Boschek, Anna (1874–1957)
Boschek, Anna (1874–1957)
Austrian Socialist pioneer who organized strikes, gave countless speeches, and played a major role in building up a strong women's section within the Austrian Social Democratic movement. Born in Vienna, Austria, on May 14, 1874; died in Vienna on November 19, 1957; third of eight children of a locksmith and a former agricultural laborer; never married; no children.
Left primary school after four years to help support family; worked at various unskilled factory jobs; attended night school and joined Social Democratic movement (early 1890s); involved in strikes and political agitation; became secretary of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) trade union commission (1894); was a tireless advocate of political organization of Austrian working-class women; was a member of Austrian delegation to International Socialist Women's Conference (1907); was the first woman to serve in SDP Executive Committee (1909); served in various capacities in Austrian Parliament (1919–34); was responsible for several major pieces of social legislation; unable to resume political career after 1945 due to declining health, but remained personally active within Social Democratic circles.
A genuine child of the proletariat, Anna Boschek was born the third of eight children into an impoverished working-class family in Vienna on May 14, 1874. Her parents were barely able to feed, clothe and shelter their growing brood in a time of laissez-faire capitalism. The Social Darwinist theory of the day argued that assisting workers with higher wages would only encourage them to become more dissolute and irresponsible (i.e., to have more children and go deeper into debt). Private charity remained virtually powerless in the face of a rapidly growing industrial work force that was often unemployed and destitute because of the vagaries of the market. Anna's father died when she was nine, and she was forced to work in a factory to help feed the desperate family. With virtually no child-labor legislation on the books, she worked long hours under dangerous conditions for minuscule wages. The more demanding of the many jobs Boschek held over the next few years included working in a galvanizing factory, where the acids scarred her face and hands, and a harmonica-manufacturing plant, where she and other 14-year-old girls worked 11 hours a day producing harmonica parts at unsafe presses.
A growing spirit of solidarity among many of the female factory workers brought ideas of union organization to Anna Boschek. On one occasion, when she working in a knitting mill, she was on the verge of tears because her yarn was defective which meant her wages would be reduced due to a fall in productivity. Another worker helped her by providing practical advice about improving the quality of her production. The coworker left her with an important idea: women workers needed to assist each other, so that "as a result of our sticking together all of us will be able to improve our material circumstances."
Boschek's discovery in 1892 of the educational organization of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) was of great importance. Formed in 1889, the SDP was grounded in Marxist principles, believing that the future of the industrial world belonged to an educated and militant working class. For Anna Boschek, whose formal education had ended after four years of primary schooling, a new world opened. World literature, philosophy and music were unveiled every Sunday in lectures designed to impart basic culture and knowledge to enthusiastic working men and women. Soon, she was a militant Socialist.
By 1894, Boschek's energy and intelligence had brought her to the attention of the women's branch of the SDP. She was entrusted with the important task of serving as secretary of the party's trade-union commission. The next years were busy; Boschek organized strikes, gave countless speeches, and played a major role—along with Adelheid Popp and Therese Schlesinger —in building a strong women's section within the Austrian Social Democratic movement. The forces keeping women subjugated, whether from a patriarchal society or a repressive government, were not easily overcome. At first, few women joined unions. In 1893, of the 31,522 union members in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, only 659 were women. Through the tireless agitation of Anna Boschek and her fellow Socialists, these statistics improved dramatically over the next years; by 1905, 28,402 women were registered union members. For years, Boschek traveled throughout the German-speaking industrial districts of the monarchy, speaking to female workers desperate for a better life.
By 1909, her record of achievement found recognition within the leadership of the Austrian Social Democratic Party, which voted her the first woman to serve on its Executive Committee. By 1914, she was also the only woman serving in the leadership boards of several of the leading Austrian trade unions. During World War I, Boschek experienced the countless tragedies of friends and comrades whose sons died at the front. She was also torn by the serious ideological stresses that severed working-class unity. Despite everything, she remained loyal to the Social Democratic ideal, which was Marxist yet democratic, that dominated the political Left in Austria. A positive moment of these traumatic years came in 1918 when women were granted the vote. As a consequence of this major reform, Boschek was one of seven Social Democratic women elected in February 1919 to the Austrian National Assembly, the first women to serve in the national parliament.
In the first years of her parliamentary service, Boschek was determined to bring about major social reforms for the workers of the new Austrian Republic. Despite the terrible poverty that plagued the mini-state that the once proud empire of the Habsburgs had now become, Boschek and the Social Democrats nevertheless effected major legislative reforms, including the eight-hour workday and great improvements in the laws relating to domestic labor and health insurance.
A much respected party veteran in the 1920s, Boschek witnessed the decline and fall of democracy in the Austria of the early 1930s. The bloody suppression of democracy in February 1934 ended the model administration of "Red Vienna" and Anna Boschek's career in public life. Along with the other Social Democratic deputies, she was expelled from parliament and placed on a "watch list." Boschek survived the Nazi occupation of Austria to welcome the return of democracy in the spring of 1945. By now a venerable old lady with failing eyesight, she could no longer be an active participant in the daily tumble of politics but was still to be seen at most meetings. Anna Boschek died in her beloved Vienna on November 19, 1957. In 1959, a new building for female apprentices was dedicated in her honor. Working-class Vienna, particularly its women, owes much to her.
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John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia