1968 Action Council to Free Women

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Action Council was without a doubt the most successful undertaking to emerge from the student movement, since within just a few months its members had founded twelve alternative nursery schools, an after-school center and eighteen functioning working groups. For the first time, the beginnings of the “counter-society” envisioned by the ‘68ers became visible. Also essential was the anti-authoritarian approach in new concepts of childrearing and the challenge to or replacement of long outmoded educational goals…

writes Ute Maierhof in her MA thesis.[i] This study and one by Gisa Windhüfel[ii] reveal nothing of the topics dealt with by the eighteen Action Council working groups, which apparently were not committed to writing. What do survive are the position papers, which only allow us to follow the factional battles. These factional battles reflect the split in the ‘68er movement, but also show women ruthlessly asserting their leadership claims, thereby preventing the movement from growing in a direction determined by the membership.

The split in stages

  1. It was the SDS women with children, the mothers whose own hardships led them to organize and run the first alternative nursery schools in 1968, who developed the concept of anti-authoritarian childrearing and ultimately also found the time to devote to their own issues as women. They vehemently attacked male leftists for continuing to cling to the division of labor they found convenient. They proclaimed “the personal is political!”
  1. Male leftists ignored these claims and provoked the famous lobbing of tomatoes at the SDS conference in Frankfurt am Main in September 1968.[iii] This mobilized many other SDS women without children as well. Some of them demanded with increasing urgency that the women undergo Marxist training to bring them into line.
  1. Helke Sander resisted this proposal. She wrote a manifesto demanding that everybody pay attention to the concerns of mothers, and declared: “We will force the comrades without children to accept that everyone bears responsibility for the children, both in theory and in practice.”[iv]
  1. Instead of taking care of other women’s children, the other faction took refuge in dogmatic Marxist doctrine and once again declared the woman question to be a secondary contradiction, about which more in the chapter Socialist Women’s League.
  1. In a compromise suggestion, which sought to organize work in the nursery schools and Marxist training at the same time, the reading and analysis of Marxist texts won out in practice. Helke Sander withdrew, along with all those women who rejected a restriction to Marxist texts. The Action Council for the Liberation of Women was disbanded.
  1. The Marxist-oriented faction composed a new position paper and adopted a new name in December 1970: Socialist Women’s League of West Berlin (SFB). They modified the Action Council’s motto “women together are strong” and added “women and men are stronger.”
  1. Together with six other women, Helke Sander later founded the group Bread and Roses,[v] which would publish Frauenhandbuch No. 1 on abortion and contraception.

In fact, the Socialist Women’s League of West Berlin (SFB) had numerous groups working on a variety of topics. The conversation with Frigga Haug in a later chapter gives some impression of this work.

The cheerful sexuality group…

Ulla Naumann begins by describing how she experienced the conflict with the Action Council as a new university student. Ulla subsequently co-founded the women’s group of Homosexual Action West Berlin (HAW) and later the Berlin women’s center. Her biography is typical of the founders of the new women’s movement: She worked as a saleswoman for shipping equipment, married in 1965, took the opportunity to do her Abitur exams in night school, got divorced and began studying psychology at the Free University Berlin (FU) in 1969. This is what she had to say about the Action Council for the Liberation of Women:

At the beginning it was rather fascinating, because the men kept trying to disrupt. This was a good exercise in women’s solidarity. It was harder to assert yourself against women like Frigga Haug and Jutta Menschik. They were such strict Marxists it was mindboggling. They were constantly having problems with primary and secondary contradictions — I had no such problems. They dominated because they were already university instructors and I was only in my first semester.

Then there was Helke Sander with her preschool group. But I didn’t want children or a nursery school and then I just went ahead and started a new group with other women and called it Infantile Sexuality in Freud – A Study Group in Psychoanalysis or some such thing. At any rate it was about critiquing Freudian notions of female sexuality.

