Activists’ Background (1972)

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The Winds of Freedom

What was the socio-economic-political background to the sudden reawakening of the women’s movement in Germany? Frigga Haug already poses this question in her 1988 essay “Lessons from the Women’s Movement in Western Europe,” in which she tests the assertion that the “level of women’s employment” was the key factor. She reaches a different conclusion, however:

It becomes clear that the women’s movement caught on in a similar way whether the women’s employment rate was 20 or 50 percent. It caught on in poor countries with an almost early-capitalist agrarian structure as well as in industrially advanced capitalist countries; in countries with a high standard of living as well as those that live on the border of poverty; and finally in those where the Church is so powerful that even the sale of contraceptives is still not allowed as well as in those where there was astonishment that the Church as an alien body could exert any influence at all.

I do not wish to conclude from all this that socio-economic conditions have no influence at all on the rise of social movements. Rather, it seems to me that the main lesson for our international work is that if it is strong enough, the political-cultural climate necessary for a movement can be carried across the boundaries of socio-economic conditions and across national frontiers.

Alongside all the dissimilarity and asynchronicity… one condition… [was] present at the beginning of all of the movements. The women’s movement emerged at the end-phase of economic growth, of the extension of welfare-state provisions and, more or less, of social-democratic government majorities. The rise of the women’s movement thus took place before a backcloth of these experiences of reform and of greater opportunities in terms of security and standards of living, which were linked to stronger and more noticeable state regulations of private spheres, the spheres where women tend to be found. This experience can be called liberation in fetters. […] In other words, resistance also needs space and time to develop. Neither a state of absolute need nor one of abounding prosperity is fertile ground for the emergence of social movements. The winds of freedom must at least be perceptible, possibilities foreseeable and the means to realize a better society imaginable, so that anger about the actual restrictions can gain collective strength.[i]

The social-liberal coalition in West Germany between the SPD and the FDP only got going in the autumn of 1969. Before that, the country had been governed by a grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD, which succeeded among other things in introducing emergency laws without any notable parliamentary opposition. It was in response to this grand coalition that the non-parliamentary opposition, the APO, emerged.

The program of educational reform, which also offered new opportunities for women previously neglected by the educational system, decisively influenced the whole attitude towards life at the time. As the following short biographies show, the women’s and lesbian movement of those days had an especially high concentration of activists who had benefited from the Zweiter Bildungsweg, a system of adult education allowing people who had left school to gain qualifications, especially to take the Abitur examination required to go university. These newly available opportunities played a major part in the widespread spirit of optimism and change.

Where Did the Activists Come From?

In my interviews I was especially interested in the experiences and motivations of the women who founded the Berlin women’s center. What need to change their own lives had driven them to take the initiative and create something that had not existed before?

Helga Pahl was a technical draftswoman and married at the time. She had campaigned against the death penalty and now she joined the prison group.She got divorced in 1974 and enrolled in the School of Social Work in Berlin, where she was able to study for her Abitur at the same time. After completing her training she got a position working in a prison, which she continued to do for a number of years.

One of Helga’s girlfriends had found a flyer in a phone booth about a planned women’s meeting at the Socialist Center.[iii] Like Helga she was married, and dissatisfied with a number of things, and they were curious to get to know the other women.

This first meeting already brought together a lot of women from many different contexts. The groups formed on the very first evening, the sexuality group and the prison group, and there were women from the university who were dissatisfied with the situation there.

– What effect did the first half year have on you and your friends?

It encouraged us to go public. Up until then, everything had happened within our own four walls. Now we went out into public and took the initiative, which was hardly possible on your own, beyond maybe writing letters to the editor. Now we planned actions with other women and realized that we were having an impact! We felt much more alive and of course became more political. We got to know one another, talking about our problems first in a smaller circle and then moving outwards… it was great!

Roswitha Burgard describes her situation at the time as follows:

I married very young, in 1966. It was supposed to be a very progressive, new marriage; my husband cooked and washed the windows–he was a master electrician. But I had to take his name all the same. Then came the entry in the phone book. I insisted that my name be in there too; it was a big production and people looked askance at me, it was unpleasant. And I noticed that you could be as progressive as you wanted, and the husband could do all sorts of things, but to the outside world I was always my husband’s wife.

After my training as an industrial management assistant the male apprentices became senior clerks and I became some guy’s secretary. Then I decided to take the Abitur exam. My husband and I did that together too; he helped me with math and I helped him study for the Latin proficiency certificate. It was a productive phase. I moved to Berlin to study psychology, and quickly found myself in the first women’s seminar, taught by Ursula Scheu under [Prof. Klaus] Holzkamp. This was the big split after ’68. Holzkamp did critical psychology all by himself, while all the rest [of the professors] were established. I found that fascinating and a lot of people from adult education started along with me, which made for a completely different atmosphere to study in.

Anke Wolf-Graaf came to Berlin at eighteen after civil service training, worked as a bookkeeper and became active in the first autonomous youth center. After doing her Abitur at the Berlin-Kolleg she studied political science at the Otto-Suhr-Institut (OSI) of the Free University of Berlin (FU). There she was active in the GSO (foundation semester organization) and the only woman on the university council who actually opened her mouth and was better versed   theory than the men. She worked on the editorial board of the publication Hochschulkampf and in the Proletarian Left/ Party Initiative (PL/PI) and was then active in the university women’s group at the Berlin women’s center. Later she wrote the pictorial chronicle Die verborgene Geschichte der Frauenarbeit (Hidden History of Women’s Work) and worked as a television journalist, mainly for Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR).

Ulla Naumann married in 1965. After commercial training she did her Abitur at night school, got divorced and began to study psychology. In 1969 she suggested the founding of a working group on female sexuality in the Action Council for the Liberation of Women and came out as a lesbian. She was an original member of the women’s group of Homosexual Action West Berlin (HAW) but was also active in the Berlin women’s center and later in the FrauenfrAKTION, a feminist umbrella organization.

Waltraut Siepert, born in 1939 and raised in the GDR, fled to West Germany just after turning twenty-one, worked as a secretary and then as a dispatcher for a film distributor. She married her childhood sweetheart, had a daughter and became a housewife. At 29 she left her husband and child, taking just enough of her belongings to fill a shoebox.

I was a totally middle-class mother. I didn’t have a clue about Marx, students or demonstrations. It was just that I got a rash, an allergy, almost like scabies, and heart spasms, so that I collapsed in the street. I couldn’t speak. I was so messed up! All I knew was, either I bite the dust right here or kill you all — I have no other choice.

– What was so awful about your marriage, your husband wasn’t a creep, was he?

No, he was never that. His cup of coffee was on the table every evening; after eating dinner he went into the living room to watch TV, and every evening I carried his cup of coffee in after him.

– That isn’t so terrible.

It’s annoying. Nah, it really gets on your nerves. As soon as he coughed on the stairs I was draining the potatoes.

By the time he was upstairs they were just right.

– That’s okay.

It’s soul-destroying! Always the same drop on the same spot! So I got sick.

– You talked about sexual rituals, when he went into the bathroom at night and banished his bad breath with mouth spray.

– … then I knew I was in for it. So I thought: Get out of here. But that was only possible because there were jobs everywhere; companies were poaching employees. They competed with an extra month’s salary, Christmas bonuses, paid vacations, workplace nursery schools—this was in [19]68— I got my old job back right away. But rent is expensive in Düsseldorf and since I had left with only a shoebox and 100 DM—I just dropped everything—I had to live in a furnished place. That meant that I served food until midnight after working at my secretarial job for 700 [DM] take-home pay. Then I bought a car for 900 marks—I didn’t have a driver’s license—and I could only park downhill because I couldn’t find reverse, and I didn’t even know where the gas tank was.

All of the values I had been raised with were shaken up. For example, that hookers were the worst trash. When the 100 marks were gone and I had spent two nights sleeping under the Rhine bridge in my dress a hooker came up to me and asked, “Hey Honey, what are you doing there under the bridge?” and took me home with her— the one who helped me was a hooker, supposedly the worst trash! That is just one example. Imagine what it looked like inside my head, it was one big disaster area!

Cornelia Mansfeld is now a professor at the Evangelische Hochschule Darmstadt/University of Applied Sciences. Back then she was one of the youngest people at the Berlin women’s center. She majored in sociology and minored in political science at the FU. Before the founding of the women’s center she had worked in the group “The Social Revolution Is Not a Partisan Matter.”

Behavior was influenced by the “sexual revolution”: after the meeting there was always a party, the point of which was for the men to pick up some women. They were all old SDS guys who didn’t feel comfortable in political parties, and young women who had come to Berlin from West Germany to study. From there I moved on to the Kreuzberg neighborhood committee; I couldn’t keep up in the theory group, but in this practically oriented group I could theorize just fine, and then one of the guys there threatened to beat me up if I didn’t shut my mouth. As far as I know he also beat his wife and child. Nobody said a word about it; it was a very harsh environment.

Cornelia Mansfeld was in contact with a few women from the foundation semester organization at OSI and other women students who were equally frustrated by the power relations in left-wing groups. Together they went in search of alternatives, and went to an event organized by Brot und Rosen,but the women were a good ten years older and not in a position to respond to the interests of these younger women. Then they visited the Socialist Women’s League of West Berlin (SFB). In an interview, Cornelia Mansfeld described this first contact with the SFB:

I can still remember exactly what they told us there: We were welcome to join a sort of beginners’ group, where we would read August Bebel, and when we had passed that, Capital [by Karl Marx] volumes 1-3. Then we would have a good foundation for union organizing in the workplace.

By Frigga Haug’s account this indoctrination lasted only one year, but Cornelia remembers:

We were all irritated by the idea of regarding women as politically deficient, and by the fact that we had to go through this whole rigmarole before we were even allowed to be politically active, and that they paid no attention to the reproductive sector. Here, too, women were seen as ignorant little hens, which was exactly the same thing we experienced in mixed groups, and we were no longer willing to accept it.

[i] Frigga Haug, “Lessons from the Women’s Movement in Europe,” Feminist Review 31 (Spring 1989), 107–16, 109–10. “Lehren aus den Frauenbewegungen in West Europa,” in Autonome Frauenredaktion (eds), Frauenbewegungen in der Welt, vol. 1: Westeuropa (Hamburg, 1988), pp. 6–13, p. 7.

[iii] The Socialist Center on Stephanstrasse in Berlin’s Moabit district was used jointly by several undogmatic groups including Rote Hilfe and the PL/PI. This commercial space had previously been occupied by Commune No. 1.