Alexandra Kollontai 1907-1916

International Socialist Conferences of Women Workers

Source: Alexandra Kollontai: Selected Articles and Speeches, Progress Publishers, 1984;
First Published: International Socialist Conferences of Women Workers 1918, abridged;
Transcribed: Sally Ryan for, 2000;
Proofed: and corrected by Chris Clayton 2006.

The First International Conference of Socialist Women - Stuttgart. 1907

A new danger is threatening the domination of the bourgeoisie – women workers are resolutely adopting the path of international class organisation. The downtrodden, submissive slaves humbly bowing before the omnipotence of the modern Moloch of capital are, under the reviving influence of socialist doctrine, lifting their heads and raising their voices in defence of their interests as women and their common class interests.

While the 'poison of socialist doctrine' had infected only one half of the working class, while opposition was concentrated exclusively in the male section of the proletariat, the capitalists could breathe freely; they still had in their power an inexhaustible supply of compliant workers always ready obediently and selflessly to enrich by their labour the happy owners of the instruments of production. With unconscious calculation the bourgeoisie availed itself of the advantage offered by this state of affairs: it set one half of the proletariat against the other, shattered its unity, compelled the women to appear as the menacing rivals of their menfolk, sapping the class solidarity of the workers. With malicious smugness it countered the resistance of united proletarians with the indifference of the unconscious female elements, and the more ignorant and dispersed the women remained, the more unsuccessful was the struggle waged by the organised elements of the working class.

However, the class consciousness of the women workers, once aroused, was sufficient to compel them to grasp the hand of friendship held out to them by their male worker comrades and adopt the path of open and stubborn resistance. The involvement of proletarian women in the common class struggle, and their growing solidarity have shaken the usual self-confidence of the bourgeoisie and spread alarm in place of its previous tranquillity: the increasing organisation of the female proletariat removes the last defenceless victim of capitalist exploitation. The ground is disappearing from beneath the feet of the bourgeoisie, and the light of the approaching social revolution glows ever more brightly.

Is it therefore surprising that the bourgeoisie is doubly hostile to any sign of protest among women workers, and to any attempt on their part to defend their needs and interests as women and their common class interests and needs? Even in the most democratic and advanced countries everything possible is done to make it difficult for women to defend their labour interests. To grant the woman worker the same rights as the man would be to put in the hands of the working class a new and dangerous weapon, to double the active army of the militant opponent; the bourgeoisie is too intelligent to agree to such a dangerous experiment

The whole bourgeois world listened with unconcealed animosity to the solemn and harmonious notes that rang out from Stuttgart in 1907, during the International Socialist Congress. [1] But most of all it was angered by the bold voices of the female proletariat. However radical were the speeches pronounced by the men, whatever 'mad' resolutions they might adopt, the bourgeoisie always consoled itself with the thought that it still had one tested method at its disposal: break the resistance of the 'hotheads' by replacing them with submissive female workers. And now a new surprise: from all over the world women representatives of the working class are gathering in order to forge by their united efforts a new weapon with which to fight the world hostile to the proletariat. [2] The daring of women has exceeded all expectations: yesterday's silent slave is now a courageous fighter for the liberation of the working class. Could one imagine a more vexatious spectacle! Spiteful ridicule rained down upon the heads of the women representatives of the working class, ridicule that failed to conceal the genuine anxiety of the bourgeoisie.

The gentlemen of capital and property do now indeed have something to ponder over, something to be depressed about: new successes are being achieved in the organisation of the working class. And if, until only recently, the bourgeoisie could draw comfort from the lack of unity in the female section of the proletariat, now, after the Stuttgart Conference, it has lost even this sweet solace.

On the basis of facts and figures these women representatives described the growing awareness of the female proletariat and its organisational successes, particularly in recent years. England has the largest number of organised women workers: 150 thousand are members of trade unions; 30 thousand are politically organised in 'independent workers' parties and women workers are also members of the Social-Democratic Federation. [3] In Austria trade union organisations include 42 thousand women among their members. In Germany the number of women who are trade union members is also impressive – 120 thousand; despite all the police harassment, 10,500 women workers have joined the Social-Democratic Party, and the distribution figure for the women workers magazine Die Gleichheit (Equality) [4] is 70 thousand copies. In Finland the Social-Democratic movement has 18,600 women. In Belgium 14 thousand women workers are trade union members. In Hungary 15 thousand women workers are in trade union organisations, etc.

The growing organisation of women workers and the specific social objectives which it is mainly their task to carry through led to an awareness of the need for greater solidarity and closer contact among the organised women workers of the world.

The first women's international conference in Stuttgart set itself two objectives: 1) to elaborate the basis for more uniform activity on the part of the socialist movement (in various countries) in the struggle to win voting rights for women workers; 2) to establish permanent and correct relations between women's organisations throughout the world.

The main question discussed at the conference was, without any doubt, the question of voting rights for women workers. Put forward for discussion by the conference and introduced into the Social-Democratic congress as a special resolution, this question is designed to meet the growing need within the female proletariat to define the future tactics of international Social-Democracy in the struggle for political rights for women workers, and to transfer this principle from the sphere of theoretical recognition to that of practical activity. With the growth of its class consciousness and organisation, the female proletariat was brought by its basic material needs to an acute awareness of its lack of political rights, and learned to see in those rights not only a 'policy principle' but also an urgent and immediate need.

