The Communist Women’s Movement

1921–26

WHEN WE celebrate International Women’s Day, we often refer to its origins in US labor struggles early in the last century. Less often mentioned, however, is how it was relaunched and popularized in the 1920s by the Communist Women’s Movement. Moreover, this movement itself has been almost forgotten, as have most of its central leaders.

Origins
The Communist Women’s Movement, like the March 8 celebration of International Women’s Day, had twin roots in both the pre-1914 Socialist Women’s Movement and the Russian Revolution. International Women’s Day was first proclaimed in Copenhagen in 1910 by a socialist women’s conference of one hundred delegates from seventeen countries, led by Clara Zetkin.1 Following the Socialist International’s collapse in 1914, the Socialist Women’s Movement, acting on the initiative of Bolshevik women leaders and Clara Zetkin, held the first international socialist conference opposed to the imperialist war in March 1915. The conference issued an antiwar manifesto, two hundred thousand copies of which were circulated underground in Germany.2

Meanwhile, International Women’s Day survived as a form of antiwar protest. An International Women’s Day celebration ignited the February Russian Revolution. The victory of Russian workers and peasants in the October Revolution led to a decisive breakthrough for women’s emancipation, going far beyond what had then been achieved anywhere else.

When the Bolsheviks and their international co-thinkers launched the Communist International (Comintern) in 1919, its founding congress declared that the new International’s goals could only be met “with the energetic and active participation of working-class women.”3 The following year, a conference of Communist women from about twenty countries, held in conjunction with the Second Comintern Congress, adopted an appeal and a rounded programmatic statement.4

Structure and function
The Communist Women’s Movement was founded by a world gathering of Communist women in 1921, who elected a leadership, the International Women’s Secretariat, that reported to the Executive of the Comintern. It also initiated the formation of women’s commissions in national parties that coordinated work by women’s bodies on a branch level and called periodic international conferences of Communist women. The Secretariat published a monthly journal as well as Communist women’s publications nationally and locally. It also brought resolutions to Comintern world congresses.

That, at least, was the blueprint. Transforming vision into reality was difficult. Women were then only beginning to emerge into citizenship and political activity. According to Clara Zetkin, the few women activists in the pre-1914 Socialist International, despite their considerable achievements, were “treated as a form of domestic help.”5 Marxism was forthright in advocating women’s equality, but practice fell short of theory.

Even in the Comintern, Zetkin wrote in 1921, “leaders all too often underrate the importance” of the Communist women’s movement, because “they see it as only ‘women’s business.’”6 For example, the French Communist Party established national women’s structures in January 1921, but abolished them only ten months later. In each of the Comintern world congresses of 1920, 1921, and 1922, women encountered problems winning time to present and discuss their report. Women also met obstacles at the 1920 Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East, but made striking progress.7

Yet on the whole, despite what Zetkin termed “open or covert opposition,”8 party structures for work among women were in fact established in those years in almost all European countries where Communists could work legally. Much credit for this achievement is due to the women heading up this work. They were probably the most able and resilient international leadership team produced by the Comintern. Alongside Zetkin, the most respected non-Russian Communist leader, worked Hertha Sturm and Bertha Braunthal of Germany, Marthe Bigot and Lucie Colliard of France, Henriette Roland-Holst of the Netherlands, Dora Montefiore of Britain, Hanna Malm and Aino Kuusinen of Finland, Edda Tennenboom of Poland, and Varsenika Kasparova and Klavdiia Nikolaeva of Russia, among others.9 Almost all were to become opponents or victims of Stalinism.

Their journal, Communist Women’s International, was a formidable educational tool that published 1,300 pages over its five years of existence. No advice on childcare here; no recipes. Each issue contained several articles on the women’s movements and women’s rights activity both within and without the Communist International, as well as analysis of working-class politics as a whole. These were supplemented by reports on women’s conditions in Soviet Russia and on the activity of Communist women in different countries.

The writing is talented and often poetic, as in the following portrayal of working people in war-devastated Europe:

Those who reap the crops and bake the bread are hungry.
Those who weave and sew cannot clothe their bodies.
Those who create the nourishing foundation of all culture waste away, deprived of knowledge and beauty.10

Edited by Zetkin, the journal expressed the thinking of the Comintern’s most consistent defenders of its policy of the united front.

