After she first proposed the idea 107 years ago, Clara Zetkin’s vision is an annual global force: the German Marxist’s call for International Working Women’s Day has since blossomed into reality, taking place every year since 1911.
For indeed, the question of women in the communist struggle was so imperative to Zetkin, she theorized at length with Vladimir Lenin the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, on everything from marriage, to sexual freedom, to organizing women within communist movements.
“The proletarian woman fights hand in hand with the man of her class against capitalist society,” she pressed in 1896 at the Party Congress of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, in her speech titled, “Only in Conjunction With the Proletarian Woman Will Socialism Be Victorious."
Born on July 5, 1857, in Saxony, Germany to a schoolteacher father and a mother from an upper-class family, she rose to prominence through her work with the SPD.
It was her schooling at a local teacher training institute founded by German feminist Auguste Schmid, that turned her into a feminist; and her meeting with exiled Russian revolutionaries, followed by a trip to Russia at the age of 21, that quickly turned her into a communist.
Of those revolutionaries, one was Ossip Zetkin, her first long-term partner with whom she had two sons. When Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Law forced him to flee Germany, she was finally reunited with Zetkin in Paris, France, where she was living.
After his death in 1889, she focused on her work with the Socialist International, a new organization of left-wing and workers’ parties that was founded in her adopted French city. There, she called for demands against women’s oppression, also speaking out firmly against “bourgeois feminism."
“The proletarian woman ends up in the proletarian, the bourgeois woman in the bourgeois camp. We must not let ourselves be fooled by Socialist trends in the bourgeois women’s movement which last only as long as bourgeois women feel oppressed,” she warned.
Soon, her work with the SPD led her back to Berlin, where she edited the party’s paper for women, called "Die Gleichheit," or Equality, for 25 years.
Working with her close confidante, Rosa Luxemburg, she helped organize the first International Socialist Women’s Conference in 1907.
It was at the second such conference, in Copenhagen in 1910, that Zetkin made the call for International Working Women’s Day, referencing how the the Socialist International had made May 1 International Workers Day, and citing inspiration from militant demonstrations organized by working class women across the United States.
After the SPD sided with the German government in its war drive, Zetkin joined the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany, which itself had a left-wing split that eventually became the Communist Party of Germany. Zetkin represented the KPD in the German Reichstag during the Weimar Republic from 1920 to 1933.
Once elected, her first speech called on German workers to act in solidarity with the Soviet Union, which was “building socialism in the greatest difficulties." Workers and trade unions responded en mass to her call, staging a general strike against imperialist intervention in the USSR.
When she died on June 20, 1933, in exile in Archangelskoye near Moscow, she was buried next to the Kremlin Wall, and given full state and political honors.
But it wouldn’t be till the Nazi regime in Germany was destroyed by the Soviet Red Army, that she would be recognized in her birthplace.
In 1954, the soialist German Democratic Republic instituted the Clara Zetkin Medal to honor forthcoming champions of women’s rights, who exemplified the legacy of the communist revolutionary.