1974 Across the Berlin Wall

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The sociologist Marcia Keller asked Cillie Rentmeister and me to explain the difference between the politics of our West Berlin women’s center and those of the women’s organization in the GDR in an essay for a US magazine – entitled “Women in two systems”.

In the first part we described the projects and discussions of the Berlin women’s center. We got an overview of the GDR’s women’s policy with the brochure “The Fair Sex and Equal Rights in the GDR” and we conducted interviews with women friends in East Berlin. Then we visited Cillie Rentmeister’s aunt, Maria Rentmeister, in East Berlin.

Immediately after the war, Maria Rentmeister was head of the women’s committees, in 1947 co-founder and first general secretary of the DFD (Democratic Women’s Association of Germany) and represented the “company line”: She did not want to limit women’s work to residential areas and the mobilization of housewives, but also in the companies organize the women separately in addition to the trade union. When this was suppressed by the SED party leadership as “splittist”, she gave up direct work in the DFD and took on leading positions in the culture committee/culture ministry under Johannes R.Becher. However, she did not tell us about these directional struggles in the DFD at the time; We only found out about this from her estate in the Federal Archives, as well as from historical secondary literature.

We met her in 1974 – without realizing it at the time – in the phase of the “Muttipolitik” of the GDR: In 1971, head of government and party leader Honecker had declared equal rights for women to be almost complete; Since the 8th Party Congress in 1971, a new women’s political paradigm has reigned: the “unity of economic and social policy”, with pro-natalist measures and the central concern of the “compatibility of work and family”. This replaced the dominant women’s policy goals from 1946-1970: the integration of women into employment, their further training and qualification.

So here is the second part of the article from 1974 about the situation of women in the GDR:

(bis hierher aus dem Buch per Google Trans)

“The beautiful sex” – womens rights in the German Democratic Republic

(Einführung in den Text)

In Westberlin, there are two major women`s  groups: the left feminist Women`s Center (Frauenzentrum) and the Socialist Women´s League of Westberlin (Sozialistischer Frauenbund – SFB) which is close to the Communist Party (SEW). There have been discussions around the political differences of the two groups. We in the Women´s Center have been disagreeing with the SFB on several important points. The theoreticians of the SFB see the economic position of women and their political power only in connection with the situation of the working class. 

Thus Frigga Haug, one of the leaders, writes: „Women are not, in contrast to the proletariat, the creators of all values, of the social wealth. They do not have a world to win.“

Since the socialist women understand the marxist analyses of production and reproduction only in a mechanistic way and consider social wealth exclusively dependant on surplus value, they overlook completely the specific basic conditions which make it possible to create surplus value. Maria Rosa Della Costa has recognized this factor very well and we have accepted her argumentation as a basis for developing our own position. Maria Rosa writes:

“Since Marx it has been clear that capital dominates and develops itself through wage, that is, that the basis of capitalist society ist the wage laborer and his/her direct exploitation. The organizations of the workers movement …………“

Why we have to look at the GDR

The Westberlin Socialist Women´s Federation inclines to a notion of women´s liberation similar to that which is propagated and partly realized in the German Democratic Republic: a liberation based on the realization of equal rights in all spheres. These equal rights are realized Stepp by Stepp according to the necessities of the development of a socialist economy. As the change from capitalism to socialism in the GDR was pushed (forward) by means of decrees and laws, women´s rights were not gained by women´s struggles, but successively decreed.

In this article, we seize the opportunity of living so close to the socialist part of the world and spotlight on women´s situation there from our point of view. Unfortunately, this subject has been ignored until now by the women´s center. So this articel must be a very individualistic one, but it is meant as a demand for controversies among ourselves, too. At the moment, we have more questions left than answers to give. This ist he way this article should be understood.