The first issue of Communist Women’s International proudly proclaimed that its name expressed the journal’s essence as “the common international organ of the Communist Women’s Movement of all countries.”11 Its supporters did not use the term “Communist Women’s International” to refer to their movement, but the name continued to appear like a proud banner on the front page of their journal.

The work of the Women’s Movement centered around two main world campaigns: to build International Women’s Day and to support International Workers’ Aid for Soviet Russia, emphasizing its aid to Soviet women. In the winter and spring of 1922–23, the women’s secretariat in Berlin also led campaigns on inflation, the war danger, and education; against anti-abortion laws; and against fascism, working directly with women’s commissions of Comintern parties.12

Movement or subcommittee?
Yet despite this record of energetic and effective work, the nature of the Communist Women’s Movement is hard to pin down. Was it a women’s movement? Or was it an array of party committees carrying out party tasks?

To approach an answer, we must consider the state of the class struggle at the time it was formed and the resulting tasks for the Communist movement as a whole. The Communist Women’s Movement was founded during the greatest revolutionary upsurge the world has ever seen. “Capitalism is experiencing its global crisis,” Zetkin wrote in 1921. This is no passing phase, she added, but a “global catastrophe that will bring capitalism to an end.” But although the “objective conditions are present,” she stated, “the development of consciousness among the proletarians, the productive masses, has fallen behind.” The urgent task, therefore, was for the Communist movement to win the masses—and, specifically, the masses of women.13

“Win the masses!” Zetkin was formulating here the general line adopted a few months later, after a fractious debate, by the Comintern world congress. Clearly, this was not a time to focus on a process of reforms. The Communist Women’s Movement aimed to win women, rapidly, to the Communist movement for an approaching and decisive confrontation.

The women leaders saw that this could not be done without special commissions set up for the task. As Zetkin pointed out on another occasion, women’s social conditions create a “special female psychology” such that women themselves are “the quickest, most astute, and most effective in recognizing the key issues in the life of working women.”14

On another occasion, Zetkin wrote that masses of women were now seized by “new longings, desires, impulses, needs, that before were hidden.”15 She might have added “and that, for men, are still hidden.” Communists of this period rarely used the term “women’s oppression,” yet the concept seems alive in their thought and action.

It was not enough to build broad action coalitions to influence the masses, although this was necessary. The goal was to bring women into the party and train them as cadres and leaders. In most parties, this was a new project that meant confronting chauvinist pressures that were excluding women from the revolutionary movement. It meant integrating into the party the large Communist women’s auxiliaries that had grown up in some countries.

In 1925, when the Communist Women’s Movement was under attack by bureaucratic forces in the Comintern, Zetkin restated these concepts in the form of an account of her discussions with Lenin five years earlier. She quoted Lenin as voicing her well-known view: “We must by all means set up a powerful international women’s movement on a clear-cut theoretical basis.” Later in their discussion, Lenin added, “We want no separate organizations of Communist women!” Such “separate organizations” then functioned in several countries as “women’s auxiliaries,” excluding women from party membership. “She who is a Communist belongs as a member to the Party,” Lenin insisted, with “the same rights and duties.” But the party needs special organs “with the specific purpose of rousing the broad masses of women.”16

The commissions were open to all party members, and men were encouraged to join. In fact, men generally stayed away. But they did exert pressure on priorities. Lenin, for example, told Zetkin that at meetings with working women, Communists should not let “sex and marriage problems come first.”17 Zetkin argued back vigorously. And we can be sure that, whatever the formal agenda, such meetings provided the occasion for what a later generation called “consciousness raising.”

Large numbers of women were recruited. The proportion of women among party members ranged from a high of 20 percent in Czechoslovakia and Norway down to about 2 percent in France and Italy. In Germany and Russia, it rose gradually in the 1920s to 17 percent and 14 percent, respectively.18 The absolute numbers were high: more than a hundred thousand women were members of the Communist International.

