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What ever happened to Clara Zetkin?

Every year since 1911, the world has celebrated International Women’s Day (IWD), yet its creator has remained largely absent from historical memory. Already exiled twice during her lifetime, it seems like Clara Zetkin is once again facing exile: why?

Though few would refute the growing importance of feminist movements in the latter 20th and 21st centuries, the same cannot be said of communism. Despite her achievements, Zetkin represents a controversial figure because she combined feminism with socialism, advocating female emancipation as a socio-economic as much as a political movement. Zetkin argued that women should be recognised “as female proletarians, as working-class comrades and as equal and indispensable co-fighters in the class struggle”, and campaigned for equal pay, better working conditions, women’s admission to trade unions, and most famously, an annual celebration in awareness of women’s rights. However, whilst her commitment to the socialist (and later communist) cause was the source of Zetkin’s veneration in the GDR, in the post-Cold War world, it has been construed as conveying the “wrong message”. Certainly a woman known as ‘the grandmother of German communism’ was unlikely to find a warm reception in the West, especially within Germany, whose socialist past is generally regarded (and referred to) as a ‘communist dictatorship’.

Although Zetkin’s name and image was once ubiquitous within the GDR, she has since fallen out of favour

Given her disdain of the contemporary ‘bourgeois women’s movement’ and conviction that only socialism ‘could truly serve the needs of working-class women’, Zetkin also represents an uncomfortable heroine for feminists. Her focus on class rather than strictly gender divides is often perceived as undermining the unity and strength of the feminist movement, yet her claims of a lack of representation are as perhaps as valid today as they were over a century ago. Other German feminists meanwhile have made for more appealing alternatives. Despite their shared political ideology, Rosa Luxemburg has been valorised as a martyr for the feminist cause, possessing a historical gravitas Zetkin seemingly lacks. Indeed, it is notable that whilst Clara-Zetkin-Straße in Berlin has been renamed, squares and roads named after Zetkin’s close friend and equally idolised - at least in the former GDR - socialist Rosa Luxemburg remain unchanged.

Clara Zetkin with friend and fellow socialist Rosa Luxemburg circa 1910

Whilst Zetkin’s radical political ideology should be contextualised, it should not be utilised as a means of exclusion. To do so would do a disservice to one of the most active and influential campaigners for women’s rights: the fact that we still celebrate International Women’s Day each year is testament to Zetkin’s significant contributions in the fight for gender equality. Maybe next year – on the IWD’s centenary – we can finally honour the woman who started it all.


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