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Women’s Right to Vote

August 18, 1907 — International Socialist Congress, Stuttgart, Germany


The International Socialist Congress welcomes joyfully the fact that for the first time an International Socialist Women’s Conference has congregated at Stuttgart and it expresses solidarity with the demands made at that Conference. The Socialist parties of all countries are obligated to fight energetically for the introduction of the universal suffrage for women. Their battles waged on behalf of the proletariat’s suffrage leading to the democratization of the legislative state and county governing bodies must be simultaneously waged as battles for women’s suffrage, which is to be demanded energetically in the propaganda campaigns as well as in the parliaments. In countries where the
democratization of men’s suffrage has already progressed very far or has been accomplished, the Socialist parties must take up the battle for the introduction of universal women’s suffrage. They must, of course, at the same time support all demands which are still made in the interests of full civil rights for the male proletariat. It is the duty of the Socialist women’s movements of all countries to participate with all of their energy in all battles waged by the Socialist parties for the democratization of the suffrage, but also to employ the same amount of energy to take part in all battles in which the demand for universal women’s suffrage is seriously raised on the basis of its fundamental importance and practical significance. The International Congress recognizes the inappropriateness for every country to announce a timetable for the commencement of the voting rights campaign but, at the same time, it declares that wherever a struggle is to be waged for the right to vote, it must be conducted only according to Socialist principles, i.e., with the demand for universal suffrage for both women and men.

I must report to you about the deliberations of the Commission on Women’s Suffrage and the resolution before you which was also adopted by the First International Socialist Conference by a vote of 47 to 11. The Socialist women do not consider the women’s right to vote as the most significant question, whose solution will remove all social obstacles which exist in the path of the free and harmonious development and activity of the female sex. That is because it does not touch upon the deepest cause: Private property in which is rooted the exploitation and suppression of one human being by another. This is clearly illustrated by the situation of the politically emancipated, yet socially suppressed and exploited male proletariat. The granting of suffrage to the female sex does not eliminate the class differences between the exploiters and the exploited from which are derived the most serious social obstacles to the free and harmonious development of the female proletarian. It also does not eliminate the conflicts which are created for women as members of their sex from the social contradictions that occur between men and women within the capitalist system. On the contrary: The complete political equality of the female sex prepares the ground on which the conflicts will be fought with the greatest intensity. These conflicts are varied, but the most serious and painful one is the conflict between professional work and motherhood. For us Socialists, therefore, women’s suffrage cannot be the “final goal” as it is for bourgeois women. However, we yearn most fervently for its acquisition as one phase of the battle towards our final goal. The obtainment of suffrage aids the bourgeois women to tear down the barriers in the form of male prerogatives which tend to limit their educative and professional opportunities. It arms the female proletarians in their battle against class exploitation and class rule, in their effort to acquire their full humanity. It enables them to participate to a higher degree than heretofore in the attainment of political power by the proletariat, for the purpose of erecting a Socialist order which alone will solve the women’s question.

We Socialists do not demand women’s suffrage as a natural right with which women are born. We demand it as a social right which is anchored in the revolutionized economic activity and in the revolutionized social state and personal consciousness of women. Capitalist production has sent the domestically employed housewife of the good old days to an old-age home. The professional woman, especially the salaried woman who stands right at the center of the economic life of society, has taken her place and become the typical form which female economic activity represents in its most essential social capacity. The professional and trade statistics of all capitalist countries reflect this change. That which women at an earlier time produced within their four walls served the consumption and the welfare of their family. Today, whatever streams out of her industrious hands, whatever her brain thinks of that is useful, acceptable and pleasant, appear as goods on the social market. Millions of women themselves appear as sellers of their labor, the most important social good on society’s labor market. Thus a revolution is wrought in her position within the family and society. The woman is detached from the household as the source of her livelihood and she gains her independence from her family and her husband. In many case, too, the family no longer offers her a satisfactory meaning of life. Just like the man under equally hard conditions (and at times under even more difficult ones), she has to take up the fight for the vital necessities against a hostile environment. She needs for this, just like the man, her full political rights because such rights are weapons with which she can and must defend her interests. Together with her social being, her world of perception and thought is being revolutionized. The political impotence which the female sex accepted as natural for so many centuries is [now] viewed by her as an outrageous injustice. By a slow, painful developmental process, women are emerging from the narrowness of family life to the forum of political activity. They are demanding their full political equality as it is symbolized by suffrage as a vital social necessity and a social emancipation. The obtainment of suffrage is the necessary corollary to the economic independence of women.

