The Question of Woman Suffrage
c.1906 — Socialist Women’s Conference, Mannheim, Germany
The decision to deal with the question of Woman Suffrage at this Conference was not dictated by any feeling of the necessity for a theoretical explanation of the principles of the subject. Inside the Social-Democracy and the movement of the women workers there is, and has been for some years clearness, enough on those points. What really determined our action was the following fact: In consequence of certain historical circumstances, about which I shall speak more fully later on, the question of Woman Suffrage, out of a simple demand of our programme or our principles, is being forced to become a demand of our practical programme.
What we have to do, consequently, is to be clear as to the direction of our action. Under what circumstances and in what manner should we draw the agitation and the fight for Woman Suffrage into the arena of our general work of agitation for the immediately practical? That is the question. But we would not be ourselves — that means, the proletariat women’s movement, which takes decided stand on the theoretical foundation of a Socialist conception of history — if we did not search for these guiding principles, put forward with all clearness as a chief point. It regards the reasons which, in our opinion, render Woman Suffrage fundamentally necessary.
There exists in this respect a clear line of division between us and the bourgeois women’s movement. Our conception is that the demand for Woman Suffrage arises in the first place as the result of the capitalist method of production. To many it may appear unnecessary to lay such stress on that. Not, however, to us, because the bourgeois women’s movement even yet for the most part put their demand forward on the ground of natural right. The bourgeois Women’s Righters even to-day claim the suffrage as a Natural Right, just as did the speculative philosophy of the uprising bourgeoisie at the close of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century. We claim, on the other hand, on the strength of the results of economic and historic research, Woman Suffrage as a Social Right, which is not founded on any conceptions of natural right, but in the altered social conditions. Certainly, even in the camp of the Women’s Righters, it is incidentally remarked that the transformation which the capitalist method of production has made in the economic life, and thereby also in the thinking of women, is of essential importance for the justification of the claims raised. But this argument is not made the fundamental one and put into the foreground as the main reason.
As proof of that I point to the declaration of principles which the International Federation for Woman Suffrage passed at their first Congress in June, 1904, at Berlin, when this Federation of bourgeois women was constituted. In this declaration there stand in the first, second and third places considerations based on the philosophic conception of natural righ[ts] which are essentially sentimental. Born of ideological reflections, they could just as easily be knocked out by other sentimental motives, other estimates of feelings, or by another ideology. Only in the fourth place is the economic transformation of society, the professional activity of the woman, incidentally mentioned. But in what sense? There it is said that the woman’s right to vote is founded on the increasing prosperity which professional activity has brought to women.
Comrades! in our view, not in the prosperity of a small . . . [missing text]
…. of the limited Woman Suffrage goes far beyond the world of women, and shows that this franchise is but a measure which confers a privileged position on the possessing classes, without distinction of sex, at the expense of the non-possessing, without distinction of sex. In accordance with the law of class solidarity, the politically emancipated rich and well-to-do women would use their vote in the main in order to increase their strength, and with that the power of exploitation in the hands of the possessing classes as much as possible. That means nothing else than that they would employ the political recognition which they have won against the entire class of the proletariat, and with that against their poorer sisters. For the interest of the working-women demands not solely the limitation of the power and capacity for exploitation enjoyed by the propertied classes but more: the radical destruction of this power and exploitation through the abolition of the capitalist world order.
Far from being a means of getting rid of the political discontent of the entire female sex, the limited Woman Suffrage, increasing the power of the propertied classes, would be a means to maintain the political and social slavery of the exploited masses. There is thus no wonder that in all countries the reactionary parties of all colours are growing enthusiastic for the limited Woman Suffrage. They recognise with a sure instinct that, in its effect in the class-war between Capital and Labour, this will be far more a reactionary than a progressive measure.
In England, at the present moment, the limited Woman Suffrage is being fought over with energy and passion. A Bill lies before Parliament which demands the suffrage for women on the same terms as those on which it is enjoyed by the men. Opinions differ widely in the Woman Suffrage movement as to how wide or how narrow the limitations are to be. The existing electoral laws for the various local bodies present in the question of Woman Suffrage a real pattern-book of the most varied and contradictory provisions. It is still an open question which of these laws or what combination of their prescriptions is to provide a foundation for the political Woman Suffrage. There are even to be found advocates of Woman’s Suffrage who, “on grounds of expediency,” would be content with the exclusion of all married women from the possession of the vote. The phrase, the women are to get the suffrage “on the same terms as men,” disguises the differences of opinion and the lack of clearness, and deceives, unfortunately, more than anyone else, many working-women as to the much more plutocratic than democratic character of the reform demanded.
It is easy to be understood that in England the bourgeois Woman Suffragists fight with the greatest energy for the limited Woman Suffrage. In doing so, they only act according to their class interests. They have no concern for the complete democratisation of the suffrage which is demanded in the interest of the proletarian women. The ladies have already shown on other occasions their incapacity for understanding the interests of the working-women. We would remind you of the doggedness with which a great and very influential portion of the English Women’s Righters have opposed up to now the better legal protection of female labour. Here, too, the ladies have always appealed to the principle of the equality of the sexes, whereas in reality they were defending nothing else than the unlimited freedom of exploitation of the propertied over the non-propertied. They thus remained true to their character as champions of the interests of the propertied classes by sacrificing in the question of Woman Suffrage, too, the right of the great majority of their sex to the privilege of a small minority of their class; by demanding, instead of equal political rights for all, only a privilege for a comparative few.
Under these circumstances it must astonish us to see that Socialist women and men come forward, together with the bourgeois ladies, as champions of the political monopoly of the purse. How confusingly that has worked on the ideas and actions, to the damage of the Socialist and Labour movement, has been shown by the bye-elections to the English Parliament. It would seem natural that at these bye-elections the women comrades should also use their whole energy in support of the Labour candidates. No matter which party it was against which the Labour candidates stood, they represented the exploited labour class at war against exploiting capital.
A few leading women comrades who had fallen head over ears into the bourgeois Woman Suffrage movement forgot all the same, in their support of the right of the female purse, their elementary duty as Socialists. As members of the Women’s Social and Political Union they adopted the outspoken bourgeois tactic of the organisation in question. This tactic raised in place of the class struggle the fight of the sex to the leading motive of electoral action. It was based on a bourgeois conception of the Woman Question, and it was adapted to the position and the interests of the bourgeois women. A manifesto of the W.S.P.U. which appeared on January 8th in the “Daily News,” expressly declared that the group “is organised solely in the interests of the women’s cause. The aim of their intervention in the electoral fight was solely to oppose Liberal candidates, as the Liberal Government refuses to grant the vote to women. Towards all the other candidates that may be in the field a strictly neutral and impartial attitude is maintained.”
The manifesto lays special stress on the fact that the W.S.P.U. “supports no party,” and this organisation defends itself with special energy against the horrible suspicion that it would, “in a three-cornered contest, support the Labour candidate; such statements are entirely false,” and even this evidence of bourgeois virtue did not suffice for the leading ladies. They repudiated solemnly, in the same manifesto, once again all community with the Labour Party: “The W.S.P.U. refuses to be identified with any political party”. . . “no distinction is made between the Unionist and the Labour Parties.” It is absolutely clear that this policy of pretended neutrality and impartiality to all parties — excepting Liberals — was equivalent to an abandonment of the fight of the Labour Party. The fighting proletarian is compelled by his class position to say: “Who is not with me, is against me.” Comrades who, on the ground of purely bourgeois Women’s Righters’ conceptions, give up their activity for the Labour and Socialist candidate in order to concentrate their strength on a “brick and mortar vote”; comrades who desert the field of the class-war to fight a battle of the sexes, which in the main is only of importance for the propertied classes — such comrades condemn themselves. The confusion of their conception becomes a betrayal of the interests of the party.