Program for liberation
These women were won to a program “to secure for all women complete and unrestricted social rights, so that. . .they can develop every aspect of their full human personality,” according to a Comintern statement drafted by the women leaders. The ultimate cause of women’s inferiority, it stated, is private property, through which “women become the property of the man.” Women will be free when they are “integrated into the social production of a new order free of exploitation and subjugation” and no longer “economically dependent on men” or on capitalists.19

The Comintern’s program for women’s emancipation included “total equality of rights in law and practice,” integration of women into political life, the right to free education and medical care, social measures to ease the burden of housework and childcare, and measures to “do away with the sexual double standard for men and women.”20

Given the depths of women’s subjugation at the time, this might seem pure utopianism. The Communist women, however, pointed to women’s dramatic gains in Soviet Russia, where women had been legal slaves to their husbands and fathers before the revolution. As one of its first actions, the Soviet government had abolished all legal pillars of male supremacy. Its proclaimed goals were marriage as a free union, women’s emancipation through social labor, the socialization of housework, and the withering away of the nuclear family.

Under Soviet rule, women could marry freely and obtain a divorce on request. Gay sexuality was no longer a crime. The concept of illegitimacy was abolished. From 1920, abortion was available legally and without cost in medical institutions. Substantial resources were allocated to easing burdens on women, including through the establishment of childcare centers and communal kitchens.

A branch of the Communist Party, the celebrated Zhenotdel or women’s division, deployed thousands of full-time women workers to see to the implementation of these rights in life. The women’s delegate movement, a kind of women’s soviet structure, embraced sixty thousand elected women’s representatives in 1922, thousands of whom were seconded to work in public administration or attend workers’ universities.21

Some socialist feminists today consider that the Russian Communists’ approach undervalued the importance of household labor and of convincing men to share in these tasks.22 In Soviet Russia, a more urgent problem was the lack of material resources to convert these rights into realities. Nonetheless, Soviet Russia’s charter for women’s rights was decades ahead of any capitalist country. The Communist Women’s Movement pointed to Russia as proof of what women would gain under workers’ rule.

“Our bodies belong to us”
The Comintern’s manifesto for women’s emancipation omits mention of women’s reproductive rights. Nonetheless, Communist women campaigned on these issues with success.

Communist women in that period viewed childbearing as a social responsibility and sought to assist “poor women who would like to experience motherhood as the highest joy.” At a time when birth control was advocated by many as a means for population control and eugenics, they resisted attempts to browbeat women for having either too few or too many children. They regarded abortion as a symptom of social evils related to women’s poverty and subjugation. But anti-abortion laws, they held, brutally punished innocent women. The Communist women denounced the dreadful toll of illegal abortions and demanded abolition of all anti-abortion laws.23

In Germany, Communist women led a massive campaign against the anti-abortion law under the slogan “Your Body Belongs to You.”24

Violence against women is rarely mentioned in Communist women’s literature. However, they pointed to Soviet Russia’s measures to assure women freedom to marry and divorce at will and to work outside the home as steps toward freeing them from violent and oppressive relationships.

Absent from this literature, however, is any discussion of rape and sexual harassment.

The Communist women opposed punishment or harassment of prostitutes. They favored removing the economic causes of the sex trade through homes for jobless women, vocational training, and employment.25

United front
A resolution of the Third Comintern Congress in 1921 warned sternly that there was “no ‘special’ women’s question” or “special women’s movement,” and that “any alliance between working women and bourgeois feminism” was excluded.26 It would seem that the Comintern aimed to split women along class lines. However, the statements of the Communist Women’s Movement reveal a different policy.

True, the movement’s programmatic statement notes that the “demands of the bourgeois women’s movement” aim merely at “reforming the capitalist order for the benefit of wives and daughters of the possessing classes.” However, it stressed that radicalization among women reached into all social layers.

The Communist Women’s Movement noted that the “demands of the bourgeois women’s movement” aimed merely at “reforming the capitalist order for the benefit of wives and daughters of the possessing classes.” Yet the radicalization among women reached into all social layers. “Female employees, especially intellectuals. . .are growing rebellious. . .. More and more housewives, including bourgeois housewives, are awakening. . ..  We have to utilize the ferment,” Zetkin told the Comintern’s Fourth Congress.27

A year earlier, Zetkin explained to the previous world congress that “as long as capitalism rules, the stronger sex will threaten to deprive the weaker of livelihood and the means of life.” Bourgeois women, she insisted, can assist the struggle—fighting skirmishes while sowing unrest and turmoil in the bourgeois camp.28

