Eleanor Marx

Bourgeois Feminism

In this section we present some little-known articles by Eleanor Marx written for the Austrian socialist women’s movement, with the direct encouragement of Engels, as part of a project to ‘straighten out’ the socialist women’s attitude toward bourgeois feminism.

As we have seen, the German socialist women’s movement got under way by the early 1890s. In spite of Zetkin’s influence, it should not be supposed, of course, that its ranks were as consciously Marxist as most of its leadership. On the contrary, there was inevitabty a considerable impact on its newly organised women by the bourgeois feminist circles outside. Later on, this was most clearly expressed within the socialist women by Lilly Braun, the leading Revisionist supporter among the women in the party. But in 1891 –92 the Revisionist tendency had not yet taken open form.

The establishment of Gleichheit in 1891 was a great help. The Austrian socialist women, too, planned to establish their own organ by autumn of that year, but in fact the first issue of their Arbeiterinnenzeitung (Working-Women’s Journal) did not appear till January 1892. During the preparatory months one of its important collaborators was Louise Kautsky (now divorced from Karl Kautsky but retaining the name), who was presently established in Engels’ London household as sort of general manager for the old man. Besides writing for the Arbeiterinnenzeitung herself, Louise together with Engels also worked at drumming up contributions to the paper from abroad.

During the preparatory months of 1891, Louise worked at getting contributions from two of the Marx daughters, Eleanor (London) and Laura Lafargue (Paris). From a letter by Engels to Laura, we see that the three women planned to use their contributions to the Vienna paper to clearly counterpose their own view of socialist feminism against the bourgeois-feminist influences of the day. Engels’ letter of 2nd October 1891 chortled that their articles ‘will create a sensation among the women’s rights women in Germany and Austria, as the real question has never been put and answered so plainly as you three do it.’ German working-women, he added, were ‘rushing’ into the socialist movement, according to Bebel’s reports, ‘and if that is the case, the antiquated semi-bourgeois women’s right ânesses [asses] will soon be ordered to the rear.’

All three did in fact write for the Vienna paper during 1892. Of greatest interest to us today were those written by Eleanor Marx. The most prominent issue all three addressed, in one way or another, was that of the bourgeois feminists’ hostility to protective legislation for working-women. Then, as now, this gave concrete substance to the class differences in the movements for women’s rights: which women? which rights?

The contributions of the three women were largely reportage, in form, not programmatic or analytical articles. Therefore they are best presented in the form of excerpts. Before getting to Eleanor Marx, we give an example from a piece by Louise Kautsky.

Louise Kautsky
The Women’s-Rightsers and
Reduction of the Working-Day for Women

Louise Kautsky here reports on an issue raised in the American feminist movement.

Although she was writing from Engels’ household, as it were, and no doubt discussed it with him, it is well to stress that Louise Kautsky was her own woman. We know incidentally that Engels worked at getting her the materials, from a letter he sent to his chief American correspondent, Sorge. There Engels conveys a request from Louise for the Boston Woman’s Journal, which Louise will quote as her main source. Engels writes:

She needed it for the Vienna Arbeitrinnenzeitung (she, Laura, and Tussy [Eleanor] are the chief contributors) and she says it could never occur to her to force the drivel of the American swell-mob-ladies upon working-women. What you have so kindly sent her has enabled her to become well-posted again and has convinced her that these ladies are still as supercillious and narrowminded as ever ...

Louise’s immediate subject was the bourgeois feminists’ attack in Massachusetts on a bill to reduce the working-day for women factory workers.

The Women’s Journal, which is published in Boston and for 22 years has successfully defended the rights of the women of the bourgeoisie, has a little article in its last issue (16th January, 1892) on the working-hours of female workers.

