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International Socialism, Women, and Feminism: A History of Opportunity and Opposition

Marilyn J. Boxer

San Francisco State University


   From the very beginnings in late-eighteenth-century France, European and international socialists have included women's emancipation within their purview. Initially more an abstract concern about the place of "feminine" qualities within an ideal society, or the philosophical perspective of a social movement such as the Saint Simonians during the 1830s,[1] by the era in which the first international socialist organization was constituted, the International Workingmen's Association founded by Karl Marx in 1864, the attention of socialist men had turned to the condition of women workers in industrializing society. The largely artisanal workingmen of the First International, as it was called, responded to what they termed "the industrialization of women," by seeking to exclude women from their workshops. They passed resolutions calling for women of the working classes to refrain from paid work outside their homes, where each would ideally bear and raise four children and attend to the needs of her husband, who in turn would "nurture" his wife and family based on his own wage, his income presumably adequate to provide for a family if freed from female competition in the marketplace. Adopting the slogan "equal work for equal pay," these workers asserted that if faced with paying as much for the product of a woman's work as of a man's, employers would choose the more productive worker, whom they assumed would naturally be male. Thus they would solve the problem of women in the workplace. In contrast, Marx himself and Friedrich Engels envisioned women's emancipation through participation in organized paid labor. Inspiring women of many nations and several generations, both Engels and August Bebel published best-selling books exploring the sources of women's oppression and positing its solution through the elimination of private property.[2]

   By 1889 when the successor to the short-lived First International (1864-1872), the International Socialist Association, or Second International, was founded at a meeting in Paris attended by delegates from twenty countries, the visibility of women in industrial workshops, factories, and offices had increased substantially. Moreover, some extraordinary women themselves had stepped forward to participate in the discussion. Before any other political parties of Europe, socialists gave a platform to such women. Women had also given strength to socialist causes. In France, militant activists such as Louise Michel and Paule Mink, who had distinguished themselves in the Paris Commune of 1870-71, toured the country during the 1880s and 1890s as public speakers helping to organize incipient socialist political parties. In the 1880s, German socialist Clara Eissner Zetkin, with her partner, Russian revolutionary Ossip Zetkin, shared eight years of exile in Paris, where they hosted a kind of international salon for socialist revolutionaries and wrote hundreds of articles for socialist journals of several countries. Eleanor Marx, Karl's youngest daughter, helped to organize striking gas-workers in London and translated speeches at international socialist congresses. Russian-born Anna Kuliscioff co-founded the Italian socialist party. While the numbers of women workers active in socialist movements always remained small, and most women who joined socialist political parties were stay-at-home wives of socialist men, these parties promised more opportunity to advocates of women's rights than any others along the political spectrum.

   Thanks to her participation in the Marxist French Workers' Party, as well as in revolutionary circles of German and Russian exiles in Paris, Zetkin was appointed to the organizing committee for the international congress where the Second International was founded and given a featured place on its platform. Addressing the delegates on the situation of women workers, she formulated what would become the policy of the Second International on the "woman question"; and she went on become its leader on issues related to women. Fluent in several European languages, acquainted with socialists of many lands, an eloquent and passionate public speaker, Zetkin, who returned to Germany in 1890 and soon began to edit the Stuttgart-based socialist journal for women, Die Gleichheit (Equality), helped her own German social democratic party (SPD) organize far more women workers than any other socialist organization. She corresponded regularly with socialists across the Continent and beyond, and featured news of numerous socialist women's movements. Using her position of leadership in the SPD to obtain resources essential to reaching out to women, she personally founded the group now known as the Socialist Women's International (SWI) at the congress of the Second International in Stuttgart in 1907.[3]

