A Mother’s Place is in the Struggle: Revolutionary Practice and Motherhood - a Historical Perspective

by Dana Mills

In 1907, Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg had gone for a walk, lost count of time, and arrived late for an appointment with their comrade August Babel, who had feared they were lost. Rosa Luxemburg proposed their epitaph: “here the last two men of German Social Democracy.” But Clara Zetkin understood the situation differently and brought the needs of women to the forefront of discussion of the German Left, becoming the “grand old woman” of German Communism, Grandma Zetkin.

Clara Zetkin (1857-1933)

Zetkin was member of the Bookbinders Union in Stuttgart, active in the Tailors and Seamstresses Union, becoming its provisional International Secretary in 1896, despite the fact that it was illegal for women to be members of trade unions in Germany at that time. As Secretary of the International Bureau of Socialist Women, Zetkin organised the Socialist Women's Conference in March 1915. Zetkin fought for unrestricted suffrage, and formulated clearly the position against the 'bourgeois feminist' which supported the restriction of the vote by property or income. She was a delegate to the Reichstag from 1920.

Clara Zetkin was a revolutionary mother in theory and practice. Her feminism-socialism saw motherhood as the epicentre of women’s lives. Zetkin argued that through the experiences of motherhood women developed ethical values which aided in their contribution to society more broadly. Her views on contraception and abortion seem archaic and dangerous nowadays— she held that they were methods for selfish women to avoid caring for children, and did not seek to expand access to either methods of birth control. However, even though we probably would see her intent as anachronistic and dangerous, that did mean that she had to — and indeed did — theorise about the position of mothers within socialism.

Structural oppression, to Zetkin, was parallel under capitalism and the patriarchy. Her understanding that the tendency in the class struggle to exclude certain elements of the working class and their struggles – namely, women and their reproductive labour – gave her the insight that independent struggles for women were needed to deepen and extend the revolution. In particular, she saw that in capitalism, while women were expected to be involved in production, they were not relieved of any of their reproductive work:

In former times, the rule of a man over his wife was ameliorated by their personal relationship. Between an employer and his worker, however, exists only a cash nexus. The proletarian woman has gained her economic independence, but neither as a human being nor as a woman or wife has she had the possibility to develop her individuality. For her task as a wife and a mother, there remain only the breadcrumbs which the capitalist production drops from the table (Only in Conjunction With the Proletarian Woman Will Socialism Be Victorious, 1896).

According to Zetkin, legislation for rights of mothers had to be considered and put at the forefront of the struggle. At the same time, she recognised the vicious circle that ties women to their homes and away from voicing the needs of motherhood:

Our propaganda must not be carried out solely in an oral fashion. A large number of passive people do not even come to our meetings and countless wives and mothers cannot come to our meetings. Bringing the mother into the struggle was key and understanding her needs in her own words was of first priority (Only in Conjunction With the Proletarian Woman Will Socialism Be Victorious, 1896).

But Clara Zetkin was not just a woman of words. She understood the need for organising for mothers, which cannot be put either under the program of socialism more broadly or indeed just seen as an adjacent part of campaigns for women’s rights.

We are establishing maternity hospitals, homes for mothers and children, mothercraft clinics, organizing lecture courses on child care, exhibitions teaching mothers how to look after themselves and their children, and similar things. We are making the most serious efforts to maintain women who are unemployed and unprovided for (Lenin on the Women’s Question, 1924). .

Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952)

Clara Zetkin’s comrade, Alexandra Kollontai, theorised and improved Zetkin’s position on motherhood and socialism. Kollontai was active in the International Socialist Women's movement. She was elected to Central Committee in 1917 and Commissar for Social Welfare in the Soviet government. It is impossible to think about the Russian Revolution without thinking about the role played by women in it; and Kollontai, crucial in theorising and acting in the revolution, brought thinking of motherhood to the forefront of her work. She understood that work for the rights of mothers is intertwined and deduced from work for the rights of women, and more radically, changed the frame of thought on morality in family life; in one term, socialism-feminism.

Kollontai argues that protections offered to mothers should be extended to what she frames as illegitimate mothers,

It should not be thought that all the measures demanded in the resolution automatically covered both legitimate and illegitimate mothers. It is precisely such a fuddled mode of thinking that dominates in the West, sadly even among women socialists, that preference for legalized marital cohabitation, which made it desirable to debate this fundamental point more thoroughly. It was important to emphasize with all the authority of the conference that maternity is to be recognized as a social function independently of the marital and family forms it assumes (The First International Conference of Socialist Women, Stuttgart, 1907).

