100 years of female suffrage in Germany: the unknown story

The English suffragettes are world famous, whilst the pioneers of German women’s suffrage are much less known. Now their story is being rediscovered.

100 years of female suffrage in Germany: the unknown story
A poster in the Damenwahl (women's vote) exhibition in Frankfurt am Main promotes the Women's Day in 1914. Photo: DPA

Who were Clara Zetkin and Hedwig Dohm? Minna Cauer, Helene Lange, Anita Augspurg and Louise Otto-Peters? On a game show, most Germans would probably struggle if asked questions about these names. They are leading figures in Germany's woman suffrage movement – and on January 19th, 1919 their work was reflected in the women who could vote and run for office for the first time.

Women gained the right to vote in the autumn of 1918 during the transition period from imperial rule to the Weimar Republic. The name Clara Zetkin is the most recognizable of the activists behind the suffrage movement: in 1911 she co-founded International Women's Day, she was a member of the Reichstag and became a socialist icon in the GDR. According to Kaiser Wilhelm II, she was the “most dangerous witch of the German Reich”.

It is not only Zetkin though: other women's rights activists are also being rediscovered and celebrated. The Federal Ministry of Women's Affairs is sponsoring an anniversary campaign for 100 years of women's suffrage. In Frankfurt am Main there was a recent exhibition called Damenwahl! (Women’s Vote), which offered an insight into the early women's movement in Germany, which is not as well-known as the suffragette movement in Great Britain (their story became a film starring Meryl Streep). 

 A poster in the Damenwahl exhibition urges women to make use of their new voting rights. Photo: DPA

The topic of women’s suffrage remains relevant in Germany today. Equal rights is yet to be achieved and questions about the gender pay gap and the prevalence of women in executive positions are particularly prominent. Particularly troubling is that in 2017, the proportion of women in the Bundestag fell by 30.9 percent to the same level it had been at in 1998.

There are still so many areas where men continue to dominate. This has even been remarked on by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is not always the most outspoken when it comes to women's issues. When she spoke to the Junge Union (the youth organization of the CDU) at the beginning of October she criticized them for their lack of female representation. Merkel said that “women enrich life, not only in the private sphere but also in politics. You don’t know what you’re missing”.

Words like this would never have been tolerated by men a hundred years ago. Husbands determined the lives of their wives. German society in November 1918 is reflected in the classified sections of newspapers at the time, which can now be found in the microfilm archive of the Berlin Public Library. In addition to “cheap opera glasses” and “beautiful gold foxes”, there is an insulation cooker for sale, described as “perfect for the housewife”.

However, there were women who were breaking with convention before 1918. Activist Minna Cauer spoke out as early as 1902 when she said “The woman no longer belongs in the house, she belongs in this house: the Reichstag.”

Women queue to vote in a local election in 1919. Photo: DPA

Another visionary was the writer Hedwig Dohm, who was writing about the need for votes for women as early as 1873. One of her much-cited sentences is: “Human rights have no gender.”

When the Council of People's Representatives reformed the electoral law on November 12th, 1918, finally giving women a voice in politics, it didn’t come out of nowhere. It had a history, including clubs, magazines, rallies and conferences. The first political party that aimed for women's suffrage was the SPD in 1891 and before that August Bebel’s 1879 book “The Woman and Socialism” had taken Germany by storm.

In October 1918, more than 50 women's organizations had asked Chancellor Max von Baden to for the right to vote. “That's not very widely known,” says historian Monika Wienfort of Berlin's Humboldt University. For her, it makes it clear that the law was not a “gift” but a response to demand.

The right to vote was a significant step. According to Wienfort however even after this there were many struggles for German women. Until 1977, the Civil Code dictated that women should not work without their husband's consent and up until 1958, a man was able to terminate the employment contract of his wife without her consent without notice.

At that time Germany was not alone in women's suffrage. Around 40 states introduced it between 1906 and 1932, and in New Zealand women had the right to vote as early as 1893. It had been said that women’s suffrage had come in Germany at the end of the war, as “a gift of a revolution, which was carried by proletarian masses”, as Clara Zetkin put it.

A photograph of Clara Zetkin, taken during the International Congress on Legal Occupational Safety in 1897 in Zurich, Switzerland. Photo: DPA

Modern research however puts an emphasis on social factors and the early women's movement as causes of women’s suffrage in Germany. The historian Hedwig Richter describes how society changed at the turn of the century: women worked as teachers or typists, they cycled, their swimsuits became more comfortable. Thousands of women moved to the universities. They were the years of a social awakening, hampered by the First World War.

But why is the importance of women's rights activists so unknown today? “Revolution and history is masculine, female protagonists always get left behind,” says Jenny Jung, one of the curators at the Frankfurt Historical Museum. Additionally, much was lost during National Socialism, such as testimonies to women's rights activists Anita Augspurg and Lida Gustava Heymann.

