Women Workers Struggle For Their Rights. Alexandra Kollontai 1919
One might think that there could be no clearer or more well-defined notion than that of a ‘women’s socialist movement’. But meanwhile it arouses so much indignation and we hear so often the exclamations and questions:- What is a women workers’ movement? What are its tasks, its aims? Why can’t it merge with the general movement of the working class, why can’t it be dissolved in the general movement, since the Social Democrats deny the existence of an independent women’s question? Isn’t it a hangover from bourgeois feminism?
Questions like these are being asked not only in Russia. They are repeated in almost all countries, they can be heard in all languages. But most curious of all, it is where the women workers’ movement is least developed, where organised women workers are least numerous m the Party and in the unions, that one hears loudest and most assured the voices of those who deny the necessity of technically separated work among the women proletariat And in their simplistic way. they cut through the whole tangled knot of the women’s problem and the general social question.
The women workers’ movement literally grew out of the womb of capitalist reality. But for a long time it advanced tentatively, seeking is way hesitating in its choice of methods. The women workers movement takes extremely motley and varied forms. These forms vary from country to country they are adapted to the conditions of the particular place, and to the character of the workers’ movement. But gradually, especially in countries where social democracy has been strong, definite party machines have arisen to serve the women’s socialist movement.
To-day it would be difficult to find a socialist who would quarrel with the necessity for widespread organisation of the female proletariat. Social democrats in all countries pride themselves on the numbers of their ‘women’s army’ and, in weighing up the chances of success in the class struggle, take into account this rapidly growing force. Consequently, if there is disagreement it is not about the essence of the question, but merely about methods and means of agitation and work among the female half of the working class. However in all countries the vital victory in this argument goes to the defenders of the German way of working-the fusion of the male and female halves of the working class in the party organisation, while retaining the separation and autonomy of agitation among the women of the working class.
The women’s socialist movement is still very young: it has only been in existence for some twenty years.
It is true that before, workers’ organisations, unions and parties had counted women among their members. But once they had become members of a party or trade union organisation, the women workers did not defend those areas which affect women most closely of all. This was the situation in Germany up to the middle of the twenties, in England up to the twentieth century and in Russia until the 1905 revolution. The exploration of problems which affected women workers as women, and the defence of their interests as mothers and housewives, was left without any struggle in the hands of the feminists of the bourgeois camp.
The middle of the nineties may be considered a turning-point. At the Congress of the Social Democratic Party at Gotha in 1896, and at the insistence of Clara Zetkin, the foundations were laid for special separate, autonomous agitational work among women. In the same year, at the London International Socialist Congress there took place the first private meeting of thirty socialist women, delegates to the International Congress from England, Germany America, Holland, Belgium and Poland. This conference marked the beginning of a modest attempt to bring to life a women’s socialist movement in other countries as well.
This private meeting was above all concerned to examine the question of the relationship between bourgeois feminism and the socialist women’s movement. It acknowledged the necessity of drawing a clear distinction between them, and noted the desirability of special socialist agitation among women workers in order to draw them into the ranks of the general class party.
Two decades have passed since the time of that first international meeting of socialist women. In those years capitalism has managed to subject to its rule not only new branches of industry but also new countries. Female labour in industry has established itself more firmly with every year, acquiring considerable social importance in the life of the people’s economy. But since they lacked unity among themselves, were not involved in organisations, and were not linked by obligations to their male colleagues, women workers did indeed appear as dangerous rivals, undermining the progress of the organised struggle of the workers. In those years the organisation of women workers became an urgent and vital question. But in tackling the problem of the organisation of the female half of the proletariat and adapting themselves to the conditions of the surrounding social reality, each country solved the problem in its own way.
This explains the variety of organisational methods. Women workers joined general, mixed unions, organised themselves into separate women’s trade unions, founded their clubs, and societies for self-education, or, finally, formed a special women’s collective within the party, which undertook the responsibility for agitational and organisational work among women. It is this last type of work which offers the most convenient and efficient way of involving women workers in the class struggle. [One cannot but remark that the trade unions, too, were eventually convinced of the good sense, even on purely economic grounds, of forming their own ‘women’s agitational committees’ for carrying out work among women workers. Thus, for example, from 1895 onwards the General Commission of German Trade Unions included a central commission for agitational work amongst women.]
