Women Workers Struggle For Their Rights. Alexandra Kollontai 1919

2. Forms of Organisation of Women Workers in the West

The forms which have been adopted by the female proletarian movement in various countries are so variegated and idiosyncratic that it is difficult to describe them in a short and cursory outline. The variety of these forms is due, in the main, to the distinctive peculiarities of the social-political and economic conditions of each country; it also depends in part on the conscious part of the working class and the women workers’ movement. We must not lose sight of the fact that the female proletarian movement in almost all countries is still in its formative period and therefore depends to a considerable degree on the atmosphere of “sympathy” or “indifference” which it meets among its class comrades who have already progressed a lone way along the road of the struggle for the better future.

The female proletarian movement is manifested in the following most typical forms. First of all trade unions, which fall into two groups – mixed, that is consisting of men and women, and purely women’s unions. The first type is the older and the most widespread. As early as 1824 the Lancashire women weavers entered the trade union organisation of weavers, and al-though women did not even have equal rights with men (for a long time they could take no part in the direction of the English trade unions, they could not be elected for union posts, and so on), all the same their participation in the economic struggle had an enormous educative significance and prepared the ground for the later socialist women’s movement.

The trade union organisations of the second type, that is women only, nourished mainly on the soil of male workers’ hostile attitudes towards the rivalry of female labour, and at the same time were nurtured by the emancipation movement of the women of the bourgeois classes. As early as the seventies Mrs. Patterson organised the League for the Protection of Women’s Labour, which for a long time worked in conjunction with the bourgeois equal rights campaign and only later was transformed into a league of women’s trade unions; in later years the League joined the general trade union organisation of workers and is gradually freeing itself from the influence of the feminists.

Trade union organisations confined to women are found in almost all countries (United States, France, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and so on) although gradually and inevitably they are forced out by trade unions of the mixed type. Trade union organisations have a definite task-to struggle for the economic interests of the members of the working class; moreover, it is precisely these, that is the economic interests, which for the representatives of the proletariat of both sexes are the same and inseparable. On this point any separation on the basis of sex is artificial; it runs absolutely counter to the interests of the worker and can only damage the immediate aims of the trade union struggle. As the proletarian, on the basis of his own experience, becomes imbued with the realisation of this unity and allows women workers access to his organisations, and more than that – takes special steps to enlist them-then it will no longer make any sense to have separate trade unions for women. [But whereas the organisational division of the unions into male and female harms the unity of the movement in the economic field, on the other hand the separation off of agitational work aimed at the female proletariat is desirable even within the ranks of the trade union organisations. As practice in other countries has shown, this is the only reliable method of enlisting the support of the more recalcitrant of the unions’ female members.]

If they remained up until now, it is either in those trades where only women are employed, or it has been under the indirect influence of bourgeois feminism, which is always harmful to those fighting for class unity.

The second form which the women’s proletarian movement can adopt is the socialist organisations, pursuing political and general class goals. This form too of women workers’ movement falls into two groups: firstly, independent organisations of women workers, societies for self-education, clubs for women workers, enlightenment societies, and so on, which, existing out-side the Party, nevertheless work in close collaboration with it, and are under its ideological leadership. Some organisations of this type, like the ‘educational societies for women and girls of the working class’, which until 1908 were so widespread in Germany, or the Women’s Socialist Society of New York, or women workers’ clubs in Sweden, see their aims as carrying out propaganda mainly among the most ignorant and backward masses, thereby recruiting new members for the Party. Others, like the Socialist Women’s Clubs of Holland, bring together women workers who are already politically conscious, but give them a deeper theoretical and practical preparation for general party work. Both these types of organisations, which are dying out, are inefficient and do not respond to the revolutionary shift which is bringing together and rallying the proletariat of both sexes.

The second type of socialist women’s organisations consists of those which are divisions of the party itself, that is, existing not outside but within it as special organs – commissions, committees, bureaux or secretariats, to whom the Party entrusts the special task of serving the women proletariat. This is the vital and acceptable type. Extensive and many-sided activities have fallen to the lot of these special collectives, activities which are especially varied in Germany.

