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The Role Of Women In Post-War Germany

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  • Pages: 16
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  • Category: German War

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The headline on CNN online news dated November 23, 2005 was striking: “Germany gets first woman leader.” The news was held so important for the German people and the world that it had, for the first time in its long political history, was able to recognize the political will of women by electing Angela Merkel as female chancellor. CNN stressed that since World War II, Merkel was just the eighth German leader (CNN News Online, November 23, 2005).  Celebrating the political success of Merkel is justifiable on the grounds that women in historical Germany have never been this accommodating to the skills and capabilities of women especially on the aspect of political leadership. Germany, like many other countries around the world hardly accepts or at least provides enough opportunity to for women to display their skills and talents besides housekeeping.

            In this paper, we will try trace the history of women in Germany after the First and Second World War In order to make things the events clear, we will also try to look briefly into the role of women before the war so for us to have a point of comparison. In that way, we will be able to evaluate whether women’s social and political roles have actually improved after the war. It is to be stressed that this paper holds the fact that although German women has gone a long way in fighting for gender equality in their nation, it had not yet given the full opportunities for its women and had not fully recognized their unselfish sacrifices to rebuild their nation.

            In the early German society, women were enclosed or given the exclusive role of mothers, wives and housekeepers. As Keiser Wilhelm II puts it, women’s role will only be for Kirche, Kueche, Kinder which means, church, kitchen, children (Gordeeva, Tatyana). Taking the definition plainly, we can immediately draw the conclusion that the German society views women as but household instruments meant to be used by men, to be controlled, bear their children, cook for them, and serve the church and nothing beyond. Women are then limited with the opportunities for exploring their natural skills and talents in areas beyond housekeeping. This view has long been kept in the culture and tradition of the German people all the way from their ancestors.

According to several accounts, this role of women was held by the German nomadic tribes which considered women as inferior to males. Gordeeva said that in German tribal societies, females are limited to domestic roles from the time of their birth until they get married and have children. Young women are being controlled by their fathers before they get married. After marriage, these women will then be subjected to the control of their husbands. Being a widow will not in any way give these women the chance to decide for themselves or the opportunity to live independent lives. German law required widows to get a male guardian for their children and so there would really be no excuse for women to get on with their lives away from male control and domination.

Gender discrimination against women is an innate nature of the German culture. In their society, males were considered more important than females. What was just so sad about this was that women were not given the right to inherit any property. Even in the church affairs, women are discriminated by the Christian church by not allowing them to participate in church affairs. “As late as 1700, women were not allowed to sing in churches” (T. Gordeeva).

Aside from this, women already accepted the fact that they cannot in any way take active part in political affairs which is the reason why their sense of leadership was never practiced nor explored. There are experts that say that “gender and race were the twin pillars of Nazi ideology” (Bock, Gisela 1984). Their cultural society was built in strict gender hierarchy called Volksgemeinschaft (racial community). “Even within the family, the Nazis expected mothers to conform to the National Socialist world view, while state youth organisations removed their children from their sphere of influence” (Stephenson, Jill 1983).

In the near end of 18th century, during the government of the bourgeois, women were not allowed or at least being encouraged to avail of education since their role as housekeepers does not require education outside the home. This government also believed that it was not for women to serve in politics. Historians say that “the bourgeois society, afraid of women’s intellectual liberation, was against any extension of civil rights” (Gordeeva, Tatyana). Tatyana saw this belief to be the very reason why women activists during the 19th century did not succeed in promoting the equal recognition of women’s rights.

Before Hitler’s reign, German women had finally found a leader who would give them the equality they have been longing for. It was not clear in historical accounts what made the Weimer Republic, which reigned only from 1919-1933, inspired to finally hear the cries of women. Weimer gave women the rights to avail of secondary education and more importantly, the right to vote. IN fact, during this time, there were recorded 111 female representatives in the Reichstag. Aside from these, women were also given other rights aside from what they had before. The success was however as short as the Weimer’s reigning because Adolf Hitler ended everything when he dominated Germany in 1933.

