The history of the Left and the Fight for Women's Liberation


The struggle for women's liberation has generally been bound up with other, wider social and economic changes. The first written evidence of equality with men being put seriously on the agenda was during the reformation starting in the sixteenth century. This questioning of established religion also bought the questioning of other long held beliefs.

Many women were involved with radical sects like the anabaptists and puritans. In 1547 a proclamation was issued in the city of London forbidding women to;
"meet together to babble and talk"
 and instructing husbands to
 "keep their wives in their houses"

The seventeenth century saw the publication of feminist tracts like;
 "The women's sharpe revenge"
(by "Mary Tattle well and Joan Hit Him Home")

However the protestant religion quickly became established and the radical sects were wiped out and forced into emigration or obscurity. Protestantism was the ideology which informed the early development of capitalism.

The family became a tight-knit and less extended unit then it had been in medieval times. The father was absolutely dominant within the family group. Women were gradually closed off from those areas of business and trade were they had been active. Nobody nowadays has ever heard of a brewster or female brewer, they also lost their traditional role in medicine which became professional and totally male dominated. Other trades like midwifery and textiles which retained women were greatly downgraded.

A pattern was established which was to hold good throughout most of the development of capitalism. Richer women became used to a life of enforced leisure and isolation within the home-working women led lives of absolute drudgery in the factory and at home.

In some countries like France the rise of capitalism brought with it new ideas. These enlightenment ideas-as they were called basically revolved around equality for all men. Most of their philosophers, however, were viciously anti-women; lord Chesterfield describing them as;  "children of a larger growth"

Some upper and middleclass women were beginning to question their lack of education and the apparent uselessness of their lives.


The French revolution saw an outpouring of pamphlets calling for voting rights, divorce legislation, political rights and equal education-mostly addressed to the new parliament.

On the ground working women made their appearance in food riots. Indeed, these were to be virtually their only appearance on the history books for the next hundred or so years. As one historian (quoted by Tony Cliff) put it ;
 "A bread riot without a woman is an inherent contradiction"

In 1793 they won price fixing from the republican government. Both working and middleclass women were heavily involved in The Revolutionary Republican Society. This was an organisation of the poorest sections of society- the unemployed, artisans, labourers and small traders. The working class in the sense of a large organised proletariat did not exist at that stage. The revolutionary republicans generally tried to drive things leftwards though without a clear idea of what exactly they were aiming for.

The revolutionary republicans soon found themselves repressed by the new government. Price controls were abandoned and further riots put down by force. Women were forced back into the home at the point of a gun and several years of famine followed.

The major theoretical development to come out of all this was Mary Wollstonecraft's ; "Vindication of the rights of women". This was the first systematic feminist analysis of women's oppression. The books main premise was if all men are equal why not all women?

It was the first book to argue for women as a group rather then on behalf of the individual writer; "I plead for my sex not myself" as she puts it. Though she identified and documented a history of oppression the book offers no real solutions besides a demand for more education. She even ends up hoping that men might become more generous;
 "Would but men generously snap our chains and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience."


Socialism as a worked out set of ideas was now beginning to put in an appearance. The early Utopian socialists like Godwin (who considered himself an anarchist), Shelly, Blake, Robert Owen and others accepted the idea, at least, of women's equality. Within the early communes and co-operatives they tried to provide for full equality between the sexes.

William Thompson, the Irish Co-operativist and revolutionary published the first socialist analysis of women's oppression. This had the weighty title;
 "An appeal of one half of the human race; women against the pretensions of the other half; men to retain them in civil and domestic slavery."

This was a reply to John Mills who opposed political rights for women.

Thompson argued that men couldn't look after women's interests for them. Child bearing and childrearing was the basis for women's oppression and that within marriage they had no legal or economic rights. He poured scorn in general on the idea of the happy family;
 " the eternal prision house of the wife; the husband paints it as an abode of calm bliss, but takes care to find outside of doors, for his own use, a species of bliss, not quite so calm, but of a more varied and stimulating description."

He also believed that existing radicals had little to offer women;
 "Where in all their schemes of liberty or despotism is the freedom of action for you"

It was the first time that women's liberation had been incorporated into a philosophy of social change which sought to liberate all.

Other utopian socialists fought for women's liberation including Fourier, anf Flora Tristan in France who was to conclud, just before her death, in 1848;
 "I have nearly the whole world against me, men because I demand the emancipation of women, the owners because I demand the emancipation of wage earners."

Marx and Engels made an explicate connection between the orgins of class society and the oppression of women within the family, which I think we all know so I won't go into it any further. However they tended to see women's liberation in a very abstract way. Women were seen as a bench mark for society's progress in general. They had little specific role for women in their conception of revolution. There was no strategy to mobilise women in the fight for their own liberation.

Many in the first international were explicitly sexist and wished to exclude women. Prodhoun's followers were very vocal in this regard (Prodhoun himself was viciously anti-women). Though women could take part on theory in the international there was little attempt to encourage them and they were a tiny minority. Even the name "International Working Men's Association" speaks volumes.