Over recent years, the working class, in one country after the other, has faced the question of achieving universal suffrage. It might have seemed that the four-part election formula advanced by the Social-Democrats and supplemented with a fifth section specifying 'without distinction of sex', would have left no room for doubts and hesitations regarding the way the party would act in such circumstances. However, it turned out, otherwise. When it came to the defence of the fifth section, not only male Social-Democrats, but even the women revealed their fundamental instability, their vacillation, and by their compromising attitude to this issue, so important to the working class, demonstrated that this fundamental principle has not yet become an integral part of Social-Democracy.

One after the other women from Belgium, Austria, Sweden, accepted the removal from the agenda of the demand for political rights for women workers and gave their support to an emasculated, abbreviated compromise formula for electoral reform. However, most characteristic of all was the fact that this opportunist policy was not condemned by consistent and steadfast supporters of socialism but, on the contrary, won their sympathy and approval and was even presented to proletarian women in other countries as a model. The working women themselves cannot be blamed for this compromise tactic – it is typical of less aware and less disciplined party elements but the other, the male section of the proletariat, whose spirit and consciousness has been tempered in battle, should not have allowed itself to be drawn along the path of practical opportunism.

There are democratic principles which, for the sake of its own interests, the working class must not sacrifice: there are slogans which the proletariat cannot change without damaging itself, even though the change is made in order to achieve the maximum results at any given moment.

If, in some politically backward country, the working class had had the opportunity to attain universal, equal, secret but indirect rather than direct voting rights, the position of the Social-Democrats in such a situation would have been obvious: despite the risk of stalling a reform that was otherwise certain to be adopted, the workers party would fight to the last moment for the full formula... Perhaps the indirect electoral system would be adopted despite the opposition of the Social-Democrats, and no doubt they would have to reconcile themselves to this fact, but their attitude to it would be perfectly clear: they could view it only as a defeat.

The situation is different as regards the issue of voting rights for women workers. The demand 'without distinction of sex' has not yet become an integral part of the practice of proletarian struggle: awareness of the importance of full and equal political rights for women workers in the name of the interests of the whole class has not yet had time to take firm root. It must not be forgotten that women began to work outside the home only comparatively recently, and have only recently begun to play a role in the proletarian movement. The ideological survivals of the bourgeois-capitalist world affect the purity and clarity of proletarian class consciousness in regard to women, and blur the distinct outlines of a principle that would appear to be indisputable in the eyes of the proletariat, namely the principle of equality of civil rights for all the members of the world proletarian family.

The vacillating tactic of the party in the struggle for women's voting rights obliged the Social-Democrats to devote particular attention to this issue at the congress. The adoption of a resolution which would clearly and precisely express the willingness of the working class to fight for voting rights for women workers with the same unswerving determination with which Social-Democracy pursues all its principles – this was the slogan of the women's socialist conference, a slogan dictated by the interests of women workers. Such a resolution appeared all the more desirable in that it was fully in accord with the spirit of Social-Democracy...

The resolution on voting rights for women put forward at the women's conference and then introduced at the socialist congress was advanced with a view to demanding the clear and precise recognition of the fifth section of the election formula ('without distinction of sex') as being of equal importance with the other four.

However, the resolution met with opposition. Two trends appeared within the women's socialist movement: one orthodox, the other opportunist in the spirit of unconscious feminism. The first trend was represented by the women Social-Democrats from Germany, the second by those from Austria and some from England.

The resolution put forward by the German delegates had two objectives: in demanding that the socialist parties recognise the full extent of the importance of a practical struggle to secure the political equality of women, the resolution was also intended to draw a distinct line between bourgeois feminism and the women's proletarian movement. This struck the English socialists at their most vulnerable point. It is a well-known fact that many of them work hand-in-glove with bourgeois champions of women's rights, and in the heat of a sometimes selfless struggle in defence of women's interests, they lose sight of class distinctions.

The struggle to achieve political equality for proletarian women is part and parcel of the overall class struggle of the proletariat; when it becomes an independent militant aim in itself it eclipses the class objectives of women workers. The inventive bourgeoisie, who love to hide their real desires behind a screen of splendid-sounding slogans, put the world of women and its objectives in opposition to the class cause of women workers. However, as soon as the women's cause is put above the proletarian cause, as soon as women workers allow themselves to be seduced by fine-sounding phrases about the community of women's interests regardless of class divisions, they lose their living link with their own class cause and thus betray their own particular interests. Bourgeois women, according to their own assertion, are generously demanding rights for 'all women', whereas women workers are only fighting for their class interests. However, in practice the situation is precisely the reverse: in winning political rights for themselves, women workers are also opening up the way to the voting booth for women of other classes. In resolutely and consistently defending the interests of the women of its own class, Social-Democracy is putting into practice the principles of the fullest form of democracy and promoting the success of the women's cause as a whole.

