Germany's most famous women's rights activist Alice Schwarzer at 75


Alice Schwarzer (*1942)

In fall 1975, Schwarzer released her book "The Little Difference and Its Huge Consequences," in which she analyzes sex as a power play between men and women. It became a bestseller, making Alice Schwarzer the best-known and most divisive feminist in Germany. She has been publishing "Emma" since 1977. Here's a look at women who have preceded and succeeded Schwarzer in the fight for equality.


Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793)

The French revolutionary was a pioneer in the struggle for women's rights. In 1791, Olympe de Gouges wrote a "Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen" in response to the 1789 declaration of human and civil rights, which didn't take women into account. In her text, she wrote that women are born free and are equal to men in all of their rights.


Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)

Activist Sojourner Truth made a connection between the rights of slaves in the United States and those of women. She campaigned for both the abolition of slavery and women's suffrage. Her speech "And ain't I a woman?" which she held at a women's rights convention in Ohio in 1851, went down in the history books.


Louise Otto-Peters (1819-1895)

Louise Otto-Peters is considered the founder of the German women's rights movement. In 1843, she became famous for saying, "The participation of women in the interests of the state is not a right, but a duty." Otto-Peters co-founded Germany's first feminist organization, the Allgemeiner Deutscher Frauenverein, in 1865.


Hedwig Dohm (1831-1919)

In 1874, she wrote "The Scientific Emancipation of Women." Hedwig Dohm called for women's suffrage and unrestricted access to universities, making her a radical pioneer of the German feminist movement. According to her motto "Human rights know no gender," Dohm demanded equality across the board.


Emily Davison (1872-1913)

British sufragette Emily Davison was arrested eight times. The activist sometimes resorted to violent protests in her campaign for women's rights. She was a member of the Women's Social and Political Union, which was founded in 1903. Its motto was, "Deeds, not words." Ultimately, Davison died a martyr. In an effort to draw attention to her cause during a horse race, she was trampled to death.


Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1968)

Simone de Beauvoir's 1949 work "The Second Sex" is a milestone of feminist literature. In it, she famously wrote, "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman." Well ahead of her time, she was among the first to assert the thesis that gender is not a biological fact.


Betty Friedan (1921-2006)

In her work "The Feminine Mystique," Betty Friedan criticized the reduction of women to mothers and housewives. It was published in 1963 and she became an activist in the American feminist movement. In 1966, she and 27 other women founded the National Organization for Women. She would go on to spend her life fighting for gender equality.


Judith Butler (*1956)

The deconstruction of gender is the central theme of Judith Butler's work "Gender Trouble" from 1990. Her thesis is that both our learned gender and our biological sex are socially construed and our gender identity is a performance. The American philosopher became a pioneer of feminist theory in the 1990s.


Mozn Hassan (*1979)

Mozn Hassan and her organization Nazra for Feminist Studies have fought for women's rights in Egypt since 2007. During the Arab Spring, Nazra made sure that sexual harassment became a statutory offense. In 2016, the feminist activist Hassan received the Right Livelihood Award — also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize — for her work.


Laurie Penny (*1986)

Laurie Penny of Britain is considered one of the most significant feminists of our time. Her works "Meat Market" and "Unspeakable Things" criticize the sexualization and sexual suppression of women and the idea of romantic love. Penny works as a columnist and journalist for "The Guardian," "the Independent," "New Statesman" and others.


Margarete Stokowski (*1986)

She is also known as the "German Laurie Penny." Margarete Stokowski's debut book "Untenrum frei" ("Free down below") discusses power, mechanisms of sexual suppression, gender roles assigned be society and how small freedoms relate to larger liberties. The "Spiegel" columnist's main thesis is that we can't be free at the top if we're not free down below — and vice versa.

She has spent her life fighting for women's equal rights, writing and publishing the magazine "Emma." A look at the life of Alice Schwarzer, Germany's best known — and most controversial — feminist, as she turns 75.

"The engine driving everything I do is fairness. Anything else would have, for me, been a misuse of my life."

Taken from Alice Schwarzer's autobiography, "Lebenslauf" ("Curriculum Vitae"), published in 2011, that sentence could be viewed as something of a life motto for a woman who changed German society. Schwarzer writes further of herself, saying, "I am not a person who prefers to focus on myself, hunched over my sensitive predilections. I find the world much too exciting for that."

Alice Schwarzer deutsche Frauenrechtlerin

Schwarzer began her career in Paris during a time when Simone de Beauvoir was a public figure

The worst insult at home: parochialism

It could be that Schwarzer's rebellious nature was already predetermined before she even hit the cradle. She was born out of wedlock on December 3, 1942. That normally would have been a scandal for the time, but it was overlooked at the height of a war that gave people other, more pressing worries.

She was raised in Wuppertal by her grandparents, whom she referred to as Mom and Dad. Classic gender roles were turned on their heads, Schwarzer later said. Her grandmother was politically active and thus, little Alice was often looked after by her grandfather. The worst insult at home, she wrote in her biography, was "How parochial!"

Alice was self-reliant at an early age and spoke her mind, even as a young woman. She undertook sales training and then lit out for her dream city, Paris, where she learned French.

Upon her return to Germany, she was certain that she wanted to be a journalist and she began an apprenticeship at the local Dusseldorf newspaper, which sent her back to Paris as a correspondent.

