H. Richter u. a. (Hrsg.): Frauenwahlrecht

Frauenwahlrecht. Demokratisierung der Demokratie in Deutschland und Europa

Richter, Hedwig; Wolff, Kerstin
€ 30,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Lisa Fetheringill Zwicker, Department of History, Indiana University South Bend

In the twentieth century, gradually state by state, the women of Europe gained the right to vote, with Finland first (1906) and Lichtenstein last (1984). In Europe, half of humanity acquired a fundamental civil right, and the writers in the volume persuasively argue that in the histories of democratization and civil rights, the achievement of women’s suffrage has too often been ignored. The book primarily focuses on Germany between 1850 and 1950 and considers how women organized to win the vote, the context in which that mobilization occurred, and the impact of women’s votes on politics. Each chapter delves thoughtfully into diverse primary sources. The introduction highlights the key themes and provides a wide-ranging review of the most important recent literature. The book makes a number of provocative arguments that should shape the way that this period is understood as well as lay the foundation for future research to test the claims of the book.

The volume draws from presentations at a September 2017 conference in Frankfurt, “100 Jahre Frauenwahlrecht – Kampf, Kontext, Wirkung”. Gisela Bock opened the conference and her influence is threaded through the chapters. Authors also draw on her links between the thesis of a German Sonderweg [special path] and interpretations of women’s politics. Bock argues that the strength of the thesis of German Sonderweg, of Germany’s purported weak democratic cultures and institutions in contrast to other Western nations, of Germans’ “deficit in political thought and engagement” shaped the pessmistic interpretation of women’s political activism in previous historiography.[1] As historians today call into question many aspects of the Sonderweg thesis, new space has been opened to revisit understandings of many aspects of popular politics, including revising past interpretations of women’s activism. The authors in this volume present empirical research that further undermines the Sonderweg thesis and instead show the political engagement of women organizers and their support for women’s rights and suffrage.

A number of the contributions utilize Paula Baker’s interpretation of the “domestication of politics”.[2] Domestication is used in a double sense: women made claims about the specific expertise of their sex in welfare and caring work that required them to move into aspects of political life; at the same time, politics itself became “domesticated” in that it became more orderly, less corrupt, and less violent. In the introduction, Wolff and Richter argue that we should see this “domestication of politics” as fundamental to the creation of the welfare state as well as a “pillar of democracy” (p. 10) in that domestication allowed for the peaceful exercise of democratic rights by all members of society.

The chapters by Kerstin Wolff and Hedwig Richter anchor this volume with clear historiographical contributions. Kerstin Wolff presents evidence that shows the similarities in attitudes toward women’s suffrage between the bürgerlich [moderate/middle-class] wings and the radical wings of women’s movement. While personal differences often separated the many distinctive personalities of the German women’s movement as well as issues like pacifism or abortion, leading figures of both wings supported women’s right to vote.

The achievement of votes for German women is often described as a result of the upheaval of the First World War and the women’s work on the home front. Hedwig Richter provides evidence instead for the ways that the long-term engagement of politically active women brought about the vote. She links that mobilization to a variety of reform movements and the ways that those reform efforts reflected changes in perspectives: a new emphasis on the dignity of the individual and even moving toward a “consensus for mass participation, for the rule of the people, for democracy” (p. 162).

This volume breaks new ground in its important arguments about the strength of women’s activism. Barbara von Hindenburg focuses on the changing understanding of space and the way that women in Prussia expanded their political activities through organizational life and how that prepared them to move into the political sphere themselves as politicians in the Weimar period. Susanne Schötz presents surprisingly strong evidence going back to the 1840s of the powerful demands for women’s suffrage by Louise Otto-Peters, one of the first woman political activists. Birgitta Bader-Zaar considers women’s voting prior to 1918 in communal and regional political bodies.

The editors emphasize the importance of transnational ties among women leaders, and a number of contributions consider transnational comparisons. Malte König examines the links between women’s achievement of the vote and the end of state regulated prostitution in Germany, France, and Italy. Two other chapters present research on women and suffrage in areas outside of Germany: Harm Kaal on the impact of women’s suffrage on the voting culture of the Netherlands and Tobias Kaiser on the links between memories of the Peterloo massacre and radical English suffrage activists’ efforts.

