STORIES FROM GERMANY

LOUISE OTTO-PETERS (1819 – 1895)

The participation of women in state interests is not a right, but a duty.

-Louise Otto-Peters, 1834

Louise Otto-Peters was a poet, author, and journalist. Her political efforts make her a major figure in German women’s history. Politicized during the 1830s, she, like many other women, actively participated in the 1848 Revolution. When political participation for women was banned, she continued to write and publicize. During her lifetime, she wrote 60 books, short stories, novellas, opera libretti, historical reflections, pamphlets, essays, poems, and innumerable newspaper articles. When in the 1860s the social structures became slightly less constrictive, it was her who paved the way for the first organized women’s movement in Germany.

 

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Together with Auguste Schmidt, Ottilie von Steyber, and Henriette Goldschmidt she founded the Leipzig Women’s Educational Association in 1865. The organization held a women’s conference with 300 attendees in the same year. This “women’s battle”, as newspapers called it mockingly, resulted in the founding of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Frauenverein (General German Women’s Association, ADF) and thus marked the birth of the organized women’s movement in Germany. Louise Otto-Peters was the organization’s president until her death in 1895. A core concern of the ADF was the increasing poverty of women and the lack of proper education possibilities. The ADF therefore aimed at helping women help themselves, to give them access to school, vocational and university education and thus to independent gainful employment. In 1866, the ADF had 75 members; by 1870, it had more than 10,000. Men were only admitted as honorary members.

As a journalist, Louise Otto-Peters was a voice for the women’s movement. From 1849 until 1850, she published the feminist Frauen-Zeitung until press regulations prevented her from doing so. In 1865, she became the editor of the journal Neue Bahnen, became the mouthpiece of the ADF and the most important publication of the German women’s movement.

The legacy of the Louise Otto-Peter’s achievement lives on, even if her name is not familiar to many today. In March 1894, a new umbrella organization, the Federation of German Women’s Associations (BDF), was founded to account for and organize the plethora of women’s organizations that had formed by then. By 1913, about 500,000 women belonged to the movement. After the BDF decided to discontinue its operations in 1933 as not to fall victim to Nazi ideologies, it reformed under the name “Deutscher Staatsbürgerinnen-Verband” (German Female Citizen Association) in 1947, which operates still today. Also, the Deutscher Frauenrat (German Women’s Council, which represents about 12 million women and thus is the country’s largest political lobby for women) follows in the tradition of the BDF.

 

Literature and References

https://www.addf-kassel.de/dossiers-und-links/dossiers/dossiers-organisationen/allgemeiner-deutscher-frauenverein-adf/

https://www.digitales-deutsches-frauenarchiv.de/akteurinnen/allgemeiner-deutscher-frauenverein-adf

https://www.bpb.de/gesellschaft/gender/frauenbewegung/35256/aufbauphase-im-kaiserreich?p=1

https://www.leipzig.de/jugend-familie-und-soziales/frauen/1000-jahre-leipzig-100-frauenportraets/detailseite-frauenportraets/projekt/otto-peters-louise-geborene-otto/

THE MOTHERS OF THE GERMAN CONSTITUTION[1]

Article 2 Section 3 of the German constitution states: “Men and women are equal.” That this sentence entered this fundamental law is due to the efforts of four women who, alongside 61 men, were part of the Parlamentarischer Rat. This assembly was elected by eleven German state parliaments of the three western zones and had the purpose to initiate a new political beginning in 1948/49 for Germany based on democratic principles, three years after the end of World War II.

[1] The German term ‚Grundgesetz‘ actually translates to ‚Basic Law‘ or ‚Fundamental Law’, not ‘constitution’ (Verfassung) since originally it was expected to be an interim solution and a future unified Germany would write a constitution that would be approved by the people. Only in 1990, after the reunification, the Basic Law was adopted as the constitution but under its old name.

©Bestand Erna Wagner-Hehmke, Stiftung Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn

Article 2 Section 3 of the German constitution states: “Men and women are equal.” That this sentence entered this fundamental law is due to the efforts of four women who, alongside 61 men, were part of the Parlamentarischer Rat. This assembly was elected by eleven German state parliaments of the three western zones and had the purpose to initiate a new political beginning in 1948/49 for Germany based on democratic principles, three years after the end of World War II.

Elisabeth Selbert, Friederike Nadig, Helene Weber, and Helene Wessel were representatives of a whole generation of women who had grown up in the Weimar Republic, through WWII, and helped rebuild the country after the war. The fact that 94% of the assembly were men was actually a massive misrepresentation of the post-war population in Germany, as women outnumbered men by seven million. Women’s organizations were allowed to resume their activities relatively quickly after the end of the war and there was a surge of activism towards rebuilding a democratic Germany with equal rights for men and women. Despite the numerical dominance of women within the population, this did not lead to women having more influence on political decision-making processes in the newly re-established parties, however. Men were already back in most positions of power and decision-making. Accordingly, political participation remained unattractive for many women and numbers for female members of political parties dwindled below 20% until the 1960s. 

“Men and women are equal”—in 1949, this was not a statement about reality but a program, and its incorporation into the Basic Law was preceded by heated debate. After it had failed twice before the Parliamentary Council, Selbert initiated a broad public protest, carried by the Women’s Secretariat of the SPD, by non-partisan women’s associations, local politicians, and women’s professional associations. This led to a flood of resolutions, letters, and statements directed at the assembly, which supported Selbert and Nadig in their effort. Together with Helene Weber and Helene Wessel, they finally managed to convince the members of the Parliamentary Council. Without the commitment of the four women in the Parliamentary Council and the many women who campaigned in public for full equality, this formulation would not have been possible.

Granted, this success did not mean that women in Germany actually were treated equally. In 1994, the following sentence was added to the article: “The state promotes the actual implementation of equal rights for women and men and works towards the elimination of existing disadvantages,” making it the government’s responsibility to work towards gender equality. But even though there is still a long way to go, the Mothers of the German Constitution paved the way for gender equality in Germany and should receive the attention this achievement deserves.