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Researching the socialist/communist women’s movement

July 3, 2011

Here are some thoughts by U.S. socialist Dianne Feeley on my article, “The Communist Women’s Movement (1921-26),” posted as a comment to this website and reposted with Dianne’s permission. I’ve added a few comments of my own on the state of research in this field.

“I found this article thoughtful!

“The best practices of the Second International in terms of women’s rights that I know about were carried out in the United States and Germany. For example, I think that the reason we won women’s suffrage in a number of critical states in the pre-WWI United States had to do with the work of the Socialist Party. Kate Richards O’Hare, a socialist agitator considered second only to Eugene Debs, was also a popular speaker for women’s suffrage. Socialist women were also active in the birth control/sex education movement of that period and in some cases were involved in helping provide abortions.

“English socialists were even more able to provide information about birth control to the working class. In the U.S., because of repressive legislation, it was difficult for even the medical profession to learn about birth control! Antoinette Konikow, who was on the SP’s women’s commission, was a founding CPer. (But when she went to the USSR in 1926, she was very disturbed by the fact that they were not interested in birth control–only abortion–as a woman’s right.)

“Many of these socialist activists joined the Third International and brought their ideas and organizational methods with them. However I was surprised by the high figures for women’s membership in Czechoslavkia & Norway! I believe the US & German SPs in pre-WWI never had more than 10% women, even with all the campaigns they carried out.

“Although socialists, like feminists, didn’t campaign around domestic violence or sexual harassment back then, both did support the right of divorce, which was how they viewed the problem of domestic violence. No one talked about either concept then because those concepts developed out of the 2nd wave of feminism in the 1960s.”

–Dianne Feeley

Dianne, a prominent U.S. socialist activist, is correct in stressing the roots of the Communist Women’s Movement (CWM) in the pre-1914 socialist movement, both in the U.S. and internationally. Indeed, it was a direct continuation of the Socialist Women’s Movement headed by Clara Zetkin before the war. Like the CWM, the Socialist Women’s Movement played a leadership role in international socialist struggles as a whole, symbolized by the fact that it was the first world socialist body to speak out for an internationalist stand against the war. For the socialist women’s antiwar appeal of 1915, see Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International (New York: Pathfinder, 1984), pp. 277-79.

Dianne is also right to emphasize the communist women’s practical involvement in efforts to gain increased reproductive and other rights for women.

Thanks also to Fabian Orcival for a useful reference. He writes:

“Thank you for that interesting piece of writing. You might be interested in watching Elsa Rassbach’s His-Story (BRD 1972, 21′) which is a fictionalized re-enactment of a meeting between Zetkin and Lenin. Rassbach was mainly a cutter and media activist of the New Left. The film is of course polemic against Lenin’s masculinism. I had the pleasure of including this on in a little cycle of films I curated a few years ago for the Zeughauskino in Berlin. Please find the whole program here http://www.dhm.de/kino/1968_in_berlin.html.”

Addition, July 13, 2011: I’d also like to include an important comment just received from Daniel Gaido, who writes:

The Spanish version of your article on the Communist women’s movement can be accessed here
http://www.ips.org.ar/?p=2817#_ftn16.

I think you didn’t mention Inessa Armand and her role in organizing the First International Conference of Communist Women in July 1920.

R. C. Elwood, Inessa Armand: Revolutionary and Feminist, Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. 258-59: “Inessa Armand was the dominant figure at the conference. She sat on its presidium, chaired its formal sessions in the Kremlin, and introduced the major resolutions.” End of addition

(These and other comments on my website are published together with the article to which they relate. To see comments on all articles, go to the RSS Comments feed on the bottom left of every page).

My working paper on the Communist Women’s Movement is by far the most widely downloaded item on my website, and it has been adopted for republication in the Philippines, Australia, and India. This comes as no surprise – the CWM story is not only among the most successful arenas of communist activity in the 1920s but is an experience that speaks strongly to our time.

I have found few historical studies of this movement. I have listed below some relevant English-language works that have come to my attention; I’d appreciate pointers to what I have missed.