By 1907 the women workers’ movement had already assumed such dimensions that it became possible to call the first International Women’s Conference in Stuttgart in connection with the general International Socialist Congress. The women socialists not only exchanged information on what they had achieved in their own countries, but resolved to continue working along the same lines, to promote by all possible means the future growth and development of the women workers movement. After some disagreement, they accepted a motion introduced by the German women socialists concerning the setting up of a separate International Women’s Bureau, which would strengthen the links between women workers’ organisations in all countries.
The central organ of the international women workers movement recognised the newspaper Gleichheit (Equality) published by the German Party.
The Stuttgart Conference consolidated that share of independence which was necessary for further fruitful work among the women proletariat. It emerged quite clearly that although the women proletarian movement is an inseparable part of the general workers’ movement, it nevertheless has certain original features of its own, due to the particular conditions of existence of the woman worker and the particular social and political position of woman in modem society. Although the objectives of agitation which is aimed specifically at women correspond to those of the workers’ movement at large and although they constitute one part of an overall objective, yet because they are concerned most immediately with the women’s interests they can be best achieved through the initiative of the female representatives of the working class.
Although socialists admit that the question of women forms an integral part of the total social problem of our time, although they maintain that the woman worker is above all a member of a class kept in servitude and deprived of civil rights, and, in striving for her own liberation, must before everything else fight for the liberation of her entire class, they also, alongside this basic principle, concede another, additional proposition. A woman worker is not only a member of the working class, but at the same time she is a representative of one entire half of the human race. As opposed to the feminists, the socialists, demanding equal rights for women in state and society, do not shut their eyes to the fact that the woman’s responsibilities towards the social collective society, will always be somewhat different to men’s. The woman is not only an independent worker and citizen – at the same time she is a mother, a bearer of the future. This gives rise to a whole series of special demands, in areas such as women’s labour protection, security for maternity and early childhood, help with the problems of children’s upbringing, reforms in house-keeping and so on. [Although the interests of the working class as a whole are bound up with bringing about political equality for women workers, their actual lack of rights, however, even in countries where male workers possess political rights, imposes on the women particularly unpleasant conditions. Joining together in a special collective gives women workers an opportunity to influence their comrades within the Party, to inspire and urge them on to the struggle for political rights for working class women, gaining for women those rights which they themselves possess.]
In addition to this, in the majority of countries the woman worker finds herself, both in society and in the state, in an exclusively helpless position. Women workers are pariahs even among the modern slaves of capital, and this outlawing of women gives rise to an inequality in the conditions of living between man and woman even in the working class itself. Whether in politics, in the family, in relations between the sexes (prostitution, double morality), or in the work situation, the woman is always allotted ‘second place’, her lack of rights is underlined by her life itself.
It is natural that even the psychology of a woman, under the influence of century-long slavery, is different from that of a working class man. The man worker is more independent, more decisive, and has more feeling of solidarity; his horizon is wider because he is not confined within the framework of narrow family relationships; it is easier for him to become aware of his interests and to connect these to class problems. But for a woman worker to reach the maturity of the views of an average male worker – that means a complete break with the tradition, the concepts, the morals, the customs, which have become part of her since the cradle. These traditions and customs, attempting to retain and hold onto a type of woman produced by past stages of economic development, turn into almost insuperable obstacles in the path of the class-consciousness of the woman worker. From this the conclusion is clear, that one can arouse woman’s sleeping brain, and bring to life her will, only by means of a special approach to her, only by using specialised methods of work among women.
The peculiarity of these methods consists in the fact that while not breaking off general links between the general workers’ and women workers’ movement, while welding both wings into one in the process of struggle, bringing them together under the banner of general class tasks and demands, they nevertheless provide for a separate structure for agitation specifically designed to cater for the working class women. Separation has a double aim-on the one hand, these intra-party collectives (commissions, women workers’ bureaux and so on) must carry out special agitational work adapted to the level of the questions women want to have answered; their task is to recruit members among the mass of women who have a low level of consciousness to educate women workers’ consciousness, to raise it to the level of the rest of the party members’, to move women into the arena of revolutionary struggle. On the other hand these collectives give women workers the possibility of putting forward and defending in practical ways those interests which touch women most of all: motherhood, protection of children the rate set for children’s and women’s labour, the struggle against prostitution reforms in housekeeping and so on.
It follows that the formation of groups of women workers within the Party on the one hand lightens the task of attracting into the movement the broad masses of less aware women, those with whom one has to speak a different language than with men; and on the other hand, it is an opportunity to concentrate the party’s attention on the special requirements of the women proletariat.
