Hal Draper
and Anne G. Lipow

Marxist Women
Bourgeois Feminism [1*]


From Socialist Register 1976, pp.179-226.
The article is available in PDF format at Socialist Register Website.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.


The texts presented here are intended to revive acquaintance with a revolutionary women’s movement which was undoubtedly the most important one of the kind that has yet been seen. Yet it has been so thoroughly dropped down the Memory Hole that even mention of its existence is hard to find.

Nowadays, references to Marx and Marxism show up rather frequently in women’s liberation literature as a fashionable ingredient. This literature, however, seldom makes contact with Marx and Engels’ real views on the issues involved, and takes even less notice of the fact that they helped to put these views into practice. By the 1890s, Engels together with a close disciple August Bebel helped to inspire and encourage a socialist women’s movement that was militantly Marxist in leadership and policy.

The name associated with this women’s movement is above all that of Clara Zetkin, its best political leader, organiser, theoretician, and publicist. After a quarter century or so of effective leadership in the women’s struggle of the international socialist movement in its heyday, this same great woman also became one of the leading figures in the left-wing opposition to the First World War and eventually in the women’s movement of the early Communist International. It would seem she did something. But try and find some notice of the great movement she led – either in contemporary feminist historical literature or in alleged histories of socialism! It is not impossible but very difficult.


The scene is Germany, and the time is the period of about three decades before the First World War.

There is no other country or period in which the issues of socialist feminism were so clearly fought out and worked out. This Introduction cannot hope to present a historical sketch of this movement or an adequate summary of all the issues involved. Fortunately, there is a work which partially provides this, W. Thönessen’s The Emancipation of Women, and any reader who is at all seriously interested in revolutionary feminism must read it. Here we concentrate on the theme of this book: the class line that runs through feminism from the start, and in particular the relations between socialist feminism and bourgeois feminism. The German movement is especially instructive on the latter aspect.

The Marxist women of the German movement had to carry on a war on two fronts – just as all socialist leftists have always had to combat not only the direct enemy capitalism but also those reformers who offer substitutes for the socialist alternative. In the women’s field, the direct enemy was, of course, the anti-feminism and sex oppression of the established powers and institutions; but alongside this conflict was the associated need to counteract the influence of bourgeois feminism.

For some preliminary light on this issue, let us start with what appears to be a problem in translation but which actually involves an important Marxist concept. The revolutionary socialist women of the German movement took over a favourite label for the bourgeois feminist types: Frauenrechtlerinnen. A more or less literal translation is ‘women’s righsters.’ Dreadfully awkward, obviously, though no more so than in German. The common translation ‘suffragettes’ is misleading and often downright wrong; ‘bourgeois feminists’ is usually better but misses the point. The significance of ‘women’s-rightsers’, as the Marxist women used it, is that such feminists make women’s juridical rights (under the existing social order) the be-all and end-all of their movement and programme, by detaching the question of women’s rights from the basic social issues, by making it a separate question.

This is the characteristic which is the target of much of Zetkin’s argumentation in the following sections. But it was made most explicit by Eleanor Marx, in the course of the first article she wrote for the Vienna socialist women (quoted in §5 below). She hits the nail on the head. It is so basic that we present the central passage here, even though it will be met later in its context. The Socialist International had recently voted complete equality for women as its programmatic aim, and Eleanor Marx explains why this programme has nothing to do with the ‘women’s rightsers’:

Just as on the war question the Congress stressed the difference between the ordinary bourgeois peace league, which cries, ‘Peace, peace’. whenre there is no peace, and the economic peace party, the socialist party, which wants to remove the causes of war – so too with regard to the ‘woman question’ the Congress equally clearly stressed the difference between the party of the ‘women’s rightsers’ on the one side, who recognised no class struggle but only a struggle of sexes, who belong to the possessing class, and who want rights that would be an injustice against their workingclass sisters, and, on the other side, the real women’s party, the socialist party, which has a basic understanding of the economic causes on the present adverse position of workingwomen and which calls on the workingwomen to wage a common fight hand-in-hand with the men of their class against the common enemy, viz. the men and women of the capitalist class.

