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August Bebel, Women under Socialism (1879)

August Bebel (1840-1913), the son of a low-ranking Prussian officer and a wood-turner by trade, became the most iconic Social Democrat in Imperial Germany. In 1866, together with Wilhelm Liebknecht, he founded the Saxon People’s Party, as well as what later became known as the Eisenach wing of Social Democracy, which united with the Lassallean wing at the Gotha party congress of 1875. Bebel was chairman of the renamed Social Democratic Party (SPD) [Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands] (1892-1913) and by far its most important parliamentary spokesman and strategist. He was first elected to the Reichstag of the North German Confederation in February 1867 by a Saxon constituency, and he served in that house, with short interruptions (including a jail term for treason in 1872-1875), until his death in 1913. He was also a member of the lower house of Saxony’s state parliament from 1881 to 1891.

In 1879, Bebel published Women under Socialism [Die Frau und der Sozialismus]. The book’s publication defied Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Law, which had been passed the previous year. It was officially banned in a decree issued on March 24, 1879. Circulated through the SPD’s underground network of agents, clubs, and publishers, and then revised and expanded in the course of numerous new editions, it became socialism’s most widely-read book up to the turn of the century. In it, Bebel argues that working-class women were discriminated against in two ways: as workers and as women. Like all members of the proletariat, women were economically dependent upon the capitalist class, but they were doubly disadvantaged in that they were also dependent upon men of their own class. Bebel insists that the liberation of women is possible only through resolution of the “social question.”

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This chapter can be condensed in few words. It contains only the conclusions that arise from what has been said so far about the position of women in future society, conclusions that the reader may easily draw for himself at this point.

The woman of future society is socially and economically independent; she is no longer subject to even a vestige of dominion and exploitation; she is free, the peer of man, mistress of her lot. Her education is the same as that of man, with such exceptions as the difference of sex and biological function demand. Living under natural conditions, she is able to unfold and exercise her mental powers and faculties. For her occupation, she chooses those fields that correspond with her wishes, inclinations, and natural abilities, and she works under the same conditions as man. Even if she is engaged as a practical working-woman in some field or another, she may be an educator, teacher, or nurse in the second part of her day; she may practice some type of art, or cultivate some branch of science in the third part; and she may fill some administrative function in the fourth. She joins in studies, completes chores, enjoys pleasures and social intercourse with either her sisters or with men – as she pleases or as occasion serves.

In choosing love, she is, like man, free and unhampered. She woos or is wooed, and seals the bond out of no consideration other than her own inclination. This bond is a private contract, celebrated without the intervention of any functionary – just as marriage was a private contract until well into the Middle Ages. Socialism creates nothing new here: it merely restores, at a higher level of civilization and under new social forms, that which prevailed at a more primitive social stage before private property began to rule society.

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