1996 Revisiting Old Battles

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Strategies of the women’s movement in comparison

Frigga Haug was one of the leading figures in the Action Council for the Liberation of Women. At the time she succeeded in implementing the idea of ideological training classes, which ultimately led to the dissolution of the group and its refounding in 1970 as the Socialist Women’s League of West Berlin (SFB), of which she remained a member until it was disbanded in 1980. In 1972 she was already an instructor at the Psychology Institute of the Free University (FU) Berlin. After professorships in Denmark, Austria, Australian, Canada and the USA, she taught at the Hamburg University for Economics and Politics from 2001. Frigga Haug is one of the few women who reflects on and writes about the strategies and politics of the women’s movement from its beginnings up to today. For that reason I am giving more space to her views, particularly since she was a prominent adversary of the positions of the Berlin women’s center, which in those days insisted on autonomy.

All of the feminists from the women’s center shared my criticisms of the SFB. Readers who did not experience first hand the struggle to resist takeovers by parties and dogmatic groups may find it difficult to understand the harshness of my critique. This harshness can also be found in the preceding chapter on the Socialist Women’s League of West Berlin (SFB), and in the questions I posed to Frigga Haug during our 1996 conversation it is mixed with some self-righteousness. She managed to disarm me with her self-criticism and self-irony, however, as well as a number of new facts from the inner life of the Socialist Women’s League of West Berlin (SFB).

Action Council for the Liberation of Women

Frigga Haug began by talking about her early days in the new women’s movement:

I joined the Action Council early on. At the time, I had a small child and had dropped out of university. The only women in the Action Council with children were Helke Sander and I and two others, but for a long time we talked about nothing but the child problem. There was constant talk about agitating among kindergarten teachers. There were no nursery schools. I nevertheless didn’t think much of all the wild suggestions for socializing childcare. After the unsuccessful kindergarten teachers’ strike Helke suggested that we should all don Mao suits and yellow neckerchiefs, a uniform look that was supposed to protect us from sexist harassment. I thought that we should illuminate the situation properly first and consider a strategy, and not constantly produce random bright ideas. We needed first to understand what the oppression of women means and how it affects us. Helke Sander saw that as a frontal attack—which it was. Suddenly the only thing that mattered was which of the two of us would have the power: Helke or I. The majority wanted ideological training. Helke left with her people, but they were the ones in creative professions. The women who stayed were librarians and booksellers, secretaries etc. We didn’t want to be called the Action Council anymore, which implied that kind of poorly thought-out actions. We called ourselves the Socialist Women’s League of West Berlin (SFB) — isn’t that an awful name?

Socialist Women’s League of West Berlin (SFB)

There were usually twelve groups involved in the training classes with around one hundred women in total, alongside regular information on what the various groups were doing, and they scanned the newspapers for women’s news and excerpted it. At the same time, this gave all the women practice in writing. We produced at least 30 issues of the journal Pelagea[i] alternately with the groups in Hamburg and Braunschweig.

There were working groups on theater, unemployment, sexuality, education for girls in the non-academic high schools, we made a film with Gerhard Bott, we were constantly doing publicity, for instance distributing our doctrines on slips of paper or postcards. We also co-founded the Volksuni (People’s University) and did a training course for speakers—everything on the level of words.


Consciousness-raising through memory work

Frigga Haug had developed the methodology of memory work that are supposed to help women to reflect on the connections between individual and societal development:

We wanted to write a book about learning, but it was boring. Then we wanted to write why we enjoyed learning together, and everybody wrote that down. These stories were so horrible, full of resentments, ideology and clichés. When things finally got personal, we realized that we were filled with feelings of inferiority that we thought other people had, and we needed to teach them the right path—we recognized that we were the product of these circumstances and no different from anybody else. Suddenly it was also easier to understand why women are the way they are. We could use ourselves as material. This gave rise to the methodology of memory work, where women were supposed to tell their own stories in the third person. As long as women speak in the first person, their stories are quite short, because you don’t talk too long about yourself. If women write about themselves as “strangers,” who they are becomes subject to explanation. The stories become a good deal more precise, and longer.

Lesbians in the SFB

Frigga Haug had not known that two women from the SFB had cofounded the women’s group of Homosexual Action West Berlin (HAW) in 1972. It was not until years later that lesbianism became a topic in the SFB:

We [that is, the SFB] were not invited to the first (women’s) summer university [in Berlin in 1976], and when the second one came around we said, that’s not going to happen again. It took a lot of courage to attend a meeting of the organizing group. The topics to work on were divided up and what did we get? Sexuality and lesbianism! Now at this time there was not a single lesbian in the SFB. I had founded another SFB in Hamburg, and the women there were mainly lesbians. Scarcely had they arrived in Berlin, all of the women were suddenly involved in relationships with each other; the group dynamics changed totally because of these vibrant women from Hamburg.