This was the conclusion that the western comrades gradually arrived at. This way of working with women has been adopted by almost all parties. In Austria from 1908, in England from 1906. in the United States from 1908 m the Scandinavian countries, in Belgium and Holland from the beginning of the twentieth century, in Switzerland, in Finland and in France-special collectives of women socialists exist everywhere, carrying on agitational work with women workers and focussing the attention of the workers’ party on that part of the socialist programme which affects working class women’s interests most closely.
Thanks to this way of working, the women workers’ movement is growing both in depth and in breadth. The number of organised women workers grows every year, in fact it even grows relatively more quickly than the number of men who have been drawn back into the movement. In Germany, for example, in 1907 the Party hardly contained 10,500 women workers, in 1908 there were already 29,458 of them, in 1909 – 62,259, in 1910 – 82,846, in 1911 – 107,000 in 1912 – 130,000, in 1913 – 150,000. In other words, in six years the number of women in the Party has increased fifteen times, and the number of men has not even doubled. In 1907 there were about 600,000 in the Party, and in 1913 - 830,000.
A very short time ago, at the first International Conference of Women Socialists at Stuttgart, in 1907, the organised army of women workers was expressed in such modest figures that the majority of countries did not even cite it.
At that time England took first place in organised numbers, with her 15,0000 women workers as members of trade unions. In Germany then, the unions counted 120,000. In Austria the unions contained about 42,000 women workers; m Hungary about 15,000. In the Party the degree of organisation of women was considerably lower. At that tune the country which could pride itself on the greatest number of social democrats was little Finland, who had managed to bring into the movement more than 18,000 women workers.
A different and more cheerful picture was given by the accounts presented by delegates at the Second International Women’s Socialist Conference in Copenhagen, in August 1910.
Only three years had passed since the first women’s conference, but what growth there had been in the army of women workers now actively taking part in the movement! In England the number of women workers organised into unions had already passed the 200,000 mark; in Germany count 131,000 women workers in unions and 82,645 members of the Party; in Austria the Party already contained about 7,000 women members. Other countries too showed considerable progress in the movement.
As evidence for the level of organisation of women workers we give the following data for the last years before the war;
|England, 1911, in trade unions||292,868|
|England, 1911, in the Women’s Labour League||5,000|
|Germany, 1910, in trade unions||161,512|
|Germany, 1913, in the Social Democratic Party||150,000|
|Austria, 1911, in trade unions||47,901|
|Austria, 1910, in the Social Democratic Party||19,000|
|France, 1908, in trade unions||88,906|
|Italy, 1908, in trade unions||41,000|
|Italy, 1908, in the Social Democratic Party||10,711|
|Holland, 1910, in trade unions||44,000|
|Holland, 1910, in the Party||2,943|
|Switzerland, 1910, in trade unions||6,000|
|Switzerland, 1910, in the Social Democratic Party||1,000|
|Finland, 1910, in the Social Democratic Party||17,000|
|Norway, 1909, in trade unions||3,000|
|Norway, 1909, in the Party||1,500|
There is no information given here about a number of countries – Belgium, Spain, Denmark, Sweden. Furthermore much of the information given here is out of date, since the women workers’ movement began to make particularly quick progress in the most recent years. For this reason one can affirm without exaggeration that in Europe alone the number of organised women workers is over one million.
The basis for these organisational successes is undoubtedly an objective economic factor; the rapid growth of female industrial labour, which is particularly noticeable in countries with a relatively young, intensive, capitalist economy. But, alongside this objective factor, an important role was also played by the conscious active influence of the party on the masses of women and by the specialised, systematic work which, especially in the years just before the war, was carried on energetically and thoughtfully by the party organisations of all countries.
To get a fuller idea of the agitational methods of the women’s socialist movement we should examine the history of this movement in somewhat greater detail. In this instance Germany is the most characteristic country; the others repeat, with small modifications, the experience of the German socialist movement and borrow from them the basic model for their work with the women proletariat.
If England as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century was the cradle of trade union movements of women workers (the women weavers of Lancashire joined the weavers’ trade union as early as 1824), if in the seventies, on the initiative of Patterson, a first attempt was made to unite the separate women’s trade unions in the ‘League for the Protection of Women’s Labour’ (later the ‘League of Women’s Trade Unions-Trade Union League’) and, in this way, link and concentrate the movement, if the English women workers were the first to go to the defence of their violated economic interests, nevertheless it was German Social Democracy that carried within its womb the party political movement of women workers.
