Varieties of Feminism: German Gender Politics in Global Perspective

Varieties of Feminism: German Gender Politics in Global Perspective

by Myra Ferree

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Varieties of Feminism investigates the development of German feminism by contrasting it with women's movements that arise in countries, like the United States, committed to liberalism. With both conservative Christian and social democratic principles framing the feminist discourses and movement goals, which in turn shape public policy gains, Germany provides

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Varieties of Feminism investigates the development of German feminism by contrasting it with women's movements that arise in countries, like the United States, committed to liberalism. With both conservative Christian and social democratic principles framing the feminist discourses and movement goals, which in turn shape public policy gains, Germany provides a tantalizing case study of gender politics done differently.

The German feminist trajectory reflects new political opportunities created first by national reunification and later, by European Union integration, as well as by historically established assumptions about social justice, family values, and state responsibility for the common good. Tracing the opportunities, constraints, and conflicts generated by using class struggle as the framework for gender mobilization—juxtaposing this with the liberal tradition where gender and race are more typically framed as similar—Ferree reveals how German feminists developed strategies and movement priorities quite different from those in the United States.

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Editorial Reviews

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"Myra Marx Ferree's innovative study presents a critical key to understanding the structural and historical differences that have informed debates about and within German feminisms and that continue to do so. Organized into eight thorough and meticulously researched chapters, the book successfully tackles the specificity of German feminism . . . By making comprehensible and concrete the understanding of autonomy and autonomous women's projects Ferree depicts the heart of West German feminism . . . In sum, Ferree's intriguing and incisive examination will remain a unique and extremely valuable account of German feminism and gender politics. The author's analytic depth extends and differentiates previous theoretical work on German gender politics. The very strength of the book—its descriptive and investigative thrust, as well as its breadth—makes it exciting for a specialized audience of scholars, though this monograph is very clearly written and fully accessible even to nonspecialists in German societal movements. Varieties of Feminism: German Gender Politics in Global Perspective is quite possibly the best existing inquiry into the significant differences between German and American feminisms."—Magda Mueller, SIGNS: Journal of Women & Culture in Society

"Marx Ferree's sophisticated study shows, in sum, that German feminism was shaped by its own history and that of its nation-state. It has also adapted to new political conditions and incorporated ideas and policies gleaned from intellectual exchange and international institutions."—Donna Harsch, Monatshefte

"[A] rare book that introduces a subject to uninitiated readers even as it lays out new avenues for scholarly research."—Stephen Milder, German History

"One of the achievements of Myra Marx Ferree's brilliant tour d'horizon of German gender politics is that she dispels all monolithic notions of German feminism. Instead, she carefully dissects the push and pull factors that move German women and their practices since 1848, putting special emphasis on the postwar period since the 1950s . . . [Varieties of Feminism] is a convincingly argued, densely documented, and beautifully written analysis that explores the varieties of feminism within Germany and contrasts them to others, particularly to liberal feminist approaches in the United States."—Sabine Lang, Reviews and Critical Commentary

"In Varieties of Feminism Myra Marx Ferree provides a compelling history of contemporary German feminism, which she contrasts with the history of the American women's movement. . . Ferree's comparative strategy is successful. . . In demonstrating the importance of opportunity structures, Ferree contributes to feminist theory regarding intersectionality as discourse and practice, showing the importance of national political and historical context. . . This is an impressive book that will appeal to practitioners as well as scholars of the women's movement and social movements more generally."—Suzanne Staggenborg, Mobilization
"[Ferree's] clear, dispassionate, and deeply researched analytical history doubles as a comparative study of modern social policies . . . Recommended."—E. A. Danto, Choice
"Breaking new ground in the study of comparative feminisms, this beautifully written and engaging book situates feminist activism in relation to changing gender regimes and gender orders within Germany, the US, the EU, and the UN system itself. Ferree's astute analyses of grassroots mobilizations, cultural production, NGOization, state feminism, gender mainstreaming, and supranational negotiation guarantee that this book will become a feminist classic."—Mary Hawkesworth, Rutgers University
"Too often, American feminism is assumed to be a global norm, but in this excellent comparative work, Ferree reveals that this is not the case. The book explores a variety of women's movements across national settings and provides true insights into the promotion of women's rights in other countries. A tour de force!"—Amy G. Mazur, Washington State University
"In light of her unmatched body of work on the comparative development of feminism in Germany and the U.S., I assumed that Ferree had exhausted her insights on the topic. I was wrong. In this extraordinary book, she pulls together, integrates, and provides historical context for her prior work. The result is not only the definitive book on the topic, but one of the very best books ever written on the comparative development of a movement."—Doug McAdam, Stanford University
"Varieties of Feminism is both a magisterial history of the German women's movement and a provocative rethinking of feminism in its different national and global incarnations. Challenging the theoretical dominance of the U.S. model of feminism, Ferree brilliantly argues that developments in Germany provide a better guide to the future trajectory of women's struggles around the world."—Leila J. Rupp, University of California, Santa Barbara, author of Worlds of Women: The Making of an International Women's Movement