The basic ‘loosening of the soil’ for the socialist harvest also belongs here, as does the preparation of young forces for the role of future ‘women leaders’, and the publishing of a women’s party journal, and the concern about the fate of the children of the working class (for example the Commission for the Defence of Children in Germany, or the English committees, concerned with the fate of schoolchildren, the ‘hot dinners’, summer colonies, and so on), and finally, the organisation of special political actions related to voting rights for women, such as took place 1908-9 in Prussia a propos of the electoral reforms. The women’s bureaux, commissions’ and secretariats also undertake the responsibility for the organisation of women’s meetings, special courses, the calling of women’s socialist conferences, the publication of brochures and pamphlets, in brief, the broadly based work of agitation and propaganda among the women proletariat.

In the present time there is practically no country in which the Party would not assign work with women to a special branch of its activity. The necessity of this separation is felt by socialists all over the world and is dictated by simple efficiency. The exclusive position of women in modern society not only gives rise to special demands on the part of the women proletariat (security for maternity and childhood, gaining civil and political equality of rights, reforms in housekeeping, and so on), but it also necessitates significant modifications in the method of agitation and propaganda among the female half of the working class. It goes without saying that this does not destroy the unity of the movement. On the contrary, thanks to the efforts of social democracy and its leadership, the women’s proletarian movement, like a fresh stream pouring its waters into a mighty river, fuses with it and raises its level.

In the present time world social democracy no longer contests the necessity and desirability of special work with women. But for a long time the ‘fear of feminism’ forced not only socialists, but also socialist women, to shun any such division of labour.

Though it emerged in theory and in principle as a supporter of women’s rights, and also took practical steps to defend the interests of women workers, social democracy, nevertheless, for many years made no efforts, nor employed any means to arouse the drowsy, submissive masses of women... if the organised workers did win better conditions of work and life for the women workers, then they did this not with the participation of the woman worker herself, but on her behalf... and this was their main mistake.

Only separate individuals, such as Louisa Otta in Germany, who in 1848 addressed the ‘brotherly union’ of workers and indicated the necessity of involving women, too, in the workers’ organisations, or the ex-worker Henrietta Law, the only woman member in the general council of the First International, who attempted to organise woman workers in England, showed any initiative in this respect. But their attempts were defeated as much by the indifference of their own comrades as by external obstacles of a political character. In addition to this there was that hostile attitude towards the rivalry of female labour, which for a long -time held sway among the male proletariat, and which forced many trade unions to close their doors to women. This hostility, this mistaken and narrow-minded conception of their interests has not completely disappeared even now – one still comes across echoes of it in England, in the Scandinavian countries, in France and even in Germany; sound notions of the unity of the movement, corresponding to the real interests of the working class as a whole, are only gradually making headway.

But, of course, it is only a small thing to open up working organisations to women; to awaken women’s consciousness, to give scope to its activity, new methods and a new approach to the masses of women were needed. Germany was the first to progress along these lines. August Bebel’s book, Woman and Socialism – the gospel of every woman socialist – did much to assess the question and elucidate it correctly. Having established that the ‘woman question’ depended on the solution of general socialist problems of our times, it nevertheless noted the specific peculiarities of the position of women in capitalist society, which of themselves define the necessity of separate work with the female proletariat.

It is usually thought that the separation of the women’s movement in Germany was made necessary by external reasons, enforced by the existence of laws which forbade women access to political organisations. This conception is radically wrong. One must not forget that after 1892 the restricting paragraph only referred to women’s participation in political organisations. Access to trade union organisations was, consequently, perfectly free. Moreover in the nineties in Germany it was precisely in the trade unions that separate, special, agitational work among the female proletariat was being carried out, preparing the ground for socialist propaganda among women workers. To cite this ill-starred paragraph of the German Imperial Laws is also inappropriate because, when the time was ripe and the interests of the Party demanded it, means were found to get round the embarrassing paragraph as well as everything else.

Finally when the law forbidding women to take part in political organisations was repealed, there was no longer, in 1908, any valid external reason for dividing the proletariat according to sex. The organisation became general but the necessity of special work with women was by no means made superfluous. At the Nuremburg Conference in 1908, when they were working out new party rules, the German Social Democrats recognised the necessity of retaining special work with women, separate women’s meetings, women’s own local and central representation, the women’s central newspaper, women’s conferences, and so on.

