1973 German Feminist Groups Report

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The state of the women’s movement in February ’73 and ten months later:

Contents, aims, issues/ Two reports provide insight into developments

West German women’s groups gathered for nationwide meetings in Munich in February 1973 and in Coburg during the winter holidays almost a year later. The minutes of the meetings show the state of the women’s movement and document how women thought and expressed themselves, where the various groups came from and the directions they were moving in. About half of attendees were students; many groups had been founded in response to abortion rights actions, but the campaign against the abortion ban itself was on the wane. Many had emerged from socialist theory groups and were still looking for ways to ally with the proletariat through work on the neighborhood or workplace level. One group after the other seemed to abandon this aspiration after a time, turning instead to themes of more personal interest to their members.

The following report with its (from today’s perspective) at times strange formulations, is an exact transcription of the minutes composed in February 1973.[i] Putting the word ‘work’ in boldface is intended to draw attention to the rather forced style of thinking and speaking at the time.

Women’s meeting in Munich on February 1973

Bonn: 25–30 women, half students, half white-collar employees (1 blue-collar worker). The group works at the university and in the neighborhood. They have published a study on schoolgirls in the journal Internationale Politik. Their work is however largely limited to discussions and oral presentations.

a) Bread and Roses: 10 women, have written a medical handbook for women.[ii] Now they are helping to organize an exhibition about women, which the Senator for Education does not want to allow at schools for fear that it will corrupt youth. They are interested in fundamentally questioning the campaign against the abortion ban and would like to know whether other groups are doing anything on the issue. The focus of their work is checking up on medical doctors. They have also brought with them a flyer on questions of medical examinations.
b) Women’s center: 150 women, that is, us. Founding of the group, presentation of the subgroups and more detailed information on the prison group.
c) Women from HAW (Homosexual Action West Berlin)
d) SFB (Socialist Women’s League of West Berlin), has existed since 1968. Support independent organization by women, so they can develop self-confidence. They believe, however, that organizing women cannot be successful, and see the objective as working in and with working-class organizations. For that reason they also train women for trade union and party work. They also participate continuously in activities around the Vietnam War. Recommendation: in the afternoon a working group should be formed to explore the limits of autonomous women’s organizing.

Bochum: 10–35 women, students, white-collar employees and schoolgirls. At the moment they are doing theoretical work, don’t have a concept, no joint women’s activities because they don’t know how.

Bremen: “Action Paragraph 218,” in the summer they went from 30 to 10 members. A number of women broke off from the Communist Students’ League of Bremen because of differences over action coalitions with other groups. In the process they also thankfully got rid of their men; at the same time they engage in dry theorizing and constant worries about their relationship to the working class.

Darmstadt: 15 women, emerged from a socialist working group. At the moment they are discussing how they can recruit women in the unions and other areas. They intend to focus on working with working-class women on the neighborhood level. They have voluntary ideological training classes to which male comrades are also invited when there are difficult issues (interposed question: Why? Answer: They can help us and learn something in the process too!)

Düsseldorf: 20 students, have existed for one year, emerged from an abortion rights action. The group is in the process of writing statutes.
Working groups: Family, Forms of Work (for example, should we work with or without men?), Socialism. There are three factions: a large feminist faction, 2 women from the revisionists and a few women in political parties (but not revisionists?) The group intends to work with women students and perhaps to cooperate with RH (Red Aid).

a)Weiberrat: 150? women, regard themselves as socialist. They work in 4 projects and in ideological training groups, which however discuss current issues and not the classics. They collaborate closely with other Frankfurt women’s groups. Projects:
Sex working group (cooperation with young people)
Abortion rights group wants to start a self-help organization on medical issues
Neighborhood group, emerged from an action by foreign [i.e., immigrant] women on the kindergarten question; they intend to establish a multinational kindergarten.
b) A 6 FfM women’s group within the socialist working group, are doing workplace organizing in the textile industry, want to try to reach women through trade union training courses.
c) RK (Revolutionary Struggle) 50 women. They have done workplace organizing at Opel and work in the open-plan office at Neckermann. They also work with immigrant women and are interested in continuing the campaign for abortion rights; they also have a few CR groups[iii] that are doing poorly, however.
d) Women’s Action 70: they have existed since 1970 and once had 70 members. At first they tried to lead the fight against gender-specific toys, but then they became mired in theoretical work. Since many of them had the feeling that the problems they were addressing cannot be solved under capitalism, they left the group. The group finally had a falling out over the question of whether to follow a feminist approach.

