Tony Cliff

Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation

5. The socialist women’s movement in Germany



After the defeat of the Paris Commune the centre of gravity of the international labour movement shifted to Germany. Up to the outbreak of the First World War, the German Social Democratic Party, the SPD, was the main socialist force internationally and dominated every aspect of the labour movement inside Germany. Unlike in Britain, where the Labour Party was yet to be established by the trade unions, in Germany the SPD preceded the unions and was central in building them.

For twelve years the SPD survived illegally under the Anti-Socialist Law. Even when this was repealed in 1890, the party still had to operate under heavy restrictions. Yet it was by far the largest socialist party in the world and stood in sharp opposition to the economic, social and political order. In 1914 it had more than a million members, gained more than 4½ million votes in parliamentary elections, produced ninety daily papers, ran massive trade unions and co-operatives, sporting and singing clubs, a youth organisation, a women’s organisation and had hundreds of full-time officials.

Before we deal with the organisation of women by the SPD we must deal with the general nature of the party’s “Marxism”.

The German state was not a conventional bourgeois democracy. The German middle class had failed miserably to carry out its own revolution in 1848, and had capitulated to the Prussian monarchy. The result was that the old monarchic state structure run by the Prussian land-owning aristocracy – the Junkers – continued to govern, although more and more it came to serve the economic needs of the bourgeoisie. The SPD, faced with legal limitations in Prussia and other states of Germany and an impotent Reichstag (parliament), was forced into a position of intransigent opposition.

At the same time the prolonged growth of German capitalism and continued rise in the living standard of workers over half a century, accompanied by a low level of industrial struggle, led the party into a numbing passivity. The SPD was like a “state within a state”. It was bureaucratically run by trade union and party officials and party executive. [1] From birth to death, except when working for their employers, workers could be almost completely enclosed by party institutions. The party member could eat food bought in a Social Democratic co-operative, read nothing but Social Democratic papers and magazines, spend leisure time in Social Democratic cycling or gymnastic clubs, sing in a Social Democratic choir, drink in a Social Democratic pub, and be buried with the aid of a Social Democratic Burial Society.

So the SPD combined a formal revolutionary Marxism with actual reformism. The synthesis between the two was expressed clearly in the party’s programme, the Erfurt Programme, which came largely from the pen of Karl Kautsky, the “Pope of Marxism”. It was divided into two hermetically sealed parts, a minimum programme dealing with day-to-day reforms and a maximum programme which was useful for May Day oratory. This synthesis held for a long time. As the best historian of the SPD, Carl Schorske explains:

So long as the German state kept the working class in a pariah status, and so long as the working class, able to extract a share of the material blessings of a vigorous expanding capitalism, was not driven to revolt, the Erfurt synthesis would hold. [2]

This division between economics and politics, minimum and maximum programme, theory and practice, was the cause of further atrophy in the SPD. Wage struggles became the exclusive property of the unions. Politics was limited to putting a cross on the ballot paper and accommodation to the capitalist state.

The synthesis of reformist content and “revolutionary” form received its clearest expression in the debates in the German labour movement during the aftermath of the Russian revolution of 1905. On the wave of enthusiasm generated by the revolution, the tactic of using a general strike as the first step towards socialist revolution was endorsed by the SPD congress in Jena in 1905, only to be overturned a year later at the congress in Mannheim on the insistence of the powerful and aggressive trade union leaders. The party leaders, above all Bebel and Kautsky, accepted that the unions were independent of the party and should always remain so.

SPD “Marxism” had atrophied, kept the form but lost the spirit of the revolutionary ideas of Marx, basically because the link connecting the struggle for economic reforms inside capitalism with the revolutionary struggle against capitalism had been cut.

The only people who fought against the split, and constantly opposed Kautsky’s “Marxism” from a revolutionary standpoint, were the small group inside the SPD around Rosa Luxemburg. But even Rosa Luxemburg and her comrades did not act as an independent organisation, but only as a tendency inside the SPD. Hence they did not intervene separately in the day-to-day struggles of workers.



Organising women in trade unions

In the field of women’s organisation the SPD had a number of positive achievements to its credit. First among them was the organising of women in the trade unions.

In 1892 the total number of women in the SPD’s Free Trade Unions was only 4,355, only 1.8 per cent of the unions’ membership and far below the proportion of women in the labour force – which was 34.9 per cent according to the 1895 census. [3]

That year the Halberstadt Congress of Free Trade Unions directed the craft unions to transform themselves into “mixed craft” organisations, admitting unskilled women into the same unions as skilled men. It had previously been illegal for a trade union to organise both men and women, but even when this became legal, other legal barriers to organising women were not lifted. Women were forbidden in most states of Germany – Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony and others – from taking part in any associations which dealt with political issues, and this was given a very broad interpretation. For instance:

In 1886 a women’s association engaged in trade union work was dissolved by the police because it had discussed the institution by the state of a normal working day, a Bill on the protection of workers which had been submitted to the Reichstag, and a proposal for the introduction of government supervision of factory premises. Another association was dissolved because it had addressed a petition to the local authorities of the town for the appointment of women assessors in the industrial courts. [4]

After 1890 both the political and trade union wings of the socialist movement incorporated into their structures committees dealing with women~ s issues. All committees were in close contact with each other, and often had common membership. The results were impressive. Total membership of the trade unions grew from 237,094 in 1892 to a peak of2,573,718 in 1913; but women’s membership grew relatively even more rapidly, from 4,355 to 230,347 in the same period – from 1.8 per cent to 8.9 per cent of trade union membership. [5]

The unionisation of women proved far less successful in traditional women’s jobs than in industries where women worked with men. Thus in 1914 more than 44 per cent of women working in engineering were in the union, while only 1 per cent in the tailoring trade. [6]

The socialist women’s movement in Germany was almost synonymous with one person – Clara Zetkin (1857-1933). Zetkin also played a vital role in organising women into the unions. She herself was a member of the Bookbinders’ Union in Stuttgart for 25 years; played an active part in the Tailors’ and Seamstresses’ Union, attending many of its congresses; was one of the representatives of the German Tailors’ and Seamstresses’ Union at its second international congress in London in 1896 and was elected the union’s provisional international secretary.

