History of women in Germany

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History of Germanic women covers gender roles, personalities and movements from medieval times to the present in German-speaking lands.


From the early Medieval period and continuing through to the 18th century, Germanic law assigned women to a subordinate and dependent position relative to men. Salic (Frankish) law, from which the laws of the German lands would be based, placed women at a disadvantage with regard to property and inheritance rights. Germanic widows required a male guardian to represent them in court. Unlike Anglo-Saxon law or the Visigothic Code, Salic law barred women from royal succession. Social status was based on military and biological roles, a reality demonstrated in rituals associated with newborns, when female infants were given a lesser value than male infants. The use of physical force against wives was condoned until the 18th century in Bavarian law.[1][2]

Some women of means asserted their influence during the Middle Ages, typically in royal court or convent settings. Hildegard of Bingen, Gertrude the Great, Elisabeth of Bavaria (1478–1504), and Argula von Grumbach are among the women who pursued independent accomplishments in fields as diverse as medicine, music composition, religious writing, and government and military politics.

Early modern era[edit]

The closure of monasteries by the Protestant Reformation, as well as the closure of other hospitals and charitable institutions, forced numerous women into marriage. While priests' concubines had previously received some degree of social acceptance, marriage did not necessarily remove the stigma of concubinage, nor could a wife claim the wage to which a female servant might be entitled. Marriages to Protestant clerics became a means for urban bourgeois families to establish their commitment to the Reformation.[3]

Before the 19th century, young women lived under the economic and disciplinary authority of their fathers until they married and passed under the control of their husbands. In order to secure a satisfactory marriage, a woman needed to bring a substantial dowry. In the wealthier families, daughters received their dowry from their families, whereas the poorer women needed to work in order to save their wages so as to improve their chances to wed. Under the German laws, women had property rights over their dowries and inheritances, a valuable benefit as high mortality rates resulted in successive marriages. Before 1789, the majority of women lived confined to society's private sphere, the home.[4]

The Age of Reason did not bring much more for women: men, including Enlightenment aficionados, believed that women were naturally destined to be principally wives and mothers. Within the educated classes, there was the belief that women needed to be sufficiently educated to be intelligent and agreeable interlocutors to their husbands. However, the lower-class women were expected to be economically productive in order to help their husbands make ends meet.[5]

19th century[edit]

"My nest is the best" by Adrian Ludwig Richter, 1869, a Romantic image of the emerging inner-directed nuclear family.[6]

Bourgeois values spread to rural Germany[edit]

A major social change 1750-1850 Depending on region, was the end of the traditional whole house" ("ganzes Haus") system, in which the owner's family lived together in one large building with the servants and craftsmen he employed.[7] They reorganized into separate living arrangements. No longer did the owner's wife take charge of all the females in the different families in the whole house. In the new system, farm owners became more professionalized and profit-oriented. They managed the fields and the household exterior according to the dictates of technology, science, and economics. Farm wives supervised family care and the household interior, to which strict standards of cleanliness, order, and thrift applied. The result was the spread of formerly urban bourgeois values into rural Germany.[8] The lesser families were now living separately on wages. They had to provide for their own supervision, health, schooling, and old-age. At the same time, because of the demographic transition, there were far fewer children, allowing for much greater attention to each child. Increasingly the middle-class family valued its privacy and its inward direction, shedding too-close links with the world of work.[9] Furthermore, the working classes, the middle classes and the upper classes became much more separate physically, psychologically and politically. This allowed for the emergence of working-class organizations. It also allowed for declining religiosity among the working class who were no longer monitored on a daily basis.[10]

Demographic transition[edit]

The era saw the Demographic Transition take place in Germany. It was a transition from high birth rates and high death rates to low birth and death rates as the country developed from a pre-industrial to a modernized agriculture and supported a fast-growing industrialized urban economic system. In previous centuries, the shortage of land meant that not everyone could marry, and marriages took place after age 25. After 1815, increased agricultural productivity meant a larger food supply, and a decline in famines, epidemics, and malnutrition. This allowed couples to marry earlier, and have more children. Arranged marriages became uncommon as young people were now allowed to choose their own marriage partners, subject to a veto by the parents. The high birthrate was offset by a very high rate of infant mortality and emigration, especially after about 1840, mostly to the German settlements in the United States, plus periodic epidemics and harvest failures. The upper and middle classes began to practice birth control, and a little later so too did the peasants.[11]