The concept of training classes

Frigga Haug described her motivation for introducing the concept of ideological training into the SFB, in dialogue with the author:

FH: It’s true that we found women deficient, and that we wanted to change this quickly, to compensate, as it were. Instead of looking at whether men might not also be deficient. Who knows what it would have taken to get out of that mindset? We followed the notion of the avant-garde, as was common in the student movement in those days: we were just dandy and wanted to tell other people what to do.

CP: Training can also be understood as bringing the new women who join into line.

FH: That wasn’t our idea, what we thought was that these texts would put the women in a position to do the things they wanted.

The training program lasted about a year, short texts, but one drier than the next—godawful! Looking back now it is impossible to understand what convinced us to make reading such texts obligatory. However, all the women wanted to learn, a goodly portion of the ‘68ers turned into a reading movement, after all. The readings included ten pages of Engels from Origin of the Family, Marx’s “Wages, Price and Profit,” and Lenin’s What is to be Done? , but also contemporary texts analyzing the present age, e.g. Steiner, who at least tried to say something about white-collar employees, although overall very little about women. Thus if we wanted to have a political effect, we needed training in politics, in order to enter politics at least as well prepared as the men, if not better.

CP: One might ask why women needed to undergo this kind of political training before they could look after their own interests? All those citizens’ initiatives[ii] that followed became active first and learned about politics by doing it.

FH: But we aspired to something much bigger—you could say crazier— we didn’t just want to change some minor point, but the whole society while we were at it. In those days the student movement also believed in revolution, but we thought that women’s issues should not be forgotten this time around.

Theory or practice?

This opposition stands for two different understandings of politics, namely whether theory or practice should determine political action. In Frigga Haug’s view:

FH: The fact remains: When we know more, we know that we know little.

CP: That is the difference to the women’s center: We said, we can’t resolve this now, we’ll just keep going.

FH: The SFB just kept going too.

CP: Except that we had in mind practical projects, not communicating theory, that’s the difference. We lacked the didactic aspect. In our projects what counted was creating women’s spaces. Women came to the women’s center beaten black and blue, we couldn’t say we haven’t thought this through to the end yet, come back later.

My criticism of the SFB is that this didactic stance inhibits people’s creativity. When I proceed from my gut, I arrive at my own, new solutions. These surprising solutions are more exciting than if I use something from Bebel or Lenin to make a statement opposing women’s unemployment. If you tell people how to think you inhibit their own creativity.

FH: I doubt that. In fact, we tried to learn from the history of previous struggles in order to develop our own strategies. I consider this animosity toward theory and failure to process previous experiences dangerous, because they make it easy to coopt a movement from the right. Theory alone is useless, and ideological training is not always useful either.

The women’s bookstores[iii] were a great thing, but at a certain point there were no longer any criteria for why they shouldn’t sell a book by a Nazi youth leader since it was written by a woman.

Why no projects?

The preference for theory over practice explains why the SFB initiated no women’s projects of its own, something that Frigga Haug criticized in retrospect:

To be sure we had no health center, no psychological counseling center and no plans to start one. In those days I seriously proposed that it was wrong to set up battered women’s shelters because this meant doing the state’s work for it—and maybe even without payment! It was hard to give up this kind of rigid thinking. Accept that you can do one thing without giving up the other.

Which approach was really reformist?

In the 1970s, Frigga Haug had accused the women’s center of reformism, saying that the fight against anti-abortion laws was merely tinkering with the capitalist system. Feminists didn’t change society, they just set up a battered women’s shelter. The SFB wanted more. Frigga Haug explained:

FH:The criticism was not so much that feminists were the alteration tailors of capitalism, but rather that they applied their revolutionary verve to minute issues—matters the state itself could take care of once it had been forced to its knees. Although making such demands of the state is also problematic, because they tend to strengthen it—ultimately also social democratic thinking!

CP: In contrast to this, the SFB took up the topic of unemployment. You also later criticized that the politics of the SFB was ultimately also reduced to reformist aims.

FH: We wanted more than that, but ended up with reforms. And I didn’t know, if I could do it all over again, how to manage without reformist demands. Those deadly dull demands such as equal pay are of course not revolutionary demands—but on the other hand they are. I learned quite late how much you can learn about the structure of a society from these struggles for reforms. How the demand to give the next free position at the university to a woman meets with unbelievably stubborn resistance fight from the patriarchy, which reproduces itself across party lines.