The only specific women's issue raised was a brief debate on working conditions for women and children. The German social democrat refused to acknowledge women's rights in their 1875 Gotha programme. Marx did not even mention this in his attack on it.

The working women of Paris were heavily involved in the 1871 commune They were mobilised in the Women's Union for the Defence of Paris and For Aid to the Wounded".

As in many similar revolutionary situations the idea of women's work was not seriously challenged. So they spent time making soup, tending the wounded etc.

The men in the commune did little to reciprocate the revolutionary beliefs and efforts of the women. For example the elections to the commune were based on existing male, propertied suffrage. Marx claimed in the civil war that there was universal suffrage-in fact there certainly was not.

As Edith Thomas puts it "'Women incendiaries-quoted by Tony Cliff);
 "The goals of the commune, set forth in a declaration to the French people, took no account of women's existence. The men of the commune did not foresee for a single moment that that women might have civil rights, any more then did their great forbears of 1789 and 1793 or the revolutionaries of 1848"

Thousands were massacred on the barricades including many women. One woman replied to the accusation of having killed 2 soldiers;
 "may God forgive me for not having killed more."


Meanwhile the left remained good on theory-weak in practice. 'Women and Socialism" was written by August Bebel, the German Social Democrat, in 1879. Bebel had argued passionately for the inclusion of equal rights for women in the Gotha programme but they were not to be included in any programme until 1891.

In the book he connects women's oppression with;
 "The whole social question"

as he terms it. He went beyond what many socialists held with at the time. He believed that women's oppression pre-dated capitalism and that there would have to be a long struggle towards equality after the revolution. He believed that women couldn't look to men to liberate them;
 "women have as little to hope from men as the workman from the middleclass'

This is probably a good analogy; under Capitalism the middle class benefit from the exploitation of the working class without being directly responsible for it. He also recognised problems among his peers;
 "There are Socialists who are not less opposed to the emancipation of women then the Capitalist to Socialism.'

Women were now (late C19th) being recruited the workforce in droves mainly into mechanised textile and clothing manufacture. These jobs were badly paid and unskilled. The left attempted to unionise women and draw them into collective struggle. They were only partly successful.

Revolutionary unions like the IWW or unions fronting for left-wing parties like the SPD made the most vigorous attempts to recruit women and minorities. The wobblies won massive strikes like the Lawrence textile strike of January to March 1912 which involved 23,000 strikers of 25 nationalities most of whom were women. However revolutionary unions were an exception to the attitudes of most unions and found it very difficult to maintain long-term membership.

Trade's unions often took the unfortunate position of trying to protect skilled male jobs. They were extremely reluctant to organise women or any group regarded as unskilled. This was aided by the fact of women still being confined to the home doing all the work there and lashings of propaganda top tell them this was a good thing and their natural role. This made them less like;ly to identify with their work and fellow workers.

The upshot was that women membership in unions remained tiny and especially in the areas like textiles where they were more likely to be exploited.

By 1819 in America only 1.5% of women wage earners were organised, in Germany only 1.8% of the SPD's union were women (though this had risen to 8.9% by 1913 after vigorous recruiting). In Russia only a handful of all workers were unionise but of unionised textile workers in Moscow in 1907 only 4% were women. (These and Stats in Tony Cliff's book).

The German SPD was a massive organisation with 1 million members and an average of 91/2 million election votes and their own Free Trade Unions.

They made very vigorous efforts to organise women in unions. German law prevented women from joining political organisations but they joined clubs and other SPD fronts. However this was about all the party did in the area of womens' rights. They ignored or were positively hostile towards the growing German feminist movement.

The largest of these was the Radical Feminists. These were left leaning feminists who were for free unions rather then marriage, and fro free divorce, abortion and contraception on demand. They called their paper "The German working Women's paper" and many were in SPD trade unions. They made several attempts to develop co-operation with the SPD.

Clara Zetkin; a brilliant organiser and theoritician made it clear that members of the SPD should have nothing to do with the Radical Feminists and should not sign their petitions or go on their demos. She claimed that all feminism was bourgeois at base and should not be supported.

This, in my view, was a major mistake. United action between the left feminists and the socialists could have won major reforms and recruited many women to socialist ideas.

Despite sticking rigidly to the party line Clara Zetkin, herself, did not fare particularly well at the hands of the party leadership.

She edited the party women's magazine "Gleichneit" (equality) In 1909 the SPD leadership forced her to add another section;
 "to serve the interests of the woman as housewife and mother"

In 1910 they insisted on a fashion and cookery supplement. By 1914 it was being distributed for free a s a family and household magazine.

The German SPD longfingered women's liberation as they did revolution (in theory they were a revolutionary party). They would not give the slightest co-operation to left-wing feminists. But they didn't seem to have much problems with the gaggle of sexists and reactionary men in their own party.