Bourgeois hypocrisy also affected the English supporters of women's political equality. English women workers are prepared to support limited, qualified electoral rights for women – an unforgivable and despicable betrayal of the proletarian cause. The representatives of the Independent Labour Party and the Fabian Society [5] did not hesitate to defend this clearly treacherous position before the whole socialist world, and only the Social-Democratic Federation, together with the proletariat of other countries, condemned such a solution to the problem and demanded electoral rights for all citizens who had reached majority, regardless of sex.

This disagreement yet again clearly demonstrated the importance for the socialists of working out a clearly defined tactical position on the question of achieving political equality for women workers. However, such a clearly defined formulation of the question was precisely what the English wanted least... Together with the Austrian delegates they demanded that each party be given the right to settle this question independently in accord with the circumstances then obtaining; they declared a single model of action compulsory for each country to be completely unnecessary. The resolution put forward by the German Social-Democrats obliged the English to do some painful thinking. It faced them with a question: are they defending the interests of their class as a whole in its difficult struggle to survive, passing through great trials today in the expectation of equally great triumphs in the future, or are they merely fighting for new privileges for those women who neither sow nor reap, but who gather into the barns?

The Austrian delegates represented the opposite extreme. Furious opponents of feminism, they were not, of course, prepared to work together with bourgeois feminists in the defence of rights for 'all women'. However, despite their sworn hostility towards feminism and its tactic of adaptation, Austrian women socialists fell into the same error as the English. In defending at the conference the position they had adopted during the recent struggle in Austria to achieve universal suffrage, they attempted to show that, in certain political conditions, it is permissible to put aside the interests of one section of the proletariat - in this case women workers - in order to achieve practical advantages for another section. Instead of a categorical demand that the principle of political equality for proletarian women be recognised on the same footing with all other democratic demands by the proletariat, the Austrians introduced into the resolution by means of an amendment a poorly-defined wish that the moment and the very method of struggle for electoral rights for women be determined by each country at its own discretion...

Every time the question of party tactics becomes a matter of urgency for Social-Democracy, it has to return to the tested method of solving this question: it must once more carefully and precisely determine to what extent a given demand, a given principle is essential in order to achieve the ultimate objective of the working class. If this principle is indeed of considerable importance for the ultimate objective being pursued by the workers, then there cannot be, must not be, any room for compromise in policy even if such a compromise promises to bring immediate benefit. Indeed, what would become of the class objectives of the proletariat if Social-Democracy put away its basic policy principles every time it hoped it might thereby acquire some 'practical advantage'? And what would then distinguish its policy principles from hypocritical bourgeois diplomacy?

The principle of political equality for women is beyond dispute. Social-Democracy long ago proclaimed in theory the importance of extending voting rights to women workers. However, the tactic of 'concessions', the tactic of 'step by step' is now seeking another solution to this problem also. In place of the usual principled determination and steadfastness of Social-Democracy, it proposes 'compliance' and 'moderation'. Fortunately the proletariat is only too well aware that its 'modesty' has never reaped any reward. The tractability and compliance of the proletariat are, in the eyes of its enemy, proof positive of its 'impotence', and the more moderate, the more 'reasonable' are its demands, the more miserly are the concessions granted to it. The victory of one of the two warring sides is decided not by the compliance of one of them, but by the 'actual balance of forces'. The proletariat presses its demands waging a resolute and consistent struggle to achieve them, but it can only achieve that which corresponds to its actual influence and importance at any given moment. The more resolute is Social-Democracy's adherence to its basic principles, the further removed its tactic from concessions decided upon beforehand, the more closely will the results of its struggle correspond to the actual balance of power and forces between the warring sides.

All of the above constitutes a 'well-worn truth', but a truth that has to be repeated every time a proposed compromise tactic postpones a new victory by the proletariat and threatens to damage one of the basic tenets of Social-Democracy. If the amendment introduced by the Austrian delegates were accepted, such damage would be unavoidable. With their precautionary 'compliance' the Austrian delegates would not only postpone the extension of voting rights to proletarian women but also, and more importantly, violate one of the basic principles of socialism: preserving the unity of the working class as the major guarantee of success in the proletarian struggle.

'Naturally,' said Clara Zetkin, addressing the commission on women's voting rights at the congress, 'we are not so politically uneducated as to demand that the socialist parties of every country, in every struggle for electoral reform and in all circumstances, make the demand for voting rights for women the cornerstone, the deciding factor in their struggle. That will depend on the level of historical development in individual countries. We are criticising the tactic of 'abandoning in advance, without a struggle, the demand for voting rights for women...' [6]

This precise and consistent class policy was also defended by German Social-Democrats: Luise Zietz, Emma Ihrer, Ottilie Baader, Hilja Pärssinen, woman deputy to the Finnish Seim, Csozi from Hungary, representatives from Russia, Shaw from England and others. Those who supported this view demanded that the international congress confirm the proposition that the struggle for voting rights for women workers is not separate from the class struggle, and that any concession in this area, any deviation from principle, is a compromise that damages the whole cause of the working class.

