Women and WWI: when socialist women defied everything and made the first step for peace

Athina Kariati

There is a very popular saying that behind every great man is a great woman. This implies that women support men behind the scenes, while men are the ones who know about politics and make the decisions. Women are supposedly only good at social issues, at best, if not solely capable of looking after a household. Women are sensitive, can organize charities, be nurses, assistants, etc., but politics is the realm of men. And most importantly, war.

That saying is as old as patriarchy and of course it was reproduced at the beginning of the 19th century before WWI started. Women at that time were making their first steps into the factories. They had entered production as cheap labor with no rights, and of course did not have the right to vote. The main political organisations of women were the suffragists, dominated mainly by women of the ruling class, limiting their struggle to just the right to vote. But as women entered the workforce, and the struggle for their rights as workers, they started to build their own socialist feminist organisations.

In August 1907, the first conference of socialist women was organised in Stuttgart, Germany, with the participation of 58 women from 15 countries around the world. The Conference adopted a resolution on women’s right to vote, which was to become the starting point for a struggle for women’s political rights. In the second conference in 1910 in Denmark, 100 delegates participated from 17 countries, and a resolution was adopted to mark International Women’s Day as a day to campaign for women’s right to vote and for the political emancipation of women; the conference also adopted a resolution on peace.

Socialists for peace

From 1907, the parties of the Second International resisted the rise of nationalism and tried to put limitations on the arms race and military preparations in their countries. At that time, the social-democratic parties participating in it had a significant presence in their countries and in parliaments.

Their internationalist attitude was expressed in the resolutions of the Stuttgart and Basel congresses in 1907 and 1912 respectively. From November 1912, all socialists around the world were organizing actions against the impending war.

Clara Zetkin, the international organizer of socialist women and member of the German socialist party, was exchanging letters of solidarity and internationalism with women of the British socialist party.

The message in these letters was clear: “don’t believe the propaganda of the media, we are not against you, nationalism does not serve the people, the people will not win anything from a war, our enemy is in our own country” – referring to the capitalist governments and the fact that they wanted to go to war to fulfil the imperialist aspirations of their ruling elites.

Zetkin wrote:

“We bear the same chains as you, your burdens are our own evils, we share your fate. Therefore, we suffer with you, and we hope with you and we take arms with you ‘against the sea of troubles.’ Together with our husbands, sons and brothers we stand for peace and for fraternity between the workers of all countries. Together with them we fight against Capitalism and for Socialism.

Our minds are still horrified by the infernal pictures of slaughter and destruction which the recent wars in the Balkans have given to a century that boasts of civilisation and humanity. We have before our eyes the streams of foaming blood, the blood of men shed by men, and the flames of ravaged towns and villages, in our ears ring the painful sighs and the mad cries coming from waves of mutilated and dying men, thrown side by side with corpses and torn limbs; we hear the sobbing of wives and sisters, of mothers and children, bereaved of their beloved ones and bread-winners.”[1]

Anti-war manifesto betrayed

As soon as WWI broke out, on August 1914, the leaders of the second international betrayed the manifesto they had previously signed against the war. The German, French and Belgian socialist parties joined in national unity governments together with right wing parties and their ruling classes and supported the war.

However, socialist women didn’t give up in the struggle against the war. The third international socialist women’s conference was scheduled to be held in Vienna, in August 1914, but the meeting was canceled because of the betrayal of the leaderships of the 2nd International. In November 1914, the editors of the Bolshevik women’s paper Rabotnitsa contacted the International Secretariat at Stuttgart, suggesting an unofficial conference of left socialist women. Despite the leaderships of their parties, socialist women managed to organise the Third International Socialist Women’s Conference at Berne, on March 26-28, 1915. This conference was very important because it brought together forces not just from neutral countries but even from the ones implicated in the war, like Germany, England and France, for the first time.

They didn’t do so because they were pacifists, but because they were able to see the repercussions of the war on their lives: their sons and husbands going to war and many of them not returning; themselves taking care of the men coming back from war crippled; experiencing extreme poverty, working hard for the survival of their children and the elderly in a society with a damaged economy.

The disobedience of women was a very important step for the left and the labour movement; indeed it paved the way for a new chapter, the organization of the Zimmerwald conference, an important conference reestablishing internationalism in the labour movement.