   Historian Susan Zimmermann characterizes the creation of the SWI by Zetkin and her followers as a response to the ongoing transnational struggle over woman suffrage, and to the conflict that arose from class and national differences about obtaining the vote within the socialist movement as well as in non-socialist women's rights groups.[4] As proceedings of the Stuttgart conference reveal, socialist women disagreed among themselves over how to achieve woman suffrage in countries where sectors of the male population still lacked the vote. They divided along national lines, as well as on the issue of cooperation with non-socialist women. Should socialist women collaborate, for instance, with suffragists who were willing to extend the vote, initially at least, to middle- and upper- class women only? But the alternative, of calling for extension to all women in countries such as Austria, Belgium, and Sweden, where some working-class men still lacked the vote, was likewise politically fraught. In Zetkin's view, socialists should avoid both any limits on the suffrage and association with what she derided as the "bourgeois" women's movement. Visiting Britain in 1909 as a guest of Dora Montefiore and the Adult Suffrage Society, Zetkin promoted a suffrage without gender or class limits, picturing the limited suffrage as "a democratic mask" hiding "the face of the Medusa of reaction."[5]

   As preparation of the agenda for the 1907 conference got underway, and the suffrage issue arose as a source of conflict within the ranks of socialist women, Zetkin decided to convene the first international conference of socialist women, to meet in the days prior to the opening of the main congress. Women at the meeting hoped thereby to establish "a basic and united position for the socialist women's movement," writes Zimmermann.[6] And indeed, influenced by the new women's group, the delegates of the Second International did pass a resolution calling for the vote for all men and all women, while, however, enjoining them not to collaborate with non-socialist suffragists.[7] For accounts of this meeting in the WASM International database, see English-language reports or a German-language account from Die Gleichheit. This meeting would lead, three years later, to the famous resolution passed at the second meeting of the SWI, in Copenhagen, calling for establishment of an international women's day to support woman suffrage and working women, the most far-reaching action taken by socialist women of the prewar era.[8]

    By 1907 and 1910, when the two meetings of the SWI took place, the international tensions that led to the First World War were escalating, and the focus of Clara Zetkin and many other socialist women shifted from suffrage campaigns to antiwar protests. In this endeavor Zetkin again took the lead, appealing to socialist women of all nations to stand against war. Addressing them as "comrades, sisters," Zetkin cried out first from the podium of the "extraordinary" congress of the Second International convened in Basel in November 1912 to deal with the war issue. In the face of conflict in the Balkans that threatened to expand into a European-wide conflagration, she spoke to her socialist sisters:

   Especially because we are women, because we are mothers! However much in the course of time social relationships have changed, throughout the millennia the duty of bearing, protecting, and cherishing new human life has been the responsibility of our sex. This duty has been our burden and our joy. All that lives in us as the personal expression of general human development, general cultural idealism, rebels and turns away shuddering from the thought of the looming mass destruction, mass annihilation of human life in modern war. Have not all these lives once rested under the heart of a mother? Are they not looked after in joy and in sorrow by a mother?

   We think not only of the shattered, mangled bodies of our relations, we think no less of the mass death of souls, which is an inexorable consequence of war. It threatens what we as mothers instill in our children, what we pass along as the most precious inheritance of our culture, the advancement of humanity [Menschheitsentwicklung]. It is the consciousness of international solidarity, of the brotherhood of peoples. In war this ideal would be impeded [verhohnt], stained [verschmutzt], and yes, murdered [ertötet]. It is against this that we fight; we fight with the strength of an unshakeable conviction.[9]

   For years socialists had urged the workingmen of many nations to clasp hands across international borders and refuse to fight each other in what they deemed an imperialist venture to benefit the interests of the wealthy classes. Rosa Luxemburg, the most talented theorist among prewar socialist women leaders, promoted the possibility of calling a mass strike to head it off. Facing the actual outbreak of war in 1914, however, most socialists wavered, and gave in to patriotism. Both French and German socialist parties voted to support their nation's war efforts, even joining in coalition governments with political forces they otherwise denigrated as "bourgeois." It was over this issue that Zetkin, refusing to abandon her antimilitarist principles, broke decisively with her German socialist comrades. In March 1915 in Bern, Zetkin convened a conference of women socialists from belligerent countries, hoping to marshal support for stopping the war.