Other leading socialist women also played an important role in organising women into unions. Louise Zietz (1865-1916) was for many years a member of the Unskilled Factory Workers’ Union and was often elected secretary of the union’s congresses. Ottilie Baader (1847-1925) was a leading member of both the socialist women’s movement and the Tailors’ and Seamstresses’ Union. Members of the women’s socialist movement served on the Kartels – a form of trades council but more influential. From 1905 the Kartels appointed their own women organisers in cities such as Hamburg and Nuremberg. They generally controlled strike funds, and therefore affected strike policy. [7]

The need for trade union unity between women and men was central to Clara Zetkin’s thinking and action. While in Russia the unions included men and women from the beginning, in Germany it took a generation to open the doors of the male-dominated unions to women. (In Britain in took up to three generations: for instance the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, established in 1852, did not admit women until 1943, after 91 years – and then only into the lowest section.)

In no case did working women want to build a separate union. Weak groups of the working class are not inclined to sectionalism. Where this did happen it was under duress, either from a capitalist law imposing separation, because of liberal bourgeois feminist influence such as the Women’s Trade Union Leagues in Britain and the United States, or because of craftism and bureaucracy in the men’s unions. All the women-only unions were weak, unstable, and dissolved into the male unions at the first opportunity.

When it came to getting women into the SPD itself, Clara Zetkin and her friends came up against a big legal hurdle. Until 1908 the law in most of Germany forbade women from joining any political party. The SPD was forced to adopt various means to try to circumvent this. In 1889 an Agitation Commission composed of several women was set up in Berlin to provide a centre for trade union and SPD activity. Other cities followed suit. Some of these replaced working women’s organisations which had been closed down by the police. They arranged lectures, meetings and other activities and maintained contact with local party organisations. All the Agitation Commissions were independent of each other so as not to break the law. But the state still took measures against them. In 1895 they were all banned.

In 1894 the SPD conference decided to adopt a system of Vertrauenspersonen, or spokespeople. Responsibility for political propaganda was put into the hands of one individual, in which case the law against political association did not apply. The Vertrauensperson, the individual spokesperson, could therefore take any political initiative on her own. The number of Vertrauenspersonen rose from 25 in 1901 to 407 in 1907. [8]

In November 1895 a Zentralvertrauensperson was appointed to serve as a connecting link for the organised working women of the whole of Germany. At the same time Zetkin was elected to the national executive of the SPD.

Women also found other ways to circumvent the law, such as forming electoral clubs during the period set aside for active campaigning before elections, which was permitted by a gap in the Prussian law. Louise Zietz recounted how she circumvented the law of Thuringia which did not allow women to be speakers at public meetings: “I was prevented from speaking. A male comrade spoke for ten minutes, and then I participated in the discussion from the floor, by speaking for 1½ hours.” [9]

When the Law of Association was abolished in 1908 the need for Vertrauenspersonen disappeared.

For many years socialist women had played a big role in recruiting women into the trade unions. Now the increase in women members of the trade unions gave a boost to the winning of women members for the SPD. The law made for a time lag between the two, but the female membership of the SPD caught up quickly. In 1906 the number of women in the SPD was only 6,460, while the number of women in the free trade unions was 118,908. In other words less than 1 per cent of women trade unionists were also members of the SPD. But by 1907 this had risen to 8 per cent; by 1908 21.3 per cent; 1909, 46.5 per cent; 1910, 51.2 per cent; 1911,56.3 per cent; 1912, 58.5 per cent; 1913, 61.3 per cent; and by 1914 this was 83 per cent. [10]

Large public meetings provided opportunities for recruiting women to the party. Thus in Hamburg on 6 November 1905, at a meeting attended by 280 people, 26 women joined the party. In 1907 the figures for three big meetings were: 20 February: 700 attended, 45 joined; 18 March: 110 attended, 13 joined; 7 September: 1,200 attended, 50 joined. The following year, on 11 February 1908, another big meeting won 39 new members from an audience of 500. [11]



Zetkin on bourgeois feminism

To recruit women into the socialist movement, Zetkin argued, one had to oppose the bourgeois feminists. I na speech delivered to the Gotha congress of the SPD in 1896 (and later published as a pamphlet entitled Only with the Proletarian Woman will Socialism be Victorious), she declared:

There is no such thing as a “women’s movement” in and of itself ... [A] women’s movement only exists within the context of historical development and ... there is therefore only a bourgeois and a working-class women’s movement, which have nothing more in common than does Social Democracy with bourgeois society.

Elsewhere in the same speech, she said:

The woman of the working class 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 working-class woman cannot be – as it is for the bourgeois woman – a struggle against the men of her own class ... The end goal of her struggle is not free competition against men, but bringing about the political rule of the working class. Hand in hand with the men of her own class, the working-class woman fights against capitalist society. [12]

Bourgeois feminism concentrated on the demand for “women’s suffrage” (indeed, for restricted women’s suffrage). But even if women were granted political equality, nothing would be changed in the actual relations of power. Working-class women would simply be “equally” exploited with working-class men, while the bourgeois women would have “equal” privileges with bourgeois men.

Zetkin argued that socialist women should not confine themselves to the demand for the vote, as the bourgeois feminists did, but should fight for the right to work, equal pay, paid maternity leave, free child-care facilities, and education for women. She repeatedly scorned the label “feminist”, translating it into Frauenrechtlerinnen – in a clumsy English translation “Women’s Rightists”. [13] She ended:

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 working class 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. [14]

To understand the development of the German socialist women workers’ movement under Zetkin’s leadership, one must understand its adversary – the bourgeois feminists. The non-socialist women’s movement in Germany straddled a wide spectrum, from extreme right to radical left, the latter bordering on the right wing of the SPD.

