Women Workers Struggle For Their Rights. Alexandra Kollontai 1919

Editors’ Notes

1. Kollontai is referring here to the First World War and the changes brought about in the international socialist movement by the war and the Russian revolution. Before the First World War, all the socialist parties were organised in the Second International. In 1918, when this pamphlet was published, negotiations for affiliation to the Third International were underway. This Third Communist International (the Comintern) was initiated by the Bolsheviks after the revolution, and European socialists at this time had to choose between two distinct forms of organising. Those who continued their affiliation to the Second International were committed to socialism by reform, while those who joined the Third International were committed to socialism through revolution.

It is important to remember that at the time of the Russian revolution, Marxists assumed that revolution in Europe would follow very quickly, and that socialism in Russia would not come about in isolation.

2. By “independent organisations of women workers” she means organisations outside the socialist parties. The “special organisations” to which she refers are these same organisations, not the separate women’s sections within the parties. This is made clear later in the pamphlet.

3. See Sheila’s introduction, p.vi, on Kollontai’s underestimation of the resilience of old attitudes and culture.

4. See note 1 above.

5. i.e., the White Russians and the foreign interventionist troops (including troops sent by England, which were used both to fight against the Red Army and to train the White Russian forces).

6. The Social Democratic Party was the name for the marxist party before the Third International. After the formation of the Third International, it was called the Communist Party. See Sheila’s introduction, pp.iii/iv.

7. i.e., the 1820s.

8. Before 1917, Germany was the centre of marxism, with by far the largest marxist party, the Social Democratic Party. The founders of social democracy in Germany, Bebel and Leibknecht, and leading members of the German S.D.P. like Kautsky, Luxemburg Zetkin and others, were known internationally.

9. Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin were among the women delegates from abroad who attended this conference, which was organised by the British section of the Second International. Numerous British organisations sent delegates-the Fabian Society, the Independent Labour Party, the Social Democratic Federation, Hammersmith Socialist Society, Oxford District Socialist Union, the Labour Church Union, Trades and Labour Councils and Trade Unions were all represented. (Information from Report of the Proceedings of the International Socialist and Trade Union Congress held in London 1896. British Museum.)

10. When Kollontai talks about “the parties” in Europe, she seems to be referring in the British context to both the marxist party – i.e. the Social Democratic Federation founded by Hyndman, called the Social Democratic Party from October 1907 (which joined with other marxists in forming the British Socialist Party in May 1912) – and the non-marxist Labour Party.

11. This concept of “the Party,” which in the context of other European countries is used to indicate the Social Democratic Party of that country, is used rather loosely in the British context. See note 12 below.

12. The Women’s Labour League was founded by members of the Independent Labour Party in 1906, and affiliated to the Labour Party in the same year. After the General Election of 1906, when it won 29 seats in Parliament, the Labour Party was recognised for the first time as a party of national importance.

The women had helped to build the movement from its very commencement; they had full recognition in the Party of their citizenship and their right and duty to take part in public work. Yet, owing largely to the fact that the Party is composed in the main of trade unionists, men were coming by hundreds and thousands into the ranks, and the wives and sweethearts were being left outside. If the new Party was not to be a purely masculine affair, we saw that a special effort must be made to reach the women and enlist their support. We do not want to organise ourselves separately from the men, but we have found that the best way to co-operate with them is to educate ourselves; to teach ourselves to discuss and understand and take responsibility in our own meetings, and thus to increase our power and at the same time our powers for the right. We are affiliated nationally to the Labour Party, and our local Leagues work with the local Labour councillors. We have about half a hundred branches now.

Object of the League: To form an organisation of women to work for Independent Labour Representation in connection with the Labour Party, and to obtain direct Labour Representation of women in Parliament and on all local bodies. (Margaret Macdonald, founder member of the Women’s Labour League, writing in Women Workers, Souvenir Pamphlet of Women’s Labour Day, July 1909. London School of Economics Library.)

It is interesting that where for other countries figures for trade union membership are followed by those for membership of the national Social Democratic Party, for England they are followed by figures for membership of the women’s section of the Labour Party, rather than for the Social Democratic Party’s women’s section.

It seems likely that Kollontai’s knowledge of events and organisations in England was somewhat sketchy, and that she was not clear about the distinction which existed at that time between the British Labour Party, and the marxist Social Democratic Party of Britain and other countries. In fact, as the Social Democratic parties grew more revisionist and less openly marxist-notably the German S.D.P. – the distinction between them and the British Labour Party became a fine one. Notice also that she refers to the Social Democratic Party in Britain, when after 1912 it had become the British Socialist Party, and that her second account of dates of the foundation of the Women’s Committee of the Social Democratic Federation is incorrect. Sheila points out in her introduction that Kollontai appeared to know nothing of the activities of the East London Federation of Suffragettes.