Masculinity in the Fatherland[edit]

Germany's unification process after 1871 was heavily dominated by men and give priority to the "Fatherland" theme and related male issues, such as military prowess.[12] Nevertheless, middle-class women enrolled in the Bund Deutscher Frauenvereine, the Union of German Feminist Organizations (BDF). Founded in 1894, it grew to include 137 separate women's rights groups from 1907 until 1933, when the Nazi regime disbanded the organization.[13] The BDF gave national direction to the proliferating women's organizations that had sprung up since the 1860s. From the beginning the BDF was a bourgeois organization, its members working toward equality with men in such areas as education, financial opportunities, and political life. Working-class women were not welcome; they were organized by the Socialists.[14]

Formal organizations for promoting women's rights grew in numbers during the Wilhelmine period. German feminists began to network with feminists from other countries, and participated in the growth of international organizations.


In Sex in Education, Or, A Fair Chance for Girls (1873), American educator Edward H. Clarke researched educational standards in Germany. He found that by the 1870s, formal education for middle and upper-class girls was the norm in Germany's cities, although it ended at the onset of menarche, which typically happened when a girl was 15 or 16. After this, her education might continue at home with tutors or occasional lectures. Clarke concluded that "Evidently the notion that a boy's education and a girl's education should be the same, and that the same means the boy's, has not yet penetrated the German mind. This has not yet evolved the idea of the identical education of the sexes."[15] Education for peasant girls was not formal, and they learned farming and housekeeping tasks from their parents. This prepared them for a life of harsh labor on the farm. On a visit to Germany, Clarke observed that:

"German peasant girls and women work in the field and shop with and like men. None who have seen their stout and brawny arms can doubt the force with which they wield the hoe and axe. I once saw, in the streets of Coblentz, a woman and a donkey yoked to the same cart, while a man, with a whip in his hand, drove the team. The bystanders did not seem to look upon the moving group as if it were an unusual spectacle.[16]

Young middle class and upper-class women began to pressure their families and the universities to allow them access to higher education. Anita Augspurg, the first woman university graduate in Germany, graduated with a law degree from the University of Zurich, Switzerland. Several other German women, unable to gain admittance to German universities, also went to the University of Zurich to continue their education. In 1909, German universities finally allowed women to gain admittance—but women graduates were unable to practice their profession, as they were "barred from private practice and public administrative posts for lawyers". The first women's legal aid agency was established by Marie Stritt in 1894; by 1914, there were 97 such legal aid agencies, some employing women law graduates.[17]

Lower-middle-class women often found career roles as dietitians and dietary assistants. The new jobs were enabled by the rapid development of nutritional science and food chemistry. Physicians, furthermore, paid much more attention to diet, emphasizing that the combination of scientific selection of ingredients and high quality preparation was therapeutic for patients with metabolic disturbances. Their social origins in the lower middle class meant dietitians never received professional status.[18]

Weimar era 1919-1933[edit]

The Weimar era 1919-1933 was in general a favorable time for German women, although there were severe economic hardships during the early inflation years, and the depression years at the end. When the Republican governments suddenly and unexpectedly gave all women the right to vote in 1919, conservative women's groups that had opposed suffrage now reversed positions and threw themselves into their new civic duties, with an emphasis on educational programs on how to vote. The largest of all women's groups, the Evangelische Frauenhilfe (Protestant Women's Auxiliary) hurriedly and successfully mobilized its membership. Turnout of women was 82 percent in January 1919.[19]

Educational opportunities that began to open up in the 1880s and 1890s now came to fruition, and women began graduating universities and technical schools in significant numbers.[20] They began professional careers, but typically they were cut short by the reactionary policies of the Nazi regime after 1933.[21]

Nazi era 1933-45[edit]

Opening of exposition Die Frau, Frauenleben und -wirken in Familie, Haus und Beruf (Women: the life of women, their role in the family, at home and at work) at the Kaiserdamm, March 18, 1933, with Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels

Historians have begun turning their attention to the role of women in the Nazi years.[22][23]

Women in Nazi Germany were subject to doctrines of the Nazi Party promoting exclusion of women from the political world.[24][25] While the Nazi party decreed that "women could be admitted to neither the Party executive nor to the Administrative Committee",[25] this did not prevent numerous women from becoming party members. The Nazi doctrine elevated the role of German men, emphasizing their combat skills and the brotherhood among male compatriots.[26]

Women lived within a regime characterized by a policy of confining them to the roles of mother and spouse and excluding them from all positions of responsibility, notably in the political and academic spheres. The policy of Nazism contrasted starkly with the evolution of emancipation under the Weimar Republic, and is equally distinguishable from the patriarchal and conservative attitude under the German Empire, 1871–1919. The regimentation of women at the heart of satellite organizations of the Nazi Party, as the Bund Deutscher Mädel or the NS-Frauenschaft, had the ultimate goal of encouraging the cohesion of the "people's community" Volksgemeinschaft.

First and foremost in the implied Nazi doctrine concerning women was the notion of motherhood and procreation for those of child-bearing ages.[27] The Nazi model woman did not have a career, but was responsible for the education of her children and for housekeeping. Women only had a limited right to training revolving around domestic tasks, and were, over time, restricted from teaching in universities, from medical professions and from serving in political positions within the NSDAP.[28] Many restrictions were lifted once wartime necessity dictated changes to policy later in the regime's existence.

Membership badge of the Deutsches Frauenwerk, a Nazi association for women founded in October 1933
Certificate of the Cross of Honour of the German Mother during World War II

Reactionary policies[edit]

Historians have paid special attention to the efforts by Nazi Germany to reverse the gains women made before 1933, especially in the relatively liberal Weimar Republic.[29] It appears the role of women in Nazi Germany changed according to circumstances. Theoretically the Nazis believed that women must be subservient to men, avoid careers, devote themselves to childbearing and child-rearing, and be a helpmate of the traditional dominant father in the traditional family.[30]

However, before 1933, women played important roles in the Nazi organization and were allowed some autonomy to mobilize other women. After Hitler came to power in 1933, the activist women were replaced by bureaucratic women who emphasized feminine virtues, marriage, and childbirth. As Germany prepared for war, large numbers were incorporated into the public sector and with the need for full mobilization of factories by 1943, all women were required to register with the employment office. Women's wages remained unequal and women were denied positions of leadership or control.[31] Large numbers of German women played subordinate roles, such as secretaries and file clerks, in wartime agencies, including guards in the system of concentration camps, extermination camps, and the Holocaust.[32]

Glamour pilots[edit]

With the exception of Reichsführerin Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, no women were allowed to carry out official functions; however, some exceptions stood out in the regime, either through their proximity to Adolf Hitler, such as Magda Goebbels, or by excelling in particular fields, such as filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl or aviator Hanna Reitsch.

A few women were exempt from the constraints for propaganda purposes. The Nazi regime emphasized technological advances, especially in aviation, and made female aviators the centerpiece of their publicity. These "flying ambassadors" were sent abroad as citizen pilots promoting Berlin's economic and political agenda. The proliferation of German women sports pilots in the 1920s and early 1930s camouflaged the much larger scale quiet training of male sports pilots as future Luftwaffe officers. The overwhelmingly male aviation environment was hostile to the presence of women but reluctantly went along with the propaganda efforts. Berlin capitalized on the enormous attention these women received, citing them as evidence of the greatness of German aviation. But by 1935 Germany had built up its Luftwaffe and was interested only in displaying power through its aviation and had less use for the women. However, in 1944, with the declaration of "total war," women were recruited to fly for the Luftwaffe's ferrying unit and to work as gliding instructors.[33] Hanna Reitsch (1912–79) was Germany's famous female aviator. During the Nazi era, she served as a loyal representative internationally. She was not especially political. After the war, she was sponsored by the West German foreign office as a technical adviser in Ghana and elsewhere in the 1960s.[34]

