A vote of her own

A contribution by Ute Frevert of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development on 100 years of women's suffrage in Germany

January 17, 2019

“Sunday. Election day. Voted for the first time ... I’d been looking forward to this day so much,” wrote Käthe Kollwitz in her diary on 19 January 1919. This date meant a lot to the politically aware and politically active artist. Born in 1867, she belonged to a generation that had grown up with the demand for women's suffrage. Many women (and a few men) had long campaigned with strong arguments and a lot of patience.

They did not find it easy to break down their opponents’ reservations. The “natural” order seemed at risk if women were to be allowed to participate in politics. “The state for men, the family for women.” Such was the broad consensus. Even women shared this opinion. Conservatives stuck to the old work distribution, while left-leaning liberals and socialists wanted women to be recognized as citizens with a vote.

Domestic politics only began to shift after the First World War. At the same time, the arguments of the woman’s movement gained new impetus. In spite of initial hopes, the war did not turn out to be the great equalizer, which would patch up all cracks in society. But it nevertheless had a direct impact on the lives of women as the mothers and the wives of soldiers, and as housewives and workers for the war effort. To show them respect by granting them the long overdue right to vote, now no longer seemed too much to ask.

Nevertheless, at the end of the war, no government plans to this effect were in place. The only party strongly in favour of women’s suffrage (since 1891) had been the Social Democrats. When they suddenly gained power and governmental responsibility during the November Revolution of 1918, they threw caution to the winds and on 30 November 1918 passed a law giving all “male and female persons aged at least 20 years” the right to vote forthwith. On 19 January 1919, more than 14 million women cast their vote in the election for the constitutional National Assembly – Käthe Kollwitz among them. Similarly as for men, female election turnout was more than 80 percent.

We can safely assume, in spite of a secret ballot, that Käthe Kollwitz gave her vote to one of the two socialist parties. Overall, however, women tended to vote more conservatively and with a greater leaning towards the church than men (many Social Democrats had expected and feared this). In Cologne, for example, the Catholic Centre Party gained one third of male votes, but nearly half of female votes; the SPD saw the reverse result. During the course of the Weimar Republic, the radical parties, like the Communists and the National Socialists, also found it hard to convince women.

The SPD had the most women in the National Assembly

But from 1919, women were not only allowed to vote but also to stand for election – if existing parties chose them as their candidates. As expected, the SPD distinguished itself in this regard, with the highest number of women to join the National Assembly standing for the Social Democrats. At this time, more than 90 percent of Assembly members were men, and they were unwilling to surrender their right to a monopoly on speech. Women were usually only allowed to contribute to discussions on social or “women’s issues”.

And there was no lack of such topics. Even though the National Assembly anchored the basic principle of equality between men and women in the Weimar Constitution, social reality remained far behind. As workers, women earned a lower wage than men, which was “justified” based on their allegedly lower financial requirements: After all, unlike men, they were able to cook their own food, and wash and mend their own clothing. Their opportunities for career advancement also remained limited, since, it was said, they would only remain in work until they were married anyway. The State made sure through ordinances that its civil servants stuck to this pattern. If she got married, she had to leave her job. The “Unmarried Women’s Tax” encouraged unmarried teachers to find a husband.

Many discriminations remained in place until the 1950s. The biggest distortions in Family Law were only removed by the reforms of the late 1960s. Since the 1970s, the new feminism driven by young, well-educated women willing to speak up, contributed to causing the traditional gender perceptions to totter. The political parties were open to this. Whereas the proportion of women in the Bundestag had remained between 6 and 9 percent until 1980 – and thus consistently below that of 1919! –, it greatly increased from the late 1980s onwards. It reached its peak of 36.5 % in 2013.

The fact that it fell to 30.7 percent in 2017 is largely due to the AfD. It only counts 11 percent women among its members (CDU 20 percent, SPD 42 percent, LINKE 54 percent, GRÜNE 58 percent). Fittingly, its voters are also made up of nearly twice as many men as women. On the other hand, Angela Merkel, the first female Chancellor in the history of Germany, was very popular particularly among older female voters; almost every second woman voted for her and her party. In spite of far-reaching changes over the last one hundred years, one thing has remained the same: the relative aversion on the part of female voters to radical and illiberal parties, combined with a willingness to trust the tried and tested and the liberal.


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