Clara Zetkin

On a Bourgeois Feminist Petition

The special interest of the following material is that it is a controversy between Clara Zetkin and the editors of the central party organ Vorwärts, published in the columns of the party newspaper, hence a public intra-party argument – but the subject of the controversy is the socialists’ attitude toward the bourgeois feminist movement.

The date, January 1895, precedes the invention of Bernstein’s ‘revisionism’, for Bernstein was going to publish his first articles along those lines only the following year.

The issue that triggered this argument was, as often, minor in itself. German law prohibited meetings and organisations by women, and this anti-democratic restriction was one of the main targets of the socialist women. Full democratic rights for women had already been proposed in the Reichstag by the Social-Democratic Party deputies. To the socialist women’s movement, the right to organise was above all bound up with the fight for workingwomen’s demands. Now along came a petition sponsored by three individual women to ask for this right-in a framework which, in Zetkin’s view, was entirely adapted to the bourgeois women’s attitudes and unacceptable to the proletarian women’s movement.

She argues that socialist women should not give this petition their signatures or support. At first Vorwärts had also criticised the petition along the same lines, but then made a change of front (without consultation) and indicated that there was no reason why socialist women should not sign it. It was apparently enough for the editors that the petition’s sponsors had included one Social-Democratic woman (not chosen by the socialist women themselves) and that they had stated they wanted socialist signatures. Zetkin argues that what is decisive is the political grounds given in the petition itself which deliberately ignores the point of view of working-women.

Vorwärts published Zetkin’s protest in its issue of January 24th, 1895, and replied in a peculiar way. It did not append a systematic refutation but rather peppered Zetkin’s article with editorial footnotes. These footnotes are not included with the article below but are discussed following it. Zetkin sent the paper a rejoinder the next day – that is, a comment on the editorial footnotes – and this, published on February 7th, was itself peppered with footnotes again.

On the publication of Zetkin’s protest in Vorwärts, Engels sent an enthusiastic hurrah to an Austrian comrade: ‘Clara is right ... Bravo Clara!’

It is interesting that the more or less official biography of Zetkin published in contemporary East Germany, by Luise Dornemann, is rather apologetic about its subject’s ‘harshness’ toward the bourgeois feminists – a bit like the Vorwärts editors rather, though Dornemann does not mention this 1895 polemic at all. Still, Domemann’s emphasis on the other side of the coil is valid, and we quote it to round out the picture. Dornemann writes:

‘If Clara’s attitude toward the bourgeois women’s movement, particularly at the beginning of the 1890s, was occasionally harsh, this was conditioned on the need to work on the class character and independent character of the socialist women’s movement. Taking it as a whole, however, the bourgeois women hardly had a better helped than Clara Zetkin. There was no problem of the women teachers, or actresses, or women tying to study and work in medicine and law, that was not dealt with in Gleichheit, no significant literature which it did not take a position on. There were no congresses, campaigns or big events organised by the bourgeois women that Gleichheit failed to report on.’

Dornemann further emphasises that Zetkin had friendly relations with a number of bourgeois women’s righters, ‘the best of them’; though, to be sure, ‘she found more to criticise in the bourgeois women’s movement than to approve.’ In other words, Clara Zetkin was altogether willing to unite forces with the bourgeois women for common objectives, but not to subordinate the working-women’s movement to the aims and style of the women’s-rightsers.

We here present Zetkin’sfirst protest to Vorwärts followed by a summary of the main points and passages in the subsequent exchange. The source of the text is the same as for §2.

Last summer 22 women’s rights organisations joined in an alliance which, in a petition to the kaiser, ‘most humbly’ implored the legal prohibition of prostitution and severe punishment of prostitutes, pimps, etc. by means of a cabinet order by the kaiser and allied princes. The lackey-like tone favoured in the petition was worthily complemented by its socio-political ignorance, redolent of a beggar’s plea, and by the presumptuousness with which the organisations ‘dared’ to beg because their representatives would be accepted as ‘authorities on women’s affairs.’ New we find three whole women who ask in a petition for the right of assembly and association for the female sex. Three whole women have taken the initiative, on behalf of bourgeois women’s circles, to win a right whose lack is one of the most significant features of the social subordination of the female sex in Germany!

The petition addresses itself to women ‘of all parties and all classes.’ Even the signatures of proletarian women, of Social-Democratic women, are welcomed.

