How German women obtained the right to vote 100 years ago

8 pioneers in women's rights

Anita Augspurg (1857 - 1943)

A feminist with an unconventional lifestyle, Anita Augspurg was determined to study law — even though women were not allowed to in Germany. She studied in Zurich and became the first doctor of law of the German Empire in 1897. However, it took 25 more years for women to be licensed to practice law in the country. The feminist movement activist left Germany when the Nazis took power in 1933.

8 pioneers in women's rights

Hedwig Dohm (1831 - 1919)

While it was widely believed at the time that gender roles were determined by biological factors, Hedwig Dohm was one of the first feminist thinkers to maintain that it was culture, socialization and education that imposed the patterns. She campaigned to allow equal access to education for boys and girls and was convinced that women's employment was the path to independence and a free life.

8 pioneers in women's rights

Louise Dittmar (1807 - 1884)

While the constitution proclaimed by the National Assembly in Frankfurt in 1848 was based on democratic principles, it was an all-male domain. Women had no right of assembly, no suffrage and no right to work at the time. "Freedom for all is currently a widely discussed topic, yet the word 'all' seems to refer to men only," wrote women's rights activist and journalist Louise Dittmar in response.

8 pioneers in women's rights

Agnes Schultheiss (1873 - 1959)

Active in the city of Ulm (picture), Agnes Schultheiss was committed to social and political causes. In 1908, she founded the Good Shepherd association, which took care of young girls who were expelled from their families for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. "Act politically by educating through the press, by influencing men and above all by participating in the election!" was her rallying cry.

8 pioneers in women's rights

Marie Munk (1885 - 1978)

In 1930, the pioneering reformist Marie Munk became Germany's first judge. "The more I study and practice law, the more I realize I feel my passion for freedom," she once said. She, however, did not get to keep her position for very long. She was dismissed in 1933 because of her Jewish roots. She fled to the US in 1936.

8 pioneers in women's rights

Elisabeth Selbert (1896 - 1986)

Like most young girls at the time, she learned to embroider, knit and sew. No one could have predicted the political role she would late play. After she got married in 1920, she joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD). In 1948 she was elected to the Parliamentary Council, the body in charge of drafting the Basic Law. The council included 61 men and 4 women, among them Elisabeth Selbert.

8 pioneers in women's rights

Hedy Lamarr (1914 - 2000)

"Any girl can look glamorous, she only has to stand still and look stupid," actor Hedy Lamarr once said. The Hollywood star, however, had way more to offer. At the beginning of World War II, the tech genius developed a radio guidance system that was later incorporated into Bluetooth technology.

8 pioneers in women's rights

Mileva Marić-Einstein (1875 - 1948)

Mileva Marić, who was born in Serbia, was the second woman to finish a full program of study at the Department of Mathematics and Physics at Zurich's Polytechnic. No one knows how much she may have contributed to the first theory of relativity, but she was definitely Albert Einstein's most important intellectual partner at that time, and they founded a family together.

Germany's law enabling female suffrage came into effect on November 30, 1918. A look at the activists who contributed to this achievement and why there's still much to be done in the country to claim equal rights.

Men are too emotional to vote, feminist US author Alice Duer Miller wrote back in 1915.

"Their conduct at baseball games and political conventions shows this, while their innate tendency to appeal to force renders them particularly unfit for the task of government," the US activist argued in her book Are Women People?

She listed four more arguments why men should be barred from voting, in an ironic response to arguments just as absurd that were used to forbid women from voting at the time. Her essay was part of a increasingly louder movement protesting discrimination against women.

Olympe de Gouges: a pioneering activist

Long battle for equality

In 1791, French playwright and women's rights activist Olympe de Gouges wrote the "Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen" — and her demands and ideas led to her arrest and beheading at the guillotine two years later.

Some visionaries demanded equality for women very early on, and Olympe de Gouges was one of them, says legal historian Anna Katharina Mangold, adding however that the women's movement only developed as a political movement in the mid-19th century.

It wasn't even about the vote at the beginning, Mangold says, but about basic legal rights. "Women were not persons on a legal level, they were not regarded as legally competent to sign contracts; they had to be represented by a man, be it father, husband or a close male relative."

Women in Germany were fed up with that situation. Before World War I, the mood in the women's movement was optimistic, thanks to early achievements.

The movement was more or less on hold during the war, only to become stronger than ever by the end of the conflict.

Women stood side by side with men in many wartime situations. They also took on men's jobs in factories, "so it had become much more difficult to explain why they still couldn't vote," the historian says. Just before the war ended, women's suffrage supporters thought they had finally reached their goal.

Emperor Wilhelm II extended voting rights, but not to all

Suffrage in Germany

In his 1917 Easter speech, German Emperor Wilhelm II announced plans for democratic reforms, including the vote. But he didn't mention women's suffrage at all, which angered the activists.

The women movement's different wings — including bourgeois middle-class and leftist activists — joined forces and moved into the spotlight with petitions, assemblies and other joint actions.

By November 12, 1918, the legal basis for women's right to vote was in place. On that day, the Council of People's Deputies — the government at the time — announced that all elections for public office would be conducted according to the same secret, direct and general right to vote for men and women of at least 20 years of age. Women were therefore allowed to participate in the first elections of the Weimar Republic in January 1919. The new electoral law came into effect on November 30 that same year.

The Germans weren't trailblazers, however, as the right to vote for women had been introduced in several Scandinavian countries a few years earlier. Other countries introduced women's suffrage much later.

"Switzerland, a deeply democratic country that is always called a model of direct democracy in Europe, only introduced women's right to vote on a federal level in 1971, and one Swiss canton, Appenzell Innerrhoden, only established female suffrage in 1991," Anna Katharina Mangold points out.

Legal historian Anna Katharina Mangold

A work in progress

While Germany's law of 1918 was a milestone in the struggle of women for equality, the wording of Article 109, paragraph 2 of the Weimar Constitution still left room for interpretation. Since it stated that men and women basically have the same civic rights and duties, "on a legal level, you can always argue that 'basically' refers to potential exceptions, and many exceptions would be applied," says the historian. Female suffrage was for instance restricted under the Nazis.

It was only in 1949 that the law was changed through the new German constitution, known as the Basic Law, with Article 3 stating that men and women have equal rights.

In the early 1990s, a second sentence was added to that article, declaring, "The state shall promote the actual implementation of equal rights for women and men and take steps to eliminate disadvantages that now exist." 

"This second sentence clearly shows that it is not enough to grant formally equal rights; they actually have to be implemented, as the Basic Law states. That is the phase in which we currently are," says Mangold.

As demonstrated by victims of sexual harassment speaking out through the #MeToo movement, or through Germany's current law banning abortion "advertising," it is clear that women still do not have the same status as men.

"You only need to take a look at how rape trials are conducted," says Mangold. "Law is a conservative science that is still predominantly occupied and practiced by men who fear losing something. That's why absolutely basic rights that are to be protected by the state, such as physical integrity, are being called into question."

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.

Related content