women's movement

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women's movement

women's movement: see feminism; woman suffrage.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Women’s Movement


the struggle of women for equality with men in economic and sociopolitical rights and cultural opportunities, as well as their participation in the political struggle in general. Various trends within the women’s movement reflect the positions of those social groups and political currents that these orientations represent. The women workers’ movement is an integral part of the workers’ movement.

Women first demanded equality in the period of the formation of the bourgeois system. As early as the War of Independence in North America (1775-83) the demand was advanced that women be granted voting rights equal to those of men. (It was supported by public figures such as Mercy Warren and Abigail Adams.) The organized women’s movement originated at the time of the Great French Revolution, during which women from the masses participated in all the major popular demonstrations. The first journal devoted to women’s struggle for equality began to be published in France during the revolution, and the first women’s organizations were founded—women’s revolutionary clubs, which participated energetically in partisan political struggles. The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, prepared by Olympe de Gouges (1748-93) on the model of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and presented to the National Assembly in 1791, was directed against the “rule of men over women.” It demanded that men recognize the complete social and political equality of women in the name of realizing “universal human rights.” Most of the leaders of the French Revolution, however, rejected the idea of women’s equality, and in late 1793 all the women’s clubs were closed down. In Great Britain the demand for civil equality for women was made by Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) in the book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman(1792), which presented the basic outlines of the future feminist movement.

After the bourgeoisie had consolidated its power, the limitations of the then dominant bourgeois women’s movement were revealed with increasing clarity. The goal of the bourgeois movement was merely to achieve the equality of women with men of their own class, within the framework of bourgeois society. In the first half of the 19th century participants in the bourgeois women’s movement narrowed the concept of the woman question. By the mid-19th century this demand was increasingly supplemented by the demand that women of the propertied classes be granted the right to work.

In the 1830’s and 1840’s a literature that expressed rebellion against the familial slavery of women and demanded their emancipation developed in France (for example, G. Sand’s novels). The women’s suffrage movement was initiated in the USA and Great Britain, where women began to participate more actively in public life. For example, in the 1830’s about 100 women’s antislavery societies joined the struggle to free the Negroes in the USA, and in Great Britain women were active in the Chartist movement and in the struggle to abolish the Corn Laws.

The revolutions of 1848-49 in Europe gave a new impetus to the development of the women’s movement, including the movement for political and civil equality. A number of women’s clubs that fought for political equality for women were founded in France in 1848, and the first independent organizations of women workers were established. In Germany and Austria numerous women’s unions supporting women’s political rights emerged. The first congress in defense of women’s rights was held in the USA in July 1848; subsequently, women’s rights congresses were convened almost every year. In the second half of the 19th century, women’s unions such as the General Women’s Union of Germany (1865) emerged in Europe and the USA. Their goal was the development of women’s education and the liberation of women’s labor from all restrictions. (At issue was the admission of women to the so-called liberal professions.) During the struggle that developed over the electoral reforms that were being prepared in Great Britain in the 1860’s, the movement to grant the vote to women gained strength. After the rejection of a proposal to grant women voting rights equal to those of men, which was introduced in Parliament by J. S. Mill in 1867, women’s suffrage societies were established in a number of cities. Later, they were united in the National Association. In the USA two women’s suffrage organizations were founded in 1869. In 1890 they formed the National American Women’s Suffrage Association. The French League for Women’s Rights was founded in 1882.

In the late 19th and early 20th century there were bourgeois women’s organizations in many countries. A women’s movement, primarily feminist in its concerns, emerged in Latin America, and the women’s movement took its first steps in Japan, India, and Indonesia and later in Turkey and Iran. The International Council of Women—the first international women’s organization—was founded in 1888 on the initiative of American feminists. An international organization of suffragettes was founded in 1904—the International Women Suffrage Alliance (from 1946, the International Alliance of Women—Equal Rights-Equal Responsibilities). Philanthropic, religious, and nationalist groups were among the types of women’s organizations established in a number of countries. The World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations was founded in 1910. Although the women’s organizations set different goals, they shared the assertion that women’s interests transcended class interests, and through this assertion they hoped to draw women away from the workers’ movement.