Giessen: 12 women, came out of Aktion §218 [abortion rights group]. They work theoretically because of the large discrepancy in the group, mainly political economy.

a) Sofa (soc. fem. action): 15 women, came out of Aktion §218. Before the election[iv] they agitated among women to oppose the CDU. The group aspires to consistent communication among all women’s groups, and to that end has established efa, which they hope will become an organ for all women’s groups. In a research seminar at the PH (teachers’ college) in Cologne they are working on the issue of women’s role structures. They have training classes in political economy for members
b) “§218” 35 women, who have worked theoretically on the issue of women and consumption and now want to move on to actions; at the moment they are educating themselves on political economy.
c) Deutz Women’s Group (named after the Cologne district), they are a university group and are thinking of starting a neighborhood group, but are still undecided on many points.

a) Munich Women’s Forum, since Dec. ’71. 140 women, working in different sub-groups; each member devotes 15 days a month to working with women. They publish a quarterly and work together with all women “from left to right” (direct quote). One focus of their work is local politics. Most of the women in the group are employed; there are many divorced women with children. They suggest a Europe-wide demo on Mother’s Day.
A brief note: the woman who made the report (Hannelore Mabry) was clearly well known to a number of attendees, especially those from Munich; a lot of people became aggressive when she spoke, including the women who didn’t know her. The other women from Munich declared that she completely dominated the Women’s Forum and that she steamrolled it with her authoritarian behavior and withholding and distortion of information about other women’s groups.
b) Since 1970, Munich §218 group, various small groups. They aren’t attracting much interest at the moment and are wondering how to bring together new women organizationally; they have an office where they offer medical counseling.
c) Women’s Secretariat of the Worker’s and Grassroots Groups; formed in 1972 with 20 women. Their work began with training about women’s demands. They want to unite women based on their material demands, work within the trade union and aspire to create a union women’s group that also participates in the struggle against the union bosses. The group advocates women’s self-organization as the only way for women to achieve self-confidence. They offer ideological training groups for working-class women and publish a neighborhood newspaper. They would be interested in a May Day working group.
d) Technology project group: conceived as a workplace group; they are preparing themselves to address the relationship between capital and labor and the issue of female guest workers. They have a joint committee with male comrades to work on the issue.
e) Siemens women’s group: has existed for 2 years, split off from the men. The Siemens workforce is 80 percent female, including many immigrants. For that reason they have tried to do work in the dormitories. Their workplace activities are anti-union. The group is leading the struggle against low-wage groups as a struggle against women being tied to men. The group now faces the question: How can they move from a workplace focus to work on women’s issues more generally, and what would an appropriate public relations campaign look like.
f) Munich University Group: 10 women; currently arguing over statutes. They work above all as a chat group,[v] where they address issues concerning their situation as students.
g) Munich Socialist Women’s Organization: 21 members (+ 21 sympathizers), since January ’72. Thus far they have discussed the university, the workplace, socialization and school pupils. In their experience, many women’s groups fail as soon as they begin a theoretical discussion or try to find a [common] line. Thus far the group has worked out a platform.
h) Munich CR groups: 3 CR groups; one of them was the nucleus of the Perlach neighborhood group. They try to make contact with women via the abortion issue, with the aim of working together on the question of how women can engage in struggle.

Nuremberg: 20 members, including 2 men. They do ideological training, work with the Jusos [SPD youth organization] and are active around abortion rights. The group promotes the standpoint that it is wrong to work separately from men.

Tübingen: 15 students, emerged from the area of abortion rights and advocate a feminist approach: they have two theoretical working groups on workplace organizing and consumption and women.

Coburg meeting Christmas/ New Years’ 1973

Fewer women came to the next nationwide meeting in Coburg at the end of 1973, which lasted for several days and was held in a cheerless youth hostel. Apart from a large contingent from Berlin, women only came from a few other German cities. To make up for this, the women learned about the breathtaking activities going on in Geneva and were able to make contacts in Strasbourg and Vienna, which unfortunately goes unmentioned in the report on the meeting. The minutes do, however, inform us about what the women read, what they argued about and what they managed to build. Had the women’s movement evolved over ten months, and if so, in what direction?

