Select Page

For the Liberation of Women

July 19, 1889 — International Workers Congress, Paris


Women’s emancipation is basically a question of women’s work, and one reasonably expects a deeper understanding of economic questions among socialists than that displayed in the attitude just described. Socialists must know that women’s work is a necessity for present-day economic development; they must know that women’s work will result in shortening the working hours dedicated to society by individuals and will increase that society’s wealth; they must know that it is not the competition of women’s work per se, but rather capitalistic exploitation of women’s labor that depresses the wages of men. Socialists must know, above all, that slavery or freedom depend upon economic dependence or independence.

Those who have inscribed the liberation of mankind upon their banners must not condemn half of humanity to political and social slavery through economic dependence. As the worker is subjected to the capitalist, so is woman subjected to man; and she will remain subjected as long as she is economically dependent. Work is the essential condition upon which this economic independence of woman is based. If we wish women to be free human beings, to have the same rights as men in our society, women’s work must be neither abolished nor limited except in certain quite isolated cases.

Women workers who aspire to social equality do not expect emancipation through the bourgeois women’s movement, which clams to be fighting for women’s rights. This structure is built upon sand and has no basis in reality. Working women are absolutely convinced that the question of women’s emancipation cannot be isolated and exist in a vacuum, but that it must be seen as part of the great social question. They understand clearly that this question will never be resolved in our society as presently constituted, but only following a complete overthrow of this society. The question of women’s emancipation is a child of modern times and is born of the machine. In the period of the Renaissance, women and men were intellectually and socially equal, and no one thought of discussing the question of woman’s emancipation.

Woman’s emancipation means a complete alteration of her basic social position, a revolution of her role in the economy. The old forms of production with unsophisticated tools and machinery chained woman to the family and limited her sphere of activity to the interior of her house. In the bosom of the family women presented an extraordinarily productive work force. They produced almost all the family’s necessities. Historic conditions of production and commerce made it difficult, if not impossible, to produce these articles outside the family. While ancient conditions of production existed, women were economically productive . . .

With the change in conditions of production that no longer allowed women productive activity, women became consumers. This turnabout contributed strongly to a decrease in marriages.

Machine production has killed of women’s economic productivity within the family. Large-scale industry produces all articles more cheaply, more quickly, and in larger numbers than was ever possible in individual homes that operated with primitive tools and miniscule output. Women had to pay more for small amounts of raw materials than it cost to buy the finished product of an industrial machine. Added to the price of the raw material was her time and labor. Thus, the productive activity within the family became economic nonsense, a waste of energy and time. While in isolated cases a woman may be usefully employed actively producing goods in the bosom of her family, for society as a whole this type of production signifies a loss.

This is the reason why the domestically productive woman of the good old days has almost disappeared. Large-scale industry has made it unnecessary to produce articles at home for the family; large-scale industry has nullified the domestic production of women. At the same time it has created a base for women’s activity in society. Mechanical production, needing neither muscles nor qualified labor, makes large-scale employment of women possible. Women entered industry desiring to increase the family income. With the development of modern industry, women’s labor within industry became essential. And with each modern improvement, male labor became superfluous, thousands of men were dismissed, a reserve army of the poor was thus created, and wages sank to ever-decreasing lows.

At one time a man’s income, together with his wife’s productive domestic activity, adequately ensured the family existence; now a man’s income barely supports a single laborer. The married laborer must rely on the paid labor of his wife.

This fact frees women from their economic dependence on men. A woman working in industry, who cannot remain within the  family as a mere economic appendage of her husband, learns how to be self-sufficient as an economic force, independent of her husband. When, however, a woman is no longer economically dependent upon her husband, there is no sensible reason for her social dependence upon him. As it happens, this economic independence at present is, to be sure is, to be sure, advantageous not for women, but for the capitalist system. Through the force of their monopoly of the means of production, capitalists seized this new economic factor and have used it to their own exclusive advantage. Woman, liberated from economic dependence upon her husband, has become subjected to the economic sovereignty of the capitalist; from being the slave of the husband, she has become the slave of the employer; she has simply changed her master. Nevertheless, she has gained something by the change; she is no longer economically inferior, and economically subject to her husband, but his equal. The capitalist, however, is not content to exploit the woman herself; he makes her doubly useful by exploiting male laborers more and more thoroughly with female assistance.

From the start, the price of women’s labor was less than that of men. Male wages were originally calibrated so that they would cover the needs of the entire family; female wages, from the beginning, accounted only for the subsistence of a single person and then only partially, because it was anticipated that women would continue to labor at home apart form their work in the factory. Further, because of their primitive tools, the products created by women in the home represented only a minuscule quantity, of uncertain social value compared with the products of large-scale industry. It was therefore concluded that women’s working capacity was inferior, and this, in turn, led to their being paid lower wages. Added to these reasons for low pay was the idea that women in general have fewer needs than men.

The most valuable aspect to the capitalist, however, was not the cheap labor of women, but their greater subordination. Capitalists speculated on two specific points: one, to pay women as little as possible, and two, to depress mal wages as much as possible as a result of this female competition. Similarly, capitalists used child labor to depress women’s wages, and machines to depress human labor in general. The capitalist system alone is responsible for the fact that women’s labor has resulted in the very opposite from the natural tendency, since it has led to a longer working day instead of substantially shorter hours. Also, women’s work has not meant an increase of societal wealth, that is, a greater well-being of every member of society, but rather an increase I the profits of a handful of capitalists, together with an ever-increasing impoverishment of the masses. The unfortunate effects of women’s work, so painfully evident at present, will disappear only with the capitalists system of production.

In order not to be outdone by his competition, the capitalist must strive to widen as much as possible the gap between the cost of production and the sale of his goods. He therefore produces as cheaply, and sells as expensively, as he can. The capitalist is thus anxious to prolong the working day interminably and to put the worker off with a ludicrous and mean wage. . . .

Economic reasons argue against the abolition of women’s work. The present economic position is one where neither capitalists nor husbands can do without the labor of women. Capitalists must use women’s work in order to remain competitive, and husbands must use it if they wish to establish a family.

Above all, apart from the economic reasons, there are reasons of principle that argue against the abolition of women’s work. It is especially on the basis of principle that women must protest with all their might against every such attempt. They must raise the most ardent and at the same time most justified protest, because they know that their social and political equality with men depends entirely on their economic self-sufficiency, which they derive from their labor outside the family.

Thus, we women protest most vehemently against any limitation of women’s labor as a matter of principle. Since we do not want to separate our problem from the problem of labor in general, we shall not formulate ay particular demands; we ask for no other protection than that demand in general by labor against capital.

We suggest only one exception, and that is for pregnant women whose condition requires special protective regulations, both in their own interest an din the interest of the next generation. We recognize no special woman question; we recognize no special female labor question! We expect our full emancipation neither form women’s admission to what are known as free trades, nor from equal education with men — although the demand for both of these rights is natural and just — nor from the granting of political rights . . .

The emancipation of women, together with that of all humanity, will take place only with the emancipation of labor form capital. Only in a socialist society will female and male workers alike gain complete human rights. . . .


Translation by Susan G. Bell.



Source: “Fur die Befreiung der Frau! Rede auf dem Internationalen Arbeiterkongress zu Paris, 19 Juli 1889. Protokoll des Internationalen Arbeiter-Congesses zu Paris, 14-29 Juli 1889 (Nürnberg, 1890).


Also: Women, the Family, and Freedom: The Debate in D documents, Volume Two, 1880-1950, ed Susan Groag Bell and Karen M. Offen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press) 1983, pp. 87-91.