Clara Zetkin led the struggle for a socialist-led, working class based women’s organisation in Germany in the 1880s-1890s. Like China today, this was a period of rapid industrialisation carried through under the guidance of a repressive state. It drew women – and children – into industry on a large scale and it saw the birth and growth of German Social Democracy as the mass workers’ party.
In 1891 women SPD members produced the first issue of Die Gleicheit, subtitled “for the interests of working women”, appeared. It was an independent paper, with its own editorial board, but led and coordinated by Social Democratic women.
The pioneers of Die Gleicheit faced very particular problems in the Germany of that time. Until 1908 laws in Prussia denied women freedom of association – thus legally barring them from party membership and trade union membership. only in the liberal states of Hamburg, Bremen, Baden and Wurttemberg did women have full rights of participation in politics. There was hostility in the party to the involvement and demands of militant women. Many trade unionists saw women workers simply as a threat to their jobs and bargaining position.
Zetkin put it like this:
“If they [the women comrades] wanted to bring socialism to the mass of proletarian women they had to take into account these women’s political backwardness, their emotional peculiarities, their twofold burden at home and in the factory, in short, all the special features of their existence, actions, feelings and thoughts.”
Zetkin and her supporters also waged a consistent campaign for women’s rights inside the party and the trade unions. In 1890 they secured the right to elect women delegates to party conference from special women’s meetings. They won the adoption of a comprehensive party programme for the protection of women workers in 1891. In 1892 they succeeded in establishing a system of permanent women’s vertrauenspersonen – women’s spokespersons – in the party, whose task was the political education of proletarian women, the organisation of work amongst women.
The work to establish Die Gleicheit and to force the party to seriously address the question of drawing women into struggle laid the basis for the enormous growth of socialist influence among working women in the first years of the twentieth century.
Between 1882 and 1907 the proportion of women in the workforce increased from 18.5% to 44.3%. The abolition of the anti-union ‘combination laws’ in 1908 assisted the drawing of women into trade union and political organisations. Between 1895 and 1907 women’s membership of the trade unions increased by 2,000%. From 1905 to 1910 women’s membership of the party rose dramatically from 4,000 to 82,642. Die Gleicheit’s readership increased dramatically too. Its circulation was estimated at approximately 4,000 in 1900 but had reached 23,000 by 1905 and 82,000 by 1910. Die Gleicheit’s increased circulation went hand in hand with an increase in the number of women members of the party; as sales grew so too did the number of women members of the Social Democratic Party. Within this expansion the institution of female vertrauenspersonen took shape and developed. While there were only 25 registered in 1901, there were 407 by 1907, operating in all parts of Germany.
The network created by Die Gleicheit and the vertrauenspersonen enabled Marxist women to work amongst and organise women still as yet outside the party. Before the abolition of the combination laws the vertrauenspersonen organised educational associations for working women, organisationally though not politically independent of the party. But, as the growth of party membership among women shows, the organisational independence of Die Gleicheit did not mean that it was posed as an alternative to the party, to joining its ranks.
It was not an obstacle to, but rather an entry point for working women coming towards the party. Within the party women members held their own conference every two years, prior to the national conference, and reported directly to the party conference.
Only Die Gleicheit and the Social Democratic women campaigned for protective legislation for women – whose standards could then be applied to all workers – recognising that women were the weakest and most exploited section of the working class.
For Zetkin the right to vote was to be fought for as part of the struggle to draw working class women into an active fight against capitalism.
This position and emphasis increasingly placed Zetkin and her supporters at odds with the general direction of the German Social Democratic party. For the party leadership, electoralism, the vote winning work of the party, was increasingly counterposed to organising the masses for struggle. This had been pointed out by Rosa Luxemburg in the first years of the century.
It was no accident therefore that Zetkin and a series of other leading women comrades of German Social Democracy were on the left of the party. In 1914 Zetkin and her comrades were to oppose the First World War, and break with Social Democracy definitively in 1918. It was in the German Communist Party, in the Communist International, that the tradition represented by Die Gleicheit was to be continued and elaborated, although the paper was formally kept alive by the German Social Democrats after the break with Zetkin.