In the second half of the 19th century a proletarian point of view began to develop in the women’s movement. It defined its goals as raising the class consciousness of women workers and drawing them into sociopolitical life and into the revolutionary movement of the working class. The resolutions of the First International on the protection of women laborers, which were based on the ideas of K. Marx, contributed to the fulfillment of the goals of the proletarian women’s movement by exposing the depth of the exploitation of women’s labor by capitalist entrepreneurs and the flimsiness of the views of the Proudhonists, who saw women only as the keepers of the hearth and home. In addition to participating selflessly with men in the revolutionary movement of the late 19th century, particularly the Paris Commune of 1871, women acted independently and founded their own organizations.

In France, Germany, and Great Britain women tried to establish their own trade unions. Their efforts, however, were misguided and worthless, inasmuch as the founding of special women’s trade unions did not contribute to the effectiveness of the workers’ struggle against the capitalists. For this reason the revolutionary workers were opposed to the organization of separate women’s trade unions. A number of women workers’ organizations in Great Britain and France joined the First International in the latter half of the 19th century. German women workers joined the International Professional Association of Manufactory, Industrial, and Handicraft Workers. Established in 1869 in Crimmitschau (Saxony), it was influenced by the ideas of the International. A major role in the development of the proletarian women’s movement on the basis of the principles of scientific socialism was played by A. Bebel’s book Woman and Socialism (1879). In the late 19th century the proletarian women’s movement became most highly developed in Germany. In 1891 the program of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (the Erfurt Program) included the demand for women’s suffrage. The principle of the organizational unity of male and female workers was adopted, and efforts were made to enroll women in trade unions. Gleichheit, a women workers’ journal, began to be published in 1891. (From 1892 to 1917 it was published under the direction of C. Zetkin.) Beginning in 1900, conferences of women from all over Germany were held regularly.

In the late 19th and early 20th century the preconditions for a considerable expansion and consolidation of the proletarian women’s movement continued to emerge. Various aspects of the women’s movement and the woman question were considered at congresses of the Second International. In 1893 the Zurich Congress stated it was the duty of workers of all countries to give energetic support to the legislative protection of women’s labor. The conference of women delegates to the London Congress of the Second International (1896) endorsed the general organization of proletarians of both sexes, pointing out at the same time the need for a complete demarcation of the workers’ women’s movement and feminism.

The first and second International Conferences of Women Socialists (1907, Stuttgart, and 1910, Copenhagen) were important landmarks in the development of the working-class women’s movement. By a vote of 47 to 11 the first conference adopted a resolution on the struggle for universal and equal suffrage for both sexes. Subsequently, this resolution was adopted by the Stuttgart Congress of the Second International. Delegates to the first conference decided to form an international women’s secretariat headed by C. Zetkin. The journal Gleichheit was chosen as the organ of the secretariat. The second conference, which was attended by women delegates from 17 countries, won a place in history for its resolution to hold an annual International Women’s Day.

During World War I (1914-18) not only bourgeois women’s organizations but also the majority of Social Democratic women’s organizations switched to chauvinist positions. Although it rejected a Bolshevik proposal and adopted a pacifist resolution, the Bern International Women’s Socialist Conference, which was convened in 1915 on the initiative of the Bolsheviks, played an important role in uniting women socialists who had maintained socialist positions. The international pacifist women’s movement was created during the war. In 1915 the International Women’s Committee for a Durable Peace (from 1919, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom) was founded in The Hague on the initiative of the American public figure Jane Addams.