The analogy which E. Marx makes here, to bourgeois pacifism, is so close that still another point emerges. For there were not only bourgeois pacifists but also socialist pacifists, who likewise wanted to detach the question of war and peace from that of the overall social struggle. This is the strong tendency of all socialist reformism, part of its common ground with bourgeois reform. Much will be understood about the women’s movement if this basic pattern is applied to it. Just as the issue of pacifism (pacifism understood in the above scientific sense) divided the socialist movement between right and left, so also the question of an attitude toward bourgeois feminism divided socialist women (and men) of the right and left wings.

This helps to explain why the Marxist women’s movement that Zetkin led was also ranged, by and large, on the revolutionary left wing of the German Social-Democracy, while the reformists (Revisionists) tended to come out for accommodation with the bourgeois women’s-rightsers. The first half of this statement is well known historically; for example, when the Social-Democracy collapsed at the onset of war in August 1914, the cadres and main leadership of the socialist women played an important anti-war role. Long before this, Zetkin had aligned herself strongly in the party debate on the side of the enemies of Revisionism.

The second half of the proposition is not as well known. This is what lends special interest to our §3 below, where we see a peculiar polemic launched by the pzrty organ editors against Zetkin, precisely on the issue of attitude toward the women’s-rightsers, shortly before Revisionism appeared as a public tendency.

Note that, in this exchange with Zetkin, the party editors – without as yet quite knowing how to define their uneasiness – are bridling above all at Zetkin’s air of hostility toward bourgeois feminism. And down to the present day, this is the often amorphous form in which basic issues have been fought out. In various forms for most of a century, Marxists tried to pin the discussion down to politics and programme, while the liberalistic right wing preferred to keep the controversy in the airy realm of attitudes:

Don’t be so harsh on them; after all we agree on many things ... It’s the powers that be we should fight, not our friends the women’srightsers ... Don’t be dogmatic, doctrinaire, rigid, unrealistic, and hard ...’

These half-truths were not peculiar to the women’s question. On the contrary, the whole pre-1914 debate between Marxism and Revisionism was not usually favoured with clearcut argumentation about principles (such as tends to be the summary content of later histories) but rather with dreary polemics about attitudes, the function of which was to inculcate an attitude of soft accommodation to liberal capitalism. The Social-Democracy did not march into the arms of reformism; typically it backed into it. It stumbled backward as bogeys about doctrinairism and electoral realism were brandished before it.

So also with the question of the socialists women’s hostility to the women’s-rightsers of bourgeois feminism. The reformists did not have great objections to raising their hands in favour of Marxistical formulations in resolutions about the women’s movement and socialism; it was another thing to concentrate hostility to bourgeois liberalism in practice.

This is how the right-left split on feminism stood by the 1890s when Zetkin’s work began to take effect. But it had looked very different at the inception of the German movement. Let us go back a way.


The German socialist movement was organisationally founded in the 1860s not by Marxists but by Ferdinand Lassalle and his immediate followers. The Lassallean tendency was essentially a type of reformist state-socialism, which persisted in the movement long after its surface Marxification. Perhaps the clearest expression of Lassalleanism was in Lassalle’s secret negotiations with Bismarck, in which the would-be ‘workers’ dictator’ (as Marx called him) offered to help the Iron Chancellor establish a ‘social monarchy’ (a presumably anti-capitalist despotism) using Lassalle’s working-class troops as its mass base. Bismarck turned down the offer, and naturally headed toward a united front with the bourgeoisie instead; but this perspective remained the Lassallean trademark. The aim was the organisation of working-class cadres as an instrument of policy by leaders who had mainly contempt for the class on whose backs they sought to ride to power. Thus the Lassalleans developed as a ‘working-class’ sect, that is, one oriented toward a proletarian membership composition as its power base.