Women at work

Since it 25 years of existence, the GDR was always in need of women as workers. After world war II, especially the male population was decimated and most means of production had been destroyed. Until 1961, many people – about one tenth of the population – left the GDR. But a whole economy had to be reconstructed, and a socialist society to be created. In the sixties and seventies, the Federal Republic of Germany needed 2,5 million immigrant workers to keep the capitalist machine running. The socialist countries had to do without; they had to mobilize the women. Same wages for same work are paid in the GDR as early as 1946. Ideologically, work is propagated as the only way to women´s liberation. Thus in 1970, there were 81,5% of the women in an able to work age working. That means, 49% of the work is done by women! But women are still doing the less qualified and the less influential jobs. To change disproportions, the new Constitution of the GDR from 1968 obliges expressively all state´s and social institutions to „promotion of the woman especially towards professional qualification“ (Art. 20,2). In all branches of industry and agriculture, the Union organizes women in special „women´s commissions“; „women´s advancements plans“ have to be elaborated by these commissions each year. Selected women are collected in „spezial women´s classes“ and they do get about 20 hours a week off, paid as their work, for their studies. Much does the „economic lever“: passed examinations are awarded by money-premiums. Thus the number of female students is comparatively high. 47% at Technical Schools (Fachschulen), 36% at regular colleges and universities, 29% at technical colleges. S.7. – 8. Women at home: The “beautiful sex”, how they still like to call women.


Two-page spread from the 1970 brochure cited here, Das schöne Geschlecht und die Gleichberechtigung in der DDR (The Fair Sex and Equal Rights in the GDR).

Women at home: “The Fair Sex”

The state needs children for reasons of existence. Western propaganda still tells fairy tales about the abandonment of marriage and family within socialist systems. But the opposite is true: Whenever a socialist party, in the USSR as well as in the GDR, get the power in the state, former ‘anarchical‘ ideas like ‘free love‘, ‘free abortion‘ etc. were rejected and family as a stabilizing and discplining factor was soon recognized. Consequently, the GDR Family Statute Book of 1965 starts ist preamble with the statement: „The family ist he smallest unit of society“.

Much has been done, in practice and ideologically, to keep women marrying and childbearing. A young couple gets a marriage-credit [loan] of many thousand marks, which can be paid back by the birth of children. In case of pregnancy a woman is guaran teed a paid leave of at least 14 weeks. The working woman can bring her baby into baby-nurseries; for older children there are Kindergaerten, whose capacities cover already 70% of the real needs. There has never been discrimination of illigitimate children; but abortion, though uninterruptedly practised, has not become legal before 1972.

Nevertheless, all these facilities especially fort he working women could not prevent wives from breaking down under the double claim to become a qualified worker in the productive sphere and to give birth to children as ‚natural and necessary accomplishment’ of her marriage and her personality. Beyond it, partnership in the marriage has not been realized: representative statistics (1966) tell us that wives are still doing four fifth of the house-work which means [p.8] about 38 hours additional work a week!

For this and other reasons, a striking feature of the relation between the sexes in the GDR ist the extremely high rate of divorces – the highest in Europe after Hungary. 62% of divorces are requested by the wives. A progressive law makes divorces possible without a judgement on the guilt of one partner.

D.F.D. – the women´s organisation of the G.D.R.

The Democratic Women’s Federation of Germany (DFD) was founded in 1947 at the 9th of March. It came out of the antifascist women´s commitees, an organisation starting it´s work right after world war II: They organized help for mothers, children and homeless people but before all they worked to get fascism out of the heads of German women and to make them understand the necessities of the new socialist establishment which had come with the help of the Soviet occupation.

It was not an organisation that came out of a women´s movement – there had been none for a long time – this organisation had to bee decreed: All four parties and the Union should delegate women to organise such a thing. The DFD was constituted two years later in the same way and with the same tasks, but with more emphasis on women´s problems: the DFD had to watch that laws were changed to guarantee equal rights for women in wages and education and especially support for working mothers. So the DFD has delegates in many different committees and has 7% of the seats in Parliament reserved for their deputies.