I will not raise the question whether it is necessary for proletarian women to sign a petition for the right of assembly and association at a point when the party, which represents their interests as well as the male proletariat’s, has introduced a bill to this end in the Reichstag. As we know, the Social-Democratic Reichstag group has proposed that the laws on association and assembly now existing in the individual states be recognised on a national legal basis, and that equal rights for both sexes be included in this reorganisation as well as legal guarantee of the unrestricted exercise of freedom to organise. So it demands not only what the petition requests but much more besides.

It may well be that to some people, perhaps even many, support to this petition by organised workers and its signing by proletarian women appears ‘expedient’ – expediency certainly smiles more sweetly for many in our party than principle does. Such a petition supported by a mass of signatures .seems to them an excellent demonstration of favour of the Social-Democratic proposal, a proof that the widest circles of women as a whole feel the pressing need for the right of association and assembly. From my point of view, even without the petition such a demonstration has been given once and for all; the proof that the reform demanded is a just one was given long ago, permanently and emphatically, in the form of the dogged and bitter struggle carried on for years against the rights of association and assembly by the allied forces of police and judiciary. In this struggle the police actively showed the full vigour which has earned the highest respect for the German officialdom’s loyalty to duty in the eyes of the possessing classes. The judiciary, for their part, show an interpretive skill which ordinary human understanding has not always been able to appreciate. One dissolution of a proletarian women’s organisation follows upon another; one prohibition of a women’s meeting follows upon another; the exclusion of women from public meetings is an everyday affair; penalties against women for violating the law on association simply rain down. From 1st October 1893 to 31st August 1894 proletarian women had to pay 681 marks worth of fines for such offences; and this only in cases that came to my knowledge. Despite all, new associations regularly rise in place of the organisations that were smashed; over and over again women throng to rallies, over and over again they organise new ones.

The proletarian woman, living in straitened circumstances if not bitter poverty and overburdened with work, continues to make the sacrifice of time and energy required by organisational activity; bravely she exposes herself to the legal consequences and accepts the penalties that hang over her head ‘in the name of the law.’ These facts are to my mind the most indubitable proof that it is an urgent interest of life itself which makes the possession of freedom of association necessary for the proletarian woman and not a desire for political games or club socialising. If the Reichstag and the government do not understand the urgent language of these facts, they will bend their ears even less favourably to a petition.

Here it will perhaps be objected: ‘Well, even if the petition is of no use, still it does no harm. It is a question of broadening the rights of the disfranchised female sex, therefore we will support it and sign it.’ Very nice, I reply; but if this approach is taken, the petition must still somehow jibe with the bases of our proletarian viewpoint, or at least – to put it moderately – it must not stand in sharp contradiction with our viewpoint. This is not at all the case, on the contrary. The petition stems from bourgeois circles, it breathes a bourgeois spirit throughout – indeed, in many details, even a narrowly bourgeois spirit.

It baffles us, then, why Social-Democratic papers should push this petition and quasi-officially urge organised workers to support it and proletarian women to sign it. Since when is it the habit of the Social- Democratic Party to support petitions that stem from bourgeois circles and bear the marks of a bourgeois outlook on their forehead simply because such petitions ask for something valid, something the Social- Democracy also demands and has long demanded? Let us suppose that bourgeois democrats had put forward a petition whose purpose was the same as or similar to that of the women’s petition under discussion, of the same character. The Social-Democratic press would criticise the petition but would in no way encourage comrades or class-conscious workers to trail along after bourgeois elements. Why should our principled standpoint with respect to the politics of the bourgeois world change because by chance an example of these politics comes from women and demands not a reform on behalf of the so-called social aggregate but rather one on behalf of the female sex? If we are willing to give up our principled attitude for this reason, we likewise give up our view that the women’s question can only be understood, and demands raised, in connection with the social question as a whole.

In No.7 of January 9, Vorwärts took a thoroughly correct attitude to the petition. It took notice of it, criticised it, and pointed out that it took up an old socialist demand. Unfortunately, and to my great amazement, Vorwärts changed its line overnight. Why? Because it was given to understand that the motivating preamble of the petition did not deserve the criticism made of it. That this assurance and an allusion to remarks in a ‘communication’ decided Vorwärts to make a change of front – this I must emphatically deplore. And in spite of the ‘communication’, the charge made against the petition – that its motivating preamble is most defective – remains in full force. The ‘communication’ in fact has not the slightest thing to do with the petition and its preamble. It is nothing but an accompanying note, a circular letter to people whose signatures are solicited in support of the petition. It says: ‘Among the "special interests" of women which are not detailed in the petition for the sake of brevity, the job situation of women especially requires a legislative bill in line with the petition.’

