Edgar Milhaud

Socialist Propaganda Among Women in Germany

First Published: International Socialsit Review, 190?;
HTML Markup: Sally Ryan for marxists.org in 2001.

THE first efforts to form organizations of female laborers in Germany did not emanate from socialists. Neither were the first groups of this kind composed entirely of women of the laboring class. The initiative for their formation was taken by women of the bourgeoisie who were engaged in work for the emancipation of women. Persons of both sexes belonging to the middle class were admitted into those clubs as honorary members. Elevation of the intellectuai level of laboring women was their main object. Thus the first club of this kind, founded in 1869 by Mrs. Otto Peters, in Berlin, called itself "Society for further education and intellectual stimulation of women of the laboring class" (Verein zur Fortbildung und geistigen Anregung der Arbeiterfrauen).

The majority of these clubs soon disappeared from lack of attendance. They were shunned by women of the laboring class for pretending to better the condition of the latter without taking notice of their material wants, or rather becanse no better plan for the improvement of their material condition was offered than culture of the brain and amelioration of the heart.

New societies of laboring women arose out of the co-operation of women of the laboring class and the bourgeoisie, attempting to cater at the same time to the material and moral interests of their members. The management of these societies soon passed out of the hands of bourgeois women into those of laboring women. In these societies and in others that were founded and directed by laboring women, economic questions took the foremost place. The same evolution that brought the management of the labor movement of women into the hands of women of the laboring class directed this formerly purely intellectual movement into the economic fight for higher wages and better conditions of life and labor.

The women of the laboring class separated from the bourgeois women and followed their own independent course. In 1896 they refused to take part in the International Congress of Women in Berlin that had been called by women of the bourgeoisie.

In the same measure in which the movement of female laborers emancipated itself front the influence of the bourgeois women, it approached the movement of the male workers, the socialist movement. And the police who endeavored to obstruct the working-class movement by incessant persecutions, while giving free scope to the bourgeois women, contributed to the best of their ability to this tendency. From these causes the movement of the women workers to-day has become an integral part of the socialist movement, within the limits and forms permitted by law. Militant female workers of Germany took part in 1889 in the International Socialist Congress of Paris, where, at their suggestion, the women's question became the subject of special discussions. At their request the urgency of an active propaganda among women was emphasized. Since then laboring women have been represented by delegates of their sex in all international socialist congresses and in all the congresses of the German Social Democratic Party.

Socialist propaganda among women must essentially remain in touch with the movement of working women, for this movement fulfills the highest demands of such a propaganda.

We do not pretend that laboring women are the only women among whom the German socialists wish to carry on their propaganda. They address themselves to all women, because they hold that the women of all classes would become socialists if they recognized the true interests of their sex. "In the family," said Engels, "man is the bourgeois and woman represents the proletariat." From this point of view the socialist party is a womens party, as it is the party of all proletarians. Socialist propaganda embraces all the women of all classes.

It would be necessary to analyze Bebel's book, "Woman in the Past, Present and Future" chapter by chapter in order to show what this propaganda signifies in its full meaning; in order to show that the "Woman's Problem" in all its different aspects finds its solution in socialism. Suffice it to repeat here the fundamental truth that the dependence and slavery of women have their roots in the economic dependence on men, and that this dependence and slavery will not cease until the economic dependence will be abolished. At the time of primitive communism, woman was independent and her own mistress. Individual appropriation of the land and establishment of the regime of private property marked the beginning of woman's servitude. This state of things was sanctioned by Jewish, Christian and Mohammedan law. It was established under different forms among the Greeks and Romatis, in the middle ages as in our day. An indissoluble tie links the servitude of women to the system of private property. The efforts of women of the higher classes to emancipate themselves within the plane of the present economic system are doomed to certain failure. A few superficial reforms may give them a temporary illusion of victory, but the roots of woman's social slavery reach down deep into the system of private property, and only by sapping the base of this system can the evil be eradicated and the slavery ended. Socialism alone, by abolishing social classes, will abolish the class character of the sexes, will permit the free unfolding of woman's faculties and,through this freedom, make her the equal of man.

Independently of theoretical arguments of this order that have become classic among German socialists since the publication of Bebel's book, the propagandists in their arguments can bring different facts to bear on women. In the first place, the socialists alone have embodied in their programs of immediate measures the demand for the political and social equality of women. Besides, the socialist representatives in the parliament have always, and very often alone against all the other parties, defended the movement of women for emancipation and even such endeavors as are only in the interest of women of higher classes. Finally, within the party itself, women enjoy complete equality with men, for they are chosen as delegates, members of commissions and members of the executive conimittee of the party. Under Social Democracy the female citizen has the same rights as the male citizen. Therefore the Social Democracy of to-day offers the surest pledges of woman's position in the social republic of the future.

Although the socialist party appeals to all the women, it is no less true that it directs its principal efforts to the enlightenment and organization of laboring women. Socialists are well aware that strong ties bind women to their particular class. They are well aware that the women of the middle and higher classes, however strong the reason that should make them socialists, will in the majority of cases be prevented by class prejudice from understanding the evidence before them. The women of the laboring class, on the contrary, are by birth and environment predisposed to understand and feel the truths of socialist arguments.

