Wed, May 28, 2014


The Hidden History of Women’s Liberationby Susan Rosenthal

BOOK REVIEW: Women and Class: Towards a Socialist Feminism(2011), by Hal Draper, August Bebel, Eleanor Marx, Clara Zetkin, and Rosa Luxemburg.* Edited by E. Haberkern.

The organic connection between women’s liberation and socialism has been shoved so deeply down the Memory Hole that most people know nothing about it. Women and Class brings this rich history to light, revealing important lessons that our rulers prefer we not learn.

Part 1: “The Class Roots of the Feminist Movement” explains how the world’s first revolutionary women’s movement developed during the French Revolution, disappeared during the reaction, then re-emerged when the working class rose again in the mid-1800s.

Part II: ‘The Debate in the Social Democracy” chronicles the resurgence of the socialist and women’s movements during the later 1800s and early 1900s with a focus on efforts to combat capitalist feminism (commonly called ‘bourgeois’ feminism) in society and also inside the socialist movement.

A movement of women

As Draper explains, various women (and men) had written about women’s rights prior to the French Revolution, but no organized movement of women was possible until the mass of society began to move.

“[I]nsofar as a revolutionary upheaval reaches down into the recumbent strata of society to set them in motion, women too are set in motion; and insofar as popular social forces are inert and passive, the women’s movement too is quiet or only partial.”(p.13)

During the height of the French Revolution, between 1789 and 1793, the masses rose against their feudal oppressors, and the mass of women was an integral part of that uprising.

“[The women] had to feed hungry families. This formed their politics; this was their politics in the first place; and so they were not imbued with the superstition that only men could act politically. And in acting on their “politics” they did not typically react to issues by writing declarations or pamphlets; they went into the streets. And in the streets they assumed equal participation in the teeming life of sansculotte politics, without anyone’s say-so.”(p.45)

Working women were central to the capture of the Bastille, key to returning the king to Paris from Versailles, crucial to the storming of the Tuileries, and actively involved in every protest, insurrection, and battle to defend the revolution. In 1792, the women of Lyons seized control of their city in response to intolerable economic conditions.

“They dominated the city for three days. ‘Women police commissioners’ established controls over price schedules, which the city authorities were forced to countersign.”(p.42)

The emerging capitalist class rode to power on the back of this movement. After the last remnants of feudalism were dismantled, the Church disempowered, and the aristocracy defeated, the capitalists had to stop the revolution from growing into a force that would also sweep them away.

“The danger of invoking revolution even for a class-limited objective is that it suggests to all oppressed people that the power on top can be overthrown; in that sense, it is infectious or contagious. This is one reason why revolutions – real revolutions, that is, social upheavals that turn society upside down – are so often truly creative, fructifying, and personally liberating for masses of people. This belies the common historical myth that revolution is nothing but a bestially destructive force.”(p.12)

The Revolutionary Women

Having overthrown one class of tyrants, the masses were unwilling to submit to a new class of tyrants. Legal equality meant nothing to those with no property, so the left wing strained to push the revolution forward to achieve social equality and mass democracy.

In May of 1793, the most militant women organized themselves into The Society of Revolutionary Women (La Société des Citoyennes Républicaines Révolutionnaires) also called the Revolutionary Women (Femmes Révolutionnaires). They did not counter-pose women’s rights to the needs of the revolution; they fought for women’s rights to advance the revolution.

“[The Society of Revolutionary Women] was one of the few citywide political clubs, as distinct from section clubs and assemblies. It was the first all-women’s revolutionary vanguard association. It was the extreme left of the Revolution in organized form.”(p.43)

In order to bring the masses to heel, the Jacobins (the capitalist party) moved to crush the left opposition and, in particular, the Revolutionary Women.

In September 1793, the Jacobin government slandered and then arrested a leader of the Revolutionary Women, Claire Lacombe, on trumped-up charges. A month later, the RW meeting hall was sacked. After that, women’s societies were outlawed. The following year, all women were denied the right of association. These escalating attacks on the movement were resisted, but the newly-born working class was neither large enough nor economically important enough to build an alternative to capitalism.

The history of all battles is written by the victors, in this case, the capitalist class. As a result, the achievements of the Society of Revolutionary Women and its leaders – Claire Lacombe, Etta Palm, and Pauline Léon – have virtually disappeared from the record. Instead, histories of the period highlight the writings of bourgeois feminists like Olympe De Gouges, Mary Wollstonecraft, and George Sand who had nothing but contempt for the mass of women who had fought to change society from below.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Draper devotes a chapter to “The Myth of Mary Wollstonecraft.” The author of Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) was living in Paris in 1793, but Mary Wollstonecraft had little to say about the struggle for women’s rights that was swirling around her. What she did say was openly hostile.

