Clara Zetkin And The Women’s Question

March 18, 1988
8 mins read

In agreement with the class-conscious, Political and Trade Union Organizations of the proletariat of their respective countries, the Socialist women of all countries will hold each year a Women’s Day, whose foremost purpose it must be to aid the attainment of women’s suffrage. This demand must be handled in conjunction with the entire women’s question according to Socialist precepts. The Women’s Day must have an international character and is to be prepared carefully”. CLARA ZETKIN, (From a proposal to the Second International Women’s Conference at Copenhagen, August 27,1910).

Clara Eissner Zetkin (1857-1933), an outstanding personality of the International Working class and Communist movement, was along with Fredrick Engels and August Bebel, a pioneering theorist of the Women’s Question. Her name has gone down in history, as a staunch defender of the rights of working women, and initiator of the movement for International Women’s Day, now celebrated every year, on all continents, on the 8th of March.

Zetkin was born on July 15, 1857, in Widerau, a small Saxon village in Germany, inhabited by weavers in the local textile Industry and small farmers. Her mother, Josephine Vitale Eissner, was an educated woman and a strong believer in the French Revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. An outspoken supporter of complete economic equality for women, she even formed an educational society to further the education of the female sex.

Clara Zetkin took after her mother and was to develop a life­long interest in the cause of women’s rights. Because of her sex, she was unable to study at the GYMNASIUM. However, her intelligence got her admission, free of charge, to the teacher training college of the Van Steyber Institute in Leipzig, the best of its kind in Germany. Her school years (1874-78) profoundly influenced her intellectual development, deepening her knowledge of literature and history. In the same period, she began learning Italian, French, and English, which would prove valuable in her later work.

Moreover, she was further indoctrinated with the ideals of the French Revolution, she immersed herself in discussions of women’s equality and established contacts with the Leipzig Women’s Educational Society and the National Association of German Women. Clara Eissner’s interest in socialism was first aroused through her reading of Social-Democratic newspapers and pamphlets. In the spring of 1878, shortly after her graduation from the Teachers’ Institute, with distinction, she made the acquaintance of a group of Russian students and emigres living in Leipzig. Through them, she came into contact with German Social Democrats and began attendance of their meeting.

One of the Russians she met was Ossip Zetkin, an émigré from Odessa, who lived in Leipzig and divided his time between activities in revolutionary groups and woodworking. Zetkin was a convinced Marxist, and within a short time after their meeting, he was lending her books by Marx and Engels, and instructing her on the theories of Scientific Socialism.

By the middle of 1878, Clara Eissner had committed herself to the cause of socialism. Although as a woman, she was legally barred from becoming a member, she became closely associated with the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), and identified herself thoroughly with the organization.

On October 21, 1878 the German Chancellor, Bismarck, succeeded in having the Anti-Socialist Law passed. The SPD and its press were immediately declared illegal and its leaders were forced into exile. In November 1882, Clara joined up with Ossip Zelkin in Paris. Although she shared a flat with her companion, assumed his last name, and had two sons with him, she chose to remain unmarried so that she would not lose her German citizenship under the patriarchal marriage law prevailing at the time.

Despite the hardship and difficulties, the Zetkins were active in political life. With Marx’s daughter, Laura Lafargue, Clara attended demonstrations, passed out literature, and began to recruit Parisian working women for socialism. The miserable living conditions took their toll on Clara’s health. In the spring of 1886, she came down with tuberculosis as a result of inadequate food and overwork. A complete rest was ordered.

On recovery, Clara returned to Paris, and nursed Ossip Zetkin (who was wasting away with spinal tuberculosis), until his death in January 1889. While recovering from that blow, she was chosen as a member of the organizing committee to help prepare the founding congress of the Second International, scheduled for Paris, on July 11, 1889. She was also elected by the women associated with the Socialist newspaper, the BERLINER VOLKSTRIBUNE, to represent the working women of Berlin at the congress. She was one of the eight women among the four hundred delegates from nineteen countries elected to the Congress. There, she spoke on the subject of working women.

On January 20, 1892, the first issue of GLEICHHEIT, a newspaper edited by Clara appeared. In her introductory remark as editor, Zelkin wrote:

“GLEICHHEIT proceeds from the convention that the final cause for the thousand-year-old inferior social position of the female sex is not to be sought in the statutory legislation “made by men”, but rather in the property relation determined by economic conditions”•

Zetkin not only edited the paper in its early years but wrote most of the articles that appeared in its pages, as well as edited articles sent in by contributors. It was a newspaper OF and FOR the working women, thanks to Zetkin’s tireless efforts. By 1903, circulation had attained 11,000 copies, rose to 67,000 by 1906; 85,000 by 1910, and 125,000, by 1914.

In addition to writing for the socialist press and editing CLEICHHEIT, Clara Zetkin was also deeply involved in the trade union movement.She was active in the Bookbinders trade union and served on its executive committee. She was also involved in the activities of the Brush Makers’ Union, the Garment Workers’ Union, the Woodworkers’ Union, the Glovemakers Union, and was particularly active in the Tailors and Seamstresses Union, .which she served for many years as International Secretary.

