The German women's
movement and ours

by Renny Harrigan

from Jump Cut, no. 27, July 1982, pp. 42-44
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1982, 2005

Feminism in West Germany almost invites comparison with U.S. feminism in both contemporary and historical aspects. Both countries had an active women's movement in the 19th century. Both granted women's suffrage — for different reasons — in 1919. Both movements were subsumed in this century by the political exigencies of two world wars, wartime economy, and recovery, all of which led to dramatic changes in female participation in the work force. Both societies witnessed the emergence of a second women's movement during the decade of the 60s. Since both the United States and West Germany are highly industrialized countries which also form the closest political bond within an already close NATO power block, the fabric of daily life for women in both countries — particularly in the areas of production and reproduction — is quite similar. Once we have acknowledged this, however, the differences between the two countries tell us more than the similarities.

The following essay attempts to provide a general outline of the two national feminist movements from a North American viewpoint. It assumes a working knowledge of U.S. feminism and concentrates on the development of the women's movement in West Germany. The discussion is always framed within the context of what I see as the major differences between the two. U.S. feminism enlisted the sympathies of the middle class from its start. West German feminism was born within the student left. It consistently had a far greater emphasis on the need to develop its own theory than did U.S. feminism at its inception.

U.S. feminism owed its early survival and growth to several factors. It was a broad movement with a strong middle class component. In 1963, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique became a best seller, giving that sickness which knows no name a label for millions of women. At the same time, the political struggles carried on by an increasingly militant civil rights movement worked to create an atmosphere in which the concepts of freedom and democracy excited the national imagination and carried the movement qualitatively beyond its original demands of equal rights for black people. It was here that the women who later marched with the student left in protest of United States’ involvement in Vietnam began their political history.

The later 60s brought increased radicalization of left positions, including that of women on the left who found it more and more difficult to believe in their ideals when they were still relegated to making the coffee and doing secretarial work for their male leaders. Women's consciousness gradually became verbalized in the demand for autonomous and independent all-women caucuses on the left. In this impulse, which is simultaneously a refusal, radical feminism also had its roots. The great majority of U.S. women, left or middle of the road, participated in consciousness raising groups which have become the backbone of the women's movement here. Much of what at that time was private discovery quickly became part of a feminist public practice. NOW was founded in 1966 and, whatever its limitations, it provided national visibility to feminism in a vast country. NOW's very existence was of signal importance to the well-being of a movement which enlisted the sympathies of the left as well as the middle class.

In West Germany, the historical situation was quite different from the U.S. experience sketched above. The German women's movement was a reaction solely to the student left by its female members, and it lacked a broader base until fairly recently. This fact may account for the hesitation on the part of some filmmakers interviewed in JUMP CUT to label themselves and their work as feminist: Stöckl sees her work parallel to but excluded from the women's movement; Runge views the class contradiction as primary; Sander disassociates herself from the term “women's films”; and Ottinger is critical of the women's movement. The occasional ambivalence about feminism stems from varied sources, as both interviews and films show.

The German student left of the 60s was a generation of young adults who had been strongly influenced by the need for critical thinking which accompanied their nation's reevaluation of its Nazi history. Despite the avowed Allied intent to "de-nazify" the German public through reeducation, U.S. cold war paranoia during the 50s had made criticism from the left — the single historical antagonist of the Nazi regime — prohibitive. Furthermore, many of the same people remained in power in West Germany after the war. As a result, much of the criticism of Nazism was stifled. The questions asked by a generation of war babies about their parents' past had remained largely unanswered. When this generation entered the universities in the middle sixties, it had already experienced extreme generational conflict and lack of belief in authority. It was hoped that critical thinking and a belief in West Germany's commitment to democratic values would lead the 60s student generation out of its historical and psychological impasse. University students' anti-authoritarian and critical tendencies exploded in a condemnation of Western imperialism, specifically of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and of the Cold War tactics of the allies towards East Germany and Eastern Europe.