Frankfurt: Weiberrat, Eckenheimer Str. FZ [Women’s Center] and lesbian group, Karman Week,[vi] abortion trips to Holland, health group is planning to propagate the Karman method among doctors, questionnaire action about gynecologists. They want to do medical counseling and are discussing self-exams.[vii] CR, liberation literature, RK [women’s group in the “Revolutionary Struggle”]:[viii] [female] students are doing neighborhood organizing in the Eckenheim area; this led to the founding of the housewives’ group. Workplace organizing in the packing department at Neckermann and the open-plan office at Allianz.

Geneva: Mouvement de libération des femmes (MLF) collected signatures 1970 against abortion legislation, main issue is still health, people rejected flyers in the working-class district and the hospital, read Mariarosa Dalla Costa,[ix] then distributed leaflets on the double burden, the group split into young working-class women and intellectuals [additional groups in Geneva]:
FHAR Front Homosexuel d’Action Revolutionnaire (mixed), lesbians left the group.
Psychoanalysis group explores the potentials of CR with an eye to giving up therapy.
Mothers’ group puts out a newspaper on mothers’ issues.
Video group gets technical training and members film themselves and interview their own mothers.
Sewing, knitting and music group.
Literature group (Marx, Selma James, Baudrillard: Le miroir de la production)[x]
Money: Group on women’s relationship to money, where the women have to say what all they would like.
Health group does self-exams. Liberal legislation in Geneva, but abortion is expensive. The women want to learn abortion techniques themselves in case the law changes for reasons of demographic policy.
Networking tactics: Don’t distribute flyers to strangers anymore, but only among acquaintances.
Plenary unsuitable for 20 groups, more autonomy for working groups. But they had reception groups in which new women had to speak about a specific topic.

Strasbourg: Doctors’ group teaches the Karman method.

Freiburg: founded from within the PH [Freiburg teachers’ college], CR groups, much fluctuation, bazaar that didn’t work because they didn’t have a permit, students, teachers, a few housewives.

Aachen: flyers ineffective, participated in left-wing clothing exchange to make contact with women. Questionnaire to compile a blacklist of doctors, went unanalyzed (again). Babysitting project.

Heidelberg: 100 registered, 30 active members. Actions against right-wing physicians: Marched into the [medical association] Hartmannbund carrying pokers. Flyer on fashion and boutiques, Heidelberg sex group reads Shulamith Firestone[xi] and [Anne] Koedt,[xii] [Sigmund] Freud and [Wilhelm] Reich.[xiii] Self-exams, feminist course on Capital. Plenary ineffective, lesbian group recruits new members with sticker. Mistrust; other women suspect group sex behind it.

Cologne: FBA: 70 active members. Ute and Claudia Pinl, two leaders in disputes, the rest are passive. Preparing a tribunal on the abortion ban. WDR [West German Broadcasting] program on [women’s] liberation, there they read out a manifesto and announce the address for a meeting, for which 50 women register.

CR groups, §218 action, flyer entitled “Catholic Church Aid to Mothers,” which was even distributed by nuns: content on Hausschwangere [unwed mothers who had to serve as objects of study and practice for medical students] at Cath. hospitals and other abuses. In Sülz there was an action for a children’s playground. Actions are relatively ineffective.

Theory working group with women aged 18–68 from different walks of life. [Ernest] Mandel,[xiv] read Marxist economy, Mariarosa [Dalla Costa][xv] is coming up.

Orgasm working group; subjectively, women feel they do have vaginal orgasms. They don’t want to oppose a Freudian myth with a feminist one.

A few Trotskyites, plenary with only a dozen attending, reception group for new members. Discussion with Sofa (Soc. Fem. Action) about cooperation, in which they criticize authoritarian tendencies. Sofa also rejects spontaneous actions. Sofa not present.

HFA [Homosexual Women’s Action?] formed through an ad, “wanted to resolve personal and political problems through discussion and action.” Stadtanzeiger [newspaper] refuses to print the ad. Then written petition to Anzeiger; reply: Reformulate. In its rejection [letter], the Frankfurter Rundschau laments the hardships faced by lesbians. The NRZ [Neue Ruhr Zeitung] prints the ad under the rubric “Garden Implements.” The program “Critical Journal” broadcasts the story of the ad. Four women answered the ad. The lesbian group should be part of the women’s group, formed two groups, HFA-A (political group, 15 members, wants to cooperate with men, also known as the babble group) and HFA-B (unpolitical).

