This article is by Kassie Hartendorp, organiser of the Wellington branch of the Workers Party. The article will be printed in three parts, in the new Women’s Liberation section of The Spark.
Historically, one of the most controversial topics within Marxist theory is ‘the woman question’ which continues to create debate and disagreement within socialist politics. August Bebel defines the woman question as dealing “with the position that woman should hold in our social organism, and seeks to determine how she can best develop her powers and her abilities, in order to become a useful member of human society, endowed with equal rights and serving society according to her best capacity.” Because the demand for women’s rights is often seen to conflict with the priority of class struggle, some Marxists have refrained from tackling this topic, as it has not been uncommon for groups to split over disagreements on how to end women’s oppression. In this article we will review four writers; Frederick Engels, August Bebel, Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollontai and analyse what they have put forward in regards to women’s suffrage, marriage and the family, motherhood and love, and sexuality. This is only a small selection of the plethora of issues within the woman question, but due to word restraints, I will be just discussing these four areas. We choose here to use the term ‘women’s oppression’ rather than the more recently used ‘gender inequality’. While the terms are similar, the former is the historically specific description of the oppression and exploitation of women within the longer trajectory of capitalism.
Women’s suffrage is often associated with first-wave feminism, but the well-known suffragists of the Western world were not the only ones demanding change within the electoral system. Most socialist groups agreed that women should be given full political rights, which included the right to vote and to be elected to public office, however, these matters were treated in terms of whether or not they were prioritised. Clara Zetkin, a German socialist active from the late 1870s through until the early 1930s) was devoted to the issue of women’s suffrage, arguing that it was of utmost importance for socialist organisations to demand voting rights for women. Women did not gain the vote in Germany until 1918, and Zetkin was a key figure in forming a socialist women’s movement that fought for women’s political equality. Her paper “Social Democracy and Woman Suffrage” was given as a speech to the Conference of Women before the opening of the Annual Congress of the German Social-Democracy in 1906 (when ‘social democracy’ was a term still in use to describe revolutionary socialism).
Using the Marxist method of historical materialism to analyse the fight for women’s rights, Zetkin began her speech by stating that women’s suffrage is a “direct consequence of the capitalist mode of production.” She linked women’s oppression, and the fight for gender equality back to the idea that all social relations and structures are based on the mode of production, and without surplus-value, and the rise of capitalism, both the conditions of women, and their fight for equality, would not exist.
Zetkin went on to say that the middle-class agitation movement - or what would be described now as first-wave feminism - demands that women’s suffrage be granted because it is a ‘natural right.’ In contrast, Zetkin stated that: “We, on the contrary, basing our demand on the teachings of economics and of history, advocate the suffrage for women as a social right, which is not based on any natural right, but which rests on social, transient conditions.” Here she differentiated the socialist struggle for women’s rights, from that of the bourgeois women’s movement by punctuating the understanding the world through the theoretical foundation of Marxism – dialectical materialism.
Engels described the materialist dialectic as the “cycle in which every finite mode of existence of matter, whether it be sun or nebular vapour, single animal or genus of animals, chemical combination or dissociation, is equally transient, and wherein nothing is eternal but eternally changing, eternally moving matter and the laws according to which it moves and changes.” It is the idea that nothing is static, and that everything, including social and economic structures, is constantly in a process of motion. Within the first part of her paper, Zetkin has immediately stated her viewpoint on the issue as coming from Marxist theory, which sets her apart from first-wave feminists who were working towards the same goals, but from a different theoretical and practical standpoint.
Zetkin continued by stating why, in her opinion, women should be given the vote. She argues that because of capitalism, and the poverty that it brings, many women have a harder time giving birth to, and raising children in such conditions. Of this she states that “the demand for Woman Suffrage is only a phase of the demand that their high social worth should be more adequately recognised.” In this sense she believes that women are not idle, thoughtless creatures as was predominantly thought at this time, but rather they contribute to society as much as men do but in a different way. Her argument continued that women should be recognised for this contribution and should therefore be allowed to vote for their political leaders, as well as stand for office. Zetkin goes on to argue from the perspective of difference feminism, by stating that she believes men and women are different in physical strength, and what she calls, “spiritual insight and intellectual aims.” However she follows this assertion up with the line: “to be different does not necessarily imply inferiority, and if it be true that we think, act, and feel differently, then we say that this is another reason which condemns the action of men in the past, and a reason why we should try and improve society.” Here she argued that due to their peaceful, nurturing nature, women would bring something different to society once they had achieved political equality. More recent history has shown that women are just as capable of performing aggressively when in positions of public office but during the period that she was agitating her view was not uncommon, and many first-wave feminists argued from a similar perspective.
