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In November 1918, German women gained the right to vote, and female suffrage would forever change the landscape of German political life. Women now constituted the majority of voters, and political parties were forced to address them as political actors for the first time.
Analyzing written and visual propaganda aimed at, and frequently produced by, women across the political spectrum—including the Communists and Social Democrats; liberal, Catholic, and conservative parties; and the Nazis—Julia Sneeringer shows how various groups struggled to reconcile traditional assumptions about women's interests with the changing face of the family and female economic activity. Through propaganda, political parties addressed themes such as motherhood, fashion, religion, and abortion. But as Sneeringer demonstrates, their efforts to win women's votes by emphasizing "women's issues" had only limited success.
The debates about women in propaganda were symptomatic of larger anxieties that gripped Germany during this era of unrest, Sneeringer says. Though Weimar political culture was ahead of its time in forcing even the enemies of women's rights to concede a public role for women, this horizon of possibility narrowed sharply in the face of political instability, economic crises, and the growing specter of fascism.
Copyright © 2002 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
The Political Mobilization of Women
November 1918 witnessed two political revolutions in Germany: the proclamation of the republic and the enfranchisement of women. Female suffrage forever changed the landscape of German political life as women became the majority of voters in one fell swoop. Political parties found themselves (often reluctantly) addressing women as political actors for the first time and, as a result, sought to define their interests and characteristics—indeed, women's "nature"—to tap their votes over the course of ten national and dozens of regional elections between 1919 and 1932. As such, the parties were perhaps the most visible, sustained participants in a far-reaching public discourse on women. Despite the mushrooming scholarship on women in the Weimar era, scant attention has been paid to how they were mobilized for politics. Much of the scholarship on their political participation in Weimar has focused on how women voted or their relationship to individual parties, particularly the Nazi movement, while partisan tactics and mobilizing strategies have been barely explored. The struggle to draw women into electoral politics was but one reflection of how political turmoil, economic shifts, new attitudes about sexuality, and mass culture were changing women's position, yet it was certainly one of the most dramatic reflections and reveals a great deal about the larger issue of how attitudes and anxieties concerning women's roles evolved throughout the Weimar period—concerns central to postwar Germany's cultural and political self-definition.
Focusing on attempts by the major parties—from left to right, the Communists (KPD), Social Democrats (SPD), Democrats (DDP), German People's Party (DVP), Catholic Center Party, German National People's Party (DNVP), and the National Socialists (NSDAP)—to mobilize female voters through propaganda, this work explores the effects of women's changed political status on the debate about their public and private roles during Weimar. Using the national elections between January 1919 and November 1932, this study compares party appeals issued across the political spectrum, both within campaigns and across time, to examine how propaganda constructed women as political actors. Its focus is propaganda created explicitly for female voters, something the parties produced on a significant scale only after 1918. This study also considers how the idea of the political woman appeared in appeals to mixed-sex or implicitly male audiences, sites where parties had to confront tensions between concerns of gender versus those of class and economic interest. The addition of women to the polity expanded the range of issues that surfaced during elections. Acting on the assumption that women were different politically from men, all parties sought to articulate what they assumed to be female voters' interests by invoking a set of "women's issues"—political and economic rights, maternity, religion, social welfare, and so on—a process that simultaneously anchored these themes in German political discourse in new ways. At the same time as it constructed political identities for women, propaganda revealed how each party conceptualized democracy, the war, revolution, class, the state, and culture. Examining the symbolic terrain of politics—the languages that marked the boundaries of what could be articulated and accepted in the public sphere—can illuminate how women's entry as formal participants changed the political and offers one way to write women back into German political history.
To better understand how these discourses on women evolved during the turbulent Weimar Republic, this study analyzes propaganda materials produced by the major parties to attract women as voters and members. Such materials were largely produced in-house, often in an ad hoc manner by party workers (professional advertising writers played but a small part in this process before the 1930s). These materials include pamphlets, party publications, and, above all, campaign flyers, which parties relied upon most heavily to reach voters in an age before the dominance of electronic media. These items were handed out at busy intersections or train stations, plastered on walls and advertising kiosks, tossed from trucks, distributed during lectures and house visits, disseminated at rallies and recruiting drives, and mailed to private homes during drives that targeted potential sympathizers by occupation or social status. Posters comprised another element in Weimar's war of symbolic images that parties used to communicate in bold visual terms what and whom they represented. This study also uses evidence from eight major newspapers, some of which were party mouthpieces and all of which open a window on how images of women were constructed and contested by writers and readers in the powerful daily press. These materials not only propagated ideas but also helped mobilize the loyalties, emotions, and dreams of the public through the street-level rituals of election campaigns. Their quantity and quality make them invaluable sources through which to explore the preoccupations of mass politics in these crisis years of German modernity.