One would assume that in view of this situation, the entire politically disenfranchised female sex would form one phalanx to fight for universal women’s suffrage. But that is not the case at all. The bourgeois women do not even stand united and determined behind the principle of the full political equality of the female sex. They are even more reluctant to fight energetically, as one united force, for universal women’s suffrage. In the final analysis, this is not due to the ignorance and shortsighted tactics of the leaders of the suffragettes’ camp, even though they can be correctly blamed for a number of deficiencies. It is the inevitable consequence of the diverse social strata to which women belong. The value of enfranchisement stands in a reverse relationship to the size of the estate. It is of least importance to the women of the Upper Ten Thousand and it means the most to the female proletarians. Thus the struggle for women’s suffrage, too, is dominated by class contradictions and class struggle. There cannot be a unified struggle for the entire sex, particularly when this battle does not relate to a bloodless principle, but rather to the concrete and vital question of the women’s right to vote. We cannot expect bourgeois women to proceed against their very nature. The female proletarians in their struggle for civil rights cannot, therefore, count on the support of the bourgeois women because the class contradictions preclude that female proletarians will join the bourgeois suffragette movement. All of this does not mean that they should reject the bourgeois suffragettes who want to march behind them or at their side in the battle for the women’s right to vote. They may march separately but fight together. But the female proletarians must know that they cannot acquire the right to vote in a struggle of the female sex without class distinctions against the male sex. No, it must be a class struggle of all the exploited without differences of sex against all exploiters no matter what sex they belong to.

In their fight for the attainment of universal women’s suffrage, the proletarian women find strong allies in the Socialist parties of all countries. The advocacy of universal women’s suffrage by the Socialist parties is not based on ideological and ethical considerations. It is dictated by historical perception but, above all, by an understanding of the class situation as well as the practical battle needs of the proletariat. This proletariat cannot fight its economic and political battles without the participation of its women who, awakened to class consciousness, organized and trained, have been equipped with social rights. Due to the increased employment of women in industry, movements that fight for increased wages can be successful only if they include female workers who have become trained and organized class fighters. But political work, the political work of the proletariat, must also be shared by women. The intensification of the class struggle between the exploiters and the exploited increases the significance of the awakening of class consciousness in women and their participation in the proletarian movement of emancipation. Contrary to the expectations of bourgeois fools, the strengthening of trade union organizations has not resulted in social peace but in an era of gigantic lockouts and strikes. The resolute involvement of the proletariat in the political life has led to the sharpest intensification of the political battle, an intensification which has led to new methods and means of combat. In Belgium and Holland, the proletariat had to complement its parliamentary struggle by the political mass strike. In Russia it tried the same weapon during the revolution with the greatest success. In order to grasp the suffrage reform from its enemies, the Austrian proletariat had to keep the revolutionary weapon of the mass strike in readiness. Gigantic strikes and gigantic lockouts, especially, however, revolutionary mass strikes, call for the greatest sacrifices on the part of the proletariat. It cannot, like the possessing classes, devolve these sacrifices upon hirelings and it cannot pay for them out of a well-filled purse. These are sacrifices that every member of this class must personally bear. That is why these sacrifices can only be made if the proletarian women, too, are filled with historical insight into the necessity and the significance of them. Just how significant and indispensable it is that the female proletariat be imbued with Socialist convictions from which a willingness to sacrifice and heroism flow, has just been demonstrated by the brilliant Austrian suffrage battle. It would not have ended victoriously without the active participation of the proletarian women. It must be emphasized that the success of our Austrian brothers was to a considerable extent the result of the loyalty, hard work, willingness to sacrifice and courage displayed by our Austrian women comrades. 