Zetkin went on to discuss her own reasoning for fighting for women’s rights. She addressed the conference by saying: “Comrades, I declare that the strongest and greatest demand for women’s rights is not due to the increase of wealth among women, but that it is based on the poverty, on the need, on the misery of the great mass of women.” In this line she is linked women’s oppression to the wider class struggle, and identifyied that it is the masses of women in poverty that need political equality the most and are currently fighting for it, in order to change the system that exploits them both as workers, and as women. She elaborates on this further in the passage:
- The working women demand the Suffrage, not only to defend their economic and moral interests of life, but they wish for it not only as a help against the oppression of their class by men, and they are particularly eager for it in order to aid in the struggle against the capitalist classes. And they ask for this social reform not in order to prop up the middle class society and the capitalist system. We demand equal political rights with men in order that, with them, we may together cast off the chains which bind us, and that we may thus overthrow and destroy this society.
In the above, Zetkin identified women’s suffrage as a reform, rather than a final outcome. From a socialist perspective, the vote will not be used to prop up the capitalism, but must help to overthrow it. This is the major difference between socialist feminism and bourgeois feminism, in that the latter is often only looking to make reforms to the current system, with the political and legal equality of women being the end outcome. Socialist feminists on the other hand, see such equalities as being necessary reforms that help to ease the oppression of women, but that only through social revolution it can be abolished in its entirety. It is important to note that in the above passage, Zetkin also appeals to the idea of class unity, and that women and men must not be divided in the fight for women’s rights, but rather that they must work together to bring about a truly egalitarian society.
August Bebel (also a long-serving leader within German social democracy) was also a strong advocate for women’s suffrage and devoted a chapter to the topic in his book Women and Socialism. First written in 1879, this book is a key text on the position of women in society, its contents still relevant. Bebel firmly believed that women must be given both the right to vote, and the right to be elected to office. During this time, men across the Western world were for the most part, strongly opposed to these demands for a variety of reasons, including that women belonged in the domestic sphere, that women were biologically emotionally unstable and unable to vote, as well as the idea that they were just uninterested in and unfit for political life.
He reasoned that women contribute to the community just as much as the men who risk their lives to defend the country. He pointed out that the number of women who die during childbirth, or whose health is detrimentally affected because of it, is far greater than those men who die or are wounded on the battlefield. This was one of the reasons why women should be “entitled to full equality with man. He was responding to the argument from anti-suffragists that women did not risk their lives during war, and were therefore not entitled to the vote. Bebel’s reasoning was similar to Zetkin’s in that it emphasised women’s social worth and why they deserve political equality. Again, this perspective differs to that of first-wave feminists, as it does not come from the standpoint that the vote is a ‘natural right’ and rather that women had earned it in those social conditions.
- For the feminists, the achievement of equal rights with men within the framework of the contemporary capitalist world is a concrete ‘end in itself’; for proletarian women equal rights is merely a means to be used in the continuing struggle against the economic enslavement of the working class.
Like Zetkin, Kollontai has a contrasting view to first-wave feminists, as the priority for socialist feminists is first and foremost, to bring about a social revolution. Electoral rights are simply seen as a necessary reform to be used into order to achieve this goal. This differs to ‘liberal’ feminism, as the basis for their work, is predominantly to gain equality with men. However, the socialist feminist’s demands do not stop there, and call for a complete re-organisation of society. Their answer to women’s oppression lays in Kollontai’s question:
- Political rights, access to the election booth and a seat in parliament – this is the real aim of the bourgeois women’s movement. But can political equality in the context of the retention of the entire capitalist-exploiter system free the working woman from that abyss of evil and suffering which pursues and oppresses her both as a woman and as a human being?