Should this passage be taken as a statement of advice on the value of freedom of association and assembly for proletarian women? We say thanks for this information but we don’t need it. The proletariat recognised, much earlier that the authors of this petition, the value of freedom of organisation for all its members without distinction of sex. And in conformity with this recognition the proletariat fights for the conquest of this right. Should the passage be taken as an assurance that the maternal parents of this petition are themselves conscious of the significance of this right and its basis? We hopefully note this token of a socio-political comprehension that is commonly lacking among German women’s rightsers. But this passage has no significance as far as the petition itself is concerned. As far as the petition and its possible consideration are concerned, it is not a matter of what its sponsors and signers had in mind for its preamble but rather what grounds they put forward in its favour. In the preamble of the petition there is not a word about the fact that for the interests of independently employed women the possession of the right of association and assembly is an imperative necessity. The petition lacks precisely the ground on the basis of which the proletariat espouses the demand. It lacks the ground which is so essential for this legislative reform that – according to uncontradicted newspaper accounts – in Bavaria Centre Party people will introduce a bill in the next session of the state Diet which will demand the right of association and assembly for the female sex out of consideration for women’s economic situation.

There is an air of embarrassment in the statement of the accompanying note that the pertinent ground was not introduced into the preamble of the petition for reasons of space. Indeed – then why didn’t the saving consideration of brevity prevent the preamble from making the special point that one of the effects of women on legislation due to freedom of association is urgently presented as being on the ‘morality question’. What the bourgeois women want from the lawmakers under the head of the ‘morality question’ is made sufficiently clear by the above-mentioned petition to the kaiser [on prostitution].

In my opinion, proletarian women, politically conscious comrades least of all, cannot sign a petition which on the pretext of ‘brevity’ passes over in silence the most important ground for the reform demanded from the proletarian standpoint, while regardless of ‘brevity’ it stresses a ground which would be laughed at from a halfway clarified socio-political viewpoint, as the product of a very naive ignorance of social relations. Proletarian circles have not the least occasion to pin a certificate of poverty on their own socio-political judgment by solidarising themselves with a petition of this content.

Still another reason makes it impossible for the socialist movement to come out in favour of this petition. The petition does not call on the Reichstag or a Reichstag group for a bill along the lines of the reform in question; it simply requests the Reichstag to send the plea for such a bill to the federated German governments. The petition therefore ignores the competence of the Reichstag to introduce bills on this subject itself and assigns it the modest role of a porter who opens the door for the petitioners to the higher government authority. The Social-Democracy cannot support such a procedure and cannot join in it. The Social-Democracy has at all times fought the duality of the legislative power as it exists in Germany thanks to the fact that our bourgeoisie has not broken the power of absolutism but made a cowardly deal with it. The Social-Democracy has to put up with the fact that this duality exists; indeed, that the legislative authorities – the government and the people’s representatives – do not confront one another as factors of equal power but that the latter is subordinate to the former; whereas the Social-Democracy had always fought with every legal means at its disposal for the people’s representatives to be what they should be. Among the few rights and powers, that parliament possesses in the noble German Reich is the right to introduce proposals that make demands in the name of the people instead of addressing pleas to the government. The petition, however, avoids the only straight route to the Reichstag. Proletarian women can have nothing to do with this and don’t want to. Anyway, at the very least, not at this moment when the governments are launching the sharpest battle against the organisational activity of proletarian women and when the federated governments have introduced the Anti-Subversive bill. Proletarian women who expect a reform of the laws on association and assembly in accordance with their own interests to come from our governments would try to pick figs from thorns and grapes from thistles.

If the bourgeois women wanted temporary collaboration with proletarian women for a common goal on behalf of the petition, then it is evident that the petition would be formulated in such a way that workingwomen could sign it without compromising themselves and their aims. Such a formulation would have been premised on a prior understanding with the representatives of the class-conscious proletarian women. As the sponsors of the petition well know, there is a [socialist] Commission on Women’s Work in Berlin. Why didn’t the petition’s sponsors come to this commission with the following two questions:

  1. Are you perhaps prepared to support the planned petition? And
  2. How does this petition have to be put so that it can be supported and signed by proletarian women without abandoning their own viewpoint?

Such a mode of procedure should have been self-evident and would have been dictated by good sense and courtesy if one wanted the signatures of proletarian women. The formulation of the petition and its sponsors’ mode of procedure are characteristic of the outlook of bourgeois women and their relationship to the world of proletarian women. One is humanitarian enough to do something for one’s ‘poorer sisters’ under certain circumstances, and one is smart enough under all circumstances to accept their menial services, but to work together with them as if with a coequal power – well, that’s an altogether different matter, you yokel.

