Emilie Claeys (1855-1943). Source: RoSa vzw.

As the end of the nineteenth century approached, the wave of socialism that swept Europe reached the heart of a working-class woman in Ghent, Belgium. Emilie Claeys (1855–1943), has been called a forgotten socialist pioneer, yet as Guy Vanschoenbeeck shows in his portrait of Claeys in Brood & Rozen, she was committed to numerous political activities. As president of the Socialistische Propagandaclub voor Vrouwen [Socialist Propaganda Club for Women], part of the Belgische Werkliedenpartij [Belgian Labour Party], she advocated women’s rights, more specifically those of working-class women, and women’s right to vote. These topics were closely connected to Claeys’s personal life, as she was born into a working-class family in 1855. Prior to her political career, she received a Catholic education and worked in a spinning mill and as a maidservant to support her family when her mother fell ill and her father died.

Portrait of Nellie van Kol (1851-1930), by C.A.F. (1931). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In the course of her political career, she became close friends with Nellie van Kol (1851–1930), who represented the Netherlands at the International Socialist Congress in Zürich in 1893 and was president of the Dutch counterpart of the Union pour la solidarité des femmes. She too was raised in a Catholic household and turned to socialism. Van Kol worked as a governess in the Dutch colony of Indonesia and published letters in the local journal Soerabaijasch Handelsblad criticizing colonialism and discussing the role of women in society. Born Marie Porreij, she married Henri Hubert van Kol, an engineer who admired her writing and was one of the first Dutch members of the International Workingsmen’s Association (1864–76). The Nellie van Kol Archive is kept at Atria, Institute on Gender Equality and Women’s History, in Amsterdam.

In 1893, Claeys and Van Kol founded the Hollandsch-Vlaamsche Vrouwenbond [Dutch-Flemish Women’s Union] and with it, its official organ, the socialist-feminist fortnightly periodical De Vrouw [Woman]. In its first issue, the editors opened with a statement of principle, setting the political tone of the periodical with the epigraph “Vrouwen aller landen, vereenigt U!” [Women of the world, unite!] , a spin on the Marxist slogan “Workers of the world, unite!” Among their twelve demands were equal pay for equal work, minimum wages and the admission of women to all professions on the job market, on the condition that that they were intellectually and physically able. From 15 July 1893 until 1 September 1900, more than 180 issues appeared, the wide-ranging content including recipes, book reviews, news reports, opinion pieces, and translations of manifestos, all focused on women’s emancipation. Digitized versions of the periodical are available via the AMSAB-Institute for Social History and via Delpher.

First page of the inaugural issue of De Vrouw, 15 July 1893. Source: Delpher.

De Vrouw addressed many struggles faced by working-class women at the end of the nineteenth century. There is, however, one topic that truly illustrates the intersection of socialism and women’s rights, namely that of reproductive labour. Whereas the emancipation of middle-class women entailed the right to work outdoors, have a career, and be financially independent, while paying someone else to take care of household chores, working-class women did not have the “luxury” to be full-time housewives in the first place. Out of financial necessity, they had to combine their domestic work with ill-paid jobs as maids or spinners, or other types of factory work. De Vrouw not only addressed the poor working conditions these women faced, the wage gap, and child labour. It also criticized the unequal distribution of household chores in marriage and reported on numerous cases where working-class women were treated unfairly by the state.

Socialist Feminism at the End of the Nineteenth Century  

When the first issue of De Vrouw was published in 1893, socialism was still on the rise in Europe. Almost fifty years after the publication of Engels and Marx’s Communist Manifesto, the Second International (1889–1916) was actively trying to connect socialism and feminism. Yet, as Marie Kennedy and Chris Tilly have shown, Socialist Feminism failed to gain ground in Europe in the period 1890–1920. On the surface, the two emancipatory ideologies seemed to have a lot in common, and the socialists of the Second International held that socialism would lead to the liberation of women as well as workers. Ever since Utopian socialism, the oldest trend within socialism, there had been statements in favour of radical feminism. As the French utopian socialist thinker Charles Fourier (1772–1837) declared:

 “The change in a historical epoch can always be determined by the progress of women towards freedom, because in the relation of woman to man, of the weak to the strong, the victory of human nature over brutality is most evident. The degree of emancipation of women is the natural measure of general emancipation.”

However, what united the utopians was a vision of harmonious living based on the freeing of the human spirit, not a commitment to women’s liberation. Many analogies were made between the exploitation of the proletariat and women. Yet in the end, class-based socialists, who displaced the utopians, would always prioritize the perceived needs of the working class above the needs of women.

This was one reason for what Kennedy and Tilly call the “stillbirth” of socialist feminism in Europe around the turn of the century. Another was the rise of liberal feminism in the bourgeois class, which failed to include working-class women as their equals. Liberal feminists were accused of having a paternalistic attitude towards working women. This left the two emancipatory ideologies stranded on class issues. The socialists placed class at the centre of their strategy, while the bourgeois feminists remained uncertain about the role working-class women should have.

