Feminism in Germany and its history

Last weekend, the English women’s football team won against Germany, thus securing third place in this year’s Women’s World Cup. Women’s football has come a long way during the last decade or so, even though the public perception of it still lags behind that of its male counterpart. Football is, of course, only one area amongst many illustrating the still prevailing stereotypes and prejudices regarding the genders. Feminism, however, doesn’t currently have the public attention that it had during the 1970s, but with people like Emma Watson recently speaking out and raising awareness to feminist issues, it is still very much a topic of importance. Historically, feminism has never been one homogenous movement, uniting the needs and requests of ALL women, but rather consisted of various approaches, ideologies and ideas. Contemporary, public feminism in Germany is, however, largely dominated by one person, Alice Schwarzer, thus leaving very little room for broad debate and limiting its reach.


Collage in Wir Alphamädchen (C204.d.907)

To understand contemporary German feminism in contrast to its more colourful and active international version, it is important to take a closer look at its history. The book German Feminist Writings, edited by Patricia A. Hermingshouse and Magda Mueller (245:1.c.200.237), provides a great insight into German feminist thinking over the past 250 years. It is a collection of texts from German-speaking societies that deal with women’s issues, all translated into English. The book gathers thoughts on five different topics in regards to women, namely on education, work, politics, art and literature, and general issues of gender. As its own introduction states, the book does not include some texts that one might expect to be there, but therefore includes other, lesser known writings, that may not always “correspond to contemporary understandings of feminism”, but thus give a further insight into feminist history. The books Über Hexen und andere auszumerzende Frauen by Hanna Behrend and Gisela Notz (C201.d.4538) and Frauensichten: Essays zur Zeitgeschichte by Anne Jüssen (C200.d.3586) both combine various writings and essays about feminism and its historical development. Out of the Shadows: Contemporary German Feminism by Silke Beinssen-Hesse and Kate Rigby (245:1.c.95.60) was published in 1996 and not only provides further historical context about feminism in Germany, but also relates it to international feminism.

After its initial successes and popularity at the beginning of the 20th century, feminism in Germany suffered a setback during the Nazi regime and the subsequent period. Due to the wide absence of men during and after the Second World War, women had experienced first-hand that they were as capable as men when it came to rebuilding businesses, running farms and providing for their families. However, many of them longed for the possibility to go back to what was perceived as a simpler time for them, and the Nazi propaganda, which had successfully separated the roles of men and women in society again, had contributed to this. The ‘50s in Germany were therefore largely shaped by a reversion to civic values and gender role definitions. Feminism only regained its momentum in Germany during the late ‘60s as a part of the student movement, entering its new era. Die Rationalität der Emotionen: Die neue deutsche Frauenbewegung als soziale Bewegung im Blickfeld der Theorie rationaler Wahl by Annette Schnabel (245:1.c.200.250) analyses this new German feminist movement in the light of rational choice theory from its beginning in 1968 up to the publication of the book in 2003. A comparison of how the feminist movement influenced politics and became institutionalised between Germany and the US is provided by Stefanie Ehmsen in Der Marsch der Frauenbewgung durch die Institutionen (245:2.c.200.1757). However, the movement was not without its flaws, and at the end of the ‘80s a discussion arose about possible underlying antisemitism in German feminist literature. This issue gets closely examined by Charlotte Kohn-Ley and Ilse Korotin who co-edited the book Der feministische “Sündenfall”? Antisemitische Vorurteile in der Frauenbewegung (245.d.99.37). The book combines several essays on the topic of antisemitism when linked with feminism, and also puts it into historical perspective by looking closely at the Nazi period.

In Germany, the second wave of feminism from 1968 onwards also saw the rise of the most famous German feminist to this day, Alice Schwarzer. She became the face of German feminism as early as 1975 when her book Der kleine Unterschied und seine großen Folgen was published. The book was such a breakthrough that it was translated into eleven languages and therefore also made her internationally famous. The UL holds a revised and extended copy from 1997 that stands at 9004.d.1219. During the early ’70s, Schwarzer campaigned heavily for the legalization of abortion and for economic self-sufficiency for women and saw success twice in 1976 when Germany modified the law to allow abortion until twelve weeks into pregnancy and also removed a provision that required the husband’s consent if a married women wanted to take up employment. She has remained an active public figure ever since but is also the most controversial German feminist due to her lack of tolerance towards other feminist ideologies and her puritanical stance towards sexuality. In 2007, Schwarzer published Die Antwort (C205.c.2732), a sweeping denunciation of everything wrong with society and, interestingly enough, also against contemporary women, who she thinks have become too comfortable and risk reverting to old gender roles. Her most recent book, Lebenslauf, is an autobiography and was first published in 2011. It stands in the UL in its fourth edition at C208.c.5315.


Alice im Niemandsland (C209.c.8695)

While Schwarzer’s outlook on today’s society and women seems rather pessimistic and judgemental, Miriam Gebhardt’s analysis of the current situation of feminism in Germany is much more sober. In her book Alice im Niemandsland : Wie die deutsche Frauenbewegung die Frauen verlor (C209.c.8695), published in 2012, she argues that sometime between the ‘70s and today, German feminism lost its connection to women when it became inseparably linked with Alice Schwarzer. The association of a whole movement with just one person, and therefore one feminist ideology amongst many, led to a rejection of feminism itself, especially amongst younger women who could no longer identify with Schwarzer’s adamant viewpoints. Gebhardt also accuses Schwarzer of historical amnesia, in which she sees the source of various failings of contemporary feminism that could have otherwise been avoided. Her book therefore provides an extensive look at the history of feminism in Germany from the 19th century onwards and tries to identify the reasons for the bad image of feminism in Germany and why many women, who believe in equality, see the term as a “dirty word”. Gebhardt also isn’t alone in criticising Alice Schwarzer or in advocating for a different version of feminism. In 2012, Meredith Haaf, Susanne Klingner and Barbara Streidl published Wir Alphamädchen: Warum Feminismus das Leben schöner macht (C204.d.907), a book that is supposed to show an alternative to Schwarzer’s feminism. It advocates for a feminist movement that allows women to work with men instead of against them and while embracing all women and their personal choices rather than trying to tell them what to like and how to live as a feminist.

Even though German feminism may have lost the international recognition that it had around 1900, it is still very much alive and recently becoming more popular again. The above gives a very brief overview of its history and the holdings in the University Library, which can be easily browsed by performing a subject heading search for feminism in Germany and looking at the various sub-categories.

Stephanie Palek

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s