    As documents from the Basel and Bern conferences and others show, some other socialist women likewise held to their anti-militarist principles. Zetkin’s message to “Comrades, Sisters,” which she first published in Die Gleichheit in November 1914 and forwarded through personal communications to Belgium, Britain, France, and the Netherlands, was reprinted and widely distributed among socialist women.[10] It makes clear Zetkin's adamant opposition to supporting the war, for which she would later go to jail, as did also Rosa Luxemburg in Germany and Hélène Brion and Louise Saumoneau in France. Zetkin's position also allied her more closely with British women socialists than at any other time in her career, thanks to the exceptional strength of the antiwar movement among the left in Britain.[11] Breaking with their respective parties over this issue, Saumoneau and Zetkin, along with such notable prewar socialists as Angelica Balabanoff representing the Italian socialist party and Dora Montefiore of Britain, would reject the Second International for having failed to live up to its principles and join the Third International, the "Comintern," founded in Moscow in March 1919 by Lenin and his Bolshevik party. Along with Dutch leader Henriette Roland Holst and Britain's Sylvia Pankhurst, Balabanoff, Saumoneau and Zetkin were appointed to the Comintern's Executive Committee.

   After 1920, the history of women and international socialism became more complex. While these prewar international leaders joined the new international movement, some, including Balabanoff, Saumoneau, the French socialist feminist doctor, Madeleine Pelletier, as well as Brion and Pankhurst remained only a few months or years, some of them disillusioned after a trip to the new Soviet Union. Most women of the left declined the Bolshevik invitation. The interwar period, which began, one might say, with Luxemburg's assassination in January 1919, saw women play a variety of roles in national parties of the left. Some distinguished themselves in national Communist parties, including Dolores Ibárruri (La Pasionária) in Spain, and Inessa Armand and Alexandra Kollontai in the Soviet Union, where Clara Zetkin lived for the remainder of her life. Elected by her German Communist party to serve in the Reichstag, despite her self-imposed exile, as the most senior member and thus honorary president of the Reichstag, in 1932 Zetkin gave the opening address to the last German legislature to assemble before its dissolution by Hitler--a strong call for resistance to fascism.[12]

   Overall, however, female membership in the Third International remained very small. A new International Women's Secretariat, founded at the first international congress of Communist women at the Comintern's second congress in August 1920, and led by Zetkin, lasted only until 1926. The Comintern generally ignored women, and failed to take up a series of recommendations proposed by Zetkin and others. By the 1930s, the fight against fascism took precedence over other concerns. Even where "united front" governments led by socialists held power, as in France under Léon Blum, they addressed women in their traditional wifely and motherly roles, and women's rights made few gains. As usual, women's issues were deferred until "after" more pressing matters. Many on the left, believing socialist revolution inevitable and imminent, had confidence that deferral of women's rights would be only temporary. As Communist women such as Hertha Strumer, secretary of the International Women's Secretariat in the 1920s put it, there was "no such thing as specific women's problems."[13] Zetkin herself, likened by historian Robert Wheeler to "window-dressing in a male-dominated organization," had little if any impact on Communist policies but became a kind of living icon in Soviet-influenced lands.[14] Recent research drawing on newly opened Soviet archives portrays her more positively, as inspiring belief in a better future among the common people she met on her many journeys across the Soviet Union.[15] While one recent biography portrays her as a "party soldier," going along, another remarks on her resistance to Stalinization.[16]