This was also true for the Low Countries. When Van Kol en Claeys founded the Dutch-Flemish Women’s Union both women were active as socialist pioneers. This was the time of first-wave feminism, when women’s right to vote was the main focus. It was a time when women had to fight for their right to be educated, to be treated equally under the law, and to be paid for their labour. In the 23 April 1898 issue of De Vrouw, the editors dedicated a whole article to the intersection of socialism and feminism. Regretting the competition between the two movements, they stated that socialists and feminists should join forces to emancipate the oppressed:

“Ons tijdperk is rijker aan voorwaarts-stuwende stroomingen van allerlei soort, dan wellicht eenig ander tijdperk was; elk dier stroomingen vertegenwoordigt een ideaal, dat als deel onmisbaar is voor het groote Geheel, dat allen wenschen te verwezenlijken.”

[Our era is richer in forward-driving movements of all kinds, perhaps more than any other era ever was; each of those movements represents an ideal, which as a part is indispensable to the greater Whole, which all wish to realize.]


Socialism, Marriage, and Unpaid Labour

Claeys’s Application of Bebel’s Theories

August Bebel (1840-1913) c.1900. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Emilie Claeys admired the theories of the German socialist August Bebel (1840–1913), author of Die Frau und der Sozialismus (1879) [Woman and Socialism] and one of the founders of the Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands [Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany]. A Dutch translation of his work was published in 1891 by socialists in Ghent. While most of the articles on Bebel in De Vrouw were written by Nellie Van Kol, including a review of Bebel’s book in no less than nineteen parts, it is Emilie Claeys whose name is closely connected with Bebel’s theory of “free marriage” in the historiography of Belgian socialism. In 2008, Julie Carlier elaborated on Vanschoenbeeck’s portrait of Emilie Claeys, in an exercise in historical criticism on the relationship between Bebel’s theories of free marriage, Claeys’s ideas, and events in her personal life. Claeys was accused of adultery in 1896 following allegations that she conceived two children out of wedlock. The father of the children was of a higher social status and thought it improper to marry her. The accusations caused great scandal and put an end to Claeys’s political career. However, as Vanschoenbeek already concluded, there is not enough evidence to support the claim that they caused her removal from the board of the Belgian Labour Party. Carlier builds on Vanschoenbeek’s work by reconsidering Claeys’s position in the Belgian Labour Party and shedding further light on the scandal.

As Carlier shows, Claeys’s opponents wrongly labelled Claeys an advocate of free love, neglecting the distinction between “free marriage” and “free love” .  Bebel mainly advocated more flexible divorce laws and a “free marriage” between equal partners. This was repeatedly misinterpreted as a theory that supported adultery or polygamy. Carlier points out that Claeys never wrote about free marriage in De Vrouw;  Van Kol on the other hand did. Van Kol advocated a monogamous marriage entirely based on love between partners and suggested that the first year of marriage would be a trial year. She also criticized the double standard of the sexes and had progressive views on female sexuality, including the use of anticonception. When opponents thought of the controversial statements made by Claeys or Van Kol, they left out the bigger picture of the ideal socialist society these women dreamed of, where free marriage between equal partners would be possible.

Bebel’s Views on Reproductive Labour

Bebel’s Die Frau und der Sozialismus appeared six years before Engels’s Der Ursprung der Familie, des Privateigenthums und des Staats (1884) [The Origin of Family, Private Property, and the State] but proposed many of the same ideas. Engels’s work is known for claiming that women’s oppression originated with private property and women would only be liberated through socialism. The economic organization of society has two sides, the production of the means of existence and the production of human beings themselves. In nineteenth-century economic theory a distinction was made (and criticized by Marx) between productive and unproductive labour.

Interior of a Ghent working-class home. Ghent University Archive.

Reproductive labour includes domestic labour but also the production of human beings. Throughout history these chores (child care, cleaning, cooking, etc.) have been carried out by women and remained for the most part unpaid. This had great impact on women’s social and economic status. Since the role of housewife is a form of unwaged labour, women depend financially on their husbands, leaving them vulnerable to domestic abuse. Working-class women who work to earn money and are responsible for domestic labour carry what feminist critics have called the “double burden“. Over time, several models have been considered to resolve the double burden: equal distribution of the household chores in a marriage, choosing between career and family, wages for household work, outsourcing to domestic workers. Bebel and Engels promoted the utopian socialist feminist solution. Without however challenging the idea that women were responsible for reproductive labour, they argued for the need to socialize domestic tasks. Collective responsibility for reproducing life would relieve women of their dependence on men, because they would be able to participate in the “productive” workforce.


