August Bebel

The Enemy Sisters

Bebel’s epochmaking book Woman and Socialism did not include a separate discussion of the feminist movement, which was not far advanced when the book was first published in 1878; but its introduction did make some germinal remarks on the differences between socialist feminism and the bourgeois women’s movement. Following is a short passage from this introduction. It emphasises above all the principled basis for the counterposition.

The phrase ‘enemy sisters’ (in the fifth paragraph below) became well known to the socialist women. How it jarred on some sensibilities may be seen, in a way, in the major English translation of Bebel’s book, by the American socialist Meta L. Stern. This English version sought to dilute the impact of the phrase by rewriting the sentence a bit, so as to change ‘enemy sisters’ to ‘sister-women’: ‘Still these sisterwomen, though antagonistic to each other on class lines ...

Our Introduction to Part II has already stressed Bebel’s important aid to the women’s movement. His encouragement came from four directions: from his writings, from his help as head of the party, from speeches in the Reichstag, and also from personal support. One of the leading people in the Austrian socialist women’s movement, Adelheid Popp, relates in her autobiography how, one day, both Bebel and old Engels came to visit her mother to try to make the old lady understand what her daughter was doing, in order to help a promising woman militant.

If we assume the case, which is certainly not impossible, that the representatives of the bourgeois women’s movement achieve all their demands for equal rights with men, this would not entail the abolition of the slavery that present-day marriage means for countless women, nor of prostitution, nor of the material dependence of the great majority of married women on their husbands. Also, for the great majority of women it makes no difference if some thousands or tens of thousands of their sisters who belong to the more favourably situated ranks of society succeed in attaining a superior profession or medical practice or some scientific or official career, for nothing is thereby changed in the overall situation of the sex as a whole.

The female sex, in the mass, suffers from a double burden. Firstly, women suffer by virtue of their social and societal dependence on men; and this would certainly be ameliorated, but not eliminated, by formal equality of rights before the law. Secondly, they suffer by virtue of the economic dependence which is the lot of women in general and proletarian women in particular, as is true also of proletarian men.

Hence it follows that all women – regardless of their position in society, as a sex that has been oppressed, ruled, and wronged by men throughout the course of development of our culture – have the common interest of doing away with this situation and of fighting to change it, insofar as it can be changed through changes in laws and institutions within the framework of the existing political and social order. But the huge majority of women are also most keenly interested in something more: in transforming the existing political and social order from the ground up, in order to abolish both wage-slavery, which afaicts the female proletariat most heavily, and sex-slavery, which is very intimately bound up with our property and employment conditions.

The preponderant portion of the women in the bourgeois women’s movement do not comprehend the necessity of such a radical transformation. Under the influence of their privileged position in society, they see in the more far-reaching movement of the proletarian women dangerous and often detestable aspirations that they have to fight. The class antagonism that yawns like a gulf between the capitalist class and the working class in the general social movement, and that keeps on getting sharper and harsher with the sharpening of our societal relations, also makes its appearance inside the women’s movement and finds its fitting expression in the goals they adopt and the way they behave.

Still and all, to a much greater extent than the men divided by the class struggle, the enemy sisters have a number of points to contact enabling them to carry on a struggle in which they can strike together even thdugh marching separately. This is the case above all where the question concerns equality of rights of women with men on the basis of the present-day political and social order; hence the employment of women in all areas of human activity for which they have the strength and capacity, and also full civil and political equality of rights with men. These domains are very important and, as we will show later, very extensive. In connection with these aims, proletarian women have in addition a special interest, together with proletarian men, in fighting for all those measures and institutions that protect the woman worker from physical strength and capacity to bear children and initiate their upbringing. Beyond this, as already indicated, proletarian women have to take up the struggle, along with the men who are their comrades in class and comrades in social fortune, for a transformation of society from the ground up, to bring about a state of affairs making possible the real economic and intellectual independence of both sexes, through social institutions that allow everyone to share fully in all the achievements of human civilisation.

It is therefore a question not only of achieving equality of rights between men and women on the basis of the existing political and social order, which is the goal set by the bourgeois women’s-rightsers, but of going beyond that goal and abolishing all the barriers that make one human being dependent on another and therefore one sex on another. This resolution of the woman question therefore coincides completely with the resolution of the social question. Whoever seeks a resolution of the woman question in its full dimensions must therefore perforce join hands with those who have inscribed on their banner the resolution of the social question that faces civilisation for all humanity-that is, the socialists, the Social-Democracy.

Of all the existing parties, the Social-Democratic Party is the only one that has included in its programme the complete equality of women and their liberation from every form of dependence and oppression, not on grounds of propaganda but out of necessity, on grounds of principle. There can be no liberation of humanity without the social independence and equal rights of both sexes.

Last updated on 16.9.2007