Interest in what Thomas Childers has called "the everyday language of politics" has grown steadily since historians such as Gareth Stedman Jones and William Sewell called for a "mapping out" of political discourses as a way to understand class formation. Childers has applied this methodology to the study of German political culture, demonstrating what Weimar-era partisan literature targeted at occupational groups reveals of parties' working assumptions about the interests and values of those constituencies. But the gendered dimensions of political mobilization have remained largely invisible in German historiography, leaving one to wonder how seamlessly women were incorporated into political life after the introduction of female suffrage (indeed, a great deal remains to be written about life after suffrage in other countries as well). Several German histories have taken up Joan Scott's call for attention to the gendered dimensions of language and its work of constructing social identity and perception, including Kathleen Canning's work on the gendering of class and Eric Weitz's rereading of German communism. Most studies in this vein illuminate how language operates within a political field, broadly defined as any contest for power within which identities are created, including those in the private sphere, but no one has yet investigated across class or party lines how gender operated to create subjects within a politics more traditionally defined as the arena of formal participation in government or the state. Because the Weimar parties relied so heavily on printed propaganda to do the work of grassroots mobilization, a reading of these texts that attends to the ways they constructed gender identities—in this case, for women—can take us one step closer to formulating a general account of German politics in this crucial period that does not systematically or unconsciously exclude women.
All German women over the age of twenty attained franchise on equal terms in national, state, and communal elections through a 12 November 1918 decree of the Council of People's Deputies, which was comprised of SPD and Independent Social Democratic (USPD) delegates. The move came as something of a shock since most states had legalized women's participation in political organizations only in 1908. Germany's prewar suffragist movement had also been weak, in part because the women's movement was dominated by moderates for whom suffrage was a relatively low priority, viewed not as the gateway to equality but as the crowning recognition of women's indispensability to public life. Ultimately, woman suffrage in Germany was the fruit not of a suffragist campaign but of the revolution, which spoiled it in the eyes of many who opposed the new regime, both male and female. Because the Left had been the prime mover behind the introduction of female suffrage (as late as October 1918 all nonsocialist parties had rejected it), the great debate in the first election in which women participated was whether they would express their "thanks" by voting Socialist. While many did in January 1919, their pattern of voting during Weimar would become one of consistent support for parties of a conservative, confessional bent. Those that openly pledged support for female emancipation—the socialist parties and the liberal Democrats—did not generally fare as well with female voters.
Statistics on female voting patterns exist thanks to a provision of the 1918 Wahlverordnung that allowed (but did not mandate) districts to separate ballots by sex. This was usually done by distributing different colored slips or erecting separate voting urns. Both methods, however, caused so much extra work and expense that sex-segregated balloting was conducted nationwide only for the elections to the 1919 National Assembly and the 1930 Reichstag. Many local communities sporadically tabulated votes by sex; only the city of Cologne did so consistently from 1919 to 1932. Gabriele Bremme's 1956 study of female voting patterns, still the standard reference, is based on tallies from seventy-three electoral districts from 1919 to 1930; supplemented by Helen Boak's calculations for 1930-32 and figures compiled by Jürgen Falter's team, the record permits certain general conclusions.
Measured in terms of turnout, women apparently took suffrage seriously, particularly in 1919 when they cast more ballots than men (an imbalance also attributable to women's demographic preponderance after the war). Female voting rates subsequently declined from this peak (as did male), sliding after 1920 but rebounding during the hotly contested races of the early 1930s. The sexes also resembled each other in that both turned out more enthusiastically for national races than for state or communal ones. Women, however, were less likely than men to vote in "routine" elections and more likely to vote during times of national crisis. Figures suggest that women in higher status occupations such as teaching, civil service, or white-collar work had higher participation rates; domestic servants had the lowest. Rates for working-class women could be either very low or very high, depending on the politicization of their neighborhood. The oldest and youngest women were less likely to vote, as were divorced women. Married and urban women turned out more often than rural ones. Although female turnout generally lagged only a few points behind male, contemporaries routinely pegged women as politically apathetic.