Their stories however are being rediscovered during this anniversary year. One of these women is Marie Juchacz, the founder of the German Workers’ Welfare Association. The Social Democrat was the first woman to speak at the Weimar National Assembly when she spoke on February 19th, 1919. She felt that women shouldn’t owe thank to the government for female suffrage: “What this government has done was a matter of course: it has given women what they have been wrongly withheld until now.”

Even in 1970 it was a sensation, when the SPD member Lenelotte von Bothmer appeared in the Bundestag in Bonn in a trouser suit. There are people who think the subject should no longer be a talking point, but the female struggle for equality continues today. In autumn 2018, Der Spiegel published a special edition “#Frauenland” (women country). The magazine was headlined: “100 years of women's suffrage, 1 year of #MeToo – How modern is Germany?”.

Justice Minister Katarina Barley (SPD) and author Margarete Stokowski talk at an event commemorating 100 years of women's right to vote in Germany, Berlin. Photo: DPA

Feminists stress that there is a lot more work to be done. The columnist Margarete Stokowski, who has just landed a bestseller with “The Last Days of Patriarchy” is selling out readings and events because people want to hear her talk about women’s problems today. In her book, the 32-year-old quotes the forward-thinking females such as Hedwig Dohm, who changed women's rights in Germany forever. Their stories are now over 100 years old, but according to Stokowski, their words still have the power to change German society today. 

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What it was like voting as an American in Germany right before the Berlin Wall fell

In a time when US absentee ballot signatures are being questioned, author Susan Signe Morrison remembers the 1988 election and a vexed incident of signature recognition.

What it was like voting as an American in Germany right before the Berlin Wall fell
Author Susan Morrison (left) and a friend at the Brandenburg Gate in November 1988. Photo: DPA

Registered in Rhode Island, I made sure to fill out the paperwork for my absentee ballot. I thought I was so clever.

One day in early October across the Atlantic Ocean, my ballot arrived in the mail. As I sat at my ample desk in Charlottenburg, the leafy suburb of (West) Berlin, I prepared to open the large envelope. A letter cutter came in handy. Picking up a black pen—I wanted to make sure it would be official (oh bright and shining mind!) –I voted. I signed the ballot. Sighing with self-satisfaction, I laid the pen down.

Then, I read the instructions.

Oh. You have to have your signature witnessed by a notary public. Not to worry, not to worry. Americans are less fussy obeying orders than the notorious Germans. I’ll just go to the American Embassy where they have such folks to get it notarised.

Pleased with my genius, I made my way to Jungfernheide U-Bahn station, took the U7 and changed at Fehrberlinerplatz for the U3. From Oskar-Helene-Heim Station, I walked on large cobbled streets, shiny from recent rain. I was careful not to slip on the white mulberry leaves decaying in the autumnal chill.

At the embassy, I was soon seen by an appropriately officious woman. If you can’t be officious at an embassy, where can you be? Smugly, I explained my idiocy.

“And so,” I concluded, “I was hoping someone could notarise my ballot.”

“May I see your passport?”

I handed over my blue document to ride almost anywhere. It was a golden ticket, envied the world over. Once, changing planes in Karachi, Pakistan (don’t ask), unable to avoid goats and swarms of fellow travellers, I managed finally to make it near the transfer desk.

Everyone bunched together with no concept of the queue in evidence. A small woman, I felt at a disadvantage. How could I ever get serviced? I noticed that those with similar blue pass books were being quickly processed. I then did something I’ve been ashamed of since. I used my nationality to get ahead. Throwing my passport onto the desk from four rows back, I found myself permitted to go on through.

Now, fate intervened to punish me for my hubris.

The woman looked at my signature on my ballot, signed the previous day, and that in my passport from four years earlier.

“These aren’t the same signature.”

Morrison's ID – and her notorious signature. Photo courtesy of the author. 

In disbelief, I protested. “But they are!”

“See?” she said, holding them both up for me to see.

The signature in the passport was rounded, still childish. It dated from the spring of 1984 before I began graduate school, an experience that altered my writing irrevocably. Now my signature was spiky, pointed, even illegible.

At this moment I did something I was incapable of controlling. I began to cry.

The thought of not being able to exercise my right to vote – especially for something so unjust as this – bid hot stupid tears to flood my eyeballs and trickle down my face. “It is the same signature,” I protested weakly.

How many people had protested – still protest –in embassies all over the world their innocence and their plight. Yes, mine was extremely minor. My little vote would make no difference to the world. Indeed, ultimately it didn’t.

The woman finally relented.

“I shouldn’t do this,” she said, imprinting my ballot with her stamp.

I gratefully took it, popping it in the mail.

I’d bucked the system, even though I felt as though the system had bucked me. In a letter, even my own mother said the official shouldn’t have stamped it.

My fervent hope is that others will not face the same dilemma I did. Or, if they do, they’ll be treated by an official who might do something she shouldn’t– the right thing.

Susan Signe Morrison, Professor of English literature at Texas State University, has published numerous scholarly books and a novel. Currently, she is working on a memoir about her experiences teaching in the GDR in the 1980s. She also recently talked about her experiences in an episode of the Cold War Conversations History Podcast.