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Women In Germany During Wwii Essay Research

Women In Germany During Wwii Essay, Research Paper

In the year 1914, a war swept across the continent of Europe, and drew in military forces from all areas of the globe. This war is known today and forever more as World War I, and is etched in history books as one of the major political turning points for many of the countries throughout Europe. By 1914, the rival alliances, nationalism, imperialism, as well as an arms race had brought Europe to the brink of war. The spark came with the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Tension had been building for years between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, and because the killer was Serbian Austria-Hungary used the murder as an excuse to retaliate. Before disengaging force, Austria consulted its main ally, Germany, who quickly agreed to defend Austria and set no limits on their support.

Beyond these freshly sprung battlefields raged an entirely different war, a war between genders. A war fought purely on the basis of equality that took root far across the ocean in the United States during the mid 1800’s. This war is known as women’s suffrage, and is still a raging battle throughout many areas of the world today.

Women’s suffrage in Germany had been a growing turmoil for decades before the start of the war, but the role women played throughout the war helped to bring their suffrage movement to a culminating point that brought them closer to victory. The position of women in Germany during World War I was one where they were pulled out of their families and into the public life, helping them to gain further victory in their battle of women’s suffrage. It became apparent that, if the war was ultimately to be won by fighting men at the front, the country was in need of the active support and co-operation of German civilians in the rear. Women, who could take the places of absent men in factories, fields, and offices and sustain morale on the home-front, were universally recognized as vital contributors to the war effort. The Great War had done more to emancipate women than years, or even centuries, of previous struggle had accomplished. This was apparent during and immediately after the conflict.

Germany before 1914 was the home of the largest, best-organized, and most contentious class-conscious socialist women’s movement in Europe (Quataert). Although the percentage of women employed in Germany was smaller than Austria, Great Britain, or France, it was in Germany that the organizational model for all socialist women was developed. During the 1880’s, a small number of German

working class women began to unite and take action against their depleting rights under the patriarchal government that ruled over their country. Industrialization created a new class structure and accentuated distinctions among women according to work and domestic life. The feminist slogans of “right to work” and “equal pay for equal labor” had different meanings for proletarian women and ladies of the middle class (Koonz, 33). Women began to choose loyalty to class and to gender by allying feminism with socialism. The symbol of their movement was the Social Democratic women’s movement (Frauenbewegung) (Koonz, 34). The formation of the women’s section of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SDP), was a powerful vehicle for women to voice their opinions based upon their desires for equality and their right to vote. By 1914 nearly 175,000 women were enrolled in the SPD. Socialist women envisioned a life radically different from the one reinforced by the dominant society. They sought a new social organization that allowed them a chance to develop both as a human being and as females. This would allow them to be freed from the harsh male dictatorship that they lived beneath on a daily basis. The “new woman” would be allowed to find her place among her family, as well as voice her opinion concerning her society and the politics of her nation (Thebaud, 22).

At first, the SDP put forth much of its energy into campaigning for the right to vote. When the war broke out in the summer of 1914, more and more women were forced from their homes to work in factories and other war-time related jobs. This created a difference from the voting laws, and much emphasis was put on the woman laborer. While their husbands were off fighting on the front lines the women of Germany, from all classes, banned together to work and support their country. In 1914, women organized across political and social divisions to knit, nurse, collect scrap materials, and donate to charity (Koonz, 24). Work was hailed as the great prerequisite for feminine liberation as it freed women from economic dependency on husbands or fathers. Overnight, it seemed, women were not only permitted but begged to mine coal, deliver the mail, drive trucks and trams, keep account books, and work in heavy industry. They did this as well as continue to roll bandages, nurse veterans, and perform charitable work. The Bourgeoisie women who had been confined to the jobs that consisted mainly of housework, and caring for their families were liberated to take part in work that was forbidden before the war started. They united with the working class Proletariat to help support their country while the war raged on for over four years.

The war opened up opportunities for some women who wanted or needed to seek employment, but could not find any prior to the start of the war. Women students, professionals, and skilled workers received sudden and temporary encouragement. Many industries began to redesign themselves to fit women’s needs. Engineers redesigned heavy equipment to suit women’s size. Industrial sociologists experimented with various on-the-job incentives to attract women such as pastel painted walls, half-time shifts, bouillon breaks, childcare, and counseling services to ease the working mother’s feelings of guilt (Thebaud, 41). Women were even called upon for military service, further breaking the gender barriers.

After 1916, as German generals realized the war would not end soon, the government recruited women to take soldiers’ places at strategically vital jobs; such as driving trucks and delivering important messages, often across dangerous war zones. The war offered women unprecedented freedom and responsibility. Serving their country in previously unattainable occupations, many found

pleasure in working with new tools and technologies. Wartime work was well paid, particularly in munitions factories where women would earn twice what they did in traditional female occupations.