In An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution (1794), Wollstonecraft savagely attacks the Women’s March on Versailles.

“[The march] consisted mostly of market women, and the lowest refuse of the streets, women who had thrown off the virtues of one sex without having power to assume more than the vices of the other. …[T]hey were strictly speaking, a mob, affixing all the odium to the appellation it can possibly import…”(p.87)

Wollstonecraft goes on to condemn the women fighters as, “a gang of thieves,” “a set of monsters,” “criminals,” senseless “brutes,” “assassins,” and so on. Her position is classic bourgeois feminism. She writes,

“Instead of looking for gradual improvement, letting one reform calmly produce another, they [the people] seemed determined to strike at the root of their misery all at once… with hasty measures.”(p.91)

Draper describes Wollstonecraft as a member of the intelligentsia, who serve as “missionaries to the bourgeoisie” in their efforts to “renovate or refurbish the rulers” so they will be fit to rule. He concludes,

“Wollstonecraft speaks and thinks as the champion of the aspiring business and professional career woman, who has essentially the same attitude toward the mass of the female sex as have the male exploiters in the dominant society. She is just as determined to get her rights over their backs…This is the meaning of bourgeois feminism, and Wollstonecraft was its great herald.”(p.107)

The women who wrote appeals for women’s rights could not have been more different from the working-women who actually fought for them.

“In practice, the women of the people in Paris were far in advance of their educated “betters” not in the first place because their state of consciousness and enlightenment was higher, but because their actual social situation pushed them to assume equality in struggle. The social struggle itself was far more enlightening than any consciousness-raising lecture could be.”(p.129)

After crushing the forces on their left, especially the Revolutionary Women, the Jacobins were, in turn, crushed by the forces on their right.

The Utopians

A women’s movement does not appear again until the workers’ rebellions of the 1830s. In the meantime, the Utopians advocated a form of ‘women’s liberation’ that was actually something else in disguise.

Draper provides the example of Charles Fourier, who argued that the level of civilization of any society can be measured by the position of its women. Despite this insight, the Utopians had a two-faced approach to women’s emancipation.

“What Fourier sees in central place is not freedom for women but, rather, freedom of access to women – for emancipated men like himself, who rightly rejected the contemporary patterns of both libertinism and decorous morality. In this sense, for all his advanced contributions, Fourier remained within the boundaries of sexism.”(p.116)

Draper summarizes the Utopian position as “the emancipation of men, primarily, from restriction to one sexual partner at a time.”

Trade unions

In 1830s England, workers escalated their fight to organize unions, and within that movement, women also fought for their rights.

“[T]he working-class and socialist movements of the early nineteenth century were centers of the advocacy of women’s equality. This sort of feminism arose, as it had in France, out of a life-situation of struggle. Women workers began to organize in the trade unions as the century got started; women demonstrators were killed, along with the men, in the 1819 Peterloo massacre…Women went on strike along with men or by themselves; and in the trade union movement, when resolutions and decisions were up for consideration, they voted. Women’s suffrage began inside the working class, just as it had begun inside the sansculotterie of the French Revolution.”(p.133)

Draper devotes a chapter to worker-editor, James Morrison, whose weekly publication, Pioneer, served as the voice of the workers’ movement from 1833-1834.

“[Morrison] did not merely advocate equality for women; he advised them to take equality – and there is a great difference.”(p.138)

To illustrate what this means, Draper has integrated Morrison’s articles into a single inspiring essay, “The Subjugation of Working Women,” in which Morrison connects the fight for women’s rights with the fight against racism, slavery, and all forms of class oppression. Draper concludes,

“In any other milieu in England at this time or in any other country, an editor who published this stuff in issue after issue would have been fired, stoned, or institutionalized. These facts stand on their head the whole traditional stereotype of where the class roots of pro-feminism lie.”(p.139)

George Sand

The next chapter takes us to the great European rebellions of 1848-1849, where Draper contrasts the role of famous French novelist, George Sand, with that of Jeanne Deroin.

“The difference between these two women, the one world-famous and the other near-buried in oblivion, goes to the heart of a problem in the history of the women’s movement.”(p.153)

During the Revolution of 1848, a new socialist women’s movement emerged.

