Ihrer, Emma (1857–1911)
Ihrer, Emma (1857–1911)
German labor union leader and feminist, one of the first women to head a Social Democratic union in Germany, who served as editor of the journal Die Gleichheit. Born Emma Rother-Faber on January 3, 1857, in Glatz, Silesia, Germany (now Klodzko, Poland); died in Berlin on January 8, 1911.
Born in Silesia in 1857 into a lower-middle class family (her father was a shoemaker) that was strongly conservative Roman Catholic, Emma Rother-Faber married a pharmacist in the town of Velten but soon tired of this life, moving to Berlin in 1881. Trained as a milliner, she sought work in the ready-made garment industry but quickly discovered the deplorable working conditions in the factories and shops of the German capital. At first, she joined and became active on the board of the Association for Female Manual Workers, but left because of bias. Though the association ran an employment service and provided reading rooms and dining facilities, it was indifferent to the needs of factory working women, favoring instead workers of the middle class. In the early 1880s, labor unions representing factory workers were suppressed by both employers and the police, who invariably sided with the forces of capital against labor. The only political organization to champion the rights of workers, the Socialist Workers' Party (later the Social Democratic Party, or SPD) had been banned on dubious grounds in the late 1870s, and there appeared to be little hope that the living conditions of the working classes would improve at any reasonable point in the future. The masses had numbers in the millions, but the employers and the state had power—legal, military and bureaucratic—on their side.
Despite the danger, Ihrer joined the illegal Socialist Workers' Party in 1881 and was active in efforts to organize Berlin's working women in trade unions. In 1885, she founded the Association for the Representation of the Interests of Female Workers (Verein zur Vertretung der Arbeiterinnen), an organization closely allied to the Social Democratic Party, a fact that provided Berlin authorities with the pretext to dissolve it in 1886. Police persecution and harassment did not, however, succeed in breaking Ihrer's spirit. She spread the message of union organization and the ideals of a better society through countless speeches delivered in cities, towns, and villages the length and breadth of the German Reich. By the end of the 1880s, Ihrer had gained the respect of the (male) leadership of the Social Democratic Party and was being viewed as one of the movement's future luminaries.
In July 1889, she went to Paris as a member of the German delegation to participate in the founding congress of the Second International, the new world body of Socialist parties. Back in Berlin later that same year, she served as cofounder and member of the SPD "commission for agitation," a body whose goal was the rapid unionization of female workers. The next year, in November 1890, she was the only woman to serve as a delegate to the founding conference of the SPD Free Trade Union movement. That year saw the end of government repression of the SPD, and, with the new freedom granted to both the party and trade union activities, Ihrer founded and became editor-in-chief of Die Arbeiterin (The Woman Worker), the SPD journal for female trade unionists. Under its new title Die Gleichheit (Equality), this journal would attract as editors and collaborators some of the most gifted women in the SPD, including Clara Zetkin . In 1893, Ihrer published one of the first books to chronicle the development of women in German trade unions; it also suggested strategies for future success.
Ihrer's numerous amours sometimes raised eyebrows among the members of the SPD. In an 1891 letter to Karl Kautsky describing Ihrer's activities at the Party conference at Erfurt that year, Karl Marx's former colleague Friedrich Engels noted: "This lady also appears to be very generous with her affections…. Her generosity appearsalso to bring good fortune, in view of the fact that all of her lovers were successful in the most recent elections." In later years, Ihrer settled down with one man, trade-union leader Carl Legien.
Convinced that only the achievement of socialism would bring about the social, economic and personal emancipation of women, Ihrer debated these issues on numerous occasions with middle-class women. In her 1898 book, The Female Worker in the Class Struggle (Die Arbeiterin im Klassenkampf), she argued for a clear break between bourgeois and proletarian female emancipation. As early as 1895, she had called for a vote in the Reichstag, imperial Germany's Parliament, to decide on granting full civic equality to women. Introduced by the revered leader of the SPD, August Bebel, the resolution went down to defeat. Ihrer grew more militant as time went by. In 1896, along with Zetkin, Adelheid Popp , and Eleanor Marx-Aveling , she issued a statement to the fourth congress of the Socialist International, held that year in London: "For those proletarian women who desire their own liberation, the only place to be is in the ranks of the fighting proletariat, not in the organizations of bourgeois feminists and suffragettes."
Throughout the 1890s and early years of the 20th century, Ihrer was extremely active in various aspects of the German trade-union movement. With each passing year, she was more convinced that Germany's women could only gain full rights if they became union members. By the mid-1890s, she had succeeded in changing the statutes of the Free Trade Unions so that they could both recruit and admit women as full members. Turning socialist theory into practice, in 1901 Ihrer founded a union for women producing artificial flowers, feathers, and dusters. This industry, which had long been fighting a losing battle against industrialization, was located primarily in Berlin, Schleswig, and Saxony. Ihrer faced an uphill climb in attempting to organize workers in this industry, but she was soon publishing Blumen-Arbeiter (The Flower Worker), a small monthly journal for union members, and recruiting men as well as women for membership. The work was often seasonal,
and union membership fluctuated, but she persisted, and by 1910, the year before her death, the Artificial Flower Makers Union could point to a modest but encouraging growth.
In 1905, Ihrer entered into a stormy debate that broke out among the Social Democratic intellectuals. In an article published in the ideological journal Sozialistische Monatshefte (Socialist Monthly Review), Edmund Fischer argued that Social Democratic advocacy of women's emancipation, long part of the party's agenda, was essentially erroneous in that it went against "the nature of women and of mankind as a whole. It is unnatural, and hence impossible to achieve." Many of the party's leaders, including Ihrer, were infuriated with Fischer's article and responded vehemently. Zetkin published a biting reply in Die Gleichheit, and Ihrer, in an article in the Sozialistische Monatshefte, heaped scorn on Fischer's idolatry of the notion of "home sweet home," designating such sentimental ideals little more than "a sickness," and categorically dismissing the view that motherhood and childrearing were to be seen as the highest goals for women.
"To be a mother is as little a life's goal as to be a father," wrote Ihrer. "Women can find their life's goal only in general work areas or in solving social tasks that are in the interest of all." For society as a whole, however, she believed that a vast restructuring would be essential so that motherhood and employment could one day be balanced, enabling married women to work and also be successful, nurturing mothers and productive, fulfilled family members. In the new socialist commonwealth of the future, an alternative model would prevail, one that enabled its women to "choose one occupation according to her capabilities and inclinations: she will be either working woman or educator of children or housekeeper, but not all three, as is today's proletarian woman."
In her final years, Ihrer remained a militant defender of the rights of women both within the Social Democratic Party and in the world at large. She died in Berlin on January 8, 1911, much mourned by her colleagues, both men and women. On February 9, 1989, Emma Ihrer was honored by the Federal Republic of Germany when she was depicted on a 5 pfennig postage stamp in the "Women of German History" definitive series.
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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia