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International Women’s Day: Who was Clara Zetkin?

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Clara picture
A photograph of Clara Zetkin, which appeared in the Manchester Guardian in August 1932. Photograph: guardian.co.uk

The 8th of March marks International Women’s Day, a day with over a century of history and change behind it.

Originally known as International Working Women’s Day, its roots lie in the socialist, rather than feminist, struggle of the early 20th century. Although national days had been celebrated prior to 1911, the 18 March of that year marked the first International day, following a proposal from German communist Clara Zetkin.

Zetkin had been involved with the socialist movement in Germany since the 1870’s, and her name frequently came up in Manchester Guardian reports on the annual International Socialist and Trade Unions Congress. She was also a fervent campaigner for women’s rights and universal suffrage, although, as this profile by Shelley Holland, published in the Guardian in 1992, illustrates, Zetkin believed socialism was the only movement that ‘could truly serve the needs of working-class women’ – and that feminism was the preserve of the upper and middle-classes.

However, as much as her political views were focussed on class, rather than gender, divisions, reports such as the one below in the Manchester Guardian from 1901 perhaps only served to highlight how women were viewed at the time.

Clara is a comrade
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Despite the mention of a ‘Niagara of shrill invective,’ Zetkin was renowned throughout her career for her passionate oratory skills. She represented the German Communist Party in the Reichstag from 1920 until 1933 (when the party was banned by Hitler). Her election to the Reichstag in 1932 made her its oldest member, and tradition dictated she opened the parliamentary session. She did so with a 40 minute attack on Hitler and the Nazi party.

Clara at the reichstag
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Clara Zetkin died in 1933. In her obituary (see below), the Manchester Guardian referred to her as the ‘grandmother of communism,’ yet the legacy of International Women’s Day, and her contribution to it, should also be recognised, and celebrated.

Clara obituary

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Reiss UK

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