However significant were the successes of the trade union organisation ,of women workers in England, this movement bore a narrowly economic character. On the general social tasks of the liberation of women, on the vital interests of women workers as women, as mothers, there was no discussion in either the mixed, or the separate women’s unions. Not only in England, but also in other countries – in Germany, France, America, women workers took part in the trade union movement only for the sake of very immediate practical gains in the field of labour. All general-social questions, affecting the interests of women, were discussed and brought forward only by the growing feminist movement. The feminists for their part altered the demands of the women workers and presented them to the world in a distorted form, in the guise of bare, lifeless formulae of absolute equality of rights between men and women in all fields of life and in all areas. And even now the women workers’ movement in England still bears the imprint of this duality: whereas on economic grounds the woman worker, as a conscious comrade, fights for the interests of her class, in the sphere of social and political ideals the less conscious woman worker still hangs onto the skirts of the Suffragettes and is ready to uphold the principle of the equality of women, albeit to the detriment of her class interests.
The women workers’ movement in Germany was of a completely different character. It is true that in the sixties and seventies the organisation of women workers also concentrated, mainly, on unions, but the rapid increase in female labour, with the quickening tempo of capitalist development in Germany, forced the young German Socialist Party to take up a definite position in relation to the question of women.
Two points of view were in conflict within the workers’ organisations: some looked upon women’s professional labour as an abnormal deviation from the ‘natural social order’, and hoped to force women back into the house by means of prohibitive laws: others accepted this phenomena as an inevitable stage, leading woman to her final liberation-in her capacity both as a seller of her labour and as a woman.
In this context a decisive role was played by Bebel’s book, Woman and Socialism, which first came out in 1879. This book cast a bright light on the complicated problem of woman, and opened up new horizons to the Social Democrats. It established a close link between the question of women and the general class aim of the workers, but at the same time also drew attention to the needs and demands peculiar to women, the distinctive things that characterise woman as a representative of her sex. This acknowledgement of the special position of woman in modern society made it necessary, without sinning against the unity of the Party, to delineate a certain area of work with the women proletariat.
The first attempts to bring to life women socialist organisations in Germany took place towards the middle of the eighties. On the initiative of an ex-feminist, who had gone over to the Social Democrats, Guillaume-Schack, societies for self-education or women workers’ clubs were set up in Berlin. But the eighties in Germany were a dark period when a law discriminating against socialists was in force. The police powers mercilessly destroyed these innocent organisations, whose creation had cost so much effort. The special decree of 1887 finally wiped from the face of the earth the first beginnings of women’s socialist societies.
With the defeat of the law against socialists, the workers’ movement in Germany immediately stood on firm ground; the women workers’ movement was also revived. The trade unions not only gave access to women, but chose a woman as their president for the General Commission of Trade Unions. The Social Democratic Party, for its part, at the Erfurt Congress decided to take up a completely definite position with regard to the question of women. [In both previous socialist programmes, those of Erfurt and Gotha, the Party’s attitude to the question of women was still ill-defined. The demands affecting women were limited to general desires for the protection of female labour and the recognition of full political rights for adults, without, however, emphasising that this last demand applied to women too.]
The Erfurt programme of 1891 not only emphasises the demand for political rights for all citizens without distinction according to sex, but in point five expresses a particular demand, in the interests of women: “the abolition of all laws which place women in less favourable conditions of existence than men with regard to political or civil rights.”  This was an important admission. The Social Democratic Party in this way took upon itself the defence of the interests of the women of the working class, in the widest sense of the word. Already it was not only a question of improving women’s working conditions, but also of her liberation as a citizen, as a person.
Consistent with this new aim, it was necessary for the Party to modify the party rules, so as to leave open a place for women in party work. A resolution had already been passed at the Congress at Halle, in 1890, concerning women chairmen at congresses, which allowed these women chairmen to be elected at special women’s meetings. [At the Berlin Congress of 1892, however, the socialist women themselves opposed this resolution and, arguing that ‘women demand equality, not privilege’, insisted that the decision be recalled. A typical case, demonstrating the way in which the ‘equal rights’ principle of the ‘equal rights’ feminists influenced even the women socialists in that period of the formation of the women workers’ movement. However, as early as the 1894 Congress, at the insistence of Zetkin, Auer, Singer and others the resolution was put forward again. “Experience has shown,” said Zetkin, “what an error it was to reject this resolution. The fact of the matter is that women are without rights and with all the will in the world cannot participate in the general party organisation. But apart from that, among the masses, women are considerably more backward than men, in general assemblies they cannot stand up for themselves, and this leads to dissatisfaction and bewilderment.” From Proceedings of the Party Congress at Frankfurt am Main, 1894, p.174.]