The first international socialist women’s conference was held in conjunction with the 1907 Stuttgart international socialist congress; fifty-nine women from fifteen countries established the international women’s bureau, to strengthen the organizational ties between socialist women in various countries, elected Clara Zetkin as secretary, and designated GLEICHHEIT as the officialorgan of the Socialist women associated with the Second International.

The Second International Women’s Conference was held at Copenhagen, three years later.  Zetkin was re-elected secretary by unanimous vote and her newspaper was retained as official publication. It was at Copenhagen that Clara Zetkin introduced a proposal which called for an annual international socialist women’s day. March 8th each year, would be celebrated in all countries, as International Women’s Day.

The date March 8th was chosen because of an event that had occurred in the United States. Under the leadership of women workers in the New York needle trades, a number of whom were socialists, a women’s demonstration was called on March 8th,1908. Hundreds gathered in Rutgers Square to demand the vote, and to urge the building of a powerful needle trades union,

So successful was the 1906 demonstration, that it was to lead to Zetkin’sCopenhagen proposal. March 8th each year was to be dedicated to fighting for equal rights for all women in all countries. Her proposal was accepted by majority of the delegates and the following year, 1911, the first International Women’s Day took place.

Later in her political career, Clara Zetkin, was to play an active role in the struggles against the opportunistic leadership of the Social-Democratic Party, which surfaced most glaringly, in the period of the First World War.She hailed the Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia in 1917, and was one of the founders of the German Communist Party (KPD,) along with Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg. Clara Zetkin was named the International Secretary of Communist Women, by the Communist International, in 1920; partly because of this new assignment, and partly because she was often ill and received special medical care, she lived much of the time in the Soviet Union, establishing very close comradely links with Lenin. It was in the Soviet Union that she died on June 22, 1933.

Clare Zetkin was an outstanding theorist of the Women’s Question. In one of her works, she pointed out the centrality of the capitalist mode of production, in understanding the Women’s Question. She wrote:

“It was only the capitalist mode of productionwhich created the societal transformations that brought forth the modern women’s question by destroying the old family economic system which provided both livelihood and life’s meaning for the great mass of women during the pre-capitalist period”.In this work, Clara Zetkin was raising an important question of the historical genesis of social consciousness. Although women may have been severely oppressed in pre-capitalist conditions; the objective circumstances to develop an awareness of their condition had not arisen.

Zetkin’s legacy is still a powerful repository of theoretical and practical weapons in the contemporary struggles of women.According to the United Nations, women are half of the world’s population; they constitute a third of the world’s labour force; work two-third of the world’s working hours; own one hundredth of theworld’s property and regrettably, receive one tenth of the world’s income for work which is rarely noticed, valued, or paid.


The UN report, THE STATE OF THE WORLD’S WOMEN, pointed out that “the restrictive nature of women’s domestic responsibilities, inhibiting opportunity to pursue an education, follow a career, or enter into political activity is the major underlying cause of women inequality”.A long time ago, analysing practically the same situation, Clara Zetkin had said:

“…given the present economic development, women’s work outside the home is a necessity …”.  While Lenin had also formulated it in a most lucid manner, when he said that: “The chief task of the working women’s movement is to fight for economic and social equality, and not only formal equality for women. The chief thing is to get women to take part in socially productive labour, to liberate them from ‘domestic slavery’. To free them from their stupefying and humiliating subjugation to the eternal drudgery of the kitchen and the nursery”. That was Lenin.


The UN report went on to state, that  during the decade 1975-1985, it was estimated that unpaid house work done in industrialized nations contributed between 25 and 40 percent of gross national product.Rising divorce and migration rates, plus the fact that women live longer than men, means that one third of the world’s households are headed by women. Rural – Urban migration in Africa of men, has meant that 40% of rural households in Kenya, Botswana, Ghana,and Sierra Leone, are headed by women.


Women hold no more than 10 percent of the seats in national legislatures, while in some 12 countries, women must still seek their husbands’ approval before taking a job. Approximately half of the world’s women between the ages of 15 and 49 suffer from nutritional anemia which weakens stamina for physical activity and lowers resistance to diseases.

In education the illiteracy rate is 10 percent higher for women than for men. In the developing countries, two-thirds ofthe women over age 25 have never been to school, and 60 percent of girls 5to 19 years, are not in school.In the light of these disturbing facts, “THE NAIROBI FORWARD-LOOKING STRATEGIES FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF WOMEN” in its paragraph 21, states inter alia, that:

What is now needed is the political will to promote development in such a way that the strategy for the advancement of women seeks first and foremost to alter the current unequal conditions and structures that continue to define women as secondary persons and give women’s issues a low priority. Development should now move to another plane in which women’s pivotal role in society is recognised and given its true value. That will allow women to assume their legitimate and core positions in the strategies for effecting the changes necessary to promote and sustain development.

That issues of the Women’s Question have moved into the centre-stage of the world-wide struggles against exploitation, for social justice and peace, owe a great deal to the outstanding pioneering works of Clara Zetkin.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Don't Miss