Female Badasses in History: Clara Zetkin (1857-1933)
Clara Zetkin was one of the most famous socialists of her time. She stands out for her involvement in German and international socialist politics, was one of the socialist movement’s most revered fighter’s for women’s rights and never shied away form criticizing, even when it came to her own movement’s politics. She is remembered today as a successful fighter for women’s rights (including being one of the initiators of the Internal Women’s Day) as well as a fighter for a more just world including her opposition to Stalin.
Clara Zetkin was born as Clara Eißner in 1857 in Germany as the daughter of Josephine Vital, an early women’s rights pioneer, and granddaughter of Jean Dominique, a participant of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. She became a elementary school teacher by trade and through her contacts to the women’s rights and workers movement joined the Socialist German Workers Party in 1878. The same year the German imperial government outlawed any socialist activity outside of parliamentary institutions. This prompted Zetkin to go into exile, first living in Zurich and the in Paris where she met Ossip Zetkin who had fought in the Russian Revolution. Despite the fact that she had two sons with Ossip and that she took his name, Clara never married him. She participated in the International Workers Congress in Paris in 1889 and was one of the main initiators of the second Socialist International.
Returning to Germany in 1890 she became together with Rosa Luxemburg one of the most outspoken and known people in the left-wing of the German Socialist movement, rejecting reformist politics and striving for revolution. In 1907 she met Lenin in Germany with whom she developed a life long-friendship.
Early on, Clara Zetkin became one of the most outspoken fighters for women’s rights. At the International Workers Congress in Paris she held her very famous speech elaborating how the fight for the worker was also a fight for women’s rights. Despite the fact that she criticized the non-socialist movement for women’s rights – denouncing them as bourgeois -, this speech made her one of the pioneers for this cause in the socialist movement.
Following her return to Germany, she became head of the Women’s Bureau of the socialist party and managed together with Luxemburg to incorporate the demand for women to be able to vote into the German Socialist Party’s program. She also was a founding member of the Socialist Women’s International, an organization dedicated to the fight for the rights of female workers world-wide.
In the years between 1914 and 1918 Clara Zetkin together with Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, fought against the German Socialist Party’s politic regarding the war. The party had decided to participate in the German war government in order to support the German state in its war efforts. Zetkin rejected this because she believed that the First World War was a war fought by imperialists against the interest of working men and women all around the world. Again together with Luxemburg and Liebknecht, Zetkin split from the party and founded a new Socialist Party in 1916, which would ultimately after the war become the German Communist Party. In contradiction to Luxemburg and Liebknecht who were murdered by right-wing death squads, Zetkin narrowly escaping the politically motivated violence that followed the right-wing orchestrated backlash against German communists and the Munich Revolution in 1918.
Following the end of World War I and the founding of the Weimar Republic, Zetkin was elected into the German parliament as one of its first female delegates. Within the Communist Party she retained considerable influence, which she used to fight for women’s rights such as the right to vote, the right to maternity leave, institutionalized care for women’s health, the legalization of abortion and generally a greater participation of women in the political process. Also within the party she routinely criticized political orders from Moscow – by then the capital of the only socialist state thus the Soviet Communist Party’s understanding of itself as the “mother party” of all communists world-wide – and the attempts to use political violence.
At the conference of the executive committee of the Comintern 1923 she stood out by reject the theory that fascism was the next stage of capitalist development, instead attributing the growing number and influence of fascist and extreme right-wing parties to the failures of the socialist movement itself, especially the socialdemocrats and their willingness to join alliances with bourgeois parties.
Zetkin remained a delegate to the German parliament until 1933 continuing her fight for women’s and workers’ rights. With the Nazi takeover of power she fled Germany to the Soviet Union, living isolated for the next couple of months until her death at age 76. Stalin himself carried her urn to her grave in the Kreml murals.
With her death the official socialist movement immediately began to remember her while at the same time she her memory was distorted. In official writings neither her fight for women’s rights nor her critique of the Stalinist system and methods were remembered. Instead she was turned into a martyr for the movement.
Clara Zetkin stands out as an independent and determined woman, even by the standards of the socialist movement. She never shied away from critique and conflict, especially if it was in a fight for something she believed would contribute to a better and more just world. Her political career and her fight were dedicated not only to workers but to all people, especially women who at the time were marginalized even by the socialist movement in many ways.