90 Years Of Votes For Women
“What this government has done is the most natural thing in the world. It has given women something that they have wrongfully been deprived of for much too long.” These were the words used by member of parliament, Marie Juchacz, on the occasion of women officially entering the German parliament for the first time on 19th February 1919. The parliament in question for this memorable event was the Weimar National Assembly. The speech of thanks held by this suffragette, who had taken her seat along with 40 other women after a record voter turn-out (82%), was addressed to the “Rat der Volksbeauftragten” (Council of the People’s Deputies). After the fall of the Kaiser and the proclamation of the Weimar Republic on 30th November 1918 this revolutionary interim government led by the SPD party had introduced the right to vote “for all men and all women who had completed their 20th year on election day.”
This was indeed an act that could quite rightly be called “revolutionary”. Until then in this Germany that had been so obsessed with authority the average male who had neither title nor fortune did not have much of a say at all in public affairs. Therefore it is easy to imagine just how difficult it was for women, no matter what their social status, to make any headway whatsoever. Since 1870 in Prussia it had been legally forbidden for “female persons, pupils and apprentices” to even attend political assemblies and meetings, let alone become a member. Even more enlightened contemporaries like Hegel felt that the best place for women was in the custody of their husbands. This is why it was taken for granted that women were only allowed to watch the first experiment in democracy to take place on German soil after the 1848 revolution from the viewing stands of the Paulskirche – a church in Frankfurt that became the seat of the first freely elected body in Germany.
In the meantime however trouble had been brewing among the women of Europe ever since Olympe de Gouges lost her head on the guillotine for “unseemly politicising” in 1793 – in her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen she had demanded that her fellow women should also enjoy the achievements of the French Revolution. Up and down countries all over Europe courageous women started to take action – women who were no longer prepared to resign themselves to a state of “God-given” subservience.
The long struggle
The women’s movement in Germany was divided for many years. There were those bourgeois campaigners who were steeped in the more traditionally perceived role of women who first and foremost were interested in improving women’s participation in society, for example, in the field of education and profession. Then there were the proletariat activists like Minna Cauer, Lily Braun, Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg who were determined to achieve the same political rights. Awareness was raised in particular by feminists like the Englishwoman, Harriet Taylor Mill, who claimed the right to suffrage in her book The Subjection of Women. This was a demand adopted ten years later by the social democrat, August Bebel, in his book Die Frau und der Sozialismus (Woman and Socialism). This is actually what led to the SPD - the German social democratic party – becoming the first party to put women’s suffrage on their agenda at their Erfurter Programm in 1891 and to support the women’s movement in their struggle for equality.
The fear on the part of the conservative parties that the left would profit from this turned out to be unfounded. For many decades German women tended to vote more for conservative or right-wing parties, like the National Socialists in 1933, who then promptly rewarded them by sending them back to the kitchen sink. It was a bitter blow for the movement, in particular as the socialisation processes in the Third Reich produced a generation of housewives and mothers who obediently bowed down to the “Lords and Masters of Creation”.
Regarding Germany’s Basic Law women’s suffrage – in contrast to equal rights – had always been undisputed right from the start. The same applied to the constitution of the GDR where of course the people, irrespective of their sex, did not in reality have any genuine say in society. The official view was that the equality of women had already been achieved. This was in fact the case when it came to industrial production. In the Volkskammer (the GDR parliament) however the number of women represented hovered between 24 and 32 per cent. In the politburo of the SED (Socialist Unity Party), the power hub of the GDR, there was not a single woman who was a full member entitled to vote.
Meanwhile women still remained clearly under-represented in the Federal Republic of Germany for decades. The first electoral successes of the Green Party gave the movement a huge boost. Their introduction of a Women’s Statute that stipulated minimum quotas for women to hold certain offices or parliamentary seats suddenly raised the number of women in parliament from under 10 per cent to 15.4 per cent. The other parties soon followed suit with their own somewhat weaker versions. Today 32.2 per cent of all members of the German Bundestag are women, in the regional parliaments it is 32.9 per cent.
Six of the 16 federal government ministries and 44 of the 157 regional ministries are chaired at the moment by women. Their share of the seats in municipal councils is about 25 per cent. When it comes to full-time mayors and honorary mayors on the other hand only 5 per cent of them are female. Nevertheless – Angela Merkel is the first woman to head a German government and, what is more, she has six female ministers sitting alongside her in her cabinet.
works as free-lance editor, journalist and author in Munich and Landshut
Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
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