“The socialist women’s movement did not stop for a second to fight against the war. They were organizing demonstrations, and protests but also, when they participated in the relief services, the hospitals etc they continued to talk against the war, against the propaganda of the ruling elite, ‘take the voices of the injured and magnify them’, as Zetkin said ‘seek to awaken the Socialist spirit, the proletarian class solidarity, in those they are helping; for let it be remembered that all the loving help and relief are in themselves incapable of shaking the foundations of capitalist society’”.
Clara Zetkin 1914[2]

The enemy is inside your country

While the leaderships of the social-democratic parties of the second international were supporting the warmongering of their national ruling elites and governments, socialist feminists were exposing their hypocrisy.

The inspiring article by Clara Zetkin An Appeal to the Socialist Women of all Countries was included in the November 27, 1914, issue of the Gleichheit (the official bimonthly magazine of the international women’s socialist movement). In it, she wrote: 

“The longer the war continues, the more are the masks torn down that have deceived so many people. It is presenting itself in all its naked ugliness as a war of capitalist conquest and world domination.” 

She makes a passionate appeal to the Socialist women of all countries 

“to preserve the old Social-Democratic ideal and not to permit themselves to be carried away by the pervading Chauvinism”. 

She says 

“If men must kill, it is we women who must fight for life. If men remain silent, it is our duty to speak out.”

Alexandra Kollontai wrote in November 1914:

“The Germans, it would seem, are raising the sword not in order to eliminate their rivals on the world market, but in order to overthrow Russian tsarism!… The English and the French, so we are told, are merely seeking to avert the threat to the world presented by the German police state and German militarism! And the Russians, if you please, are sending their sons into the battlefield, not in order to satisfy their pan-Slavism, but in order to liberate Galicia and Serbia, and also in order to save the republican system in France and democracy in Belgium! Thus, tsarism is fighting for republicanism, and the Junkers in Prussia are sacrificing the blood of their sons in order to ‘liberate Russia from the yoke of absolutism’. This is an amusing caricature which, in other circumstances, would reduce us to laughter, but which now, amidst blood and tears, is turning into a major historical catastrophe.

People talk of ‘the right of each people to self-defense’. Each state naturally tries to present itself as having begun the war in order to preserve and defend its culture, and not in order to fill the purses of the capitalists.”

In 1911 Rosa Luxembourg wrote:

“the friends of peace in bourgeois circles believe that world peace and disarmament can be realised within the framework of the present social order, whereas we, who base ourselves on the materialistic conception of history and on scientific socialism, are convinced that militarism can only be abolished from the world with the destruction of the capitalist class state. From this follows the mutual opposition of our tactics in propagating the idea of peace. The bourgeois friends of peace are endeavoring and from their point of view this is perfectly logical and explicable to invent all sorts of ‘practical’ projects for gradually restraining militarism and are naturally inclined to consider every outward apparent sign of a tendency toward peace as the genuine article, to take every expression of the ruling diplomacy in this vein at its word, to exaggerate it into a basis for earnest activity. The Social Democrats, on the other hand, must consider it their duty in this matter, just as in all matters of social criticism, to expose the bourgeois attempts to restrain militarism as pitiful half-measures, and the expressions of such sentiments on the part of the governing circles as diplomatic make-believe, and to oppose the bourgeois claims and pretenses with the ruthless analysis of capitalist reality.” 

They also knew that they could not base themselves and the future on negotiations between the capitalists. Kollontai wrote in 1915:

“The major capitalist powers, those who are now at war with each other, all experience the same need for a world market, for colonies. (…)To begin with, these powers try to resolve the dispute by ‘diplomatic negotiations’ in which each strives to trick or outwit the other. Even in times of peace, the negotiations conducted by the diplomats never cease. However, no information is given to the people. The dispute among the capitalist states is being conducted not on behalf of the people, but on behalf of the capitalists, and these capitalist private property owners push their states onto the path of so-called colonial or ‘imperialist’ policy. It is they who decide whether or not there will be war. And the people? They need to know only one thing: if you are called up- go and die!

If the diplomats do not succeed in outwitting each other, they immediately threaten war. Behind the diplomats there stand the cannon, and therefore there is no stable peace among the states, but only ‘armed peace’, that is, a period of peace during which the state intensifies its preparations for war… (….) If they (the capitalists) begin to suspect that their own diplomats have failed to defend their financial interests, that the negotiations are working to the advantage of the capitalists of another power, they immediately raise the alarm: ‘Help! The homeland is in danger! Brother workers, forget all the humiliations, forget all the past! Save our common homeland!… Go and die for the glory of the fatherland.’”