Many women were at first not entirely happy about leaving the confines of their home to work in the factories and leave behind their children while their husbands and fathers left to fight. The media played an important role in luring the Bourgeoisie women into various positions that the country so desperately needed to be filled. For these women of the upper and middle class, accustomed to charity work, the war was a period of feverish service, which helped to break down many of the social barriers (Frevert).

There were many publicity drives to lure women to work. Women for the first time heard themselves called into “masculine” jobs to demonstrate what the government described as “feminine” virtues such as selflessness, idealism, and patriotism. Wartime discourse told women her nation and its soldiers depended on her. These calls for action are what appealed to women, and the media further sparked these appeals with posters inscribed with words such as fate, glory, emergency, triumph, and solidarity (Frevert). Speeches and radio programs made the theme

omnipresent. One such poster featured a picture of a happy wife-worker in an armaments factory with the slogan, “Earlier I buttered bread for him, now I paint the grenades and think, this is for him.”(Higgonnet, 117) Such slogans appealed to women because to them, this was their way of fighting for their country without fighting alongside the men.

The emancipation of women to work what was once considered to be strictly men’s work, supports the belief that the First World War was the key to women’s liberation. Suddenly, a system that until 1908, had made it illegal for women even to attend gatherings at which politics might be discussed, told women the nation’s very survival depended upon their taking up jobs previously done by men (Thebaud, 27). It was a magnificent time for women, and helped them not only to break free from the strict traditionalism, but also make them feel part of the front and their homeland. With the closing of the war in 1918, came the culminating point of the suffrage movement in Germany. Women were finally allowed to vote. After the Armistice was signed in November 1918, nearly two million German soldiers did not return from the front; but six million did. Many of these soldiers returned home needing jobs. In the past, when men


had gone off to war, women had waited patiently at home. However, the men left and the women took over, shouldering public responsibilities and keeping the war machine running. As a result, a near “social” war broke out between genders when men returned only to demand the jobs women had performed. Much of the propaganda used to lure women into the work now tried to relieve them of future service. Nearly two million women were forced from their jobs, many of which were single mothers and war widows who needed the employment just as badly if not more than the returning men (Koonz, 25). Women failed to persuade the government until 1920 to improve the disastrous situation in which many soldier’s widows found themselves. After experiencing independence and hearing themselves praised as vital members of the nation, women found it difficult to return to their former lives.

While the Socialist women continued to defend their equal rights to work, the Bourgeoisie women often put the needs of the returning veteran first. The war that had once united the two classes, now caused their separation in it’s aftermath. To the end, few Socialist women expected more than municipal suffrage as the reward for women’s wartime services to the Fatherland (Hackett). At no stage did the

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Kaiser promise to go so far as to introduce female suffrage in the aftermath of the war. On at least two occasions, the Kaiser affirmed his belief in a woman’s traditional role as housewife and mother. It took the overthrow of the Imperial Order and the setting up of the new democratic state, the Weimer Republic, to bring about some closure to the oppression of German women (McMillan). In fact, 37 women were elected to Weimar’s Constituent Assembly (Thebaud, 30). Women’s suffrage was then viewed as a road block for revolution, and a means of stabilizing the parliamentary regime following in the course of the Revolution of 1918-1919.

Overall, ironically, the war, which slaughtered millions of young men, emancipated millions of young women by giving them the status and independence women’s rights advocates had demanded for decades. The director of German women’s wartime efforts, Maria E. Luders, admitted, “In a certain sense, the war came at the right time for women.” (Koonz, 25) Women were able to demonstrate their patriotism, energy, and skills. While the brave men of Germany marched to their deaths for their country, women took over their jobs, took their places in universities, and assumed their authority at home. Consequently, the idea

spread during the years of conflict that through women’s participation in war-related activities the cause of gender equality had made rapid headway, gaining more ground between 1914 and 1918 than had been achieved by women and their struggle in the preceding fifty years (McMillan). The First World War remains the crucial factor in the coming of women’s political emancipation. New opportunities arose for women throughout Germany, and the change in views of women and their abilities paved the way to a future closer to equality.

Works Cited

Frevert, Ute. Feminism in Germany. 1986. 22 March 2001.


Hackett, Amy. Feminism and Liberalism in Wilhelmine

Germany, 1890-1918. 1076. 22 March 2001. http://


Higonnet, Margaret Randolph and Jane Jenson. Behind the

Lines: Gender and the two World Wars. New Haven: Yale

UP, 1987.

Koonz, Claudia. Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the

Family, and Nazi Politics. St. Martin’s: New York, 1987.

McMillan, James F. The Coming of Women’s Suffrage, 1914-

1945. 1984. 22 March 2001. http://humanities.uwe.ac.uk

Quataert, Jean H. Unequal Partners in an Uneasy Alliance:

Women and The Working Class in Imperial Germany. 1978.

22 March 2000. http://humanities.uwe.ac.uk

Thebaud, Francoise. A History of Women: Toward a Cultural

Identity in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Harvard

UP, 1994.