"In telling the story of the institutionalization of gender politics in Germany over the past half century, Ferree provides rich theoretical insights for understanding the specific ways in which gender intersects with other inequalities in the United States and in numerous other countries as well."—William Gamson, Boston College

"The history of the German women's movement is compelling in itself, but it is also an important demonstration of the errors of imagining feminism everywhere on the model of a dominant U.S. liberalism. National trajectories are varied, and gender issues woven in different ways into political, cultural, and personal histories. Ferree's story is one in which power relations slow progress, but also one in which incremental changes produce large results. And though focused on the past, it helps us see the openness of the future."—Craig Calhoun, New York University

"Varieties of Feminism is a breathtakingly accomplished amalgam of feminist history, theory, and politics. With astute comparisons of German feminisms past and present and feminism in the United States and other European countries, Ferree interweaves theoretical and political analysis of liberal and socialist politics of gender to illuminate how feminist theory tu

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Stanford University Press
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German Gender Politics in Global Perspective
By Myra Marx Ferree

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-5760-7

Chapter One


ON JANUARY 21, 2005, the German parliament (the Bundestag) began discussing a bill to outlaw discrimination in employment, housing, and forms of private contracts. The law would cover discrimination based on gender, skin color, ethnic origin, disability, age, and religion, and it set up a national office to receive complaints and manage statistical information.

But what does it mean to target discrimination in 2005? One might compare the bill to the 1964 civil rights Act in the United states and wonder why it took more than forty years for Germany to get to this point. Another might see it as a response to the European Union (EU), for without Europe-level guidelines prohibiting discrimination and demanding member-state action, would Germany even then be considering such a bill? Yet another might observe that, although lacking antidiscrimination laws, German policy long included a strong constitutional mandate for gender equality. The constitution not only asserts that women and men have equal rights (something the US constitution still lacks) but also mandates the state take steps to realize this equality in practice.

German women are certainly visible as political actors. The government in 2005 was headed by Angela Merkel, the first female chancellor. The proportion of women in the Bundestag has steadily risen since the 1970s; in 2005, before Merkel became chancellor, it stood at 32 percent (twice the Us figures: 16 percent in the House and 14 percent in the senate). German federal states, counties, and municipalities have more than a thousand women's affairs offices charged with advancing women's rights. Gender mainstreaming—scrutiny of public policies for disparate effects on women and men—is institutionalized by federal law.

Among European countries, however, Germany's commitment to gender equality hardly stands out. West Germany had been especially slow in taking measures to enable women to enter the paid labor force, combat stereotypes of women and men or reform family law and social services to be gender neutral. When Sweden and Finland joined the European Union, they succeeded in shifting this more conservative transnational body toward affirming gender equality, mandating "women-friendly" state actions. The EU's resulting directives, along with the incorporation of the different political culture of east Germany, challenged the state to change its approach to women's welfare.

So is Germany a reluctant latecomer to combating discrimination against women, an exemplary case of feminist political leadership, or a middle-of-the-pack European welfare state? I argue that it is all three, and the variation reflects the different ways women understand and pursue their political interests. The diversity of feminist aims and strategies is easiest to recognize when countries face different problems because of the considerable gap in their standard of living, as between the United states and china. Although highly industrialized countries like Germany, other members of the EU, and the United states face similar challenges and have comparable resources to meet them, their gender arrangements and women's movement mobilizations are also quite various—not simply more or less good for women, but good for different women and in different ways. Like the varieties of capitalism that Hall and soskice identified, the varieties of ways that feminism works in different countries matter.

As this book will show, Germany's feminism is premised on political assumptions that stress social justice, family values, and state responsibility for the common good. over generations, compromises between conservatives and social democrats have institutionalized a different set of premises from those of the Us and UK women's movements. The latter privilege liberal individualism and equal rights, and they are often presented as if their politics exemplified feminism overall. comparing German feminism to this more familiar equal rights model, this book explores how the politics of gender and intersections among social justice movements take distinctive forms that reflect core assumptions about the state, gendered citizenship, and individual rights.