The reason these women concerned themselves wiih their proletarian sisters was a crying injustice done to them by the Massachusetts senate. A proposal was introduced there to reduce women’s work-day in the factories while leaving the men to work the usual hours. ‘There can be no doubt,’ says the Woman’s Journal writer, ‘that the proposal’s sponsor means well. But it is clear that the factory owner, who wants full use of his machines, will hire only workers who work the longest hours. If however the women’s work-day is to be arbitrarily reduced, all the women will be thrown out on the street. Women who work in the factories work there because they are forced by necessity to earn a living, and they want to earn as much as possible. It would therefore be good, before anything is done, to ask the female Factory Inspectors to consult with the female workers.’ So goes the article. I am quite sure that the women workers acclaimed the reduction of the work-day, for they know from practical experience that, in every factory where men and women work together, the number of women is much bigger; hence the reduction of their work-day necessarily brings in its train the reduction of the men’s hours too.

In England the first factory law protecting women workers over 18 dates from 7th June, 1844. In Capital, Vol.1 [Ch.10, §6], Karl Marx quotes a Factory Report of 1844-45, where it is said with irony: ‘No instances have come to my knowledge of adult women having expressed any regret at their rights being thus far interfered with.’

The pained cries of the propertied women in America that their working sisters might not be ruthlessly exploited comes as a worthy close to the debate in the English lower house that took place on 24th February. It was on the second reading of a bill about all persons employed in retail stores. Mr. Provand, the bill’s sponsor, pointed out that the only law dealing with retail employees and regulating their working hours dates back to 1889 and applies only to young people, not adult women. His bill would include the women workers in those enterprises under the coverage of this law, i.e. limit their work-day to only 12 hours.

Louise Kautsky then relates that this mild proposal met with opposition – from a number of honourable supporters of women’s suffrage, who rose to explain that, being for women’s right to vote, they wanted women themselves to determine their working hours ‘as they themselves wished, and without any legal limitations’. The hours bill would take away women’s rights to do whatever they wanted to do; the opponents stood for freedom, of course. Viscount Cranborne said that a number of women had pointed out to him that the bill meant employers would hire men to fill women’s jobs, and that these women were better off working hard than not working at all. It was further argued that it was unjust to reduce women’s working hours before giving them the vote; the priorities were first women’s suffrage, then cut hours.

The difference between the bourgeois women’s movement and the working-women’s movement is as clear as day. We are not hostile to the ‘women’s movement’, but we also have not the slightest reason to give it support ...

It is not my intention, and it would be absurd, to belittle the work burdens of women of the bourgeoisie, or to forget the difficulties with which Mrs. Garrett Anderson worked to open the medical schools to English women, or to forget the women who fought for women’s rights in the courts and on the platform, and forced the abolition of many laws that put women in an inferior position. But all the benefits thus achieved always redound only to the privileged classes; the working-women get little or no profit out of them; they can be unmoved spectators to the war of sexes in the upper class. But when these women use their preferential position to hamper the development of our working-women’s movement, then we are duty-bound to say: So far and no further.

Eleanor Marx
How Should We Organise?

In the 5th February 1892 issue of the paper, Eleanor Marx started a series of four articles, which began by posing the problem of how women should organise and then reported on how English working-women were organising in trade unions.

In their last session the 400 delegates to the International Socialist Congress in Brussels [1891] adopted the following resolution:

We call upon the socialist parties of all countries to give definite expression in their programmes to the strivings for complete equdisation of both sexes, and to demand fiat of all that women be granted the same rights as men in the civil-rights and political fields.

This resolution and this position on the suffrage gain even more meaning through the fact that in the first session of the Congress it was – expressly declared that a socialist workers’ congress had absolutely nothing to do with the womens-rightsers. Just as on the war question the Congress stressed the difference between the ordinary bourgeois peace league, which cries ‘Peace, peace’ where there is no peace, and the economic peace party, the socialist party, which wants to remove the causes of war – so too with regard to the ‘woman question’ the Congress equally clearly stressed the difference between the party of the ‘women’s-rightsers’ on the one side, who recognised no class struggle but only a struggle of sexes, who belong to the possessing class, and who want rights that would be an injustice against their working-class sisters, and, on the other side, the real women’s party, the socialist party, which has a basic understanding of the economic causes of the present adverse position of working-women and which calls on the working-women to wage a common fight hand-in-hand with the men of their class against the common enemy, viz. the men and women of the capitalist class.