“The outward sign was the unprecedented proliferation of women’s clubs, women’s journals, women’s meetings, women’s demonstrations, and women’s demands. The women’s movement was virtually entirely socialist in orientation…The new feminist journals were especially concerned with working women’s issues like laundresses’’ wages, care for the children of women workers…They also agitated for complete social and political equality – for all women; for women’s suffrage; for the right to divorce; for the education of women; for support to the democratic struggles going on in other countries.”(p.155)

George Sand considered herself a socialist because she wanted to abolish extreme inequalities in wealth. However, she did not want to abolish class distinctions. Sand argued that society could be made just and fair if the common people allowed the wiser capitalist class to rule benevolently. To the workers, she pleaded patience; to the capitalists, tolerance.

A wealthy woman, Sand had no concept of the abysmal conditions of working women, and she was openly hostile to their movement. Confronted with a challenge to her beloved capitalism, she sought refuge in anti-feminism, arguing that society had to change ‘radically’ before women could improve their position. Most treacherously, she preached the sacredness of marriage, fidelity, and family in direct opposition to the earlier, more progressive message of her novels.

When tested by history, Sand chose to serve the ruling powers. She supported their attack on the workers’ movement and provided a liberal cover for the bloody counter-revolution. She writes,

“The executions continue on course. It is justice and a necessity…Butcher them, yes, for they have presumed; but don’t feel happy about it…”(p.162)

Jeanne Deroin

Unlike Sand, Jeanne Deroin’s socialism was working-class, and her goal was to organize working women.

“It was for her sisters that she fought. She therefore represents the exact opposite of George Sand, who could feel only the wrongs that affected her own personal interests.”(p.170).

Deroin called for the abolition not only of sex-privilege, but of all privilege, and she took the lead in proposing an all-inclusive federation of workers’ associations.

Draper writes, “In this campaign of 1849, socialism and feminism were first integrated in a practical movement – under the leadership of a great socialist woman.”(p.175) The placard announcing Deroin’s candidacy for the Assembly stated,

“A legislative assembly composed entirely of men is as incompetent to make laws governing a society composed of men and women as an assembly of the privileged would be to discuss the interests of the workers, or as an assembly of capitalists would be to uphold the honor of the country.”(p.172)

Draper explains the paradox between George Sand, who thought she represented all women, and Jeanne Deroin who organized working women:

The paradox lies in the very notion of “sisterhood” as a mystic solidarity of women regardless of social position…The feminists of the privileged classes have tended to set up the simulacrum of Sisterhood as a fetish, concealing narrower social interests – just as their menfolk have used invocations of Brotherhood as a code word for their own narrow class-bound conceptions of a good society…The feminist militants of 1848 believed that sisterhood could be a reality rather than a myth only if it was based on the mass of women, who are always working women – not the thin layer of Superior Women of the privileged classes”(pp.179-180)


Having established that feminist ideas arise consistently out of the socialist movement, Draper questions whether the same can be said of anarchism. He answers a resounding NO in the last chapter of Part I, “Phobic Anti-Feminism: The Case of the Father of Anarchism.”

P.J. Proudhon, the ideological father of anarchism was extremely anti-feminist:

“I regard it as baneful and stupid all our dreams about the emancipation of women; I deny her any kind of right and political initiative; I believe that for women, liberty and well-being lie solely in marriage, motherhood, domestic concerns, fidelity as a spouse, chastity, and seclusion.”(pp.182)

Proudhon insisted that ‘Man’ be the undisputed master over the home, with ‘Woman’ as his unquestioning subordinate. Proudhon insisted that women wanted to be dominated.

“A woman does not at all hate being used with violence, indeed even being violated…If the woman resists you to your face, it is necessary to beat her down at any cost.”(p.188)

Moreover, Proudhon insisted that “the husband has the right of life and death over the wife,”and “Murdering an unfaithful wife is an act of marital justice.” In his mind, a man was also justified in killing his wife for: “lewdness, treason, drunkenness and debauchery, squandering money and theft,” and “obstinate, peremptory, disdainful insubordination.”(p.188)

Proudhon’s misogyny flows directly from his anarchist longing to return to a pre-capitalist, peasant-based, patriarchal past. Opposed to capitalism, which reduced men to cogs in a machine, Proudhon promoted the small-unit society of the past, where an individual man could rule his domain, free of social constraints.