Political sociologists have established not only which women voted but how. Women's preferences, like men's, were highly determined by class and religion. Working-class women generally chose Marxist-socialist parties (the SPD, KPD, or USPD until 1922), while their middle- and upper-class sisters stuck to the bourgeois camp (the DDP, DVP, DNVP, or, as the political middle collapsed in 1924-30, single-issue splinter parties). Catholics—especially women—tended to back the Center, while Jews were overrepresented in the liberal parties. Two rules characterize Weimar women's political behavior: women showed strong support for parties with a religious cast, and they chose the least radical alternative within their respective class milieu. For example, proletarian women preferred the reformist SPD to the more polemical KPD.
In terms of sheer numbers, the most female votes went to Weimar's largest party until July 1932, the SPD. But contemporaries measured a party's success with female constituents by the percentage of its vote that came from women, as a gender gap cost a party seats under Weimar's system of proportional representation. Percentagewise, the Center Party benefited the most from female suffrage. Women consistently comprised about 60 percent of Center voters; numerically, this translates to between 8 and 17 percent of all votes cast by women between 1919 and 1933. Next in order of popularity came the conservative DNVP, then the national-liberal DVP—both parties with solid female support in Protestant Germany. Moving left on the political spectrum, one crosses a line beyond which women constituted less than 50 percent of a party's voters. Here we find the left liberal DDP, whose voters were more likely to be male, though not by a margin much higher than 1 percent. We also find the SPD, whose gender gap ranged between 5 and 10 percent but steadily narrowed through the late 1920s for various reasons, not least of which was the growing Communist and Nazi challenge. Throughout Weimar women categorically rejected the KPD, despite (or perhaps because of) its argument that gender equality was a central part of its larger revolutionary agenda. Outside of a handful of districts, women also largely shunned the NSDAP through 1930; it was only in Weimar's last years that a combination of the depression and new tactics triggered the Nazis' national breakthrough with women, particularly in Protestant regions.
These figures represent the most accurate rendering of female voting preferences we have. To provide a clearer picture of the context in which the parties vied for female votes, a brief stroll through the Weimar political landscape is in order. The republic's architects devised a system of proportional representation that awarded a Reichstag seat for every 60,000 votes a party polled in a given district. This spawned a profusion of competing parties, from national heavyweights like the SPD to small fry like the Mecklenburg Village League. Furthermore, since its origins in the 1860s the German party system was structured along cleavages of class, religion, and region. Parties mobilized constituencies within these boundaries by targeting and cultivating specific groups (workers, Catholics, Bavarians, etc.), rather than seeking to win the electorate as a whole. This structure combined with another legacy from the Empire, which denied parties the right to actually govern, to produce campaigns oriented around sweeping ideological pronouncements rather than concrete proposals. During Weimar such tactics increased the special-interest nature of politics, promoted negative campaigning and infighting, and thwarted the formation of stable governments (there were eighteen cabinet changes between February 1919 and January 1933). Because Germans voted for party lists rather than individual candidates, they were further removed from their representatives, making voting increasingly an expression of protest guided less and less by consideration as to who might actually govern. The growing clout of trade unions and occupational organizations also promoted intense competition, as the bourgeois parties in particular jockeyed for the favor and financial contributions of economic interest groups, routinely at the expense of women. In short, Weimar politics was combative and theatrical; the successive jolts of inflation, a harsh stabilization, and the depression made it combustible.