August Bebel, who wrote "Women under socialism", also thought that too much sex could be a bad thing causing;
 "impotence, barrenness, spinal infections, insanity, at least intellectual weakness and many other diseases are the usual consequences"

The party's theoretical journal Neue Zeit declared that;
 "masturbation is a vice, certainly it is unnatural"

At the same time they were the first party to campaign openly for the legalisation of homosexuality. Clearly there was confusion.

There were also plenty of total misogynists (or anti-feminists as Cliff insists on calling them,). One such was Edmund Fisher who argued;
 "The first and highest good in life for the woman ..was to be a mother and to live to educate her children."

After the attempted revolution the party became totally reactionary and supported the mass sackings of women after the first world war. A t their 1921 conference they declared;
 "Women are born protectors of humanity and, therefore, social work corresponds so well with their nature"


Again the left found it very difficult/made very little effort to recruit women. The SRs had the best record with 14.3% women members by 1916. The Bolsheviks had only 8% by 1922 4 years after the revolution.

Like the SPD they opposed any co-operation with feminists.

Kolanti and others did attempt to organise women workers clubs but they met with resistance. In 1905 when trying to set up such a club in St. Petersburg she found tacked to the door;
 "The meeting for women only has been cancelled. Tomorrow there will be a meeting for men only." By 1907 there were some small all party and usually mixed clubs in existence.

As strikes and riots developed in Russia working women were in the forefront. Not all the strike demands were economic. Some were directed against sexual harassment by foremen and demands for pregnancy leave were common (the usual procedure with pregnant women was to fire them.)

The Bolsheviks set up a working women's journal; "Rabotnitsa" in 1914 but the priority they assigned to it is illustrated by the fact that the editorial committee had to take up sewing to keep it going.

By 1915 major strikes and demos had developed against the war which continued to grow in pitch up to 1917.

The February revolution was a spontanuous uprising spearheaded by working women in St. Petersburg. It began as a march to mark international women's day but this spread quickly and was joined by textile strikers, anti-war protesters and thousands shouting for bread. It was vigorously opposed by the Bolsheviks who saw it as premature. For example V Kalvrov (leader of the Petersburgh Distric Commitee);
 "I was extremely indignant about the behaviour of the strikers, both because they blatantly ignored the decisions of the district committee of the party, and also because they had gone on strike after I had appealed to them only the night bedore to keep cool and disciplined."

Things improved little for working women after February.

The St. Petersburg soviet negotiated a lower minium pay rate for women workers (to be fair the Bolsheviks and others did object). Women remained massively under-represented on the Soviets (for example on the Moscow Soviet they made up 259 out of 4743 delegates)

I'll skip over the October revolution as the details are known to all of us at this stage (I hope!).

To their credit the Bolsheviks introduce the most liberal set of social laws in Europe at the time including;
* Divorce by mutual consent.
* Full legal equality in marriage.
* Abortion which was introduced in 1920 (mainly due to the high number of back street abortions)
* Full equal voting rights for woment abortions)
* Decrimilisation of homosexuality

But as one bolshevik (Yaroslavsky);
 "It is one thing to write good laws and another to create the actual social conditions to bring them to life"

Th eBolsheviks tried communal restaurants, luandries etc but the economic situation was difficult and anyway all Bolshevik instituations soon came to be seen as barracks.

There was a continuing massive failure to mobilise working women. The Bolsheviks set up the Zhenotdel or women's section which, despite the efforts of it's members, had only limited success and was given low priority.

Women still had lower rates of pay and women workers found it difficult to get a serious heaing from either unions or factory committees. Frree divorce often meant that the man walked out leaving the woman with the children and the state didn't step in.

A woman's work remained a woman's work. Sexist and conservative attitudes abounded in the Bolshevik party. The wife of one party offical puts it well;
 "At those very meetings where I have to slip in secretly, he makes thunderous speechs about the role of women in the revolution, calls women to a more active role."

Economic scarcity combined with increasing counterrevolution to flatten even the small gains which had been made. Family values became massively important under Stalin though for the vast majority of Russians they had never been fundamentally challanged anyway.


The left had a good theoretical analysis of women's oppression linking it to capitalism and the oppression of tha vast majority of society. THey also made some efforts to involve women in unions and in left-wing parties.

However ;
1. They failed to actively mobilise women in the fight for their own liberation.
2. They generally failed to join the fight for short-term freforms like divorce, abortion, voting rights and so on.
3. They failed to make tactical alliances with more leftwing femminists.
4. In most successful revolutions little was done to end the idea of a woman's work and the nuclear family survived prety much intact.
5. Many leftwing parties were riddled with sexists who were not challanged.

some theoretical questions;

How can the oppression experienced by women in the home which is experienced on a personnel and individual level be translated into collective oppossition to the Capitalist system??

How far will a sucessful anarchist revolution lead to women's liberation ???

Talk given by Aileen O'Carroll to a WSM meeting in 1993.