A consistent moralist, Proudhon also wrote that Jews should be exterminated and that Black people were fated to be slaves, and should remain slaves.

Authoritarian, misogynist, homophobic, racist – how could Proudhon be considered a figure on the left? His anti-capitalism is deeply embedded in the reactionary, fundamentalist, right.

Prelude to war

By the 1870s, a million women were working in industry. A decade later, there were nearly six million. To prevent working women from swelling the ranks of the trade-union movement, the State passed laws restricting women’s right of association and assembly, in effect, integrating the fight for women’s rights with the fight for labor rights.

Draper devotes several pages to discussing “protective legislation” that improved working conditions for women. Bourgeois feminists opposed “protective legislation” as sex discrimination. In contrast, socialist feminists supported it on the basis that improved working conditions won by any section of workers tend to become “the opening wedge for the extension of similar gains to all workers.”(p.227)

The growth of the working class, the integration of women into the workforce, and the prelude to World War I combined to create a socialist women’s movement that reached mass proportions in Germany.

“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.”(p.217)

Draper explains that,

“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.”(p.218)

Bourgeois feminism

Bourgeois feminism seeks to achieve legal equality with men under capitalism. In contrast, working-class women need the fight for sexual equality to be linked with the fight for social equality, which cannot be achieved under capitalism.

Clara Zetkin explained that all women are oppressed, but not in the same way. Women in the capitalist class are denied “free and independent control over their property,” and this obstacle can be removed by legal reforms.

Women in the middle and professional classes are denied equal access to education and employment compared with the men of their class. Their demand for equal rights can also be achieved through legal reforms.

For working-class women, legal equality with the men of their class would only mean the right to equal exploitation. The liberation of working-class women – the majority of women – requires an end to capitalism, and that can be achieved only by uniting with working-class men.

Prior to World War I, Eleanor Marx explained the similarity between the reform pacifists and the reform feminists.

“Just as on the war question the Congress stressed the difference between the ordinary bourgeois peace league, which cries, ‘Peace, peace’ where 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 working-class 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, that is, the men and women of the capitalist class.”(p.219)

Drawing the class line

Just like today, the marxist women were attacked by members of their own movement who thought their attitude towards bourgeois feminism was too harsh, dogmatic, rigid, etc. Draper explains that this “soft-accommodation to liberalism” is typical of those who want socialism in theory, but balk at drawing the class line in practice.

To illustrate these debates over reformism, liberalism, and bourgeois feminism, Draper provides stirring statements from August Bebel, Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg and Eleanor Marx. With the exception of the excerpt from Babel, all of this material is offered in English for the first time.

Women and Class is worth reading for this historical material alone. While bourgeois feminists accuse marxists of ignoring or minimizing women’s oppression, these leading socialists prove the exact opposite.

Draper shows that the first movement for women’s liberation was born inside the first socialist challenge to capitalism and that the two movements have been organically linked ever since.

When workers rise, women rise. When workers are in retreat, and there is no socialist movement, women lose ground, and feminism is dominated by middle and upper-class women.

Bourgeois feminists reject the historical integration of women’s liberation and class struggle because mass movements of working women, unleashed in revolution, threaten upper-class women as much as they threaten upper-class men.

While the socialist movement has consistently supported the demands of women of all classes, bourgeois feminists have consistently opposed the demands of working women.

“History shows that the only feminism that extends down to embrace all classes of women is the feminism that starts with the interests of the lowest classes. In that sense, working-class feminism is that type of class movement which alone is capable of embracing all women.”(p.167)

Women and Class restores our awareness of the class division that has always existed within feminism and of the resulting conflict between bourgeois feminists, who reject the idea that women’s issues have anything to do with class, and socialist feminists, who view women’s emancipation as an integral part of the fight for social emancipation.

The struggle today

Women and Class is essential reading for activists. In order to carry the struggle forward, we must know the truth about the past.

Today, a new workers’ movement is rising, compelled by the need for a living wage, for job security, for medical and social benefits, for an end to hunger, homelessness, bullying, and degradation. This movement will be more powerful than any in the past, because the modern working class includes more than half of humanity.

The working class has finally grown strong enough to fulfill the promise of the French Revolution for a society free of oppression. And out of this workers’ movement, the women will come forward, as they have always done, to lead the struggle for women’s liberation and socialism.


* Part II of this book was originally published as “Marxist Women versus Bourgeois Feminism” by Hal Draper and Ann Lipow, Socialist Register (1976).


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