Let us look at the radical feminists, the section nearest to the SPD. In 1904 a League for the Protection of Motherhood and Sexual Reforms (Bund für Mutterschutz und Sexualreform), also known as the New Moralists, was founded under the leadership of Helene Stocker. It sought legal equality for husband, wife and children, easier divorce and legal recognition of free marriages’, so that police interference should cease, and that the children of such liaisons should have the same legal rights as the children of legal marriages. [15] It campaigned for the spread of contraceptives and also for the repeal of an abortion law which imprisoned a woman for between six months and five years, even if the pregnancy was the result of rape. It was on this subject that the League made its influence most strongly felt within the women s movement. R. Evans, in his book The Feminist Movement in Germany 1894-1944, assesses the place of the New Moralists:

Victoria Woodhull and Annie Besant, Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes campaigned for similar aims. What was unique was the fact that Stocker’s programme enjoyed the broad support of the radical feminist movement. The exponents of free love and of contraception were generally ostracised by the feminist movement in England and America; even Josephine Butler had been treated by them with obloquy and distrust. Helene Stocker and the movement she led were by contrast part of the feminist movement in Germany. [16]

The radical feminists also engaged in trade union activities, competing with the SPD women. In 1889 they founded a women’s sales clerks’ association whose membership rose to 11,000 over the next ten years. The organisation for sales clerks in the Free Unions, even as late as 1908, had only 3,807 men and 4,997 women members. The radical feminists also organised domestic servants. [17] They published a paper called The German Working Women’s Paper (Deutsche Arbeiterinnenzeitung).

The social base of this trend of feminism was petty bourgeois – teachers and white-collar workers, who at that time were much more distant from the manual working class than they are today. In these classic petty bourgeois occupations, competition for jobs and status led to a war of the sexes. There were separate and hostile unions for men and women teachers, and a male clerks’ alliance, among others.

The radical feminists also held conferences for working women in 1904 and 1907, and invited the SPD and Free Trade Unions to send delegates. They showed a much more serious attitude to working women than, say, Spare Rib exhibits in Britain at the present time. Their language was often almost indistinguishable from that of the socialists. Thus, for instance, one of their leaders, Minna Cauer, wrote on 15 November 1913: “Only with the mass of working women can we some day fight the battle, only together with them, with the masses of employed and working women, will women receive the vote.”

However, lacking the cohering influence of a working-class base, the radical feminists, in the few years before the First World War, quarrelled violently over personal issues, split again and again, and finally wrecked the League.

Zetkin always tried to steer clear of the radical feminists. Joining forces, she said, could not lead to real action, but would lead to a blunting of the sharp edge of socialist policy. It was not always easy to stay clear, since the radical feminists spoke in persuasive” social” language and even initiated campaigns which themselves were radical. As part of the 1895 campaign for the abolition of the Law of Association banning women from joining political organisations, a petition was drafted by the radical feminists Minna Cauer and Lily von Gizycki and a member of the SPD, Adele Gerhard. The SPD’s central newspaper, Vorwärts, published the petition together with a statement of support, recommending party members to sign. Zetkin also printed the petition in her own paper, Gleichheit, but accompanied it with a warning in bold type: “We decidedly advise every class-conscious member of the working class against this petition in any manner.” [18] A sharp exchange took place in the columns of Vorwärts between Zetkin and the veteran socialist Wilhelm Liebknecht, who tended to bend over backwards towards the radical feminists. Zetkin asked the opinion of Engels, who agreed with her completely. [19]

Time after time the radical feminists called on the socialist women to join their demonstrations, but the invitations were always rejected by Zetkin. This pattern of non-co-operation with bourgeois women to obtain goals for which both formally strove was never altered. It was with the greatest difficulty, however, that Zetkin managed to separate the working-class women from the radical feminists. Again and again she had to explain that, as Eleanor Marx put it, “whenever working women meet together with bourgeois [or petty bourgeois] women it is the former who come under the influence of the latter.”




One of the most important weapons of education and organisation for women was the women’s fortnightly journal Gleichheit (Equality). Its subtitle was “For the Interest of the Woman Worker”. It was founded in 1891 and edited by Zetkin for 25 years. Zetkin, while always emphasising the need for the complete political and organisational unity of the socialist movement, believed that socialist propaganda should be made to fit the specific audience at which it aimed. As she said in a letter to her Dutch colleague Heleen Ankersmit on 7 September 1913:

If the women of the people are to be won for socialism then we need in part special ways, means and methods. If those who are awakened are to be schooled for work and struggle in the service of socialism theoretically and practically, then we must have special organisations and arrangements for it ... we will not manage without special measures whose driving and executive forces are predominantly women. [20]

Zetkin set forth her conception of Gleichheit in an editorial addressed To the Readers which was published with few changes at the beginning of each year throughout the 1890s.

Gleichheit is directed especially to the most progressive members of the working class, whether they are slaves to capital with their hands or with their heads. It strives to school these theoretically, to make possible for them a clear understanding of the historical course of development, and an ability not only to work consciously in the battle for the liberation of the working class, but also to be effective in enlightening and teaching their class comrades and training them as fighters with a clear goal. [21]

According to Zetkin Gleichheit was “written for the women who are spokespersons; it was not meant for the masses, but rather for the advanced.” [22] Much space was devoted to a description of working conditions in the textile, garment, food processing industries, in the bookbinding trade, in home industries and in all other branches of the economy in which women were particularly active. Detailed information on factory legislation was provided to help women take full advantage of its protection, however minimal. Strikes and labour unrest among working women in Germany and in other countries were always given prominent coverage.