The defenders of the opportunist tactic came mainly from among the Austrian delegates, and they received a measure of support from Viktor Adler. Lily Braun was also on their side. However, this trend did not meet support at the conference. All the arguments advanced by the Austrians to the effect that the 'obstinacy' of the Social-Democrats only served to make political gains by the proletariat more difficult to achieve, all the arguments of the representatives of Catholic countries – Belgium and France – that the influence of clericalism would allegedly increase with the involvement of women in politics and would lead to a regrouping of parliamentary representation to the disadvantage of the working class, paled before the indisputable fact that the most impoverished, exploited section of the proletariat women workers are still deprived of the possibility of opposing the violation of their rights. It is to these pariahs of contemporary society, these pale, worn slaves of capitalism, that their comrades in misery, their comrades in the struggle for a brighter future, preach resignation, patience and self-denial - the cliched, pharisaical virtues of the bourgeoisie!...

The mood of the conference was not favourable to such trends. In contrast to the usual 'respectful obedience' of women, the conference was marked by a lively, bracing atmosphere quite distinct from the somewhat dry, businesslike air of the socialist congress itself. The massive organisational structure of the congress, the presence of almost 900 delegates and the need to observe a whole series of formalities cooled the enthusiasm of the representatives of the socialist world, and only now and again was this enthusiasm able to break through to the surface and affect all those taking part. Here at the congress the most experienced 'masters of the spoken word', skilled in all the finer points of parliamentary battle, crossed verbal swords, but perhaps for this very reason many of them sounded excessively 'cautious'...

At the women's conference, on the other hand, the living pulse of bold faith and confidence beat without ceasing and one could sense that courageous rejection of and revulsion towards compromise decisions which are characteristic of organisations that are still young and have not yet become set in fixed forms. The majority of the representatives of proletarian women could not but realise what tragic consequences would follow upon the adoption of the Austrian amendment...

By a majority of 47 votes to 11, the women's socialist conference adopted the resolution put forward by the German delegation and placed it before the socialist congress.

The living spirit of proletarian self-consciousness compelled the representatives of the workers to support this resolution and confirm the principle of the common interests of both sexes, their solidarity in the struggle for political rights for the whole of the working class. This is without doubt a major event in the' history of the workers' movement, demonstrating yet again to the bourgeois world that, despite repeated assertions about the 'death of Marxism', the true spirit of scientific socialism is still alive and is continually inspiring the many millions who make up international Social-Democracy.

The question of the formation of an international women's socialist secretariat was second on the conference agenda. The German Social-Democrats introduced a proposal to establish closer contacts among representatives of the working class from different countries and to set up for this purpose a secretariat which would gather information on the women's proletarian movement everywhere. Although this question was purely organisational, it provoked a lively exchange of opinions, and once more revealed two heterogeneous trends within the women's section of Social-Democracy.

The proposal to form an independent women's international secretariat was put forward by the German delegates, and the Austrian delegates once again introduced an amendment. Having declared themselves opposed to separating proletarian women in any way whatsoever, they considered it unnecessary to form a separate secretariat to ensure international communication among women workers. In their opinion, comrades abroad could be kept informed on the state of the women's proletarian movement in each country by empowering a member of the party in each country to send reports on the position of women workers' organisations and on successes achieved by the movement to the central socialist organs of the other countries. This amendment vividly illustrates the constant fear on the part of the Austrians of discrediting themselves by a too clearly-marked defence of 'women's interests' which might earn them the label 'feminists'...

The German Social-Democrats, on the contrary, defended the idea that an independent grouping of proletarian women within the party has clear organisational advantages. Such an organisation would make it possible to concentrate the attention of the party on the specific needs and requirements of women workers, and would also make it easier to rally around the party the generally less aware female members of the proletarian class.

The involvement of women workers in the party is necessitated by practical and urgent considerations. Up till now women workers remain the most deprived section of the proletarian family, they are still oppressed everywhere by 'special laws', and even in countries which have broad democratic representation women alone remain without rights.

With every year that passes, involvement in the political life of their country is becoming an increasingly urgent issue for the women of the working class. However, among the broad masses of the male proletariat the urgency of this demand is not as yet sufficiently recognised.

In order to defend this demand, in order to inculcate in their comrades the proper attitude to the question of equal rights for women workers in every sphere and draw them into the struggle to attain in practice equal civil rights for women, women have only one course – to unite their forces around the party. Women workers must set up a women's secretariat, a commission, a bureau within the party, not in order to wage a separate battle for political rights and defend their own interests by themselves but in order to exert pressure on the party from within, in order to compel their comrades to wage their struggle in the interests of the female proletariat as well.

Thus greater party concern about the specific requirements of women workers will increase the popularity of the party among the less class-conscious female population, stimulating the flow of new forces into the army of the fighting proletariat, while the unification of women workers within the party will allow this homogeneous core, motivated by the same requirements, to defend its specific requirements and needs more resolutely within the party too. It was not only police obstacles that led in Germany to special, separate propaganda work among women: this method of work is gradually being adopted in other countries living under freer political regimes.

The need to unite women's forces within the party is, of course, felt with particular force in countries where it is only the women who remain without political rights. In those cases where the question of the struggle for the further democratisation of voting rights is to the fore, the core of class-conscious women workers can only strive to ensure a more steadfast attitude in the party towards the question of achieving voting rights for women also...