The English comrades who have been eminent champions for a limited Woman Suffrage attempt to justify their attitude with all kinds of arguments. They say that the limited suffrage is not so limited as it appears. It is so broad, they assert, that most working women — in any case, more working women than bourgeois ladies — would receive the vote. The assertion is said to be proved on the ground of “calculations,” based partly on the names now on the municipal registers, and partly on a house-to-house canvass undertaken in Nelson. Both proofs, however, are insufficient. From different sides it is proved that the lists of municipal voters are no trustworthy declaration of the number of the women who would get the vote under a limited suffrage.
Leaflet No. 2 of the “Adult Suffrage Society” remarks, consequently, “With regard to the municipal registers this is a very slight guide, as without intimate and personal knowledge of the constituency it is impossible to say how many more women would be qualified for the Parliamentary register. And as far as the enquiry from house to house is concerned, its value is certainly still less.” Enquiries that have been made in branches of the Woman’s Guild have shown that most of the women are expecting to have a vote, because their husbands can vote now, for this is the interpretation which they give to the phrase “as it is given to men.” If such enlightened women workers as the members of the Women’s Guild have so confused a conception as to the limited Woman Suffrage, the personal opinions of women that they will be enfranchised by the limited Bill are no convincing proof of the actual extent of the future political emancipation of the sex. “One of the Weavers’ officials declared emphatically that he knows that numbers of women are mistaken in this respect, and if the limited Bill passed there would be a ‘painful awakening.'” In fact, most personal testimonies of women as to their future suffrage are nothing but suppositions and hopes.
Very few wives and daughters of the workers are economically or socially in a position to satisfy by themselves the conditions of the limited suffrage. These women possess neither property of their own, nor have they obtained a university degree; few of them are householders or occupiers of business premises, rented from £10 up. The greater part of the married workers have not so much property or income as to enfranchise their wives and daughters.
And how does it stand with the vote of the unmarried, self-supporting woman? The champions of the limited Woman Suffrage attempt to secure the support of the working-women by telling them that most of them would be enfranchised in virtue of the lodgers vote. Anyone who has seriously studied the conditions of life among the women workers knows that this assertion is fancy. The lodgers vote can only be claimed by persons who are sole occupiers of a room valued at not less than 4s. per week unfurnished. Very few working women, however, have wages which enable them to pay 4s. a week for an empty dwelling. Margaret Bondfield, one of the best-known English Women’s Trade Union leaders, justly states that even the skilled textile working-women in Lancashire — who, as is well known, belong to the best-paid English working-women — do not occupy separate rooms, but live together with a sister or a woman friend. The dressmakers, tea-packers, jam-makers, chair-makers and other factory workers besides, are in consequence of their low wages, 5s. to 9s. weekly, completely unable to secure for themselves a dwelling which would qualify them for the suffrage. Very few even of the female employees in the Civil Service — women clerks, telephone operators, etc. — would be voters under the limited suffrage. Enquiries which were recently made in London have shown that they live at home or share rooms. Women domestic servants and shop assistants would, as voters, hardly come into account in consequence of their “living-in system” and the migratory nature of their employment.
All in all, if the Woman Suffrage is to be introduced, only a small portion of the women proletariat would answer to the 17 different provisions of the electoral law on property, university degree, employment, dwelling and service, and be able to emancipate themselves politically. Nay, the number of the non-qualified women would be certainly in proportion still greater than the number of male workers who are in consequence of the provisions shut out from the suffrage, since the women workers are, in general, still more exploited by the capitalists and worse paid than the men workers. Being worse paid, they are, according to the principle of the limited Woman Suffrage, less qualified to vote than the better money-earning men. This feature, too, shows clearly that for the limited Woman Suffrage it is not the principle of the equality of the sexes which is decisive, but the principle of the power and dignity of property and income.
Besides, another fact must be brought into account. So long as the suffrage is no[t] adult suffrage, but remains attached to property and taxation in the interests of the exploiting classes, so long will there be decisions of revising barristers and courts of appeal, who, by means of artificial interpretation of the electoral provisions deprive many proletarians of their vote. That has already been experienced by many English workers, employees, etc. As a consequence of their inferior economic position and complicated circumstances the working women would still oftener experience that their right to vote would be refused by the revising barristers and courts of appeal. Because they are poor, and not because they are women.
The enthusiasts for a limited Woman Suffrage now try to persuade the working-women that, thanks to the vote, they would be enabled to obtain higher wages, even equal wages with men. If we bear in mind the above described position of working women, we are fully entitled to answer: Quite the contrary.
If the limited Woman Suffrage is introduced the working women must first get better wages in order to obtain a vote, and the workers must be better paid in order that they may be in position to enfranchise their wives and daughters. If the limited suffragists are serious in their wish to secure the vote to the women of the working class, all the bejewelled ladies must take up the fight against the exploitation of women. That would imply, however, nothing less than fighting against their own class, their economic, social and political privileges: against a social order to which they owe their own leisure, their freedom of movement, their culture, and their luxury. They would have to take up the fight for the right of Labour, without considering whether perhaps in future they had to wear somewhat less costly garments when coming forth to lament their fate as “dogs, outcasts and pariahs.”
But with honourable exceptions, the bourgeois Woman Suffragists have not taken part in the struggle of the working class for better wages. The trade unions have carried it on without their help, and often enough against them, as a fight of the exploited, without distinction of sex, against the exploiters, without distinction of sex. Not to their defective suffrage do the English workers owe the fact that “they can eat beefsteak and butter,” but to their trade unions and England’s predominant position on the world market. And no limited Woman Suffrage, but their trade union brought it about that the Lancashire textile working-women receive the same wages as men for the same work. Miss Eva Gore Booth is carried away by her imagination when she ascribes the beef-steak and butter of the worker to the credit of the vote, and the bread and margarine of the women-workers to the lack of political rights.
The advocates of a limited Woman Suffrage obviously feel that weakness of the arguments of which we have given a short résumé. They therefore play a trump-card with the importance of the “principle of the equality of the sexes.” It is of fundamental importance, they say, that this principle obtains legal recognition. The limited Woman Suffrage, they declare, is the first necessary step on the way of progress. Once introduced, it would soon be followed by Universal Suffrage.
We cannot agree to this argument either. In England the fight for the principle of the equality of the sexes in public life has already been fought. Women have obtained the right to elect for various administrative bodies, in the parish, the union, the county, and so on–even to be elected on certain bodies. That this right in the various bodies is dependent on very contradictory conditions, and that it is no Universal Suffrage is another question. That is to be explained in the main not by the “dominion,” the “monopoly,” the “egoism of man,” but is far more the consequence of the “dominion,” the “monopoly,” and the “egoism” of property.
The provisions in question show this clearly. Between the recognition of the equality of the sexes in communal and in political life, in the sphere of administration and that of legislation, there is only a difference of degree and species, and not of principle or essence. In any case, the history of the local Woman Suffrage shows that the triumph of the principle, that the “necessary first step” gives no necessary guarantee for the further steps, for the recognition of the equality of the poorer with the richer. It has never been known that the women to whom property and tax-paying has secured a vote for the parish, the county, etc., fight with enthusiasm and energy for the extension of the local citizenship to their “poorer sisters.” The respect of the bourgeois women for the rights of property is obviously greater than their love of the equality of the sexes. They leave untouched the old class injustice and class monopoly in the sphere of local administration, and want to make it greater by a new class injustice and class monopoly in the sphere of politics.
For the limited Woman Suffrage must prove itself by its effects a monopoly of the propertied, and would have the effect of conferring on the propertied class a real plural vote. While it would deprive the majority of the working women of the vote, it would enable the wealthy to enfranchise their adult women members by giving or letting them separate rooms. Comrade Quelch proved that conclusively at the last Annual Congress of the Labour Party. Equally convincing was the remark of Miss Mable Hope, one of the leaders of the trade union of Postal Telegraphists. She said: “A limited Bill would not help the women workers; it would only enable the richer women to oppress the women workers. The entire agitation of the Women Suffragists arises not out of the class-war, but out of the struggle of the sexes. To us, however, the men workers stand much nearer than the rich women.”
In “Justice,” February 9th, 1907, Comrade Mrs. Montefiore also gave expression to the conviction that the limited Women Suffrage would only emancipate the propertied ladies and benefit the reaction. She writes: “From the moment that the old bourgeois Suffrage Society, led by Mrs. [Millicent] Fawcett, showed such unholy haste in banqueting some of these Socialist women who had been in prison for the cause, it was evident their hopes were high that the chestnuts they desired but had not the courage to pull out of the fire for themselves would be obtained for them by their more democratic sisters. . .
With the Tories would come Women Suffrage with a property qualification, that spells Primrose Dames, and all-round reaction. It is time the working-woman looked the situation fairly and squarely in the face; and it is time she learned the unpleasant fact that party women are as keen for their party ends as are party men; and that just as working men in the past have been cajoled and misled by the charming manners and ways of those who meant to keep them ‘in their place,’ so the working woman will possibly have to learn that it is not safe for the lamb to lie down with the lion, even though the lion may look quite lamb-like in the guise of a fellow-suffragist.” These words of Comrade Mrs. Montefiore deserve so much the more attention as she herself originally played a self-sacrificing and courageous part in the Women Suffrage movement. Now she no longer looks for the suffrage for all women from a special women’s movement but from the fight of the proletariat for Adult Suffrage.
The appreciation of the limited Women Suffrage as a small monopoly is shared by a most expert man. “The limited Bill is distinctly a class Bill, as it will immediately double the property vote, while it may add about one-tenth to the voting powers of the workers.” This was declared by the member for Barnard Castle, Mr. Arthur Henderson, who ranks as an impartial expert. And the limited Women’s Suffrage is to act as a monopoly of the propertied classes. Its purpose is to increase the political power of the propertied classes in the fight against the non-propertied. Just on account of its reactionary essence and effect does it find many enthusiastic supporters. For instance, in York, Lady Knightley declared without hesitation, “Extending the franchise to women who paid rates and taxes would remove the need for Universal Suffrage, which was a real danger.” And just as sincere was Dr. Stanton Coit (a Labor candidate for Parliament and member of the I.L.P. and I.B.A.), who complimented the reactionary character of the limited Women’s Suffrage. In a meeting at Queen’s Hall he said that the limited Bill “would remove the danger which would result from giving illiterate persons the vote.” Many Conservative politicians support, on similar grounds, the demand “Votes for women on the same terms as for men.” They honour with the lips the principle of the equality of the sexes, but it is, the reactionary soul of the Woman Suffrage which they really love. In any case, the Conservative Party will probably exploit the agitation, and under the deceitful device, “Justice for women,” strengthen the power of the propertied classes by the monopoly of the limited Woman Suffrage.
Although we, as Socialists, cannot sympathise with the aim of the movement for a limited Woman Suffrage, yet we recognise that the champions for it in England are not without merit. They have sounded the storm signals with courage and energy, and roused the women of all classes out of their political apathy, and called them to fight for political rights. They have drawn the public attention to the ever more pressing necessity for society to take the consequences of the economic development by conferring full political rights on the female sex. They have brought it clearly to the attention of the Socialist and Labour movement that it is their duty also to head the van in the fight for the equality of the sexes in front of all other parties and groups. Certainly on doing so they must not contradict historical conception and their democratic principle, by making themselves the champions of the privilege of a comparatively small number of women. That would mean riding a principle to death, instead of loyally serving it.
The Socialist and Labour movement must, however, with all energy enter into the fight of the unrestricted political right of all women, of all politically disinherited. The battle for the political equality of the entire female sex, will be won in the fight of the proletariat for the complete democratisation of the suffrage. Finland shows us that. By raising the vote from a right of property to a right of personality, and recognising the equality of all adult citizens, adult suffrage transforms the political equality of all women, without distinction of class, out of a paper formality into a living reality.
Anyone who demands Woman Suffrage not as the monopoly of a class; anyone who fights out of inner conviction for the political emancipation of the entire female sex, can and must turn his back on the limited Woman Suffrage and fight with enthusiasm for Adult Suffrage. The fight for the rights of women as a personality can only gain and lose nothing thereby. It gains a higher and wider aim, a deeper content, a greater basis, and will draw to us bands of new self-sacrificing fighters of both sexes. Quite unfounded is the anxiety expressed from the side of the Woman Suffragists that the struggle for Adult Suffrage would bring only Universal Manhood Suffrage. We point in another place to the fact that the Socialist and Labour movement is bound, not merely by their programme and their principles, but is also compelled by the class interest of the proletariat, to fight for the fullest democratisation of the suffrage — Woman Suffrage included.
On the other side of a number of bourgeois politicians and members of Parliament are bound by formal promise to vote for Woman Suffrage. The victory of the limited Woman Suffrage, however, would weaken and endanger the fight for Adult Suffrage. In the first place, because it would withdraw numerous energetic fighters from the movement for the complete democratisation of the suffrage. When the chestnuts are pulled out of the fire for bourgeois ladies, as Mrs. [Dora] Montefiore puts it, then many would be satisfied and desert the field who to-day being disinherited are compelled to fight and thus, whether they wish it or not, to increase the strength of the proletarian battle for the complete democratisation of the suffrage and to weaken the opposition of the enemy.
Besides that, one thing is clear: the limited suffrage by increasing the power of the propertied classes, increases likewise the power of resistance with which they oppose not only a further democratisation of the suffrage but all Social Reform in favour of the exploited. Most English Socialists and trade unionists begin to pay greater attention to Women Suffrage and to look at it from our point of view. Especially encouraging is the number of the influential women comrades who share this conception, and who strive to put their convictions into practice.
We mention in the first place the conscious and useful work of the Adult Suffrage Society, which was founded in 1905 by women comrades who belonged in the majority to the S.D.F. Under the leadership of Miss Margaret Bondfield, these have done much to bring the struggle of woman for political recognition out of the narrow bed of bourgeois conceptions and bourgeois class interests into the broad stream of the proletarian class struggle of the fight for Adult Suffrage. The last Congress of the I.L.P. in Liverpool was unfortunately under the influence of the bourgeois Women’s Righters’ conception, and therefore promised its support to the limited Woman Suffrage. The Annual Congress of the Labour Party, however, which met on January 29th at Belfast, rejected the limited Suffrage with a large majority, and declared itself for Adult Suffrage. The motion of Wishart, which would have pledged the party to a support of the limited suffrage was rejected, despite the support of Keir Hardie, receiving only 268,000 votes against 625,000 votes for the resolution proposed by Quelch, which demanded Adult Suffrage.
A comrade who is so keen for Woman Suffrage as Mrs. Montefiore writes on the result: “I do not see how Labour men and women delegates could, in fact of recent events, have voted otherwise than they did.” Very true! The resolution not only gives a clear lead to the representatives in Parliament, it also points out decisively that it is the duty of the Socialist and Labour movement to support with their whole strength the demand for Adult Suffrage. The fight for a completely democratic suffrage must unite all forces of the fighting proletariat, forces which would have remained inactive on one side, or on the other side would have been harnessed in the service of bourgeois class interests.
