When Estonian women read Bebel: on the „Woman Question“ in Estonia in the early 20th Century

Tiina Ann Kirss

This article takes its point of departure from three articles on the „woman question“ written by Estonian socialist Mihkel Martna in 1900, 1910, and 1917. Taken together these articles usefully offer a grid within which the history of the Estonian women`s movement can be located during the years that spanned the 1905 revolution, the Russian revolution, and the birth of Estonian independence. In all three articles, Martna draws significantly on the work of German socialist leader August Bebel, whose work Die Frau und der Sozialismus (Woman and Socialism, 1879) had been reprinted more than 50 times by the end of the 19th century, and was extraordinarily popular in German workers` libraries. An abbreviated translation of this work from the Russian had been published in Estonia by the newspaper „Uudised“ in 1905. However, in the revolutionary

decade 1900-1910, ideas were passed along in digest and summary form in underground reading groups and, of course, circulated orally.

If one asks, who was reading Bebel`s ideas on the „woman question“ in Estonia around 1905, Bebel`s „ideal readers“ would have been (and were) a small group of young women revolutionaries including Marta Lepp, Lilli Ibrus-Köstner, Alma Ani-Ast, and Alma Ostra-Oinas who attended the Tartu Pushkin High School for Girls, were active in underground reading circles run by Russian University students in Tartu, and mentored by both Peeter Speek and Mihkel Martna himself. In the memoirs of these women, deposited in the „1905 Society“ papers of the 1930s (a campaign for collecting archival material on the 1905 revolution in which Martna was an important voice), the women mention a core selection of Marxist and socialist texts, as well as a number of titles on natural sciences. Bebel`s ideas were thus received in the context of his contemporaries among thinkers, and they were coherent with the deviations and transgressions of traditional womanhood practiced in revolutionary circles around 1905.

The article analyses the work of Martna`s articles in selecting, contextualizing, and applying Bebel`s ideas to the Estonian social situation as an important layer of Martna`s political contributions to socialist thought in Estonia. Except for the first, the articles were written during Martna`s political exile in Germany and Switzerland from 1905-1917, a period during which he extended his education as an auditor at the Universities of Bern and Zürich and at the Berlin Arbeiterschule. In the lively environment of the German socialist movement, Martna`s own reading included socialist women`s periodicals. In conclusion, the article examines several untravelled routes in Estonian women`s history in the early decades of the 20th century, and methodological approaches to studying them.