A Note about the Founder of March 8th
“… I would like to make very special reference to the responsibility of the parents, not to raise their boys and girls in the prejudice that there is work for which men are unworthy but which is suitable for women. Boys and girls should be able to perform all work which domestic life brings with it with the same level of skill and joy.”
These words were spoken by Clara Zetkin in 1906 who, during the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II, was called “the most dangerous sorceress” of the German empire. It was Zetkin who called for an international day for women and initiated the March 8th demonstration, which had been described by some as an event of the devil (Lewis, 2014).
Although Zetkin was the mother of Women’s International Day, a day which is associated with the feminist movement, Zetkin herself has been known to be an antifeminist. In fact, Zetkin’s ideological and political stance has long been considered controversial and has been debated among scholars and political activists (Lewis, 2014). The controversy is much influenced by the “women’s oppression versus class oppression” debate, in addition to a history of a somewhat strained relationship between marxism and socialist feminism.
Zetkin’s Ideas and Activism
Along with Alexandra Kollontai and Rosa Luxemburg, Zetkin was one of the female prominent figures in the international worker’s movement. Zetkin managed, edited, and wrote for three socialist periodicals, Die Gleichheit (Equality), Die Kommunistin (The Female Communist), and Die Kommunistische Fraueninternationale (The Communist Women International) (Sproat, 2008:4). Most of her ideas on “the woman question” in relation to the communist revolution were reflected from the articles in these periodicals, as well as in her speeches.
Zetkin’s ideas on women’s emancipation was very much influenced by the work of August Bebel, Women under Socialism (1879), which described how capitalism affected the lives of working women and their children’s wellbeing (Sproat, 2008:51). In her analysis, Zetkin linked motherhood and unpaid domestic labor with women’s oppression; a theory later developed further by socialist feminists of the 1960s and 70s and which has more recently evolved into newer discourses on unpaid care work. In terms of caring for children, she believed that the education of children is the common task of both parents and that women and men should:
…. join harmoniously in free development the spiritual and moral force, which the man on the one side and the woman on the other have to provide. For this reason we declare that the work of education should not be just the work of the mother on the one side, but the common work of the parents together. (Clara Zetkin's speech at the Mannheim SPD Party Congress in 1906 (Dadalos.org))
Zetkin further identified the role of the state in family life and the emancipation of women. She saw women’s economic dependency on men, women’s reproductive role, and domestic labor as hindering women’s full labor participation and self-actualization, and called for state intervention in domestic life, such as through state supported day care. Zetkin believed that women needed freedom from household work as well as training and aid to enable them to participate in productive labor. Zetkin herself was a mother of two sons which she had from her relationship with socialist, Ossip Zetkin (Sproat, 2008).
Clara Zetkin also saw the sexual division of labor in societies as blocking the way to the full emancipation of all women and as being the source of inequality in the home, saying that “As the worker is subjugated by the capitalist, so is the women subjugated by the man” (Dadalos.org).
In her position paper, Zetkin affirmed this:
From this point of view of history, we demand the political equality of women and the right to vote as a recognition of the political rights due to our sex. This is a question which applies to the whole of women without exception. All women, whatever be their position, should demand political equality as a means of a freer life, and one calculated to yield rich blessings to society. (Clara Zetkin, “Social-Democracy and Woman Suffrage”, 1906 in Smith, 2014)
Not a Feminist
Although much of Zetkin’s work would tend to fall into what people today call feminism, Zetkin highly opposed feminism because she perceived it as a bourgeois notion and movement. She stated,“[F]or working women to join together with capitalist feminism weakens the struggle of the proletariat” (Third Congress, in 2014). On the other hand, she wanted socialism to appeal to women of all classes. She stated, “[M]ore and more housewives, including bourgeois housewives, are awakening to a recognition that present conditions – the continued existence of capitalism – are incompatible with their most basic interests in life” (Fourth Comintern, 1922, in Riddell, 2014).
Zetkin believed that women’s emancipation and equality could only be achieved through communism. She maintained this view even when the reality in Soviet Russia showed the contrary (Sproat, 2008:92–93). From 1924, Zetkin resided in Moscow. Before her death in 1933, Zetkin spoke strongly against fascism (Dadalos.org).
Rediscovering Clara Zetkin
The rediscovery of Clara Zetkin in the past years through the discovery of her writings has helped provide a better understanding of Zetkin’s ideas and her political activism, but may not paint a clearer picture that will end the ambiguity, controversy, and debate surrounding her. For some feminists, discovering that the founder of Women’s International Day rejected feminism would probably be a bit of a surprise. For others, her views and theory, which had evolved throughout her active life in the socialist movement, might be seen as having expanded beyond marxism.
Still, Zetkin’s invaluable contribution was not only to the socialist movement of her time, but to the progress of feminist theory throughout the years and even until today. Contemporary feminist analyses on motherhood, care work, and women’s oppression suggest strong reminiscence to Zetkin’s ideas; she may well be one of the first women in history to have laid the foundation for a critical analysis of the family and women’s oppression.
Dadalos.org (n.d.) Clara Zetkin http://www.dadalos.org/int/menschenrechte/Grundkurs_MR3/frauenrechte/woher/dokumente/dokument_4.htm#2 [5 March 2015].
Lewis, Ben (2014) Clara Zetkin: Preached Principle, Promoted Unity [online] http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1007/clara-zetkin-preached-principle-promoted-unity/ [5 March 2015].
Riddell, John (2014) Clara Zetkin in the Lion’s Den, Workers’ Unity and Feminism at a Comintern Congress [online] https://johnriddell.wordpress.com/2014/01/12/clara-zetkin-in-the-lions-den/ [5 March 2015].
Smith, Sharon (2014) Women’s Liberation: The Marxist Tradition [online] http://isreview.org/issue/93/womens-liberation-marxist-tradition [3 March 2015].
Sproat, Liberty Peterson (2008) How Soviet Russia Liberated Women: The Soviet
Model in Clara Zetkin's Periodical 'Die Kommunistische Fraueninternationale.' Thesis.
Brigham Young University, Provo [online] http://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/etd/1450/ [3 March 2015].
The CWLU Herstory Website A History of International Women’s Day: We Want Bread and Roses Too (1972) [online] https://www.uic.edu/orgs/cwluherstory/CWLUArchive/interwomen.html [3 March 2015].