The fault lines in Weimar's political terrain set the ways parties pitched appeals to voters. The bourgeois and confessional parties targeted their appeals primarily to occupational groups such as civil servants, farmers, or white-collar employees. Marxist parties favored a sweeping address to workers. All parties addressed cross-class groupings such as soldiers, pensioners, youths, and women. Women were numerically the largest such category, targeted in at least 10 and sometimes up to 25 percent of a party's appeals in a given campaign, especially during 1919-20 and again in the early 1930s. Yet the parties did not quite know how to speak to women. Could they appeal to them on the basis of material interest like occupational groups? Were women a Stand, a unified economic and social group with particular values and norms? Were "private" issues such as reproduction appropriate content for political propaganda? How could women's identification with the spiritual be transposed into what so many regarded as the base world of political horse trading? Was there even such a thing as the women's vote?
Women activists often reminded their parties of the fluidity of female identities, arguing that propaganda had to address women's material interests as workers or housewives, but also insisting that their "nature" and roles made them more than a special-interest group that could simply be appealed to on the same terms as men. Lived identities of gender, class, ethnicity, age, and so on are inherently unstable and constantly in competition, existing in a kind of overlapping simultaneity. But political discourse flattened out such complexity—it was almost as if the parties could only begin to address women by imagining them as possessing uncomplicated, unified identities emanating from some universal female essence. Ironically the turmoil of Weimar itself muddled any attempt to neaten gender boundaries, propelling the parties into a contradictory cycle of trying to stabilize identities for their political purposes and, at the same time, reshape them in the context of a rapidly changing political climate. Examining the parties' repeated attempts to imagine and address the woman voter can reveal the political operations of gender—its constructedness as well as its relational aspects as seen, for example, in the ways parties contrasted female voters to male.
To understand fully these prescriptive portrayals of women, we should not overlook the organizers of party mobilization—those who made propaganda. While it is often difficult to determine exactly who created specific appeals, we do know that throughout the Weimar era, parties tended to relegate the work of recruiting female support to their women's committees (Frauenausschusse). By 1921 all major parties had formed Frauenausschusse charged with creating and distributing women's propaganda and periodicals, running political education courses and social gatherings, suggesting female candidates for electoral ballots, monitoring the mood of female voters, and advising the party on policy issues relevant to women. A party's national women's committee was usually an executive branch alongside those for other occupational or social target groups, with local branches linked in a chain of command. It was staffed and operated by a handful of paid workers in Berlin, supported by a nationwide network of volunteers who were typically all female, except where no women could be recruited. When interpreting party propaganda aimed at or describing women, it is crucial to keep in mind women's close involvement in the process of constructing these appeals, an involvement that occurred by default because no party really treated agitation among women as an affair of the party at large. As these writers publicly struggled to articulate what they thought women wanted to hear—and in the process worked to construct "proper" roles for them—what they could say was limited by the political languages that were available, the ideological frameworks of the parties to which they were loyal, and the opposition or blank indifference they encountered from party men. This last element, which relates to female activists' relationships with their parties, is something this study weaves into its narrative, where sources permit.
How various parties established and treated their women's committees sheds light on how they valued female activists and, by extension, voters. For example, the SPD, whose main audience was the skilled working class, had demanded female suffrage in its 1891 program at the insistence of August Bebel, who made the first argument for votes for women on the floor of the Reichstag in 1895. It had the oldest women's party organization and a female presence in the proletarian milieu that undoubtedly enhanced the SPD's strength during the Wilhelmine era. Both the SPD and its breakaway rival, the KPD, whose support by Germany's most dispossessed proletarians would make it the most powerful Communist party outside Russia, preached the need to incorporate women and their agitation into all facets of party work while maintaining separate women's organizations. However, both parties failed during Weimar to integrate women and their concerns in practice. The KPD, for example, was slow to set up a network of women's committees after its founding in late 1918. Revolutionary battles, organizational confusion, and a lack of able women contributed to the lag, though distrust and outright hostility toward women also played a huge role, despite Lenin's dictum that women were indispensable to the class struggle. Auxiliary organizations such as the Red Women and Girls' League eventually attracted thousands but never yielded the mass female support the KPD desired. The women's organizations of both the KPD and the SPD maintained a strict distance from the bourgeois feminist movement, stressing class over gender solidarity.
