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The incompatibility of feminism and Marxism, Part 1: The Birth of Feminism

October 10, 2018


Edited by Nuevo Curso. It is part 1 of a series on feminism, the WSPU, and Sylvia Pankhurst.


In 1865, eleven London women with a common interest in education formed a discussion group: the Kensington Society. Nine of them were single. All of them were property owners. Three of them, Sara Bodichon, Emily Davies, and Jessie Boucherett, drafted a petition to John Stuart Mill, a member of parliament at the time, asking for the right to vote of, "all householders, without distinction of sex, who possess such property or rental qualification as your Honorable House may determine.” John Stuart Mill and Henry Fawcett presented the petition, signed by 1,499 women, in the House of Commons on June 7, 1866. 

Until the passage of the married women's property laws of 1870, 1874, and 1882 in Great Britain, married women were unable to own property in their own right.[1] Single propertied women, on the other hand, were living in a historical context where they were unable to access jobs that were commensurate with their economic position. They could not fully access the professional field, such as medicine or engineering, or the world of business. 72.5% of teachers were women, but teaching was poorly paid and offered little social recognition, and the same went for the position of the governess. These unmarried petty-bourgeois women, who lacked upward mobility, entrepreneurial and professional opportunities, formed the backbone of British feminism.



Feminism sprouted from the petty bourgeoisie, it was a movement of propertied single women demanding the right to vote of "all property owners without distinction of sex”, a demand which excluded the female working class.


The petition of the Kensington Society could not hide the class character of suffragism. The right to vote for "all property owners, without distinction of sex" excluded not only married women - whose property passed in Britain, unlike many continental countries, to their husbands - but also working-class women. This was because the criterion was not even to have income or economic autonomy, but a certain threshold of property. The proletarians, single or married, always had to work in factories or in domestic service to earn their daily bread. “Respectable" women, however, were not expected to work, especially in factory jobs. The criterion for the vote was not the personal independence that the voter was supposed to have, but, based as it was on property qualifications, had a bourgeois class character.




An interim committee succeeded the Kensington Society and then became the London National Society for Women's Suffrage. It was followed by another committee dedicated to organizing women property owners in Manchester and on 6 November 1867, both groups joined a third that emerged in Edinburgh, creating the "National Society for Women's Suffrage" (NSWS).[2] The conditions for its evolution towards a wider movement would come in 1870 with the passage of the Married Women's Property Act, which instituted that:


“The wages and earnings of any married woman acquired or gained by her after the passing of this Act in any employment, occupation, or trade (a) in which she is engaged or which she carries on separately from her husband (b), and also any money or property so acquired by her through the exercise of any literary, artistic, or scientific skill, and all investments (c) of such wages, earnings, money, or property, shall be deemed and taken to be property held and settled to her separate use (d), independent of any husband to whom she may be married, and her receipts alone shall be a good discharge for such wages, earnings, money, and property.”


The effects of the law were limited because they only pertained to the money and property that women acquired after the passage of the law, leaving everything they had acquired before its passage to their husbands. But instituting the division of property was a crucial step towards a possible granting of voting rights to married women of the bourgeois classes. It established a social basis for a movement for the right to vote of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. The goal was to abolish the barrier of sex in the political representation of the propertied and then, from there, to ascend in the economic scale as businesswomen or professionals.




In spite of their social homogeneity, the suffragettes experienced many splits and internal battles.  In 1871, London separated itself from the rest of the country to support the campaign of the Ladies National Association (LNA) against the Contagious Diseases Act. They would rejoin in 1877 but still have another split in 1888. Part of the movement wanted to join the women's section of the Liberal Party, others wanted to maintain their independence from party politics. A year later, they would still suffer a split by those who did not agree to restrict voting to unmarried propertied women and advocated instead, the vote for all women... with property. As a result, they ended up forming the Women's Franchise League (WFrL).






The conflict between the two trends continued even after a new statute for married women was approved in 1882 that allowed married women to maintain income and property that they acquired throughout marriage. Although married bourgeois women could no longer be implicitly discriminated against on property grounds if female property owners were granted the vote, the conflict between the feminists who created the WFrL and those who wanted to restrict the vote exclusively to single women had a strategic background: to establish the surest way to win the class solidarity of bourgeois men for the movement. Its class character was unquestionable. The WFrL was intended, "to extend to women, whether unmarried, married or widowed, the right to vote at parliamentary, municipal, local and other elections’ on the same terms as men.”[3] Obviously "the same terms as men" referred to the same qualifications of property.


The first internal battles of feminism between those defending the right to vote of all wealthy women and those limiting it to single women never included working women.