On grounds which I shall show later, the fight for a completely democratic suffrage wins daily in importance for the proletariat. And as the Woman Question is only a part of the Social Question, and can only be solved with it, that is, through the suppression of capitalism and the emancipation of the proletariat, so in the same way the political emancipation of the entire female sex can only be realised through the fight for full political emancipation of the proletariat. Those who fight on these grounds for Adult Suffrage in no way abandon the principle of the equality of sexes. On the contrary; thus, indeed, they give this principle its full importance and content, and help to transform it from a dead formula into a living reality.
The right of woman as a personality to have the necessary influence in local administration as well as in legislation and State derives its motive power out of the economic development, out of the capitalist system of production. You all know that already in the beginning of the capitalist development the demand for Woman Suffrage found its first champions in the bourgeois democracy. It is certainly no fact of which the bourgeoisie need to be ashamed, that in the times of their youth, when they still dreamed the dream of general freedom, equality and fraternity, their most illustrious minds were the champions of Woman Suffrage. We perceive how the demand for Woman Suffrage as a right of the personality crops up in England as a result of that glorious revolution in which the young English bourgeois offered up to their youthful rule the head Charles I. We see it crop up again when the French bourgeoisie strode over Louis Capet’s corpse to their political emancipation. In Germany the cry was raised when the bourgeoisie in the ’48 uprising chased the Prince of Prussia, as the simple merchant Lehmann, amidst fog and night, over the Channel to England. We see it put forward with especial energy during the battle for the abolition of slavery in America. In short, the claim of women for emancipation was defended in all the battles which the bourgeoisie has fought for the realisation of the democratic principle, as a necessary condition of their own political emancipation and rule. But however great was the zeal, passions, and energy with which the demand of Woman Suffrage was formerly championed by the principal bourgeois members, the bourgeoisie soon gave up the realisation of the full democratic principle. When it had once attained to power it handed on the fight for Woman Suffrage, as well as for other democratic demands, to the proletariat.
Everywhere to-day the Social-Democracy stands in the foremost rank of the battle for the full political emancipation of the female sex. In 1792, Mary Wolstonecraft, in her celebrated work “The Rights of Women,” and in 1787 Condorcet in the letters of a “Citizen of Newhaven,” raised the cry for the full emancipation of woman. It found an echo during the French Revolution. In 1789 Woman Suffrage was put forward not only in pamphlets but also in a petition to the constitutional assembly. But the latter contented themselves with a platonic declaration of love, they put the constitution under the protection of women and mothers. In 1793 the Committee of Safety dissolved the women’s political organisation at the instance of Amar, and prohibited any fresh formation of the same. Then the demand for Woman Suffrage died down, and not till the great Socialist Utopians, Saint Simon and Fourier, and their pupils, was it again taken up. In 1848, Victor Considérant, and in 1857 Pierre Leroux, brought forward a motion for Woman Suffrage in the French Chamber. But they found no support; they only met with ridicule and contempt. In the English Parliament Woman Suffrage was first asked for 70 years ago in a petition from a single woman, Lady Stanmore. In the name of a larger group of women, for the first time in 1867, a motion for the introduction of Woman Suffrage was raised by one of the most illustrious thinkers of the bourgeois democracy — John Stuart Mill.
No doubt the champions of woman’s emancipation have won certain concessions, but the political emancipation of the female sex has not yet been achieved in the greater number of countries, and those the most advanced industrial countries. And the reason is plain. At the very time of the most intense struggle of the bourgeoisie for the realisation of the democratic principle in the woman’s world itself there had not yet developed those forces which compel large numbers of women to demand the suffrage as a social necessity. The pre-requisite condition for the masses’ demand of the suffrage as an historically justified right, has been first created by the greater ripeness of the capitalist system of production. It is closely connected with the revolutionising of the economic activity of women, and therewith also of the household. The development of the big industry, which displaced the natural economy of the family, gave another value to the family, and changed it from an economic community of producers into a simple moral unity.
This change laid the foundation for the economic emancipation of woman from the household and the family. And as a correlated phenomenon of economic independence of the woman, political action and the demand for the suffrage for the female sex make their appearance. Economic forces drove the natural economic system out of the family, and prevented woman from continuing to work as productive general worker in the household. The same economic forces have created the possibility and necessity for a new economic activity of woman outside in society, in the social market. The destruction of the old spheres of women’s economic activity has created in the bourgeois woman’s world the necessity to give to woman’s life a new moral content, or even to secure the economic means for existence. The privileged position of the man, however, put powerful barriers in the way of the struggles of the bourgeois women for an occupation and a support. The women need a means to break down these barriers. The suffrage is such a means. The bourgeois women were obliged to aim at acquiring the political suffrage as an inestimable and indispensable means in order to gain with its help sufficient influence on legislation. They need to get rid of all provisions which give to man a privileged position and hinder the activity of women. In the proletarian woman’s world the need for the possession of the suffrage, for political equality, is no less felt, nay, om a higher degree felt. Hundreds of thousands, nay, millions, of proletarian women are forced into industry by the development of capitalism.
The statistics prove conclusively, for all capitalist-developed countries, in what degree the dissolution of the ancient economic order and therewith the transformation of women into earners of an independent income has advanced. In Germany there were counted–according to the latest census, 1895: 7,657,350 women with occupations, of which no less than 5,392,377 were proletarian women; in Australia there were in 1890, 6,245,730 occupied women, of these 5,310,639 proletarian. In France there were in 1890, 5,191,084 occupied women; of these 3,584,518 proletarian. In the United States in 1890, 3,914,571; of these 2,864,818 proletarian. In England and Wales in 1891, 4,016,571; of these 3,113,256 proletarian.
That shows as an illustration not only how wide is the sphere which woman’s labour in general, and the proletarian wage-worker in particular has taken possession of, but also how pressing is the need of the female sex for the suffrage. The proletarian wage-worker becomes thus the driving force in the struggle for Woman Suffrage. The millions of working-women in industry, commerce, agriculture, etc., can no longer dispense with the suffrage as a weapon to guard their interests against exploiting capital. There is also another consideration. Hundreds of thousands of women brain-workers also suffer either directly from the exploitation of capitalists and employers, or indirectly in consequence of the interdependence of all social relations under capitalism; thousands of them are obliged to plough along half-starved, working with their brains as others with their hands.
Through the above-described economic revolution in their means of life, the women have been revolutionised in their consciousness, their thinking and feeling. In the altered social atmosphere they have grown to political maturity. And now they require Universal Suffrage as a social necessity for the purpose of defending and guarding their interests in the sphere of economic life and social culture by means of the power which the vote gives them. But if we demand the suffrage in the first place as a social necessity we also feel that it is a demand for social justice. Woman has not only become economically independent of the household and the family, she values not only her productive labour in the sphere of brain and hand work as equal to that of the man in its importance for the advance of social wealth and culture, but the very light which the factory fire throws on the work of the mother has awakened her to the consciousness of the great social importance and value of her housekeeping and educational functions.
In the degree in which the number of women increases in the factory; in the degree in which hundreds of thousands pay tribute to capital, quite irrespective of the care they owe to the children in their womb and to the new-born, and of their many duties as mothers and educators, in the same degree has it become clearer that the activity of the mother is no private service which she performs for her husband, but an activity of the highest social importance. Millions are forced not by frivolity, not through the lack of a maternal feeling, but through the force of capitalist exploitation to offend against the bodily, intellectual and moral welfare of their own young. The increasing infant mortality, the numbers of morally-depraved young, of youthful criminals, and those in need of being looked after and trained, have shown the high social value of the work which the mother performed within her four walls for the bringing up of her offspring. The demand for the woman’s vote is but the demand for the recognition of the high social importance of her educational activity.