The bourgeois parties, for their part, kept their women's organizations largely segregated within the organization. An extreme example of this was the NSDAP (whose appeal crossed into the working classes), which barred women from the directly political side of party work and never had a female representative on any governing body. Women's work in the bourgeois parties included fund-raising, writing materials for female audiences, and staging meetings, courses, and socials with speeches and entertainment. The two liberal parties had ties to the League of German Women's Associations (BDF), the umbrella organization for bourgeois women's groups. The forebears of the left liberal DDP had had female members since the 1908 reform of the Law of Associations; the DDP itself quickly attracted prominent BDF members during Weimar. In contrast the DVP, which was less enthusiastic about the republic, had been reluctant to embrace women's entry into politics for fear that it would "confessionalize" them. This party, which appealed primarily to business and civil service interests, set up a women's organization with loose ties to the BDF upon its founding in December 1918. Female activists in both liberal parties, who defined themselves (often uneasily) as feminists, strove to create a new model of female citizenship anchored in equal rights but imbued with notions of "social motherhood," women's purported ability to bring unique, maternal qualities to the nation's service.
The two parties most successful with women voters ironically had weaker women's committees, relying instead on existing organizations to mobilize female support. The DNVP, which demanded the restoration of monarchy and empire, never fully integrated women into the party and counted on Evangelical Protestant women's groups to anchor female support. This was even more true for the Center, a mass party that assembled Catholics across class lines. Previously opposed to female suffrage, it relied on the Catholic Women's League (KFD) to reach women until it founded its own women's group in 1921. Both parties tapped the power of the pulpit and church organizations to mobilize women around a conservative, Christian cultural agenda.
The decree that granted female suffrage also allowed women to be elected to office. In 1919, 9.6 percent of those elected to the National Assembly were female, the highest representation in any country at the time and a figure West Germany only surpassed in the 1980s. Women initially benefited from a system in which voters elected party lists. Each party earned a number of seats proportional to the amount of votes it won and distributed its seats based on its own ranking of its candidates. This method focused less attention on individual personalities, helping female candidates who were relative unknowns. Increasingly, however, the system worked to women's disadvantage as the novelty of suffrage wore off and parties felt less compelled to place women near the top of their candidate lists, thus diluting their election prospects. Already in 1920 women fell to 8 percent of Reichstag delegates and 5.7 in 1924. This was partly attributable to the fact that the parties with consistently high numbers of women candidates, the SPD and DDP, were losing votes. Roughly 10 percent of SPD delegates were female, a figure matched by the short-lived USPD in 1919-20; the DDP hovered around 8 percent. Fifty percent of KPD representatives were female in 1920 (it had only two seats that year), but female representation otherwise stood at around 6 percent until 1930 when the ratio jumped to 17 percent. The remaining parties hovered between 4 and 5 percent. During Weimar no woman ever sat in the Reichsrat (the upper legislative chamber) or held a cabinet post. At the local level, female participation in government was stronger where the Left was strong.
Women's lack of influence within the parties would fuel talk throughout the Weimar period of alternative ways to strengthen their clout. The BDF lobbied parties before each election to put forth more female candidates. Katharina von Kardorff, Anita Augspurg, and Lida Gustava Heymann at various times each floated the idea of a women's party, though this never took off. Even if female activists could have bridged their divisions, a women's party would have lacked a firm base, as potential leaders and voters had already allied themselves with existing parties. Cross-party ballots assembling female candidates onto one ticket materialized occasionally at the local level during elections but never coalesced into enduring structures.
Women politicians spoke less on the floor of the Reichstag than in committee. Though Clara Zetkin, Toni Sender, and Gertrud Bumer all spoke on foreign affairs, women's main parliamentary activities were in the realm of social welfare. Historians have debated whether this constituted ghettoization or progress for women. Helen Boak, for example, depicts a situation in which men, anxious to thwart female challenges to their leadership, let inexperienced women relegate themselves to "women's issues." While it is true that men gladly left lower-status social policy work to women, Boak's picture tends to downplay women's achievements and overlooks their own preferences. Moderate feminists had argued for decades that since public institutions had taken over many family functions, women had to secure a strong presence in the social realm—indeed, a healthy and balanced state required it. Marion Kaplan interprets prewar social service activism as a form of female politics at a time when women were barred from the parties and voting. Other historians, noting that the new republic placed a "women's realm"—welfare—at its heart, have called us to rethink the implications of women's identification with the social for their access to power. Any evaluation of the ways political discourse constructed women's roles must be attentive to how women and men of the day envisioned appropriate spheres of activity for women.