In the earliest years of the paper’s existence Zetkin not only edited it but also wrote most of the articles. During the first 14 years the circulation was small, although it rose consistently from 2,000 in 1891 to 11,000 in 19034. The nature of the paper changed considerably when the socialist women’s movement expanded rapidly, reaching 75,000 in 1907. [23]

In 1904 Gleichheit began to be distributed free to women members of the socialist movement and to wives of SPD members. This is the main reason for the enormous expansion of its circulation from 11,000 in 1903-4 to 44,000 in 1905-6, 77,000 in 1908-9 and 125,000 in 1914.

In 1904 Zetkin was obliged by the SPD leadership to make the first in a series of changes in the format and character of Gleichheit designed to give the paper wider appeal. At the 1904 SPD women’s conference she announced that beginning the following year a supplement would accompany Gleichheit intended to “serve the education and interests of woman as housewife and mother”, as well as providing good reading material for her children. This started in January 1905, the supplements being alternately “For our Housewives and Mothers”, or “For our Children”. Zetkin made the best of a situation which had to a certain extent been forced upon her, by developing in particular those viewpoints neglected in the schools attended by working-class children, and giving selections from outstanding revolutionary writers and writers of fiction.

Another important field of activity of the women’s socialist movement was education, in which most of its leaders were engaged. Zetkin gave lectures on cultural history at the Stuttgart Women’s Education Club. Zietz ran the education club in Hamburg and Baader was active in such work in Berlin. In 1905 three thousand women were organised in these clubs. [24]

From 1908 the party sponsored women’s reading and discussion sessions – Leseabende – all over Germany, which were mainly devoted to teaching Marxism. The number of women involved was large: in Berlin in 1910 about 4,000, or a third of the women members of the party. An estimated 150 localities ran such sessions. [25] The course of lectures in the Teltow Beeskow district of Berlin in late 1913 gives some idea of what they were like. These:

centre on one theme: the scientific foundation of the modern working- class movement. Participants were introduced to such topics as the relationship between social reform, democracy, and socialism; idealism and materialism; and utopian and scientific socialism. These materials were followed by analyses of pre-capitalist economic development, the origins of the capitalist mode of production, the formation of the working class, and the nature of capitalist exploitation. After eleven weeks, the class ended with a discussion of method and goals of the class struggle. [26]



Zetkin and the international socialist women’s movement

Clara Zetkin did a lot to influence and direct socialist women beyond the borders of Germany. In 1907 she took the initiative in convening the first international conference of socialist women in Stuttgart at which 59 women from fifteen countries participated. This conference decided to create an international organisation of all socialist women’s organisations. [27]

The conference was far from homogeneous. On the key issue of the vote for women the Austrian, Belgian, British and French delegates agreed that the demand for restricted suffrage, in other words suffrage based on property or income qualifications, was more “realistic” than universal suffrage. Similarly the British and French argued against the “sectarianism” of Zetkin and her supporters towards the bourgeois feminist movement.

But Zetkin was completely unyielding on the two issues. She was supported by the Russian delegate, Alexandra Kollontai, among others. Zetkin won the day. The conference passed strong resolutions stating that “socialist parties of all countries have a duty to struggle energetically for the introduction of universal suffrage for women” and “socialist women must not ally themselves with the bourgeois feminists, but lead the battle side by side with the socialist men”. Zetkin was elected secretary of the International Women’s Socialist Organisation, and Gleichheit was designated the central organ of the movement. Kollontai was elected to the secretariat.

A second international conference of socialist women held in 1910 in Copenhagen reaffirmed the demand for “universal suffrage”. Zetkin then proposed the adoption of 8 March as International Women’s Day. Both the date and the idea were taken from a demonstration of American socialist women in New York on 8 March 1908 in opposition to the bourgeois suffrage movement there. The proposal was approved with enthusiasm by the conference. Beginning in 1911 and continuing until the outbreak of the war in 1914, International Women’s Day demonstrations were organised in practically all the main cities of Europe. (Of course the most important was the one which took place during the war – and launched the Russian revolution).



Right-wing opposition to Zetkin

In the socialist women’s movement, as well as inside the SPD as a whole, there was a right-wing opposition to Zetkin. The SPD was split into three tendencies: on the extreme right the “revisionists”, followers of Eduard Bernstein; on the extreme left the followers of Rosa Luxemburg; and in the centre the followers of Bebel and Kautsky. The same three tendencies appeared in the Socialist Women’s Movement. Here the right was ready to practise class-collaboration with the liberals even more willingly than its counterpart in the SPD.

The most prominent spokeswoman of this tendency was Lily Braun (1865-1916). She came from a noble family and never lost her roots. She argued against the class struggle, declaring that socialism would be achieved not through the revolutionary activity of the working class alone, but also through the activity of a number of progressive forces, including feminists. All feminists, according to her, were by definition progressive, as they were against sex inequality just as socialists were against class inequality.

In 1895 Lily Braun collaborated with bourgeois feminists in drawing up a petition for the reform of the Law of Association. Together with Minna Cauer, the radical bourgeois feminist, she edited a paper titled Die Frauenbewegung (The Women’s Movement). The first issue summarised its principles: support for all women regardless of political persuasion and fight for the common goal of full equality of the sexes. “We want to be as fair to the struggle for equal education as for equal wages.”

Lily Braun complained about the attitudes of men to women in the labour movement, and argued that it was an illusion to believe that the class struggle would overcome the conflict between the sexes. In 1901 she published a pamphlet entitled Frauenarbeit und Hauswirtschaft (Female Labour and Household Co-operatives), which was a plea that women should be freed from household burdens by the organising of household co-operatives. Zetkin raged against this idea for being both utopian and opportunist, as only middle-class women with secure and regular incomes could benefit from such an undertaking. She called the suggested co-operatives “bourgeois reform work”. Lily Braun was supported by a number of prominent people in the Socialist Women’s Movement and a number of leading men in the SPD.