Some facts about the work of the DFD today:
The DFD has 1,3 million members, of which only ¼ is under 35 years old. It is an organisation specially meant for housewives, but nevertheless 2/3 of the members are working.
Four times a year every section should hold a public meeting in it´s area. The DFD organizes so called Women-academics, where lectures are hold on education, gardening, Marxism-Leninism, medical questions. Information centers should [S. 10] help young housewives to find the most rational way to get housework done, regarding that still 4/5 of the housework is done by the wive only, the DFD concentrates very much in releaving working women more and more from their duties e.g. by demanding better food in factory-canteens and schools so that cooking for the family might no more be necessary in the evening, and amelioration of the washing-service. The DFD also tries to reduce housework by attacking old-fashioned neatness-standards in the heads of the women.

All this is not for the sake of the women themselves but to make possible what had been decided before on a higher different and male level of politics. The DFD is the grease in the machinery: Here women have – like before in any bourgeois society – the function of helping, rescueing, mending the bits and ends the male machinery has run over and left behind.

Charms conquered the factories

After the rough sketches on women at work and at home and the women´s organisazion DFD we have to look closer at cultural phenomena to find out about ideology on women; whether there is a notion of womanliness, of „psychology of the sexes“ and a possibly new socialist moral.

A propagada brochure expresses already in it´s title the double claims on women: „The Beautiful Sex and Equal Rights in der GDR“ (1971). It´s reader is assured of the beneficial effect of female charms:

„The charms conquered the factories and paired with prudence it has even become an enlivening factor in production. In some hearty men´s brigades it had a cultivating effect. And the work makes a woman not only an equal, inspired partner of the man, but generally she stays longer young and elastic“! (p.60)

The double claim on women means here to satisfy male norms in production and qualification and to preserve at the same time „female qualities“ which also might be male norms. And the preservation of charm and beauty is limited to women: no word on the necessity of changing men´s image.
And the women do their best, they are „charming, witty, adroit, fit“, and have no aggressions against this multiple overburden but accept it as necessary difficulties of a „transition stage“ of society. That „male attitudes change sowly“ is a common excuse for women to take comfort.

Autonomous women´s groups?

Here are the extracts of some interviews we had with different women:

Q. have you got besides the DFD any autonomous women´s groups?
A. No! We don´t need any. We don´t have any special women´s problems anymore like they have in the West.

Q. Have you ever asked yourself why abortion is only free since 72 (of course only fort he first three months). Regarding that the German Communist Party struggled fot this right already in the twenties, and in the Soviet Union it became free right after the revolution – of course it was restricted with the advent of Stalinism – . So why did a socialist country wait so long to give women a right the Communist Party had promised women until they got the power?
A.No.1 Any state wants to grow. They could only change this law, when the state could provide enough stimulance for women to get children.
A.No.2. You`re kidding! We really had other problems to discuss free abortion at the time. This is a question of economy. Even a socialist state can give women this freedom only when she is firmly anchored in state and production.
A.No.3. Anyway, I got my abortion – I had to go to Poland. It costs about the wage of a secretary. And since many years we all can have the pill, it is cheap or even free.

Q. When abortion was not free and women had to be very tricky to get one – wasn´t there any protest, any plead, any movement to change this situation?

A. No. No woman would dare that. Any coming together in groups ouitside the official organisation is unthinkable.

In a very special degree, this comes true for the existing minority group of homosexuals. Homosexuality, unlike the begetting kind of sexuality, is covered by silence. Our friends told us that homosexuals are mocked at, but tolerated; that they certainly never will dare to come out from privacy and that any homosexual organisation cannot be imagined; that homosexuals are very often overconforming; that they can have a psychotherapy on demand which will operate with small electric shocks.

Siegfried Schnabl, a well-known GDR-sexologist, reports with satisfaction a general reduction of homosexuality in the socialist part of Germany: only 2% male and 1% female homosexuals in 1972! This attitude corresponds to the theory that in socialist societies all „perversities“ will disappear by and by, because this kind of intact society makes satisfying heterosexual relations possible.