Historians of Weimar Republic women have long wrestled with the disparity between the promise of liberation, symbolized by the New Woman, and women's lived experience. Contemporaries often read the legal equality formalized by article 109 of the Weimar constitution, which states that "men and women have basically the same civil rights and duties," and women's greater visibility in public life as signs that female emancipation had arrived. Historians, in contrast, have argued that emancipation was more appearance than reality. Renate Bridenthal's germinal scholarship on Weimar women has argued that continuities in patriarchal social, economic, and legal structures diminished the impact of women's new political freedoms, leading many women to conclude that emancipation—and the republic associated with it—was a fraud. Similar arguments have been advanced by historians who stress liberal feminism's failure to win tangible social or political gains for women, as well as those seeking to explain why women consistently chose parties that rejected gender equality in favor of "separate spheres." Unlike the popular culture image of the modern, sexually liberated New Woman, most German women still became wives and mothers. In fact, the war's decimation of a generation seemingly heightened the allure of marriage for the 2 million "surplus women" whose potential husbands fell in Flanders's fields. Despite public interest in the sex reform movement, abortion was still illegal and contraceptives difficult to obtain. Most women who worked for wages did so in low-paying, unskilled jobs, juggling the multiple burdens of work, housework, childrearing, and household consumption. Even the new breed of highly visible white-collar women worked long hours with few prospects for promotion. Despite the fact that women constituted over 35 percent of the workforce by 1925, work was still considered a way station before marriage; careers were acceptable only for single women. As Bridenthal has argued, most women, besieged economically and psychologically by the crises and dislocations of the Weimar years, rejected New Womanhood for ideologies and organizations that promised to defend their embattled domestic territory.
This wave of historiography emphasizes Weimar's failure to improve women's lives. Yet while continuities of repression are undeniable, our picture of Weimar would be incomplete if we overlooked the degree of change that did occur, such as the widespread acceptance of an interval of independence between school and marriage for young women. Subsequent research has shifted attention to Weimar's possibilities and struggles—some successful, some not—for change, including Atina Grossmann's work on the sex reform movement and Cornelie Usborne's account of efforts to reform reproductive law. Other studies spanning the Wilhelmine and Weimar eras question models that stress German feminism's deviation from some healthy Western norm of liberal individualism, attempting to understand bourgeois and even conservative feminisms on their own terms.
Investigation has also focused on representations of women in a media savvy era that was rife with gender anxiety, sentiments encapsulated in one man's 1931 letter to the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung: "In our time of confusion, one thing is most important—clearness about the positions and tasks of man and woman." In other national contexts, scholars of the postwar period have produced works examining representations of gender, particularly femininity, as markers of larger cultural conflict, including Susan Kingsley Kent's charting of Britain's "sex war" and Mary Lou Roberts's study of French discourses on population decline and female sexuality. Work on gender representations during Weimar has often come from the literary criticism or art history camp, such as Patrice Petro's examination of women and melodramatic form in the cinema or a recent collection on women in the metropolis.
The present study situates itself within the study of representations, as well as the broader fields of women's history, gender history, and political history. It takes seriously Weimar's preoccupation with women's changing roles, which stemmed from real social upheavals such as women's growing presence in the labor force since the nineteenth century. The war in particular burdened Weimar with tremendous social dislocations, dramatically realigning public and private through mass mobilization and mass privation, in ways that both enhanced women's power and fed resentment against them. Women's enfranchisement in 1918 lent these tensions a new political salience. This study focuses on the ways these anxieties were enacted on the stage of party politics, countering the tendency of the historiography of German parties and elections to overlook women by illuminating the gendered dimensions of the most far-reaching collective acts of political articulation—voting and campaigning. This work also aims to reintroduce a political dimension often missing from the study of gender and representations, something indispensable to understanding a historical context in which all of life became highly politicized. Political languages, and the exploding mass culture of which they were a part, furnished symbols and stereotypes people used in order to think and act in the world. Thus discourse—defined as the complex of statements, signs, texts, and practices attached to a concept and dispersed across different public sites—is the focus of this study. However, it does not treat discourse as the sole producer of reality or experience. Rather it accepts that discourses position historical subjects, who in turn mediate, challenge, accept, and transform discourses as they strive to make sense of their experiences and define their own identities. Methodologically, this means situating discourse in its context by attempting to link propaganda with women's (and often men's) experience—after all, material relations do exist and set limits on the range of meanings historical subjects can assign to their world. In the case of Weimar, the discourses produced by women's rising visibility and enfranchisement were not simply an imaginary product in the minds of writers or politicians. As Canning argues, the meanings men and women assigned to prevailing discourses shaped the political order, producing moralizing and regulative effects with tangible impacts on women's bodies, economic and educational options, family relations, ability to act collectively, and access to political life. That fact makes studying gender discourses in the formal political realm a project worth undertaking.
