You can find the sources for this text on the second page of the post.
A few weeks ago I asked in my Instagram story whether my followers know Clara Zetkin and I was surprised to learn that hardly anyone seemed to be familiar with her and her work. So I thought introducing her would make a great start to something that my friend Merve asked for on my blog: Some content on German feminism and the history of the women’s movement in my country.
A short response to my opening question would be that Clara Zetkin was a German politician, activist and journalist who belonged to the first wave of feminism and initiated the International Women’s Day (which I choose to call feminist fighting day). But that doesn’t necessarily answer the questions why her activism was important, which impact it had on the feminist movement and what makes Clara Zetkin an interesting person to know.
Times of change: Clara Zetkin’s Germany
Clara Zetkin was born in 1857 during a time of economical, political and social change. In the 19th century the industrialization was rapidly progressing in Germany. This new industrial capitalism changed how and where people lived and worked. More people were drawn to the big factories of the cities. The place to work and the place to live became separated from one another and thus, led to a gendered division of labour.
Moreover, in 1871 the German Empire was established uniting different kingdoms, cities and states. Driven by thinkers as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and the growing distance between bourgeoisie and proletariat the ideologies of socialism and communism gained popularity. At the same time women began to demand political rights and gender equality and initiated the first wave of German feminism.
Clara Zetkin, born as Clara Eißner, came from a bourgeois family and was raised in Saxony which is a state in Eastern Germany today. She got in touch with feminist ideas early in her life because her mother was in contact with leading feminists of the bourgeois women’s rights movement. One of them, Auguste Schmidt, later became Clara Eißner’s mentor and teacher when she attended her teachers seminar – the only education accessible for bourgeois girls at the time.
Activist Beginnings: Every class has its own women’s question
During her education Clara Eißner did not only encounter feminist ideas but also got in touch with the labour movement and ideas of socialism. She became member of a socialist party which was later banned and then rebuild as the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) – a party which is still active today. And she started a relationship with the Ukrainian revolutionist Ossip Zetkin whose name she eventually adopted although they never got married.
Both of these events led to a rift between Clara Zetkin and her bourgeois family and mentors. Due to anti-socialist laws Clara Zetkin was prohibited from working in Saxon schools and took several positions as private tutor. She met Ossip Zetkin again after he got exiled from Germany and they emigrated to France where they had two sons.
The following years had a significant influence on Clara Zetkin’s activism. Due to her partner’s illness and eventual death the family was in a economically precarious situation and she was taking care both of the care work and the paid work by herself. This experience of poverty and the double work load fuelled her socialist activism, especially for working class women.
Clara Zetkin held her first significant speech with her views on the women’s question in 1889 in which she proclaimed the hypothesis that every social class has their own women’s question. With that proclamation she showed that women of different classes experience different struggles which lead to the party’s commitment to involve more girls and women within the socialist movement.
A reluctant Feminist: What Clara Zetkin fought for
After the abolition of anti-socialist laws Clara Zetkin returned to Germany and became editor of Die Gleichheit (The Equality), a magazine that combined women’s rights and socialism. During her 25 years in that position she became one of the most important voices of the proletarian women’s movement.
With her activism Clara Zetkin fought primarily for working class women who had to do 14 to 16 hour shifts in the factories before going home and taking care of the house work. She saw the necessity for an intersectional, a socialist feminism that included proletarian women and fought against their financial dependence on both their husbands or their employers. That’s why for her anticapitalism and women’s rights were inseparable.
Although she was an activist for women’s rights Clara Zetkin always considered herself to be primarily a socialist and not a feminist. She was very critical of upper-class-feminism and distanced herself from the bourgeois women’s movement. Even though she didn’t like the movement her activism for women’s rights, that stemmed from her socialist ideas of equality, still made her an important feminist figure.
Despite her decades of socialist activism Clara Zetkin is nowadays mostly remembered for something different: In 1910, she took part in an International Socialist Women’s Conference and proposed the idea of an annual women’s day. Thanks to her proposal the International Women’s Day (or Feminist Fighting Day as we say in Germany) is still celebrated each year on the 8th of March.
Of all her activism initiating a Feminist Fighting Day was probably the action that had the biggest impact. Clara Zetkin might not have passed a ground breaking law or written a mind blowing book that went into the international canon of feminist literature. But she gave all feminists a day where they can protest, demand and fight for equality – regardless of their nationality, culture or ideological differences.
Clara Zetkin’s last famous speech
The First World War led to Clara Zetkin’s split from her party, the SPD. She didn’t agree with the party’s stand regarding the war and was actively advocating for peace. Together with her friends and fellow activists, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, Zetkin started the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). Due to that she lost her position as editor of Die Gleichheit which she had held for 25 years.
After the First World War and the foundation of the Weimar Republic Clara Zetkin became a member in the German parliament, a position which she kept until the year of her death in 1932. During the last decade of her life she lived partly in Moscow where she was politically isolated because of her opposition to Stalin and friendship with Lenin.
In 1932, aged 75 and very sick Clara Zetkin returned to Berlin one last time to hold the opening speech as Alterspräsidentin (President by right of age) of the parliament. It is tradition in the German parliaments that the oldest member of the parliament (since 2017 the longest serving member) presides over the parliament until a president is elected. In her speech before the parliament, which for the first time had a Nazi majority, Zetkin warned against the dangers of fascism and demanded all democratic forces to work together.
Some concluding words…
Although she never considered herself a feminist Clara Zetkin is an interesting and important feminist figure. Her activism aimed to create a fairer and freer society for all people regardless of their gender or social class. Her combination of feminist, anti-capitalist and socialist ideas does not only show that feminism needs to be intersectional and cannot be a movement exclusively for privileged women. It also demonstrates that systems of oppression are intertwined with one another and that we need dismantle them together.
If you want to read more articles on feminism, you can find them here.
Is there a feminist topic you’d like to read more about?
I’m always open to suggestions. Feel free to comment or send me a message.