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The origins of International Women’s Day

06 March 2016

The revolutionary legacy of Clara Zetkin

By Joy Macready

CAPITALISM from its earliest years gave birth to the modern women’s question. Women, particularly the women of the poorest classes, played a major role in its model revolution – in France in 1789. But the Rights of Man and Citizen it proclaimed turned out to be just that. They excluded half of “mankind”.

Meanwhile in England another revolution, the industrial revolution, began to change women’s position economically. It drew them into the mills and factories in huge numbers.

The first socialists, particularly the great utopian thinkers like Charles Fourier, linked the ending of exploitation to the ending of the oppression of women in the male-dominated family.

But it was the following generation that proclaimed the agency of women and of the workers male and female in their own emancipation. German socialist August Bebel in his Woman and Socialism (1879) asserted:

“The development of our social life demands the release of woman from her narrow sphere of domestic life, and her full participation in public life and the missions of civilization.”

Bebel’s book had an enormous circulation in Germany, winning thousands of women to the socialist movement and helping to combat sexist prejudices and ideas amongst male socialists and trade unionists.

This was supported by Frederick Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884).

Socialism and Women

In Germany at this time hundreds of thousands of women were being drawn into mass production. Pulled out of the private sphere of the individual household, they were thrust into the workplace, where they shared a common experience with other working class women and men.

However they were, nevertheless, still obliged to combine work in the factory, usually at lower rates of pay to men, with performing all the unpaid labour in the home, cooking and cleaning, bringing up children and caring for the old and the sick.

In addition, in most of Germany women were forbidden to be members of trade unions or political parties. Nor did they receive the vote, though manhood suffrage had been granted in the new German Empire after 1871. They were second-class citizens in a legal sense: divorce was restricted and women’s property was under the control of their husbands or fathers. They often faced domestic violence in the family, for which there was little legal redress.

Clara Zetkin had joined the workers’ movement in Germany in 1878, when the world’s first stable workers’ party, the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany (SDAP, later the Social Democratic Party of Germany or SPD) was made illegal. For the next decade she worked in exile, in Switzerland and France.


In 1891, after the SPD won back its legality, she was instrumental in launching the bimonthly paper Die Gleichheit (Equality), whose masthead carried the slogan “for the interests of working women”.

From the outset Zetkin and her co-thinkers had to overcome hostility within the party to the involvement and demands of militant women. In Prussia, women were not allowed to join parties until 1908. Aided by Bebel, Zetkin set out to win the party to truly universal suffrage. In 1891, the SPD adopted the demand “without distinction of sex”.

Speaking at the Party Congress in 1896, Zetkin argued there is an inseparable connection between the socially oppressed position of women in the family and private property in the means of production. Without a socialist revolution, women’s liberation could not be achieved; and without involving women in the class struggle, the socialist revolution itself would not be possible.

She countered male trade unionists’ fear that working women would undermine their bargaining position by arguing: “The more women’s work exercises its detrimental influence upon the standard of living of men, the more urgent becomes the necessity to include them in the economic battle.”

Many feminists, and some opportunist socialists like the British Fabians, wanted to restrict suffrage to women who owned property. Zetkin warned that the bourgeois feminists were “enemy sisters”. She mercilessly attacked them too when they refused to support the right of their domestic servants to organise a union, or protective legislation in the workplace.

The network created by Die Gleicheit helped to dramatically increase women’s membership of the SPD from 4,000 to 82,642 between 1905 and 1910.


Clara Zetkin was a major figure on the left wing of the Second International (1889-1914). In 1907 before its Stuttgart congress, she organised the first International Conference of Socialist Women, attended by delegates from 15 countries, to coordinate the struggle for the vote and build mass socialist women’s organisations worldwide.

At the second conference in 1910, she argued for an annual International Working Women’s Day. In March the following year, rallies in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Sweden were attended by over a million workers, under the slogan: “The vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for socialism”.

War on War

Tragically the Second International broke apart with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, when the leaders of the SPD and its other national parties supported their “own” capitalist governments in war.

Zetkin stood up against chauvinist hatred, together with prominent revolutionaries like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, who would be murdered for their politics in 1919. Their at first tiny grouping bravely opposed the war, and denounced the SPD leaders for betraying the international working class by supporting the slaughter.

As secretary of the International Bureau of Socialist Women, she summoned a conference in Bern at the end of March 1915. Women from Poland, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland and Russia attended. It issued a call that concluded:

“The working people of all countries are brothers. Only the united determination of the people can stop the slaughter. Socialism alone is the future peace of humanity. Down with capitalism, down with the war, onward to socialism.”

Zetkin played a role in initiating the movement, and went on to help found the new Communist International in 1919, and to head the international communist women’s movement that it created.

Zetkin showed how there can be no women’s liberation without socialist revolution and that the socialist revolution is impossible without the involvement of women fighting for their liberation. We urgently need to recreate such an international socialist women’s movement today

“We demand equal political rights with men in order that, with them, we may together cast off the chains which bind us and that we may thus overthrow and destroy this society.”

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