But women also ought to have this right on grounds of democratic principles in their widest sense. Not only in the sense that to equal duties, equal rights ought to correspond. We feel that we owe it to the development of society that the entire forces of the particular intellectual and moral qualities which we possess as women, should be brought to serve the community. We do not hold the view of certain Women’s Righters, that men and women should have the same rights because they are intellectually alike. No! I am of opinion that we are bodily and intellectually different. But to be different does not mean to be of a lower degree; and if we think, act and feel according to a different spiritual nature, we look on this differentiation as an advantage, considering that it supplies qualities lacking in the man and enriches society.
From this point of view we demand the complete political equality of women, and the Woman Suffrage as the declaration of the political maturity of our sex. In regard to this general view of the principle of Woman Suffrage there is no difference amidst the different classes of women. All women, without distinction of class, value political equality as a means to gain for themselves the right of a freer development and more ample activity within society.
In women’s world, however, there reigns, just as in that of men, the class antagonism and the class-war; thereby arises between the women of the various classes an antagonism respecting the value of the suffrage and the aim for which it is to be used. Practically, the suffrage has quite a different value for the women, according to the property over which they dominate or the poverty in which they suffer. And indeed the value of the suffrage is in the reverse proportion to the size of their property. The more women have a private right of enjoyment of a large property, the more can they dispense with political rights, since they can guard their personal rights with their purse in the most complete manner.
A greater value has the suffrage for the middle section of the bourgeois women. A great number of them are not in the pleasant position of their richer sisters to create for themselves by means of inherited property a sphere of activity which corresponds to their tastes. For the most part they are obliged, with their labour, not only to give a new meaning to life but to gain their bread. But in accordance with their class ideas and their training they look for this not in the possibility open to all of becoming workers in industry or agriculture, but recur to the so-called free or liberal professions. The opportunity for a similar education, for free and professional activity with the men is frequently refused to women by legislative enactment.
For that reason the women of the middle bourgeois classes and the women of the bourgeois intellectual classes, greatly need the suffrage in order to break down the legal barriers which impede their way to culture and to professional careers. This middle section of the women, however, desires the suffrage not only in the service of their narrower interests as members of the female sex; they do not wish to fight only against the privileges of the male sex, but they wish to co-operate in the entire social labour, and so help to solve legislative problems in all spheres, specially in that of social reform. But as fervently as the proletarian woman strive to be able to use their political power on this field the antagonism of interests between the bourgeois and the proletarian women here immediately becomes manifest.
The bourgeois women desire to bring about social reform in the last resort with the idea of strengthening and maintaining the bourgeois social order. The proletarian woman, on the other hand, requires the suffrage, not only to defend her interests in economic life and in the sphere of culture; she requires it in no case as a weapon against the male world of her own class, but, first and foremost, for the fight against the capitalist class. And thus she does not demand social reform to support bourgeois society–capitalist economic order. No! She demands equal political rights with man in order to be able, without legal impediments of any sort, to co-operate with man in upsetting and destroying that society.
The connection which I have pointed out shows us why the bourgeois woman’s movement has up to the present day not presented such a united and solid front in the question even of Woman Suffrage, to say nothing of the Universal, Equal, Direct and Secret Suffrage for all adult citizens, without distinction of sex. So soon as we pass from the simple principles of Woman Suffrage to the question of the nature of the suffrage and demand the Universal Adult Suffrage, the enthusiastic song of the sisterhood dies away.
The difference of the social classification is responsible that not even the bourgeois women’s movement stands as a united phalanx behind the demand for Woman Suffrage, because the upper ten thousand do not feel strongly the need for political equality with the man. Still less does a single and united woman’s movement sit enthroned in the clouds in spotless purity and impartiality far above the meanness of the class struggle. The International Congress for Woman Suffrage has itself given the best proof of that. Great care was taken to avoid saying clearly what kind of suffrage it was which was asked for. The President of the moderate General German Woman’s Union (Allgemeine Deutsche Frauenverein) showed herself in fact more radical than the so-called Radical bourgeois Women’s Righters. She declared that for her personally only Universal, Equal, Direct and Secret Suffrage for men and women could be taken into account. From the other bourgeois women’s groups not a single one bound itself officially once and for all to take a definite stand on this all-important point.
Thus the Radicals allowed themselves to be trumped by the president of the moderate organisation. The statement in question certainly does honour to her who made it, but it in no way alters our position to the bourgeois woman’s movement even in the fight for the suffrage. It has been seen that even those Women’s Righters who are, according to their own opinion, extremely Radical, do not always fight on the understanding that the suffrage to be introduced can only be Universal.
I call to mind the fact that in the winter of 1901 the Radical society “Frauenwohl” directed a petition to the Prussian Landtag, in which they demanded the municipal suffrage for women, but only for those women who had been living at least one year in the locality and paid a direct tax, even if small. That means nothing else than that the suffrage is demanded for the ladies only, and not for the proletariat. It is a well-known fact that so soon as a fixed period of residence is made a condition of the qualification for a vote a great part of the male, as well as the female proletariat, is robbed of the suffrage.
As to making the suffrage dependent on the payment of a tax, that means nothing else than to create a two-fold law for propertied and non-propertied. And such a distinction is so much the more unjustified when we raise the question: Who really pays the taxes, even of the propertied classes? It is the exploited classes, it is the proletariat, who first create property. The very Radical women referred to have farther proved that they are not for Woman Suffrage in our sense, since during the Reichstag elections of 1903 they worked in various German towns for the return of bourgeois “Freisinnige” (Radical) candidates and other Liberals, and indeed for their election in opposition to Social-Democratic candidates.
I will not here farther discuss the question — the fact is disputed from the bourgeois side–whether really the bourgeois Women’s Righters disgraced themselves by supporting a bourgeois candidate in Hamburg, despite the fact that his opponent was Bebel, one of the first and most doughty champions for the complete emancipation of women in Germany. That is, as I have said, disputed; but even if this extreme case of dishonour and betrayal of women’s interests be omitted, the fact remains, nevertheless, that the ladies have supported the candidates of the bourgeois Left against other candidates of the Social-Democratic Party. What that means I will explain later. We are likewise confronted by the fact that in the last Bavarian Landtag elections the Women’s Righters supported National Liberal candidates, although these were outspoken enemies and opponents of the reform of the suffrage that was being fought for in Bavaria by the Social-Democracy, and even the Centre Party.
Only in 1906 has the Conference of the International World Alliance for Woman Suffrage been held in Copenhagen. At this Conference there were discussed not only questions of propaganda and organisation, but also such a question of epoch-making importance: what badge the members of the Leagues for Woman Suffrage should wear. On the other hand, the Conference did not drop a single word on the question of Universal Suffrage, in order to lay down clearly how they stand to it. That would have been so much the more appropriate as the representatives of Finland and Hungary declared that the fight for Woman Suffrage had most progress to show there, where it could be carried on in connection with the fight for Universal Suffrage, where enthusiasm had been aroused by the suffrage fight of the proletariat. Thus, even on this occasion, where the facts sprang in their faces, so to speak, on the ground of which they were bound to take up the demand for Adult Suffrage, they again avoided taking up a clear position. I call that cowardly.