The German student movement was as male-dominated as its U.S. counterpart. However, it had a more theoretical basis in Marxism, which was part of German national language and national history. The parties of the working class in Germany — the Social Democrats (SPD), briefly the Independent Socialists (USPD) and the Communists (KPD) — had always had a more conscious ideological basis than U.S. parties of either the right or the left. The West German women's movement was born within the anti-authoritarian and Marxist student left. This fact accounts for the emphasis of West German feminists on a theory couched in Marxist class terms rather than on an experiential, empirical approach as found in the United States. Even German feminism of the 19th century had had a much stronger theoretical basis than 19th century U.S. feminism, again I think primarily because of the closer connections between feminism and the left in Germany.(1) As a result, it was still more radical in 1971-72 to call oneself feminist in West Germany than it was to call oneself Marxist, which is not surprising from a radical feminist perspective.

Women's subjective and historical needs were articulated by a group of women within SOS (Socialist German Student Organization) who founded the Aktionsrat zur Befreiung der Frau (Action Council for the Liberation of Women) in Berlin in 1968.(2) Helke Sander attempted to deliver their first public speech at an SOS conference in Frankfurt of that year, but her prepared statement was completed by a Frankfurt sister. The analysis here is very similar to Selma James' early evaluation of U.S. middle-class feminism:

"When those privileged [middle class] women have children ... they are thrown back into a pattern of behavior which they thought they had already overcome, thanks to their emancipation.”(3)

Sander's statement describes the choice between career or domesticity as mutually exclusive — and for that reason, one

"which forces women to reevaluate the traditional middle class way of emancipation through competition and consumption."

What Sander did not say to this SOS audience was that women were also forced to reevaluate their male comrades' commitment to the emancipation of all. As a concrete method of overcoming their dilemma and of creating an alternative, the Aktionsrat proposed work on alternative day care centers, five of which already existed in Berlin in 1968. The statement then continues in open opposition to SOS politics, which had traditionally attempted to organize the working class:

“The attempt [by the SOS men] to make other population groups happy with our day care centers as quickly as possible may be traced back to the male refusal — now as always — to articulate their own conflicts. At the moment we have nothing to offer the workers. We cannot take working class children into our day care centers where they will learn behavior for which they will be punished at home. The preconditions for that must first be created by the workers.”(4)

At the close of the speech, the women threw tomatoes at the presiding SOS dignitaries.

It was the attempt to create anti-authoritarian day care centers that provided the West German women's movement with its initial impetus and cohesion. In the course of the following year, four more centers were established in Berlin and an attempt was made to organize all day care workers in both private and state supported centers. Women's special needs were thus initially articulated by the female members of SOS who were mothers, clearly because the childrearing experience was still a female responsibility which decisively differentiated female needs and subjective desires from those of the males. Although mothers had a strong influence on early West German feminist strategy, that influence did not last, probably because of the insurmountable gap between the theory and the practice of that time.(5)

Overt feminist activity surfaced in Frankfurt soon after the Aktionsrat's debut, a phenomenon which attests to the unique role which both Berlin and Frankfurt have played as weathervanes for left and later feminist politics in all of West Germany. At Frankfurt, a group called the Weiberrat (Women's Council) distributed a leaflet at another SOS conference in November 1968 with the rallying cry,

"Liberate socialist eminences from their bourgeois cocks" The slogan was accompanied by drastic graphic demonstrating how this could be done.”(6)

Women there demonstrated united female support for this rather controversial tactic, since women had already been prevented from delivering a position paper at a previous conference. (Film clips of that meeting recorded male reaction for posterity, clips which Helke Sander has spliced into her most recent film, DER SUBJEKTIVE FAKTOR). The women there expressed genuine anger. They had been naive enough to believe that their male comrades in SOS would accept their demands once they themselves had articulated their goals and strategies.(7) None of the women had been prepared for the sarcasm, the abuse, at best the patronizing indulgence with which the SOS men greeted their efforts. From this time on, even though the women continued to struggle within SOS, the split between women on the left and the left was definite. However, the women's movement in West Germany would wear the marks of its close connections with the student left for many years to come.