There could be no greater contrast with the politics of the revolutionary movement. Since the Gotha Congress (1875), the German socialists have placed the "women's question" at the center of their strategy, organizing more and more women workers and fighting for universal suffrage for both sexes. The struggle for universal suffrage was inseparable from the general objectives of the labor movement, because communism is not only the negation of capitalism or its direct consequences, but of any class society, with all its associated systems of oppression and discrimination, from linguistic oppression to sexism.


As Rosa Luxemburg pointed out in the National Question

“The duty of the class party of the proletariat to protest and resist national oppression arises not from any special ‘right of nations', just as, for example, its striving for the social and political equality of sexes does not at all result from any special ‘rights of women’ which the movement of bourgeois emancipationists refers to. This duty arises solely from the general opposition to the class regime and to every form of social inequality and social domination, in a word, from the basic position of socialism.”


The efforts of the left wing of the Second International to incorporate women workers into the socialist movement and fight for their needs did not come from a feminist sentiment, from an extension of the inter-classist politics of feminism. On the contrary, all their efforts were part of their revolutionary politics, it was a logical extension of the movement that sought to seize power from the bourgeois class and create a truly human world. For them, as for all Marxists of the time, the myth of the "community of women's interests" concealed the antagonism between classes. Feminist "sorority" has the same meaning for women workers as the Jacobin "fraternity" that did not distinguish between sexes: subjection to class interests of others. That is why Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, Alexandra Kollontai and other revolutionaries were unconditionally against feminism. They understood, unlike academic "Marxist feminists", that feminism is irreconcilable with communism.


In 1892, the founders of the WFrL, Emmeline and Richard Pankhurst, caused an altercation at a meeting of suffragettes. Lydia Becker, in the meeting, was pushing for a bill that would give the vote exclusively to unmarried women. The Pankhursts interrupted the speakers by shouting their objections. Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy, WFrL's organizational secretary, disapproved of her behavior, and resigned. She was replaced as secretary by Ursula Bright, wife of a Liberal parliamentarian, which signified the strengthening the ties between the WFrL and the Liberal Party. In the end, the work of Ursula Bright, Emmeline Pankhurst and others gained enough influence to insert their principles into the Local Government Statute of 1894. This law enshrined the principle that all women, married or unmarried, had the right to vote in local elections if they had sufficient assets.[4] 





The Liberal Party, which had already split in 1886 as a result of the debate over Irish autonomy, elected the Count of Rosebury, representing the imperialist faction, as its leader in 1894. Like many other liberals, the Pankhursts then left the party[5] to join the reformist Independent Labour Party (ILP). The ILP was a product of the British trade unions, which at that time were struggling to get their own deputies. Initially they had supported liberal parliamentarians opposed to anti-union legislation. But the Liberal Party did not live up to the expectations of either the unions or the Pankhursts. The unions urged the Liberal Party caucuses to elect some of their leaders as candidates, which the Liberal Party failed to do. Not only did it fail to carry out this task, but by pressing for the post of deputy to remain unpaid, it further alienated the aspirations of workers in general for parliamentary representation. All these disappointments led to the creation of the Labor Representation Committe: a federal organization made up of trade unions and the ILP.[6]

Until 1894 feminism was associated with the British Liberal Party. It was its turn to the right with the triumph of its imperialist wing which led it to approach Labourism.


The new map of alliances opened the way to a reorientation of feminism. Emmeline Pankhurst founded the WPSU in 1903. At this point, the suffragettes were going to try to win over working women, much larger in number and above all much more organized, by proposing an interclassist front "of women" whose objective would be to achieve bourgeois deputies within the census system. In other words, feminism was preparing to ask for the support of women workers for their own interests under a program that openly excluded them.





- KJ







[1] Andrew Rosen, Rise Up, Women! The Militant Campaign of the Women’s Social and Political Union 1903-1914: (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 1974), The harshness of the common law was mitigated, however, for the daughters of the rich [the bourgeoisie proper]. W. L. Burn has written, 'Among the upper classes it was customary for an elaborate settlement to be executed in anticipation of marriage. Such a settlement was likely to give the wife a right to a specified amount of pin-money and, broadly speaking, to separate her property in law from her husband's.’


[2] Ibid, 1-7


[3] Paula Bartley, Access to History: Votes for Women Third Edition (London: Hodder Education, 2007)


[4] Paula Bartley, Emmeline Pankhurst (Oxon: Routledge, 2002), 40-41


[5] Ibid, 42


[6] Mary Davis, Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life in Radical Politics (London: Pluto Press, 1999), 16-17

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