Discussing German socialist women

Submitted by Janine on Fri, 07/06/2007 - 10:45

May saw the start of a very-welcome socialist feminist discussion group in London. Organised by Workers' Liberty, it is meeting every month. The first discussion was about the German socialist women's movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. As this is a pet subject of mine, I was happy to be asked to introduce the discussion.

OK ... three themes:

  1. Organising working-class women;
  2. Working-class women and bourgeois feminists;
  3. Should the workers' movement have special structures for women?

Each of these is discussed in depth in the articles linked to above; here are some notes from the discussion we had.

In the first section, two groups (named Ottlie and Luise, after two leading organisers in the movement) discussed how to organise working-class women - the first, what the broad labour movmeent should do; the second, what a small Marxist gorup might do. Both talked about the need for women organisers and women's publications, and women's reading groups and educational courses. The key point was that over 100 years on, women face remarkably similar obstacles to equal involvement in labour movement activism, and the left and the labour movement still needs a strategy specifically aimed at women, taking into account women's situation.

On the second theme, the two discussion groups were named Lily and Clara, after the two activists (Braun and Zetkin) who respectively advocated and rejected the idea of socialist women co-operating with bourgeois feminists. Each group prepared to argue their case with the other, even if they were playing 'devil's advocate'. Overally, I'd say that participants broadly agreed with Clara, but had some sympathy with Lily's view and perhaps thought Clara a little too dogmatic.

Issues were clarified by looking at specific examples:

  • If there was a resolution to your trade union women's conference proposing to prioritise campaigning against the 'glass ceiling', would you support it?
  • If a Tory MP had phoned Feminist Fightback and offered to speak at the abortion rights rally earlier this year, should FF have accepted?
  • When Tory councillors opposed Hackney Labour Council's closure of St. John's nursery in 2002, should parents and nursery workers have welcomed their support?

On all these, we agreed: no. Why? In the first example, it would involve de-prioritising issues affecting far more women workers than the small minority who want to get into top management posts. In the other two, we are not in the business of giving profile and credibility to Tories who, even if they appear to support us on one issue, have an overall political porject to crush the working class and continue the oppression of working-class women. An individual Tory might support abortion rights, but also supports the destruction of the NHS which working-class women rely on to access abortion. And while Hackney Tories might opportunistically oppose one nursery closure, they wouldn't hesitate in closing others.

Thirdly, do we need special structures for women? And in particular, when German law was changed in 1908 so women's structures were no longer necessary to get round the law, was it still a good idea to continue those structures? Three discussion groups on this one, each assessing a particular point of view - Quartaert (after Jean, who described the German women as 'reluctant feminists' and argued that their labour movement involvement was continually at odds with their feminism); Bernstein (after leading right-winger Eduard, who championed dismantling the women's structures after 1908); and Cliff (after Tony, former SWP guru, who argued that the German women only organised autonomously because the law forced them to).

Against all three of these, I'd argue that it was indeed the law that forced women to organise autonomously. However, their experience of autonomous organising was so good that they came to value it over and above legal necessity and fought hard to keep it when the law was changed. So yes, the workers' movement should have special structures for women.