This is what helps to explain the position on the women’s question first adopted by the Lassallean movement. It recruited its cadres from the first organisable. workers, already conscious of their immediate demands, and it directed these demands into an interest-group programme. As an interest group, these organised workers, still a small minority of the class, were immediately threatened by the competition of cheaper female labour, used by capital to keep wages and conditions down. This posed the usual choice for self-styled socialists. Should they, in the teeth of pressing but shortrange interests of (a part of) the working class, insist on the overriding need to ‘always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole’, as the working class passed through different stages of consciousness and struggle? Or should they go along with the immediate pressure of narrow group-interest demands, paying little attention to the needs of the class as a whole – which means, the long-range needs of the entire class, including its as yet unorganised sectors?

In 1867, four years after its founding, the Lassallean group came out directly against the industrial employment of women and in favour of measures to keep women out of the factories. The motivation was to reduce (men’s) unemployment and keep wages up. While economically motivated, the demands tended to take on a high moral tone, for obvious reasons: arguments about preserving the family and defending female morals could appeal to circles beyond the interest group.

Was this movement to limit female labour due to something called ‘proletarian anti-feminism’, or was ‘proletarian anti-feminism’ the ideological form taken by the exigencies of the economic struggle? In fact there was the common intertwining of economic impulsions and ideological constructions, reinforcing each other in the short run. But the basic drive was evident as further developments changed the interest group’s immediate perception of its own interests. For the number of women workers increased despite all moralising, and this created a new reality. The aim of keeping women out of the factories was not only reactionary but utopian, that is, unrooted in the real tendencies of social development.

Capitalism saw to it that female industrial labour went up by leaps and bounds, despite the outcries. In the 1870s the number of female workers passed the million mark, and a decade later was reaching six million. The immediate pressures changed on even the most shortsighted. There was a fait accompli to be reckoned with: if all workers’ immediate interests were to be protected, these new workers had to be organised in trade unions too. If the women workers were to be included in the trade-union movement, then appeals had to be made to their interests. An interesting reversal now took place. The ‘pro-feminist’ employers, who had produced stalwart proponents of women’s rights to work for a pittance (in the name of justice and equality), became alarmed at the Dangers to Morality that would result from women joining men’s organisations (unions). The state responded to this new threat against public moral with laws that restricted women’s right of association and assembly.

From the beginning in the 1860s, a fundamentally different approacfi came only from the first Marxist spokesmen, especially August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht. In their view the interests of women as a sex and workers as a class were integrated. Their starting-point was the direct opposite of the shortsighted ‘workerist’ hostility to female industrial labour. Their first proposition was that women could be genuinely independent of men and equal in rights only insofar as they achieved economic independence. Economic independence meant not only the abstract right to work but the real possibility of doing so outside the home. This was the way to go, because it provided the only possible foundation for the whole long road to sexual equality. To the Lassalleans, the integration of women into industry was a scandalous abuse; to the Marxists, it was the first condition for progress. Here was the first right-left split on the women’s question in the socialist movement.

In the Marxist perspective, the entrance of women into industry was not itself the solution; it merely posed the right questions for solution. It provided the necessary starting-point for struggle. The struggle had to include a fight against the abuses of female labour along with other workingclass struggles. Once one saw the female half of the human race as an integral part of the great social struggle, everything else followed. Just as the Lassalleans had extended their rejection of women’s employment to rejection of women’ suffrage and political rights, so also the Marxists’ approach pointed in the diametrically opposite direction, to the integration of women into every aspect of the social struggle, including the political.


Integration is the key word. As we have seen, this is what basically distinguishes Marxist feminism from Frauenrechtlerei, which divorces the demand for women’s rights from the general struggle for social emancipation.

But integration does not mean that the women’s question is simply swallowed up under the rubric socialism, any more than trade-unionism is. In general, Marxism seeks to integrate reform and revolution, to establish a working relation between immediate demands and ‘ultimate’ programme; it does not substitute one for the other. [2*] There is a contemporary myth, widespread in feminist literature, that Marxism merely announces that ‘socialism will solve the women’s question’ and that’s that. It is a very convenient myth, since it is so easy to ridicule that it becomes unnecessary to get acquainted with what the founders of Marxism really advocated and how the Marxist women really organised.