Although the archetypical Us case forms a sometimes explicit point of theoretical comparison, the empirical basis of this study is the nonliberal German case. Because most states are not liberal, the frequent equation of feminism with the distinctive shape liberalism gives it may limit appreciation of the challenges and opportunities women's rights struggles face around the world. in other nonliberal contexts, feminists dealing with their own national priorities and institutional opportunities may find parallels to the story of how the German women's movement has developed and changed in interaction with its society and state. The German case is also interesting in itself. following one case over time offers unparalleled opportunities to see historical legacies, path- dependencies, and strategic choices interacting and transforming movement results.

Like the United states and many other countries, Germany had a highly active and visible feminist movement in the 1970s. Yet when I said I was writing a book that would carry the movement's story to the present, many Germans asked, "But is there any women's movement today?" This is a question many Americans might also ask. Where have these women's movements gone, what have they accomplished, and where might we look for them in the present and future? Have different paths really led to the same outcomes?

The changes I trace will help, I hope, to answer these questions and also broader conceptual ones. first, how are material resources and discursive opportunities connected? do shifts in political discourse effect material social change? showing how the class-gender-race intersection works differently in Europe and the United states may help shed light on the consequences the institutionalization of class politics has for gender mobilizations and for equality-difference debates among feminists. second, what happens to movements when some demands are so mainstreamed into politics that they hardly appear as change, but other demands remain too radical to consider? comparing how in Germany a strong antidiscrimination policy still seems radical and in the United states paid leaves for mothers are deemed utopian and out of touch with real-world politics invites the question of what makes any political claim radical.

This book reconsiders the conventional notion of radicalism in politics—which associates it with violence and physical disruption—and in feminism—which associates it with hostility (often to men), anger (rather than hope), and (exclusively) unconventional forms of politics. I argue that radicalism is relational, a specific type of challenge to the politics of a particular time and place. That which is radical stands at the margins, conflicts with institutionalized patterns of power, and in the long or short term undermines the pattern itself. When radical change happens, underlying political relationships change: women become citizens, states take responsibility for popular welfare, and family formation becomes a matter of individual choice rather than kin advantage. Whether abruptly or incrementally, a fundamental transformation occurs—and becomes invisible. The new world that seemed alien and disturbing now appears to be the ordinary, natural arrangement of things.

Because systems of power differ, so do these transformative challenges. This book looks at how arrangements of political power are naturalized, exploring the close connection between feminist movements and national politics. Material legacies of movement mobilizations in the form of institutional resources matter, but so do the discursive legacies that define the questions politics should answer, making some seem common sense and others absurdly radical. To the extent Germany has a less-told story of feminist change, it provides fewer taken-for-granted expectations and more opportunities to see alternative paths, taken or not.

Although focused on the development of the women's movement in Germany, this book offers moments of comparative reflection on alternatives in other contexts to highlight the effects of strategic choice and institutional embedding. The division of Germany into east and West after World War ii offers one such contrast. The selective appropriation of ideas and strategies that flow transnationally among movements is another indication of how feminisms respond to their contexts. contrasts with the United states provide American readers with an opportunity to reflect on their own assumptions, while offering Germans and others skeptical of liberalism a different lens on how its claims may be radically transformative.

The book focuses on what is and is not recognizable, achievable, and actually won by and for feminist politics in Germany, but my aim is to illuminate more general processes of feminist transformation. The differences among systems as to which claims are radical and realizable emphasize politics as a struggle rooted in historically developed material and cultural conditions.


The German case is distinctive in several ways. Most importantly for my argument, Germany is not a liberal state. Many of the ideas Americans find obvious, such as the central role of individual rights and equal economic opportunity in allowing women full participation in all the goods society offers, owe their prominence to the dominance of liberal political philosophy. Liberalism has not played as important a role in Germany as in the United states or even Britain. German politics has drawn on both conservative views of patriarchal authority and social democratic ideals of justice to forge a social welfare state that prioritizes family support and the social reproduction of the nation. This difference in the material and cultural meanings of the nation-state shapes the work cut out for feminists. Thinking about a nonliberal political context offers a way to theorize the differences in the struggles faced by women's movements around the world.