Cologne-Ehrenfeld: working-class and (lower) middle-class, emerged out of the Arbeiterkampf (Worker’s Struggle) group at 4711 [perfume manufacturers]. Conclusion: The male concept of organizing at the plant level doesn’t work. Women need to be addressed more as housewives and mothers. Then there were students who built up the center, but they didn’t just want to help the poor proletarian women, but realized that they were affected too.

When the housewives had trouble with their husbands, the women got together and talked with the men; but they can’t offer the women an alternative if they get them away from their husbands. At first they were baffled, and rehearsed with the wife. “A herd of wild horses isn’t half as wild as you …” Then they went with her to the competition at the Tanzbrunnen [park]. The group consists of about 30 students. It is closed to students now, to reduce their dominance in the group.

After the round of introductions, 14 topics are suggested for the working group sessions. The ones that attract the most interest are Feminism –Socialism and Relationships (group on multiple relationships and threesomes), proletarians and the women’s center: ridding ourselves of a guilty conscience. Is our interest in proletarian women mainly pedagogical? The definition of proletarian should be extended to secretaries and women working in small businesses.

The report notes that there was still lively demand for Anne Koedt’s Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm; a new work of interest was a pirate edition of a study of matriarchy,[xvi] which we pounced on in our search for alternatives and utopias.[xvii]

[i] Private collection of Cillie Rentmeister.

[ii] See the chapter Bread and Roses.

[iii] CR stands for consciousness raising. The German term was Selbsterfahrungsgruppe, literally self-experience group, often also known as Quatschgruppe or chat group.

[iv] This probably refers to the parliamentary (Bundestag) elections of November 1972.

[v] CR group.

[vi] This refers to a course teaching the gentler aspiration method of abortion developed by Harvey Karman. See also the chapter Abortion/Gynecology. At the international women’s meeting in the summer of 1973 in Salecina, Switzerland, the participants had decided to organize “Karman weeks” to make the method better known.

[vii] Vaginal self-exams with a speculum and mirror taught women about their own bodies, and were intended to counteract a situation in which women were at the mercy of gynecologists. See also the chapter Abortion/Gynecology.

[viii] Women’s group of Revolutionärer Kampf, a non-dogmatic group in Frankfurt am Main.

[ix] Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (London, 1972). The German translation was published in 1973.

[x] Jean Baudrillard, Le miroir de la production ou l’illusion critique du matérialisme historique (Paris, 1973). English: The Mirror of Production, trans. Mark Poster (New York, 1975).

[xi] Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: A Case for Feminist Revolution (New York, 1970). The German translation appeared in 1975.

[xii] Anne Koedt’s essay “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm” first appeared in 1968 in the mimeographed journal Notes from the First Year published by New York Radical Women. A revised version appeared in Notes from the Second Year. In German it was published as a pirated pamphlet under the title Der Mythos vom vaginalen Orgasmus.

[xiii] Wilhelm Reich, Die Funktion des Orgasmus. Zur Psychopathologie und zur Soziologie des Geschlechtslebens (pirate edition). Published in English in 1942 as The Discovery of Orgone, vol. 1: The Function of the Orgasm, trans. Theodore P. Wolfe.

[xiv] Ernest Mandel, a contemporary Marxist theorist.

[xv] Dalla Costa and James, The Power of Women.

[xvi] Mathilde Värting, Neubegründung der Psychologie von Mann und Weib. Die weibliche Eigenart im Männerstaat und die männliche Eigenart im Frauenstaat (Karlsruhe, 1921; pirate edition Berlin, 1974).

[xvii] Cillie Rentmeister, “Frauenwelten – fern, vergangen, fremd? Die Matriarchatsdebatte und die Neue Frauenbewegung,” in Ina-Maria Greverus, Konrad Köstlin and Heinz Schilling (eds), Kulturkontakt, Kulturkonflikt. Zur Erfahrung des Fremden, vol. 1 (Frankfurt am Main, 1988), pp. 443–60.