13. In the early stages of the industrial revolution, women went into the factories, but many were still employed doing outwork at home or in domestic service. At the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century, technological change, the growth of light industry and the growth of a mass market were beginning to change the structure of women’s work again. This is the period during which women became unionised in significant numbers for the first time.

14. Mrs. Emma Patterson was the first secretary of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1871. She set up the Women’s Provident and Protective Labour League in 1874, deliberately avoiding the use of ‘trade union’ in the title out of deference to the middle class well-wishers who at that time were prominent in the organisation (though from the first, trade unionists were involved). The League helped set up women s trade unions in the 1870s, most of which were short-lived (though one, the Union of Working Women in Bristol, survived until the 1890s, and tried to convince the T.U.C. of the importance of organising women. Later it became the Trade Union League, with an overwhelmingly working class composition.

15. By “a narrowly economic character,” Kollontai means that the English trade unionists limited themselves to economic demands at work, without connecting these to the general oppression of women in society.

16. Before the First World War, many working women backed the suffragette demand for the vote ‘on equal terms with men’, even though the terms on which men had the vote embodied property qualifications which disqualified many working men from voting, and would have disqualified most working women, since they had even less money and property than the men. By 1914, however, some of the suffragettes, notably the East London Federation of Suffragettes, were calling for universal man-hood and womanhood suffrage, without property qualifications of any kind.

17. Controversy over the ‘Woman Question’ had been going on for some time. Though Engels and Bebel supported women’s rights, many German party members thought that women weren’t ready for rights, and refused to include women’s liberation on the party programme. In later years, Clara Zetkin continued the struggle in Germany for the recognition of the importance of working with and for women.

18. “Confidential Agent” – a party post.

19. See note 12 on the foundation of the Women’s Labour League.

20. The Women’s Committee of the Social Democratic Party was founded in the spring of 1905 “for the purpose of educating women in socialism and other matters appertaining to it... We have started Women’s Circles in many parts, which are conducted in a strictly business-like manner, so that when the members know enough of socialism they join the local branch of the S.D.P. and are well acquainted with the business methods of the branch.” (Quoted from the Introduction by Clara Hendin to Some Words to Socialist Women by Mrs. Montefiore. 1907. Marx Memorial Library.)

21. The Duma was the Consultative Assembly, conceded by the Czar in 1905.

22. The Russian word used for ‘present’ in the text can also mean ‘real’. (Tr.)

23. See notes 12 and 19 above. Kollontai’s date for the formation of the Social Democratic Party’s Women’s Committee is wrong here.

24. The suffragettes were not in fact making demands for electoral (property) qualifications. They were demanding the vote ‘on equal terms with men’; and while before the war this amounted to accepting the imposition of property qualifications, most of the suffragettes made it clear that they demanded the vote on these terms as better than nothing, and did not specifically support the principle of property qualifications. See note 16 above.


p.2 Footnote should read: I am referring here to an article by Georgia Pearce entitled .4 Russian Exile, Alexandra Kollontai and the Russian Woman Worker, which appeared in the English newspaper, The Woman Worker, of May 1909. This newspaper is not to be confused with the Bolshevik paper of the same name, to which Kollontai refers in her footnote to p. 26 (cf. erratum below).

p. 18 For “In England the number of women workers organised into unions had already passed the 20,000 mark;” read “In England the number of women workers organised into unions had already passed the 200,000 mark;”

p.24 Insert after “On the central committee of the Party there was also a Special rep-” the words “resentation for women workers. The Women’s Bureau of the Party was not.”

p.26 Footnote should read:

The ‘Woman’s Day’ was held by the Party in the following three years: in 1913, in 1914 and in historical 1917 on the 25th of February, the day of the beginning of the great revolution. In the spring of 1917, in Petrograd, the Bolsheviks began to publish the paper. Woman Worker, and the Mensheviks published The Voice of the Woman Worker. The war put a stop to both papers. For more details of the women workers’ movement in Russia see my article in the collection: The Communist Party and the Organisation of Women Workers.

p.28 Footnote should read:

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 agitatory 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.

p.32 For “... and where the movement constantly stumbled against obstacles which were not connected with the flaws in the worn out system of bourgeois parliamentarianism,” read “. . . and where the movement constantly stumbled against obstacles which were connected with the flaws in the worn out system of bourgeois parliamentarianism,.”

p.34 In note 14 insert “in 1874” after “She set up the Women’s Provident and Protective Labour League.”