‘The Women’s Affairs unit…is based on the recognition of the fact that German women are in a decisive position either to promote or retard the development of Germany as a democratic state.’1 This statement appeared as part of a 1949 report by the Women’s Affairs branch of the Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS). The post-war ‘surplus’ of women meant that there were an estimated 7 million more women than men across occupied Germany. As such, the Western authorities (in this case, American) invested time and resources in the late 1940s and early 1950s in ‘retraining’ programs for women.
I first stumbled across this report in 2008 in the National Archives at College Park, outside of Washington DC. At the time, I was researching how and why German women became a cornerstone of the Western democratization programs in occupied Germany. Many years later, I find myself returning to this quote as these initial findings work their way into my book manuscript: a study of the parallel reforms of family law in East and West Germany in the 1950s and 1960s. At its core are female activists who believed that the ‘decisive position’ of women in the immediate post-war crisis years had granted them claims to more equality before the law.
The women I research come from a long tradition of women’s activism in modern Germany. Contrary to the Allies’ beliefs that German women were apathetic and ignorant about democracy—and therefore in dire need of retraining—many German women in the late 1940s had already been politically active or civically engaged prior to the Nazi takeover in 1933. In fact, the bourgeois and socialist women’s movements had long histories dating back to the nineteenth century. In 1894, the Federation of German Women’s Associations (BDF) was founded as an umbrella organization for bourgeois women’s associations. By 1913, the BDF had swelled to 2,220 different associations with 500,000 members and its own publication (Die Frau). The BDF had led the charge on opposing the new, patriarchal Civil Code; opening education to girls and unmarried women; and increasing professional opportunities for women in teaching and social work, among other initiatives.
For its part, the Social Democratic Party of Germany, or the SPD—established in 1863 as a Marxist-oriented labour party for the working class—parroted women’s emancipation. For prominent SPD politicians, women’s oppression stemmed from the burdens of capitalism. If economic emancipation and the destruction of capitalism occurred, their logic followed, then women would witness their own liberation. As such, the SPD published its own women’s newsletter and had prominent women such as Clara Zetkin participating in party politics even when they were legally prohibited from doing so. Meanwhile, other important changes for women were also taking place. In 1908, women were allowed to join political parties for the first time (although they remained barred from seeking public office or voting). In 1919, the new Weimar constitution granted women the right to vote, and the new Reichstag saw female representatives in its chambers for the first time. These strides forward were cut short when the Nazis took power in 1933.
In 1945, almost immediately after the Nazis were defeated, female activists emerged and began organizing again. Their initial grassroots efforts were mostly geared at helping women and their families survive the chaotic post-war conditions by providing access to rations, clothing, and other necessities. Soon, however, their missions grew to encompass a larger vision for what women’s roles could become in a new, post-fascist, and democratic Germany. In other words, they saw the post-war moment as a tabula rasa for women’s rights in Germany. In 1946, several regional women’s groups, such as the Frankfurter Women’s Committee, vowed to fight for women’s rights in the workplace, marriage and family, and public office. These early women’s committees then began to reorganize into formal associations such as the German Female Citizens’ Union.
In fact, some of these organizations had been active before 1933, reviving the tradition of female activism that the Western occupiers were unwilling to acknowledge. OMGUS and British military officials tended to believe that women, due to ignorance or apathy about politics, had been partially responsible for the rise of Hitler. Nothing could be further from the truth. Following division, in 1951, several women established the National Council of German Women’s Associations as an umbrella organization for the multitude of women’s groups that had sprung up around West Germany. In addition, many of the same women came together to form an “information service” for women—the Informationsdienst für Frauenfragen (IfF). After a brief internal tussle, Annelise Glaser was chosen to lead it, and she set up its headquarters in Bad Godesberg (now a part of Bonn). The service then published the monthly women’s newsletter Information for Women (Informationen für die Frau).
As indicated above, while female activists (re)established old and new women’s associations, the Western occupation governments formed Women’s Affairs branches in 1946 and 1948. As I conducted dissertation research in the Federal Archive in Koblenz, I kept wondering about the nebulous connection between the Western occupiers and women’s organizations, especially after the formal establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949 and the dissolution of OMGUS in December 1949. After this point, the High Commission for Occupied Germany (HICOG) took over many of the same functions performed by OMGUS. The IfF benefitted from the patronage of HICOG. HICOG funded it in its first year, doling out 103,710 DM (equivalent to roughly 61,489.32 USD today).2 The IfF ran into trouble, however, in February 1952, when HICOG pulled the plug on the Women’s Affairs Branch, according to a 1952 HICOG report on ‘Women in West Germany’.3 HICOG began reorganizing its various departments in 1952 and limited funding to some of its former grantees, including the Informationsdienst. With its budget wiped out, how would the IfF maintain its operations?
Archival evidence suggests that HICOG officials found a workaround: purchasing subscriptions to the newsletter Informationen für die Frau. While a small sum of a few thousand DMs paled in comparison to its earlier 103,710 DM allocation, the contribution helped the information service stay afloat. The organization’s newsletter then continued to convey important information to women throughout the 1950s about legal problems and reports on the activities of different women’s groups. In the mid-to-late 1950s, for instance, women’s organizations representing a variety of milieus printed memos and opinion pieces on issues such as family law reforms in the newsletter. Seeing what other groups were doing and how they addressed key legal and social issues helped strengthen and inspire continued engagement among individual women’s organizations around West Germany.
To circle back to the beginning: the Women’s Affairs branch of OMGUS was set up to help democratize women in occupied (West) Germany. Some of the more overt ways OMGUS pursued this goal included offering seminars on politics for women and exchange programs for German women to travel to the United States. While these were important initiatives, they were fairly limited in their scope and stopped after 1951. OMGUS (and then HICOG), however, found another, less overt way to continue democratizing women: through the media. By quietly funding the IfF, HICOG could ensure a prolonged engagement with the ideals of democracy through the women’s press. The IfF, for its part, served as an important vessel for providing information for women. Women’s organizations, in turn, participated enthusiastically, using the pages of Information for Women to spread their own dissent against discriminatory laws and offering proposals to change them. By the end of the 1950s, the use of media for these ends had paid off: West German women were beginning to see legal changes (such as the adoption of the 1957 Equal Rights Act) and changing social conditions. Their work would then set the stage for the 1968 New Women’s Movement.
- National Archives, College Park, Maryland, Reports Women’s Affairs, box 51, file 5, Women’s Affairs Branch, Semi-Annual Report, 1 July-31 December 1949 (accessed July 2008).
- Angela Icken, Der Deutsche Frauenrat: etablierte Frauenverbandsarbeit im gesellschaftlichen Wandel (Opladen, 2002), 70.
- Henry P. Pilgert, Women in West Germany (Office of the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, 1952), 67.