We often got positive feedback from men about how beautiful we were because we had stopped wearing makeup and were doing our own thing, were more rooted in ourselves. And we also exerted this attraction over women. We were beautiful from the inside out, as they say. We had objectives, our own objectives, and this sort of thing gets conveyed as beauty, I think.

…being replaced by hierarchical structures

Women with leadership aspirations and a dogmatic orientation could not accept wildly proliferating, uncontrolled working groups like the one on sexuality. It simply wouldn’t do to let everybody do what she wanted out of a false notion of tolerance and an as yet non-existent sense of solidarity. For that reason it was suggested that the Action Council should centrally structure and systematize the activities of the working groups. Their objectives and methods also needed to be defined precisely.

In fact, the problems confronting the Action Council in those days were exactly the same ones that every women’s center later faced: great fluctuation, new women who held up work in the plenary with their requests for information, and the challenge of communicating what went on in the working groups to the other groups. In the Action Council these difficulties were often used as an excuse to proclaim a state of “chaos” and thus justify the introduction of a hierarchical, authoritarian structure with precise instructions on what members should do, read and think. The minutes of the Weiberrat for October 1969 suggest the immense pressure that women exerted on one another:

We spent one and a half years trying to create the conditions so we could work. Now the time has come to finally get something done. Only in this way can we do justice to our political aspirations.[vi]

According to the minutes, the nursery schools were supposed to “liberate” mothers so that they, too, could devote themselves completely to Marxist training. They were to read the works of Karl Marx, Vladimir I. Lenin, Mao Zedong, Lin Biao, Friedrich Engels, Werner Thönnessen and one text by Rosa Luxemburg.[vii] For these dogmatists, the social change that the Action Council managed to bring about in one and a half years, making it the most successful enterprise of the student movement, counted for nothing. Their aim was to make sure the women were on the same page as the men, that is, that they followed the “party line.”

This recourse to authoritarian structures and return to a dogmatic line, dispensing with women’s emancipation to “benefit” the proletariat, corresponds to the change of direction in a segment of the Left after 1968 not only in Germany, as is evident from Rita Mühlbauer’s international comparison:

In West Germany, feminist intent was completely swallowed up by the dogmatic Left. It persisted only in the USA, and temporarily in the Scandinavian countries and in Holland, since the moral pressure of the class struggle tradition had never weighed down the movement as much there.[viii]

Feminist authors such as Alice Schwarzer, Rita Mühlbauer and Marie-Therese Knäpper… emphasize that a lack of intellectual and organizational autonomy left the Action Council unable to resist the overall processes of growing dogmatism and fragmentation on the Left,

notes Gisa Windhüfel in summary. [ix]

[i] Ute Maierhof, Die Anfänge der Frauenbewegung in der BRD (1968–71) – Vom Appendix der Revolte zur neuen sozialen Bewegung (Berlin, 1994), p. 79.

[ii] Gisa Windhüfel, Die Außerparlamentarische Opposition und die Anfänge der neuen Frauenbewegung (1968–1970) (Bochum, 1994).

[iii] Cf. the chapter Helke Sander’s Speech.

[iv] Helke Sander, “Bekanntmachung des Aktionsrats zur Befreiung der Frauen, Gruppe: Gegen das Alte für das Neue,” Rote Presse Korrespondenz 33 (Berlin, 1969), p. 11.

[v] Cf. the chapter Bread and Roses.

[vi] “Der Weiberratsbeschluss Theorie und Praxis vom Oktober 1969,” in Mein Kopf gehört mir – Zwanzig Jahre Frauenbewegung, ed. Hilke Schläger (Munich, 1988), p. 69.

[vii] “Der Weiberratsbeschluss,” p. 67.

[viii] Rita Mühlbauer, “Strategiemodell der neuen Frauenbewegung,” in Anita Albus et al (eds), Maskulin – Feminin. Die Sexualität ist das Unnatürlichste von der Welt (Munich, 1972), pp. 233–34.

[ix] Windhüfel, Der Außerparlamentarische Opposition, p. 91.