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Women in the Late 19th/ Early 20th Century Socialist Movement Essay

The differences between the women of the working and middle class created a situation of conflict for the first wave of feminists, despite both groups shared intention of bettering the lives of women. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century socialist movements in Europe was no different, it attracted many people looking for a better life, including working class women’s groups. Lily Braun was one of these women, however, in spite of her dedication she failed to be accepted by the working or middle class women’s groups because her background and her radical ideas placed her outside the boundaries of both groups. The main points of contention between the working and middle class women were the means by which they sought to improve the lives of women. For working class women, this meant implementing laws to protect women in the workplace, and allowing them access to unions. Middle class women felt that any special treatment for women undermined their claim that women were equal to men, and rallied against legislation that would give women special treatment. Lily Braun, despite her status as an educated and middle class woman, sided with the working class women’s idea of legal protection for working mothers, including maternity leave and outlawing hazardous work. This paper will begin with a brief discussion of the goals of working and middle class women’s groups and why these similar goals lead to conflict between the groups and conclude with a discussion of how Lily Braun’s unique feminism failed to find a niche within either group.

For women of the new capitalist class, discrimination based on gender differences was blatantly obvious in their daily lives alongside men of their own class who had achieved many of the political, educational and economic rights that they were still, as women, unable to achieve. These were women who did not share all the privileges of aristocratic women, but who, unlike working-class women, saw all the discrimination they faced originating from their sex, rather than their class. In 1894, the bourgeois women’s movement came together as a loose federation in the League of German Women’s Associations (Bund Deutsche Frauenvereine). Bourgeois feminists concentrated forcefully on ‘equal rights’ issues, such as property rights, fighting to overturn legislation that held that a woman needed her husband’s permission to work outside the home; that she had to turn over to him all her property and income; and that she was under the legal guardianship of her father, then her husband.

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In contrast to the middle class women’s movement’s concern over gender inequality, the working women’s movement focused on class structure as the root of their oppression. Capitalism’s drive to exploit labor as cheaply as possible, and a trend to shift production to the factory while social reproduction (taking care of workers, rearing children) remains within the home had not invented women’s oppression, but had made its own ‘woman question’ from sexual oppression inherited from previous class societies.

At the founding congress of the Second International in 1889, Clara Zetkin argued that under capitalism, woman was enslaved to man, as the worker was to capital. Economic independence would enable working-class women to play their part in class struggle, but without pressing the struggle forward to socialism, this would only replace slavery to a man with slavery to an employer. So the key to achieving women’s emancipation was a fundamental change in property relations – production had to be owned and controlled collectively, the household economy had to be socialized to free women from the domestic burden. The socialist program for women’s liberation had to be a program for the abolition of class society.

In her book A Vindication of the rights of Women in 1972, Mary Wollstonecraft emphasized the need to clear prior errors most of her predecessors had made.  She referred to the middle class women which she belonged as easy to twist and obscure with stereotypic shenanigans which they (men) clearly understood was only to assist them remain in power unperturbed.  Most of the women in the middle class viewed immediate satisfaction being the opening of doors to work in different areas after a long period of suppression.  Arguably, this was a remarkable achievement; however, Wollstonecraft understood the long way they had to go before they could claim they were really free in deed.  After partly accessing the much desired resources by women, the conflict was evident as the capitalist higher class women could figure out that the most important aspect that should have been celebrated was the access to political power which could be used to fix their subsequent problems with ease.  Considered to be part of undermining the middle class women, she emphasized on the need to rise above the virtues and the common wants of affection that were traditionally thought to be derived from family integration and women submission to their husbands.

European Consortium for Political Research (41-13) indicates that in order to ensure better and responsible reference to the women roles, the perfection of their nature and capability of happiness should have been estimated by the degree of reason, virtue and knowledge which distinguishes the individual as well as the laws which bind the society and therefore set a basic platform for coterminous evaluation.  However, this notion was overshadowed by a strong dark cloud which made their quest vague in the society.  Even after the direct agreement that their considerations required to be urgently addressed, the quest ebbed out after the initial achievements.  Scholars argue that poor leadership between women in the society formed the direct platform for the delayed quest of their rights.  Whereas most of them were at the middle class where leadership skills had mostly not been attained, the upper class group failed greatly in closing the gap.  Having been mostly born of the high class, they had access to better education and therefore the capacity necessary for ensuring better articulation of their ideologies to others and the leadership.  However, this link was not offered as most of them looked at the system from an individualistic mode.  As a result, great differences arose from lack of effective harmonization and inclusion of all women’s contribution into the main call for the fight to their rights.  Human nature has been pointed out as one of the most resistant systems to change.  Even when the essence for change is very clear, strong reminders are required for direct application.