And what attitude do the Women’s Righters take to the various political parties, of which in Germany only one — the Social-Democracy — in theory and practice unitedly supports Woman Suffrage? The ladies assert the Social-Democracy is an untrustworthy champion of the Woman Suffrage; the Freisinnige and the National Liberals, on the other hand, are the best champions for the recognition of political equality of the female sex. In this accusation against the Social-Democracy the Women’s Righters pride themselves on the fact that some of the Social-Democratic leaders in other countries have expressed themselves contemptuously, or at least critically, on the question of Woman Suffrage, and that from tactical reasons the fight for Woman Suffrage has been put somewhat into the background by the Social-Democratic Party.
But against the position of the German Social-Democratic Party they have not the shadow of a proof which they can bring forward to justify their attacks. It was the German Social-Democracy who, in 1895, first raised the question of Universal Woman Suffrage in the German Reichstag: they raised the motion that in all Federal States the Parliament should be based on Universal, Equal, Secret and Direct Suffrage for all citizens, without distinction of sex. Our comrades in Saxony brought in a corresponding motion in their Landtag. I do not speak of the action of our comrades in the Bavarian and other Landtags in favour of the complete political emancipation of women. I only point further to the fact that in 1906 our party, when they took up the fight for complete democratistion, at the same time with all emphasis stood for Woman Suffrage.
The latter demand has been fought for in the press, in the agitation, and in thousands of meetings. In the Reichstag the demand has been crystallised in a motion which in essence repeated the motion referred to. On this occasion also all the bourgeois parties said: “No.” All the bourgeois parties voted against the Social-Democratic motion; and, indeed, the Freisinnige, on the express plea that they could not support it because it contained the demand for Woman Suffrage. Still worse. Woman Suffrage was disgracefully betrayed by such individual bourgeois politicians who are enthusiastic for this demand, and are held up by the Woman’s Righters as quite especially valuable and trustworthy champions–such as that everywhere and nowhere gentleman, Herr von Gerlach. Even he explained that, on grounds of policy, he would vote against the Social-Democratic proposal, because it included Woman Suffrage. The same motion including still the demand of proportional representation has been brought before Parliament once more in 1907.
In face of these facts, the Women’s Righters, if they want to consistently represent women’s rights–and not ladies’ rights–ought to recognise that from the standpoint of the social and political equalisation the female sex in Germany has only one trustworthy supporter: the Social-Democracy. But this declaration they evade, even when occasionally they acknowledge the standpoints of our party in the fight for Woman Suffrage.
A specially characteristic example of how the Radical Women’s Righters try to reconcile their support of the bourgeois Liberals with the interests of the struggle which they fight for the emancipation of their sex. In the Bavarian Landtag there voted for handing over for consideration a petition for the introduction of female suffrage three National Liberal gentlemen out of six. Fraulein Anita Augspurg, however, overjoyed the bourgeois women with the announcement that in the Bavarian Landtag 50 per cent. of the National Liberals had backed-up Woman Suffrage. Indeed, I can but wish that no more than a single National Liberal shall sit in the Bavarian Landtag, so that the bourgeois women can declare with triumph that 100 per cent. of the National Liberals have voted for Universal Woman Suffrage. It is true that recently a little group of Radical Women’s Righters have founded a Liberal Women’s Party in whose programme Adult Suffrage is contained. But this party and just that very claim of Adult Suffrage are fought by other Women’s Righters.
If I have gone into these facts here, it was certainly not in order to reproach the bourgeois women with their position. That never occurred to me; I recognise it as socially well founded in their very own class interests. But this attitude, anyway, shows us that the bourgeois women are aiming in the first place for Ladies’ Rights, and not for Women’s Rights. They are not fighting for the emancipation of the female sex as such, but only as representing the bourgeois women alone, and as champions of the very common interests of the bourgeois class. That, of course, they have a perfect right to do. What I protest against is the confusion, the hypocrisy, with which they declare that their standpoint lies in the interest of the entire female sex. In reality it leads only to the strengthening of the political, the social influence of the ruling classes. That is its aim.
If I have dwelt so long on this part of my speech it was to make it clear that the proletarian women in their struggle for political emancipation can on no account reckon that these bourgeois women will be consistent and trustworthy allies to them. No! They must persuade themselves that in their fight for full political as well as social emancipation they must rely on their own strength and on the power of their own class.
Two significant phenomena take place before our eyes. In the first place the bourgeoisie, as I have shown, has more and more abandoned the democratic principles for which they once were so enthusiastic, and they do not dare to face the consequences in the matter of the emancipation of woman. That is confirmed, for instance, by what happened in Holland, where the bourgeois democracy brought forward a motion in the Chamber which demanded Woman Suffrage, but wanted to see on what conditions the Woman Suffrage is to be granted; in other words, that the Woman Suffrage is not to be granted as universal, but as a census suffrage, as the suffrage of the propertied classes, the ladies. The bourgeois Women’s Righters of Holland are agreed to that. But while the bourgeoisie, under the pressure of the forward march of the proletariat, more and more lose courage to face the consequences of their democratic principles, we see on the other hand that the proletariat is forced, on the strength of its most distinctive class interests, to be an energetic champion of a complete democracy, and thereby for the full emancipation of woman.
In the degree in which women’s labour widens its sphere and becomes a decisive factor in economic life is the proletariat in the achievement of their economic struggle dependent on the disciplined, trained and organised co-operation of the women. The economic organisation of the women in the trade unions is, however, only possible without hindrance when they have full political rights. In any other case their economic activity will be, like that of the men, perpetually rendered illusory through their lack of political liberty. Besides, the economic class struggle alone is not sufficient. The proletariat must also fight politically, and indeed not only for social reforms that should create better social conditions in the present, but far more for complete emancipation in the future. The more fierce the political class-war grows the less can the conscious proletariat dispense with the co-operation of the women of their class. They need them badly as allies. The entire proletariat must consequently raise the cry, “Down with all legal enactments which deprive the women of equal political rights.” The demand must be raised to give the women all the full rights of a citizen, so that the women proletariat can take a part both in the economic and the political fight as well-armed as the man.
Thus it is the practical life interest of the proletariat itself, as a revolutionary class, which forces it to come forward as an energetic champion of Woman Suffrage. The Social-Democracy, the political fighting organisation of the proletariat, has consequently from practical reasons, because they understand the conditions of proletarian life, taken the demand for Woman Suffrage into their programme and defend it in practice. But also from a historical insight into the tendency of the entire economic and social development, the Social-Democracy demands Woman Suffrage as a social necessity for women on the strength of their completely revolutionised social conditions.
Finally, they demand the suffrage as social justice, and as the most logical representation of the democratic principle. But if in consequence of these circumstances the Social-Democracy has taken up Woman Suffrage in its programme as well as in its action, they must lay still more stress on it in the future. With the increasing severity of the class antagonisms, the sharpening of the class-war, there arise historical situations which confer on Woman Suffrage an entirely new practical importance. The question of Woman Suffrage begins to be, not only for the proletariat but also for the reactionary parties, one of great importance. In all countries where the proletariat comes forward as a conscious fighter, we see that the reactionary parties, under the influence of the situation, more and more demand Woman Suffrage as a last hope of guarding their power. They go to work, where they can no longer withhold Universal Manhood Suffrage, to hamper it with a limited female suffrage; that , for instance, happened in Norway in 1902 in the Municipal Suffrage. Belgium shows a similar tendency, and the German Centre Party gives signs of the same.
At the Catholic Conference in 1905 at Strassburg, a great change showed itself towards woman’s emancipation. At that Conference Father Auracher spoke, in terms which no Social-Democrat could have improved on, of the altered position of woman, especially in respect of her earnings. Even if only very timidly, he yet hinted that women could no longer be denied political activity. Soon after this Centre Party in the Bavarian Landtag went a great deal further. A petition from the bourgeois society “Frauenwohl” for the introduction of Woman Suffrage received the support of 32 Centre Party men. Dr. Heim supported their attitude in a speech which does all honour to his historical insight.