In this spirit, assessments of non-proletarian women’s gatherings highlighted points of agreement that could be utilized for common action. Thus the Communist women’s journal, sizing up a Social Democratic women’s conference, noted “much sincere, able, and skilled endeavor for reform” of capitalism but “not a trace of will to struggle for its replacement.” Yet it challenged the Social Democratic women, at the very least, to join in electoral struggle to oust the capitalist governments.29

Similar was its praise of a pacifist organization, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which “arouses social conscience in bourgeois circles, mobilizes forces against the worst expressions of capitalism, encourages longing and desire for a better social order, plants seeds of new social values, and weakens the bourgeois camp.”30 Time would tell, the journal told readers, whether the desire for a new social order in this organization would outweigh its ties to the old.

The same approach was evident in its approach to midwifery—then the only professional career open to a significant number of women. The German Communist Martha Arendsee praised a struggle against a German law on midwifery conducted jointly by women’s organizations and midwives, and hailed members of this traditionally very conservative profession who have formed a trade union.31

In another context, the journal predicted that through the united front, many women, both working-class and privileged, who still shied away from slogans of proletarian dictatorship “will be present, in joy and determination, to assert their rights as mothers to social welfare, health, and the lives of their children.”32

The Communist women developed a new term for the victims of capitalism that made a subtle point regarding women. They spoke frequently of die Schaffenden, a German word combining the meaning of “producers” and “creators.” The Schaffenden, Zetkin said, are “all those whose labor, be it with hand or brain, increases the material and cultural heritage of humankind, without exploiting the labor of others.”33 Although Zetkin did not spell this out, the Communist women’s term implicitly includes household and childrearing labor as well as the labor of childbirth, attributing to it productive significance.

Dissolution of the Communist Women’s Movement
Born in 1921, the Communist Women’s Movement flourished for two and a half years and then was thrust into sharp decline by the rise of Stalinism.

Beginning in 1924, bureaucratic forces won the upper hand in the Comintern, initiating the process of its Stalinist degeneration. This course was expressed, initially, through an ultraleft course, rejecting the united front policies that Zetkin and her colleagues had advocated. Communist women leaders lost influence in the International. In mid-1925, publication of their journal was cancelled, supposedly because it was too costly. In 1926, the Communist women’s leadership was moved from Berlin to Moscow and it was downgraded from an autonomous secretariat to a department of the Comintern executive committee.34

In the next few years, most of the Communist women leaders joined the anti-Stalinist oppositions led by Leon Trotsky, Grigory Zinoviev, and Nikolai Bukharin.

The Soviet Zhenotdel was shut down in 1930. Women’s commissions elsewhere lasted a few years longer. By the middle of that decade, however, Stalinism imposed a return to patriarchal values both in the Soviet Union and in Communist parties abroad.35 In France, for example, the Communists abandoned advocacy not only of women’s reproductive rights but even of their right to vote.36

Legacy of a revolutionary generation
In weighing the achievements of the Communist Women’s Movement, we must make allowance for a bias in the written sources, which show us what the Communist women chose to put on the record and do not fully reflect the spirit of their movement. For example, the women leaders’ candid perceptions of chauvinist attitudes within the Communist movement, and their progress in overcoming such obstacles, have gone unrecorded.

The Communist women’s most tangible achievement was to spread the ideas and impetus of women’s struggle for emancipation in Russia, and knowledge of these achievements, around the world, where this experience influenced the broader workers’ and women’s movements. In their understanding of women’s oppression and the road to liberation, this generation of revolutionary women marked a historical advance. They were children of their time, and on some questions their opinions missed the mark. On other issues, particularly their grasp of how women’s liberation interacts with revolution, their understanding and experience has not been surpassed.

The character of the Communist Women’s Movement—autonomous movement or party subcommittee—was ambiguous from start to finish. Its wisdom lay in accepting and managing that ambiguity. When bureaucratic forces ultimately imposed logical consistency by eliminating the movement’s autonomy, this signified its destruction.

The Communist women stood for the consistent pursuit of militant unity of the workers’ movement. They sought to unite women from all social layers who were prepared to actively oppose the evils of capitalism. They favored an adroit search for common ground with non-Communist currents among women and in the labor movement. In doing so, they played a significant role in shaping the leadership of the Communist International as a whole.