The most prominent CWM leader, Clara Zetkin, is often underestimated as a political leader, as I seek to show in “Clara Zetkin’s Struggle for the United Front” on this website. Few of her writings are available in English. As German historian Bernhard Bayerlein has noted, most members of her outstanding leadership team are almost forgotten. My forthcoming book on the Fourth Congress of the Communist International (available in November) contains capsule biographies of many of these women leaders.

I wonder if communist history may have acquired an undeserved reputation as a field not friendly to women’s studies. Historians of communism today are overwhelmingly male – just as much or more so than were members of the communist movement itself 75-85 years ago. This seems surprising, after all the gains women have made over the intervening decades. I wonder why this is so.

My article was based mainly on German-language sources relating to the CWM as a whole. However, no language barrier obstructs study of the lively communist women’s publications in Britain, Canada, the United States, and elsewhere. There seems to be an upturn these days in left-wing writing on communist history – good reason to hope that the activity of communist women — and women historians — will receive its deserved attention.

The next installment of my series of working papers on socialist and communist history will be “Nationality’s Role in Social Liberation: The Soviet Legacy.” Look for it later this month. See also list of papers posted to date.

Partial listing of works on the Communist Women’s Movement
Only English-language works have been included.

Clara Zetkin, ed., “Theses for the Communist Women’s Movement,” in John Riddell, ed., Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite: Proceedings of the Second [Comintern] Congress, 1920, New York: Pathfinder, 1991. Printed together with the theses of the first international conference of communist women.

“Methods and Forms of Work among Communist Party Women: Theses,” in Alan Adler, ed., Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, London: InkLinks, 1980, also at www.marxists.org. This unattributed resolution of the third Communist International congress (1921) was unquestionably edited by Clara Zetkin.

Clara Zetkin, Lenin and the Woman Question, New York: International Publishers, 1934. See: www.marxists.org/archive/zetkin/1925/lenin/zetkin2.htm.

Margaret Hobbs and Joan Sangster, eds., The Woman Worker, 1926–1929, St. John’s: Canadian Committee on Labour History, 1999. This book offers extensive excerpts from the Canadian Federation of Women’s Labour Leagues publication.

Elizabeth Waters, “In the Shadow of the Comintern: The Communist Women’s Movement, 1920–43,” in Sonia Kruks, Rayna Rapp, and Marilyn B. Young, eds., Promissory Notes: Women in the Transition to Socialism, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1989.

Atina Grossman, “German Communism and New Women: Dilemmas and Contradictions,” in Helmut Gruber and Pamela Graves, eds., Women and Socialism: Socialism and Women, New York: Berghahn Books, 1998.

Christine Bard and Jean-Louis Robert, “The French Communist Party and Women 1920–39: From ‘Feminism’ to Familialism,” in Gruber and Graves, eds.

Eric D. Weitz, Creating German Communism, 1890–1990: From Popular Protests to Socialist State, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. Note his chapter, “The Gendering of German Communism.”

The following books do not take up the Communist Women’s Movement, but provide background on the portion of its activity devoted to reporting on conditions of women in the Soviet Union.

• Barbara Clements, Daughters of Revolution: A History of Women in the U.S.S.R., 1994
• Michelle Fuqua, The Politics of the Domestic Sphwere: the Zhenotdely, Women’s Liberation, and the Search for a Novyi Byt in Early Soviet Russia, 1996.
• Wendy Goldman, Women, the State, and Soviet Society: Soviet Family Policy, 1993.
• Gail Lapidus, Women in Soviet Society, 1978.
• Richard Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia (1860–1930), 1978.

2 Comments
  1. Liz Ross permalink

    Interesting material here – there is also quite a bit of research on women in the Communist Party in Australia (I have just written on the Communist Party of Australia and sexuality from the foundation in 1920 to the 1970s). I’ll send references, links soon. Regards Liz Ross

  2. Daniel Gaido permalink

    Hi John

    The Spanish version of your article on the Communist women’s movement can be accessed here
    http://www.ips.org.ar/?p=2817#_ftn16
    I think you didn’t mention Inessa Armand and her role in organizing the First International Conference of Communist Women in July 1920.
    R. C. Elwood, Inessa Armand: Revolutionary and Feminist, Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. 258-59
    “Inessa Armand was the dominant figure at the conference. She sat on its presidium, chaired its formal sessions in the Kremlin, and introduced the major resolutions.”

    Best wishes

    Daniel Gaido

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