Out of these tendencies is not to be concluded that the Centre will go over all at once to becoming an enthusiastic supporter of Woman Suffrage. We have a very striking example of this. When our Belgian comrades demanded in 1902 the introduction of the Universal suffrage for the communes and provincial councils, the Clericals at first declared that they would vote for the Woman Suffrage, and they said so for the very purpose of inducing the Liberals to vote against it. When, however, it came to the vote, not a single Clerical voted for the motion of our comrades, and only one had the courage to withhold his vote.
In any case, the facts which I have brought forward are significant. They show that in the last resort the Centre’s attitude towards Woman Suffrage is not determined by principles but purely by the wish to secure the rule of the Church and the propertied classes at all costs. The Clericals recognise officially the principle that woman must keep quite in the community so long as this is in the interests of their supremacy. Nevertheless, they are quite ready to release woman’s tongue in the community when they think that they can thereby guard the position of the Church and the propertied classes, which they represent in the first place.
The reactionary classes begin not only to reconcile themselves with the idea of the limited Woman Suffrage, in so far as they hope to be able therefore to counteract the male votes; they are, under certain circumstances, in favour of the Universal Woman Suffrage on the following grounds: They think that their influence on the minds in a great part of the woman’s world — unfortunately this is true, even of a part of the female proletariat — is still strong enough to be able to play the unenlightened woman off against the enlightened man. They support Woman Suffrage as a corrective to the growing enlightenment of the men and the rapidly-increasing numbers of men who go over to the Socialist camp. The fact which lies at the back of this consideration brings it about that in many countries now and again, not only in the camp of the Liberal bourgeoisie but also of the Social-Democracy, doubts are expressed against the introduction of Woman Suffrage. Thus in Holland, Troelstra has said that if the introduction of Woman Suffrage should not be asked for he would vote against it, because it would mean a strengthening of the reaction since the women are too unenlightened.
Especially in those lands where Clericalism rules doubts have been expressed against the introduction of Woman Suffrage. Men see a danger in it because they think that thanks to the votes of unenlightened women, the Clericals would get such an increased strength that for the political class-war of the proletariat dangers would arise for many years to come. It would be foolish to deny that from the moment when Woman Suffrage was introduced women would vote who would use the suffrage for strengthening the reaction. That is, however, no reason to refuse it to the women. Were it a ground, then the proletariat could never support a further extension of the suffrage. Every extension of the suffrage brings more masses into the field, who are not yet trained and educated to a proper use of the suffrage. We demand, however, Universal Suffrage, not as a reward for political maturity, but as an effective means of educating and organising the masses.
Were we to grant the suffrage only to those who are politically ripe, then we must disallow the vote to a very large number of legally qualified citizens, because they misuse their vote. In an inquiry of “La Reveu Socialiste” among the leading Socialists of the various countries on their attitude to Woman Suffrage, all the answers agreed in this: that the arguments of the political backwardness of women could not be a ground for refusing the vote to the female sex, because the very right contained the correction of that danger in itself. In this sense Vaillant and Allemand spoke for the French Social-Democracy, Ferri for the Italian, Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald for the English, and Kautsky and Bernstein for the German Social-Democracy. From the danger which has been pointed out, and which certainly is implicated in Woman Suffrage, no ground arises for the proletariat to change their attitude towards this question.
But something more comes into account — why the action of the Social-Democracy in favour of Woman Suffrage must be made more energetic and impressive? That is the consideration — that we best confront the danger of the introduction of the limited Woman Suffrage by setting up against it an agitation for a Universal Woman Suffrage, for Adult Suffrage. Further, it is our duty through intensive work of enlightenment and organisation so to raise the standard of political intelligence and maturity in our proletarian women that it will soon be impossible for the reaction to count on the women’s votes. But even if in respect to the above positions, the attitude of the Social-Democracy to the question of Woman Suffrage is laid down, yet in many countries the opportunist pleas are brought forward, that in the moment when Social-Democracy is fighting for suffrage reforms, they might content themselves with asking for Manhood Suffrage, and had better keep back the demand for Woman Suffrage.
We saw that in 1902, in Belgium, where the Labour Party gave way on the question of Woman Suffrage in their fight for Universal Suffrage. Decisive then was the action of the bourgeois Liberals who declared that they would not support a reform of the suffrage if the Socialists stood out for the demand for Woman Suffrage. What was the result? The Labour Party were most disgracefully left in the lurch by the Liberals in their fight in and outside Parliament for the introduction of Universal Suffrage. It had thus no practical importance that they kept back Woman Suffrage. A similar thing was seen in 1906 in Sweden. Under the pressure of the agitation of the Socialist Party the Government was forced to bring in a Suffrage Bill. The Government had told a deputation of bourgeois Women’s Righters that they declined to complicate their Suffrage Bill with Woman Suffrage. The Social-Democratic Party then resolved not to demand Woman Suffrage but to vote for the same when demanded from another side. The Suffrage Bill passed through the Second Chamber, but was rejected in the First. Although the Socialists had reduced their demands for the democratisation of the suffrage to the most modest degree, the reaction was not to be disarmed. They felt themselves strong enough to defeat all and any — even the most modest reform of the suffrage. The yielding of our principal demand was thus practically useless. Comrade Branting consequently declared that a new phase of the struggle must be entered on, namely: one for the abolition of the First Chamber. He concluded a most interesting description of the suffrage light with the declaration that the further struggle would be more important, since it would be one for the political power between the possessing and the non-possessing classes. The proletariat must consequently be prepared with all weapons for the fight. A fight, however, which was so far-reaching in its importance, and called for so heavy sacrifices, could not be decided by small opportunist considerations of policy. It must be fought through on the grounds of principle; it would, consequently, be a fight for the Universal and Equal Suffrage for men and women.
A similar situation to Sweden and Belgium arose in Austria. There the proletariat succeeded, after years of hard struggle, in forcing the Government to set to work with a somewhat thorough reform of the suffrage, to introduce the Universal Equal and Direct Suffrage for the Reichsrath elections, and to get rid of the Curien system, thanks to which the proletariat were completely without power in the House. The suffrage reform, as the Government had planned it, was highly important, but in no way met the demands of the Social-Democracy. In this situation the Austrian comrades decided that the next thing to do was to secure Manhood Suffrage unconditionally as quickly as possible. And as this reform, it seemed to them, would be endangered through the amalgamation of the Manhood Suffrage with the demand for Woman Suffrage, they decided to delay this latter demand.
The Austrian Social-Democracy limited itself to putting their whole force to carry the Government Suffrage Bill, endeavouring in the course of the Parliamentary struggle to amend it as far as possible. It is certainly to be understood by what considerations the view was dictated that Manhood Suffrage could be endangered by the demand for Woman Suffrage. It was a question of achieving a reform of the suffrage, which in Austria was not only the condition that the proletariat should develop their full strength, but had become the necessary condition of the further existence of the State itself. But I am convinced that, all the same, the demand for Woman Suffrage could have been maintained from the beginning, and, above all, that it could have been championed in the agitation and in Parliament with all emphasis. We recognise the discipline of our Austrian sisters and their feeling of solidarity to the party in yielding to the party decisions; we ask, however, whether this sacrifice was necessary. And I, personally, deny that it was necessary from the beginning.