Zetkin, in 1913, writes:

“The German people are the millions and millions of hard-toiling men and women, who live away from the wealth, the splendour, the beauty of our days, though without the working hands and brains of these millions, neither abundant riches nor culture would exist. And amongst them the knowledge is spreading, that they must not look for their enemy across the frontiers, or across the North Sea; no, their implacable foe is intrenched in the institutions of their own Fatherland. It is Capitalism, it is the power of the possessing classes to exploit and rule the labouring people. They know this monstrous power is the common enemy of the wage-earners, the labouring people in all countries.” [3]

Suffragists: support the war to get the right to vote

The Suffragist organisations on the other hand had another approach to the war. Their position was that if they supported the war, then men would grant them the right to vote. For that reason they not only supported their governments and countries, but they actively tried to stop some of the women of their class and organisations that dared to think that supporting the war was not in the interests of women in countries on either side.

In 1915, the suffragist movement was to hold a scheduled conference in The Hague. The meeting’s objective was to discuss the progress of their struggle for the right to vote.

But as the war had started, the leadership of the suffragist movement was fiercely and brutally against the international meeting.

The prominent British suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst, declared: 

“it is unthinkable that Englishwomen should meet German ones when the latter’s relatives are murdering British people on the high seas and have committed such awful horrors in Belgium” (Turner, 1915).

And added 

“There should be no talk of peace until the aggressor has been made to bite the dust … Is there a woman with warm blood coursing through her veins, who can think of peace … Fortunately … in England stand men of iron whose ears will not be open to resolutions for peace … from Peace Congresses at the Hague … until England’s dead have been avenged.” (Turner, 1915)

Julie Siegfried (1848-1922), president of the National Council of Women in France said:

“No time for peace … It is with astonishment that we find in your program the idea of an armistice … Fight to the death. Until then France and the women of France will not speak of peace … United at this moment with those who fight and die the women of France cannot associate themselves with an idea of peace.” (The Weekly Times, 1915)

Disagreement over peace causes a split in the suffragist movement

As in the case of socialist women and the leaderships of their parties, similarly bourgeois women that were influenced by the antiwar movement, defied their leadership and went ahead with the organisation of the conference in The Hague. One of them was the daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst, who gave her enthusiastic support to the International Women’s Peace Conference and became a socialist later.

The resolution of the conference included demands towards the governments of their countries to end the hostilities and open peace negotiations, for neutral countries to continue the mediation, to create principles for permanent peace, and for governments to resolve disputes between them through arbitration and mediation. However, they themselves knew and they explicitly said that their conference was symbolic. Under capitalism, a system that puts the interests and profit of each national ruling elite above the interests of the people, these demands to the governments that represent the elites were just wishful thinking.

This first meeting marked creation of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF)- which still exists today as a symbolic NGO, and a predecessor of the UN’s Women in Peace and Security Programme (WIPSEN or “PeaceWomen”). In the case of the current war in Ukraine, they mention that unfortunately women activists have been largely excluded from the formal peace process, as if, if they had been included, the formal peace process would have come to a different outcome than what actually happened.

From symbolism to practice

The bourgeois women knew that their conference was symbolic. However, for socialist women, the struggle was very real and permanent.

In the way that the socialist women conference became the spark for a renewal of internationalism in the Left and the workers movement, the struggle of Russian women sparked the beginning of the revolution in 1917. The Russian Revolution not only ended Russia’s participation in WWI, but also paved the way for full civil rights for women, the same as for men, and gave women the possibility to be able to really choose what to do in their own lives.

The struggle of socialist women, like Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, Alexandra Kollontai, and so many other who remain anonymous, represents a great example for us today. The women’s movement of the time defied everything in order to continue fighting against the war, against patriarchy and the system that exploits us and turns one worker against the other. If we don’t fight against the root cause of the problems, we will never be able to live in peace. Such is the movement that needs to be developed today as well. There are difficulties for sure, as the Left and the workers’ movement are in decline; however, as working women, we experience the implications of war and nationalism, we experience the implications of patriarchy and exploitation and we have to be at the forefront of the struggle for a radical transformation of society. 


[1] German Women to Their Sisters in Great Britain By Klara Zetkin (December 1913)

[2] The Duty of Working Women in War-Time

[3] German Women to Their Sisters in Great Britain, by Klara Zetkin, (International Secretary of Socialist Women, December 1913)

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