Agency is easier to locate for those historical actors who participated directly in the process of mobilizing women through propaganda. Reading appeals devised by female activists can illuminate how those actors constructed their own political identities. It is more difficult to pinpoint agency for the mass of female voters or to link what we know about how women voted with theories about what motivated their choices. Even if an exhaustive poll on female political opinion were to surface in some forgotten archive, it could never tell us exactly why so many women preferred the Center or pinpoint which of their constantly shifting identities compelled them to check one box over another. But we do know that propaganda only resonated with audiences when it corresponded on some level to their needs and desires. The ways women responded with their votes can allow us to speculate about how their lived experience of modernity shaped their readings of the everyday language of politics, which of their identities drove their political choices, and the centrality of gender to the formation of political and social consciousness. This study cannot definitively state why women preferred certain parties, nor is this its aim. Rather it seeks to uncover which "women" could be represented in Weimar political discourse, moving beyond the question of whether suffrage emancipated women to the question of what impact female suffrage had on Weimar political culture. Knowing which models of femininity could attain political expression—and which were knowingly or unwittingly suppressed—can also reveal something about which models of femininity could be publicly lived or at least desired by masses of women.
The discourses on women were not static, especially in a context in which the terms could shift dramatically from one year to the next. To provide a sense of this change, this study charts chronologically how political constructions of "woman" evolved across the key elections of the Weimar period. Chapters cover 1918-20 and women's first mass electoral participation; 1924, when two national elections followed on the heels of several coup attempts and devastating inflation; 1925-28, Weimar's relatively stable "golden" period; 1930, which saw the advent of both the depression and the Nazis' national rise; and 1932, when soaring unemployment fueled polarization and an all-out war of political symbols over five major elections. Among other things, this study asks how elections altered propaganda aimed at or invoking women; what issues dominated in election as opposed to nonelection years; how specific economic and political crises affected gender discourse; and whether events of direct import to women, such as the 1931 abortion rallies, emerged as themes in campaign propaganda.
Berlin forms the implicit geographic focus for this study because, as Germany's center of mass media, it was central to the process of image creation for the entire nation. In addition to a burgeoning advertising industry, the city housed Germany's major publishing concerns and supported over 800 daily, weekly, and monthly newspapers. As the capital, it was the center from which parties disseminated campaign material and operated wire services, providing information to local groups and the press nationwide. Finally, Berlin set the tone for Weimar culture and the modernity it embodied, including the New Woman. While this study focuses on Berlin, where sources permit, it also discusses variations in local appeals.
This work will show that despite their well-documented ideological differences in other areas, the Weimar parties shared many basic assumptions about women's political role. All discouraged a female solidarity that could transcend class or religious lines. The liberal parties in particular vehemently denounced the idea of a women's party, not so much as a tactical threat but as an "abomination" that violated the unwritten rules that allowed women to participate in politics. At the same time as the parties sought to undermine gender as a rallying point for political action, they all characterized women first and foremost by gender. Party propaganda portrayed women as ultimately capable only of political action consistent with "female nature" (a "politics of the heart"), while simultaneously discouraging them from deploying that femininity in ways that could seriously challenge the status quo.