We always asked: Is the objective socialist too? If we put energy into the fight for equal pay and free access to abortion after all, it was only as a precondition for a liberated society. If you keep your eyes on the prize alone, you lose sight of the path. It is like with quotas, they cannot be the ultimate objective, but achieving them is a hard struggle.

The proletariat as a target group

The left-wing classics that people read postulated that ultimately, the proletariat must lead the revolution:

FH: The question was, where do we find the proletarian women? We had one or two nurses, and pondered whether they at least might not be considered part of the proletariat. Ultimately we decided that women didn’t fit into these boxes anyway and that as a consequence we need not worry about them. Later we even had a housewives’ group.

CP: In Pelagea[iv] there was a call for housewives to work in production to make the revolution there under the leadership of the Communist Party.

FH: I know that text; I could have sworn we would never write anything of the sort. We also inserted those awful sentences into the declaration on the Frankfurt congress of 1972! Even if we did write that, we never stood outside any factories.

CP: Many people read those sentences very closely and for that reason didn’t join the SFB.

SFB affiliated with the Communists?

In those days the SFB was perceived in Berlin as an organization affiliated with the SEW (Socialist Unity Party of West Berlin, a branch of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, SED), but Frigga Haug corrected this perception:

It was part of Cold War politics to associate every Tom, Dick and Harry with the SEW.

We had women from Marxist groups, the PL/PI [Proletarian Left/Party Initiative], the Communist League (KB). For many years these KB women were in the majority and shaped the image of the SFB; the KB also constructed majorities, thereby deciding votes in their own favor, for example which bloc we marched in on May Day and which slogans we carried. Once we held up a poster reading “Everybody should know everything,” but the SEW, which was leading the May Day march, didn’t want to let us carry it, since they read it as somehow anarchistic.

We were a sort of conduit: People left us to join the “grown-up” political organizations. Many became members of the SEW. Before that we had been influenced by the PL/PI and KB. At the Psychology Institute many people also suddenly joined the SEW. Whoever was recruiting there passed me by.

The Communists pass judgment on Frigga Haug

I had taken Frigga Haug for a member of the Socialist Unity Party of West Berlin (SEW), so I found the following experience all the more shocking:

I was never in the German Communist Party (DKP), but was kicked out anyway. I was kicked out after writing “Frauen–Opfer oder Täter” (Women–Victims or Perpetrators), which unleashed a storm in the DKP, SED and unions, perhaps in 1983. I was summoned before the highest authority of the DKP, the Institute of Marxist Studies and Research, and Lottemi Doormann was there too.[v] She demonstrated that I had betrayed the labor movement, and had pushed the woman question to the foreground instead. Ute Osterkamp proved that I had betrayed scholarship. The tribunal lasted for hours and ended with a warning to all multipliers not to have any contact with me in a learning situation, invite me to lecture or include me in training. I was perplexed because many of my friends were sitting there passing judgment on me.

At the University of Economics and Politics (in Hamburg), where I had taught completely packed seminars up to that point, only three students showed up, the three who did not yet know that nobody was supposed to attend. In those days the ASTA (student government) was in the hands of the DKP. My isolation lasted four semesters.

At a large-scale DFI[vi] event in Düsseldorf the women announced: Fighting against capitalism means fighting hand in hand with the working class to topple the former. I thought we couldn’t be saying this seriously at a women’s event and asked, Are you afraid when you have to walk down a dark street alone at night? Yes, they were all afraid! And what is lurking behind all those trees and bushes — capital? Lottemi Doormann replied, Of course not—but that is a personal matter! And she said that in the 1980s!

The SFB — autonomous and feminist?

I asked how the Socialist Women’s League of West Berlin came to claim central self-descriptions of the autonomous women’s movement for itself. In one of her last essays, Frigga Haug had called the SFB an “autonomous, feminist organization”:

FH: Because the SFB was not affiliated with the SEW or any other party, unlike all of the other groups I knew of in those days, with the exception of the women’s center.

CP: … two terms that we claimed for ourselves.

FH: If you really want to get angry with me, you ought to read the first essay I wrote when I was still in the Action Council: “A Defense of the Women’s Movement Against Feminism.”[vii] An unbelievable text: The way I attacked people who took an interest in language and wasted their time on the production of meaning! I have no clue what got into me!


Frigga Haug explained why a movement simply had to be anti-capitalist in those days, and why she mistrusted the US women’s movement for that reason.

Back in those days the SDS [Socialist German Students’ League] and also the editorial board of Das Argument thought there were spies everywhere, that we had been infiltrated by the Right. We had the same suspicion of the feminist ideas that came over from the USA: ideas that were supposed to seduce women and get them off the proper path to revolution, that bourgeoisified the women’s movement, paying attention to things that didn’t matter instead of truly changing society and getting to the root of problems. Revolution is perhaps an exaggeration, but we aimed for a liberated society and it had to be anti-capitalist.

