A Celebration of Women™
is elated to Celebrate this Life through our Tribute one of history’s female powerhouses; an activist, a leader ahead of her times, a peacekeeper and advocate for women’s rights.
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It is only when women start to organize in large numbers that we become a political force, and begin to move towards the possibility of a truly democratic society in which every human being can be brave, responsible, thinking and diligent in the struggle to live at once freely and unselfishly.
Clara Zetkin (née Eissner; 5 July 1857 in Wiederau, Saxony, Germany – 20 June 1933 in Moscow, Soviet Union) was a German Marxist theorist, activist, and advocate for women’s rights. In 1911, she organized the first International Women’s Day.
Until 1917, she was active in the Social Democratic Party of Germany, then she joined the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) and its far-left wing, the Spartacist League; this later became the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), which she represented in the Reichstag during the Weimar Republic from 1920 to 1933.
Zetkin was born Clara Eissner in Wiederau, a peasant village in Saxony, now part of the municipality Königshain-Wiederau. Her father, Gottfried Eissner, was a schoolmaster and church organist who was a devout Protestant, while her mother, Josephine Vitale Eissner, came from a middle-class family from Leipzig and was highly educated. Having studied to become a teacher, Zetkin developed connections with the women’s movement and the labour movement in Germany from 1874. In 1878 she joined the Socialist Workers’ Party (Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei, SAP).
This party had been founded in 1875 by merging two previous parties: the ADAV formed by Ferdinand Lassalle and the SDAP of August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht. In 1890, its name was changed to its modern version Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD).
Because of the ban placed on socialist activity in Germany by Bismarck in 1878, Zetkin left for Zurich in 1882 then went into exile in Paris. During her time in Paris she played an important role in the foundation of the Socialist International Socialist Group. She also adopted the name of her lover, the Russian leftist Ossip Zetkin, with whom she had two sons, Kostja and Maxim. Ossip Zetkin died in 1889.
Later, Zetkin was married to the artist Georg Friedrich Zundel, eighteen years her junior, from 1899 to 1928.
In the SPD, Zetkin, along with Rosa Luxemburg, her close friend and confidante, was one of the main figures of the far-left wing of the party. In the debate on Revisionism at the turn of the 20th century she, along with Luxemburg, attacked the reformist theses of Eduard Bernstein.
Rosa Luxemburg argued that it was important to stop the First World War through mass action. This brought her into conflict with Lenin who had argued that “the slogan of peace is wrong – the slogan must be, turn the imperialist war into civil war.” Lenin believed that a civil war in Russia would bring down the old order and enable the Bolsheviks to gain power. Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches took the side of the Mensheviks in their struggle with the Bolsheviks. As a result Lenin favoured the Polish section led by Karl Radek over those of Luxemburg.
Clara Zetkin later recalled: “The struggle was supposed to begin with a protest against the voting of war credits by the social-democratic Reichstag deputies, but it had to be conducted in such a way that it would be throttled by the cunning tricks of the military authorities and the censorship. Moreover, and above all, the significance of such a protest would doubtless be enhanced, if it was supported from the outset by a goodly number of well-known social-democratic militants…. Out of all those out-spoken critics of the social-democratic majority, only Karl Liebknecht joined with Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring, and myself in defying the soul-destroying and demoralising idol into which party discipline had developed.”
Rosa Luxemburg, the youngest of five children of a lower middle-class Jewish family was born in Zamość, in the Polish area of Russia, on 5th March, 1871. She became interested in politics while still at school. At sixteen, when she graduated at the top of her class from the girls’ gymnasium in Warsaw, she was denied the gold medal because of “an oppositional attitude toward the authorities.”
In an attempt to escape the authoritarian government of Alexander III, emigrated to Zurich in 1889 where she studied law and political economy. A fellow student was Julian Marchlewski. According to their friend, Paul Frölich: “Marchlewski has described in his memoirs(unfortunately unpublished) how the satire of the young students made life difficult for Professor Wolf. They used to hatch little plots before the seminar classes. Predetermined questions were submitted to the master in all innocence. Then when Wolf had hopelessly entangled himself, Rosa Luxemburg would get up and demonstrate his professional incompetence point by point. Apparently Julius Wolf took the malicious game with the necessary sense of humour; in an autobiographical sketch he paid great tribute to his best pupil.”
Zetkin was very interested in women’s politics, including the fight for equal opportunities and women’s suffrage. She developed the social-democratic women’s movement in Germany; from 1891 to 1917 she edited the SPD women’s newspaper Die Gleichheit (Equality). In 1907, she became the leader of the newly founded “Women’s Office” at the SPD. She started up the first “International Women’s Day” on 8 March 1910, launching the idea of it in Copenhagen, in what later became the Ungdomshuset.