Lily Braun and her supporters were not without some successes. Between 1898 and 1902 in Hamburg as well as in Berlin, several joint meetings of working-class women and bourgeois feminists considered the possibilities of collaboration. Only with great and consistent effort did Zetkin manage to overcome Lily Braun’s influence, and finally, in 1903, to push her to all intents and purposes out of the Socialist Women’s Movement.

Another strand opposing Clara Zetkin was anti-feminist, represented by the Reichstag deputy Edmund Fischer. In an article entitled The Woman Question, published in the Sozialistische Monatshefte in 1905, Fischer asked: “Is it unnatural, socially unhealthy, and harmful for women generally to work, a capitalist evil which will and must disappear with the abolition of capitalism?” His answer was unequivocal: “The so-called emancipation of women goes against the nature of women and of mankind as a whole. It is unnatural, and hence impossible to achieve.” [28] “The first and highest good in life for the woman, buried deep in her nature,” he maintained, “was to be a mother and live to educate her children.”

At the Mannheim Congress of the SPD in 1906 the left, led by Rosa Luxemburg, was beaten. The guns of the right were then directed against Clara Zetkin, who was a close personal and political friend of Luxemburg.

When the Law of Association was repealed in 1908 the women’s conference in Nuremberg decided that women’s associations should join the SPD local branches, with at least one woman included in each local and district executive committee, responsible for propaganda among women workers. The central bureau of the women’s movement was transformed into a women’s bureau subordinate to the national executive of the party. Only one woman was admitted to the executive, despite the women’s protests. This was Louise Zietz. She was not on the extreme left of the party, like Zetkin, but supported the Kautskian centre. [29] The same year that Zetkin was pushed aside, 1908, the far more radical youth organisation was also purged. [30]

The integration of the women’s movement into the SPD led to mass recruitment of women into the party, from 29,468 in 1908 to 174,474 in 1914 – in the short space of six years a growth of nearly 150,000! [31]

1908 also saw Zetkin’s editorial control of Gleichheit loosened. As we have seen, the nature of the magazine had already been changing. Its size was now doubled from 12 to 24 pages, and every issue was accompanied by both a children’s and a mothers’ and housewives’ supplement. In 1910 the ultimate was requested – that she publish a fashion supplement. It was indicative of Zetkin’s loss of power after 1908 that she complied with this demand to some extent, in that she regularly published articles on fashion and cooking as well as recipes and dress patterns. At the 1913 party congress she even promised that henceforth greater heed would be paid to “the entirely unschooled”, to those who “do not yet know the ABC of our views.” [32]

Thereafter the unions officially took bulk orders of Gleichheit to distribute free, thus in 1914 accounting for as much as three-fifths of the total circulation, which rose considerably, from 11,000 in 1903-4 to 125,000 in 1914. [33] In 1914 the number of copies of Gleichheit distributed was equal to 71.6 per cent of women in the SPD, or 59.4 per cent of women in the free trade unions.



August 1914: the watershed of war

The outbreak of the First World War was a great watershed.

A few days after the outbreak of war, on 5 August 1914, Zetkin published an article in Gleichheit entitled Working-class Women, Be Prepared!, attacking the war. [34] She told her readers that Germany was fighting the war for “the interests of the reactionary Hapsburg dynasty, for the gold and power hunger of the unfeeling, conscienceless great landed property owners and big capital.” [35] The article concluded with a thinly-veiled call for revolution:

For the working class, brotherhood between people is not a hollow dream, world peace not just a pretty word ... What must be done? There is a single moment in the life of the people when they can win all if only everyone is set. Such a moment is here. Working-class women, be prepared. [36]

Again and again Zetkin came into conflict with the censorship in her opposition to the war. This was shown by the increasing number of blank spaces in Gleichheit columns which were demonstratively left empty.

Gleichheit became for a few months the internationally recognised journal of women opposing the war. Zetkin, together with Rosa Luxemburg, organised an International Women’s Conference against the war in March 1915 in Berne. In August 1915, Zetkin was arrested, for the first of many times.

It would be wrong, however, to assume that many in the German Women’s Movement supported the position taken by Luxemburg and Zetkin. In fact they were isolated in their opposition to the war.

Both Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin suffered nervous prostration, and were at one moment near to suicide. Together they still tried, on 2 and 3 August [1914] to plan an agitation against war; they contacted twenty SPD members of the Reichstag with known radical views, but got the support of only [Karl] Liebknecht and Mehring ... Rosa sent 300 telegrams to local officials who were thought to be oppositional, asking for their attitude to the vote and inviting them to Berlin for an urgent conference. The results were pitiful. “Clara Zetkin was the only one who immediately and unreservedly cabled her support. The others – those who even bothered to send an answer – did so with stupid or lazy excuses.” [37]

So thin was the SPD’s veneer of Marxism that the majority of the party leadership abandoned internationalism overnight and voted their support for the German war effort. The trade unions cut their bulk orders for Gleichheit and circulation dropped dramatically from the 125,000 of 1914 to 40,000 in December 1915. [38] Zetkin was forced out of the editorship.

The war brought the women of the SPD into collaboration with the bourgeois feminists. Bourgeois women moved into municipal administration, forming a national women’s service and organising a women s auxiliary army for municipal officials. In her capacity as head of SPD women, Louise Zietz spoke before middle-class groups in Berlin to explain socialists’ welfare effortsand raised the possibility of collaboration. Socialist feminists followed the SPD itself in suspending the class struggle during the war.

