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Countering Sexism in East Germany

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In March 1990, just after the first and only democratic elections in East Germany, I visited the House of Democracy in East Berlin. In this building on Friedrichstrasse, at a prime location near Unter den Linden and the luxurious Grand Hotel, were located all of the major civic initiatives that had ushered democracy into the country. "Ushered" is the operative word here, for these groups did not play a prominent role in the ensuing drama of the elections. The primary coalition of these groups -- Alliance 90 -- received less than 3 percent of the vote. The Independent Women's Association (UFV) teamed up with the Green Party and captured only 2 percent, which translated into eight seats in the parliament.

When I talked to Petra Wunderlich of the UFV on that day in March in 1990, she was not happy about the electoral turnout or the fact that the Green Party alliance partner had grabbed all eight parliamentary seats. Under East Germany's Communist-era constitution, women enjoyed the same rights as men. Childcare was widely available, and abortion was not restricted. But the society remained traditionally patriarchal in many respects. It was hard not to see the marginalizing of the UFV in this context.

Twenty-three years later, the House of Democracy has moved to another part of Berlin and changed its name to the House of Democracy and Human Rights. It's a large building with a tremendous variety of civic associations including the Tibet Initiative, the Bangladesh Forum, and the Anti-Discrimination Bureau. The UFV is no more, and I couldn't track down Petra Wunderlich. Even her former colleagues were not sure where she was, though they thought that she'd perhaps left for western Germany.

But I did have a chance to interview Tatjana Bohm, a founding member of the UFV who participated in the Round Table, where she co-authored the social charter, and served as a minister without portfolio in the second government of Hans Modrow. For the last two decades, she has worked in the Brandenburg regional government in the ministry of labor, social affairs, health, and women.

The major group inside Alliance 90 -- Neues Forum -- was not interested in the message of the UFV, Bohm remembered. But other influential activists were determined to ensure that she participated in the Round Table. "Our demands were not like the feminist demands in the West," she told me. "We were not that radical. I, myself, would have been more radical, but here it was about social rights -- we were all still very socialist during this autumn -- and those social rights were legitimate. These social rights, like the protection of child welfare institutions, quotas, unemployment benefits, many of these have again become mainstream issues. It was all about equal rights for equal qualifications."

It was not an easy fight -- during either that brief democratic period in East Germany or in the new reunified Germany. Bohm relishes a good fight, however. "There is this saying: 'If you don't fight back, if you don't resist, you will end up in the kitchen.' By saying this we could acquire greater legitimacy for our movement: if we don't do something now, we will lose in this process. It was also about improving childcare institutions, not closing them. It was about getting rid of the ideology within those institutions. And then when things were going really fast, there was also one issue everybody agreed on: to keep abortion rights. A big majority was in favor of keeping the provisions in East Germany."

Childcare centers closed. A more restrictive abortion eventually went into effect (legal in the first trimester but only with counseling and not covered by public health insurance except for low-income women). But the government of Angela Merkel -- one of the founding members of the East German group Democratic Awakening, which aligned with the Christian Democratic party in the 1990 elections -- has revived at least one of the features of the old East German system: guaranteed childcare.

For Bohm, it is a confirmation of what she's been saying along. "Yesterday, I was reading in the magazine Der Spiegel about the 'German family policy,'" she related. "This is just what I've been saying for the last 20 years: exactly the same arguments. It seems we had to wait for such a long time before it became a public debate. The current policy includes spousal joint tax declaration and other incentives. This is what we've been telling them for 20 years. And finally we have a discussion about sexism, about victimization, about rape. Women are talking now. For the first time ever in Germany we have a debate about the relationship between the sexes and especially concerning the workplace, all those things that happen daily and people just say: 'Oh, don't take it seriously, it is not so bad after all.'"

The Interview

How did you think die Wende would affect women? Especially here in the East, in GDR?

First of all there was our message: You cannot make a state without women. This message was due to the fact that we were also academics: sociologists, philosophers, and so on. Women were active in all the groups, including those groups that didn't specifically deal with women's issues. Actually if you go through such a process women will create their own issues: this had been clear to us before. Such fundamental changes within a society always carry the danger that women are marginalized or that their situation deteriorates. This was the reason why we organized ourselves as a separate association of groups to focus on women's issues, and we organized neither as a party nor a movement.

What kind of reaction did you get from groups like Neues Forum and the Greens, from the Bürgerbewegung?

Neues Forum was not interested at all. We received support for our issues from IFM (Initiative for Peace and Human Rights), from people like Reinhard Weißhuhn. Wolfgang Ullmann, who was a very important person in Demokratie Jetzt and at the Round Table, also supported us very much so that we could join the Round Table. Also Ibrahim Böhme and Gerd Poppe, important people who had been in the opposition for a long time. They supported us to participate in the Round Table.

When I talked with Petra Wunderlich 23 years ago, she used the German word Emanzen to describe a negative perception of the Independent Women's Association as too feminist.

To me it is more a term of honor. The terms "women's rights" and "emancipation of women" were not perceived as bad back then as they are perceived today. I would disagree with Petra on this. Our demands were not like the feminist demands in the West. We were not that radical. I, myself, would have been more radical, but here it was about social rights - we were all still very socialist during this autumn - and those social rights were legitimate. These social rights, like the protection of child welfare institutions, quotas, unemployment benefits, many of these have again become mainstream issues. It was all about equal rights for equal qualifications. Back then women here were highly qualified, just like it is nowadays for the new generation. As we grew older we realized that in the GDR to get higher professional positions, you had to meet criteria based on political attitudes as well as on gender. If you didn't meet those criteria, you were excluded. The GDR society was a very paternalistic society.

There is this saying: "If you don't fight back, if you don't resist, you will end up in the kitchen." By saying this we could acquire greater legitimacy for our movement: if we don't do something now, we will lose in this process. It was also about improving childcare institutions, not closing them. It was about getting rid of the ideology within those institutions. And then when things were going really fast, there was also one issue everybody agreed on: to keep abortion rights. A big majority was in favor of keeping the provisions in East Germany.

During the Round Table discussion, do you feel that you as a movement were successful in raising the concerns of women and getting the government to hear you?

Yes.

Can you give me examples?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.