Saturday, March 09, 2013

Bread and Roses, and Clara Zetkin

 1910: ARRIVING for Copenhagen conference which adopted call for International Women's Day, Clara Zetkin (left) accompanied by Rosa Luxemburg

TODAY has been International Women's Day, and judging from the amount of events arranged around this time the event is enjoying a bit of a revival. Of course it will never be big as Mothers Day so long as the latter can be used to sell stuff that's supposed to compensate "mums" for being unpaid skivvies and galley slaves;

But maybe among "progressives" at least there's a sense that issues which seemed in vogue then settled, even passe, decades ago, are still not assured, and even within the Left there have been shocks to complacency. Like trade unionists (of whom, contrary to old stereotypes, a majority today in Britain are women), women are learning that if you don't keep fighting for your rights and what you have achieved you lose them.

Women's Day goes back a long way. It was during the bitter and often heroic struggles of women workers in America's mills and factories, at the beginning of the last century, that Socialists made the call which led to a national Women's Day being marked  on 28 February 1909 in the United States.

This was also the period of the big women's suffrage movements, and of the great labour unrest which saw mass strikes in several countries. The connections were not always obvious, despite the legendary Lawrence textile workers strike in Massachusetts in 1912, when women marched with the famous banner, "We Want Bread - and Roses too!"

Women had stood, and been struck down by the cavalry, at Peterloo in Manchester, in 1819, yet the Chartist movement, though it involved women, did not include their right to vote in its immediate programme. The Communist Manifesto of 1848 called on "Working men of all countries" to unite, and the First International was called the International Working Men's Association.

This was not conscious "sexism", a word not yet invented, nor rejection of women's rights. And yet there was nothing unconscious about the socialist intellectual Belfort Bax opposing women's suffrage, complaining that laws favoured women, and writing works such as "The Fraud of Feminism" (1913).

To complete the picture, however, we must note that leading campaigners for "Votes for Women" saw no reason to demand universal suffrage, indeed were appaled by the thought of lower class men having the vote. And though some Suffragettes addressed working women and their problems, others were understandably tmore concerned with their rights as property owners. Some, raised perhaps on the "feminine" ideals of the leisure classes thought they could bring a superior morality and gentleness to the nations politics.

That did not stop Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst rallying to the flag with enthusiasm for the First World War, urging women into production and men into the forces.. It was left to Sylvia who opposed the imperialist war, to help working class women, including soldiers' wives and widows, to feed their kids as well as fighting for their rights.        .  

If we think some things ought to be obvious now, like the link between workers and women's rights, or that women's oppression drags down the whole working class, not only by dividing us but by keeping us tied to the system, we must thank those who stood up and fought for their principles in the past, be it Sylvia Pankhurst in London's East End or Clara Zetkin in the international movement. 

It was in August 1910 that an International Women's Conference was organized to precede the general meeting of the Socialist International, in Copenhagen. Delegates from seventeen countries - trade unionists,  socialists, women's activists - discussed suffrage, workplace rights, the 8 hour day, maternity leave and health insurance. Then, inspired partly by the big struggles and ideas coming from the United States, German Socialist Luise Zietz, seconded by Clara Zetkin, proposed the establishment of an annual 'International Woman's Day.

The following year, on 18 March 1911,International Women's Day was marked for the first time, by over a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland. In Vienna, women marched with banners honouring the martyrs of the Paris Commune. Thus the internationalism of the day was as important as its women's aspect.

This was particularly important to Clara Zetkin, a left-wing member of the German Social Democrats, and editor of their magazine for working women Gleichkeit (Equality). She had fought for some time to ensure that the party pay proper attention to women's rights, and support the right to vote.  But she also insisted that women could only win their rights by fighting for universal ssuffrage and social equality. And she believed that establishing solidarity among women workers of different nationalities through International Women's Day was a way to counteract chauvinism and the looming threat of war.     . .

The big movement around commemorating International Women's Day continued right up to 1914, but it could not stop the First World War. Nevertheless, it was Russian women marching against the privations of war on International Women's Day in March 1917 (February in the Russian calendar) who began what became the Revolution that brought down the Czar.

In Germany, meanwhile, Clara Zetkin had, like her friend and comrade Rosa Luxemburg, opposed the Social Democratic party's support for going to war, Jailed repeatedly for her anti-war activity, Zetkin nevertheless managed to organise the International Socialist Women's Conference in Berne, Switzerland, at which delegates from the belligerent countries called for peace.. 

After the war, Zetkin left the Social Democrats and was a founder of the Communist Party of Germany. She also became an executive member of the Third International. In 1932, at the age of 75, she made a defiant one-hour speech against war and fascism at the opening of the Reichstag. But after the Nazis took power and outlawed the Communist Party she went to the Soviet Union, where she died, in Archangelsk, in 1933.

A number of articles by Clara Zetkin are available on the Marxist Internet Archive, for instance: 

With renewed interest in her work the Socialist History Society has produced a book:

Clara Zetkin: National and International Perspectives
 and announced a  Clara Zetkin Book Launch and Talk

An opportunity to discuss the life and legacy of Clara Zetkin.

Speakers will include authors who contributed to the new book on Zetkin which is the latest Occasional Publication issued by the SHS.

Venue: Housmans Bookshop

King’s Cross

Wednesday 12th June, 7pm.

Please note: entry £3.00 which is redeemable on any purchase from the bookshop on the night.


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