Also, Kollontai here points out a notion that will raise its head often and is still among us; being a good socialist does not mean one is automatically sensitive to the need of mothers; there is urgent need for understanding and campaigning for those independently. Kollontai raises the idea of the “right to maternity” which

Is the kind of question that touches not only women from the bourgeois class but also, to an even greater extent, proletarian women as well. The right to be a mother – these are golden words that go straight to “any women’s heart” and force that heart to beat faster. The right to feed “one’s own” child with one’s own milk, and to attend the first signs of its awakening consciousness, the right to care for its tiny body and shield its tender soul from the thorns and sufferings of the first steps in life – what mother would not support these demands? (The Social Basis of the Women Question, 1909).

In her book, Society and Motherhood (1916), Kollontai debates maternity leave, maternity rights and beyond; she divorces the discussion of economics and motherhood from romantic ideals of motherhood as epitome of womanhood and discusses the perishing mothers and children who do not receive enough support. Her policy suggestions are inspiring, and yet saddening in that we are not able to live up to them even today:

If every working woman was guaranteed the possibility of giving birth to her child in healthy conditions, with the appropriate care for herself and her child, the possibility of looking after the child during the first weeks of its life, the possibility of feeding him herself without the risk of loss of pay, this would constitute the first step to the designated end. If, in addition, the state and the community would undertake to build refuges for expectant and nursing women, to provide medical consultations for mother and child, and to supply high-quality milk and a layette, if there was a broad network of creches, nursery schools and children's centers where the working mother could leave her child with a quiet mind, this would be the second step towards the designated end (Society and Motherhood).

Her closing words of the introduction to this book resonate today as in the day they were written:

From whichever angle one approaches the question of maternity insurance, from a point of view limited strictly to considerations of state, from a class point of view or from the point of view of the interests of mankind as a whole, the conclusion remains one and the same: maternity insurance is a social policy issue requiring immediate attention and must be further developed and improved (Preface to Society and Motherhood).

On this centenary of the Russian Revolution, it is important to recognise the role women played and Kollontai, in particular, was one of many women who influenced Russian socialist history.

American Mother’s Struggles

While, in the Putilov Strike of 1917, tens of thousands of women were protesting in the event that became the catalyst for the Russian Revolution, across the ocean, the American trade union movement made its own contribution to the history of socialist motherhood. The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) was once one of the largest labor unions in the United States, one of the first US unions to have a primarily female membership, and a key player in the labor history of the 20th century USA. As such, it contributed in theory and practice to thinking and work around motherhood and activism.

Angela Bambace (1898-1975)

The story of one of its main organisers, Angela Bambace brings both inspiration and darkness into this narrative of revolutionary motherhood. Born in Harlem, she became one of the main forces in the ILGU. She was the only woman on the ILGWU's executive board during her 16 years as an officer.  Born in Brazil but raised in Harlem, New York, she had two children with a man who did not share her radical views, divorced her and won custody over her children over her being an “unfit mother”. She maintained close ties with her children but her concession remains a reminder of what may happen when society does not organise to support activist mothers. Bambace’s contribution to American society went beyond her trade unionism; she worked against antisemitism, within the Italian Labor Council and In 1962 President John F. Kennedy appointed her to the Commission on the Status of Women.

Pauline Newman (1890-1986)

Pauline Newman led an extraordinary life that gave motherhood and union organizing a different twist. Her activist career started as she struggled to gain access for education for herself as a child in Lithuania. The first woman ever appointed general organizer by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), Newman continued to work for the ILGWU for more than seventy years—first as an organiser, then as a labour journalist, a health educator, and a liaison between the union and government officials. She was a key organiser in the 1907 rent strike and the 1909 garment workers’ strike, which had led to her appointment as the first woman in the ILGWU. She lived with her partner, Frieda Miller, for 50 years and the couple adopted a daughter together.

Clara Shavelson (1886-1982)

Clara Shavelson was the leader of the uprising of the 20,000, the great strike of shirtwaist workers in 1909 in New York. She was also active in the suffrage campaign as well as consumer boycotts and tenants rights. Her own vision of radical motherhood recognized no boundaries between private and public life, between her own family and other families. Throughout her life she insisted that she could be both a good mother and a good organiser, and fought hard in her own home as she did for others. Her campaign of 1938 drew on her consumer activism to draw votes for the Communist Party (“Bread, Meat, Milk. If these items play a part in your life, this story is for you”) she presented herself as a ‘real American mother’.

Motherhood was a key issue among the USA labour movement. The ILGU asserted than not all women workers would or should become mothers, but were attentive to the necessity to organise around the needs of mothers. Their main focus was to protest the dire conditions of working women who had faced daily dangers in sweatshops and precarious work environment.