The socialist women’s movement led by Zetkin gave strong support to all the democratic demands for women’s equal rights. But this movement differed from the bourgeois feminists not only in the programmatic context in which it put these ‘democratic demands’, but also-and consequently-in its choice of immediate demands to emphasise. It viewed itself, in Marxist terms, as a class movement, and this translates into working-women’s movement. The immediate demands it emphasised corresponded to the needs of women workers in the first place. The socialist women fought for immediate economic gains for women workers, including legislative gains to protect women workers’ interests-just as every militant organisation of male workers did the same. But this simple fact produced a controversy which is as lively today as when it started, one that provides a touchstone of the class difference between socialist feminism and bourgeois feminism.

In the case of male workers, the question of ‘special’ protective legislation has been so long worked out that it no longer seems to be controversial. It is almost forgotten that, once upon a time, the legislative imposition of (say) a minimum wage was attacked within the labour movement on the ground that it would rebound against labour’s interests. A common argument was that a minimum wage would tend to become the maximum wage, thereby hurting better-paid workers even if it improved the position of the lowest strata. There was a kernel of truth to this fear: this special protective legislation could be used by employers for their own purposes. In fact, there is no conceivable labour legislation which cannot be turned against workers as long as the labour movement is not organised to effectively police the way the law is used. In more modern times, experience has shown countless cases in which basic labour gains, painfully acquired by decades of struggle, have been latterly used by employers (and their allies in the trade-union and government bureaucracies) to discriminate against minority workers for the benefit of an entrenched job trust.

None of these real problems, past and present, would nowadays be used to argue openly that ‘special’ protective legislation for men workers has to be thrown out holus-bolus, turning the clock back a hundred years. The problems are met in other ways, especially when the particular devices have to be subjected to review and modification; but this is scarcely new or startling.

The picture is altogether different when it comes to special protective legislation for women workers. What is taken for granted on men workers’ behalf is not accepted as a principle for women workers as well. Why? The difficulty comes not merely from employers (who are understandably reluctant to improve working conditions for any ‘special’ group) but also from the bourgeois feminists. Historically speaking, the reason for this state of affairs is quite plain. The hard core of the bourgeois feminist movements has typically been the ‘career women’ elements, business and professional strivers above all. Protective devices for the benefit of women workers in factories help to make life more bearable for them, but they are usually irrelevant to upper-echelon women trying to get ahead in professions. Worse, they may introduce restrictions which get in the way. At the very least, the ‘pure’ feminists demonstrate their social purity by rejecting the idea that the women’s question has something to do with class issues. Protective legislation for women workers is, abstractly considered, a form of ‘sex discrimination’ – just as legislation for men workers is a form of ‘class legislation’ and was long denounced as such. The bourgeois feminists are better served by making feminine equality as abstract an issue as possible, above all abstracted from the social struggle of classes.

To the socialist women, however, ‘special’ legislation for women workers is far more important than (say) opening up medical colleges to female students. This implies no hostility to the latter goal; the socialist women enthusiastically supported such efforts. But a law requiring (say) the installation of toilet facilities for women workers affected a mass of women, not merely a few aspiring professionals, even though it was unlikely to become the subject of a romantic movie. The socialist perspective on social struggle extended from the ‘lowest’ concerns to the highest, and integrated them. The few women who, rightly and bravely, aspired to crash into the medical profession were to be applauded for their striving; but at the same time one should not conceal that most of such types tended to look on the ‘lower’ interests of working women as an embarrassment to their own high aspirations. Objectively, like most aspirants from the upper strata of society, they were quite willing to get ahead over the backs of the mass of their sisters; the best of them explained that as soon as they made it they would do some good for the less fortunate.

While the socialist women’s fight for protective legislation for working women could not be accommodated among the abstractions of the women’s-rightsers, it integrated perfectly with the general social struggle of the working-class movement. Gains made by women workers often tended to become the opening wedge for the extension of similar gains to all workers. Thus the men in the factories were also beneficiaries.

