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Reluctant Feminists in German Social Democracy, 1885-1917

Reluctant Feminists in German Social Democracy, 1885-1917

by Jean H. Quataert

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Examining the convergence of socialism and feminism in the German labor movement around the turn of the century, Jean Quataert probes the competing identities and loyalties of class and sex and the problems their adherents faced in reconciling the two. By focusing on the women's movement in particular, she expands our understanding of the German Social Democratic


Examining the convergence of socialism and feminism in the German labor movement around the turn of the century, Jean Quataert probes the competing identities and loyalties of class and sex and the problems their adherents faced in reconciling the two. By focusing on the women's movement in particular, she expands our understanding of the German Social Democratic subculture and shows that socialist feminism was far more important than has been recognized heretofore.

Originally published in 1979.

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Reluctant Feminists in German Social Democracy, 1885-1917

By Jean H. Quataert


Copyright © 1979 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05276-2



By the early twentieth century, friend and foe alike had come to recognize the success of German socialist women in creating a model women's movement in Social Democracy. Even the German police admitted their prominence in the socialist International, although in this case, without the pride in German excellence so common to the competitive era of Weltpolitik. The assessment was quite accurate in light of decisions at the International conference in 1907 to designate Germany as the seat of the women's International and to declare the German paper Gleichheit (Equality) as the international organ. Efforts of other European socialist feminists paled by comparison. Despite the traditional sympathy of French socialism for women's emancipation, females comprised at best 3 percent of the members in the French Socialist Party prior to World War I. In 1914, 16.1 percent of the total membership of the German Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD) was female, numbering roughly 175,000, while the Free Trade Unions associated with the SPD recorded 223,000 women or 8.8 percent of the total.

The German socialist women's movement was both socialist and feminist. German delegates affirmed this duality during the spirited debates at the 1907 International conference. As socialists in the Central European context, they decisively rejected collaboration with bourgeois feminism as well as suffrage tied to property qualifications, parting company with their English sisters. Yet, they threw up their feminist hackles at the decision of Austrian and Belgian socialists to forgo the demand for women's suffrage in the general compaign for democratization. The arguments advanced by the German representatives were adopted officially by the women's International. The reputation and success of the German socialist women's movement in European left-wing circles rested on two elements: its close association with the German labor movement — the German Social Democratic Party was the pride and envy of the Second International — and its measured use of feminism in pursuing the proletarian liberation struggle.


Socialism had come to Germany at a time of intense economic and social change. The country was experiencing continuous industrial advance and the whole Imperial period was a time of transition to an industrial world at once challenging and strange. As late as 1914, many factory workers were newcomers to the job, still first or second generation, and they maintained close ties to the countryside. Some resided in outlying districts, preferring to commute to the inner cities for work, and cases of factory workers engaging in seasonal rural labor were not atypical. Yet, an industrial labor class clearly had emerged in Imperial Germany; workers were adapting to the new wage-earning status, to the factory whistle as well as other manifestations of the disciplined life in cities. For many, socialism served as the ideal psychological and social support during a period of rapid industrial expansion. The strong and deep hold of socialism on a broad cross section of the German working class can be seen as a response to change as well as an effort to control and give meaning to the new character of life in industrial society.

The appeal of socialism was strengthened by the subordinated position of the working class. Under the Empire, workers were excluded from political decision making, denied social respect, and exploited in the labor market. Their efforts to promote their interests were viewed with great suspicion by the ruling groups — the courts, the landowning aristocracy, and the industrial bourgeoisie. Except for the twelve years of the anti-Socialist laws, the labor movement was legal, but its influence was quite restricted. Workers' unions were denied the legal right of collective bargaining until the Revolution of 1918, and the Social Democratic Party, which spoke for the workers, sat in a national parliament shorn of power and responsibility. Imperial Germany was an authoritarian political regime that sought to modernize the socioeconomic structure without political change — to stem the democratic tide by denying the lower classes entry into the system. Its character was shaped in part by the failure of the German liberal Revolution of 1848 and by the choice of national unity over parliamentary government made by large numbers of middle-class liberals in the 1860s and 1870s. As for organized workers in Imperial Germany, the combination of legality coupled with political and social ostracism engendered two responses. Working-class leaders became preoccupied with the maintenance of legality to the point of resisting the revolutionary drive. Also, its isolation turned the labor movement inward; socialism became a subculture that greatly enhanced its attraction to workers. It offered psychic and material protection and compensation for the hardships of life, and it sought to instill new values through socialist newspapers, books, theaters, libraries, and educational courses.

Within the socialist subculture, the women's movement was a symbol of change and a challenge to traditional relationships between the sexes. It gave graphic testimony to the fact that socialism was an alternative image of life, values, and human relations, not just a political movement. The subculture proffered a supportive milieu to women concerned with improving their lot as part of the proletarian struggle for human liberation.

Socialism had long-standing ties with causes for women's rights. Its commitment to sex equality went back to Fourier and Saint-Simon, the so-called French Utopian Socialists. These early reformers joined the fate of women and workers together. They observed that both were excluded from power and influence in the nineteenth-century liberal nation-state, and included the idea of women's emancipation in their schemes to restructure society and revamp social customs. Several decades later in The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels linked women and workers as "instruments of labor," exploited by modern industry. Moreover, Engels would argue that only socialism offered both groups true liberation by abolishing private property, the root cause of social and sex inequality.

The acceptance of Marxism in the German working classes involved a series of stages in which the complex and dynamic ideas were converted into simplistic, popular notions. The tenor of the times insured stress on economic determinism — a belief in inevitable laws of development leading inexorably to socialism. In the 1870s and 1880s educated workers in Germany were enthralled with the fashionable natural sciences. A whole generation of Marxists came to historical materialism by way of Darwin and evolution. With his Anti-Dühring in the mid-1870s, Engels won over future leaders of the German socialist movement such as August Bebel, Karl Kautsky, and Eduard Bernstein, convincing them of the superiority of the Marxist world view; the tract held out a "cast iron system of laws," which guaranteed the triumph of socialism. Thus, in Germany socialism was a synthesis of simplified Marxist ideas and notions drawn from Darwinian evolution. If, as historians have indicated, the combination was deadly for the development of revolutionary tactics because the emphasis on determinism left the role of the working masses in the revolutionary struggle in question, it furthered the socialist commitment to the women's cause. In 1873, for example, the socialist organ, Der Volksstaat, published an article claiming that Darwin stood for "the strictest equality between human beings," an ironic twist on the prevalent interpretation that justified social inequalities by appealing to the Darwinian idea of survival of the fittest. More important, natural science lent its considerable prestige to the idea that woman, as any living creature, was a product of conditioning. Remove the artificial or harmful barriers to the blossoming of the species and it would evolve to the fullest capacity.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the socialist theme of improving the lot of the female sex was striking receptive chords in some women's minds. Works such as August Bebel's feminist tract Women under Socialism (1879) found a large audience. Several prominent members of the German socialist women's movement have reminisced about the book's impact. Their reflections give vivid testimony to the ways in which ideas can order inchoate feelings and restructure lives. Mathilde Wurm described the work's reception among middle-class women in the 1890s. She depicted vaguely dissatisfied wives, tired of waiting for the arrival of husbands to save them from "deadening boredom." They wanted more, but did not know where to turn, and their families greeted their desire to become educated or to work with mockery and ridicule. "If, by accident [Wurm wrote], one of these timorous creatures read Bebel's book, it was an eye-opener. She was not alone with her thoughts and feelings. Thousands felt as she did. ... [She] recognized the rights of her personality and gathered ... courage to follow her conscience." Wurm added, to be sure, that only few bourgeois women went all the way to socialism on a "steep and long" path.

Wilhelmine Kähler, of working-class origin, also noted the liberating effect of realizing that her feelings of dissatisfaction were not unique. Yet she stressed how important it was for her to have acquired the tools to understand the origins of women's oppression as well as the influence of double morality and different standards on the lives of females. The assurance of liberation in the future socialist society was inspirational. She wrote, "Bebel's book encouraged me to awaken women by clarifying fully the whole process of enlightenment; it forged the most unshakable belief that tomorrow's dawn would also bring women deliverance." For those who took the path to socialism, Bebel's work often served as the springboard to other socialist literature.

Ideas and material conditions stand in a subtle relationship. Ideas must relate to people's actual experience in order to have widespread impact. In the nineteenth century changes in the lives of working-class and middle-class women had been sufficiently drastic to cause many to adopt explicit formulations of present misery and to develop visions of future change. Industrialization played a key role in the process of transforming consciousness. It not only altered material life but furthered crucial albeit elusive ideas of "modernism" and "progress."