This work also charts the ways propaganda refashioned existing discourses to construct the female citizen. In Weimar's first elections all parties raced to claim that they had always supported women's right to a public role. The parties that most openly embraced the republic, the DDP and SPD, were also most prone to address women as equal citizens whose new rights gave them both the opportunity and the duty to help shore up the foundations of democracy. The USPD and later the KPD preached female equality as integral to a just society, but because of their conviction that democracy was a sham, they constructed an image of the political woman who was less a citizen of the nation than a loyal fighter in the proletarian front. While every major party rhetorically embraced women's rights, all exhorted women to act politically on behalf of others—their children, the Volk, the working class—and only rarely for themselves. The most socially conservative parties, the DNVP and Catholic Center, in fact spoke to women exclusively in the language of "separate spheres," assigning them to neatly defined, gender-based forms of activity and representation. But they were not alone in ascribing to women a "natural" propensity to act along maternal lines—all parties from left to right invoked at one time or another certain "unique feminine traits" that women brought to the greater community. Female activists themselves routinely invoked difference to justify women's right to a political role, something they inherited from the German women's movement.
As stated above, the parties based their general appeals on occupation, an implicitly masculine category. Women, in contrast, were addressed first and foremost on the basis of their gender, which trumped occupation or class. Instead of material concerns, all parties believed that women were more effectively mobilized by appeals to cultural or social issues—religion, children's education, welfare, and so on. The rare occupation-based appeal to women routinely couched issues of economic interest to female workers in cultural terms, devoting little attention to specific problems women workers faced on the job or at home. Women were considered to be above the dirty business of politics in light of their "essence" and special role as mothers. The parties assumed that women acted politically on the basis of their domestic roles as nurturers and "culture bearers," unlike men, who acted primarily out of economic interest. Consequently, parties routinely used appeals to women to discuss their own "cultural mission," which both gave women an expanded public role and circumscribed that role within limits dictated by female nature.
The intensity of debate over women's public and private roles corresponded to general levels of anxiety about the nation's future. As subordinate members of society, women had for centuries been a convenient screen onto which national fears and aspirations could be projected. But their political enfranchisement combined with long-term changes in their economic, sexual, and social status and the upheavals caused by the war to construct femininity as a "problem" eternally in search of a solution. During the republic's most crisis-ridden years (1918-23 and 1930-33), the political debate over women took on the greatest urgency and shrillest tones as women were portrayed both as Germany's last salvation and as potential traitors. Whether or not they favored equal rights for women, all parties believed that women's highest goal was motherhood; maternal, not sexual, desire functioned as their main political motivator. Recurring images of motherhood were intended to create some sense of stability in a republic marked by acrimonious politics, dizzying social change, and economic trauma. Propaganda also addressed male fears of instability and worries about Germany's future. Poster imagery in particular attempted to create new men who were strong in the face of a republic that its enemies on both left and right portrayed as an emasculating force. Indeed, desire for clear gender boundaries emerged among both sexes, particularly during Weimar's last years, when the parties and political figures most prone to produce nuanced images of women had been severely weakened.
The results of this research constitute an analysis of the intersection of the political, social, and economic concerns of the major parties and ideas concerning the proper roles of women as expressed through propaganda. These issues are of vital concern to historians studying any period of history but are particularly salient in an era when changing gender roles were the subject of such intense, sustained debate. While we can never know precisely how women and men interpreted the symbols conveyed in competing political languages, such symbols sought to establish norms of behavior by dramatizing ideals with tremendous emotional impact. By examining the language of propaganda, this work aims to integrate this aspect of the history of women and gender into the story of Weimar Germany and its political dynamics. Political culture cannot be fully understood without attention to the system of signs and symbols that delineated what could be said and accepted in the public sphere. Our analysis of political culture must account for the process through which historical actors constructed women's place in the public sphere as it expanded to include women.
Excerpted from Winning Women's Votes by Julia Sneeringer. Copyright © 2002 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Introduction: The Political Mobilization of Women||1|
|Ch. 1||Onward, My Sisters!: Winning Women for Politics, 1918-1920||19|
|Ch. 2||Stabilization and Stability: Women and the 1924 Elections||69|
|Ch. 3||Culture versus Butter: Women in the Campaigns of the Golden Twenties, 1925-1928||119|
|Ch. 4||Saviors or Traitors?: Women in the Campaigns of the Early Depression Years||169|
|Ch. 5||Baby Machine or Herrin im Hause?: Women in the 1932 Campaigns||219|
|Conclusion: Women and the Language of Weimar Politics||269|