This brief sketch shows that the proletariat has a vital stake in the political equality of the female sex and that it must fight for the full civil rights for women. This battle arouses the women masses and helps them to acquire a sense of class consciousness. The granting of women’s suffrage is the prerequisite for the resolute participation of women proletarians in the proletarian class struggle. At the same time, it creates the strongest incentive to awaken, gather and train the female proletariat with the same fervor as the enlightenment and organization of the male proletariat is being pursued. As long as women are politically disenfranchised, they are frequently viewed as powerless and the influence which they exercise upon political life is underestimated. At the stock exchange of parliamentary life, only the ballot possesses an exchange value. The shortsighted individuals who view the political struggle only within the framework of ballots and mandates view the efforts to arouse the female proletariat to a class-conscious life merely as a kind of amusement and luxury which Social-Democracy should only indulge in if it possesses an excess of time, energy and money. They overlook the proletariat’s compelling class interest in seeing to it that the class struggle also develops within the women’s world so that the female proletarians will fight resolutely alongside their brothers. From the moment when women will be emancipated and capable of casting their votes, this interest will become clear to even the most shortsighted individual in our ranks. A race will begin by all parties to obtain the votes of the female proletarians since they constitute the majority of the female sex. The Socialist parties then must make sure that their enlightenment campaign will keep away all the bourgeois parties and their fight for the attainment of civil rights by women must work in that direction. This has been proven by the history of the suffrage battle in Finland and by the first suffrage campaign there which was conducted in a situation in which both men and women had the right to vote. Women’s suffrage is an excellent means to push forward into the last, and perhaps the strongest, bulwark of the ignorant masses: The political indifference and backwardness of broad segments of the female proletariat, This fortress aggravates and hurts our current proletarian struggle and threatens the future of our class. That is why we have to do away with it. 

In these days of intensified class struggle, the question arises: For what kind of women’s suffrage should the Socialist parties fight? Years ago, this question would hardly have mattered. One would have answered: For women’s suffrage, period. Then too, limited women’s suffrage was regarded as an imperfection and insufficient progress, but still it was viewed as the first phase of the political emancipation of the female sex. Today this naive concept is no longer justified. Today the Socialist parties must emphatically declare that they can only fight for universal women’s suffrage and that they decisively reject limited women’s suffrage as a falsification and mockery of the principle of the equality of women. What was previously done instinctively — by the introduction of limited women’s rights in order to strengthen the position of property—is now done consciously. Two tendencies are at work within the bourgeois parties that will break the fundamental resistance against the women’s suffrage: The rising external and internal difficulties of large circles of the bourgeois women’s world that have to fight for their civil rights and the growing fear of the political advances of the fighting proletariat. In such a situation, the introduction of limited women’s suffrage appears as a saving alternative. The proletariat is slated to pay for the costs of maintaining the peace between the men and women of the possessing classes. The possessing classes consider the introduction of limited women’s suffrage because they view it as a protective wall against the increasing power of the fighting proletariat. This was first demonstrated by the events in Norway. When universal suffrage in respect to local elections could no longer be denied to the attacking proletariat which was fighting under the leadership of Social-Democracy, this reform was vitiated by the introduction of limited women’s suffrage. Bourgeois politicians declared candidly that the limited suffrage for women is designed as a counterweight to the universal suffrage for men. 

We regard the limited women’s suffrage not so much as the first step towards the emancipation of the female sex, [but] as the final step towards the political emancipation of property. It is a privilege of property and not a universal right. It does not emancipate the female because she is a woman, but rather in spite of the fact that she is a woman. It does not not raise her to full citizenship because of her personality but because of her wealth and income. Thus it leaves the great majority of the female sex disenfranchised and it simply credits this disenfranchisement to another account. But beyond the disenfranchised female proletarians, it hits their entire class. It represents a plural vote for the propertied class and strengthens its political power. That is why it is not accurate to view limited women’s suffrage as a practical step towards the eventual political emancipation of female proletarians by universal suffrage. On the contrary, by increasing the political power of the proprietary class, it strengthens the reactionary forces which oppose the further democratization of the suffrage in favor of the proletariat and without distinction of sex. One more thing: It allows the pacified bourgeois women to drop out of the battle for political equality of the entire female sex. There is not one country in which the administrative and legislative bodies have been elected by limited women’s suffrage where the politically emancipated women have fought with all of their strength for the civil rights of their poor sisters and for universal women’s suffrage. The more the tendency of reaction grows to use the introduction of limited women’s suffrage as a bulwark against the rising power of the proletariat, the more necessary it becomes to enlighten the female proletarians about this phenomenon. It must be prevented that the female proletarians allow themselves to be abused for a crime against themselves and their class under the motto: Justice for the female sex so that it may perform as servants and serfs.