An ongoing attempt to decriminalize abortion completely, by abolishing Paragraph 218, became one of the most important issues in early West German feminism. A conference in Düsseldorf in November 1971 finally managed to win mass support.(8) All the groups working to repeal Paragraph 218 participated in it. However, this conference was the last public demonstration on this matter.

The attempt to decriminalize abortion won only half-hearted support from left women. Generally, they tended to perceive such a change as a boon for women less fortunate than themselves, rather than as a necessary precondition for their own emancipation. This position simply reflected the student and left origins of the women's movement. It also restated the Communist Party position from when it lead the campaign to decriminalize abortion during the 20s. Abortion, the Party asserted, was necessary to ease the burden of working class women, but in a socialist and communist society which provided the material bases for existence, such a measure would be unnecessary. In other words, the Party stopped short of recognizing women's right to refuse pregnancy and motherhood despite its invaluable work on the campaign during the 20s.(9)

In the United States, feminist practice preceded the development of feminist theory: the consciousness-raising group was a way of life for almost all women of feminist persuasion. The West German women's movement to some extent became paralyzed by its search for a feminist theory, which had yet to be written. The early feminists in West Germany had to answer first of all to a male left, which provided the political context. The women's first manifestoes and statements reveal an exaggerated attempt to derive new feminist theory by plugging feminist questions into a Marxist theory, which had become fairly rigid in the hands of the German student left. Left or socialist feminism in the United States has gone through a similar process but has never been as extreme for several reasons. Leftists were only a small part of a wider feminist movement in the United States. Americans are, in comparison with Germans, hostile to theory, more eclectic and more pragmatic. U.S. feminists had the immediate practice of the consciousness raising group, which provided the context for developing a new practice, new questions and theory.

 The "c.r." group, so crucial to the growth of U.S. feminism, was initially discarded as too "bourgeois" in West Germany, too individualized, too apolitical. It took a relatively longer time in West Germany for the notion of the personal as political to gain hold. (SexPol advocates during the 20s in Germany had finally been excluded from both the KPD and the SPD as objects of ridicule because of their emphasis on psychological and sexual needs). Although "c.r." groups could be found in Germany by the early 70s, they never achieved the popularity or importance they had attained in the United States. Perhaps it is the more traditionally left bias in West German feminism which accounts for the translation of consciousness-raising as Selbsterfahrung (self-experience). In contrast, the more general term for consciousness rising on the (male) left is, literally, "enlightenment" (Aufklärung). The appropriation of these terms is significant. The women's c.r. group is individualistic, experiential, bourgeois. A male-populated group is, through its name alone, more serious, more intellectual, and more political. From within the context we are dealing with here, these labels place the women's group at distinct disadvantage, just as they perpetuate dualistic sexual stereotyping.

The ways in which German feminism and U.S. feminism dealt with the idea of wages for housework is useful to illustrate the differences between the two movements. The demand of wages for housework never really attained widespread popularity in the United States, but the reverse was true in West Germany. In both countries, wages for housework created an extremely good analysis of the type of work that women do in the home. However, U.S. women felt that they would be further isolated in the home if they had a wage to keep them there. The dominant view in West Germany was that only a wage would provide both recognition of women's work and power in a society in which money means power. (The latter position reflects, among other things, the production-oriented tendency inherited by West German feminism from traditional Marxism.)

An American who considers herself both a leftist and a feminist might long for the theoretical sophistication which the close relationship between German feminism and Marxism can create.(10) She would also, however, be horrified by some of its by-products. I attended a large and heated discussion in Berlin on wages for housework during the height of that movement's popularity: the summer of 1977. The presence of Selma James, theoretical spokeswoman for the "wages for housework" movement, had insured a large turnout. I was impressed by the deft use of difficult Marxist concepts, as well as by the vituperative atmosphere and the abstract nature of the issue itself.