Germany is not a dominantly social democratic state like Sweden, nor an insistently secular one like France. After World War ii, West Germany called itself a "social market economy," but the principles guiding its development owed more to Christian conservatism than to social democracy, and east Germany was created as a communist state. German social democrats have been more organized and influential than classical free-market liberals, but they have more often than not been in the political opposition; explicitly Christian parties led the government in the West, and authoritarian socialism dominated in the east. Policies that encouraged women's paid work and reduced the gender wage gap were much more difficult to realize in West Germany than in its Nordic neighbors, and east German policies that embraced gender-equality goals were discredited by their association with repressive government. The German struggle over a balance between religiously based conservatism and social democracy provides a model for thinking about feminism in many parts of the world. Where social democrats are presumed to be an ally, many of the priorities and struggles in women's movement politics will be affected in ways that are unfamiliar, and hence neglected, in American theorizing about political mobilizations.

Germany is also a federal state. its central government is limited in many ways, and its states have different traditions. in particular the states that were part of the formerly communist German democratic republic (GDR) are more secular and ambivalent about socialist legacies. They are now subordinate to a larger, more prosperous, powerful Western section that kept the name, nearly all the laws, and the self-concept of the federal republic (FRG). The West invested massively in transforming the east, but the eastern states are still facing more poverty, losing population, and struggling over political identity more than two decades after unification in 1991. Unification has been a vast natural experiment in the effects of political culture and institutions over time.

No less important is the religious difference between north and south. Germany, like the Netherlands, has not committed itself to being a secular state, so both catholic and Protestant churches have institutional influence. Catholics dominate in the south and the Rhineland, and Protestants in the center and north, but most people, especially in the East, rarely darken church doors. Germany, like many other European countries, struggles with assimilation of immigrants and accommodation of religious and cultural differences. Rethinking what it means to be a full citizen of the German state is complicated by its regional and immigrant diversity, interpreted through the lens of its history of dictatorships, division, and war.

Like twenty-six other European states, Germany also is part of the European Union, indeed its largest and richest member. The EU is less than a state but more than an international organization. As a transnational body, it has been steadily widening and deepening membership since its origins in the postwar economic recovery of the 1950s. its rules about gender equality and interpretations of what its members can and must do to be gender-fair have a large and growing impact. Both member-states like Germany and the global networks in which German and European feminists participate are ever more influenced by EU-level gender politics. German variation among its federal states and its membership in a "female-friendly" EU gender regime provide important resources for thinking about the interaction among the many levels of political choice, from local to transnational, that define feminist agendas.

Thus no one would call Germany typical, but its policy paths and feminist struggles are also familiar. equality and difference, autonomy and exclusion, participation and representation challenge women's movements around the world. Liberal political pressures at the transnational level, social democratic parties with influence in government, and cross-cutting interests by religion, ethnicity, and regional and individual economic position are hardly unique to Germany. readers familiar with women's movements in other countries will surely see conditions and choices in this story that echo those found elsewhere. Although this book does not claim to be a comparative study, each chapter explicitly engages with examples of such parallels and differences.

Moreover, Germany is certainly not isolated from the rest of the world, and transnational flows of ideas and individuals are highly relevant, as later chapters will discuss. But looking closely at one specific case offers opportunities to see how the prism of local history bends nonlocal influences into particular patterns that vary over place and time. American influences may loom large at times, but their Americanness is more visible to Germans than to Americans, whether as part of their appeal or as a reason for rejection. The shifting global balance of power, in which liberal institutions are growing but American-style feminism is no longer the trendsetter, is both cause and consequence of changes in what German and other national women's movements embrace.

Because this is a story of change, it is not a finished story. The struggles depicted here produce institutional and discursive outcomes that will be used again as tools for later struggles. The chapters approach the story semichronologically, with thematic stresses showing how developments influence those that follow. I argue that social justice movements are forms of politics best understood as emergent—tipped and turned by choices and strategies that continue to interact—and intersectional—drawing gender, race, class, ethno-national, and other justice struggles into relationship.


I detour here to present the concepts that inform this analysis. This overview also locates the emergence and intersectionality of social movements in a broader perspective on gender that I call relational realism, a way of approaching gender relations as part of a complex, multilevel system.


Excerpted from VARIETIES OF FEMINISM by Myra Marx Ferree Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Myra Marx Ferree is the Alice H. Cook Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her most recent books include Global Feminism: Transnational Women's Activism, Organizing, and Human Rights (2006) and Shaping Abortion Discourse: Democracy and the Public Sphere in Germany and the United States (2003).

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