During the First World War, Zetkin, along with Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg and other influential SPD politicians, rejected the party’s policy of Burgfrieden (a truce with the government, promising to refrain from any strikes during the war). Among other anti-war activities, Zetkin organized an international socialist women’s anti-war conference in Berlin in 1915. Because of her anti-war opinions, she was arrested several times during the war.
In 1916, Zetkin was one of the co-founders of the Spartacist League and the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) which had split off in 1917 from its mother party, the SPD, in protest at its pro-war stance. In January 1919, after the German Revolution in November of the previous year, the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) was founded; Zetkin also joined this and represented the party from 1920 to 1933 in the Reichstag. She interviewed Lenin on “The Women’s Question” in 1920.
Until 1924, Zetkin was a member of the KPD’s central office; from 1927 to 1929 she was a member of the party’s central committee. She was also a member of the executive committee of the Communist International (Comintern) from 1921 to 1933. In 1925, she was elected president of the German left-wing solidarity organization Rote Hilfe. In August 1932, as the chairwoman of the Reichstag by seniority, she called for people to fight National Socialism.
When Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers Party took over power, the Communist Party of Germany was banned from the Reichstag, following the Reichstag fire in 1933. Zetkin went into exile for the last time, this time to the Soviet Union. She died there, at Arkhangelskoye, near Moscow, in 1933, aged nearly 76. She was buried by the wall of the Kremlin in Moscow.
Zetkin published “Frauenwahlrecht!” [“Women’s Suffrage!”], the first page of which is reproduced here, on the occasion of the Third Social Democratic Women’s Day on March 2, 1913.
It was Zektin’s firm belief that the “women’s question” could only be resolved in conjunction with the “workers’ question.” In her mind, capitalism was the common enemy of both men and women.
Zetkin appealed to the ideals of the French Revolution and fought for a time when gender would no longer function as a barrier to liberty, equality and fraternity.
In 1932, Zetkin, although seventy-five years old, was once again elected to the Reichstag. As the oldest member she was entitled to open the parliament’s first session. Zetkin took the opportunity to make a long speech where she denounced the policies of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.
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In 1889 Zetkin wrote: “What made women’s labour particularly attractive to the capitalists was not only its lower price but also the greater submissiveness of women. The capitalists speculate on the two following factors: the female worker must be paid as poorly as possible and the competition of female labour must be employed to lower the wages of male workers as much as possible. In the same manner the capitalists use child labour to depress women’s wages and the work of machines to depress all human labour.”
The first International Women’s Day
In 1869 British MP John Stuart Mill was the first person in Parliament to call for women’s right to vote. On 19 September 1893 New Zealand became the first country in the world to give women the right to vote. Women in other countries did not enjoy this equality and campaigned for justice for many years.
In 1910 a second International Conference of Working Women was held in Copenhagen. A woman named Clara Zetkin (Leader of the ‘Women’s Office’ for the Social Democratic Party in Germany) tabled the idea of an International Women’s Day. She proposed that every year in every country there should be a celebration on the same day – a Women’s Day – to press for their demands. The conference of over 100 women from 17 countries, representing unions, socialist parties, working women’s clubs, and including the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament, greeted Zetkin’s suggestion with unanimous approval and thus International Women’s Day was the result.
The very first International Women’s Day was launched the following year by Clara Zetkin on 19 March (not 8 March). The date was chosen because on 19 March in the year of the 1848 revolution, the Prussian king recognized for the first time the strength of the armed people and gave way before the threat of a proletarian uprising. Among the many promise he made, which he later failed to keep, was the introduction of votes for women.
Plans for the first International Women’s Day demonstration were spread by word of mouth and in the press. During the week before International Women’s Day two journals appeared: The Vote for Women in Germany and Women’s Day in Austria. Various articles were devoted to International Women’s Day: ‘Women and Parliament’, ‘The Working Women and Municipal Affairs’, ‘What Has the Housewife got to do with Politics?’, etc. The articles thoroughly analyzed the question of the equality of women in the government and in society. All articles emphasized the same point that it was absolutely necessary to make parliament more democratic by extending the franchise to women.
Success of the first International Women’s Day in 1911 exceeded all expectation.
Meetings were organized everywhere in small towns and even the villages halls were packed so full that male workers were asked to give up their places for women.
Men stayed at home with their children for a change, and their wives, the captive housewives, went to meetings.
During the largest street demonstration of 30,000 women, the police decided to remove the demonstrators’ banners so the women workers made a stand. In the scuffle that followed, bloodshed was averted only with the help of the socialist deputies in Parliament.
In 1913 International Women’s Day was transferred to 8 March and this day has remained the global date for International Wommen’s Day ever since.
During International Women’s Year in 1975, IWD was given official recognition by the United Nations and was taken up by many governments. International Women’s Day is marked by a national holiday in China, Armenia, Russia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Moldova, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
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