The main object of socialist propaganda among women is to point out to them that their proper place in this fight is not by the side of bourgeois "woman movement" but of the socialist laborers. Women must comprehend that the women of the bourgeoisie fight for equality with the men of their own class only. But when the general interest of that class comes into question, then they instinctively join the men of their class in defence of their common class interests. The emancipated bourgeois women make common cause with their bourgeois opponents whenever the interests of the bourgeoisie come into conflict with those of the proletariat. The bourgeois adherents of emancipation are unable to understand that the enfranchisement of women is impossible in the bourgeois society; that the interests of their sex conflict with their class interests, and that their sex interests are identical with those of the proletariat. Only the victory of the latter will make women the equals of men. The bourgeois friends of emancipation are bourgeois before they are in favor of emancipation. They respect the bourgeois order of society so deeply that it never occurred to them to protest against any of the frequent suppressions of laboring women's societies or meetings. The bourgeois female suffragist is in favor of the bourgeois system at the expense of the proletarian women. The latter would violate their duty if they were to make common cause with the bourgeois.

They must make common cause with the socialist laborers. While the interests of bourgeois women are opposed to those of the men of their own class, the men and the women of the proletariat have common interests. As far as wages are concerned, the female laborer, like her male fellow-worker, can only be released from the capitalist yoke by socialism. Furthermore, as stated before, socialism alone will free the female laborers as women. And finally, while waiting for the hour of female and proletarian freedom, the true interests of male and female laborers under capitalism are the same.

Too often conflicts arise between them, when female laborers, in competition with men, take the places of the latter for lower wages. Too often laboring men demand measures forbidding women to take the bread out of the men's mouths and lower the price of manual labor. Sometimes, even laws are demanded prohibiting all industrial employment for women, just as men formerly would destroy the machines that threw them out of work. These men do not understand that industrial evolution cannot be arrested by arbitrary acts of violence. Such acts always betray ignorance of economic laws. The attitude of enlightened laborers has always been different. They did not smash the machines; for they understood that the machines would cease to deprive them of employment if the hours of labor were reduced in the same measure in which labor, thanks to machinery, became more productive. And they organized for the purpose of reducing the hours of labor. Likewise, seeing that female employment is a necessity arising out of the present system of production, they simply demand that women's wages shall be lower than men's only when their labor is less productive. They ask that women's wages be raised.

These intelligent laborers furthermore invite women to unite with them for the purpose of obtaining a raise in wages and a general reduction of working hours, in order that every laborer, male and female, may obtain work. The trade union men will help women to obtain higher wages and shorter hours. And laboring women will always find advice, help and protection in the unions. The unions, while protecting the material interests of the laboring women, will at the same time give them instruction and that strong training of character which is the result of fighting for a common purpose. What bourgeois women's clubs will never be able to give laboring women, the union does offer. Self-interest, class interest and sex interest demand that laboring women should join trade unions. Laboring women must become members of trade unions and socialists.

Thus propaganda leads us to emphasize organization as the essential factor. Under the present state of German legislation trade unions are the most effective and often the only possible form of organization for women. In several of the most important states of the empire women are not allowed to become members of political parties. As soon as the police decides that a certain women's club or a club admitting women as members is political, its dissolution is decreed. It is, therefore, out of the question to organize women politically. What is to be done? They must be organized in non-political bodies that will give them, in the absence of other advantages, at least a certain cohesion.

This cohesion is obtained in societies of different character. One of these, the "Kranken und Sterbe Kassen" (Sick and Death Funds) were for a time the principal rallying centers. The organization published a paper, "Die Staatsburgerin" (The Female Citizen). This paper was confiscated. Societies for the Education of Women (Frauen Bildungs Vereine) took its place and serve the same purpose to this day; but their existence is very precarious, for they are at the mercy of police commissioners. When the laws of exception against socialists were abolished in 1890, the majority of trade unions changed their constitutions in such a manner that women could become members. Inside of these unions all efforts were directed to the education of women. Apart from their economic function, the trade unions serve as centers of organization for socialist women, as a means of education for those who are not yet socialists and who only join these unions because they find in them protection of their material interests. The union itself does not meddle with politics, but the organ of the union, which is delivered to all members, may discuss politics. In social meetings of the union politics must not be discussed, but the union may hold public meetings in which male and female members may take part in the discussion of political questions. And as members of trade unions women live in a socialistic atmosphere, and if they are not yet socialists they have numerous chances of becoming so.

How shall the propaganda among unorganized women be carried on? How should direct socialist propaganda be managed? After the Paris Congress of 1889, commissions were formed for the propaganda among women. But these were suppressed in 1895 as political bodies. Thereupon a system of trustees (Vertrauens Leute) was created. These trustees were elected at public meetings and charged with all questions relating to the propaganda among women. This system is in force at the present time. Women trustees call propaganda meetings, arrange for the distribution of pamphlets and leaflets, and organize the propaganda among women of their own town or district. A trustee for all Germany serves as mediator for them and lends unity to their efforts. Their principal assistants are female speakers, who address the propaganda meetings, and the women authors of pamphlets and leaflets for propaganda purposes. Nearly all of these trustees, speakers and authors are laboring women or wives of workingmen. The trade unions also employ mostly women for propaganda work among female laborers. Independently of the influence exerted on them by the trustees, the women engaged in propaganda work keep in touch through a weekly "Die Gleichheit" (Equality), an "organ for the protection of the rights of laboring women."

Officially, the propaganda among women is resting solely on the female trustees and the press organ. Officially, no socialist organization of women exists. But behind these trustees, bound by no other tie but confidence, are other devoted women who remain in obscurity. And on arriving in any town, these women find, in the absence of an organization, a spirit of harmony and good will that makes up for the lack of organization In places where no political organization of women exists, the women comrades have joined non-political organizations, educational clubs and unions. And even then such organizations become, without violating the law, the centers of propaganda for socialist elements, by pure force of intercourse. Thus the work of propaganda and organization goes on in spite of the law and in the face of the most powerful antagonism, by the sole agency of conviction and will.