The war years were marked by demonstrations against hunger by women in the belligerent countries. The demonstration of Mar. 8 (Feb. 23), 1917, against hunger, war, and tsarism, which began in response to the appeal of the Petrograd committee of Bolsheviks, initiated a mass movement whose further development resulted in the victory of the February Bourgeois Democratic Revolution. Women workers participated actively in preparing and carrying out the Great October Socialist Revolution. After the victory of the revolution the most important tasks of the women’s movement in the Soviet Republic were promoting socialist construction in every possible way, defending the socialist homeland, and enlisting all women in active political and public work.

With the revolutionary upsurge in the wake of World War I and the influence of the Great October Socialist Revolution, the process of differentiation began to occur in the women’s movements outside of the Soviet state. As women were granted the vote, many bourgeois women’s organizations began to defend the capitalist system more openly. Social Democratic parties redoubled their activity among women. The International Women’s Socialist Secretariat was founded. (It was succeeded by the International Council of Women Social Democrats, founded in 1955.) A number of specialized international women’s organizations were established: the International Federation of University Women (1919), the International Women’s Cooperative Guild (1921), the International of Open Doors for the Economic Emancipation of Women Workers (1929), and the International Federation of Women in Business and the Liberal Professions (1930). The movement for women’s equality and for reforms in women’s household position developed in the 1920’s in a number of Asian countries, such as Turkey and China.

Outside of the USSR the Communist women’s movement took shape in the 1920’s. Congresses of the Communist International, which regarded the women’s movement as an important part of the revolutionary movement, repeatedly discussed the question of Communist work among toiling women. Between 1920 and 1926 four international conferences of women Communists were held, and in 1920 the International Women’s Secretariat was founded under the Comintern as the guiding center for work among women. (C. Zetkin became its secretary.) A women’s Communist press emerged, including the international women’s journal Die Kommunistische Fraueninternationale (1921-25). Several nonparty women’s organizations were formed under the guidance of the Communist Party (for example, the Red Union of Women and Girls in Germany, founded in 1925). However, in general, the Communist women’s movement outside the USSR was numerically and organizationally weak and suffered from schematism, sectarianism, and banality.

The fascist onslaught in Germany and a number of other capitalist countries in the early 1930’s was accompanied by substantial changes in the international women’s movement. Wherever the fascists took power, they crushed progressive women’s organizations as well as bourgeois organizations whose goal was the emancipation of women. At the same time, the fascist threat brought into being a democratic, antifascist women’s movement that became part of the antifascist popular front. Women were a significant force in the antifascist fronts in France and Spain, and they made a great contribution to the struggle of the Chinese people against the Japanese aggressors. In August 1934 the World Congress of Women Against War and Fascism was held in Paris on the initiative of a group of progressive women from a number of countries, including the USSR. The 1,096 women delegates at the congress included representatives of the USSR, France, Great Britain, the USA, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, Bulgaria, and Indochina. (In addition to 320 Communists, 158 pacifists, 64 feminists, and 16 Christian Socialists attended the congress.) The speakers included E. D. Stasova, D. Ibarruri, and I. Blum. The World Women’s Committee Against War and Fascism was formed at the congress. In 1935, N. K. Krupskaia called on the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom to join efforts against the threat of war. Although the league—a pacifist organization—participated in the work of the World Congress of Women Against War and Fascism, it was not very active in the struggle against fascism and militarism. The antiwar International Women’s Conference was held in Marseilles in May 1938. However, on the whole, the democratic women’s movement did not undergo extensive development on the eve of World War II (1939-45). National democratic women’s organizations had not yet been created.

During World War II women took part in all forms of resistance to the fascist occupiers. Many of them died in battle or were victims of fascist terror. Despite the difficulties imposed by war, organizational ties were maintained among antifascist women. The antifascist Committee of Soviet Women (from 1956, the Committee of Soviet Women) played an important role in strengthening international ties among antifascist women. Mass democratic women’s organizations emerged in a number of European and Asian countries during the war or shortly after their liberation from fascist occupation. At the same time, many bourgeois feminist, pacifist, religious, and other women’s organizations, which had been established in the late 19th and early 20th century, ceased their activity during the war. They began to reestablish national sections and revive broken international ties only after the conclusion of the war.

