Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Clara Zetkin and International Working Women's Day

Clara Eissner Zetkin (born 5 July 1857)


Clara Eissner, who would become an internationally known political activist (and tireless writer, speaker, and organizer), was born in the village of Wiederau (Germany), the daughter of a teacher, Gottfried Eissner, and his second wife, Josephine Vitale, the widow of a doctor.

Aside from his teaching, Gottfried is identified as a church organist and "devout Protestant," while Josephine Vitale Eissner was active in many of the causes that her daughter would later embrace: women's education, women's rights, and women's economic condition. Josephine Eissner also founded a frauenvereine, or women's club, in Wiederau, with the goal of raising women's awareness of the issue of economic equality.

Clara Eissner Zetkin, c. 1920
The family relocated from Wiederau to Leipzig in 1872; from 1875 until 1878 Clara attended one of the girls' schools established by the pioneering German feminists Ottilie von Steyber and Auguste Schmidt, who had also been among the founders of the Leipzig Women's Education Association.

While training to be a teacher, Clara Eissner became involved with the Leipzig Women's Education Association and with the National Association of German Women, but she also became involved with the socialist movement and began attending meetings of the Social Democratic Party, where she met Ossip Zetkin, a Russian Jew who had fled persecution in Odessa.

After the 1878 ban on socialist activity in Germany, Clara Eissner left the country and went, first, to Linz, Austria, where she taught factory workers. In 1879 she traveled to Russia; by 1882 she was in Zurich, where she wrote pamphlets for the SDP that would be smuggled back into Germany. After five months in Switzerland, she reunited with Ossip Zetkin in Paris (he had been arrested in Leipzig and had been forced to leave) and adopted Zetkin's name. The couple had two sons, Maxime (1883) and Konstantine (1885). Clara and Ossip did not marry so that she would not lose her German citizenship. (She would later marry Georg Friedrich Zundel.)

It was Zetkin who had introduced Clara to the Leipzig Worker's Education Society and to the revolutionary ideas of Marks and Engels. In Paris, her feminist and socialist interests united, though the extreme poverty in which the couple were living resulted in tuberculosis, and Clara returned to her family in Leipzig in 1886. Her activity did not cease, however--while recuperating, she gave her first public speech, on the topic of women and socialism, arguing that a class revolution would result in equality for women.  Three years later, in 1889, she returned to Paris, nursing Ossip until his death from tuberculosis.

During her time in Paris, she had helped to the Socialist International, an international association of socialist parties, and after Ossip Zetkin's death, she participated in the Second International Congress, scheduled on the centennial of Bastille Day (14 July 1889), delivering a speech that would be later published as Working Women and the Contemporary Woman Question. 

Clara Zetkin returned to Germany--to Stuttgart--after the anti-socialist laws expired in 1890. Beginning in 1892, she edited the SDP journal for women, Die Gleichheit (Equality). She was also an executive member of the party and, more interestingly, a member of the Bookbinders Union of the Tailors and Seamstresses Union, although it was illegal for women to be members of trade unions in Germany.

In 1907 she was a co-founder of the International Conference of Socialist Women (Stuttgart), and although women were given the right to join political parties in Germany in 1908, Zetkin thought that would dilute women's voices, so she maintained her focus on the 1910 International Conference (Copenhagen) and helped to establish the first International Women's Day (19 March 1911).  Zetkin also organised the Socialist Women's Conference in March 1915. 

During the First World War, Zetkin and other influential members of the SPD rejected the party's policy of Burgfrieden, or compromise with the government during the war. Her position is articulated in a speech she gave in 1915, at a women's peace conference in Switzerland: 
Who profits from this war? Only a tiny minority in each nation: The manufacturers of rifles and cannons, of armor-plate and torpedo boats, the shipyard owners and the suppliers of the armed forces' needs. In the interests of their profits, they have fanned the hatred among the people, this contributing to the outbreak of the war. The workers have nothing to gain from this war, but they stand to lose everything that is dear to them.
Despite several arrests, she continued to organize, write, and protest throughout the war. In January of 1919, she joined the newly founded Communist Party in Germany, which she represented in the German Reichstag, or "imperial assembly," from 1920 to 1933. Her active role in the Communist Party meant that she spent considerable time in the Soviet Union during these years.

But after the Reichstag fire on 17 February 1933, Zetkin went into permanent exile in the Soviet Union. (In 1933, after Hitler came to power, the Communist Party was banned.) This exile did not last long--she died on 20 June 1933. 

There are many informative essays on Clara Zetkin's political activities and writing online, so I will note a couple of the more interesting here: Elizabeth Schulte's "Clara Zetkin, Socialism, and Women's Liberation" (click here), the Clara Zetkin entry in the Encyclopedia of World Biography (click here), and the brief entry on Clara Zetkin in the Encyclopedia Britannica (click here). 

A new edition of Clara Zetkin: Selected Writings, with an introduction by Angela Davis, has just been published.

You can also read an English translation of Zetkin's interview with Karl Marx on "the woman question" by clicking here.