The result was, and still is, that there are few questions in which the class struggle more nakedly inserts itself into abstract arguments about justice and equality. But the naked framework of class interests usually has to be clothed in more acceptable clothing – by both sides. One does not often find Ms. X arguing that the law which gives women farm workers a toilet in the fields has to be smashed so as not to get in the way of the strivings of women professors for full tenure. And on the other side, the argumentation for special legislation for women workers was often peppered with highminded appeals to morality in various senses.

Appeals to morality figured prominently in the 1860s in Germany. When the Lassalleans opposed the entrance of women into industry, it was convenient to prop up the economic demand with backward-looking rationalisations about ‘women’s place’ in the home. The reactionary demand imposed a reactionary ideology as its justification. The working-women’s movement often argued for special protective laws on the ground that they promoted social goods like the health and well being of working mothers as well as moral protection. Still, it was the relation of women to the working class that was the crux.


The Marxist wing’s position on the women’s question won only a partial victory in 1875, when the Lassallean and semi-Marxist groups united at the Gotha Congress to form the German Social-Democracy. It was not until 1891 (at the Erfurt congress) that there was a complete programmatic endorsement of militant support to a consistent position for women’s equality. This party, the nearest thing to a Marxist party that had been formed, was the first one to adopt a thoroughly pro-feminist position.

There was another unusual feature: the undisputed party leader, Bebel, was also its foremost theoretician of socialist feminism (until the socialist women’s movement developed its own leadership). The publication of Bebel’s great book Woman and Socialism in 1878 was, as Zetkin said (see below), an ‘event’ in itself, a revolutionary coup, with a tremendous impact that reverberated through scores of editions and translations for a half century and more. Six years later, Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State came along to give a further impulsion. Both books put the immediate issues of women’s rights in their context as part of a broad historical canvas of societal development, part of a social struggle in which were integrated the militant aspirations of an oppressed sex and an oppressed class.

The socialist women began to move toward self-organisation at the start of the 1890s. In 1890 a prominent socialist activist, Emma Ihrer, headed the effort to set up a propaganda centre in the form of a socialist feminist organ, Die Arbeiterin (The Working-Woman). When it foundered financially, Zetkin and Ihrer founded Gleichheit (Equality) in 1891, and this remained the centre of the movement right up to the end of the era marked by World War I and its aftermath.

The circulation of Gleichheit increased from a few thousand at the beginning to 23,000 by 1905; then it doubled in a year, and kept mounting steadily until it stood at 112,000 in 1913. This growth coincided with the recruitment of women to the trade unions and to the party. There were about 4,000 women in the party in 1905, but this number grew to over 141,000 by 1913. The contemporary reader must remember that this took place in a society where the very act of a woman’s attending a meeting was not yet exactly ‘respectable’, even after it became legal.

The German Marxist women also became the main force in the international socialist women’s movement, organisationally and administratively as well as politically.

This growth provided the context for the antagonistic tension, which we have mentioned, between the socialist women’s movement and the reformist tendencies within the mass party. This antagonism was closely related to another one: that between the socialist women and the bourgeois feminist movement. It was the reformist (’Revisionist’ from 1896 on) wing of the party that pressed for a soft attitude of collaboration with the women’s-rightsers. The tendency of the reformists to avoid a clearcut political confrontation manifested itself here too. For one thing, it was easier and quieter to insert the right-wing line not as a viewpoint to be considered but as the ‘practical’ thing to do. When in 1896 Eduard Bernstein gave reformism its theoretical form as ‘Revisionism’, the party’s org-bureau man, Ignaz Auer, told him he was making a tactical mistake: this sort of thing he wrote Bernstein, is not something to talk about but simply to do.