At the Berlin Congress the Berlin women’s organisation introduced an amendment whereby the title, ‘Male Confidential Agent’, be replaced simply by ‘Confidential Agent’,(18) which would give women access to this post. [See Proceedings of the Party Congress at Berlin, 1894, p. 145.] Another women’s organisation, from Mannheim, asked that agitational work with women should be extended. But the most decisive step, with regard to the method chosen by the Party for work with women workers, was taken at the congress at Gotha in 1896. The question raised by Clara Zetkin about agitation with women workers’ set up the basis for specialised, technically separate party work with women. Drawing a boundary line between the conceptions of equality held by the bourgeois camp and by the socialist women, Zetkin nevertheless insisted, in her classically worded resolution, that agitation among women should concentrate, beyond the general aims of the Party, on a whole range of purely ‘women’s questions’: protection at work, insurance for childbirth, security for children, education of children, political education of women, political equality of women, and so on. In the resolution it was suggested that they start publishing literature, pamphlets and leaflets especially for women. In addition to this historic resolution, which shaped the relations of the Party to the women workers’ movement and its problems, at the same congress another three resolutions were passed, each supplementing the others; and which undoubtedly defined the Party’s new course in the matter of the organisation of women workers.
The Berlin group’s resolution suggested intensifying agitational work with women in order to draw them into unions, in view of the fact that the law forbade women to enter the Party openly. The second proposal referred to the organisational sphere: it insisted on the introduction of special posts of ‘female confidential agents’ in the Party, who would be responsible for systematic agitational work with women in order to raise their class consciousness and to draw them into the Party. The third resolution proposed that several women’s meetings should immediately be held in order to elect female confidential agents.
The Gotha Congress officially inaugurated intra-party work for the organisation of women, and systemised agitation with the female proletariat.
The projected line of work developed steadfastly. Subsequent congresses merely introduced partial modifications to the issue of the organisation of women workers and agitational work among them; in general terms the Party kept to the plan of work as it had been outlined at Gotha. It is true that an insuperable obstacle stood in the way of development of a women’s socialist movement in Germany – the law forbidding the open entry of women into the Party. In places where there was no local law preventing women from taking part in general movements, for example in Baden, Wurtenburg, Saxony, Hessen, a few small states and free towns – Bremen, Lubeck, Hamburg – there the women workers openly joined the Party. In other places they joined together beneath the flag of ‘societies for the self-education of women workers’ or came together round a ‘confidential agent’ in free, unstructured groups. Nevertheless, thanks to the system of ‘confidential agents’, the special chairmanship of women at congresses, and the existence of the women’s paper Gleichheit (Equality), the women’s socialist movement, while developing partly outside the boundaries of the Party, was closely linked to the general movement and always remained under the influence of the Social Democrats.
The review of the party rules in Mainz in 1900, in which the system of male ‘confidential agents’ was replaced by local committees, did not lead to any alterations in the system of the organisation of the female proletariat. At the 1902 Congress in Munich a resolution was put forward leaving in force the special ‘female confidential agents’, to whom was entrusted the work of the organisation of women workers and carrying on socialist agitational work with them. At the Mainz Congress, too, the post of ‘central female confidential agent’ for the whole of Germany was confirmed. The movement had managed to grow in strength so much since the time of the Gotha Conference that as early as 1900 in Mainz, it became possible to hold the first German Socialist Women’s Conference. Since that time these conferences have taken place periodically in Germany every two years: in Mainz 1900, in Munich 1902 in Bremen 1904, in Mannheim 1906, in Nuremburg 1908, and in Jena 1911. The women workers’ conferences arose as a natural answer to the growing demands which their lives called for. The question of voting rights for women in the Reichstag and in local Landtags could no longer be put off, nor could the ailing, complicated problem of maternity. Also lined up were the questions of pre-school education for children, of protection for children’s and women’s labour, reforms of the schools, reforms of housekeeping, organisations for domestic servants, the rates set for the labour of domestic workers, security for nursing mothers and babies, the struggle against infant mortality and so on.