Political equality for women is not the only thing that people need to be fighting for and it needs to be tied into the wider class struggle. She also drew attention to the intersecting oppressions that a working-class woman of her time was forced to endure. The proletarian woman is not simply oppressed by men, but by capitalist relations of production and the capitalist state, and to truly be free she must throw off her chains from both oppressors.
Marriage and the Family
One of the most widely discussed topics in regard to socialist feminism is the institution of family and more specifically marriage. Karl Marx’s friend and co-thinker Frederick Engels wrote The Origin of The Family, Private Property and The State (1884), which was his only substantial work on the position of women. Ideas contained in The Origin… are considered to be the definitive communist answer to women’s oppression within the domestic sphere. Engels started his argument by tracing history back to locate the reasons for women’s oppression. He drew from anthropologist and sociologist J.J Bachofen’s study on matriarchal clans to show evidence of woman’s higher social position in the ancient world. Engels analysed Bachofen’s view that humans originally lived in a state of sexual promiscuity which meant that descent was only traced through the female line, which is described as “mother-right.” Women were the only known parents, and it was said that this secured them a higher social position within their society. However, this changed when monogamy came about, which expected a woman to surrender herself for a limited period with a man, in order to create certainty of a child’s lineage. This theory, since subjected to much criticism, has formed the basis for Marxist thought on the role of women in history.
Engels expanded on this theory by tying the establishment of private property to the demise of the mother-right; the combination of the two he argued, lowered women’s status. The development of cattle-breeding, metalworking, weaving and agriculture provided families with a surplus, which led to concentrated private wealth within kinship groups. There became a sexual division of labour in which men obtained the food and owned all the tools or machinery used for this process. This meant that the man was the owner of new sources of subsistence, including cattle, and later slaves. Engels stated that because the male’s children could not inherit this wealth, mother-right was abolished and he asserted that this “overthrow of mother-right was the world historical defeat of the female sex.” He continues by saying after this event, “man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude, she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of his children.”
Engels developed this argument further by placing emphasis on the role that monogamy has to play in the institutional oppression of women. The monogamous tradition was “based on the supremacy of the man” and originated from the “concentration of a considerable wealth in the hands of a single individual – a man- and from the need to bequeath this wealth to the children of that man and no other.” As with the later analysis of Zetkin and Bebel, historical materialism was used as the framework to assess the oppression of women.
Without both the establishment of private property and the surplus that families could now create, there would be no concentrated wealth that men possessed to pass on to their children, meaning that monogamy would not have become the most common marriage type. The monogamous marriage was described by Engels as often turning into a crass form of prostitution, “sometimes of both partners, but far more commonly of the woman, who only differs from the courtesan in that she does not let out her body on piece-work as a wage-worker, but sells it once and for all into slavery.” Needless to say, this is a very strong statement which postulated that the difference is that a prostitute will sell her sexual labour for an agreed upon price on many separate occasions, whereas upon marrying, a woman has entered into a financial transaction where her body has been sold to her husband for an indefinite period, in exchange for economic security.
Although this seems like an extreme comparison to make; the idea that a woman belonged completely to her husband was commonplace and still survives. The fact that rape within marriage was legal in most countries until the late 1970s is ample evidence of this. The laws stemming from the legalisation of spousal rape are traceable to a Chief Justice in England during the 17th century who said that a husband cannot be guilty of rape of his wife “for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto the husband which she cannot retract.” This view was not uncommon, and was still prevalent up to the 20th century. Engels argued that in this way, marriage is based on the oppression of women.
Engels believed that it was necessary to create social equality between husband and wife, and that the first condition for the ‘liberation’ of the wife was to bring all women back into public industry. He wrote “the emancipation of women will only be possible when women can take part in production on a large, social scale, and domestic work no longer claims anything but an insignificant amount of her time.” Time has shown that Engels was correct on this point, as with more women in the workforce, and technological development in the household, women have indeed become more liberated, and are not as financially dependent on men. The second and most contested condition that Engels put forward was the abolition of the monogamous family as the economic unit of society. This depends on the transfer of the means of production into common ownership, where the single nuclear family ceases to be necessary. Engels proposed that once housework, childcare and education become a social industry women will have more time to participate in the public sphere, meaning they will not need to enter marriage for economic reasons. He concluded this stating that the full freedom of marriage cannot be established until capitalist production has been abolished as well as the property relations created by it. Only then people will begin to get married only because of mutual inclination. Engels’ analysis of women’s oppression is predominantly linked to economics. Only with a radical change to the social and economic system could full gender equality can be achieved.
