All aspects of German life were shaped by the upheaval and challenges faced during the Weimar Republic. Created in 1918 out of the defeat and chaos of the First World War, the Weimar Republic looked to be a rejection of old Imperial traditions and an embrace of modern democracy. During the years 1918 to 1932, no other group was affected as much as German women, as they bore the brunt of societies expectations for the future stability and health of the German nation. Women’s roles and responsibilities changed in reaction to the different challenges and opportunities that were afforded to them during this turbulent period of German history.
One of the most defining features of the new republic was the creation of a democratic Weimar Constitution in 1919. The Weimar Constitution gave women a relatively progressive power in 1919, the right to vote, which drastically altered how women were viewed and the roles they could undertake. The vote gave women a sense of emancipation they had never had before, but it also allowed them to have a practical say in the political decisions that were being made for them. 49 women were even elected to the parliament in the first elections held in 1919, showing German society that women and men believed in the important role women could play within the institutions of power. While female suffrage and the newly elected female voices in parliament had the ability to influence party policies, the vote had not altered the traditional values of German society that the First World War had helped to cement. “Motherly” politics that focused on the family unit became staples of numerous political parties as they were seen as a way to protect and preserve the moral fabric of German society. While the gesture of female emancipation and suffrage marked a shift in attitudes towards women, it was ultimately met with a traditional backlash. The German constitution retained Imperial laws such as criminalisation of abortion and limited access to birth control, laws which were viewed as essential for promoting marriage and repopulating Germany after the war.
Women as workers.
The ability for women to vote came after Germany’s defeat in the First World War, after which there was a move away from some of the traditional Imperial views of women. The war had not only given women the vote but it also gave women opportunities to work in positions such as drivers, factory workers and miners amongst other previously male only jobs. After military defeat and the creation of the Republic, men came home from war wounded, shell shocked and in humiliation, and as a result traditional gender roles became increasingly linked to the healing process of these men and the nation. However Michelle Mouton, in From Nurturing the Nation to Purifying the Volk (2007), believes that demobilisation laws requiring women to leave the workforce in favour of men failed, as women postponed marriage until later in life and rejected exclusively domestic work. This attitude can be seen by 1925 when 36% of the German workforce was made up of women, in areas such as industry, agricultural and clerical work. However the idea that increased employment meant that gender equality existed in Weimar Germany is far from true, with women forced into lower paying and lower skilled jobs than their male counterparts, regardless of education or training. Many women were also forced to leave the workforce after they became married in order to take up their traditional roles as wife and mother.
The New Woman of Weimar Germany.
The New Woman that emerged during Weimar was independent but what set her apart from other workingwomen was the focus she placed on herself and her rejection of the current systems of power and influence. In 1929 Elsa Herrmann described the features and worldview of the New Woman describing how she “refuses to lead the life of a lady and a housewife” instead hoping to go her own way in life. The golden age of Weimar culture often used this view of the New Woman as a subject and the German artist Otto Dix’s 1926 work; Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden is a prime example. Sylvia von Harden is depicted as an androgynous woman, smoking and drinking in a public place, there is little traditional feminine features represented. Historian Ute Frevert, inWomen in German History (1990), has claimed that these representations of a masculine New Woman were used by conservative parts of society as a scapegoat for the many problems the Weimar Republic was facing. These women were selfishly not starting families and therefore were closely linked to the declining birthrate, something that was seen as a major problem for the strength of the nation.
Otto Dix, Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden, Paris: Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
While the Weimar Republic was a time of great social, political and economic upheaval where modernity and tradition met head on. Women’s rights were caught in the center of this dichotomy and as a result the positions and power women held varied greatly across the country. Many women were seen to be leading traditional lives as wives and mothers, which were of great benefit to the nation. However many other women, such as those working or the New Woman, were used as scapegoats for the economic and political problems facing Germany during the 1920’s. The role that these different women played in German society was dependent on the way they reacted to the different challenges of the Weimar Republic.