The only apparent voice against the idea of wages for housework was an SPD member of the legislature, who used the contrary argument popular in the United States and confirmed it with evidence from the Hungarian program of wages for housework. In Hungary, the wage had exaggerated the sexual division of labor, making it almost impossible for women to leave the home. Also, it had allowed the state to renege on its responsibility for providing day care. Despite the evidence, and despite the impossibility of the demand in West Germany, the campaign of wages for housework monopolized the energy of the women's movement in West Germany for the better part of 1977. And paradoxically, despite feminist disavowal of the left, Marxist wage and labor theory continued to frame the entire debate.

In the United States, feminist self-help projects gave the women's movement momentum almost immediately, whereas in West Germany such projects were slow to catch on. In Germany, social security, mandatory health insurance and monthly child allowances (Kindergeld) provide for a more comprehensive social service system than ours. However, the German social service network also tends to stifle individual initiative. Self-help projects have in the past been regarded as charity in West Germany. Americans, on the other hand, have long been accustomed to "taking social welfare into their own hands."(11) This is because our government has never assumed responsibility in theory or in practice for its citizens' social welfare. Thus, Americans have always participated readily in alternative and community projects. For the women's movement, this has meant the rapid development of a feminist subculture which in turn nurtured the growth of both feminist theory and feminist practice.

In West Germany, feminist projects slow to take root. In addition, for a time an emphasis on theoretical abstractions also threatened to stultify the women's movement completely. 1976-1977 was, I think, a crucial period in which many needed projects struggled hard to surface. The abortion campaign, which had been important earlier in the decade, remained at a low ebb after some legal reform.(12) As the children whose mothers had agitated for day care moved into school, that issue lost its immediacy. No new mothers moved in to take up the demand, for in the interim the women's movement had become predominantly student single and lesbian separatist.(13) By 1977, however, despite all the energy devoted to the wage for housework, several vital projects (and certainly more which I do not know about) survived: women's centers in most of the larger German cities; two women's health centers; public lectures on women's health in West Berlin high schools; two rape crisis lines; several homes for battered women; feminist bookstores in eleven West German cities and two in Berlin; two national feminist monthlies (Courage, founded in 1976; Emma, founded in 1977) whose circulation climbed steadily; dozens of locally published magazines and newspapers and one feminist press (Frauenoffensive). (14) The grounds for a solid communication network had been successfully laid. The first Sommeruniversität fur Frauen (Summer University for Women) — a lengthy women's studies conference/ seminar was held in Berlin in 1976 and continued each succeeding year.(15)

Although German feminism maintains its theoretical tone when measured by U.S. standards, some of the change and maturity in that movement was reflected, I think, in the “Sommeruni’s” topic of last year: women's daily life. Many of the sessions revolved around the idea of survival as a feminist in our society, and the topic was developed very broadly. Christina Perincioli, one of the filmmakers interviewed, gave a talk on nuclear disarmament,(16) an issue which dominates both left and feminist politics in West Germany today. Such a choice indicates the growing interest which the German women's movement has injnoving beyond — without discarding — what have become narrowly defined as “women's issues." Today, most feminists in West Germany are not interested in the possibility of creating a women's party. But they argue for support of the newest German political party, the Greens or the Alternative List (die Graünen, or AL) because of that party's support of nuclear disarmament, ecological principles and a world free of pollution.(17) The decision to work in broad coalitions shows how self-evident and how secure feminism has become in West Germany during the past decade. It also indicates the sort of vision which occurs when one group takes responsibility for moving all of humanity forward.