The sponsors of the petition will refer to their ‘good intentions’ and insist they were very far from having any conscious antagonism to the outlook of the proletarian women. But that cannot induce us to take a different view of their mode of procedure. In the name of good intentions people have long committed not only the greatest crimes but also the grossest stupidities. And the fact that the thought processes of the petitions’ sponsors instinctively and unconsciously ran in a direction diametrically opposed to the proletarian outlook is indeed a sign of the gulf that separates us from them.

I believe that I speak not only in my own name but in the name of the majority of class-conscious proletarian women when I say:

Not one proletarian signature for this petition!

The Editors’ Reply and Zetkin’s Rejoinder

The refutatory footnotes appended by the Vorwärts editors had the advantage of telling the reader what was wrong with Zetkin even before the article itself was read. A footnote hung from the title announced: ‘We are giving space to the following article without being in agreement with everything in it. We remark above all that we are as concerned about fidelity to principles in the party as Comrade Zetkin and Gleichheit. The sharp missiles hurled by Comrade Zetkin do not seem appropriate for the fight she is carrying on; they should be reserved for weightier targets.’

This was in part the usual recommendation that leftists should go expend their energies on the capitalist class (only) instead of bothering party leaders. The injection of Gleichheit was more malicious, for Zetkin had written in her personal capacity; in effect the editors indicated that they viewed Gleichheit as an oppositional organ. Zetkin took note of this at the end of her rejoinder. This first editorial note also adduced the information that one of the three petition sponsors was a Social-Democratic Party member and that the petition had been signed by some women party members before the offending Vorwärts article was published. To this, Zetkin replied that

... the fact that the petition was co-authored by a member of our party and that some comrades have signed it does not make it any better or above criticism. We do not form an opinion of a public question and especially not of a party question on the basis of individuals and their intentions but rather on the basis of whether or not it tallies in essence with our fundamental standpoint. That comrades have signed the petition is easily accounted for.

The special disfranchised position of the female sex, which is exacerbated for proletarian women because of the social subordination they suffer as members of the proletariat, leads one or another good comrade to assimilate the class-conscious female proletarian, the female Social-Democrat, with Woman. Far be it from me to cast a stone at her for that, but far be it from me likewise to approve her attitude, or, above all, to elevate this attitude to a level by virtue of which any criticism of the petition must not hurt a fly. I confidently leave it to the comrades of both sexes to draw the conclusions that would follow from generalising the standpoint from which Vorwärts here counterposes my article to the petition.

The last sentence points to the analogy with Social-Demomatic Party attitudes towards bourgeois liberalism, on the general political scene.

In their second note, the editors brought out the time-honoured ‘step forward’ argument. It is appended to Zetkin’s most cogent passage on the basic politics of the whole thing, emphasising that ‘the women’s question can only be understood, and demands raised, in connection with the social question as a whole.’ The editors answered: ‘We cannot recognise the grave offence that Comrade Zetkin constructs here.’ Women are entirely disfranchised; bourgeois women are politically untrained; ‘hence every step toward independence is a step forward.’ A minister, von Köller, had attacked the petition ‘as a sign of growing "subversive tendencies"’; presumably, the minister’s attack proved that socialists should support what he disliked, Zetkin replied.

Certainly, every step by the bourgeois woman in the direction of independence is a forward step. However, the recognition of this fact must not, in my opinion, lead the politically developed proletarian women’s movement to go along with the vacillating, inept and groping bourgeois women’s-rightsers or even overestimate their significance. If Herr von Köller treated the petition as marking the growth of the danger of revolution and attributed a great significance to it, we have to put that down to a minister who is officially responsible for labouriously sweating to scrape together evidence of the growth of ‘subversive tendencies.’

Perhaps the most significant admission came in the editor’s attempt to answer one of Zetkin’s most telling points The petition sponsors gave brevity as their reason for omitting the motivating grounds important to working-women – namely, their economic situation; but, Zetkin pointed out, brevity did not prevent these women from including their own bourgeois considerations, like the ‘morality question’.

The editors replied in a footnote: ‘We too criticised this, but we found that one excuse – even though not an adequate one – was the fact that the original authoress of the petition, on tactical grounds, did not want to forgo the signatures of bourgeois women, and [note this!] she would have had to forgo them if this had been the leading ground given in the petition as published.’ So-bourgeois women would have refused to sign a petition which gave space to working-women’s economic needs, even though it also emphasised their own motivations!