You have to remember that we were coming out of the Adenauer era, a time of absolute mindlessness, graveyard quiet, a priggish void. No books, no texts. Nothing! It was only in the student movement that we dug up stuff like Marx. Emerging from this situation, in which everything had to be reconceptualized, with no tradition, no teachers, and coming from Nazi families, things had to be anti-capitalist to be acceptable to us. We thought linguistic politics, psychological politics and the like endangered the movement. There were no preliminary works that might have shown that personal politics could also be anti-capitalist.


In retrospect, Frigga Haug regretted that the autonomous women’s movement focused on violence, sexuality and the body and ignored economic developments:

FH: My image of the rest of the feminist movement is probably just as skewed as yours of the Socialist Women’s League of West Berlin (SFB), which spent years doing nothing but reading Das Kapital. Overall I would say that the autonomous women’s movement concentrated quite one-sidedly on violence, sexuality and the body. If we look at today’s wave of neoliberalism, where are we mentioned there?

CP: Nowhere, but that is out of our league.

FH: Except it isn’t. In the SFB we had a solution; we weren’t going to stand for monogamous relationships or the family anymore.

CP: But not as a rule for the members?

FH: That was one of our pronouncements. We wanted to abolish the family. I wrote that women had to topple the family to assert their personalities.

CP: But you were married the entire time?

FH: I was even married a second time, but such trivialities do not disrupt the overall picture. What I mean is that the question of neoliberalism is not out of our league, but comes in at this point. You simply have to work out where this development affects our everyday life. The dismantling of the welfare state affects women without having to do with sexuality and violence. The autonomous feminist women’s movement did not even begin to process this connection between macroeconomic development and women’s lives.

Topics such as equal pay, women’s unemployment or occupational training, which we dealt with in the SFB, are just deadly dull. So you have to mix them up to make them exciting too. At any rate I wouldn’t take to the streets with these topics nowadays and hope to gather the masses—that’s not how it works.

In many European countries women are demanding recognition for housework. You only need to ask them whether they personally would like to do housework exclusively for their entire lives and just for themselves. Then it occurs to them, only if they had another occupation at the same time or were in the government, perhaps running the ministry of food…

Avantgarde or network?

In the meantime, Frigga Haug has abandoned the claims of left-wing parties to be an avantgarde:

The idea of the avantgarde I had in those days was naïve; today I prefer the notion of a network. It would have been better if we had done things like in that novel by Irmtraud Morgner: During the daytime the individual groups engage in various politics. Some of them work on healthcare reform, for instance, while others are anarchistic, doing actions on the Kurfürstendamm, and others still work through theories to see how one can do things better— and at night everybody meets on the Blocksberg and considers how the politics of the individual groups has already changed the overall situation, and learns from this for their own activities. I would find that best. Politics should be plural, not singular.

The quality of time

You need more than just a plan —according to Frigga Haug in our conversation— for a movement to emerge. You need a “correct assessment”:

You can’t make a movement—that’s out of the question. We did believe at the time that you just needed the right plan, the right idea, and you could create a movement. It was a very particular time: Whatever you started was transformed into movement. Everything fit, the musicians were suddenly there, the poets, the filmmakers—everybody was there simultaneously and everything fit. And the women’s movement swept through the country and then the next country. Whatever you did was transformed into movement.

There were times when I gave a lecture in some small town and afterwards eight groups formed. That didn’t happen because I had told them the right things but because people were waking up. You can’t create movements, but when everything is in motion we can suddenly fly, like on November 4, 1989.

What can we do today? I am constantly trying to see the connections and teach students to learn to recognize the contradictions. Because with them you always have the possibility to act, but without them you don’t.

[i] Pelagea. Berliner Materialien zur Frauenemanzipation, ed. Socialist Women’s League Westberlin (SFB), 1970–1984.

[ii] Cf. the chapter The 68er Movement Splits.

[iii] The women’s bookshops emerged from the autonomous women’s movement, as did the Feminist Women’s Health Center and the women’s psychological counseling centers.

[iv] Pelagea, 1970.

[v] For more about Lottemi Doormann, see the Introduction.

[vi] The DFI was the Democratic Women’s Initiative founded in 1976, which acquired a basis for its work in 1977. It is considered the successor organization to the Democratic Women’s Federation of Germany (DFD), which was banned in West Germany in 1957 in the course of the ban on the KPD, but in the GDR was the only legal women’s organization up to 1990.

[vii] Frigga Haug, “Für eine sozialistische Frauenbewegung,” Das Argument 83 (Hamburg, 1973).