The Brussels resolution is excellent as a declaration of principle – but what about its practical execution? How are women to achieve the civil and political rights it demands? For, so long as we do not soberly and realistically consider what must be done, nothing will come of theoretical proclamations on what-ought-to-be. It is not enough to point to the class struggle. The workers must also learn what weapons to use and how to use them; which positions to attack and which previously won advantages to maintain. And that is why the workers are now learning when and where to resort to strikes and boycotts, how to achieve protective legislation for workers, and what has to be done so that legislation already achieved does not remain a dead letter. And now, what do we women have to do? One thing without any doubt. We will organise – organise not as ‘women’ but as proletarians; not as female rivals of our working men but as their comrades in struggle.

And the most serious question of all is: how should we organise? Now, it seems to me that we must commence by organising as trade-unionists using our united strength as a means of reaching the ultimate goal, the emancipation of our class. The job will not be easy. In fact, the conditions of female labour are such that it is often heartbreakingly difficult to make progress. But from day to day the job will become easier, and it will begin to look less and less difficult in proportion as the women and especially the men learn to see what strength lies in the unification of all workers.

The Austrian working-women (Eleanor Marx went on to say) are showing why know how to organise, but they can learn from what their sisters are doing in other countries. In a series of articles reporting on women’s unions in England, three conclusions will emerge:

  1. Wherever women organise, their position improves – that is, wages go up, hours are reduced, working conditions are improved.
  2. It works to the advantage of the men at least as much as of the women when the latter organise and their wages are regarded as real workers’ wages and not as little supplements to the general household fund.
  3. Except in quite special trades, it is essential, in the case of unskilled workers especially, that men and women be members of one and the same trade-union, just as they are members of one and the same workers’ party.

Eleanor Marx
On the Working-Women’s Movement in England

In her next letter Eleanor Marx started her account of women’s trade-union organisation in England and its problems.

The article begins with a summary of the progress made by women’s tradeunions since the start of the ‘New Unionism,’ marked by a match workers’ strike, the founding of the Gas Workers Union [of which Eleanor herself was an organiser and Executive member], and the great dock strike, etc.

Although we are happy to see this progress and also recognise the progress made by the organisation of the workers, we cannot close our eyes to the fact that women still remain considerably behind and that the results actually attained by years of work are pitifully small.

Even in the textile industry, the first site of women’s trade union organisation, there are still great inadequacies. Firstly, in many cases women still remain unorganised, though this situation is becoming less frequent; for the unions see how unorganised women workers become the employers’ weapon against them. (Two examples are given.) Secondly, the women unionists often have no voice in the administration of their union:

For example, in Lancashire and Yorkshire, where the women almost without exception belong to unions, pay regular dues and of course also draw benefits from them, they have absolutely no part in the leadership of these organisations, no voice in the administration of their own funds, and up to now have never become delegates to their own union’s congresses. Representation and administration lie wholly in the hands of the men workers.

The main reason for this apparent indifference and apathy on the part of the women can easily be discerned; it is common to a large part of all women’s organisations and we cannot ignore it here. The reason is that even today women still have two duties to fulfill: in the factory they are proletarians and earn a daily wage on which they and their children live in large part; but they are also household slaves, unpaid servants of their husbands, fathers and brothers. Even before going to the factory early in the morning, women have already done so much that if the men had to do it they would consider it a right good piece of work. Noon hour, which promises the men some rest at least, means no rest for the women. And finally evening, which the poor devil of a man claims for himself, must also be used for work by the even poorer devil of a woman. The housework must be done; the children must be taken care of; clothes must be washed and mended. In short, if men in an English factory town work ten hours, women have to work at least sixteen. How then can they show an active interest in anything else? It is a physical impossibility. And yet it is in these factory towns that on the whole women have it best. They make ‘good’ wages, the men cannot get along without their work, and therefore they are relatively independent. It is only when we come to the towns or districts where woman labour means nothing but sweating work, where a great deal of home work [done at home for an employer] is the rule, that we find the worst conditions and the greatest need for organisation.