Very class-conscious indeed. But the working-women, in contrast, were expected to be so alien to class-consciousness that they would sign even if their own considerations were nowhere included. Little else was needed to bring out the conscious class character of the petition. Zetkin commented:

I quite understand that for the authors of the petition ‘tactical considerations’ with respect to bourgeois women were decisive in many ways. But why did they not let themselves be swayed by similar ‘tactical considerations’ with respect to proletarian women? Why did they make all concessions to the biases of bourgeois women, and why did they demand of the proletarian women that they give up their own views? What is right for the one must also be fair for the other if they wanted their support.

Zetkin’s rejoinder summed up a number of questions as follows:

As for the sharp tone which I adopted and which Vorwärts objected to: I considered it necessary for a special reason. The appearance of the most recent tendency in bourgeois feminism, which I would like to call the ‘ethical’ tendency [1], has here and there caused some confusion in the ranks of our women comrades. This new tendency raises more demands in the field of women’s rights than its sister tendencies and does so more energetically, and in its social understanding, its recognition and critique of social wrongs and its espousal of certain social reforms, it stands a step higher than the others. And it is for this reason that there are various illusions in the socialist camp concerning the character of this tendency and its significance for our proletarian women’s movement. Not long ago, indeed, I got letters from party circles saying that ‘these women are essentially striving for the same goal as we are!’ In view of the wobbliness that is spreading in our estimation of the abovementioned bourgeois tendency, the sharpness of tone seemed to me to be required. At present, I hope, all these illusions have once and for all been ended by [the bourgeois feminist] Mrs. Gizyeki’s explicit protest against the report that she had declared herself in support of the Social-Democratic women’s movement. (Vorwärts, 23rd of last month).

Since none of Vorwärts footnotes is directed against the actual, essential views of my article, but simply against incidental points. I believe I may take it that it too agrees with the gist of my exposition. In any case, in view of the present state of the matter, it would be a good thing if it stated clearly and forthrightly whether it recommends that women comrades sign the petition or not. With that the matter would be settled for me, at least as far as the petition is concerned. [2]

In conclusion, however, an important personal observation. My remarks consisted of nothing but a statement about Vorwärts’ change of front in the matter of the petition and the expression of my regret over it. No sharp attack. The only somewhat sharper passage against Vorwärts that was originally in my article was stricken by the editors. In my exposition I neither pointed to Gleichheit nor even mentioned it; in general, nowhere and never have I played Gleichheit off against Vorwärts as being specially faithful to principle. How did Vorwärts come to drag Gleichheit into the debate? And when and where have I, after the fashion of Vorwärts, given myself a testimonial in self-praise of my special fidelity to principle? The self-serving testimonial which Vorwärts confers on its own attitude I have duly given the same attention with which, out of a sense of duty, I follow all of Vorwärts pronouncements.

Whether, however, this attention has produced any change in my opinion, of Vorwärts is another story, but this is the least opportune time to write it and Vorwärts is the least opportune place.


1. At this point the editors appended a footnote protesting that ‘No party paper has drawn the line of demarcation more energetically than Vorwärts between the ethical movement and the Social-Democracy which bases itself on the class struggle.’ But Zetkin was explaining why some women comrades were being taken in by the new bourgeois feminists, who counterposed their broad (’ethical’) non-class motivations to the ‘narrow’ class position of the socialist women, in the usual fashion.

2. To this paragraph, the editors appended two footnotes (one to the first and another to the second sentence) in which, in effect, they threw up the sponge, without having the candour to say so. The first note read: ‘We don’t mind agreeing that Comrade Zetkin is right in principle, but we believe that she makes too much to-do about a mere nothing.’ The second note: ‘It is self-evident that, in accordance with the statements of the Commission of Women’s Work which Vorwärts published along with other papers, Vorwärts has no occasion to recommend signing the petition.’ What was now ‘self-evident’ to the editors was that the women of the movement were against them, and that the Vorwärts position had no other party sanction. So Zetkin was right in principle and right in the specific proposal to boycott the bourgeois-feminist petition. Having exhausted their good nature in making this confession, the editors then appended a final Parthian shot to the last word of Zetkin’s rejoinder: ‘With this, we can and must leave Comrade Zetkin in peace.’ This was simply a parting snarl – which, furthermore, would probably have been restrained if its target had been a male leader of the movement.

Last updated on 28.12.2008