According to Lily Braun & Alfred Meyer (11-121), Bourgeois women’s work was difficult in application and had little to encourage togetherness among the women.  Women were generally less advantaged during their daily work and the course for natural duties.  Of greater stress were the married women who had to cope with family aspects and live with fast deterioration of their systems. Most of the men abused their wives and put them in worse conditions to support themselves after childbearing took off their much needed ability to work.  Besides, they were unable to support their growing children, effectively work and participate in the quest for their common rights.  Therefore, closer interlink and harmonic evaluation of the intrinsic effects was missing as an analytical tool to induce their quest.  By their nature, women had much more roles to play which were not recognized by the system and men in various positions of authority.  Arguably, the roles played by women were assumed and only women could tell the extent of the impacts to their lives in the society.  Lily Braun, Alfred G. Meyer (18-22) continue to say that the direct emphasis had to come from the women themselves and forcefully too if they wanted to achieve the much anticipated status in the society.  Similar to men, they were monolithic in approach which never subsided during the different problems.  During problems and quest for common desires, men were considered to have strong similarity which bound them together.

Sociologists argue that during the late 19th century, the society was directly anchoring itself to ensure women were permanently imprisoned in domestic affairs with minimal external consideration for their development.  Arguably, most of the men supported the idea and viewed their wives as lesser spouses who were supposed to be involved more with domestic affairs as opposed to the “men’s” work in offices.  This was not just depressing but morally wrong and drove women from both classes to quest for liberation from the common system that sought to devour them. However, differences in approach for solution to a single problem is considered to be highly fatal than the problem it seeks to address (Richards, 74-76).  Most of the bureaucrats saw a direct chance of articulating their weird ideologies that were highly destructive for them.  To ensure they remained relevant and supportive to the higher class ruling elite, divide and rule system was easily effected.  However, this mostly affected the majority of women who were in middle class.  Most of the upper working class were already enlightened and could not easily be divided as they had the much required resources and social status that the middle class was struggling to get.  Therefore, by promising better lifestyle to the later, they changed their approach to the common problem that was facing them prompting the contrast.

Political setting during early 20th century portrayed a direct disrespect for human nature that was highly guided by gluttony driven by those in power.  At this time, political power and “leadership” was a reservation for men.  As indicated earlier, most of the women were looked down upon and their interests could only be represented by men in administration.  Considering the direct bureaucratic nature of men whose minds were mostly war driven by then, women had less space and consideration or success.  Arguably, it was this lack of political muscle that courted the undercurrents for dividing and deviating women’s quest for unity.  Men in authority saw threat from women unity as it dawned to them that women were more and could easily turn around the management and operations of their selfish systems.  Though this forms a strong debate that is far from over, most of the scholars argue that men played a bigger role in Lily Braun calls of unity than did women of different social classes.


Much is to be gained by studying the different perspectives and conflicts between bourgeois and proletariat women’s groups during the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, especially in context with their class based reaction to Marxism that set them at odds with one another.  We learn that what was collectively referred to as the “woman question” in those days, was actually a much more complex matter that was rooted in the differences between the upper and middle class. In fact, one can consider the position of the working class women as “reluctant feminists” because their main interest was escaping their enslavement to the capitalist bourgeois, it becomes clear why reconciliation between the two groups was impossible. However, feminists such as Lily Braun strove for unity between the two groups, knowing that a united front would catalyze the changes necessary to improve women’s position in society. Braun’s maverick tendencies eventually lead to her downfall within the women’s movement, as both sides rejected her contributions that did not coincide with existing ideals. Looking back on Braun’s writing with a modern perspective allows her work to be fully appreciated as ahead of its time, despite the rejection she received from her peers. Braun’s proposal to combine the efforts of both bourgeois and proletariat women’s groups may have gone unheeded during her lifetime, and the policies both groups chose to implement as distinct factions surely lead to lost opportunities, however eliminating the class and gender bias is a problem still faced today. Perhaps, even in our modern times taking a second look at Braun would allow society to rise above these persisting issues and work to better society as a whole.


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