Hitler and the Nazis regarded women as instruments for increasing the population of the German people. It is important to stress that Hitler firmly believes that the success of a country in war would depend on the number of soldier it had to defend his country against aggressors. What Hitler did was to force women to give up their work and concentrate on playing the role of children bearer and caretakers. It was so degrading for women to have Hitler reduced their roles to biological instruments of populating the German society for the purpose of strengthening the nation in the war. For Hitler, women’s role is to assure the future of the German race by producing more and more men to fight in the war.

Hitler however had a light approach in implementing the new system for women. In order to encourage women, Hitler offered marriage loan, health services and tax allowances for women. He made these women believe that he personally appreciate these women’s efforts of bearing children and taking care of them as part of their services to the state and the German race. Eventually, Hitler was successful in this policy. What was interesting in Hitler’s strategy was the implementation of the Ten Commandments for choosing one’s spouse of which the 10th says, “You should want to have as many children as possible” (T. Gordeeva). The gender discrimination during Hitler’s reign was hidden in giving medals to women with large families. In fact, there were three million women who received such medals in 1939 as rewards for having four and more children.

As part of the indoctrination, the Nazi government implemented rules that required girls to be taught of their domestic roles in school. They were encouraged as early as possible to live healthy in order to become healthy mothers in the future. Girls and women strived hard to have blue eyes and blond hair and a sturdy built in order to conform to the ideal woman of the Nazis. They maintained their body structure of having broad hips and discouraged to have interests in make ups and fashion. Women supported the newly implemented policies although it meant their subordination once again to men and of depriving them their opportunities to their social and academic growth. For some, domestic roles were lighter than carrying the burdens of social and political roles. Others were just forced to comply for fear of exile and death in concentration camps for opposing the Nazi government. Worst, some feared of becoming too depressed to prefer committing suicide than losing their freedom.

The sudden drop of the percentage of women in the German workforce was an indication of the Nazi’s success in persuading women to just stay home and be with their children. According to historical accounts, there were about 540,000 women who left the workforce during the Nazi regime. One more reason was that the government was financially supportive of the families of their soldiers which also encouraged women to get married and enjoy the privileges of being a wife of a soldier (Cass, Frank 2003). According to Cass, “women who married soldiers at the outbreak of war became eligible for up to 85% of their husbands’ peacetime wage.” It was also stressed that the fact that being a soldier, the head of the family was always out of their homes most of the time and so their wives were mostly benefited from the wages.

In the early 1900s, just after the First World War, women played a great role in rebuilding the German nation that was torn and turned down to crumbles. After losing in the war, the German society has lost most of their men who served as soldiers in the war. The German leaders can no longer depend on the physical strength of their well regarded men to rebuild their nation nor can they depend on the skills and wit of their precious men because most of them were gone and perished in the war. The German society had to other choice but to use their considered weak women and inferior members of the society in trying to begin another phase of the German history. It was during this time that women were regarded important although they had to play the role of “Rubble Women”.

As the term suggests, women had to make use of their strengths in carting piles of rubbles as remains of war. The housekeepers were then being utilized by Hitler to rebuild their nation as “95 percent of the houses were damaged or destroyed and there were huge piles of rubble on the streets” (Bab, Bettina in Casagrande, Sabina). Bab stressed that Germany had to make use of these women survivors because the war caused 15 million men to perish. These poor women had to work harder this time and their condition worsens more than gender discrimination. They did not have better choice than finding themselves in “long lines on the rubble piles, hammering out stones and handing them down in buckets was a common sight, even years after the war ended” (Casagrande Sabina).

There were basically two reasons why women had to endure the pain and hardship of working in rubbles. First, it was a government order issued by the Allied Control Council as a mandatory hard work to help the nation clear up remains of war. Although the mandatory order was issued for all survivors of war, it was indeed discriminating on the part of women because of their physical capacity to do the job. Second, women have to do the job in order to have something to earn something for themselves and for their families.

During the period of rebuilding the cities, rubble women were issued ration cards which were divided in five categories. Such categories were designed to a system that gives the highest ration to those who worked the hardest although housewives were still classified as deskbound workers according to Sabina. Because of this, women have chosen the hard work of working in the rubbles in order to earn great rations. What was frustrating is the fact that these workers did not have the assurance of having their fair share after a long day of hard work as they most often end up with nothing after standing for hours in the pile to get their food.