August Bebel argued many of the same points as Engels, in Women and Socialism. His book is said to have been read more widely than The Origin of The Family, Private Property and The State, but is now less well-known. Like Engels, Bebel also believed that marriage under capitalism is nothing more than sexual slavery, and acknowledges that women have a double load to bear, because of both their economic dependence on men and their social dependence due to their “inferior position allotted to them in society.” He also recognised that proletarian women suffer from these inequalities more than their middle-class counterparts.
Bebel was stronger in his views on women’s oppression and could be described as more explicitly feminist than Engels. He stated that whatever the similarities between the proletarian woman and man, woman has one precedent over the working man, in that she was “the first human being who came into servitude.” From the progressive and pro-feminist socialist men, there were still a great number who did not think that women’s rights were a priority, and that the exploitation of workers was the main form of oppression to be combatted. To have a man writing specifically about women, was no small matter, and the book itself stirred many women into taking feminist action.
In regards to offering an answer to the marriage problem, Bebel tends to employ an ‘after the revolution’ solution in the conclusion of his title. He writes that in a new socialist society, a woman is free in the choice of love as a man, as marriage will become a union of “private agreement, without the interference of a functionary” and will reinstate what “generally prevailed before private property dominated society” but on a higher level of civilisation and under a different form. He continues by saying that the abolition of private property and inheritance laws will make women truly free and that instead of impairing on this freedom, the birth and care of her children will only add to her pleasure in life. Although Bebel’s solution seems plausible if you agree with the idea of socialism, his argument still seems grounded in the idea that once society has achieved a social revolution, everyone will be free, and that it is a matter of waiting until this happens before women can be emancipated. This type of view has been problematic within socialist and Marxist theory. Social institutions and subsequent cultural attitudes should constantly be challenged in order to bring about positive social change to those yet to be fully liberated.
Three decades after Bebel and Engels, Alexandra Kollontai focused on the way that capitalism individualises social relations. She wrote in Society and Motherhood that capitalism maintains a system of individual economies and that the family specifically exists as an independent economic unit concerned with consumption (in the case of the urban family). This unit involves both “the uneconomic expenditure of products and fuel on the part of small domestic economies” and “unproductive labour, especially by women in the home.” What Kollontai is arguing for is a more efficient economy that is focused on collective social consumption, as opposed to the present individualised system. Once domestic labour is socialised under Kollontai’s envisioned communist society, there would be no need for the family as we know it now, as jobs such as laundry, cooking and childcare are integrated into the public sphere. Once again, women’s emancipation is linked to freeing up women’s time for actual socialised labour, which can be achieved with a transformation of the current family structure.
Rarely discussed by male socialist theorists, Kollontai furthered the analysis of motherhood from a Marxist perspective. She identified the existence of the ‘motherhood problem’ whereby both woman and child both suffer under a state that does not provide for them or protect them. Abortions were illegal, contraception scarce or unreliable, and social securities such as paid parental leave didn’t register. Most working class women were forced to continue in their paid work straight after childbirth in order to earn the subsistence necessary for the family’s survival. Kollontai linked the problem of motherhood with that of labour and the living conditions of the working class when she asked:
- Will the mother and child gain any significant benefit from the introduction of relatively comprehensive protection if the working woman is subjected for the rest of the time to unrestricted exploitation by capital, if her working day is so long as to sap her strength, and the whole of the working class exists permanently on the edge of starvation?