    During the 1920s, social democratic women such as Stella Browne in Britain and Adelheid Dworak Popp in Austria took the lead in advancing women's rights.[17] Calling for women's reproductive control, even while elsewhere, as in France, postwar legislatures enacted harsh laws against birth control and abortion, they sought to integrate feminist and socialist goals. By 1925 Popp, who succeeded Zetkin as leader of the socialist women's group, had succeeded in recruiting 165,000 women to the Austromarxist party, where they constituted almost a third of the membership.[18] Not only did socialists strongly support woman suffrage, more than any other party they elected women to public office. In Britain, the Labour Party appointed Margaret Bondfield as their country's first female cabinet minister. A socialist government in Denmark appointed Nina Bang to its cabinet, as minister for education. In Austria, six social democratic women served in the First Republic's legislature from its founding in 1919 until its destruction by fascists.[19] In contrast, Belgian socialists experienced little success in recruiting women.[20] But new parties sprang up, such as the Red Wave Society founded in Japan in 1921 by Yamakawa Kikue, her country's first organization for socialist women. Yamakawa charged capitalism with oppressing women and, through war, with destroying the lives of men, and castigated "bourgeois gentlewomen" for seeking to help women only in "a superficial and ineffective way."[21] Most Japanese women, however, turned to suffragism rather than attack the state to advance their interests. Still elsewhere, as in Scandinavia, socialist parties collaborated with liberals and others to form social democratic governments that established welfare states and provided extensive benefits to women, primarily in their traditional roles, but also as workers.[22] In Sweden Alva Myrdal led her socialist government to develop family and child welfare programs for the benefit of both sexes.[23] In many countries socialists led efforts to enact so-called protective legislation to improve the conditions of women's labor in industrial settings, usually in the alleged interest of their maternal functions. However, measures restricting the range of women's employment were also in some cases opposed by socialist women.[24]

   Interwar socialist women's activism included in many countries annual celebration of International Women's Day (IWD), which had spread across Europe and around the globe. Because of the split, however, between social democratic parties that acknowledged their heritage from pre-war socialism and those that, in joining the Comintern, disdained that precedent, it took on differing political connotations. In Greece, for example, where IWD was first introduced in 1924 by the Communist party, IWD came to signify not, as originally, the struggles of laboring women for the vote and rights of citizenship to improve their condition, but as an occasion to commemorate the uprising of working women in Russia in March 1917 that served as a prelude to the Bolshevik revolution in October of that year.[25] More generally, it served to recognize the importance of women in socialist and/or communist contexts. In China during World War II, the revolutionary and feminist poet Ding Ling marked the occasion with an inspiring speech to women about their conflicting, while heroic, roles.[26] In the Soviet Union, it became a national holiday; and it is still celebrated as such in many formerly Soviet-dominated countries. Because of IWD's association with communism, however, Cold War politics meant that the holiday would be ignored in the United States and much of "the West," until recuperated by socialist-influenced feminists in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Ironically, today those who celebrate IWD have largely or even totally abandoned its socialist heritage, and it has become in many places, including Russia and other formerly Soviet countries, merely an occasion for recognizing notable women and giving gifts.

   The deep split between socialist and communist countries that followed the creation of the Comintern made enemies of many former colleagues on the left. Some remnant parties of the Second International organized what came to be known as the "Second and a Half International," an organization that later united with the others to form a Labor and Socialist International. Following the death of Lenin, internal struggles for dominance led to the famous split between followers of Stalin and Trotsky, the latter creating a Fourth International. In the early twenty-first century, a Fifth International, centered in Latin America, has appeared. A London-based group, Socialist International Women, nevertheless traces its heritage back to the SWI founded in Stuttgart in 1907, and now counts 146 member organizations.[27]

   As Geoff Eley has pointed out, once one moves beyond the organizational approach to the study of women and socialism, it is difficult to separate the history of socialist women's activism from the general history of women. Surveying "social democracy and the gendering of citizenship" in the interwar and early postwar periods, Eley concludes that "the maternalist normalizing of politics in relation to women amounts to an enormous failure" which buttressed conservative attitudes about women's roles. Socialist and communist parties adopted positions hardly distinguishable from those of their right-wing opponents when it came to women's roles.[28] Mari Jo Buhle, historian of women and socialism in the United States, aptly describes the post-1920 period as "Autumn Song."[29]

   For many decades of the modern era, progress for women was closely tied to the fate of the left, as many feminist women acknowledged with their left-leaning votes and affiliations. The socialist parties of Europe, especially, adopted platforms supporting women's rights and opened their ranks to women earlier than any others. They offered, along with resources, opportunities for women to learn political, organizational, and public speaking skills, while also coming to understand their struggles as workers in collective terms. However, reducing women's oppression in capitalist society to economic structures, socialists largely elided the social, sexual and political sources of gender discrimination. With notable exceptions in Great Britain and Scandinavia, most socialists refused to engage in collaboration with feminist groups, instead painting them as class enemies with whom they should make a "clean break," as Zetkin put it.[30] But socialists generally failed to develop "women's programs" of their own.

   Especially since the 1970s, socialist parties have lagged behind autonomous women's movements in achieving advancement for women's rights. In many cases, these movements grew up in the face of opposition from socialist leaders, chief among them Clara Zetkin's successors who in the 1960s and 1970s–the heydays of "second wave" feminism and the New Left--resurrected the politics of the Second International, using the epithet "bourgeois feminism" to denigrate non-socialist women's movements. The long history of women and international socialism offers a case study of opportunities long promised, sometimes realized, and often missed.[31]



[1] For early ideas linking gender and socialism, see Naomi J. Andrews, Socialism's Muse: Gender in the Intellectual Landscape of French Romantic Socialism (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2007); and Susan K. Grogan, French Socialism and Sexual Difference: Women and the New Society, 1803-1844 (New York: Macmillan, 1992). On the Saint-Simonians, see Claire Goldberg Moses, French Feminism in the Nineteenth Century (Albany: State University of New York, 1984).

[2] August Bebel, Woman under Socialism, tr. Lewis A. Coser (New York: Schocken, 1971 [orig. 1879]) and Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (New York: International Publishers, 1942 [orig. 1884]).

[3] On Zetkin in Paris and her early career, see Marilyn J. Boxer "Clara Zetkin and France: Eight Year Exile, Eighty Year Influence," in John S. Partington and Marilyn S. Boxer, eds., Clara Zetkin: National and International Contexts in the Socialist History Society Occasional Papers Series, no. 31 (London: Socialist History Society, 2012). More generally on the fraught relationship between socialism and feminism, see Marilyn J. Boxer, "Rethinking the Socialist Construction and International Career of the Concept 'Bourgeois Feminism,'" American Historical Review 112 no. 1 (2007): 131-58.

[4] Susan Zimmermann, "A Struggle over Gender, Class and the Vote: Unequal International Interaction and the Birth of the 'Female International" of Socialist Women (1905-1907)" in Oliver Janz and Daniel Schönpflug, eds., Gender History in a Transnational Perspective (New York: Berghahn, 2011).

[5] John S. Partington, "Clara Zetkin's Reception in British Socialism and the British Women's Movement, 1889-1909," in Stefan Welz and Fabian Dellemann (eds.), Anglosachsen: Leipzig und die englischsprachige Kultur (Frankfurt: Lang, 2010), pp. 117-37, quotation on 132.

[6] Zimmermann, "Struggle over Gender, Class and the Vote," p. 18. .

[7] First International Conference of Socialist Women at Stuttgart, 17 August 1907;

[8] Second International Conference of Socialist Women at Copenhagen, 26 August 1910;

[9] Effi Böhlke, "Clara Zetkin (1857-1933) und die internationale Solidarität," in Auftrag der Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung (November/Dezember 2009), pp. 11-12. My translation.

[10] "To the Socialist Women of All Countries," in Philip S. Foner, ed., Clara Zetkin: Selected Writings (New York: International Publishers, 1984), pp. 114-16.

[11] I thank John Partington for this point.

[12] "Fascism Must Be Defeated: The Opening Address of the Honorary President of the Reichstag," in Foner, ed., Clara Zetkin: Selected Writings, pp. 170-75.

[13] Ida Blom, "A Double Responsibility: Women, Men, and Socialism in Norway," in Helmut Gruber and Pamela Graves, eds., Women and Socialism/Socialism and Women: Europe between the Two World Wars (New York: Berghahn Books, 1998), pp. 450-77, quotation on 455.