The actual decision to co-operate with bourgeois women was left to the local clubs, but the war had created new political options. The reaction to contact with middle-class women varied greatly, some groups working together with bourgeois women, some continuing to avoid collaboration. Gleichheit, now out of Zetkin’s hands, wrote on 20 July 1917: “... in practical matters we can learn many things from bourgeois women.” [39] The unions had also launched in January 1916 the fortnightly Gewerkschaftliche Frauenzeitung (Women’s Trade Union Paper), edited by Gertrud Hanna, which reached a distribution of 100,000 after only a year, and 350,000 by January 19l9. [40]

After a year of enthusiastic SPD support for the war, Louise Zietz finally found the party position hard to swallow. She sided with Kautsky, Bernstein and the leaders of the future Independent Social Democratic Party, the USPD. In summer 1915 she was expelled from the executive of the SPD.

Gleichheit now got a new subtitle: “Magazine for the Interests of Workers’ Wives and Women Workers”. The new editors explained the programme as: “Political education, simple teaching and valuable entertainment”. In 1922 the subtitle was to change again, this time to read: “Magazine for women and girls of the working people, organ of the United SPD.”

Clara Zetkin, along with Rosa Luxemburg and a small minority of those who had been on the left of the SPD, never flinched in her opposition to the war. And as the horror and bloodshed grew year by year, so did general opposition to the war among the German working class, bringing Germany to the brin,k of revolution in 1918 and 19 19. [41] Yet even after four years of war the number of women collecting around Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin – the one by far the greatest genius of the German socialist movement, the other the most prominent socialist women’s movement leader – was tiny. In 1918, in the new German Communist Party, the party set up by Rosa Luxemburg, only 9 per cent of the members were women, as against 15 per cent in the USPD and 20.5 per cent in the SPD. [42] In absolute terms the Communist Party had fewer than 300 women members while the SPD in 1919 had 207,000.

The failure of Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin and their supporters to create a significant socialist organisation among women – as among men – was the consequence of both objective circumstances and subjective defects of the left in Germany. The objective circumstances were an expanding capitalism leading to the bureaucratisation of the labour movement and its transformation into a deeply reformist movement. The subjective failure of the revolutionary left was that it did not intervene in the day-to-day struggle, thus failing to build a bridge between the workers’ struggle for reforms and its own revolutionary politics; did not, in other words, develop revolutionary practice, but limited itself to general propaganda. It had no organisation to speak of. One might ask what on earth Zetkin was doing being editor of Gleichheit in the years before the war when the reformists effectively took it over.

The revolutionary left was in fact a group of loosely-connected individuals. When Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartakus League was established during the war, it had only weak links with workers in industry. Its main activity was not in the workplace, but on the streets and at public meetings. If revolutionaries found few ties with workers’ struggles, this applied even more to women revolutionaries when women workers were by and large less well-placed than men in the most militant, key sections of industry.



The sorry end of the SPD women’s movement

During the war the number of working women rose from 9.5 million to about 15 million. [43] After the war the SPD murdered the German socialist revolution. Some solution to the dangers of mass unemployment following demobilisation from the armed forces was crucial if the capitalist economy and state was to be stabilised. The remedy was simple: sack the women. Employers were obliged by decrees of 18 March 1919 and 25 January 1920 to dismiss anybody who was not unconditionally dependent on wages, in the following order of priority:

  1. Women whose husbands had a job.
  2. Single women and girls.
  3. Women and girls who had only 1-2 people to look after.
  4. All other women and girls. [44]

Women leaders of the SPD justified these measures. Thus Gertrud Hanna, who was a member of the Women’s Secretariat of the General Federation of German Trade Unions, said:

What is the lesser evil, female or male unemployment? It is quite extraordinarily difficult to answer this question ... I am in the uncomfortable position of being unable to offer any suggestions as to how the woman question can be solved at the present time ... I have only one suggestion: women must work to gain more influence over who is employed and who is dismissed. [45]

The SPD women’s organisation was forced to become a body which undertook merely social work. In December 1919 the SPD founded the Arbeiterwohlfahrt (Workers’ Welfare Bureau) as the main organisation of women’s activities. The 1921 SPD conference justified this by declaring that “women are born protectors of humanity, and, therefore, social work corresponds so well with their nature.” [46]

The women in the SPD got a paper that fitted its new politics. The title Gleichheit had too revolutionary an overtone. The new title was Die Frauenwelt (Women’s World) with mainly edifying stories, dress patterns and fashion illustrations, cookery, recipes and very little politics. When at the Berlin women’s conference in 1924 one delegate requested that the paper should deal a little with the real distress of women workers’ lives, she was told by the male editor, Dr Lohmann:

My own opinion on the matter, at any rate, and I know that I am supported here by the majority of women comrades in distress, who have emphasised the same to me in a whole series of letters, is that they do not want to have the misery of their domestic life before their eyes even in their leisure time. They want to be shown the sun which some day in the future will shine into their lives because of socialism. [47]



Extremist right takes control of bourgeois feminist movement

Meanwhile, what happened to bourgeois feminism?

The radical League for the Protection of Motherhood and Sexual Reforms got a thrashing in 1908 at the conference of the umbrella organistion of bourgeois women – the Federation of German Women’s Organisations (Bund Deutsche Frauenvereine or BDF). The BDF united women’s associations of various sorts: cultural, religious, charitable and recreational, as well as political pressure groups, female suffrage societies, and moral and social reform associations. It was a purely women’s organisation, not a feminist one.

The right was on the march, speeded on by the affiliation to the BDF of societies such as the German-Colonial Women’s League (Deutsche-Kolonialer Frauenbund), which was dedicated to the preservation of the purity of the white race in the German colonies through the export of white women from the mother country, founded in 1907 and numbering some 12,000 members by 1911; the German Association against the Misuse of Alcoholic Drinks, founded in 1883 and numbering 37,000 (mostly men) in 1911; and the most powerful conservative organisation, the German Evangelical Women s League. [48]

The membership of the BDF rose to some 250,000 by the outbreak of the First World War. The government began to find it convenient to consult the BDF to obtain “the women’s point of view” on questions in which it thought women had a special interest.

