Gender equality is a fundamental human right. Every person, regardless of their gender identity, should have the same access to opportunities, enjoy the same level of respect and be free from violence, coercion or discrimination. These principles are written into Germany’s constitution, and the expansion of women’s rights in Germany in the last several decades alone is encouraging.
Nevertheless, despite relentless campaigning and huge strides forward, actual gender equality remains an aspiration. But change begins with knowledge, so let’s review a brief history of developments in Germany and a rundown of the current state of affairs.
History of gender equality in Germany
The early women’s rights movement in Germany
The movement for women’s suffrage, generally accepted as the starting point for modern feminism, began in Wilhelmine Germany at the turn of the 20th century. Though the outbreak of the First World War in some ways put the suffrage campaign on hold, it also set the stage for further progress. While the men were off fighting, women stepped into roles that they had never before filled.
After the First World War, the Weimar Republic was established. Article 109 of the Weimar Constitution granted all Germans, men and women alike, equality before the law and universal suffrage. In the first elections of the Weimar Republic in 1919, 10% of the seats in the Reichstag (German parliament) were filled by women.
Women in the 1920s and during World War II
The 1920s are remembered as the era of the Neue Frau (new woman). We might recognize this figure now as a “flapper”: a modern woman who showed disdain for conventional manners and enjoyed a relatively free lifestyle.
But this was not the reality for all German women. The majority of German women continued to adhere to the old German adage on the place of women in society: “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” (children, kitchen, church). This was particularly true in rural areas.
Nazi rule in Germany brought with it, among other evils, a cult of masculinity that asserted old patriarchal ideas of the fundamental superiority of men and propagated regressive ideas about the place of women in society.
Gender equality in postwar Germany
In the wake of World War II, a large proportion of German men were dead, wounded or in prisoner-of-warcamps. The post-war years were a difficult time for women, with much of the burden of reconstruction falling on women’s shoulders. The so-called Trümmerfrauen (rubble women), who either volunteered or were conscripted to clear tons of rubble, came to symbolize the struggle of women at this time.
Conflicts often erupted when men returned from prisoner-of-war camps and wished to step back into the domineering roles they held during the Nazi period. The film Das Wunder von Bern (The Miracle of Berne), set in 1954 during the run-up to Germany’s victory in the World Cup, illustrates the difficulties of this dramatic role conflict.
Across much of the western world, the post-war years were a time of heightened social policing of traditional gender roles. While West German constitutional law guaranteed men and women the same rights as citizens, women were still assumed to be natural homemakers and mothers.
Second-wave feminism in the 1960s
This patriarchal order was increasingly challenged in the mid-to-late 1960s, as second-wave feminism and the sexual revolution swept the country. Feminists of this generation rejected the patriarchal, authoritarian values of their parents, which they associated with the crimes of the Nazi generation. Women’s centers became important sites of feminist organizing and provided critical resources for women struggling with abusive relationships and homelessness.
Second-wave feminism was less pronounced in East Germany, where efforts to promote equality included incorporating women in the public working world and encouraging men to take on a larger burden of housework. Nevertheless, women continued to shoulder a heavier burden of household labor.
In the reunified Germany of the late 20th century, new waves of feminism brought more diverse and nuanced understandings of gender politics. This included a focus on “intersectionality,” by which discrimination on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability or class “intersect” to create detrimental dynamics and effects.
Gender equality in Germany today
Progress despite lingering inequalities
Traditional gender roles persist in Germany today. This is particularly true outside of urban areas, where women still bear the brunt of housework, childcare and other unpaid labor.
Nevertheless, women are increasingly present in positions of power and authority. Angela Merkel was the first woman elected Chancellor of Germany in 2005. She became one of the most powerful women in the world and remains a symbol of expanding gender equality on the global stage.
By the European Institute for Gender Equality’s Gender Equality Index, Germany scored 68.7 as of 2022, putting them 12th in the EU. Although the German score is slightly better than the EU average (68.6), the country still ranks below the likes of Sweden, Denmark, Belgium and France.
Although Germany has made some progress in gender parity, there are still some pressing improvements to be made. Women in Germany are still spending far more time and labor on childcare and domestic work than men. As of 2021, the gender pay gap in Germany was 18%, though the German government has set the target of reducing this to 10% by 2030. There is still a significant under-representation of women in leadership positions in the workplace and at the head of major businesses.
Respect for gender-nonconforming people
Germany is also making progress for those who do not want to live with the gender identity assigned to them at birth. Germany added a third legal gender option — divers (diverse) — to official forms and has passed legislation to recognize and protect intersex people. There is growing understanding and respect for those who identify as nonbinary or genderqueer, as well.
While transphobia remains a problem, there is support available through community networks throughout much of the country and some legal protections for those facing discrimination. Germany is also on the verge of adapting legislation to ease the legal gender and name-change process for those transitioning.
Towards a more equal Germany
Gender roles, the rights of women and attitudes regarding gender-nonconforming people have changed greatly in the past hundred years and are continuing to evolve swiftly in Germany. While there is still much work to be done to achieve true gender parity, the hard work of advocates and campaigners gives good reason for optimism.
If you want to engage further with the history of civil rights movements in Germany, it can be helpful to read primary texts and speak with people on the ground. You can start learning German with Lingoda today.