All these questions involved women workers very closely; they grew directly out of their lives, and they gave birth to new demands. The conferences of women socialists examined, discussed, and worked out these demands, and in this way forced the Party, too, to examine with greater care and thought the special needs and aspirations of women workers. In this way, the women’s conferences turned into kinds of special commissions which prepared material for the general workers’ congresses on special questions, those which were relevant to women. The result was some kind of division of labour within the Party, from which the general movement undoubtedly gained a great deal.
It is usual to consider the separation of the women’s socialist movement in Germany as arising exclusively from political tactics, and the existence of the law forbidding women from becoming members of political, organisations. This idea is mistaken. It is true that in its time the law about unions and organisations forced the women’s socialist movement to seek refuge in extra-party ‘societies for the self-education of women workers’. But later, when the number of politically conscious women workers had in-creased, the Party found a means of getting round the watchful eye of the law and, in so far as the unity of the movement required it, had. women join organisations in the capacity of ‘voluntary donors’ to the Party, and then these donations were repeated periodically, serving as the membership fee. Yet the system of ‘female confidential agents’, special women’s meetings, a separate women’s bureau with its own organ, Gleichheit, women’s conferences and so on, remained in force.
Finally, when in 1908 the Prussian law about unions and organisations had ceased to function, and the women workers were thus able to take part in the political movement of the Social Democrats, nothing stood in the way of the abolition of the special work among women. But what did the Party do? Did it renounce its previous methods of work with women of the proletariat?
On the contrary. At the Nuremburg Congress of 1908, after a radical review of the party rules, the women’s socialist movement was allowed to have as much technical autonomy as was possible without damaging the unity of the class movement.
The Party considered it the duty of women workers to enter the Party as equal members, but settled on a lower membership fee for women since they received a lower rate of pay for their work. And although the system of female confidential agents was repealed, the party rules demanded that on each committee there should be a special representation of women workers. depending on the number of women members in a given district. In any case there had to be at least one person on the committee elected by women, who was to be responsible for agitational work and the organisation of women workers. On the central committee of the Party there was also a special representation for women workers. The Women’s Bureau of the Party was not abolished, the women worker’s paper, Gleichheit, not only continued to be published, but alongside this central organ of women workers there grew up a whole range of local or trade union publications, devoted to the interests and demands of women workers. The party rules also left in force the separate meetings for women workers (courses, discussion evenings), and also, where they were needed, the ‘societies for self education’, and, finally, the separate women’s conferences.
In this way, the changes in the law about unions and organisations did not change the type and character of party work in Germany. On the contrary, the ‘division of labour’ in the Party with regard to agitational work among women, in the years immediately before the war, left greater scope for the development and elucidation among the female proletariat of special women’s demands. It is sufficient to mention just the ‘Women’s Day’, and the agitational work for women’s voting rights which was done around this new method of arousing the interest of women workers in politics, educating them in revolutionary protest on the grounds of women workers’ lack of civil rights.
The women’s wing of the German workers’ party developed each year wider and more many-sided activities. The Party is indebted to women workers and their initiative for a whole range of actions: on the problems of the cost of living, insurance for maternity, extension of voting rights in communal self-government. The women workers took upon themselves an enormous part of the work at the time of the elections in the Reichstag ii January 1912, they played an active part in the election of members of the Sickness Benefit Fund; they carried out tireless agitation to draw women workers into the Party, they held meetings, they organised so-called discuss ion evenings for women everywhere and specialised educational courses etc. In 1912 the Women’s Bureau organised 66 agitation trips across Germany during the year, not counting agitational work carried on by women worker; in the provinces. They held 22 open women’s meetings, over and above the regular discussion evenings and courses. In 646 District Committees (out of 4,827) women had their own special representation before the war. Gleichheit printed an edition of 107,000 copies. During that year the number of members rose to 22½ thousand!
As well as agitational work at the meetings, there was widespread special agitational work carried out among the ‘wives of workers’ at home, which produced splendid results. The special ‘Commissions for the Care of Children’ were replenished with women. There were 125 of these commissions before the war and their activities were being extended all the time.
In this way German social democracy, independently of whatever external reasons may have existed, adhered to the principle of special, separate work among the female proletariat, based on the principle of ‘division of labour’ within the Party.
Finding itself in the same situation as the German party, and not having the legal right to get women workers to join political organisations, the Austrian Social Democrats found their own way of solving the problem of how to get women into the workers’ movement.