There, she rubbed elbows with Simone de Beauvoir and found herself immersed in a brewing women's rights movement. "Yet while the rest of the western world saw women pushing past the barriers they faced, in Germany young women remained quiet," she later wrote in Emma, the magazine she founded.

A taboo-breaker

That was something that Schwarzer wanted to change. She took a cue from the left-liberal weekly, Le Nouvel Observateur, which saw women including Simone de Beauvoir, actress Catherine Deneuve and Jeanne Moreau as well as director Agnès Varda, publicize their abortions. Alice Schwarzer convinced the German magazine Stern to do something similar in Germany, taking stance against the law prohibiting abortion, Paragraph 218.

The June 6, 1971, edition of Stern featured 374 women who had had abortions, both unknown women and celebrities, including the illustrious actresses Romy Schneider and Senta Berger.

Stern 1971 Titel Wir haben abgetrieben EINSCHRÄNKUNG

The Stern cover from 1971 that reads "We had an abortion"

The German nation was in shock. Abortion was still a taboo subject. Alice Schwarzer became the figurehead of the burgeoning women's emancipation movement. She was one of the main initiators of the demonstration on March 9, 1974, against Paragraph 218, which saw hundreds of thousands of women take to the streets from Kiel to Konstanz.

Related Subjects

That was not the only law Schwarzer found to be without merit at the end of the 1970s. At the time, a woman who entered into marriage was legally required "to manage the household," and could not "neglect her familial responsibilities." A husband could forbid his wife from working and in major cities, every fifth man did —  something Schwarzer railed against.

She was equally appalled by the law stating that a wife who divorces her husband, even in cases of abuse or infidelity on his part, would be herself considered guilty of "malicious abandonment" and therefore would receive no alimony.

In her activism, she has fought for equal pay for equal work and against rape in marriage, speaking out against the CDU parliamentarian Wolfgang von Stetten who publicly exclaimed that, "A part of marital life means also overcoming a partner's lack of desire. That does not mean a husband has committed a crime — some men are simply rougher."

Read more: Emma turns 40

 Alice Schwarzer (2. v. l.) und die Emma-Frauen 1977 in der Redaktion

Inside Emma editorial offices in 1977

With her name on everyone's lips, in 1977, Schwarzer founded the magazine Emma, which offered opposition to the disparaging cover images many women's titles presented, as well as pornography.

She founded a feminist archive, made the rounds on the talk-show circuit and even had her own talk-show for a spell. She also wrote books, including the 1975 German-language only book, "Der kleine Unterschied und seine großen Folgen" ("The little difference and its great consequences"). 

The book took up the subject of love and sex in the life of a woman and Schwarzer did not hold back: She put voice to things that had previously been kept in silence due to feelings of shame. And suddenly, women, even those who had not considered themselves feminists, were talking about topics like female frigidity and orgasms.

Too radical for some

While leading the feminist charge, Alice Schwarzer got many women to follow her lead. Yet she has also proven divisive — and it's not just men who have cursed her as a man-hater. For many of her contemporaries, she is simply too radical.

Alice Schwarzer deutsche Frauenrechtlerin

Even at 75, Schwarzer continues her work

Author Esther Vilar published her book, "The Manipulated Man" in 1971; its provocative thesis — that women exploit men shamelessly and lead a comfortable existence at their expense — had tongues wagging. The ideas were exactly to the taste of many men who felt the demands of feminists had gone too far.

When Schwarzer, Germany's most prominent feminist, was invited to a talk show with Vilar to counter the arguments, she grew enraged and attacked the author sharply. In doing so, she turned half the country against her.

Yesterday's matriarch

Alice Schwarzer doesn't care much about what others think of her, even today.

She has accomplished a lot over the years and won herself a spot in Germany's women's history. Her merits are not diminished even as she and her fellow activists revealed decades after the "I had an abortion" campaign that they had not actually had one themselves — that the action was pure political provocation.

Yet times have changed. Her calling card, the magazine Emma has gone from a high of 200,000 readers to less than 40,000 today. That isn't just a sign of the death of print media: Schwarzer is just not embraced by the younger generation of feminists today, who see her as something of an ossifying matriarch.

She has done quite a bit for women, said author Charlotte Roche, who also said it may be time to leave well enough alone. Historian Miriam Gebhardt wrote in her 2012 book, "Alice im Niemandsland" ("Alice in No Man's Land"), that Schwarzer is firmly set in her ideologies and continues to spread the same "truths."

Deutschland Alice Schwarzer hält die Zeitschrift

Readership may be down but Emma turned 40 in 2017

Letting go is not her forte

In 2008, Alice Schwarzer wanted to hand over the Emma reins to a new editor-in-chief, but after just a few weeks, her successor, Lisa Ortgies, fled. She was not the right person for the job, said Schwarzer. Perhaps that had something to do with the authoritarian management style that many previous employees have accused Schwarzer of.

Someone like her can handle it, however. In 1996, she received Germany's highest honor, the Federal Cross of Merit, one of just many recognitions she has received over her life. Her sharp tongue and careful choice of words has continued to keep her on the talk-show circuit — for example, following the sexual assaults on women at the Cologne train station on New Year's Eve 2015.

Read more: Alice Schwarzer on the Cologne attacks

In that sense, as she turns 75, it fits that her life motto has been formulated as such: "I will think, write and negotiate as long as I live."

Happy birthday, Alice!