Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Remembering Clara Zetkin

By Kathy Durkin
Published Mar 28, 2010 10:12 PM

In late August 1910, 100 women gathered at the Workers’ Assembly Hall in Copenhagen, Denmark. Theirs was a historic meeting, the Second International Socialist Women’s Conference.

Delegates from 16 European countries and the U.S. representing trade unions, women’s organizations and socialist parties supported universal women’s suffrage and women workers’ rights, including the 8-hour day, maternity leave and health insurance.

Their unanimous vote instituted an annual International Women’s Day, to be commemorated globally with coordinated actions of solidarity and struggle among women workers. The delegates were inspired by New York City struggles led mainly by women immigrant workers — a 1908 demonstration and the 1909 three-month garment workers’ strike, “the uprising of the 20,000.”

The delegates also felt stirrings of women workers in their own countries. European women had been pouring into the workforce, hired to do low-paid, unsafe and horrific jobs, as growing capitalist economies needed their labor power. Determined to fight for political and economic rights when they had none, women workers joined unions and socialist organizations at a time of great political mobilizing and ferment.

On International Women’s Day, just one year after its founding, 1 million women marched throughout Europe for jobs and an end to discrimination.

The Copenhagen conference’s chairperson and IWD’s founder was Clara Zetkin, a leader of the left wing of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), which was a strong force in the Socialist International. She headed the International Women’s Secretariat.

An adamant fighter for working women, Zetkin had agitated for 21 years to establish IWD. For 25 years she edited the SPD’s magazine for working women, “Equality” (“Die Gleichheit”), which had 80,000 readers in 1910.

Zetkin saw IWD as a way to build solidarity among women workers of different countries while they fought for their rights as workers. By building these international bonds, she also sought to break down the walls of national chauvinism and encourage anti-war sentiment.

This came to fruition, as women organized and marched all over Europe on IWD in 1913 and 1914 to protest the looming world war.

Zetkin sought to raise class consciousness among women workers, to build the working-class movement, and to push the class struggle forward to challenge capitalism, which she saw as the source of women’s oppression and exploitation. She aimed to win political women workers to a socialist perspective, which she saw as critical to building the anti-capitalist movement.

Illuminating the strong role women workers play in the class struggle, Russian textile workers led a 90,000-member strike for “peace, land and bread” on IWD in 1917, which led to the czar’s ouster. This paved the way for a workers’ revolution which established the Soviet Union, the first country to legalize women’s equality in 1921.

Zetkin had many conversations with Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin that demonstrated a high level of understanding of women’s oppression. They discussed what concrete steps to take to bring about women’s emancipation under socialism.

Internationalism then and now

As a principled internationalist, Zetkin fiercely opposed imperialist war. She, along with her close friend Rosa Luxemberg and others in the SPD’s left wing, defied their party’s pro-war majority and declared their opposition to Germany’s entry into World War I.

Zetkin was jailed repeatedly for her opposition to the war. In 1915 she organized the International Socialist Women’s Conference in Berne, Switzerland, which was attended by delegates from warring countries who called for peace.

In 1915 the British journal “Labour Women” wrote, “[Zetkin] is socialist in her very fiber and she is a fighter ready to face death rather than give way in any issue of import in the people’s struggle.” (www.greenleft.org.au)

After the war Zetkin left the SPD and was one of the founders of a new German Communist Party.

Zetkin deplored the injustice of racism and protested U.S. Jim Crow laws. In the 1930s she joined the international campaign against the convictions of the Scottsboro defendants, nine African-American youth who were being railroaded to prison and execution.

In 1932, as German fascism menaced, Zetkin, despite death threats, addressed the Aug. 30 opening of the Parliament (Reichstag) as a CP delegate. Nearly blind at age 75, Zetkin began the session with a one-hour militant denunciation of war and fascism.

After the CP was outlawed in Germany, which was only months after Zetkin’s final stand in Berlin, she went to the Soviet Union, where she passed away in 1933.

The world has changed a great deal since Zetkin founded IWD in 1910. Struggles persist against imperialist war, high food prices and for working women’s and children’s needs.

However, decades of colonialism, imperialism and national oppression — with the underdevelopment of continents; theft of land and resources; and global exploitation of labor, including forced migration and sweatshops — have greatly broadened the Copenhagen demands of 1910.

A global socialist women’s conference today would first invite women from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean — those whose countries have been oppressed by capitalist exploitation and imperialist war and occupation. Invited would be working and oppressed women from all communities in the U.S. — women who toil in the offices, factories and fields — documented and undocumented; the unemployed; those hit by foreclosures and evictions; those without health care, child care or adequate food; youth, seniors, the disabled and prisoners.

Their grievances and issues would be heard and demands formulated. That conference would strongly oppose racism, anti-immigrant biases, sexism, lesbian/gay/bi and trans oppression and all bigotry.

Clara Zetkin was right on these counts that are ever more timely: International solidarity among working women is essential, as is the urgent need for women to organize to get rid of capitalism and fight for socialism.

That is the legacy of 100 years of International Women’s Day.

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