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A century of change: mapping the feminist movement in Germany

Updated: Mar 16, 2021

Germany is one of only a handful of European countries to have a female leader, yet in 2019, it only ranked 10th for gender equality according to a report by the World Economic Forum. Even so, this ranking has only been achieved after over a century of campaigning for women’s rights.

Gallery of activists for women's rights in Germany. Photo: 1rhb via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Early Movements

From 1900 until the present day, women’s rights in Germany have been set out in the German Civil Code (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch). The original version effectively made women into second class citizens, denying women legal autonomy, property rights and suffrage, and contained restrictive marriage and divorce laws. In response, several women’s associations soon sprang up, campaigning for equality in areas such as education as well as economic independence.

Such groups were however often sharply divided along class lines: the largest organisation the Union of German Feminist Organizations (Bund Deutscher Frauenvereine) had a distinctly middle-class demographic, whilst working class women were represented by socialist organisations like the SPD.

However, these two organisations would come together during the First World War to form a new nation-wide organization, the National Women’s Service (Nationaler Frauendienst) which coordinated welfare support, food supplies and education on the home front.

Although the First World War saw a significant movement of women into the workforce, especially into industries, this occurred on a much smaller scale and was a more temporary development in Germany than in Britain. Male-dominated trade unions did not support the mobilisation of female labour, fearing that women would undercut and replace men’s jobs, resulting in many working women losing their jobs after the war’s end.

Recognition At Last

Partially a reflection of the female-dominated post-war electorate, significant legal and political changes occurred in Germany after 1918. Article 109 of the Weimar constitution stated that “men and women have the same fundamental rights and duties as citizens”, including the right to vote and to hold office, which resulted in women winning 37 of the 423 seats in the Reichstag in 1919.

Speaking of this historic moment, women’s rights activist and elected Social Democrat representative Marie Juchacz stated: “What this government has done is the most natural thing in the world; it has given women what until then was wrongly denied them.” Nevertheless, women seldom became influential, holding no cabinet posts, and voter turnout was typically 5-10% lower than that of men throughout the Weimar period.

Political recognition was accompanied by cultural changes, with new publications emerging which were targeted at women like Die Dame. With greater economic independence and increased leisure time, urban women were able to embrace new leisure activities such as dancing the Charleston, watching a film at the cinema, or taking up a sport. In 1928 Hilde Krahwinkel won an Olympic gold medal in the 800m whilst Cilly Aussem became the first German woman to win Wimbledon in 1931.

Backlash under the Nazis

Whilst the Nazi party was one of the few political parties which recognised and actually appealed to women voters, the role they imagined for them was that of housewives and mothers who would help create the ideal racially pure “Aryan” population.

State incentives including financial supplements and the Cross of Honour of the German Mother (Mutterkreuz) encouraged women to have as many children as possible. Women who were considered minority biologically or racially inferior such as Jews and the disabled were persecuted and often forcibly sterilized.

The demands of fighting a “total war” however required the mobilisation of women in the workforce: in 1939 all single women had to report for compulsory labour service in war-related industries. By 1945, there were around half a million women working in auxiliary roles in the armed forces, including the SS. After 1945, women were once again the majority in the post-war society and were to put to work clearing rubble.

Divided but Not Equal

West Germany was dominated by conservative thinking regarding the role of women in society, which was mostly limited to domestic duties. For example, until 1977, West German women required to gain their husband’s approval if they wanted to get a job. In the wake of the 1968 student protests, a second wave of feminism took hold, characterised by politicisation and mass protests focusing on everyday gender inequality, reproductive rights and sexual morality. Feminist cultural products emerged, including the political magazine EMMA and so-called Frauenfilme, which examined narratives of female emancipation.

As a socialist country, men and women were meant to play equal roles in East German society. The emancipation of the working class included the emancipation of women, and Frauentag (Women’s Day) was elevated to an official celebration in the GDR.

Promoting the ideal of the working woman, the state introduced a number of measures aimed at supporting women so they could transition from the domestic sphere into the working world, such as providing state-funded and state-run childcare, expanding educational provisions for women, and legalising the right to an abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy. This has had a tangible legacy in terms of women in the workforce: in 2012, 57.9 percent of women in the former East held permanent jobs compared to 50.9% of women in western states.


Post-reunification Germany has been slow to act on the issue of women’s rights, only introducing a law against discrimination based on gender in 2005. Abortion remains a key issue: under paragraphs 218 and 219a, having or informing potential patients about abortion is technically still illegal in Germany and can be punished by a fine or even imprisonment. Business culture especially has come under scrutiny, with new laws introducing gender quotas to combat the glass ceiling which prevents women from being promoted to top-ranking positions.

Germany also has one of Europe’s largest gender wage gap at 21%, compared to 11.9% in the UK. Many campaigners also point out that whilst female equality is now enshrined in law, the reality is often very different, highlighting the difficulties of the dual burden of women.

The feminist movement itself has also changed, broadening out to include immigrant women and women of colour. Social media has become an important platform in the fight for women’s rights: even before the #MeToo movement, in 2013 German women were recounting their experiences of everyday sexism and harassment using the hashtag #aufschrei (#outcry).


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