Entangled Emancipation: Women’s Rights in Cold War Germany examines the struggle to redefine the gender order and women’s rights in East and West Germany after the Second World War. Read the full blog post by Alexandria N. Ruble:
In 1900, the Civil Code, a patriarchal law that designated women as second-class citizens in their marriages and families, went into effect. For more than half a century thereafter, this law governed Germans’ marriages and families until it was finally struck down in East and West Germany in the 1950s and 1960s. The removal of the old Civil Code represented a turning point for gender roles in the two Germanys.
My book, Entangled Emancipation: Women’s Rights in Cold War Germany, explores how East and West Germans reimagined, negotiated, and created new laws. Furthermore, it examines to what extent these laws affected Germans’ everyday lives and behaviour. My book uses sources from more than ten German and American archives, analysing documents from parliamentary protocols to correspondence among women’s organizations to letters to newspapers to sociological surveys, in order to answer these queries.
The debates over reforming the Civil Code were not new to the postwar period. Since its inception in the 1870s, drafts of the Civil Code had been contested by women’s organizations, leftists, and even churches. Although there was opposition, the German parliament passed the law in 1896. It went into effect in 1900. Despite the upheavals of the early twentieth century – the disintegration of the German Empire after World War I, the tumultuous Weimar Republic, and the destructive Third Reich – the law remained on the books.
In the wake of Germany’s devastation after the Second World War, women’s rights activists identified civil law as a potential vessel for redefining a new postwar society. As early as 1946, women’s associations in the Allied occupation zones (run by the Soviet Union in the East and the United States, Britain, and France in the West) began drafting proposals for a new civil law for Germany. Soon, however, the burgeoning Cold War intervened, dividing Germany into the liberal democratic, capitalist Federal Republic of Germany in the West and the communist German Democratic Republic in the East. Women’s rights thus took divergent paths in the two states in accordance with their different ideologies.
While the Cold War initially slowed women’s efforts, it did not stop them. In 1948–49, a small number of women in the constitutional conventions in the Soviet and Western zones petitioned their fellow delegates to include an equality clause that stated: “Men and women have equal rights.” The new constitutions of East and West Germany also decreed that all laws opposing equality had to be overturned. This mandate set in motion a flurry of debates among politicians, women’s associations, churches, and other civic organizations in the early 1950s over the meaning of equal rights for men and women in both Germanys.
One significant intervention of Entangled Emancipation: Women’s Rights in Cold War Germany highlights the important role that the Cold War competition between the two Germanys played in driving forward their reforms. At every point along the way – from the 1948–49 constitutional debates to the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 – the struggle for hegemony in the Cold War influenced legislators and others as they crafted new legislative drafts. Activists on both sides wanted to expand women’s rights but they were also wary of bearing too much of a resemblance to the other Germany across the border. Finally, in 1957, West Germany passed the Equal Rights Act, a series of partial reforms that gave women some rights but largely retained the patriarchal structure of the old civil law. In 1965, East Germany passed the Family Code, a more radical and egalitarian overhaul of the old Civil Code.
As for average Germans on either side of the border, the old and new laws affected their day-to-day lives to varying degrees. Many Germans did not follow the old Civil Code’s prescriptions, choosing instead to structure their partnerships in a more equitable way. Others adhered to it because it fit their religious or social backgrounds. In communist East Germany, some older Germans continued to practice a gendered division of labour, even when the new laws dictated a more egalitarian family and marital structure. If hardly anyone followed the law, why did it matter? It mattered because without new laws, men and women could not expect to be treated equally before a court of law.
Why compare women’s rights in the divided Germanys? The two Germanys represent broader trends across the two European blocs. Similar discussions happened in the Soviet Union, France, Poland, and the Netherlands, among others. At the same time, the story of the two Germanys is unique. No other European state was artificially divided into two for close to forty-five years. No other state shared the same legal and cultural history. Uncovering the story of how women’s rights changed after the Second World War has been a fascinating journey that has important implications for understanding gender in Europe today.
Learn more about Entangled Emancipation: Women’s Rights in Cold War Germany, here.