Feminism appeared throughout Europe in the late 1890s as “suffragism.” The suffragettes defended the extension of the right to vote for women under restricted suffrage, that is, the right of women of the propertied classes to participate in the political leadership of the established state and society. In their struggle to make an entry-point into the management of businesses and the government for petit-bourgeois and upper-class women, the suffragettes soon tried to win over working women, much greater in number and above all much more organized. The feminists proposed an interclassist front of “women,” whose objective would be to obtain female bourgeois deputies within the system of restricted suffrage. They promised to represent the “common interests of women” that supposedly unite female workers with those bourgeois women of radical English liberalism.
The left wing of the Second International, with Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin at the head, was radically opposed. A year before the formation of the first suffragist group in England, Zetkin had presented in Gotha, the true founding congress of the German Socialist Party, a report on “The question of women and the tasks of social democracy,” which was unanimously approved. Since then, the German Socialists had dedicated themselves to organizing and training thousands of working-class women, promoting mass mobilizations for universal suffrage for both sexes. From the Stuttgart Congress of the International, the Left, with Zetkin and Luxemburg at the helm, took the fight to a global level. Not against the supposed sexism of party leaders, but against concessions to feminism by some parties, like the Belgian, which had approved at one of its congresses supporting the extension of restricted suffrage to the women of the upper classes:
The Congress of the Second International held in Stuttgart committed the social democratic parties of all countries to initiate the struggle for universal female suffrage as an essential and indispensable part of the general struggle of the proletariat for the right to vote and for power, in contrast with feminist aspirations.
— Clara Zetkin
Rosa Luxemburg and the left wing of the International against feminism
The ideological struggle became increasingly intense as time wore on. In her correspondence, Rosa Luxemburg shares her intimate rejection of the “moral and spiritual” argument of feminism and the invocations of “the development of one’s own personality” when what feminists were really demanding was equality between the men and women of the social layers that were in power within that very same power. She was clear that “women” are not a historical subject above or outside social classes and that is why she profoundly rejected the struggle for a so-called “right of women” that would benefit female workers, separated from the evolution of the workers’ movement in general and the fight against capitalism.
For Luxemburg, feminists were trying to use workers’ rejection of the issue of women’s oppression as a way to derail the struggle and consolidate a system whose historically progressive phase was ending, in the same way that nationalism manipulated resistance to cultural-national oppression:
The duty of mobilizing against and combating national oppression, which corresponds to the class party of the proletariat, does not find its foundation in any particular “right of nations,” nor does the political and social equality of the sexes emanate from any “right of women” to which the movement for the emancipation of bourgeois women refers. These duties can only be deduced from a generalized opposition to the class system, to all forms of social inequality, and to all power of domination. In a word, they are deduced from the fundamental principle of socialism.
— Rosa Luxemburg, “The National Question and Autonomy(1906)
In Die Gleichheit, the newspaper edited by Zetkin, she made it clear that the power of the women who benefited from restricted suffrage is born out of their social position in the bourgeoisie and the petite bourgeoisie and that the legal reform of the right to vote they proposed would strengthen that power; however, working women could only be affirmed through labor struggles hand in hand with their male class comrades:
Those who defend the rights of bourgeois women want to acquire political rights in order to participate in political life. Proletarian women can only follow the path of labor struggles, the opposite of setting foot in real power through basically legal statutes.
That is why she denounced any organization “of women” and every “front of women’s organizations,” because she realized that organizing in a deceitful interclassist space only served to increase the power of the petit-bourgeois (and, as we shall see, nationalist) social layers that supported feminism and dividing the working-class movement.
March 8 against feminism
Luxemburg is so clear that the organization of groups made up exclusively of women should not open the door to class collaborationism nor to the separation of the class that when Clara Zetkin invites her to the first congress of socialist women, she mocks in a letter to Luisa Kautsky: “Are we feminists now?” she writes. But Luxemburg knew that if Clara Zetkin organized groups of socialist women, it was for the same reason that the Second International created youth groups: to reach the working class as a whole and not only the workers who were concentrated in large workplaces. Although in Germany at the time there were many women in the factories, most working-class women were engaged in non-industrial work, raising their own children, and industries based on domestic work.
There is only one movement, a single organization of communist women — formerly socialist — within the communist party together with communist men. The goals of communist men are also our goals, our tasks.
— Clara Zetkin
The creation of March 8 as a day of struggle in 1910 under the name of “Day of International Solidarity Among Proletarian Women,” a proposal by Zetkin, is a part of that. It is about affirming the socialist and working-class character of the movement for truly universal suffrage, that is, including the acquisition of the right to vote for women. That is to say, the creation of March 8 was part of the struggle of the women of the Left of the Second International for the democratic rights of all workers and against the feminist idea of the “union of women” — “against which I have fought my entire life,” Rosa Luxemburg would write.
The moment of truth
The moment of truth that would demonstrate the context and the reason for the struggle of the Left of the Second International against feminism came with the first world war.
The suffragettes literally “demanded” governments to incorporate women into the war effort and the capitalist bloodbath. In return, the British government granted the vote to eight million women from the wealthiest families in 1918, still far from universal suffrage. This is what the press now celebrates as “conquest of the right to vote by women,” forgetting to mention that these women were few.
By contrast, Zetkin and the organizations of working-class women convened the first international conference against the war in the middle of the most savage repression of internationalists by all governments. It was the first political act organized by a group of the Second International against the war at a time when Luxemburg, Rühle, and Liebknecht were all in prison.
[We must] lead proletarians to liberate themselves from nationalism and the socialist parties to recover their freedom for the class struggle. The end of the war can only be achieved by the clear and unbreakable will of the popular masses of the belligerent countries. In favor of action, the Conference makes an appeal to socialist women and socialist parties of all countries: War against war!
— Declaration of the International Conference of Socialist Women Against the War
The demonstration of March 8th in Petrograd — which, as was traditional, was organized by groups of working-class socialist women, mobilizing workers regardless of their sex and making demands for the class as a whole — became the trigger of the Russian Revolution.