Two essential moments – economic and political – in the history of the workers’ movement defined the necessity for separate work with the female proletariat. As the number of women workers grew, as they represented more intensified competition on the labour market, the question of trade union organisations for women workers became vital and acute. In the name of the interests of the trade union movement, in the name of the successes of the struggle of the proletariat, it was necessary to ‘render harmless’ these scattered dispersed, and unconscious elements, which appeared as a serious hindrance to the movement; in other words, women too had to be drawn into the trade union struggle. In 1895 the General Commission of Trade Unions of Germany founded a Women’s Agitation Commission, sought out new methods of approaching the female masses and carried out special agitation and propaganda among women workers. And throughout the nineties Gleichheit appeared as the spokeswoman for a woman’s movement which was predominantly trade union-economic and not political.

The second moment which determined the necessity for separate work among women, within the framework of the Social Democratic Party, was the political moment. In a whole range of countries over the last ten years the question of electoral reform, of the further democratisation of the state system, had become more and more urgent and acute. Under this influence, there was a noticeable change in the attitude of the political workers’ organisation to the women workers’ movement. While theoretically acknowledging the advantage of attracting the female proletarian elements into the political struggle, the Party had not felt in this the same sense of urgency as had encouraged the trade unions to look for new ways and methods, which would provide a way into the mind and heart of the woman worker. In the nineties not one workers’ party throughout the world had manifested its activity in the field of organisation of the female proletariat. Although at the Party Congress at Gotha, in 1896, at the insistence of a group of women Social Democrats it had confirmed the post of ‘female confidential agent’ who would undertake responsibility for all work among the female proletariat, the German Party, when it drew up its new party rules in Mainz in 1900, forgot to include this point... but all it took was for the question of electoral reform in the German Landtags to come onto the ‘agenda’, and their attitude to the women workers’ movement changed.

The Party’s indifference to this question had deep and vital roots in the following: while women were deprived of political rights, the involvement of women in the party cadres had incomparably less significance for the immediate successes of the Social Democrats, than energetic work among the male proletariat. Agitation among women workers was somehow intangible – it was work, not for the “present” [22], but only for the remote future. The question of radical reform of the electoral system brought women too into the circle of the political fight. Getting women workers, these possible future voters, into party life acquired a topical interest... The women’s socialist movement in Germany began to make rapid progress from the beginning of the twentieth century, since from then on it met with full sympathy from part of the Party; that is precisely the moment when the struggle for electoral reform was flaring up in the country.

We observe the same picture in other countries. In England the indifference of the socialist parties towards the women workers’ movement can be explained by the success of the Suffragettes among women workers. For a long time the Suffragettes were the only active spokeswomen for the political demands of women. But the revival of the question of the radical reform of the whole system of representation in England also generated an interest in the women workers’ movement. In 1906 the Women’s Labour League was formed,[23] presenting itself as the women’s wing of the Labour Party, and setting itself the aim firstly of uniting all the forces of the female proletariat, and then gaining the equality of political rights for women. In 1909 the Social Democratic Party of England set up a separate committee for carrying out special propaganda among women: members of the Party, predominantly women, raised the campaign for universal franchise, to counterbalance the demands the Suffragettes were making for electoral qualification.(24)

The struggle for electoral reform in Austria, in spite of the removal from the agenda of the fifth article of the electoral rules, acted as a spur to the revival of party propaganda among women and led to the definite and systematic organisation of this special branch of party work.

In Belgium the beginning of the women’s socialist movement dates from the time of the struggle for electoral reform.

In the United States, where many ‘urgent class problems’ flared up before the workers and where the movement constantly stumbled against obstacles which were connected with the flaws in the worn out system of bourgeois parliamentarianism, the drawing of women workers into active political struggle was dictated by the interests of the Party. In 1908 the Socialist Party of America organised a women’s committee for agitation and propaganda among women workers. On the other hand, in countries such as France or Switzerland, where questions of further democratisation of the state system were not being raised, the women’s socialist movement was only weakly developed.

In conclusion, one cannot help noting that in every country (except Germany) the majority of women’s cells (commissions, bureaux, and so on) within the party structure are of very recent origin, having crystallised during the five or six years immediately before the war. The progress made during these last years in drawing women workers into the party is all the more striking and the Women Workers’ Conference in Copenhagen was a bright testimony of this. There is no doubt that with the help that the work among the female proletariat is now receiving from the Social Democrats, the involvement of the women workers in the class struggle will go forward at an even faster rate...

The participation of women workers in a general proletarian movement has ceased to be ‘a luxury’, and has become a basic necessity for the success of the revolutionary struggle.