The position of proletarian women in contemporary society, and the specific needs which they experience in the field of social relations, create a practical basis for conducting special work among the female proletariat. However, such a grouping of proletarian women within the party (the setting up of commissions, bureaus, sections, etc.) has, of course, nothing in common with feminism. Whereas the feminists are struggling to extend to the women of the bourgeois classes those privileges which were hitherto enjoyed only by the men, women workers are pursuing a solely proletarian, common class objective.

At the women's international conference, the victory went to the left, that is, to that section which suggested the creation of an independent international secretariat. [7] The editorial board of Die Gleichheit (Equality) has been elected as the central organ of the international movement of socialist women until the next international congress. There can be no doubt that both this purely organisational decision and also the congress resolution on tactics, a resolution which determines the attitude of Social-Democracy to the question of votes for women, will have a beneficial effect upon the further development of the Social-Democratic movement among women workers, and will promote the more rapid growth of the organised army of the female proletariat.

Only if they are firmly united amongst themselves and, at the same time, one with their class party in the common class struggle, can women workers cease to appear as a brake on the proletarian movement and march confidently foreward, arm in arm with their male worker comrades to the noble and cherished proletarian aim-towards a new, better and brighter future.


When the First International Conference of Socialist Women was held in Stuttgart in 1907 on the initiative of the German socialists, the women's socialist movement was still in its infancy everywhere except Germany. Its shape was still hazy and unclear, and the conference itself was convened not so much to review what had been already achieved as to give its 'blessing' to the movement and stimulate its further development. Stuttgart was merely a symptom of the awakening of broad masses of working-class women, but a symptom nonetheless significant, promising and pregnant with consequences...

Three years have passed. During this short period of time the women's proletarian movement has succeeded not only in increasing its numbers, but also in becoming social force which cannot be ignored in the process of the class struggle. Particularly rapid has been the success achieved by Germany in the organisation of the female proletariat: according to the data presented at the conference in Stuttgart, that is, in 1907 the Social-Democratic Party had only some 10 thousand women members; by 1910 it already had more than 82 thousand, and the central socialist organ for women workers Die Gleichheit (Equality) had a circulation of 80 thousand. Similar giant strides have been taken by Austria in the organisation of working-class women: in 1909 the party had only 7 thousand women members; in 1910 it had more than 14 thousand, the trade union movement had around 44 thousand women members and the women's worker newspaper had a circulation of 20 thousand. Finland, though small in population, was also not left behind. Here women (more than 16 thousand) accounted for some 31 per cent of the membership of the workers' party. England can boast of more than 200 thousand women trade union members. Everywhere – in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Holland, Italy, the United States – the women of the working class are awakening, attempting to create a women's socialist movement and direct it along the path boldly marked out by the energetic efforts of German women socialists.

According to the calculations made by the Swiss delegation, the numerical relationship between the male and female sections of the organised working class in various countries is as follows:

Finland: For every 1 organized woman worker there are 6 organized male workers.
Denmark: For every 1 organized woman worker there are 8 organized male workers.
Austria: For every 1 organized woman worker there are 10 organized male workers.
England: For every 1 organized woman worker there are 11 organized male workers.
Italy: For every 1 organized woman worker there are 12 organized male workers.
Sweden & Norway: For every 1 organized woman worker there are 13 organized male workers.
Germany: For every 1 organized woman worker there are 14 organized male workers.
Switzerland: For every 1 organized woman worker there are 18 organized male workers.

[Statistical Report to the Second International Conference of Socialist Women, 1910, p. 26.]

Of course, if these figures are compared with the number of women workers on the labour market and the growing number of women earning their own living in every country, the scale of female participation in the workers movement appears very modest even insignificant. However, in order to assess the importance of the women's socialist movement accurately, two things must be remembered: firstly, its short history – l5-20 years ago it had never been heard of; secondly, the prospects opening up before it. The question of the further democratisation of the electoral system, which is now posing itself in one form or another in England and the United States, in the federal states of Germany and the Scandinavian countries, must have and will have its inevitable effect upon the further development and success of the women's proletarian movement. The women's proletarian movement has ceased to be merely a luxury and become a daily practical necessity...

The growth of the women's proletarian movement over the last three years was noticeable at the opening of the Copenhagen Conference. [8] In Stuttgart the delegates numbered 52, in Copenhagen they already numbered around 100 and represented 17 countries. This time only the French and the Belgians were absent. Socialist parties and trade unions were represented, together with clubs, societies, and unions of women workers adopting a class position.

The conference agenda included, in addition to the organisational question of establishing closer links between organised socialist women from different countries, two major issues: 1) ways and means of achieving in practice universal suffrage for women and 2) social security and protection for mother and child. Despite these seemingly specifically female topics, the conference in Copenhagen was free of that sickly-sweet 'feminine flavour' which provokes such irrepressible boredom in the practical politician who is used to the 'cut and thrust' of real political battle... The questions discussed at the conference were examined not only from the point of view of the common tasks of proletarian class policy, but were also, and inevitably, supplemented with more general demands. The fate of Finland, a country with an extremely democratic system of popular representation, the question of war, peace and the fight against militarism, the struggle against domestic manufacture and night work, compelled those taking part in the congress to move beyond the narrow framework of feminine issues and, having become more familiar with wide-ranging, urgent issues, to join in the active struggle being waged by the many millions who compose the army of the organised working class.