Here she argued that although reforms that help protect mothers are necessary, they must go hand in hand with a transformation of the relations of production. This is an example of the intersection of both women’s liberation and the class struggle, and is indicative of revolutionary socialist theory, rather than reform-focused liberalism. Although it is important that women and children get provided for by the state, there is still the issue of poverty that will not disappear without a radical restructuring. Kollontai traced the concept of the family back to when it was a productive unit that required new members in order to help with the share of labour. During that period it could be argued that the individual upbringing of a child was economically justified, but because the modern family unit has no such requirements within developed capitalism, there seems to be no reason for keeping all responsibility for the new generation within this private unit. Therefore, Kollontai argued that once the outdated family unit has ceased to exist, the responsibility of raising children will transfer to the entire community.
Until such time, she had concrete plans (that she attempted to implement during her time on the Central Committee of the CPSU) for how to progress in regards to the care and protection of both mother and child. Firstly, it was imperative to provide appropriate conditions for a healthy childbirth, excellent care for the two during the first few vital weeks of the child’s life, and the possibility of feeding the baby herself without risk of loss of pay. In addition, the state should build refuges for expectant and nursing women, arrange medical consultations for both mother and child, and create a network of childcare services so the mother could continue work. The next step would be to establish a short working day, break periods and safer labour practices for women returning to the workforce. And finally, the last important step forward in solving the motherhood problem would be for the state to guarantee sufficient material assistance to mothers during pregnancy, birth, and the nursing period. Kollontai saw these steps as practical ways for the socialist state to help mothers overcome the difficulties forced upon them. Although she stated that the revolution would have to be complete to ensure the proper provision and protection of both mother and child, as Commissar for Social Welfare Kollontai had provided examples of legislative reform to relieve women immediately.
Love and Sexuality
Kollontai is especially known for her concept of ‘free love’. It’s a concept which isn’t give its due analysis by Marxists because of its alleged irrelevance to the class struggle. Kollontai began with the premise that “the isolated family unit is the result of the modern individualistic world, with its rat-race, its pressures, its loneliness; the family is a product of the monstrous capitalist system.” This summarises the effect that capitalism has on social relations (which may seem like an extreme view of urban life, but there is no doubt that many in the Western world can relate to this since the rise of neoliberalism).
In Sexual Relations and the Class Struggle, Kollontai wrote that the move away from a collective to an individual society has led to a widespread “loneliness of spirit” where even though those in the cities are surrounded constantly by other people, we feel a sense of deep loneliness that can only be alleviated with by finding our chosen loved one or ‘soul-mate.’ Kollontai believed when significant others are found, the capitalistic property relations affect the way they treat one-another, as if “extending the concept of property rights to include the right to the other person’s whole spiritual and emotional world.” She called this the ‘sexual crisis’ which is especially prominent in the way men are taught to view women, as the concept of marriage is thought to signify the possession of a wife. Often understated by Marxists, this is an example of how a society’s social and productive relations impact on an aspect of life that seems completely removed from economic analysis. And bourgeois ideology holds that monogamous relationships and the idea of the soul-mate are ‘natural’, but they are of course historically specific concepts that are based on the underlying social and economic structures created by the social conditions of that given time.
Kollontai also discusses the topic of sexuality which was then unexplored by Marxists, as well as most female authors for that matter. In a brief but controversial passage in her Theses on Communist Morality in the Sphere of Marital Relations Kollontai wrote that “the sexual act must be seen not as something shameful and sinful but as something which is as natural as the other needs of a healthy organism, such as hunger and thirst” and that this phenomena must not be judged as moral or immoral.
Kollontai received a lot of condemnation for this progressive statement, with the most notable critic being Lenin. Misinterpreting Kollontai’s point, he wrote that the theory of the satisfaction of sexual desires as being as simple and unimportant as drinking a glass of water under communist society, was completely “un-Marxist.” However it appears that Kollontai is first and foremost challenging the cultural attitudes surrounding sex, saying that sexuality is natural and should not be considered shameful, as many of that period judged it to be. If Lenin had read more carefully, he would have seen that Kollontai did not support the idea of excessive sexual activity, but rather, that she believed a balance was necessary. She writes that sexual restraint should not be permitted (unless the person is not yet of a mature age), but as well as this, that too much sex could be harmful to the workers’ collective. Kollontai was one of the only Marxists addressing sexuality as a political issue, after having read pioneering psychologists’ work whilst in exile in 1918. At this time Lenin disapproved of her views on ‘free love’ and by 1923 they were denounced as ‘bourgeois’ and ‘decadent.’ Many contemporary Marxists continue to hold the standpoint that sexual politics are a mere distraction from the class struggle. However, from a feminist perspective Kollontai’s contributions on sexuality are extremely important as they offer an idea of communist sexual relations.