After the war a literally a hard time for every citizen because most cities like Dresden, Berlin, Hamburg or Cologne were all crashed down to rubbles. The ruins of war left nothing more for the citizens to have enough resources to survive in every passing day. Women had to clear the cities of about 400 million cubic meters of debris with their bare hands and basic tools as these were all what were left from the war. The task was literally a hundred-fold harder for the TrĂĽmmerfrauen (rubble women) than tending to the wounded, burying the dead and scavenging belongings that can still be used.

 After the fall of the Nazi government, German women had to cope up with their new roles. The German nation was divided into two states after the Second World War: the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in the West and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the East. With the German unification called German Democratic Republic (GDR) German women were given more opportunities and provisions by the government. From the beginning, the GDR endorsed female emancipation. What made this better compared with the FRG was that GDR allowed high employment rate for women but at the same time also offered and provided comprehensive support system for mothers. This then should have given each German woman to have a better choice of career because whatever she chose to engage in, she has all the benefits she could probably avail.

In 1949, West Germany’s Basic Law requires that women should be regarded equal with men. This time, women were given the right to possess properties after a divorce or when their husbands die. It is important to go back to that time when these women were required to get a male guardian for their children when they were widowed. The Basic Law therefore had obviously made a radical change in the life of the German women. They were already given the right to employment and of availing abortion policy. Critics however stressed that the new policies were not strictly implemented and that they remained just written laws and have not significantly improved the lives of the women. On the other hand, Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in the East had lower labor force participation rate compared with the GDR. Observers also stressed that women in these states have limited abortion rights and few training and job opportunities aside from having children with limited child care.

Despite the fact that more and more women are enjoying their domestic roles, women who were after the recognition of their equal rights continued to demand changes. Although they were inactive for several years, they reemerge in 1945 to fight for the same reason: gender equality. These women became active political forces in 1949 in the name of Deutscher Frauenring (DFR) which was basically an umbrella of the religious organizations including professional and cultural women’s associations. A year later, the German Women’s Council (Deutscher Frauenrat) was established with 14 women’s associations. The German Women’s Council members were active not in the political arena per se but they concentrated on collaborating 50 associations, having 11 million women members, to provide voluntary services to other people (Lewis, Jone Johnson).

            In 1970s, women became more politically active to the point of demanding several significant changes in the society particularly that of granting them the true equal rights. Student protests became more frequent having just one cause in all their rallies: equal rights. Finally, the government gave in and the demand was finally put into legislation in 1977. In the said law, women are now provided with the opportunity to work beyond being housewives.

They were also given the right to file a divorce even without the permission of their husbands. Opportunities to avail of secondary education were also a significant accomplishment for these protests. In comparison with the rate of secondary schools graduates in 1960s, the rate during 1975-76 academic year increased with 53% of these women dominating the segment. They were also provided with extensive support system and supplementary payments in order to ensure that they would complete their education. In fact, historical data recorded an increase from 31% to 41% of women enrollees between 1970 and 1989.

            As with the labor force, Germany could not have been get out of its roots of gender discrimination. This was still evident in the labor force wherein women were paid with lower salary rates than those of men of the same levels of position. Research revealed that women’s salary range was only 65% to 78% that of men. The discrimination was also evident in such a way that women were not given key positions in most of the fields. Because males were still regarded as more capable in leadership aspects, it was not surprising to know that males still dominate the German society even in the fields of business. The observers noted that women were highly represented in fields of care-giving, health and education. Workers in hospitals were also dominated by men with 75% of the total workforce are men and 50% of them were represented in schools. In comparison, female physicians were then only four percent, while university professors had only 5% of the total workforce in 1980s.

The gender discrimination did not however discourage these women to go on and prove to the society that women are able and skillful enough to significantly contribute to the welfare of their society outside being housewives. In 1980, the National Office for Women’s Affairs was established in Lander.

They also established Equality Offices called (Gleichstellungstellen) which main task is to ensure that women were given their proper share in availing the positions in the public sector. The efforts of these women were not in vain. If we are to look into the achievement of German women, the males would probably be amazed with how much women can do and how can these weak personalities go the sake of their beloved country.

