Eleanor Marx: ‘Mother of socialist feminism’

Eleanor Marx has been called the ‘mother of socialist feminism’. She was a political agitator, literary translator, actress and campaigner for workers’ rights – deserving of accolades in her own right as more than just the daughter of her more well known father.

Born in Soho, London in 1855, Jenny Julia Eleanor Marx was the youngest of the 6 Marx children. Her family affectionately called her ‘Tussy’, to rhyme with her favourite of pets, her pussy cat. The family lived in poverty and much of Tussy’s learning was at home rather than at school (which she disliked!) This didn’t hold her back however, with a deep love of literature – and of course politics – embued to her by her parents from a young age. It’s said that by the age of 3 she was reciting Shakespeare. She showed a natural aptitude for languages, and quickly became fluent in several.

As her father sat and drafted what would become his most famous work, Das Kapital, young Eleanor played at his feet and absorbed a political philosophy which would inform a lifetime of work.

Her relationship with her father was close, and by the age of 16 she was acting as his secretary, becoming increasingly involved with his political work. She toured socialist conferences with him and grew more convicted of her own socialist beliefs along the way.

Her first serious romantic affair was with a French socialist called Lissagary, whom her father disapproved of due to the fact that he was almost twice her age. Their relationship progressed to an engagement, but the marriage was never to be and they broke it off, to the relief of her father, in 1882.

This was a tough time for Eleanor; she had lost her mother a year earlier, was struggling with anorexia, and lost both her sister and her beloved father the following year her beloved father died. He left to her the responsibilities of editing and publishing his work, including the English translation of Capital.

After his death her political work began in earnest. She joined, and was elected to the executive of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) in 1884 – the same year she met the second great love of her life, fellow socialist, Edward Aveling. Later that year, due to a split within the party, they left, with Eleanor becoming a founding member of the Socialist League (along with English designer William Morris). She wrote a regular column for the party’s newspaper and became known as a skillful orator – making many speeches around the country espousing socialist ideology.  She became acquainted with Clementina Black, who had founded the Women’s Trade Union League, and joined with her to support strikes up and down the country. Her work took her across the ocean to the United States where she toured giving speeches and raising money for the Socialist League.

As if a full life of political activism wasn’t enough, Tussy also found time for working as a literary translator and actress. Her love of the arts had continued into adulthood and she believed that they could be a powerful tool for spreading political messages. She loved the works of Henry Ibsen, playing the lead role of Nora in his radical play A Doll’s House. She even learned Norweigan just so that she could translate his plays – as you do!

She believed that feminism and socialism went hand in hand, writing about the inextricable link between the workers’ rights and women’s rights in a patriarchal, capitalist society. One of her most well known pieces of writing is The Woman Question: From a socialist point of viewWhile she supported the women campaigning for suffrage at the time, she brought the struggle to working women – away from the middle-class leaders of the movement – and argued for universal suffrage.

In a  letter to socialist leader Ernest Belfort Bax in 1895 she wrote, “I am, of course, as a Socialist, not a representative of ‘Woman’s Rights’… The so-called ‘Woman’s Rights’ question (which appears to be the only one you understand) is a bourgeois idea. I proposed to deal with the Sex Question from the point of view of the working class and the class struggle.”

Sadly, Eleanor’s life came to an early end. She had for some time been living with Aveling as his ‘common law wife’ – they were never officially married, but had an understanding. Aveling had never been a popular choice amongst Tussy’s friends, George Bernard Shaw has called him ‘a reptile’ and based a womanising character in one of his plays upon him. After having spent much time nursing Aveling after he became ill, she discovered that he had married a younger actress behind her back. Heartbroken by his infidelity she took an overdose of poison and died at the young age of 43. Some suggested, both then and now, that he was in fact responsible for her death.

It is a tragedy that such a passionate and radical voice was lost so soon, but her words continued to inspire many long after her death. Huge crowds turned out for her funeral to celebrate  a life spent fighting on behalf of the working class, women and children.

Find out more…

This article goes into more detail about Eleanor’s life.

Look at the Marxist Archive website to see a list of Eleanor’s works and translations.

Rachel Holme’s book,  Eleanor Marx: A Life is the most recent biography, and is available here, below is a video of Rachel talking about Eleanor.

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