However, while one cannot object to the position adopted by the conference on the issues it debated, and while, indeed, one can note with satisfaction that the 'women's worker army' is marching side by side with the whole proletarian movement, it must be stated that, in terms of the formal conduct of its conferences, the women representatives of international socialism still have something to learn from their male colleagues. The lack of familiarity with 'parliamentary practice' led to a number of omissions, which gave rise to misunderstanding and dissatisfaction: certain resolutions were not only not put to the vote, but were not even debated: debates were bunched together, questions were removed from the agenda on the decision of a questionable majority, etc. All of these errors could have been avoided with greater experience...

The main topic discussed at the conference was, of course, that of voting rights. The conflict between the left wing of the women's international, led by the German delegation, and the representatives of those English workers' organisations who work together with the suffragettes [9] and thus support the slogan of qualified electoral rights, was inevitable. The English produced as their 'trump card' the venerable and well-known socialist and champion of the women's cause, Charlotte Despard, whose personal attractiveness, noble bearing, grey hair and skilful, impressive speech was intended to win sympathy and soften the severity of the left-wing judgement. A 'furious battle' was expected. However, although the discussion was lively, the expected 'battle' did not take place: from the very beginning it was clear that the overwhelming majority at the conference supported the 'left', and that the English were fighting for a lost cause... The ease with which victory over the'right' was won is explained in part by the fact that, with the exception of Despard, they did not have one good orator on their side. The English defence lacked spirit and imagination, their arguments in defence of their tactic were naive, almost 'genteel' – the 'harmony' of women's interests, complaints against the 'harshness' of class politics, against social injustice, which also affected the bourgeois woman...

The conference, sharply criticising co-operation between English socialists and the bourgeois suffragettes, adopted a resolution which, however, failed to stress this aspect sufficiently. 'The women's socialist movement in every country rejects qualified electoral rights,' runs the resolution, as a falsification and as an insult to the very principle of political equality for women. The movement is fighting for the only viable and concrete expression of this principle: universal suffrage for all women who have reached their majority, without qualifications of property, tax, education or any other kind which hinder members of the working class from availing themselves of their civil rights. The women's socialist movement wages its struggle not together with the women's bourgeois movement, but in close co-operation with socialist parties, who are defending electoral rights for women as one of the basic and, in practice, one of the most essential demands in the call for the full democratisation of the electoral system. [10] The conciliatory note sounded by the Austrian delegate, Adelheid Popp, in a speech intended to soften the harshness of this judgement found no support, and the resolution was passed by an overwhelming majority, with ten votes against.

On the issue of maternity insurance and protection, no serious differences emerged, and it was only a formal oversight on the part of the presidium that caused conflict with part of the English delegation, which them left the conference hall. The resolution introduced by the German delegation on this issue repeated in essence the basic demands of the Social-Democrats, as developed and supplemented at the women's conference in Mannheim [11] : the demand for an 8-hour working day, the prohibition of the use of female labour in particularly unhealthy branches of production, 16-week leave for expectant and nursing mothers, and the introduction of the principle of compulsory maternity insurance, etc. Unfortunately this fundamental question that affects directly the interests of every working woman was accorded too little time, and the debates were hurried and abbreviated. Resolutions introducing important addenda to the demands presented by the German delegation were not put forward for debate nor put to the vote, and this despite the fact that the Finnish resolution proposed by Pärssinen, Aalle and Silänpäa and other deputies to the Seim, clearly emphasised a point omitted in the German resolution – the extension of all forms of maternity protection to include both legitimate and illegitimate mothers, and a review of the laws on infanticide, committed mainly by mothers who have been abandoned to their fate...

It should not be thought that all the measures demanded in the resolution automatically covered both legitimate and illegitimate mothers. It is precisely such a fuddled mode of thinking that dominates in the West, sadly even among women socialists, that preference for legalised marital cohabitation, which made it desirable to debate this fundamental point more thoroughly. It was important to emphasise with all the authority of the conference that maternity is to be recognised as a social function independently of the marital and family forms it assumes... The question of principle involved in maternity insurance and protection was, however, submerged in a number of practical details.

Mention must also be made of yet another important omission in the resolution adopted at the conference: it fails to point clearly and precisely to the principle underlying maternal insurance. Is such insurance an independent section of social insurance, or is it merely a subsection of social insurance in case of illness? The formulation of the resolution indicates that those who drew it up viewed maternity insurance as one of the functions to be carried out by hospital bursaries. If this proposition had been more clearly expressed, however, it would undoubtedly have led to an elucidation of certain other propositions which require closer examination. It would have raised the question of the grounds for extending insurance to cover that large section of the female population not gainfully employed (i.e. the wives of workers) that can still be found in many countries. Is it possible, and is it acceptable to extend insurance to them via their husbands? What is then to be done in the case of 'non-legalised' cohabitation?

A 'simplification' of this complex question in order to avoid debates of principle and heated feelings would scarcely be in the interests of the cause. Despite the adoption of the resolution, the question of maternity insurance cannot be considered as fully dealt with, and Social-Democracy will undoubtedly have to return to it.

