Equal Rights, Equal Duties – Women’s Suffrage in Germany

On 24 September 2017, the Federal Republic of Germany will be holding elections to its national parliament, the “Bundestag”, for the 19th time. Of those standing for election this year, 14,000 are women (or 29 percent of all candidates). Women even dominate the top of candidate lists fielded by parties such as the Greens, Die Linke, and the SPD. Furthermore, since 2005 Germany has been led by a female chancellor. A hundred years ago, this would have been unthinkable.

Revolutions and women’s suffrage

In previous centuries, although women (particularly those of noble extraction) repeatedly undertook diplomatic missions, for a long time during the revolutionary era they were not credited with even minimal political aptitude. Political rights for women was not considered a worthy topic of debate either during the French Revolution of 1789, or in the revolution of 1848. When in 1848 the first German National Assembly convened at the Paulskirche in Frankfurt, tasked with creating a democratic constitution and fulfilling hopes for a unified German national state, there was not a single woman among the 585 delegates.

The prevailing belief was that political thinking was not in a woman’s nature. Since they were not financially independent, reliant instead on their husbands, fathers, and brothers, it was felt that women were not able to make political decisions. Opinion also held that women already enjoyed ample political representation through their husbands, and that the right to vote would merely disrupt family harmony. Women who demanded the right to participate in political life thus had to face these and other opinions.

The 1849 Frankfurt Constitution therefore made no provision for women to have either passive suffrage (the right to be elected a delegate) or active suffrage (the right to elect others). Concessions relating to equal voting rights for women in parliamentary elections were similarly absent when the unified German Empire was established in 1871. It was only in the wake of the revolution of 1918 that women in Germany first gained the right to vote, and with it, the opportunity to help shape the German political landscape.

Many obstacles on the road to female suffrage in Germany

Figures such as Louise Otto-Peters campaigned in vain during the 1848 revolution for women’s right to have a political voice and enjoy legal equality. To this end, she and Auguste Schmidt founded the General German Women’s Association (Allgemeiner Deutscher Frauenverein) in 1865 – an event the press mockingly described as the “Leipzig Battle of the Women”, falling as it did on the anniversary of the Battle of the Nations, fought outside Leipzig in 1813. This event inspired increasing numbers of women from all socio-economic backgrounds to campaign for their rights. However, while the majority of women from the middle classes (represented since 1894 by the German Women’s Association) put the bulk of their efforts into achieving educational and work rights, those from the workers’ movement believed equal suffrage to offer a means for achieving their wider goals, and so the campaign for getting women the vote became their absolute highest priority. In 1891, the Social Democratic Party duly made women’s suffrage part of their party’s manifesto. Finally in 1902, Anita Augspurg, Minna Cauer, and Lida Gustava Heymann founded the German Union for Women’s Suffrage, the explicit aim of which was to secure both active and passive voting rights for women. At the first International Women’s Day, held in Leipzig in 1911 and publicized via a poster campaign, over a million women took to the streets to protest for their right to vote.

At the same time, women in other countries also campaigned for their right to vote. To facilitate networking between the various groups, the International Women Suffrage Alliance was founded in Berlin in 1904, and still exists today as the International Alliance of Women. While women in New Zealand and Australia had won the right to vote back in the 1890s, Finland was the first European country to achieve female suffrage, followed in 1913 by Norway. The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 prevented further cooperation.

However, war also helped bring German women a step closer to the right to vote. For during the war, women took on workplace roles that had previously been the preserve of men. This provided them with compelling arguments during the revolution of 1918 in favour of equal voting rights. On 12 November 1918, the Council of the People’s Deputies announced universal suffrage from the age of 20 for both men and women, publicizing the new government programme in a poster campaign. Universal suffrage was also guaranteed by the Weimar Constitution of 1919, then subsequently in 1949 in both the Basic Law of the Federal Republic (West Germany) and the Constitution of the GDR (East Germany).

Equal rights, equal duties

German women’s first nationwide opportunity to exercise their right to vote was for the election to the constituent assembly held in January 1919. An example of a poster used as part of the SPD campaign in this election can be seen in the Deutsches Historisches Museum’s permanent exhibition. It shows a man and a woman waving a red flag. Bearing the slogan: “Women! Equal rights, equal duties!”, the poster makes an explicit appeal to women to vote for the Social Democrats.

Campaign poster of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) for the National Assembly elections, Berlin 1919 © Deutsches Historisches Museum

Campaign poster of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) for the National Assembly elections, Berlin 1919 © Deutsches Historisches Museum

There were considerable fears that, in the event of insufficient numbers of women exercising their right to vote in the election, previously won political gains might be effectively invalidated. Like the SPD, other parties now also campaigned for women’s votes.

For the elections to the National Assembly held on 19 January 1919, 82 percent of eligible women cast their vote. Following that election, 37 of the total 423 elected deputies were women. It was not until 1983, when 9.8 percent of those elected to parliament were women, that a similar proportion was once again attained. By contrast, in 2013 only 72 percent of eligible women exercised their right to vote; 230 of the total 631 elected representatives were women, or around 36.5 percent. Women have therefore made considerable gains in comparison to 1919 and 1983. How things will look in 2017 will be decided in the elections to be held on 24 September.