The example of their leadership is perhaps their most important legacy to us. The Communist Women’s Movement prefigured the leading role of women in movements for social progress both today and tomorrow.


  1. Gisela Notz, “Clara Zetkin und die internationale sozialistische Frauenbewegung,” in Clara Zetkin in ihrer Zeit: Neue Fakten, Erkenntnisse, Wertungen (Berlin: Karl Dietz Verlag, 2007).
  2. John Riddell, ed., Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1984), 276–79.
  3. Riddell, ed., Founding the Communist International (Pathfinder: New York, 1986), 250.
  4. Riddell, ed., Workers of the World and Oppressed People, Unite! Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920 (hereafter Second Congress), (New York: Pathfinder, 1991), vol. 2, 998.
  5. Protokoll des III. Kongresses der Kommunistischen Internatinale (hereafter Third Congress), (Hamburg: Verlag der Kommunistischen Internationale, 1921), 910.
  6. Kommunistische Fraueninternationale (hereafter KFI), vol. 1, no. 2–3 (1921), 55.
  7. At the Baku congress, “a proposal to elect three women to the Presiding Committee . . . aroused strong objections from some non-party delegates, and a lengthy debate ensured. When three women were unanimously elected to the committee in session 5, however, the entire congress rose to greet them in a thunderous ovation.” Riddell, ed., To See the Dawn: Baku 1920, First Congress of the Peoples of the East (Pathfinder: New York, 1993), 25.
  8. Third Congress, 910.
  9. Bernhard H. Bayerlein, “Zwischen Internationale und Gulag,” in International Newsletter of Communist Studies, vol. 12 (2006), no. 19, 27.
  10. KFI, vol. 2 (1922), no. 5–6, 519.
  11. KFI, vol. 1 (1921), no. 1, 3.
  12. Bericht der Executive der Kommunistischen Internationale, 15. Dezember 1922–15 Mai 1923, Moschos, Verlag des EKKI, 1923, 15-16; Bayerlein, 34.
  13. KFI, vol. 1, no. 2-3 (1921), 47–48.
  14. Riddell, ed. Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 (hereafter Fourth Congress), (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), 839.
  15. KFI, vol. 1, no. 1 (1921), 6.
  16. “Lenin on the Women’s Question,” available at www.marxists.org/archive/zetkin/1925/len....
  17. Ibid.
  18. Fourth Congress, 852; Bayerlein 36; Akina Grossmann, “German Communism and New Women,” in Helmut Gruber and Pamela Graves, eds., Women and Socialism: Socialism and Women (New York: Berghahn Books, 1998), 139.
  19. Second Congress, vol. 1, 977–78.
  20. Second Congress, vol. 2, 990–92.
  21. Fourth Congress, vol. 1, 350.
  22. See Wendy Goldman, Woman, the State, and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917–1936 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 11–12.
  23. See Ketty Guttman, “Zum internationalen Kampf gegen die Bestrafung der Abtreibung,” in KFI, vol. 3 (1923), no. 5, 959–68.
  24. Grossman, 142–44.
  25. KFI, “Massnahme zur Bekämpfung der Prostitution in Sowjetrussland,” in KFI, vol. 3 (1923), no. 2, 851–55.
  26. Alan Adler, ed., Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International (London: Inklinks, 1980), 215–16.
  27. Fourth Congress, 847.
  28. Third Congress, 911. The German word bürgerlich can mean “middle-class” as well as “bourgeois.”
  29. KFI, vol. 2 (1922), no. 1–2, 428–29, 433.
  30. KFI, vol. 1 (1921), no. 7, 277.
  31. Martha Arendsee, “Das preussische Hebammengesetz,” in KFI, vol. 2 (1922), no. 3–4, 460–62.
  32. KFI, vol. 2 (1922), no. 5–6, 528.
  33. From a speech to the German Reichstag (parliament), March 7, 1923, published that year by the KPD and quoted in Tânia Puschnerat, Clara Zetkin: Bürgerlichkeit und Marxismus, (Essen: Klartext Verlag, 2003), 346.
  34. Bayerlein, 34–40.
  35. Goldman, 338–41; Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972), 144–59.
  36. Bard and Robert, 339–43. 

Issue #104

Spring 2017

Resistance and reaction in the time of Trump

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