Many women filled staff roles at the heart of the Nazi system, including minor posts in the Nazi concentration camps.[35] A few were secretly engaged in the German resistance and paid with their lives, such as Libertas Schulze-Boysen and Sophie Scholl.[36]

Military service in WW2[edit]

In 1944-45 more than 500,000 women were volunteer uniformed auxiliaries in the German armed forces (Wehrmacht). About the same number served in civil aerial defense, 400,000 volunteered as nurses, and many more replaced drafted men in the wartime economy.[37] In the Luftwaffe they served in combat roles helping to operate the anti—aircraft systems that shot down Allied bombers.[38]


Until 1977, married women in West Germany could not work without permission from their husbands.[39][40]

From 1919 through the 1980s, women comprised about 10 percent of the Bundestag. The Green party had a 50 percent quota, so that increased the numbers. Since the late 1990s, women have reached a critical mass in German politics.

Women's increased presence in government since 2000 is due to generational change. They have completed a long march from the basic to more advanced institutions. While the left took the lead, the conservative CDU/CSU worked hard to catch up in the representation of women.[41] By winning more than 30% of the Bundestag seats in 1998, women reached a critical mass in leadership roles in the coalition of the Social Democratic and Green parties. At the state level, proportion of women ranged from 20 to 40 percent. Women in high office have pushed through important reforms in areas of gender and justice; research and technology; family and career; health, welfare, and consumer protection; sustainable development; foreign aid; migration; and human rights.[42][43]