In the field of politics, women’s accomplishments one by one became evident. In 1990, Rita Süssmuth was elected president of the Bundestag. In the field of industry, Birgit Breuel assumed the leadership, following the assassination of Detlev Rohwedder in April 1991, of the Treuhandanstalt (Trust Agency), the powerful agency charged with privatizing the former East German economy. Other women with noted accomplishments were Marion von Dönhoff, coeditor of Die Zeit and Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann, director of the Allensbach Public Opinion Institute. Women’s success in different fields was worth the effort and the sacrifices they have during the unification process.

Part of the unification process was the process of company privatizations wherein two-thirds of those women employed in Lander were unemployed. The others have to endure the hardships in their budgets as part-time workers. Downsizing of business firms and the elimination of support services contributed a lot to these economic hardships for women. In order to cope up with financial crisis, women undergone sterilization as form of birth control. This then resulted to the decline in births from 12 to 5.3 births in every 1000 from 1989 to 1993. Hitler was however gone forever to encourage women to bear more children so birth control would not be that much of a big social issue for the government.

It is also because of financial difficulty that women were forced to resort to abortion to control birth and as means of financial strategy during the hard times. The situation was worse for having 125,000 number of abortions registered in 1991 and was estimated to account to as much as 250,000 if the east and West Germany figures were combined. The increasing number alarmed the government and leading to its restriction in 1992. Despite appeals of lifting the law, the government stood in keeping the restrictions.

The effects of unemployment were regarded by researchers as effects of the culture held by historical Germany of keeping women in domestic roles rather than allowing them to be educated and be trained academically for career enhancement. During the unification, most women who were unemployed were those women who chose to play the role of housewives. The did not grabbed opportunities for academic training not avail of the secondary education in place of the support system provided by the government for mothers. When these supports were no longer provided by the new government, these women can no longer cope up with the requirements for employment. The best thing they could do then was to concede that “all young women have to cope with gender-role expectations that arise from collective assumptions about the female life” (Cass, Frank).

Women in the 20th century Germany were now more politically and socially accepted as compared in the last century. Women are now represented in the fields of business and politics which indicate that their contributions in the German society are now being fully recognized. Goebbels had a convincing statement for the German recognition of women’s role in the society and of treating them as inferior to men.

According to Goebbels, “the woman has always been not only the man’s sexual companion, but also his fellow worker” (Goebbels, Joseph). He argued that even in the historical Germany, the society “did not see the woman as inferior, but rather as having a different mission, a different value, than that of the man.”  He further stressed that, “we believed that the German woman, who more than any other in the world is a woman in the best sense of the word, should use her strength and abilities in other areas than the man.”

Apart from how the world sees the German women’s role in the past and in the contemporary times, Goebbels defended Germany on the issue of gender discrimination by stressing that such treatment was just part of the respect these men are rendering for their women by keeping them out of the parliamentary-democratic issues. “But it must also be said that those things that belong to the man must remain his… that includes politics and the military” (Goebbels, Joseph). At a glance, Goebbels’ point could be taken as fair for women. It is not for this writer to argue with the opinions of these experts in their claim that the tradition of depriving them to participate in the areas of politics was just a matter of recognizing the areas where their talents fit the most.


Casagrande, Sabina. A New Role: Remembering Germany’s “Rubble Women”. Retrieved on December 05, 2007 from http://www6.dw-world.de/en/2110.php

Cass, Frank. Unification. Reviewed by Ruth Crawford. Negotiating Gender. Retrieved on December 05, 2007 from http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=94541088556064

Germany gets first woman leader. CNN News Online. November 23, 2005. Retrieved on December 05, 2007 from http://edition.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/europe/11/22/germany.merkel/index.html

Goebbels, Joseph. German Women. Retrieved on December 05, 2007 from http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/goeb55.htm

Gordeeva, Tatyana. “German Women and 3 K’s” Retrieved on December 05, 2007 from http://www.germanculture.com.ua/library/weekly/aa080601c.htm

Lewis, Jone Johnson. Germany – Status of Women. Retrieved on December 05, 2007 from http://womenshistory.about.com/library/ency/blwh_germany_women.htm

1The Third Reich and the Second World War. Retrieved on December 05, 2007 from http://www.german.leeds.ac.uk/wig/campus/Third%20Reich%20and%20WWII.htm


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