[14] Robert F. Wheeler, "German Women and the Communist International: The Case of the Independent Social Democrats." Central European History 8 (1975): 113-39, quotation on 132.

[15] Natalia Novikova, "Clara Zetkin and Russia: 1900s-1930s," in John S. Partington and Marilyn S. Boxer, eds., Clara Zetkin: National and International Contexts in the Socialist History Society Occasional Papers Series, no. 31 (London: Socialist History Society, 2012).

[16] On resistance, Gilbert Badia, Clara Zetkin: Féministe sans frontières (Paris: Editions ouvrières, 1993); for "party soldier," Tânia Puschnerat, Clara Zetkin: Bürgerlichkeit und Marxismus: Eine biographie (Essen: Klartext, 2003).

[17] On Browne, see Sheila Rowbotham, A New World for Women: Stella Browne–Socialist Feminist (London: Pluto Press, 1977).

[18] Ingrun Lafleur, "Five Socialist Women: Traditionalist Conflicts and Socialist Visions in Austria, 1893-1934," in Marilyn J. Boxer and Jean H. Quataert, eds., Socialist Women: European Socialist Feminism in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries (New York: Elsevier North-Holland, 1978), pp. 215-48. For an insightful analysis of Popp's Autobiography of a Working Woman, tr. E. C. Harvey (Westport, Conn.: Hyperion, 1983), see Katharina Gerstenberg, Truth to Tell: German Women's Autobiographies and Turn-of-the-Century Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000), pp. 100-39. Gerstenberger reports that Popp spent fourteen days in jail for having criticized marriage in a working women's journal; ibid., pp. 114, 126.

[19] Gabriella Hauch, "Rights At Last? The First Generation of Female Members of Parliament in Austria," in Women in Austria, ed. Günter Bischof, Anton Pelinka and Erika Thurner (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1998), pp. 56-82.

[20] Denise De Weerdt, "Bread and Roses: Pragmatic Women in the Belgian Workers' Party," in Gruber and Graves, eds.,Women and Socialism/Socialism and Women, pp. 238-65.

[21] Barbara Molony, "Women's Rights, Feminism, and Suffragism in Japan, 1870-1925," in Karen Offen, ed., Global Feminisms, 1789-1945: Rewriting Histories (London: Routledge, 2010), pp. 51-62, especially 58-59. On women and socialism in Japan, see also Sharon L. Sievers, Flowers in Salt: The Beginnings of Feminist Consciousness in Modern Japan (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1983).

[22] See Gruber and Graves, eds., Women and Socialism/Socialism and Women.

[23] Sondra R. Herman, "Dialogue: Children, Feminism, and Power: Alva Myrdal and Swedish Reform, 1929-1956," Journal of Women's History 4, no. 2 (1992): 89-117.

[24] On conflicting positions on protective legislation, see Boxer, "Rethinking," p. 152.

[25] For Greece, Angelika Psarra, "The Different Faces of a Celebration: The Greek Course of International Women's Day, 1924-2010," Aspasia 6 (2012): 43-59. On women's role in the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, see Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild, "Women's Suffrage and Revolution in the Russian Empire, 1905-1917," in Karen Offen, ed., Globalizing Feminisms, pp. 257-74.

[26] Ding Ling, "Thoughts on March 8 (1942)," in Women's Political and Social Thought: An Anthology, ed. Hilda L. Smith and Berenice A. Carroll (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), pp. 366-67.

[27] See

[28] Geoff Eley, "From Welfare Politics to Welfare States: Women and the Socialist Question," in Gruber and Graves, eds., Women and Socialism/Socialism and Women, pp. 516-46.

[29] Title of chapter 8, in Mari Jo Buhle, Women and American Socialism, 1870-1920 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), p. 288.

[30] Alfred G. Meyer, The Feminism and Socialism of Lily Braun (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), p. 52.

[31] On missed opportunities for collaboration between feminism and socialism and their consequences, see Geoff Eley, Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).