More impassioned debate was provoked by the Danish proposal on night work. This resolution, introduced on the initiative of women type-setters, pointed out that legislation prohibiting night work for women but permitting it for men hindered the working woman in her struggle to earn her living. It is only with enormous effort that women succeed in gaining access to better-paid jobs and better working conditions (in printing, for example), and the prohibition oil night work for women pushes them back into the ranks of the unskilled workers, exposes them once more to all the temptations of prostitution and the horrors of approaching destitution. Night work must be abolished simultaneously for both men and women, as it is equally harmful to both...

The 'over-simplified' way in which the Danish delegates presented the question of night work meant that their resolution was unable to win support. By a majority of 13 votes to 2 (voting was by country) the resolution was rejected. An individual demand meeting the interests of only one specific profession (night work in a skilled profession is found mainly in the printing industry) could not override a demand corresponding to the interests of the class as a whole. However, the conflict this question provoked indicates the need for a serious approach to the question raised by the Danish and Swedish delegations, namely the simultaneous equalising of the conditions of male and female labour...

The resolution put forward by the chairwoman of the conference, Clara Zetkin, expressing sympathy with Finland, and another resolution put forward by the English, reminding women of their obligation to oppose chauvinism and bring up their children in a spirit of anti-militarism were both adopted without debate and were met with warm applause.[12]

The central women's international bureau remained as before in Stuttgart, and Die Gleichheit (Equality) was again recognised as the organ of the international socialist movement.

Whatever may have been the superficial failings, of the second international socialist conference, its work will undoubtedly have a major and beneficial influence upon the further success of the workers' movement. There is every reason to hope that the women's socialist movement, which is an integral part of the whole workers movement, will assume larger and even more impressive dimensions before the next, the third conference. It will also clearly and irrefutably demonstrate that only special propaganda work among the female proletariat, work organised within the party on the basis of technical independence, can supplement the ranks of the organised workers with a 'second army', the army of women workers fighting for the common workers' cause and for the comprehensive emancipation of women.


What is the women's socialist movement, and what are its objectives and aims? What are the forms that it is taking? Is it not simply a branch of bourgeois feminism, its 'left wing'? And if not, how is the existence of separate women's newspapers and magazines, the convocation of meetings, congresses and conferences to be explained? Why is the movement not absorbed into the powerful current of the whole workers' movement?

These questions, which inevitably arise in connection with the women s international socialist conference in Copenhagen in August 1910, frequently cause bewilderment even among socialists, who are, unfortunately, insufficiently familiar with the history of the women's working-class movement in the West.

The history of this movement, however, is instructive and to a certain extent provides the answer to such questions.

Today there is hardly a socialist who would openly dispute the importance of the organisation of women workers and the desirability of creating a broad women's socialist movement. Socialists now take pride in the size of the 'women's army' and, when estimating the chances of success in the process of class struggle, take into account this new and rapidly increasing active force. However, there was a time, and not all that long ago - about 25 years - when such a thing as a women's socialist movement had never been heard of in any country, even if it had hundreds of thousands, millions, of women workers.

When, 14 years ago, during the international congress held in London in 1896, 30 women delegates (from England. Germany, America, Holland, Belgium and Poland) arranged for their own separate women's conference, only a couple of countries (Germany, England) were making their first attempts to set up a women's socialist movement. The workers' organisations in every country did, it is true, include individual women in their ranks, but, on entering the ranks of the party and taking part in the trade union struggle, the majority of these women as it was renounced in advance their work on behalf of the most deprived and legally unprotected section of the working class – women workers. Virtually nothing was being done by the party to raise the class consciousness of working women, for the emancipation of women as housewives and mothers.

This was the situation in Germany until the beginning of the 1890s, in England and other countries until the beginning of the 20th century, and in Russia up to the revolutionary upheavals of 1905. In those countries where organisations of working women assumed primarily a professional form (for example, England and America), work was conducted in the main together with the bourgeois feminists and under their direct leadership; there was no question of a class struggle.

The first unofficial conference of women socialist delegates held in London in 1896 concerned itself mainly with an examination of the relationship between bourgeois feminism and the women's proletarian movement. It was recognised as desirable to distinguish between the women's bourgeois movement and the women's socialist movement, and emphasis was placed upon the urgent need to intensify socialist propaganda work among working women in order to involve them in the class struggle.

Eleven years have passed since then. Capitalism has continued its successful progress, developing itself to the full and subordinating to itself not only new branches of production, but also new countries. Female labour has become a major social force within the national economy. However it was precisely women workers, outside any organisation, not linked to their class comrades by any obligations, dispersed and isolated from one another, who were in effect dangerous and damaging rivals of the male section of the working class, often undermining the successes the latter had achieved by active demonstrations.

The question of organising women workers and of the ways and means of involving them in the general movement became an urgent and immediate issue. Feeling their way, adapting to the conditions in their country, the worker organisations in different countries attempted, each using its own methods, to solve this problem. The result was a variegated and motley scene. The forms taken by the women's proletarian movement varied according to local conditions. However, the most important thing was that the movement of the women of the working class had been called into being – it existed.

By 1907 the movement had assumed such a scale that it was possible to convene the first international women's conference in Stuttgart. When the representatives from the various countries revealed what they had achieved in their own countries, the results, if not impressive of themselves, held promise in terms of the possibilities opened up for the future. There now emerged the question of the formation of an international women's bureau to co-ordinate the women's socialist organisations in different countries. The bureau was set up in Stuttgart, and the magazine Die Gleichheit (Equality) was recognised as the central organ of the international movement.