It is perhaps, then, little surprise that a campaign emerged out of this historical moment, which went with the slogan of “Mother Give your Mom the best you're able, a something nice with the Union label”.

Black Panthers

The legacy of activist motherhood in the USA developed further with the intervention of the Black Panthers movement. In 1969 the Black Panthers introduced breakfast clubs, giving full free breakfasts (including milk, bacon, eggs, grits, and toast) to 20,000 school aged children in 19 cities around the country, and in 23 local affiliates every school day, changing the lives of mothers across America. The understanding of activism as support to motherhood and alleviating poverty was not embraced by everyone; a memo from J. Edgar Hoover to the FBI offices reads:

The BCP (Breakfast for Children Program) promotes at least tacit support for the BlackPanther Party among naive individuals and, what is more distressing, it provides the BPP with a ready audience composed of highly impressionable youths. Consequently, the BCP represents the best and most influential activity going for the BPP and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for (FBI memo from FDR, quoted in The Black Panthers: Revolutionaries, Free Breakfast Pinoeers)

This pioneering program inspired the School Breakfast Program, founded by the US department of Agriculture and feeding nearly 13 million students every day.

The Black Panthers also organised support to mothers who were jailed; Safiya Bhukari, one of the notable organisers in the Black Panthers, founded a program called MILK (Mothers Inside Loving Kids), which was aimed to prevent the separation of incarcerated mothers from their children.

Joanna Clark

Mothers organising and organising for mothers have been perceived as a threat from the days of Clara Zetkin through to the Black Panthers. The surge of organising around the Civil Rights movement in issues of gender and welfare brought a huge contribution to the socialist written canon too. The writings of women of colour in the 1960s and 1970s have molded our thinking about gender activism in the USA and internationally. In this context I pause on Joanna Clark’s galvanising essay Motherhood, included in the groundbreaking anthology The Black Woman, originally published in the 1970s.

After a description of her experiences of motherhood ranging from struggling with strollers, to admitting herself to hospital due to exhaustion, ongoing financial and emotional concerns, and her awareness of her being at the intersection of racism and sexism, she concludes:

As mothers, we are worse off than we think we are. In this age of the sit-in and be-ing, it is time for a sit-down. And let’s not get up off of it until there’s at least social security and employment insurance for every mother [1].

Mums4Corbyn

The launch of Mums4Corbyn is another move in a long history of activist motherhood and a much needed intervention in our contemporary life in Britain. The issues raised by revolutionary mothers from Zetkin to the Black Panthers are all too familiar to feminist-socialist activists in the 21st century. Fair pay, childcare, maternity rights; different eras, different struggles; similar demands. We keep going ahead for our socialist grandmothers, mothers and more than anything, for our daughters and granddaughters.

In 1932, at the age of 75, walking up the stairs of the Reichstag, leaning against her comrades and aided by a cain, Grandmother Zetkin was to give a blazing speech against Hitler and against fascism. The struggle against fascism has regained its place in front page news in 2017. Mothers, daughters, granddaughters, have all been marching together around the world. Against the attack on reproduction rights; against gay, lesbian, bisexual, transexual and intersexual rights; against infringement of rights of minorities, of people of color, of Muslims, of Jews. Women of many generations walked together, the elders telling the younger women of similar marches they walked on twenty, thirty, forty years ago.

One sign that appeared in many women’s marches was “we are the granddaughters of the witches you failed to burn”. We are all the granddaughters of grandmother Zetkin; the daughters of many other mothers who have given us the rights and freedoms we have as women in the 21st century. This piece is not just a reflection on their place in history, but a reflection of the debt we owe to them, as daughters and granddaughters and as mothers of the next generation. Grandmother Zetkin, walking up the stairs of the Reichstag on that fateful day in 1932, bequeathed to us the legacy and calling for revolutionary motherhood. We march on.

Sources

Zetkin archive

Kollontai archive

Clara Zetkin, Letters and Writings, London: Socialist Platform, Merlin Press, Jane Slaughter and Robert Kern (eds), European Women of the Left: Socialism, 2015.

Feminism and the Problems faced by Political Women, 1880 to the Present, London and Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Toni Cade Bambara (ed), The Black Woman, New York: Washington Square Press, 2005.

Angela Bambace in the American National Biography Online

Pauline Newman in the Jewish Women’s Archive

Annelise Orleck, Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965, Chapel Hill: University of Carolina Press, 1995.

Gore, Dayo and Theoharis, Jeanne, Want to Start a Revolution? Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle, New York: New York University Press, 2009.

On Black Panthers and breakfast clubs

Mother give your mum record in the Library of Congress

Photo: Wikimedia Commons


  1. Joanna Clark, Motherhood, in The Black Woman, p. 86. ↩︎


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