Industrial growth divorced two institutions regarded for centuries as inseparable — the family and the workshop — and profoundly transformed women's familial and economic roles. In the preindustrial world women had been an important if barely visible productive force. They spun, wove, supervised hired hands, assisted in business ventures, often for no remuneration, and performed their wifely and motherly tasks as well. The domestic industry system, centered on the home, had reconciled the need for female workers with the woman's biological function of childbearing and social role of childrearing. However, in the initial phases of industrial development, separation of the home and workshop introduced drastic changes. Generally, men left the home to seek employment outside and women assumed the main responsibility for domestic administration. A new norm of domestic life solidified when the home changed from a production to a consumption unit. The woman was idealized as a person who attended to maternal duties around the house and to her appearance. While economic necessity forced lower-class girls into factories, urban domestic service, and later the bureaus and offices, the married woman became an exception in the labor force. The phenomenon of woman's work was hardly new, but in the nineteenth century the conditions of labor were being transformed and society was becoming conscious of increasing numbers of females entering the labor force as wage earners.

The functional and social changes associated with industrial society were reflected in new states of mind. The process was slow, uneven, and often painful. For lower-class women work offered broader contacts, new experiences, and geographic mobility. The individualizing impact of monetary wages was retarded since they were pooled with the earnings of other family members to meet joint needs. For middleclass women their roles as home managers encouraged independent thought as they came to make choices for a growing variety of goods and services. Increasing literacy and improving living standards offered them the opportunity to discard tradition in favor of individual preference as the guide for behavior. However imperfectly, women could begin to see themselves as persons with individual demands on life.

Nineteenth-century feminism was a product of these social and economic changes. As the organized expression of efforts to promote women's interests, it was new to the political stage; previous eras had recorded mainly lone voices for women's rights. Women's movements conformed to the "phenomenon of organization" that impresses observers of the nineteenth century. As the state increasingly came to play a more active role in social and economic life, groups were forced to coalesce in order to influence decision making.

Socialist women were not alone in pressuring German society for feminist reforms, but only they saw reforms as a means to the end of human liberation in a radically transformed world. Beginning in the 1860s, middle-class women organized to champion their own interests. These women owed their intellectual support less to the liberal tradition of natural rights — since it was so weak in Germany — but rather to a "Germanic" balance between duties and rights. Feminism adapted itself to specific national traditions and to differing social and political contexts, although it showed marked similarities throughout Europe, reflecting, in part, the "universalism" of women's oppression. The German middleclass women's movement adjusted to the authoritarian political traditions and structure in which it operated, and in marked contrast to the history of feminism in America and England, played down women's suffrage. It stressed, rather, women's important contributions to social life such as their efforts in social welfare reforms that justified their eventual claim on rights. The middle-class movement, as elsewhere in Europe and America, fell into two basic categories: feminists proper and social feminists concerned with social reform.

Bourgeois feminists in Germany struggled against the legal and attitudinal barriers that restricted women's options in social and economic life, and they tried to insure a higher valuation of women's actual and potential contributions to society. Their movements were often run by females for females such as the National German Women's Association (Allgemeiner Deutscher Frauenverein) founded in 1865, but they were not necessarily sexually exclusive. The associations to train women for municipal work, the educational reform groups, as well as the professional organizations such as the teachers' associations or female white-collar unions that sought to remove disadvantages in industries or social institutions, were feminist.

Social feminists promoted causes that promised to ease women's lot by practical social reforms. The unique Central European and Scandinavian motherhood leagues advocating maternity care, midwife training, and rights for illegitimate children and unwed mothers fell in this category of feminism, as did consumers' leagues and associations to banish state-sanctioned prostitution. If the term social feminism is to have meaning, it must be distinguished from charity and philanthropy, activities women have undertaken for centuries. A German survey in 1909 classified 78 percent of those women engaged in extradomestic activities (roughly 673,000 females) as performing purely charity and church-related work. Social feminism moved beyond simply ameliorative measures in a charity mold to propounding a vision, however moderate, of structural change to improve social conditions. This distinction is partly subjective since it involves an assessment of motive and of women's perception of their role. Studies in America indicate, for example, that women could use church activity to exert influence and actually launch a challenge against men.


Excerpted from Reluctant Feminists in German Social Democracy, 1885-1917 by Jean H. Quataert. Copyright © 1979 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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