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Women in the German Revolution

The Role of Women in the Revolution

If we recalled the protagonists and key figures of the 1918 Revolution today, the names of male politicians and revolutionaries would particularly come to mind. In the best case, we remember the great names and outstanding women like Rosa Luxemburg, who together with Karl Liebknecht are at the head of the revolution, or her friend, the leader of the social democratic women's movement, Clara Zetkin. However, it is thousands upon thousands of mostly unknown women who make history and sustain the revolution. Not only proletarian, but also bourgeois women are beginning to work together in all cities and at almost all levels of politics, from communal workers’ councils and citizen committees, through unions and works councils, on up to women's associations. As revolutionaries, as voters (often in the majority), as delegates and writers, as well as pacifists and social/sexual reformers, they leave their mark and form the female face of the revolution.

Unrest on the "Home Front"

It does not take the German Revolution to make it clear that politics are fortunately no longer purely a realm for men. As early as 1865, the General German Women's Association was founded in Leipzig, marking the beginning of the organized German women's movement. The central demand of this first and supra-regional women's association, which will be followed by many new foundations at the local level, is equal rights in education and employment. The absence of male employees during the war years has recently led to many women taking jobs that had often been denied to them. Although more and more women are entering into classic "male" professions in factories, the arms industry, administrations and governmental agencies, it soon becomes clear that this is a temporary and much lower-paid "service on the home front" to keep industry and the economy moving. Consequently, women's everyday life is characterized by the double burden resulting from unpaid family housework and their gainful, low-paid employment.

Aggravated by a shortage of food, in 1916 and 1917, hunger revolts which are borne and supported by Leipzig’s youth and women, take place in Lindenau and in the eastern neighborhoods of Leipzig. These can only be ended by massive military and police intervention and the arrest of over 100 women and adolescents. Elsewhere in Germany, as well as in Austria, shops are looted by proletarian housewives and workers and demonstrations take place causing severe property damage. In 1917, the local unrest grows into a mass protest, in which discontent over low wages and poor food supplies combine with concerns for the family livelihood and demands for an end to the war. Some 400,000 munitions workers in Berlin, Leipzig and other cities go on strike for bread and peace. Even in these protests, known as "April" or "Bread Strikes," it is primarily women who, through their rebellion against social injustice, cause the "home front" to crumble and their soldier husbands become demoralized. Although these spontaneous and organized protests result primarily from the precarious private circumstances of the women, they also express a desire for social justice as well as for adequate food supplies and peace.

Between Emergence and Standstill

The extreme demands put upon women during the World War was followed after the end of the war by massive displacement of women from their gainfully acquired jobs. Since the beginning of 1919, more and more women have been dismissed or displaced, being put back into supposedly women-specific jobs to make room for the returning soldiers returning to their civilian professions. This not only eliminates female competition for men, it also revokes the emancipation won by women during the first days of the revolution, which can be seen in the re-emergence of old gender clichés and a re-establishment of the supposedly a natural gender-hierarchy. The newly won liberties and spheres of influence remain mostly unused, are perceived by some women as a threat or burden and are often abandoned without resistance. Despite the attainment of universal suffrage in 1918, the proportion of women in revolutionary activities and political participation remains comparatively low due in no small part to the male-dominated party culture. Women's political participation still encounters male prejudice in associations, factories and unions. This does not mean that the revolution was in vain from the perspective of women's emancipation. Many feminist claims are being made for the first time, some of them, such as women's suffrage, are directly incorporated into the constitution and laws while others lay the groundwork for future generations and new emancipatory struggles. Formal political equality for women is only the start. The struggle for real equality and gender justice at all levels is just beginning.