Friday, March 9, 2012

International Women's Day--and Portaits of Twentieth-Century European Feminists

Let a joyous sense of serving the common class cause and of fighting simultaneously for their own female emancipation inspire women workers to join in the celebration of Women's Day.
 Alexandra Kollontai, "Women's Day" (1913)

Down with the world of Property and the Power of Capital!
Away with Inequality, Lack of Rights and the Oppression of Women – The Legacy of the Bourgeois World!
Forward To the International Unity of Working Women and Male
Workers in the Struggle for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat
– The Proletariat of Both Sexes!

Alexandra Kollontai, "International Women's Day" (1920)

To many today, these words of the Russian socialist and feminist may well seem stilted and the categories and concepts outmoded, and yet they can serve as a powerful reminder in several regards:  First, that women's rights were once an idea as radical as gay rights were for many people a generation ago. (Let us remind ourselves that it was only in 1920 that women received the vote in the United States, through the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution.) Second, that it was thus the "radical" or fringe groups that were the most consistent advocates for women's rights, arguing that even formal-legal equality through suffrage would not bring about true equality between the sexes. Third, and consequently, that they also saw an intimate connection between (though not absolute identity of) issues of gender and class, long before these became part of the obligatory (and, truth be told, sometimes far less conceptually sophisticated) "mantra" of "race, gender, and class" in the academic culture of our own day.

When I began my introductory historiography class yesterday, I decided to ask my students whether they knew the significance of that date in history. An open-ended question, to be sure, but not unreasonable, given that they would be unlikely to know some of the more minor anniversaries. (I did not expect that they would know, for example that, on that date in 1658, "After a devastating defeat in the Northern Wars, the King of Denmark–Norway was forced to give up nearly half his Danish territory to Sweden to save the rest," much less that, in 1924, "Three violent explosions at a coal mine near Castle Gate, Utah, US, killed all 171 miners working there," or even that in 1978, BBC Radio transmitted the first episode of "The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy." Neither did I, truth be told: one reason that Wikipedia Articles of the Day can be useful.)

What I was looking for, of course, was International Women's Day. A handful actually did know, and I gently teased those who did not (after all, in a "progressive" setting such as Hampshire College, who would or should not know such a thing? For shame, right?). One student actually knew some related details: that it was a demonstration for International Women's Day that was the nominal precipitant of the "February Revolution" in Russia in 1917 (still using the "old" calendar, which placed the date in that month rather than in March as in the west). However, that involved the celebration rather than the origin of the holiday.

The idea behind the celebration, as I explained, originated with nineteenth-century German socialists, who had long been advocates of women's rights. In 1910, at the Second International Conference of Working Women, Clara Zetkin proposed an annual holiday. The original date chosen was March 19, as the anniversary of the (mostly unfulfilled) concessions by the Prussian King to the revolutionaries in 1848. The first celebrations took place in 1911, and in 1913, the date was changed to March 8. Initially, the event was the focus for efforts on behalf of women's suffrage, but the scope has steadily expanded, and the United Nations officially embraced the holiday in 1975.

For this year's contribution, I thought I would share some portraits of modern European feminists and women politicians. In the mid-1920s, one Max Bindernagel, evidently an amateur artist active in Erfurt, produced some 200 sketches of world political and cultural figures: mostly contemporary; a few, historical (mainly marking their birth or death anniversaries). They are done in pen and India ink on cheap paper of about 13 by 20 cm. Most are vertical in orientation, but some are horizontal and contain double portraits. Most bear only the name of the person depicted, the artist's initials, and the date with no explicit connection between the choice of subject and date of work. A few do refer to current events, such as notable activities, honors, deaths, and the like, and contain explanatory captions. One assumes that the sketches were modeled after photographic images. Most are conventionally representational-realistic in nature, though one, of Mussolini, employs a markedly different Expressionist character to convey a message of pointed criticism. Some are rather accomplished, while many betray their amateur character or are downright awkward in execution.

I was struck by the overall range of the enterprise (apparently a purely personal endeavor), and not least, by the inclusion of figures from across the political spectrum and the representation of female subjects. Among the handful of specimens that I acquired a few years ago are the following portraits of notable women.

Pioneering Swedish "difference feminist" Ellen Key (1849-1926), who moved from radical liberalism to socialism, and wrote about issues of family, sexuality, and education, in particular. I first encountered her as a graduate student when I was studying the German socialist periodicals of the late nineteenth century.
Bindernagel's caption:

Ellen Keÿ has died.
(Stockholm, 25 April 1926.) The author Ellen Keÿ, who for some time has been grievously ill, died the preceding night in Strand (on the Vättersee).