None of are so foolish as to demand that the Woman Suffrage should have been made a decisive point by our Austrian comrades in their struggle for the suffrage — that would have been a crime. But it is another matter when a demand involving principle is entirely omitted from the very beginning in a struggle for the suffrage. We lament, consequently, that neither in the agitation, nor in Parliament, the demand for Woman Suffrage was raised by our comrades with the emphasis which attaches to its importance. The dreaded long delay of the introduction of the Universal Suffrage would not have taken place, in my opinion. In the first place, all reactionary wishes for delay in the introduction of the Universal Suffrage had an ever-present boundary in the fear inspired by the proletariat. The action of the reactionary parties is not determined in the last resort by the “wise moderation” of the proletarian demands, but far more from a perception of the real power of the proletariat. Even the most obstinate reaction yields what it cannot longer withhold. Besides, the demand for the Woman Suffrage could, like any other single demand of the Social-Democratic suffrage programme, have still been withdrawn at the decisive moment, after having been shown up and defended according to its importance.
Despite all precautions and care against delay, it was impossible in Austria to get away without discussing Woman Suffrage in the Suffrage Committee. The Democratic Choc proposed Woman Suffrage there. Two reactionaries, Hruby and Kaiser, then moved a Ladies’ Suffrage. Dr. Adler thereupon defined the position of Social-Democracy to the question in an excellent manner. It would, however, have been more effective in all regards if the Social-Democracy had supported this demand with all proper emphasis from the beginning. In the fight for the socially down-trodden and the disinherited the Social-Democracy must ever be in advance of the bourgeois parties. If they feared obstructive motions from the side of their opponents, it was always in their power, in order to secure suffrage reform, to withdraw the motion after having moved it. The decisive point for our position is this, that the attitude of the Social-Democracy must be dictated by our principles and not from any considerations of utilitarianism. Our principles must decide the issue for us: not because of an orthodox clinging to the letter of the laws, but from the well-founded knowledge that in the last resort the policy of principles is the most practical and useful.
Everywhere in the suffrage struggles our principles must be our starting-point. Things have developed and antagonisms come to a point that every fight over the suffrage becomes a battle for the political power between the proletariat and the propertied classes. Thus do the bourgeois classes conceive the matter, and therefore they oppose with all their power, energy, and vindictiveness every extension of the suffrage. The fear the growing powers of the proletariat. And for that reason they will not treat our suffrage proposals according to the degree of our modesty, but in the degree of their fear of the proletariat. Thus the question arises: Is the giving up of individual demands or the unfurling of all our demands the best means of increasing our power? The answer, in my opinion, falls in favour of formulating and fighting for our full suffrage programme. We must raise our demands on the widest possible basis to set the masses in motion, and the demand for Woman Suffrage is calculated to widen the basis of our field of battle and bring us new and large masses of the disinherited as fellow fighters.
Still another point of view comes in for consideration. In the degree in which we raise the demand for Woman Suffrage do we weaken our opponents and carry division and confusion into their camp. We let loose all the social antagonisms which in the bourgeois classes exist between man and woman; we force all the bourgeois parties like the bourgeois Women’s Righters, to acknowledge their colours even on the question of Woman Suffrage.
The demand for Woman Suffrage must consequently be bound up with all our fights for the suffrage. That has always been done in Germany. We carried on the fight for the suffrage as a fight for equal rights for adult man and woman, and will continue to do so. We Social-Democratic women decline to put the interests of our sex over the interests of the proletarian class in their fight. We do not advocate a specially Social-Democratic Woman Suffrage action. We only demand that our women comrades should do their duty in the general fight for Adult Suffrage. fig We do not advocate a specially Social-Democratic Woman Suffrage action. We only demand that our women comrades should do their duty in the general fight for Adult Suffrage. That is the most effective weapon to fight with for their full right as citizens. We are persuaded that thereby the masses of the proletariat will be mobolised for the Woman Suffrage.
We know that not in a short time is the victory of Woman Suffrage to be obtained, but we create the most efficient conditions for such a victory through revolutionising hundreds of thousands of heads. We fight our fight not as a struggle between the sexes but as a fight the political oppressive power of the propertied classes, as a fight against which we carry on in the last resort with all the exploited, all the disinherited, without distinction of sex, a fight whose importance lies before all in the fact that it brings to the mass of the proletariat the knowledge of their historical mission and their social power. If, one day, the historical development of economic and political life has advanced far enough, then can the proletariat as a whole, without distinction of sex–thanks to deep-seated knowledge–cry to every slave-making power of the capitalist social order. “It lies in my hand; a blow from me — a move forward — and see, the building falls, whose pinnacle thou art!”
[Clara Zetkin then proposed the following resolution: — ]
The demand for Woman Suffrage arises from the economic and social transformation caused by the capitalist system of production, especially, however, from the revolutionising of woman’s labour, of her position and her mind. It is by its nature a consequence of the bourgeois democratic principle, which calls for the setting side of all social distinctions that do not rest on property, and proclaims in the sphere of public as well as of private life the complete legal equality of all adults as a right of personality. For this reason Woman Suffrage has always been demanded by individual thinkers in connection with every struggle which the bourgeoisie ever took up for the democratisation of political rights as a necessary condition of their political emancipation and class rule. Efficient force as a demand from the masses has, however, first accrued to it from the increasing number of women who have to earn their living, and especially owing to the numbers of the female proletariat who have been drawn into the modern industry. Woman Suffrage is necessarily bound up with the economic emancipation of woman from the household and her economic independence of the family on the strength of her activity as an earner.
From the standpoint of principle the active and passive suffrage means for the female sex, as a whole, the recognition of their social maturity; from the practical point of view it is the means to obtain political power, so as to remove the legal and social hindrances which stand in the way of the development of woman’s life and activity. But owing to the class antagonisms, which are just as influential in the world of women as in that of men, the value and main object of the suffrage is different for women of the different classes. The value of the suffrage as a weapon in the social struggle is in inverse proportion to the size of the property possessed by the individual and the social power conferred by that property. Its principal object differs, according to the class position: it is either the complete legal equality of the female sex, or it is the social emancipation of the proletariat through the conquest of political power for the purpose of abolishing class-rule and bringing about the Socialist society which alone affords a guarantee for the complete emancipation of woman as a human being.
In consequence of the class antagonisms between women, the bourgeois woman’s movement does not march united, with closed ranks and the highest development of force, in support of Universal Woman Suffrage. The proletarian women, consequently, must rely on their own strength and on that of their class for the conquest of their full political rights. The practical needs of their struggle for emancipation, together with their historic insight and sense of justice, make the proletariat the most consistent champion of the complete political emancipation of the female sex. The Social-Democracy, as the political fighting organisation of the class-conscious proletariat supports, therefore, Woman Suffrage both in principle and in practice. The question of Woman Suffrage gains increases importance as the class-war increased in severity. In the ruling reactionary parties the tendency grows to strengthen the political power of property by the introduction of a limited Woman Suffrage. For the proletariat the necessity grows of revolutionising the minds and of placing their adult members, without distinction of sex, well armed in the front of the battle. The fight for Universal Woman Suffrage is the best means of making the situation serve the interest of the proletariat’s struggle for emancipation.
In accordance with these considerations of the fourth Conference of Socialist Women at Mannheim declares: In the struggle which the proletariat is fighting for the introduction of the Universal, Equal, Secret and Direct Suffrage, for local administration and Parliament, Woman Suffrage must be demanded, maintained as a principle in the agitation, and fought for with all energy.
The Women’s Conference further declares it to be the duty of the women comrades to take an active part in the political suffrage struggles and to bring into them the mass of the women proletariat as co-fighters. On the other hand, they must likewise strive with all energy to have the demand for Woman Suffrage brought forward in these struggles with the requisite emphasis.
Translation by Jacques Bourbonne.
Source: Clara Zetkin, Woman Suffrage, (London: Twentieth Century Press), 1906, pp. 1-24.