The conference held in Stuttgart was of decisive importance for the socialist movement. It secured for the movement that independence which it needed for the future success of its work. It became clear that the women's proletarian movement was an integral part of the whole movement of the working class. Nonetheless, the specific social and political position of women in contemporary society requires that a particular approach be adopted towards women, and puts before the party a number of special objectives. These objectives, while they form part of the whole working-class movement, while they form part of the common aim, nonetheless affect specifically female interests more closely and are therefore more properly pursued by the women representatives of the working class themselves. This point of view has now prevailed, but its elaboration nonetheless required great effort on the part of the women, and provoked a sharp conflict of opinions...

The German party was the first to conduct independent propaganda work among the female proletariat; other countries gradually followed its example. The seeds sown by the first supporters of the women's socialist movement led by Clara Zetkin are already taking root...

Over recent years efforts have been made everywhere to arouse the awareness of working-class women by drawing them into the party. Everywhere the movement is carrying out painstaking work to involve working women in the broad current of the whole movement... The reports made by different countries at the women's conference in Copenhagen is proof of this tireless activity.

How this meeting of almost 100 representatives of the working class of 17 countries differed from the usual bourgeois congresses of suffragettes!...

After two days of animated and enthusiastic work, the delegates to the second socialist women's conference left the hall of the hospitable People's House imbued with the firm belief that by the third international conference of socialist women, [13] the 'second army' of the working class in every country will be able to swell its ranks with a fresh inflow of new and active forces from among the women of the working class.

A. Kollontai.


1. This is a reference to the Seventh International Congress of the Second International, held in Stuttgart on 18-24 August, 1907. The congress was attended by delegates from 25 countries, including Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, England, Germany, Italy, Norway, Poland, Russia and the USA – 886 delegates in all. The Bolshevik delegation was led by Lenin, who did a great deal of work to consolidate the left-wing forces of international Social-Democracy. The congress adopted a resolution committing socialists to oppose the approaching war.

2. In 1907, just before the opening of the International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart, the First International Conference of Socialist Women was held, attended by 58 women delegates from 14 countries. The main aim of the conference was to formulate one united tactic for all the Socialist parties in the campaign to win voting rights for women workers as part of universal and equal voting rights for both sexes.

3. The Social-Democratic Federation – founded in England in 1884, declared itself a socialist organisation, but did not recognise Marxism. It had no contact with the workers and was extremely sectarian in nature. In 1907 it was renamed the Social-Democratic Party.

4. Die Gleichheit (Equality) – a Social-Democratic bimonthly magazine issued by the women's proletarian movement in Germany. It was published from 1890 to 1925, and was edited by Clara Zetkin from 1892 to 1917.

5. The Independent Labour Party – founded in England in 1893. Its aims were to secure the election of workers to Parliament in order to pursue its own independent policies, to campaign for the nationalisation of land and the means of production, and also to work within the trade unions. It soon lost its militant spirit under the influence of bourgeois fellow-travellers, and its leadership became opportunist.
The Fabian Society founded in England in 1884 by representatives of the bourgeois intelligentsia. The Fabians rejected class struggle, and proposed a programme of state or municipal 'socialism', hoping to transform capitalist society into a socialist society by means of gradual reform.

6. Cf. the speech delivered by Clara Zetkin at the Seventh International Socialist Congress of the Second International in Stuttgart, August, 1907.

7. This is a reference to the creation during the Women's Conference at Stuttgart of an International Women's Secretariat, headed by Clara Zetkin. The work of the Secretariat was to include gathering information on women's movements and on the leadership of the women's socialist movement.

8. The Second International Conference of Socialist Women was held on 26-27 August, 1910, prior to the opening of the Eighth International Congress of the Second International in Copenhagen (28 August-3 September, 1910).

9. Suffragettes – members of a bourgeois women's movement seeking voting rights for women. The suffragettes adopted a tactic of obstruction, organised street demonstrations, and caused disruption of every kind. The suffragettes did not seek the support of working women.

10. Cf. the resolutions adopted at the International Conference of Socialist Women in Copenhagen, 25-26 August, 1910, and the Reports to the international Socialist Congress.

11. A reference to the Fourth Socialist Conference of German Women, which was held in Mannheim on 22-23 September, 1906, and attended by 50 women delegates and 5 women socialists from other countries, including Alexandra Kollontai. The agenda included: the campaign for voting rights for women, propaganda work among rural women, involving domestic servants in the women's movement, etc. On all these issues resolutions were adopted which called for intensification of the struggle for women's rights and satisfaction of their demands.

12. In addition to the resolutions listed above, the international women's conference in Copenhagen also decided to declare 8 March the International Day of Working Women, and to mark it every year as the day of international solidarity among the female proletariat in their struggle for equal economic and political rights. The first International Women's Day was held in 1911 in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Denmark under the slogan 'Voting rights for women workers so as to unite forces in the struggle for socialism'.

13. It had been planned to convene the third international women's conference in 1914 in Vienna, but this was prevented by the outbreak of the First World War.