The indomitable Clara Zetkin (1857-1933), late in life. The founder of International Women's Day went on to organize women's opposition to the First World War, which earned her several stints in jail. She was a co-founder of both the radical Spartacist League and the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD), which broke with the majority socialists over their reformist policies and support for participation in the war. Soon afterward, she joined the new Communist Party, serving in a number of its top posts and as a deputy in the Reichstag. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, she went into exile in the Soviet Union, where she died soon thereafter. Zetkin became part of the secular pantheon of communist East Germany.

(Zetkin was certainly one tough character but even she didn't look quite this grim. The artist apparently tried—without quite succeeding—to capture the spirit of this photograph.)

Marie Juhacz (1879-1956): socialist, Women's Secretary in the Social Democratic Party, deputy to the Reichstag. She has a number of "firsts" to her credit:  the only woman on the commission that drafted the constitution of the Weimar Republic, and the first woman to make a speech in a German parliamentary assembly. The  founder of the "Workers' Welfare Organization" (AWO), she emigrated from Germany after the Nazi seizure of power and spent the war in the United States.

Else Lüders (1878-1956) Already in 1908, at a gathering of women's associations, she argued that female servants, like other workers, should adopt a union model of labor organization. Like Juhacz, she achieved a number of "firsts" for women: first German woman to receive a doctorate in political science, first woman to serve on the standards commission of the Association of German Engineers. She was among the co-founders of both the League of German Academic Women and the centrist German Democratic Party (DDP).

Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952), the great Russian left revolutionary and feminist, still known for her frank writings on women's rights, women's experience, and sexual as well as social equality. As People's Commissar for Social Welfare and founder of the the Zhenotdel (Women's Department), she sought to foster women's education and improve women's status under the new regime in keeping with the commitment to socialist rather than "bourgeois" feminism. The child of a Ukrainian Tsarist general of noble descent (but liberal political views) and a Finnish peasant mother, this former Menshevik-turned Bolshevik was never easy to classify—or control. After being marginalized as a member of the left opposition to Lenin's new order, she occupied various diplomatic posts: beginning with the portfolio for Norway, which made her the first woman ambassador. This "first" was thus a genuine one, but occasioned in part by the regime's desire to put her where it could benefit the most from her status and she could cause the least trouble. (Subsequent posts included the ambassadorships to Mexico and Sweden and service on the League of Nations delegation of the USSR.)

Bindernagel's caption:
The only woman diplomat in the world.

Frau A. Kollontaÿ, the Soviet-Russian Ambassador in Oslo (Norway), not only a very elegant but also a very skillful representative of the interests of her homeland.

The great socialist and pacifist artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), celebrated above all for her depictions of social misery and message of political protest. Some have seen in the social thematics, cautious distance from formalistic artistic isms, and emphasis on the "secondary" form of the graphic arts a particular feminine choice or destiny of the era. Although perhaps best known for her drawings and prints in various media, Kollwitz was also a distinguished sculptor, a fact that Bindernagel highlights in his caption (though he seems to err in point of fact, for the one-woman show featured graphic works):
Käthe Kollwitz.
On [the occasion of] her great successes in America.
The famous artist Käthe Kollwitz, whose talent in painting and drawing in particular long ago placed her in the first rank of German creative artists, has now arranged a special exhibition of her works, first and foremost including sculpture, in New York, and enjoyed an extraordinary success. 20 February 1926 M.B.

And finally, to return to our own neighborhood:  As chance would have it, Smith College was in effect created on the date that would become International Women's Day when, "in 1870, a shy but determined woman from Hatfield willed that her fortune be used to establish a women's college in Northampton."

Hereby, selected links on this year's commemorations:

International Women's Day
"What is there to celebrate around the world on International Women's Day? – interactive. Women from 11 countries give their thoughts on achievements where they live (The Guardian)
• Kate Freeman, "International Women’s Day 2012 Tweets Flood the Twitterverse" (Mashable)
• John Kennedy, "Google reveals colorful International Women's Day Doodle" (Siliconrepublic)
• "World Marks International Women's Day" (Voice of America)
• "International Women's Day celebrated around the world" (Washington Post)
• Hibaaq Osman, "Arab Women Shaping the Future--Now, More Than Ever" (Huffington Post)
• "Myths and Facts: Women Do Not Have Equal Rights in Israel" (Jewish Virtual Library)
Women's guided tours: by women, for women, about the women in Friedrich Schiller's family (in German) at the Schiller House in Marbach


2010 post
2009 post


SnoopyTheGoon said...

Hm... A very good post, if I may be allowed to say so. The pictures, however, are singularly uninspiring and may even lead the reader to some sweeping conclusions... I shudder to think about these.

Citizen Wald said...

Thanks, and yes, as I suggested, these are amateur(ish) works, but I was intrigued by the artist's attempt to be so comprehensive and inclusive.