1. There are two separate tendencies within 19th century feminism: those seeking equal rights represented in the Bund Deutscher Frauenvereine and the socialists represented in the women's organizations of the Social Democrats (SPD) and later the Communists (KPD). There was also a strong radical feminist contingent within the BDF, which dominated that organization at the end of the century. Their analysis of sexual politics left little for future generations to develop. Here too we see a higher tolerance for theory in West German feminism, for historically the advocates of “New Morality" and free love were an integral part of the movement, whereas Margaret Sanger or Emma Goldman were very isolated in the United States. For information on German feminism of the 19th century see the following: Richard J. Evans, The Feminist Movement in Germany, 1894-1933, Sage Studies in 20th Century History 6 (London and Beverly Hills: Sage, 1976) offers a history of the BDF. Werner Thönnessen, The Emancipation of Women: The Rise and Decline of the Women's Movement in German Social Democracy, 1863-1933 (London: Pluto, 1969) offers a history of the SPD and the women's movement. Only Marielouise Janssen-Jurreit, Sexismus: oder die Abtreibung der Frauenfrage (Munich: Hanser, 1976) deals at all with radical feminism.

2. The following works were consulted for my account of West German feminism: Frauen: Frauenjahrbuch '75 (Frankfurt; Rotbuch, 1975); Frauen: Frauenjahrbuch '75 (Munich: Frauenoffensive, 1976); Special Feminist Issue: New German Critique No. 13 (1978); New German Critique No. 14 (1979); New German Critique No. 15; also back issues of the German feminist monthlies, Emma and Courage. Helke Sander's film, DER SUBJEKTIVE FAKTOR (THE SUBJECTIVE FACTOR, 1980) also tells a history of the women's movement from the end of 1967 to the start of 1970.

3. Selma James, "The American Family: Decay and Rebirth," in Edith Altbach, ed., From Feminism to Liberation (Cambridge, MA: Schenkman, 1976), pp. 163-98; also in Radical America, 4 (1970).

4. See Frauen: Frauenjahrbuch '75 (Rotbuch), pp. 110-15 for quotes from speech.

5. Helke Sander told me this in a discussion in Berlin on July 4, 1981. She speculated simply that women with children burned out more quickly because of the multi-burden on their energies.

6. Quote and graphic from Frauen: Frauenjahrbuch '75 (Rotbuch), pp. 16-17.

7. In conversation in Berlin, 1981, with several of the women involved at that time.

8. According to Sylvia Heyer in a review of Brot und Rosen, a women's health handbook published by a Berlin women's collective of the same name. She also states that support for abolishing the abortion paragraph was as much as 70% to 80% at that time. See New German Critique No. 13 (1978), 161.

9. The best account of the abortion campaign and the role of the KPD in it is Atina Grossmann, "Abortion and Economic Crisis: The 1931 Campaign Against §218 in Germany," New German Critique, No. 15 (1979).

10. See, for example, Ulrike Prokop, Weiblicher Lebenszusammenhang (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1976), an excerpt of which is printed in English in New German Critique No. 13. See also, Silvia Bovenschen, “Uber die Frage: gibt es eine weibliche Ästhetik?” in Ästhetik und Kommunikation No 25 (1976), which has been translated in New German Critique No. 10 (1977) and Heresies No. 4 (1979).

11. Hilke Schlaeger, "The West German Women's Movement," New German Critique No. 13 (1978), 65. This and the comments about German and U.S. social systems come from her.

12. The reformed law permits abortion up to the 13th day except in the following extenuating circumstances: within the first 12 weeks if impregnation is the result of a sex crime or if it occurs as the result of a "serious emergency" (some consideration of economic hardship is admissible here); within the first 21 weeks if the health or life of the mother is endangered.

13. The Frauen: Frauenjahrbuch '75 (Rotbuch) account of the growth of the Frankfurt Weiberrat mentions that the Weiberrat was dominated by discussion at the university and the interests of students, and that minority interest groups such as mothers were formed later (mid-seventies). Frankfurt, along with Berlin, is less student-dominated than other centers of West German left and feminist activity.

14. There is a lengthy review of feminist publications in West Germany by Miriam Frank in New German Critique No. 13 (1978), 181-94.

 15. There will be no Sommeruni this year due to some political infighting within the women's movement as of this writing (June 1981).

16. In conversation with Perincioli at Evanston, IL, November 1980.

17. The party won enough votes to be represented in the legislature in the last election.