The person best representing the rightward shift was Gertrud Bãumer, who was to be president of the BDF for nine years – 1910-1919. She argued that the women’s movement had to be national, in the sense of supporting an aggressively imperialist foreign policy, and it had to be social, in the sense of devoting itself to reducing social tension and class conflict through social reform and organised welfare work. The ultimate aim of female emancipation, according to Bãumer, “is not formal equality, but the equally living, equally full and rich influence of all female values on our culture, a richer flow of specifically female forces into the total of the world’s activities.” Translating the “specifically female forces” into reality, Bäumer declared that if woman “limits herself to house and family, she is under certain circumstances acting in this way more in accordance with the ideal of the women’s movement than if she goes into any male profession.” [49]

Between 1911 and 1914 the BDF ran a campaign against the New Morality. It firmly supported the view that abortion should be a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment. The outlawing of abortion stimulated “a sense of moral responsibility in sexual matters” which was “the best way of raising the general level of morality in the country at large.” [50]

The right-wing trend in the women’s movement was aggressively imperialist. Maria Lischnewska, a spokeswoman of this trend, argued that in order for Germany to win the struggle for world supremacy, “we need people to defend our achievements against the vast hordes of our enemies ... we need people to populate the colonies we have, and the colonies we still have to conquer ...” It was also racist. While staunchly upholding the institutions of marriage and the family, one of its spokeswomen demanded that “racially mixed marriages be made illegal”. “Half-castes,’ she declared, were “mostly inferior”. The dangers of a “bastard population” in the colonies must be avoided. Another demand that gained in popularity in these years was that “drinkers be sterilised”. Concern about prostitution as a source of social disorder gave way to a more urgent preoccupation with prostitution as a danger to the strength and purity of the race. From this point of view state regulation was a disastrous policy, and the view that it should be eliminated as a major source for the spread of venereal disease gained ground.

As early as 31 July 1914 the BDF set up a National Women s Service in co-operation with the Ministry of the Interior to carry out welfare tasks on the home front during the war. [51] When the war ended and the Weimar Republic was founded, the BDF continued to assert its nationalist priority, stating that it united “German women of every party and creed, in order to express their national identity.” During the 1920s the leadership continued its rightward drift, with the parties most hostile to women’s rights firmly in the saddle. The parties that had been most inclined to favour women’s rights, the German Democratic Party, and to a far greater extent the SPD, the Independent Socialists and the German Communist Party, received little support from women at elections. [52] But the BDF grew into a mass organisation, claiming, in 1931, 1,500,000 members, and, even taking into account double counting, it must have had around 750,000. [53]

During the years of depression, 1929-33, the petty bourgeoisie deserted the bourgeois parties in millions to join the Nazis. This shift to the extreme right was followed by the BDF. Hitler repaid his debt. The BDF’s official organ, Die Frau, still under Gertrud Bäumer’s editorship, survived almost to the end of the Third Reich. [54]


1. How bureaucratic the SPD was becomes clear from the delegates to its 1911 conference in Jena. Out of 393 delegates only 52 were workers. There were 157 party officials, 45 trade union officials and 15 co-operative officials among others. Workers made up only one-eighth of the conference (D. Fricke, Die deutsche Arbeiterbewegung (Berlin 1976), pp.281-2). In the same year workers made up 90 per cent of the party’s membership (Fricke, Zur Organisation und Tätigkeit der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung 1890-1914 (Leipzig 1962), p.90).

2. C.E. Schorske, German Social Democracy 1905-1917 (New York 1965), p.6.

3. W. Albrecht and others, Frauenfrage und deutsche Sozialdemokratie vom Ende des 19 Jahrhunderts bis zum Beginnen der zwanziger Jahre, in Archiv für Sozialgeschichte 1979, pp.471 and 464.

4. G. Hanna, Women in the German Trade Union Movement, in International Labour Review, July 1923.

5. Albrecht, p.471.

6. Correspondenzblatt, 28 November 1914.

7. On Kartels, see Fricke, Die deutsche Arbeiterbewegung, pp.693-5.

8. H. Lion, Zur Soziologie der Frauenbewegung (Berlin 1925), p.158.

9. Protokoll Parteitag 1906 (Berlin 1906), p.408.

10. Albrecht, p.471. The statistics for women membership of the SPD before 1908, when such membership ceased to be illegal, give a distorted picture. Many thousands of women were to all intents and purposes in the party without being formal members.

11. R.J. Evans, Sozialdemokratie und Frauenemanzipation im deutschen Kaiserreich (Berlin-Bonn 1979), pp.166-7.

12. Quoted in H. Draper and A.G. Lipow, Marxist women and Bourgeois feminism, in The Socialist Register 1976, pp.192-201.

13. Draper and Lipow.

14. Quoted in Draper and Lipow.

15. R.J. Evans, The Feminist Movement in Germany 1894-1933 (London 1976), pp.131-2.

16. Evans, The Feminist Movement, pp.137-8.

17. J. Strain, Feminism and Political Radicalism in the German Social Democratic Movement 1890-1914 (PhD thesis, University of California 1964), pp.145-8.

18. Gleichheit, 23 January 1895.

19. Letter of Friedrich Engels to Victor Adler, 18 January 1895, in Marx-Engels, Works, Vol.39, p.400.

20. Evans, Sozialdemokratie und Frauenemanzipation, p.265.

21. Gleichheit, 5 January 1898.

22. Cited in Lion, p.93.

23. See Lion, p.155, and Fricke, Die deutsche Arbeiterbewegung, page 433. In trying to assess the real significance of the wide circulation of Gleichheit – especially when one sees how isolated Zetkin was a few years later – one has to look at the paper in the context of the general publishing effort of the SPD and the working of this mass movement. The journalistic output of the party was enormous. In 1914 it had 90 daily papers (of which 78 were different from one another only in the masthead), two twice-weeklies, and two weeklies. The total circulation of these averaged 1,488,346. (Fricke, Zur Organisation, p.133.)

