Berlin set to make International Women's Day a public holiday

Berlin's progressive government has announced it supports the mayor's proposal to make March 8 a public holiday. The highly symbolic initiative would make the German capital a leader in recognizing women's achievements.

Berlin is set to make history as the first German state to declare International Women's Day an official public holiday. The move would mean that workers in the vast majority of private companies and state institutions would have the day off.

The measure, initiated by Berlin Mayor Michael Müller, has gained support in state government, with backing from the ruling coalition of the Social Democrats (SPD), Left, and Green parties. On Saturday evening, Greens leader Nina Stahr announced that "The commitment to women's rights and equality is part of the Greens' DNA. We are delighted that there is now a majority in the state parliament for the Women's Day [initiative]."

Read more: Gender equality at a snail's pace

Strong symbol

While the city-state of Berlin is only one of Germany's sixteen states, as the country's capital and by far most populous city, the move would affect millions of workers and hold considerable symbolic significance.

Far from being just another day off, "it is important for us that the day remain political," Stahr underlined. "As long as equal rights and representation are not completely achieved, we Greens will not just celebrate March 8, but rather take to the streets and fight for a more just society."

Though Germany celebrates 100 years of women's suffrage in 2018, much progress remains to achieve equal representation

Social Democratic parliamentary party chief Raed Saleh added that the holiday would incorporate the spirit of Berlin, honoring equal rights for people of all genders, backgrounds, and national origins — including those from the former East Germany, where, like in many other Eastern Bloc countries, the holiday was traditionally celebrated with even more visibility than in many western nations. "For Berlin especially, this day is the right day" to honor with a holiday.

The move came at an especially opportune time, given that Sunday, November 25 marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Read more: Female representation lagging on German public boards

Women's movements in Germany — a long history

'Songbird of the German women's movement'

Author Louise Otto-Peters (1819-1895) is a pioneer of Germany's women's movements. At the age of 24, she called for more female participation in decision-making and co-founded with other suffragists the General German Women's Association (Allgemeiner Deutscher Frauenverein) in 1865. The activist also wrote poetry and novels, earning her the "songbird" nickname.

Women's movements in Germany — a long history

Helene Lange fought for equal opportunities

Girls didn't have easy access to education in Germany at the end of the 19th century. The women's movement of the late 1890s aimed to emancipate girls and women through schooling. Teacher and feminist Helene Lange (1948-1930) was a leading figure in this movement; she also founded different women's suffrage groups.

Women's movements in Germany — a long history

Mother of the 'proletarian' women's movement

Activist Clara Zetkin (1857-1933) fought for stronger representation of women in trade unions, women's suffrage and abortion rights — already aiming to abolish the controversial Paragraph 218 of German criminal law, which remained an activists' issue well into the 1970s. And finally, she also contributed to establishing International Women's Day.

Women's movements in Germany — a long history

Anita Augspurg and her women's group

Anita Augspurg (left) and her associates didn't care much about social conventions. Augspurg lived together with her girlfriend, and they both wore men's cloths and short hair. As a lawyer, she fought for women's suffrage (granted in Germany in 1918) and the rights of prostitutes. Augspurg's association participated in forming international women's networks.

Women's movements in Germany — a long history

Backlash during the Nazi era

The Nazis rejected emancipatory movements. Women were expected to stick to their traditional role as wives and mothers; the Nazi party promoted an image of women that had previously been dispelled by activists. In the eyes of the Nazis, women's rights groups had been created by Jews or Communists and needed to be suppressed.

Women's movements in Germany — a long history

'German woman! Help too'

For several years under Hitler, German women's fundamental role was to bear as many children as possible and raise them with Nazi values, in order to help maintain the "Aryan race." Women who were particularly successful in this regard were honored with the Cross of Honor of the German Mother ("Mutterkreuz"). However, this changed once the war started, as women were needed in the workforce.

Women's movements in Germany — a long history

Post-war reconstruction

With the end of World War II in 1945, German women came to play an important role in the reconstruction of the war-torn country. They not only helped remove debris, but also made their voices heard in politics. New women's associations picked up the work that had been stalled in 1933, aiming to achieve equal rights for women.