They organised a special ‘Women’s General State Committee’, which officially stood outside the Party, but was linked to it ideologically. However, as early as the Second Conference of Women Workers in 1903 the agenda contained an item on ‘women’s role in the political struggle’. In spite of the fact that the conference supported the desirability of wider political propaganda among women workers, in spite of the decision taken to form local women’s committees for this purpose, women’s involvement in politics progressed feebly and with difficulty. In this sense, the grand movement of Austrian workers for the reform of the voting laws in 1905 acted as a spur. Women were drawn into the struggle, and into the general strike. The Women’s General State Committee found it necessary after that to introduce, both into the party committee and into the commission of trade unions, the project of organised work among women workers along the lines of the German movement. The Party Congress of 1907 came out in favour of a special agitational section within the Party, and from the third women’s conference in 1908 onwards, systematic, separate work was carried on among the female proletariat in Austria on the same lines as in Germany. Even the repeal in 1910 of the law which had hindered the entry of women into political organisations did not bring about any changes in this field.
In England the special task of agitation among women workers was taken up by the Women’s Labour League within the Labour Party whilst in the British Social Democratic Party there had existed since 1906 a special Women’s Committee for this purpose. In 1908 the American Socialist Party also set up a special, separate women’s committee, and from that time on the organisation of women workers in America has achieved considerable success In Switzerland the Union of Women Workers, founded by Clara Zetkin, comprising about fifteen sections, up until the war took upon itself all the work of socialist propaganda among women workers. The same type of intra-party women’s collective-committees, bureaux, secretariats can be found in Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Holland. In France there has also been in recent years an attempt to bring to life a similar women’s party organisation. Alongside this method of organising women workers in various countries-the United States, England, Holland, Sweden – there still exist special organisations, whose official status is outside the Party, although they too come under the ideological leadership of the Social Democrats. The clubs, societies for the self-education of women workers, enlightenment unions and so on also belong to this type of organisation. The goal of these societies conies down to either ‘preparing the ground’, to carrying on propaganda among the most backward, ignorant masses, or to deepening the theoretical knowledge of women workers, preparing young socialist forces for the role of the leadership of the movement.
We, in Russia, from 1905 have also made attempts to create an organisation of this type. The first attempt took place in the spring of 1906 and consisted in opening ‘women workers’ clubs’ without preliminary permission in some parts of Petrograd. The breaking up of the first Duma interrupted the activity of these clubs.
The second attempt took place in the autumn of 1907. The Social Democrats initiated a Society for the Self-Education of Women Workers, which set itself the task of attracting the broad masses of women with a low level of consciousness into the movement, getting them into unions, and involving them in the Party.
The Czarist regime did not give these attempts any chance to put down roots. In 1909 the workers’ movement was again forced underground. But the social democratic women workers came to the first All-Russian Women’s Congress in 1908, called by the bourgeois equal rights movement. The social democrat women workers were represented by their own separate class group, numbering forty-five women. Having passed their own independent resolutions on all questions, the women workers finally walked out of this ‘ladies’ congress.
Later, in 1913, the Social Democratic Party decided to hold a Woman’s Day and in Russia this was seen as a symptom of the fact that the Russian working class too was gradually coming to realise the necessity of carrying on special work in the women’s proletariat. Simple efficiency dictates this kind of division of labour. The position of women workers in modern society, the special responsibilities, borne by women as mothers and housekeepers, mean that a special type of agitation adapted to the women proletariat is necessary. [The ‘Woman’s Day’ was held by the Party in the following three years: in 1913, in 1914 and in historical 1917 on the 25th of February, the day of the beginning of the great revolution. In the spring of 1917, in Petrograd, the Bolsheviks began to publish the paper. Woman Worker, and the Mensheviks published The Voice of the Woman Worker. The war put a stop to both papers. For more details of the women workers’ movement in Russia see my article in the collection: The Communist Party and the Organisation of Women Workers.]
In the final analysis the general class workers’ movement stands to gain from such a division, i.e. separate agitation among women workers, since the greater concern for the interests and needs of women increases the popularity of the party among women workers and encourages women to join in general party organisation. In this way the special party machine, working for the female half of the working class, not only does not damage the unity of the movement, but, on the contrary, increases the numbers, strength and significance of the workers’ party, extending by this means the framework of its social-creative work even as regards solving the complicated and confused ‘women’s question’.