In addition, the SPD had a variety of other journals:

24. Evans, Sozialdemoktatie und Frauenemanzipation, p.168.

25. J.H. Quataert, Reluctant Feminists in German Social Democracy 1885-1917 (New Jersey 1979), p.196.

26. Quataert, p.197.

27. Internationaler Sozialisten Kongress 1907, Anhang, pp.40-8.

28. Quoted in W. Thönessen, The Emancipation of Women: The Rise and Decline of the Women’s Movement in German Social Democracy 1863-1933 (London 1976), p.98.

29. On the incorporation of the women’s movement into the SPD, see Fricke, Zur Organisation, pp.81-2, and Die deutsche Arbeiterbewegung, p.325.

30. See A. Hall, Youth in Rebellion: The Beginnings of the Socialist Youth Movement 1904-14, in R.J. Evans (editor), Society and Politics in Wilhelmine Germany (London 1978).

31. Albrecht, pp.471-2.

32. K. Honeycutt, Clara Zetkin: A Left-wing Socialist and Feminist in Wilhelmine Germany (PhD thesis, Columbia University 1975) pp.293-8.

One factor which facilitated the victory of the right on the woman question, and which exposed the conservative nature of SPD Marxism’, was the party leaders’ stand on sexual morality. A historian of the subject remarked of the SPD leaders that “in spite of their attacks on traditional sexual morality and marriage they in fact shared many of the most widespread and repressive sexual misconceptions of their time.” (R.P. Newman, The Sexual Question and Social Democracy in Imperial Germany, in Journal of Social History, Spring 1974.)

August Bebel, the foremost leader of the German socialist movement, took, for his time, a very radical stand. “Of all the natural impulses human beings are instinct with, along with that of eating and drinking, the sexual impulse is the strongest ... Upon maturity, its satisfaction is an actual necessity for man’s physical and mental health.” (A. Bebel, Woman Under Socialism (New York 1975), p.79.) On abstinence from sexual intercourse he proclaimed: “What the consequences thereof are, our physicians, hospitals, insane asylums and prisons can tell – to say nothing of the thousands of tortured family lives” (p.82). Abstinent women often channelled their unfulfilled sexual desires into religious enthusiasm. Bebel concluded that “Mankind will have to return to Nature and to the natural intercourse of the sexes; it must cast off the now-ruling and unhealthy spiritual notions concerning man; it must do that by setting up methods of education that fit in with our own state of culture, and that may bring on the physical and mental regeneration of the race” (p.119).

This stand, very progressive for the age, and accepted by the great majority of SPD spokesmen, was, however, combined with a whole number of conventional attitudes. Thus an SPD pamphlet published in the Workers’ Health Library said that normal men should refrain from sexual intercourse till the age of 24, since full sexual maturity was not reached till then. Even after marriage people should indulge in sex only in moderation. Bebel warned his readers of the harm of excessive sexual indulgence: “Impotence, barrenness, spinal infections, insanity, at least intellectual weakness, and many other diseases, are the usual consequences” (Bebel, p.164). Eduard Bernstein recommended an interval of “several weeks” between intercourse (quoted in Newman).

On contraception the SPD leaders differed. Kautsky supported it. Bebel supported abortion – but thought prior contraception “unnatural”. Wilhelm Liebknecht opposed all contraception as “immoral and offensive”. In the years before 1914 the SPD came round to supporting birth control as it was spreading among the German working class, but it failed to campaign for it, leaving this to individual socialists.

Masturbation was unquestionably the bête noire of almost every nineteenth-century writer on human sexuality. According to a writer in Neue Zeit, the party’s theoretical journal, masturbation was “a vice ... Certainly it is unnatural. For every sexual activity is unnatural which does not lead to the preservation of the species.” There “finally remains”, declared the pamphlet from the Workers’ Health Library, “only abstinence ...”; sexual energy should be sublimated through sports, gymnastics, an interest in politics, trade union activities and “a moderate, bland, largely vegetarian diet” for young people during the years of abstinence.

Yet the SPD was the first political party to campaign openly for the legalisation of male homosexuality, with a speech by Bebel in the Reichstag in 1898. As early as 1887 a petition was launched by an early gay rights group called the Scientific Humanitarian Committee against that part of the German penal code which dealt with homosexual acts. The SPD supported the petition, and it was signed by Hilferding, Kautsky, Bernstein and Kãthe Kollwitz, among others.

Yet Bernstein, himself gay, could write that masturbation could lead to “homosexuality, sodomy, pederasty and sado-masochism”. As with most subjects, the SPD had a whole range of confused views on sex.

33. Lion, p.155, and Fricke, Die deutsche Arbeiterbewegung, p.433.

34. C. Zetkin, Augewahlte Reden und Schriften (Berlin 1957) Vol.1.

35. Zetkin, p.622.

36. Zetkin, p.625.

37. P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg (London 1969), p.371-2.

38. Thönessen, p.119.

39. Quataert, pp.2 12-3 and 227.

40. Albrecht, p.488.

41. For a detailed account of the revolution which followed the First World War in Germany, and the failure of the revolutionary socialist Movement, see Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918-23 (London 1982).

42. R. Wheeler, Zur sozialen Struktur der Arbeiterbewegung am Anfang der Weimarer Republik, in H. Mommsen and others (editors), Industrielles System und politische Entwicklung in der Weimarer Republik (Düsseldorf 1974), p.182.

43. Thönessen, p.84.

44. Thönessen, pp.90-i.

45. Thönessen, p.91-2.

46. Quataert, p.223.

47. Quataert, p.122.

48. Evans, The Feminist Movement, pp.147-9 and 151.

49. Evans, pp.154-5.

50. Evans, p.157.

51. Evans, p.208.

52. Evans, p.244.

53. Evans, p.145.

54. Evans, p.259.


Last updated on 31.7.2002