Maud Parlow

The German Party Congress and the Women’s Movement

Source: Social Democrat, Vol. XII, No. 10, October 15, 1908, pp. 441-446, (1,750 words);
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

The German Party Congress has this year been of special interest to women, as it is the first held since the new Law of Associations came into power, and the question of re-organisation of the women’s movement under the new conditions must be settled. The Law is in principle an entirely reactionary measure, curtailing the rights of association of foreign workmen, and rendering the political enlightenment of the youth more difficult than ever. But as it is an ill wind that blows nobody good, at least the women of Prussia and other restricted States have been able to find a loophole in the Law through which they have a glimpse of political freedom.

Until lately we women in Prussia have not been allowed to organise ourselves politically, we must not even attend political meetings of associations, and two-thirds of the time we might have been using in agitation has been wasted in dodging regulations. Our women’s societies have therefore always been mere “Improvement Societies,” strictly non-political; notice of meetings having to be given to the police on pain of instant dissolution of the society, and our every step dogged by portentous-looking policemen with notebooks, doing their best to light on any informality which would enable them to break up meetings or get fines imposed on the leaders. If we wanted to attend a men’s club meeting we dare not be “present” but could sit in an adjoining room with the door open, or we could sit in a “section,” a part of the room portioned off by any line being drawn, a row of chairs perhaps. If there was a platform to the hall this was generally our place, and here we could enjoy the whole of the smoke from the room below, be refreshed by the draughts from the wings, and hear an occasional word from the speakers, who generally had their backs to us, and always one or two of the unspeakable Prussian policemen sitting by and keeping strict watch that no woman over-stepped the “section” by an inch and thus began to “attend” the meeting.

And still we did attend political meetings, and did organise ourselves politically, for our Improvement Societies were known to us, the police, and everybody else, to be political; indeed openly so long as there was not actually a policeman present. The absurdity of sticking to the letter of a dead law would have long been impossible anywhere but in Germany, where the police are a religion, and it never enters anybody’s head to defy the law, but merely to dodge it. The new Law enables us to do openly what we have done in secret, to go forward in the work with less restraint and increased opportunity.

With these new conditions very different prospects of work are opened up to us; we are no longer condemned to work in a corner, struggling with the petty till we become petty ourselves, as is so often the fate of women. We can enter on an equal footing with man the field on which men and women are to fight for their common rights. Our views and enthusiasms, freed from the bitterness born of the continual galling injustice incurred by being a woman, have space to broaden, we can take up the work with hope and spirit, and it will be our own fault if we do not dissolve the last remnants of prejudice which still remain in the minds of many, even of our own comrades.

The question to be decided by the Congress has been the best way of utilising the new possibilities. It is only to be regretted that in all the debates woman was still regarded as woman, as a race apart, for whom special regulations must be made. It would seem obvious that once the possibility was wrung from the law, the women entering the party organisation would do so simply as members, without disadvantage or privilege, the accident of their being women passing unnoticed. And no doubt this is the ultimate condition of things desired by those attending the Congress, but partly owing to the women having worn their chains so long that they cannot accustom themselves to freedom, and partly owing to an engrained sex prejudice, the whole tone of the Congress was to set woman in a separate category, to accord her a special treatment. That the special treatment proposed was generally in the form of a privilege is the greater proof of distrust in woman’s powers.

Thus it was agreed that at least one woman should be on the committee of each elective society, a regulation intending to protect the women from being unrepresented, but in itself logically superfluous, for where there is a capable woman she will be elected to the committee in any case, and where the women as a whole are the most capable the committee may consist wholly of women, but where there are no women fit for the position one cannot be dragged in by the hair of the head. If such a regulation is necessary before women can get on the committee in places where there are capable women, then it is a sad confession of sex prejudice in the party itself. That women must necessarily be represented by women is also a remnant of prejudice.

Then the subscription for women is recommended to be less than that for men. This is again a well-meant privilege based on the lesser proportionate earnings of women, but it is also a fatal pandering to the illusion shared by the majority of even Socialist workmen, that the work of their wives, especially where the women do the housework only, is worth absolutely less than theirs, and that if the woman’s subscription is as high as the man’s, it is he who pays double from his own pocket. It is only the most unenlightened of the working women who are pleased to pay a lower subscription; those who understand the economic value of their work feel it is as a degradation.

Again, it has been agreed that the existing women’s improvement societies should not be done away with and that the Women’s Conferences should continue to be held. The idea underlying both these proposals is that women have certain interests in which men have no part, “interests as mothers and as unenfranchised,” and it is suggested that the women may discuss their own affairs at their own conferences, and thus save the time of the Party Congress. It seems as if the women themselves cannot realise the thought of equality with men: in one direction they accept privilege, and then here they are at once so overwhelmingly modest. Theoretically they will erase sex distinction, practically they insist on it. Do they not at heart believe that there exist no feminine interests as such, no masculine interests as such, but solely human interests? The women are part and parcel of the party, what concerns them concerns the party, they have neither obligation nor right to discuss their affairs alone. Would it not be regarded as an absurdity if any category of male comrades—say those deprived of votes by their pecuniary circumstances—should announce the intention of holding a separate conference on the ground that they had other interests, and did not wish to trouble the Party Congress? It is precisely in the interests of any such body of comrades that the Party Congress is held at all, and it is scarcely thinkable that a party composed of men and women should pick out a few subjects of particular interest to half their members, and exclude these from discussion. At the Congress, party matters are discussed in accordance with their importance; this year, for instance, over two days were given to the affairs of the South German comrades, as affecting the whole party; another year perhaps so much time might be devoted to the political and social disabilities of the women members as equally affecting the whole party. The whole object of the women should be to merge themselves and their interests in the rest of the party, that women and men may work together in such a manner that the disadvantages suffered by the one are felt equally by both.

Then with regard to retaining the women’s improvement societies, there is a sort of fear abroad that most women are not yet advanced enough to take real part in the men’s clubs, that their interest would decline when knotty problems took the place of the agreeable gossipy reading circles, and that the whole women’s movement would suffer a set-back. And yet this supposition is contradicted by experience. In Saxony, for instance, where the women have long been able to organise politically, the doing away with the improvement societies has resulted in the 200 to 300 women formerly belonging to these associations being increased to 4,000 in the political organisations. Where the women have had sufficient interest to join an improvement society, their interest will be correspondingly greater when they are able to take part in the real thing, now that they need no longer sit in a corner without voice or vote, but can join in the discussion, and vote or be voted for.

Our German comrades have too much fearfulness and distrust in woman’s abilities. It would in every case be better to simply give women equal opportunities and see if they prove worthy of them. A fair field and no favour is all we ask, and though our inexperience and disabilities may make the struggle the harder at first, we enter on it with a better spirit. Equality of the sexes is part of our party programme, let us then have it first of all in the party itself. It is always a mistake to be afraid of being too ideal, and woman will be better educated to her responsibilities by being offered on a small scale that equality it is intended shall be hers in every respect under Socialism than by being kept in leading strings.

However, when all is said, the German Congress has given the women’s movement a great forward impetus, and it will take but a short period of work under the new conditions to show to the German women comrades the needlessness of their lack of selfconfidence, and to the men comrades the superfluity of their fear of weakness in the ranks of the women.