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been Germany's chancellor since 2005, is widely popular among the public and admired as well by commentators who note her success in building coalitions, in focusing on the issues of the day, and changing her position as needed.[44]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sagarra, Eda (1977). A Social History of Germany: 1648 - 1914. p. 405.
  2. ^ Judith M. Bennett and Ruth Mazo Karras, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe (2013).
  3. ^ Marjorie Elizabeth Plummer, "'Partner in his Calamities’: Pastors' Wives, Married Nuns and the Experience of Clerical Marriage in the Early German Reformation." Gender & History 20#2 (2008): 207-227.
  4. ^ Ruth-Ellen B. Joeres and Mary Jo Maynes, German women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: a social and literary history (1986).
  5. ^ Eda Sagarra, A Social History of Germany: 1648 - 1914 (1977).
  6. ^ Nipperdey, p 104.
  7. ^ Marion W. Gray, Productive men, reproductive women: the agrarian household and the emergence of separate spheres during the German Enlightenment (2000).
  8. ^ Marion W. Gray and June K. Burton, "Bourgeois Values in the Rural Household, 1810–1840: The New Domesticity in Germany," The Consortium on Revolutionary Europe, 1750-1850 23 (1994): 449–56.
  9. ^ Nipperdey, ch 2.Well
  10. ^ Eda Sagarra, An introduction to Nineteenth century Germany (1980) pp 231-33.
  11. ^ Nipperdey, Germany from Napoleon to Bismarck: 1800–1866 (1996) pp. 87-92, 99
  12. ^ Brigitte Young, Triumph of the fatherland: German unification and the marginalization of women (1999).
  13. ^ Guido, Diane J. (2010). The German League for the Prevention of Women's Emancipation: Anti-Feminism in Germany, 1912-1920. p. 3.
  14. ^ Mazón, Patricia M. (2003). Gender and the Modern Research University: The Admission of Women to German Higher Education, 1865-1914. Stanford U.P. p. 53. ISBN 9780804746410.
  15. ^ Clarke, Edward H. (1873). Sex in Education, Or, a Fair Chance for Girls. Project Gutenberg. p. 173.
  16. ^ Clarke, Edward H. (1873). Sex in Education, Or, a Fair Chance for Girls. Project Gutenberg. p. 178.
  17. ^ Clark, Linda L. (2008). Women and Achievement in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Cambridge University Press. p. 231. ISBN 9780521650984.
  18. ^ Ulrike Thoms, "Zwischen Kochtopf und Krankenbett. Diätassistentinnen in Deutschland 1890-1980," [Between the cooking pot and the sick bed: dietetics in Germany, 1890-1980] Medizin, Gesellschaft und Geschichte. (2004), Vol. 23, pp 133-163.
  19. ^ Woodfin, Carol (2004). "Reluctant Democrats: The Protestant Women's Auxiliary and the German National Assembly Elections of 1919". Journal of the Historical Society. 4 (1): 71–112. doi:10.1111/j.1529-921x.2004.00087.x.
  20. ^ Despina Stratigakos, "'I Myself Want to Build': Women, Architectural Education and the Integration of Germany’s Technical Colleges." Paedagogica Historica 43#6 (2007): 727-756.
  21. ^ Marynel Ryan Van Zee, "Shifting Foundations: women economists in the Weimar Republic." Women's History Review 18#1 (2009): 97-119.
  22. ^ Adelheid Von Saldern, "Innovative Trends in Women's and Gender Studies of the National Socialist Era." German History 27#1 (2009): 84-112.
  23. ^ Atina Grossmann, "Feminist debates about women and National Socialism." Gender & History 3#3 (1991): 350-358.
  24. ^ "La femme sous le regime Nazi". Histoire-en-questions.fr. Retrieved June 21, 2013.
  25. ^ a b Franz-Willing, Georg (1962). Die Hitlerbewegung. R. v. Deckers Verlag G. Schenck, Hamburg.
  26. ^ "le-iiie-reich-et-les-femmes". Retrieved August 21, 2011.
  27. ^ Stephenson (2001). Women in Nazi Germany, p. 16.
  28. ^ Stephenson (2001). Women in Nazi Germany, pp. 17-20.
  29. ^ Bridenthal, Renate; Grossmann, Atina; Kaplan, Marion (1984). When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany.
  30. ^ Stephenson, Jill (2001). Women in Nazi Germany.
  31. ^ Koonz, Claudia (1988). Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family and Nazi Politics.
  32. ^ Rachel Century, Dictating the Holocaust: Female administrators of the Third Reich (PhD Dissertation, University of London, 2012) online[permanent dead link]. Bibliography pp 277-309
  33. ^ Evelyn Zegenhagen, "'The Holy Desire to Serve the Poor and Tortured Fatherland': German Women Motor Pilots of the Inter-War Era and Their Political Mission." German Studies Review (2007): 579-596. in JSTOR
  34. ^ Rieger, Bernhard (2008). "Hanna Reitsch (1912–1979) The Global Career of a Nazi Celebrity". German History. 26 (3): 383–405. doi:10.1093/gerhis/ghn026.
  35. ^ Wendy Lower, Hitler's furies: German women in the Nazi killing fields pp 97-144.
  36. ^ Nathan Stoltzfus, Resistance of the heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse protest in Nazi Germany (2001).
  37. ^ Hagemann, Karen (2011). "Mobilizing Women for War: The History, Historiography, and Memory of German Women's War Service in the Two World Wars". Journal of Military History. 75 (4): 1055–1094.
  38. ^ Campbell, D'Ann (April 1993). "Women in Combat: The World War Two Experience in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union". Journal of Military History. 57 (2): 301–323. doi:10.2307/2944060. JSTOR 2944060.
  39. ^ https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-12-07/women-germanys-east-earn-close-what-men-do-can-we-thank-socialism
  40. ^ https://www.euronews.com/amp/2019/01/17/germany-celebrates-100-years-of-women-s-suffrage
  41. ^ Sarah Elise Wiliarty, The CDU and the politics of gender in Germany: Bringing women to the party (2010).
  42. ^ Joyce Mushaben, "Girl Power, Mainstreaming and Critical Mass: Women's Leadership and Policy Paradigm Shift in Germany's Red-Green Coalition, 1998–20021." Journal of Women, Politics & Policy 27#1-2 (2005): 135-161.
  43. ^ Meyer, Birgit (2003). "Much ado about nothing? Political representation policies and the influence of women parliamentarians in Germany". Review of Policy Research. 20 (3): 401–422. doi:10.1111/1541-1338.00028.
  44. ^ Myra Marx Ferree, "Angela Merkel: What does it mean to run as a woman?." German Politics & Society 24#1 (2006): 93-107.

