Our Women’s Circle – Some Echoes of the International Socialist Women’s Congress

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As I have been reporting lately at our Central Branch, and at the Socialist Women’s Bureau, on the two recent Congresses at Copenhagen, it has struck me that possibly the short report in “Justice” of the Socialist Women’s International Congress might have seemed a rather meagre one to comrades at a distance, who could neither be present at the time nor meet face to face those who were present. I am, therefore, sending- in to our editor this condensed resumé of my report, in the hope that he will find room for it in the columns of “Justice.”

As I write, the printed “Reports to the Second International Congress of Socialist Women” lie open before me, and I read in our Bureau Report, signed by Clara Hendin, Secretary, and myself as reporter, how the Women’s International Bureau was formed at Stuttgart in August, 1907, with comrade Clara Zetkin as International Secretary, and with the newspaper “Gleichheit” as a medium of communication between the women of the different countries. Immediately on our return to England, as our Bureau Report tells, “The Socialist women of England convened a meeting at Chandos Hall to consider the lines on which a Socialist Women’s Bureau (British) should be formed,” with the result that we started work in the autumn of 1907 with a bureau consisting of two delegates from the Fabians, two from the S.D.P., two from the Clarion Scouts, two from the Women’s Committee of the S.D.P., two from the Adult Suffrage Society, and two from the Teachers’ Socialist Society. Our principal work, besides keeping in touch with the Women’s International movement, has been the issue of a series of papers on the “Responsibilities of the State towards its Children”; and the outcome of these special studies was the resolution appearing on the agenda of our Copenhagen Conference to the effect that: “This Congress, demanding as it does the national and international ownership of the means of production and distribution, affirms that it is the duty of the community to maintain the child-bearing women, infants, and children attending school.” Now, we of the Socialist Women’s Bureau had a special reason for giving prominence to this resolution, and for having it discussed in that form, and in no other. The members of the Women’s Labour League who were present at the Conference took exception to the wide scope of the resolution and desired to substitute for it their multiplicity of resolutions, some demanding insurance for widows, another claiming “where necessary” some provision for the maintenance of school children, and yet another, from the Women’s Club, Stockholm, putting forward “the right of unmarried mothers and their children to a real subsidy paid by the father during the pregnancy, and for education of the child.”

As a matter of fact, under the stress of modern industrialism, the married mother is often in as bad, if not a worse position than is the widow or deserted wife, because, if her husband is unemployed, or under-employed, or paid a wage that is insufficient to provide the necessities of life, she has not only to go out and work to supplement her husband’s wage, but she works constantly for the capitalist during periods of pregnancy and of suckling her child. This means, of course, that the children of many married women start life physically handicapped because their mothers had neither the rest, nor the food, nor the freedom from anxiety, all of which are necessary to the mother if the young life she is bearing is to be a complete and healthy being. Neither do we approve of inserting the clause “where necessary” dealing with the feeding of school children, because we Socialist women in England have seen enough of the working of enactments for the feeding of children which are not made compulsory enactments; neither do we believe in invidious discriminations among the children as to which are necessitous and which are not. We know that under present methods of production sufficient food can be produced to feed all the child-bearing mothers, and all the children attending school; and, we Socialist women mean to agitate through industrial unions, through Parliament and International Socialist Congresses, until the mother and children are thus fed. We do not look upon this as a woman’s question only, it is a race question; and we call upon the men of our Party to help us in the fight, because as industrial pressure becomes more intense these weaker members of the great industrial army will suffer more acutely. But if can create a public opinion which shall declare that for the sake of the future of the race child-bearing women and children shall be protected from the extremest stress of competition, then the men and women industrial fighters will have a fairer and better chance of carrying on their own warfare. Our bureau, therefore is glad to record the passing of this resolution by the Women’s Conference, and only regrets that, through a misunderstanding between comrades Zetkin and Huysmans, it was not laid before the General Congress and discussed with the other resolutions.

The German, Swiss, Danish, Norwegian and Austrian women’s reports of the last three years of their work make very encouraging reading. The Austrian working women’s newspaper circulated 20,000 copies, compared with a circulation of 11,000 in 1907. In Germany, 133,888 women are organised; and there are 82,645 women in the Socialist Party. The report of the Woman’s National Committee of the United States Socialist Party has already been printed in “Justice.” We English delegates did not know till the agenda of the Congress was placed before us that the question of the extension of the suffrage to women was to be discussed; for we thought, as it had been so thoroughly thrashed out at Stuttgart, and the lines definitely laid down on which Socialist men and women were to carry on this agitation, there was no occasion to re-open the matter. But the Social-Democratic women of Germany had placed on the agenda a resolution in which they “repudiated limited suffrage as a falsification of and insult to the principle of the political equality of the female sex.” This would have been passed unanimously had it not been for the ten members of the Women’s Labour League who were present, and who by their opposition to this clause, caused the debate on this resolution to take up a wholly disproportionate measure of the time of the Conference. Our American comrades stood solidly with the Socialist women of all the other countries on this question, and the resolution was finally carried – the ten Labour League women only dissenting. We had also an interesting discussion on the part Socialist women might play in the prevention of war; and the point that stood out so strongly in all these discussions was that the working women of every country showed how rapidly they were developing, what excellent speakers and debaters they were proving themselves to be, and how fitted they were to carry on with their men comrades the class struggle, and enunciate their own economic demands. We began our two days’ Conference with a cantata sung by a choir of male voices, and we ended it by the singing of the “International.” We have learnt by the experience of our second Conference what are the weaknesses of our International Bureau organisation and what its strength; and every Socialist delegate is determined that our third Conference in Vienna shall be a still more perfect and efficient weapon for carrying on the class struggle.