Our demand for the women’s right to vote is no suffragettes’ request, but a mass and class demand of the proletariat. It is theoretically and practically the important organic part of the entire Social-Democratic suffrage program. Therefore, there must not only be constant propaganda for this demand but the demand must become the centerpiece of all suffrage battles which the Socialist parties are conducting on behalf of political democracy. A majority of the Commission shared this opinion and decided that every voting rights battle must also be fought as a battle for women’s suffrage. Proletarian women and proletarian men will be the winners of this common fight. This was proven above all by the suffrage campaign in Finland. The majority of the Commission could not share the opinion that the demand for women’s suffrage should under certain circumstances be withdrawn, for tactical reasons and without a fight, from the voting rights campaigns of the proletariat. The proprietary classes assume a twilight of the gods attitude towards any suffrage demand by the proletariat. They view even the most modest democratization of suffrage as the beginning of the end of their class’ splendor and put up the fiercest resistance. It is not the character and the extent of the Socialist suffrage demands which will decide the outcome of the battle, but the power relationship between the exploiting and the exploited classes. It is not our clever modesty and restraint which will assure us victories, but the power of the proletariat which stands behind our demands.

In consequence, the question arises: Is the broaching of our entire suffrage program, especially the demand for women’s suffrage, suited to strengthen the power of the Socialist party and the proletariat? In all seriousness and with great emphasis, we answer this question in the affirmative. The more principled [that] Social-Democracy conducts its suffrage battles, the more thoroughly it will stir up and revolutionize broad strata of the population and fill them with confidence in the earnestness and faithfulness of its actions, which will lead to enthusiasm for its fighting goals. What will be repeated will be the old fable of the rods which cannot be broken because they are tied together in a bundle. The more numerous the politically disenfranchised whose interest Social-Democracy represents in its suffrage battle, the more numerous the disinherited who expect the obtainment of their rights from its victory, the more swells the army of female and male combatants who will help to fight our Socialist battles. And must not a demand have this effect when it concerns itself with the civil rights of one-half of the entire nation’s proletariat, the half that the citizens are supposed to educate but from whose council they have been excluded while they are pounding on the gates of parliament? The suffrage battle that Social-Democracy also wages on behalf of women’s rights gains a broader basis, a more comprehensive aim and a greater thrust and drive. It forces people to take issue with ancient, deep-rooted prejudices and it therefore shakes up the masses. Finally, it carries uncertainty, confusion and disunion into the camp of the enemy. It causes the social contradiction between the men and women of the proprietary classes to come to the fore.

We are convinced, therefore, that it lies in the very class interest of the proletariat that the Socialist parties must go beyond the mere recognition of the principle of women’s suffrage and that they must take up the battle to change principle into practice. Which is not to say that the Social-Democracy of whatever country should commence an electoral battle for women’s suffrage at an inappropriate moment. Nor ought it be the case that women’s suffrage should constitute the leading issue in every electoral campaign or that electoral campaigns must be conducted with the motto: Women’s suffrage or bust! The role which women’s suffrage ought to play depends upon the entire historical background of each country. As far as the suffrage is concerned, the Socialist parties must fight for all demands that they raise on principle in the interest of the proletariat. They will carry home as loot as much as they are able to wrest from the enemy. What is important is that women’s suffrage must be emphatically demanded in the course of agitation among the masses or in parliament, and the intensity of the demand must correspond to the importance of the subject. We are aware of the fact that in most countries the conquest of women’s suffrage will not occur from one day to the next because of such action. On the other hand, we also know that it is just such an action which will make preparations for a future victory.

In the proletarian battle for the civil rights of the female sex, the Socialist women must be the driving force, not only by participating with all of their energy in the proletarian suffrage battles but also by persuading the mass of female proletarians to become their co-fighters. By incorporating the masses of female proletarians into the ranks of the fighting brothers, they prove two things, i.e., that the masses of women themselves desire the right to vote and that the female proletarians are mature enough to use the suffrage correctly. Let us step forward without hesitation to battle for women’s suffrage. It serves to arouse the female proletariat to a class-conscious political life which is of the highest significance for the present and future of the proletariat and its war of liberation. Not the patient bearer of crosses, not the dull slave, but the resolute fighting woman will raise a generation of strong male and female fighters. With every reason, the woman can state that avengers will rise from her bones, children who were nourished by the bold thoughts of her brain and the passionate wishes of her heart, male and female fighters who will not only replace her one day, but even surpass her as far as their battle virtues are concerned.



Source: The International Socialist Congress at Stuttgart, August 18, 1907, (Berlin) 1907, pp. 40-47.


Also: Clara Zetkin: Selected Writing, ed. Philip S. Foner (New York: international Publishers) 1984, pp. 98-104, 107.