After the crushing defeat of the fascist bloc, a world characterized by the general weakening of world capitalism, the formation of the world socialist system, an upsurge in the national liberation movement, and the strengthening of democratic forces gave rise to new developments in the international women’s movement. Of greatest significance was the foundation in December 1945 of the first mass international democratic organization in the history of the women’s movement—the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF). The national organizations of 39 countries joined the organization upon its founding. In addition to the WIDF, the old bourgeois women’s organizations continue to function in the international women’s movement. In the interest of unifying all forces capable of participating to varying degrees in the defense of the rights of women, the struggle for the welfare of children, and the struggle for peace, democracy, and national independence, the WIDF supports joint activities by the various national and international women’s organizations. However, influenced by anticommunism, the leadership of many so-called traditional women’s organizations rejects unity of action.

The women of the developing states of Asia and Africa are participating ever more actively in economic and cultural construction and in public life. National and regional women’s associations have been established (for example, the Pan-African Conference of Women, founded in 1962, and the Pan-Arabic Federation of Women). In Latin American countries mass democratic women’s organizations were founded in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Representatives of the developing states are increasingly active in international women’s organizations.

After World War II, when women had received the vote and other political rights in the overwhelming majority of the countries of the world, one of the women’s movement’s most important tasks became the struggle for the practical realization of women’s rights that had been legislatively acknowledged. Women’s organizations are devoting greater attention to issues raised by women’s labor. At the same time, there has been an expansion in the range of general social, national, and international problems that concern the participants in the women’s movement. In addition to the WIDF, many other women’s organizations have intensified the struggles against world thermonuclear war, against the arms race, against racism and poverty, and for the national liberation movement. Thus, for example, the demand for the prohibition of nuclear testing was actively supported by virtually all of the women’s organizations in Europe, the USA, Canada, and Australia.

Important activities of the contemporary women’s movement include collecting signatures on petitions addressed to the nuclear powers and holding mass demonstrations against nuclear testing and for general and complete disarmament, peace and security. In 1969 prominent scientists and public figures from capitalist and socialist countries participated in an international conference for a ban on chemical and bacteriological weapons, which was held in London on the initiative of the British section of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Representatives of the European organizations of the WIDF and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom took part in a consultative meeting on problems of European security, which was held in Ystad, Sweden, in June 1970.

In the second half of the 1960’s and the beginning of the 1970’s, the struggle against US aggression in Indochina occupied a central place in the activity of many women’s organizations. In addition to the branches of the WIDF in various nations the American Section of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Women Strike for Peace (USA), and the Women’s Voice (Canada) were among the groups that participated actively in this struggle. The methods of the fight against US aggression included antiwar demonstrations, support for young Americans who refused to be drafted, and collection of money for medical and other forms of aid to the Vietnamese people. Participants in the movement published materials on American aggression and materials explaining the positions of the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam. The WIDF and its branch organizations in various nations are actively opposed to Israel’s aggression in the Middle East.

Many women’s organizations, including national branches of the WIDF, sections of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and divisions of the International Federation of Women in Legal Careers (founded in 1929), have actively supported Greek democrats and opposed racism in the Republic of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia. Communist women, in accordance with the programmatic and tactical lines of their Communist parties, are in the vanguard of the struggle for democracy and against racism. The Communist parties regard the democratic women’s movement as one of the most important elements in the unity of anti-imperialist forces supporting democracy and socialism.

International women’s organizations participate in the activity of the UN. The Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1967, was based on a great deal of preliminary work done by such organizations as the WIDF, the International Council of Women, the International Federation of Women in Legal Careers, and the International Alliance of Women—Equal Rights-Equal Responsibilities. Certain international women’s organizations of the UN and its specialized institutions have been granted various categories of consultative status. Consultative status of the first category has been conferred on the WIDF and the International Council of Women.

L. G. BALAKHOVSKAIA (from 1939) and A. B. GERMAN (before 1939)

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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