In another theme of the volume, writers examine the impact of women’s votes on politics after women gained suffrage rights. Marion Röwekamp argues that reforms to bring about legal equality were not successful because of the political instability in the Weimar Republic and the opposition of the Catholic Center Party. Birte Förster considers women’s experience in associations and women’s representation in the Hessen Landtag, and Lutz Vogel considers the work of women politicians in the Landtag in Saxony.

A number of the contributions emphasize the wide-ranging support from the end of the nineteenth century for women’s suffrage, including “almost all groups [Richtungen] in the moderate women’s movement” (p. 38). Yet the complexity of the franchise at the state and local level may well have created different dynamics among conservative or national liberal-leaning women organizers. Many German women in the pre-1914 period were most active in municipal sphere and benefited from the three-class voting system that gave more political power to those who paid higher taxes. For Hanover, Nancy Reagin describes how in 1907 there were 10,000 municipal voters among the population of 277,000, and elite women’s connections to male politicians and civil servants allowed them to draw financial support from city coffers for their efforts. For the women Reagin studies, “involvement in the world of masculine party politics was not merely unnecessary but undesirable”.[3] Barbara von Hindenburg tackles this important question in her contribution and describes the distinction women perceived between municipal work [kommunale Arbeit] and “politics” (p. 73). This book has opened a path for new research to connect the findings here to local studies of women’s activism and activities.

In general, it would be helpful to have detail about how this research with its “new stories” and necessity of “rethinking old narratives” (p. 8) corrects the older literature that drew on a Sonderweg perspective. Future research could highlight the specific differences in interpretation, sources, methods, or theories that led to the interpretation of comparative political backwardness not only for German political culture but also women’s politics.[4]

Overall, in comparison to Anglo-American historiography, there has been less research on women’s history and gender history within German historiography. Women’s history and gender studies do not have the same levels of institutional support as other fields of history. For example, Karen Hagemann and Sarah Summers noted that in Germany in 2017, of 721 professorships in history at 108 universities, there was “only five history professorships partly dedicated to women’s and gender history, which represents 1 percent”.[5]

This conference and resulting conference volume reveal the rich work being done today in women’s history and represent a step towards more attention to women’s history. At the end of her chapter, Kerstin Wolff issues a call for research that can serve as a fitting conclusion to this review. The book makes a persuasive case for new investigations into the rich diversity of the women’s movement in Germany and in Europe and to “make visible” the women's movement “as a political force, as a social movement, which played an important role in the politicization and democratization of German society” (p. 56).

[1] Gisela Bock, Das politische Denken des Suffragismus: Deutschland um 1900 im internationalen Vergleich, in: Bock, Geschlechtergeschichten der Neuzeit: Ideen, Politik, Praxis, Göttingen 2014, pp. 168–203.
[2] Paula Baker, The Domestication of Politics: Women and American Political society, 1780–1920, in: The American Historical Review 89 (1984), 3, pp. 620–647.
[3] Nancy Reagin, A German Women’s Movement: Class and Gender in Hanover, 1880–1933, Chapel Hill 1995, p. 185.
[4] Studies that emphasize comparative weakness in women’s political mobilization include Ute Gerhard, Unerhört. Die Geschichte der deutschen Frauenbewegung, Reinbek bei Hamburg 1990; Bärbel Clemens, “Menschenrechte haben kein Geschlecht!” Zum Politikverständnis der bürgerlichen Frauenbewegung, Pfaffenweiler 1988; Richard Evans, The Feminist Movement in Germany, London 1976; Barbara Greven-Aschoff, Die bürgerliche Frauenbewegung in Deutschland 1894–1933, Göttingen 1981.
[5] Karen Hagemann / Sarah Summers, Gender and Academic Culture: Women in the Historical Profession in Germany and the United States since 1945, in: Michael Meng / Adam R. Seipp (eds.), Modern Germany in Transatlantic Perspective, New York 2017, pp. 95–125, p. 104.