Further reading[edit]

  • Abrams, Lynn and Elizabeth Harvey, eds. Gender Relations in German History: Power, Agency, and Experience from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century (1997).
  • Evans, Richard J. The feminist movement in Germany, 1894-1933 (1976).
    • Evans, Richard J (1976). "Feminism and Female Emancipation in Germany 1870–1945: Sources, Methods, and Problems of Research". Central European History. 9 (4): 323–351. doi:10.1017/S0008938900018288.
  • Frevert, Ute. Women in German History from Bourgeois Emancipation to Sexual Liberation (1989).
  • Goldberg, Ann. "Women And Men: 1760–1960." in Helmut Walser Smith, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Modern German History (2011): 71– 90.
  • Harvey, Elizabeth. Gender Relations in German History: Power, Agency, and Experience from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century (1997).
  • Zwicker, Lisa and Jason Rose. “Marriage or Profession? Marriage and Profession? Marriage Patterns Among Highly Successful Women of Jewish Descent and Other Women in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century German-Speaking Central Europe.” Central European History 53, no. 4 (2020): 703–40. doi:10.1017/S0008938920000539.

Pre 1914[edit]

  • Anthony, Katharine Susan. Feminism in Germany and Scandinavia (New York: 1915). online
  • Fout, John C. German Women in the Nineteenth Century: A Social History (1984) online
  • Heal, Bridget. The Cult of the Virgin Mary in Early Modern Germany: Protestant and Catholic Piety, 1500–1648 (2007)
  • Joeres, Ruth-Ellen B., and Mary Jo Maynes. German Women in the 18th and 19th Centuries (1985).
  • Kaplan, Marion A. The Making of the Jewish Middle Class: Women, Family, and Identity in Imperial Germany (1991).
  • Nipperdey, Thomas. Germany from Napoleon to Bismarck: 1800–1866 (1996). excerpt
  • Ogilvie, Sheilagh. Germany: A New Social and Economic History, Vol. 1: 1450–1630 (1995) 416pp; Germany: A New Social and Economic History, Vol. 2: 1630–1800 (1996), 448pp
  • Ogilvie, Sheilagh. A Bitter Living: Women, Markets, and Social Capital in Early Modern Germany (2003) DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198205548.001.0001 online
  • Ogilvie, Sheilagh, and Richard Overy. Germany: A New Social and Economic History Volume 3: Since 1800 (2004)
  • Ozment, Steven. Flesh and Spirit: Private Life in Early Modern Germany (2001).
  • Prelinger, Catherine M. Charity, Challenge, and Change Religious Dimensions of the Mid-Nineteenth-Century Women's Movement in Germany (1987).
  • Rowold, Katharina. The educated woman: minds, bodies, and women's higher education in Britain, Germany, and Spain, 1865-1914 (2011).
  • Sagarra, Eda. A Social History of Germany 1648–1914 (1977, 2002 edition).
  • Sagarra, Eda. An Introduction to 19th century Germany (1980) pp 231–72

Since 1914[edit]

  • Brodie, Thomas. "German Society at War, 1939–45." Contemporary European History 27.3 (2018): 500-516 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0960777318000255
  • Harsch, Donna. Revenge of the Domestic: Women, the Family, and Communism in the German Democratic Republic (2008)
  • Koonz, Claudia. Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, Family Life, and Nazi Ideology, 1919–1945. (1986). 640 pp. The major study
  • Mason, Tim (1976). "Women in Germany, 1925-1940: Family, Welfare and Work. Part I.". History Workshop. 1: 74–113. doi:10.1093/hwj/1.1.74.
  • Nelson, Cortney. "Our Weapon is the Wooden Spoon:" Motherhood, Racism, and War: The Diverse Roles of Women in Nazi Germany." (2014).
  • Stephenson, Jill. Women in Nazi Germany. Routledge, 2014.
  • Stibbe, Matthew. Women in the Third Reich, 2003, 208 pp.


  • Hagemann, Karen, and Jean H. Quataert, eds. Gendering Modern German History: Rewriting Historiography (2008)
  • Hagemann, Karen (2007). "From the Margins to the Mainstream? Women's and Gender History in Germany". Journal of Women's History. 19 (1): 193–199. doi:10.1353/jowh.2007.0014. S2CID 143068850.