March 8th marks International Women’s Day, a celebration that was introduced to draw attention to gender inequality. However, only one German state, Berlin, has gone as far as to make it a public holiday. Germany is one of only a handful of European countries to have a female leader, yet in 2019, it only ranked 10thfor gender equality.
“What this government has done is the most natural thing in the world; it has given women what until then was wrongly denied them”: these words were spoken by Marie Juchacz, a Social Democrat and women rights activist who was elected in 1919, the first year women could vote in Germany. During that election, women won 37 of the 423 seats in the Reichstag. In 2017, they held 221 out of the 709 seats in the Bundestag: roughly 50% percent of Germany’s population represented by 31% of the seats.
A poster from 1919 calling on women to vote. It reads, "Women! Ensure peace and the food supply! Vote and tell other people to vote!" Photo: Historical Museum Frankfurt via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0
Post-reunification Germany has been slow to legally enforce women’s rights, only introducing a law against discrimination based on gender in 2005. Although female equality is now enshrined in law, campaigners point out that the reality is often very different, drawing attention to the ‘dual burden’ faced by women who want to have both children and a career.
The promotion of the working woman as the ideal in the former East Germany has left a tangible legacy on 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. Although 76% of working-age women in Germany today are employed, they fail to break the glass ceiling: in 2018, only one-third of all leadership positions in Germany were held by women. New quota laws were introduced in 2015 to prevent this, but have seen limited success so far. Germany also has one of Europe’s largest gender wage gap at 21%, compared to 11.9% in the UK.
The feminist movement itself has also changed. 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). Under paragraphs 218 and 219a, having an abortion is technically still illegal in Germany and is punishable by a fine or even imprisonment - aside from in certain circumstances. In light of this, should Germany really be celebrating its successes on International Women’s Day?
While much has changed in terms of women’s rights, it's clear that Germany still has a long way to go.