Kollontai’s focal point in her analysis of romantic and sexual relations was that of the collective. She argued that the isolation of the “couple” as a special unit does not fit within the interests of communism, and that instead the strengthening of feelings of solidarity should be encouraged within the work collective. Young people should be taught firstly that love is only one aspect of life and that communist morality encourages “many and varied bonds of love and friendship among people.” She writes that encouraging an expanded concept of love allows for greater intellectual and emotional development of the individual, which leads to more meaningful relationships with others, and ultimately has a positive impact on the collective as a whole.
This is a very radical notion of love that is focused entirely on the good of the collective, rather than the capitalist emphasis on the individual. It also comes from the belief that humans are not innately jealous or possessive, and rather that under different social and economic conditions, it is possible to have positive relationships. Where critics may say this is an idealistic approach to humanity, it is an example of the socialist view that the majority of people are not inherently selfish or malevolent, but our qualities are a construct that is shaped by the transient conditions of social existence. Kollontai’s writing on love and sexuality is some of her most valued work, as such subjects were too often neglected by Marxists, yet these are obviously important issues.
Although women’s suffrage was one of the most central demands of the first wave of feminism, within contemporary socialist theory, it was less significant. However, Clara Zetkin devoted a vast amount of time arguing for women’s electoral rights. She believed that the political equality of women was necessary to bring about a social revolution that would ensure true equality for all. In the meantime, however, legislative reforms were acceptable as a means to a revolutionary end. Here lies the difference between bourgeois feminism and socialist feminism: the former’s goal is to attain equality with men, and every suggestion for change is a reform within the overarching capitalist framework. Socialist feminists instead see inherent problems within the system, and aim to create a transformation of the very structural basis of society; with the end result being universal equality and the liberation of all.
Engels and Bebel made a historical analysis of the family, and the effects that the rise of a productive surplus had on kinship ties. Both argued that the concentration of surplus wealth within the family and the establishment of private property led to the oppression of women, as did the abolition of matrilineal descent and the introduction of monogamy. The answer Engels proposed was for the movement of women’s labour into the public sphere, which meant turning domestic labour into a social industry, so as to free up women’s time. Although this was a valid solution to the ‘marriage problem’ and a step forwards toward women’s emancipation, there are still issues within this topic that cannot always be adequately discussed through a strictly economic analysis.
Whilst the socialist analysis has clearly recognised unequal power relationships within the family under capitalism, sexual violence is yet to be widely examined through a Marxist or economic framework. This is where more recent sociology and feminist theory can advance the analysis.
In regards to the motherhood problem Kollontai offered concrete solutions by way of legislative reform to help provide and protect both the mother and child. Perhaps reflecting the period, there was still a rigid adherence to traditional gender roles. Rather than encouraging men into the domestic sphere until capitalist relations are entirely broken, the idea centres on bringing women into public industry. Although socialising domestic labour and childcare is a plausible option after the revolution, in the meantime, we have seen women become overloaded as they are expected to function in both spheres. Here the tendency to focus on “after the revolution” answers to problems that need immediate attention is again found within Marxist analysis.
Lastly, Kollontai identified a problem with the current form of relationships and how they are based on the capitalistic concept of private property and possession. She challenged preconceived notions of the form a romantic relationship should take, and instead insists on a healthier idea of love, that creates a more positive and cohesive workers’ collective. Furthermore, her views on sexuality are progressive for her time, as she writes that sex is should not be seen as shameful, or immoral, but instead as a natural part of humanity. These contributions are still very important for developing proletarian theory.
Woman, just as any other oppressed group, could not, and cannot wait forever for the distant revolution. Instead cultural attitudes should continue to be challenged, just as long as the ultimate goal of a radical reorganisation of society’s productive and social relations are not sacrificed or forgotten.
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