In recent years much work has been done on this problem, but I am dutybound to say that the results bear no relation to the efforts made. However, the relatively small results, it seems to me, are not always due to the miserable conditions under which most of the female workers live. I think, rather, an important part of the reason is the way most of the women’s unions have been established and led. We find that most of them are led by people from the middle class, women as well as men. No doubt these people mean well up to a certain point, but they cannot understand and do not want to understand what the movement of the working class really is about. They see the misery about them, they feel uneasy, and they would like to ‘ameliorate’ the conditions of the unfortunate workers. But they do not belong to us.

Take the two organisations in London that have worked hard to help build women’s unions. The older one is the Women’s Trades Union Provident League; the newer one is the Women’s Trade Union Association. The latter’s aims are somewhat more advanced than the former’s, but both are organised, led and supported by the most respectable and ingrained bourgeois types, men as well as women. Bishops, clergymen, bourgeois MP’s and their even more petty-bourgeois-minded wives, rich and aristocratic ladies and gentlemen – these are the patrons of a large number of women’s unions.

Such shameless exploiters of labour as the millionaire Lord Brassen and such ‘ladies’ as the wife of the arch-reactionary Sir Julian Goldschmid hold salon tea-parties to support the Women’s League, while Lady Dilke utilises the movement for her husband’s political interests. How little these people understand about labour is evidenced by their amazement that the women at one meeting ‘revealed a very intelligent interest in ... the wise counsels of their economic superiors!’

We hope and believe that working-women will take an equally ‘intelligent interest’ in their own affairs and that they will take them over themselves, and above all that they will form a large and lively sector in the great modern movement of the proletariat. To a certain extent they have already done so.

Eleanor Marx
[A Women’s Trade Union]

In two ensuing letters in this series, Eleanor Marx continued her sketch of the English working-women’s movement, describing the impcat of the ‘old unionism’ and the ‘new unionism: and a number of industries and situations involving women’s activity. The following extract is from the fourth letter, published 20th May 1892; it deals with an all-women’s union:

The new Union of women cigarmakers, which I mentioned in my last letter, was founded about three years ago. Its members do not belong to the men’s union, although the two unions work together. To the outsider it seems deplorable that the two unions do not wholly merge, albeit working together. The reason adduced by the men against amalgamation is that the women almost always view their work as a temporary thing and regard marriage as their real trade, one that frees them from the need to earn their own living. Of course, in the vast majority of cases marriage does not reduce the woman’s work but doubles it, since she not only works for wages but also has to do hard unpaid ‘household’ labour into the unholy bargain. In spite of all this, the women unfortunately do look on their work as temporary all too often, and defend this attitude of the men, who regard their wage-labour as ‘lifelong’ and are therefore much more eager to improve the conditions they work under.

In London, explains the article, the women cigarmakers make 25-50% less than men, especially because they are kept in the lowlier kind of ‘preparation work’; and men workers complain when employers give women better jobs at lower wages, thus undercutting the general wage-rate. The remedy, however, is not to oppose such jobs for women but to demand equal pay. After discussing the work of the laundresses’ union against horrible conditions, Eleanor adds a comment on two kinds of bourgeois women. The Laundresses had sent a delegation to Parliament to demand coverage under the Factory Act –

It is worth while to make the point that immediately Mrs. Fawcett, the reactionary bourgeois advocate of women’s rights (of the rights of property-owning women), who has never worked a day in her life, along with Miss Lupton, an anarchist (likewise a woman of the middle class), sent a counterdelegation to protest against this intervention on woman labour!

To be just, I must mention another woman of the middle class, May Abrahams, the indefatigable secretary and organiser of the Laundresses Union. It is largely thanks to her that these women now clearly understand the urgent question of governmental limitation of the work-day.