Reading Reproductive Labour in De Vrouw

Many of these ideas and proposed solutions recur in articles of De Vrouw. In her article “De Rechten der Vrouw” [The Rights of Women], published in the first issue, Emilie Claeys regretted that husbands refused to look after the children when their wives attended political meetings or lectures while agreeing to take care of the children when their wives go to church on Sunday mornings. The following month, in “Verstoorde Vreugde” [Joy Disrupted], she reported on the case of a single mother who was forced to watch her sick child die because she was unable to support her family financially. Socialism, she argued, can prevent such tragedies from happening: “Slechts het Socialisme kan de toekomst der arbeiders verzekeren en verhinderen dat moeders haar kroost zien verkwijnen bij gebrek aan zorgen en voedsel.” [Only Socialism can ensure the future of workers and prevent mothers from seeing their offspring languish for want of care and food.] Already in the third issue of De Vrouw Claeys advocated Bebel’s and Marx’s solutions to the double burden, when she reported about the international Socialist and Labour Congress held in Zurich from 6 to 13 August 1893. In order to liberate women from the disproportionate amount of domestic tasks for which they are responsible, community kitchens and laundry rooms were needed. As long as those did not exist, women would always have to drudge for their families when they returned from the factory at night. Long working hours and low wages, moreover, prevented women from uniting. In subsequent issues, Claeys further stated that, while women should have the right to work and not be obligated to stay at home for reproductive labour, most working-class women did not have the luxury to devote a considerable amount of time to domestic work.

“Hoevele vrouwen kunnen hare rol van huisvrouw en moeder werkelijk in praktijk brengen? Hoevelen kunnen hare plaats aan den huiselijken haard inderdaad bekleeden?”

[How many women can truly put their role of housewife and mother into practice? How many can indeed take their place at the domestic hearth?]

Working-class housing in Ghent. Ghent University Archive.

De Vrouw did not dodge controversial topics such as alcohol abuse and the link with domestic violence. An article on the right to investigate the paternity of illegitimate children addressed male readers directly: “Komaan, beschouw dit onderwerp niet als man, maar als mensch.” [Come on, do not think about this topic as a man but as a human being.] De Vrouw also supported women “die zich tot de plichten van huisvrouwen en opvoedsters niet geroepen voelen, of haar die om een of andere reden ervan afzien haar heil in ‘t huwelijk te zoeken” [who do not feel called to the duties of housewives and caregivers, or who for other reasons refrain from seeking salvation in marriage]. The article “Demokratie in de keuken” [Democracy in the Kitchen] argued that it would be heaven on earth if women had enough time for a proper education and for pursuing professional careers. Again the concept of communal facilities for domestic tasks was proposed. The facilities would be run by women who were passionate about domestic labour and who would be paid a fair wage by the government. Alternatively, an association for household help could connect young unmarried women looking for temporary employment to families in need of temporary domestic support. Only once, in a short article entitled “Evenwicht” [Balance] is the help of men mentioned: “Wanneer de vrouw te kort schiet, dan wordt de man huismoeder, huishoudster, vader en moeder te gelijk, tot wien de kinderen gaan.” [Only when a woman falls short does a man become housewife, housekeeper, father and mother all at once, to whom the children turn.] Only in times of crisis, when the mother is unable to perform her tasks due to illness, only then would a father perform reproductive labour and become both father and mother. Noteworthy here is that becoming the mother means assuming responsibility for the household. On the other hand, when there is a crisis and the tasks of the man need to be compensated for, the article states that the woman should become the provider of the family but not the father, implying that “being a father” does not come with any domestic labour.

Over the years, Claeys wrote fewer articles. The main pieces were written by Van Kol and when Claeys did write, it was often under a pseudonym. After the first three years, Claeys ceased to contribute almost completely, although she continued to run the adminstration of De Vrouw until the penultimate issue.


Writing Change into the Lives of Working Women

The periodical De Vrouw only appeared for seven years but managed to cause quite the stir. Socialist pioneers Emilie Claeys and Nellie van Kol succeeded in translating and passing on the ideas of international theorists and the two women demanded such progressive rights for women as have not even been fulfilled in the twenty-first century. Advocating for the emancipation of working-class women specifically they elaborated on August Bebel’s theories in accessible articles filled with advice or cases of injustice in their countries. News reports on what women achieved in countries around the world or on decisions made at political congresses filled the pages of this pioneering periodical. The recurring topic of reproductive labour, its causes, its effects on society, and several solutions, appeared throughout its lifespan. The editors and writers of De Vrouw clearly believed socialism and feminism need each other to create a better society. Although women were advised to liberate themselves, a male audience was also addressed, and a recurrent motto in the masthead of the periodical asked: “Kan vrij de man zijn waar de vrouw in slavenkeetnen zucht?” [Can man be free when woman is plodding in slave chains?]. The main solution presented for the double burden of working women was that of communal facilities financed by the state, relieving women from the daily domestic chores that kept them from pursuing professional careers or receiving proper educations. While the help of husbands in reproductive labour was only considered in great crises, women were offered the choice of becoming a housewife. These ideas were just the first step towards change in the lives of working-class women in the Low Countries.


Aulikki Lefèvre