Women's movements in Germany — a long history

The pill: a new form of freedom

In 1961, birth control pills became available in Germany. At first, they were only prescribed to married women — officially against menstruation pains. But the pill quickly became widespread, and strongly contributed to the sexual emancipation of women in the late 1960s.

Women's movements in Germany — a long history

Feminists from the student movement

The 1968 West German student movement fought not only to reform universities, but also against authoritarian structures and for sexual emancipation. However, the leadership of the movement was male-dominated; feminist activists went their own way. The banner on the right reads "Emancipation = Class conflict" — the influence of Marxist theory nevertheless remained strong for them too.

Women's movements in Germany — a long history

1971: 'We had an abortion!'

In Germany, abortion was a criminal offence until the 1970s. Following the sexual revolution of the late 60s, activists demanded the abolition of Paragraph 218 that outlaws abortion. In 1971, the magazine Stern published the names of 374 women admitting they had an abortion. The law was reformed in 1976, and several times since, legalizing abortions under certain terms.

Women's movements in Germany — a long history

An eloquent fighter: Alice Schwarzer

A pioneer of Germany's feminist movement, Alice Schwarzer founded in 1977 the country's first feminist magazine, EMMA, which avoided all glamour and tackled political issues. Schwarzer remains a controversial figure in the country, but she has also driven important debates that led to necessary changes for women.

Women's movements in Germany — a long history

Freedom in purple overalls

In the mid 1970s, the West German women's movement also took on a new symbol — purple overalls, usually worn by workmen. Today, it is hard to believe how many restrictions were still imposed on women at the time, especially married ones. It was only in 1977 that wives in West Germany were entitled to gainful employment without the authorization of their husband.

Women's movements in Germany — a long history

Indescribably feminine!

When German punk lady Nina Hagen released her debut album in 1978, she triggered both criticism and enthusiasm. A woman at the top of a rock band? Socially critical texts using plain vulgar language? A woman masturbating in front of a camera during a TV show? No other woman came to symbolize female freedom and liberty to that extent. Nina Hagen became a cult figure.

Women's movements in Germany — a long history

A new awareness

Women's voices grew stronger as they started founding associations for lesbians, women lawyers and peace activists. With the ecologist Green Party, feminism made it into Germany's parliament. Even the conservative Christian Democrats followed suit by appointing a woman as a minister. It took until 1997, however, to outlaw marital rape.

Women's movements in Germany — a long history

No end in sight

Although women's movements have achieved some of their goals, a lot still remains to be done. Men still dominate Germany's parliament and big companies. Men still earn more money for the same job as women. And they still misuse their positions of power by sexually harassing or abusing women. Chances are that the #metoo movement founded in October 2017 will remain busy for some time to come.

'Where there's a will, there's a way'

Backers of the measure are hopeful that the new holiday could be recognized as early as March 2019. But for that to happen, administrative measures would have to be adopted in a hurry.

"My goal is to introduce this official holiday for 2019," SPD leader Saleh told the DPA press agency. "It's tough, but doable," he said, indicating that the bill would first be introduced in a state parliamentary session on December 13 and then likely agreed to in a second session on January 24. For Berlin workers to have the day off, however, Mayor Müller warned that businesses, kindergartens, transport companies and other firms may need a little more time to prepare. But the Social Democrat was undeterred: "I am aware of the reservations, but where there's a will, there's a way."

Related Subjects

Germany's states have the power to separately decide on official holidays, which means that Berlin, for example, has four fewer holidays than Bavaria. The states of North Rhine-Westphalia, Saarland, and Rhineland-Palatinate — which, like Bavaria, are traditionally Catholic areas — also recognize more religious holidays as official.

A century in the making 

International Women's Day goes back to 1910: Set out by the International Socialist Women's Conference, held in Copenhagen that year, the day recognized women's contributions to the world. Since 1921, International Women's Day has been celebrated on March 8. It gained wider recognition after its adoption by the United Nations in 1975 and is now an official holiday in many countries, though only a handful grant it public holiday status

It was first celebrated in Germany on March 19, 1911 on the suggestion of German Social Democrat Clara Zetkin — despite that fact that Zetkin and her female compatriots could not yet vote. 2018 marks 100 years of women's suffrage in Germany.

Each evening at 1830 UTC, DW's editors send out a selection of the day's hard news and quality feature journalism. You can sign up to receive it directly here.