The German Socialist Women’s Movement, 1890-1914

Introducing a series of articles on the German socialist women’s movement 1890-1914, by Janine Booth


During the nineteenth century, the emerging workers’ movement began to develop its policy on the ‘woman question’. The early, ‘utopian’ socialists argued strongly for women’s liberation. Ferdinand Lassalle led the ‘proletarian anti-feminists’, opposing votes for women and urging male workers to strike against women’s entry into industrial labour. Marx and Engels opposed Lassalle, arguing that women’s work was a step forward, and a precondition for liberation.

In 1875, the Socialist Labour Party of Germany – later to become the Social Democratic Party (SPD) – was formed. In 1879, imprisoned SPD leader August Bebel published ‘Women and Socialism’. The book had an enormous impact, awakening both women and men to the potential of working-class women. In 1890, Germany’s Anti-Socialist Law was repealed.

The stage was now set for the appearance of a landmark working-class women’s movement, led by Clara Zetkin (pictured). It was to mobilise thousands of women, and make a great contribution to socialist theory and practice on women’s liberation. How did they do that?

Part 1: Organising Working-Class Women

Part 2: Working-Class Women and Bourgeois Feminists

Part 3: Should the Workers’ Movement Have Special Structures for Women?

Part 4: Conclusions

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