for if God grants anyone a bureau he also grants him mental faculties, and in our era of spiritualism even Herr von Feilitzsch received his bureaucratic mental faculties and is acquainted with the intention of the long-dead legislators via the fourth dimension. (Laughter)

This state of affairs, however, makes it impossible for proletarian women to organize together with men. Up to now they had a struggle against police power and lawyers’ tricks on their hands, and formally speaking they were worsted in this struggle. But in reality they were the victors; for all the measures utilised to wreck the organisation of proletarian women merely operated to arouse their class-consciousness more and more. If we are striving to attain a powerful women’s organisation on the economic and political fields, we must be concerned to make possible freedom of action, as we battle against the homework system, champion the cause of the shorter working-day, and above all carry on the fight against what the ruling classes mean by the right of association.

At this party congress we cannot lay down the forms in which the women’s activity should be carried out; first we have to learn how we must work among women. In the resolution before you it is proposed to choose field organisers (Vertrauenspersonen) among women, who shall have the task of stimulating trade-union and economic organisation among women, working consistently and systematically. The proposal is not new; it was adopted in principle in Frankfurt [1894 congress] and in several areas it has already been carried out with excellent results. We shall see that this proposal, carried out on a larger scale, is just the thing for drawing proletarian women to a greater extent into the proletarian movement.

But the activity should not be carried on only orally. A large number of indifferent people do not come to our meetings, and numerous wivcs and mothers cannot get to our meetings at all-and it is out of the question that the task of socialist women’s activity should be to alienate proletarian women from their duties as wives and mothers; on the contrary it must operate so that this task is fulfilled better than before, precisely in the interests of the emancipation of the proletariat. The better relations are in the family, and the more efficiently work is done in the home, so much the more effective is the family in struggle. The more the family can be the means of educating and moulding its children, the more it can enlighten them and see to it that they continue the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat with the same enthusiasm and devotion as we in the ranks. Then when the proletarian says ‘My wife!’ he adds in his own mind: ‘my comrade working for the same ideal, my companion in struggle, who moulds my children for the struggle of the future!’ Thus many a mother and many a wife who imbues husband and children with class-consciousness accomplishes just as much as the women comrades whom we see at our meetings. (Vigorous agreement)

So if the mountain does not come to Mohammed, Mohammed must go to the mountain: We must bring socialism to the women through a systematic agitational activity in published form. For this purpose I propose to you the distribution of leaflets; not the traditional leaflets which cram the whole socialist programme onto one side of a sheet together with all the erudition of the age-no, small leaflets that bring up a single practical question with a single angle, from the standpoint of the class struggle: this is the main thing. And the question of the technical production of the leaflets must also be our concern ... [Zetkin here discusses these technical aspects in more detail] ...

I cannot speak in favour of the plan to launch a special women’s newspaper, since I have had personal experience along those lines; not as editor of Gleichheit (which is not directed to the mass of women but to the more advanced) but as a distributor of literature among women workers. Stimulated by the example of Mrs. Gnauck-Kühne, for weeks I distributed papers to the women workers of a certain factory and became convinced that what they get from the contents is not what is educational but solely what is entertaining and amusing. Therefore the great sacrifices that a cheap newspaper demands would not pay.

But we must also produce a series of pamphlets that would bring women nearer to socialism in their capacity as workers, wives and mothers. We do not have a single one that meets requirements, outside of Mrs. Popp’s vigorous pamphlet. Moreover, our daily press must do more than heretofore. Some of our dailies have indeed made an attempt to educate women through the issuance of a special women’s supplement: the Magdeburger Volkestimme has taken the lead with a good example, and Comrade Goldstein in Zwickau has forged ahead along these lines with good fortune and good results. But up to now our daily press has been concerned mainly to win proletarian women as subscribers; we have pandered to their lack of enlightenment and their bad, uncultivated taste instead of enlightening them.

I repeat: these are only suggestions that I submit for your consideration. Women’s activity is difficult, it is laborious, it demands great devotion and great sacrifice, but this sacrifice will be rewarded and must be made. For, just as the proletariat can achieve its emancipation only if it fights together without distinction of nationality or distinction of occupation, so also it can achieve its emancipation only if it holds together without distinction of sex. The involvement of the great mass of proletarian women in the emancipatory struggle of the proletariat is one of the pre-conditions for the victory of the socialist idea, for the construction of a socialist society. Only a socialist society will resolve the conflict that comes to a head nowadays through the entrance of women into the work-force. When the family disappears as an economic unit and its place is taken by the family as a moral unit, women will develop their individuality as comrades advancing on a par with men with equal rights, an equal role in production and equal aspirations, while at the same time they are able to fulfill their functions as wife and mother to the highest degree.


1*. Engels, Origin of the Family, near end of Chapter 2.

2*. These suspension points are in the text – Ed.

Last updated on 16.9.2007