Similarly, the right wing’s uneasiness about the course of the socialist women’s movement was expressed by indirection; typically it did not attack but sniped away. One push against Gleichheit took the form of complaints that it was ‘difficult to understand’ – that is, that it was not written down to the level of the least-common-denominator woman. Zetkin’s conception of the magazine was that its function was to educate and develop the leading cadres of women comrades, and that the important job of reaching down agitationally could be accomplished by other channels, including pamphlets and leaflets and pro-feminist material in the many Social-Democratic newspapers that reached a mass audience. By attacking Gleichheit for the higher level of its approach, the right wing was really saying that there was no need for any organ to deal with the women’s question on this level; it implied the intellectual subordination of the women’s movement.

But the party congresses voted down these sallies when they were clearly presented. In 1898 the party congress rejected the proposal that the ownership of Gleichheit should be transferred to the party itself and the editorship moved from Stuttgart to Berlin, where it could be controlled more directly. It was only after the world war had formally split the party into left and right that the new reformist party, the ‘Majority Social-Democrats’, was able to gut the contents of Gleichheit and then kill it.

Thönessen mentions another ploy of the reformists, more difficult to pin down. This was the use of ‘malicious witticisms’ in party discussions to trigger well-known stereotyped attitudes about women who meddle in ‘men’s affairs’. These attitudes were openly expressed everywhere else; in the party they could only be suggested by ‘jokes’. It is Ignaz Auer who provides the examples for Thönnessen. This device was still new because it was only just becoming necessary for sex-chauvinism to hide its face; and it was because the Marxist women were playing a new social role on a mass scale that innuendo had to be substituted for traditional derision.

There is another consideration which throws light on the difference between the reformist and Marxist wings. The women’s question gave rise to articles not only in the women’s press but also in the main party organs. Thönnessen compares the articles which appeared in the theoretical organ of the more-or-less Marxist wing Die Neue Zeit and in the right-wing magazine Sozialistische Monatshefte over a period of forty years, mainly prewar. For one thing, the Marxist organ published about four times as many contributions on the subject as the other. The reformist magazine ‘tended to provide relatively little concrete material on the real situation of women workers’ and ‘philosophical and psychological reflections on the nature of woman and her emancipation’, along with vague speculations about the ‘problems of women’s life’.

Alongside all this was also the fact that in the general party struggle the outstanding women leaders were important advocates of the left. This was true of Clara Zetkin above all. In addition, the outstanding theoretician of the left was a woman, Rosa Luxemburg. Though Luxemburg’s activity ‘ was not in the women’s movement, one can be sure that the witty Ignaz Auer did not think it altogether funny that these rambunctious women were causing his comrades so much trouble.

In the following sections, the emphasis is on the attitude of the Marxist women toward the bourgeois-feminists, the women’s-rightsers. To be sure, this did not occupy the bulk of the socialists’ attention, but for us today it is of special interest. Above all, this is the side of Marxist feminism that has been largely ignored.

All of this material appears here in English for the first time, with the exception from Bebel in §1 (which, however, is given here in a new translation).

August Bebel
The Enemy Sisters

Clara Zetkin
Proletarian Women and Socialist Revolution

Clara Zetkin
On a Bourgeois Feminist Petition

Rosa Luxemburg
Women’s Suffrage and Class Struggle

Eleanor Marx
Working-Women vs. Bourgeois Feminism

Louise Kautsky
The Women’s-Rightsers and
Reduction of the Working-Day for Women

Eleanor Marx
How should we organise?

Eleanor Marx
On The Working-Women’s Movement in England

Eleanor Marx
[A Women’s Trade Union]

Eleanor Marx
Women’s Trade Unions in England


1*. This text is part of a forthcoming work, Women and Class, edited by Hal Draper and Anne G. Lipow.

2*. To be sure, there have been ‘Marxist’ sects that repudiated reforms on ‘principle’, even though Marx and Engels denounced this sort of sectarianism unmercifully. But such sects are irrelevant to everything, including our subject. The same goes for alleged ‘Marxists’ nowadays who apply this sectism to the women’s question. One should read Rosa Luxemburg’s Reform and Revolution.

Last updated on 28.12.2008