Eleanor Marx
Women’s Trade Unions in England

This was a polemical reply to an article, which the Arbeiterinnenzeitung had reprinted from another periodical, by a Mrs. Ichenhauser, dealing with the above subject. Most of the long reply is a very factual exposure of the distortions and poor information in Ichenhauser’s account, which was mainly a glorification of the Women’s Trades Union Provident League (which had been discussed in the second article of the series). In the course there is a trenchant picture of what it means when the lords, ladies and bishops of the charitable League hold their tea parties for their working-women wards – we here excerpt passages in which the article generalises on the relation between bourgeois feminism and socialism.

An old proverb says, ‘The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.’ Women workers can well understand the demands of the bourgeois women’s movement; they can and should even take a sympathetic attitude toward these demands; only, the goals of the women-workers and the bourgeois women are very different.

Once for all, I would like to present my standpoint clearly, and I think I speak for many women. As women we certainly have a lively concern about winning for women the same rights as men, including working men, already possess today. But we believe that this ‘women’s question’ is an essential component in the general question of the emancipation of labour.

There is no doubt that there is a women’s question. But for us – who gain the right to be counted among the working class either by birth or by working for the workers’ cause – this issue belongs to the general working-class movement. We can understand, sympathise, and also help if need be, when women of the upper or middle class fight for rights that are well-founded and whose achievement will benefit working-women also. I say, we can even help: has not the Communist Manifesto taught us that it is our duty to support any progressive movement that benefits the workers’ cause, even if this movement is not our own?

If every demand raised by these women were granted today, we working-women would still be just where we were before. Women-workers would still work infamously long hours, for infamously low wages, under infamously unhealthful conditions; they would still have only the choice between prostitution and starvation. It would be still more true than ever that, in the class struggle, the working-women would find the good women among their bitter enemies; they would have to fight these women just as bitterly as their working-class brothers must fight the capitalists. The men and women of the middle class need a ‘free’ field in order to exploit labour. Has not the star of the women’s rights movement, Mrs. Fawcett, declared herself expressly in opposition to any legal reduction of working hours for femaIe workers? It is interesting and worth mentioning that, on this question, the orthodox women’s-rightser and my good friend Mr. Base, the weak epigone of Schopenhauer’s, both take absolutely the same position. For this women’s-rightser as for this misogynist, ‘woman’ is just woman. Neither of them sees that there is the exploiter woman of the middle class and the exploited woman of the working class. For us, however, the difference does exist. We see no more in common between a Mrs. Fawcett and a laundress than we see between Rothschild and one of his employees. In short, for us there is only the working-class movement.

The articles make a short digression to pay tribute to a little-known woman. Eleanor relates that when her father wrote a reply to an attack on the International by a labour leader named George Howell, the ‘respectable’ magazine refused to print it

... so my father had to turn to a working woman who at that time edited a little weekly freethinkers’ paper. She was pleased to print Karl Marx’s reply to Mr. George Howell. The connection between Ms. Ichenhauser, my father, and the aforementioned Mrs. Harriet Law is not so far outside the scope of this article as it appears. Mrs. Law was the only woman who sat on the General Council of the International; she had already worked for years for her sex and class, long before the distinguished Mrs. Paterson who is credited by Ms. Ichenhauser with starting the movement. Mrs. Law was one of the first to recognise the importance of a women’s organisation from the proletarian point of view. Few speak of her today; few remember her. But one day when the history of the labour movement in England is written, the name of Harriet Law will be entered into the golden book of the proletariat.

Near the end of the article is another short summary passage. Eleanor has just made the point that the lords and ladies of the charitable Women’s League are trying to ‘mend the decayed and rotten conditions of today’ whereas ‘we stand on the class-struggle viewpoint.’

For us there is no more a ‘women’s question’ from the bourgeois standpoint than there is a men’s question. Where the bourgeois women demand rights that are of help to us too, we will fight together with them, just as the men of our class did not reject the right to vote because it came from the bourgeois class. We too will not reject any benefit, gained by the bourgeois women in their own interests, which they provide us willingly or unwillingly. We accept these benefits as weapons, weapons that enable us to fight better on the side of our working-class brothers. We are not women arrayed in struggle against men but workers who are in struggle against the exploiters.

Last updated on 16.9.2007