Opinion: Red roses for mom, red cards for the right

Mother's Day isn't just about flowers and family, but also feminism and the continuing struggle for women's equal rights. The movement can't let the holiday be co-opted by right-wing populists, writes Astrid Prange.

Flowers for Mother's Day? I admit, I can't get enough of them. There's nothing more soothing for my soul than bathing in a sea of roses and greeting cards.

But watch out for fair-weather friends. Far-right lyrics have been creeping into Mother's Day odes. In Germany, the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party says in its platform it wants to "end discrimination against stay-at-home moms." In Poland, the conservative ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party is telling single mothers to get married again and have more kids. And in Brazil, Women's Minister Damares Alves has talked up the need to put boys in blue and girls in pink.

"Not just cookie hearts made of butter, but real RIGHTS for mother" was the refrain at a 1986 women's rights rally in Bonn, Germany

Abusing the mother myth

Far-right politicians, taking part in Christian fundamentalist events like the recent World Congress of Families in Verona, Italy, want to turn back time, and misconstrue a hardened mother myth to do it. In Germany, where Adolf Hitler once ordered the awarding of the Cross of Honor of the German Mother, this myth comes with a hefty legacy.

Now in the 21st century, here comes unwanted company heralding the value of the "traditional family." This goes hand-in-hand with the political struggle against abortion, fluid gender identity, feminism and state-supported childcare.

Read more: Women still face legal discrimination in 155 countries

Betraying women's rights?

It makes sense at first that many women and mothers would want nothing to do with Mother's Day. For them, it's a commercial holiday about flowers and a political betrayal of women's rights.

This is not too far off the thinking of holiday founder, Anna Marie Jarvis, who on May 12, 1907, delivered five hundred white carnations to a church in Grafton, West Virginia, where her late mother had taught Sunday school. Later, the holiday's commercialization made her regret starting the holiday at all.

But I say: Don't give up on it. The holiday is for mothers around the world, regardless of political, religious or ethnic affiliation. We mothers should use the day as a way to connect with the ideals of the women's movement — and not hand it over to right-wing populists.

Read more: Misogynists, homophobes no 'family' supporters

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How far have women come in Germany? Not as far as you migh...

Maternal death on the decline

There is, after all, plenty to celebrate. For example, maternal mortality rates have fallen around the world. Between 1990 and 2015, women dying during pregnancy or birth fell from 500,000 to 300,000. Child mortality rates have also declined.

There is rapidly increasing awareness about the importance of quality affordable child care as well as the pervasive gender discrimination that holds girls and women back in educational and professional life. Still, the numbers also suggest that it may be at least another century until mothers and fathers can enjoy true freedom of choice between career and family, and until women and men break from traditional gender roles.

Read more: Gender equality at work could take 'more than 200 years'

On the woman's back

It was not long ago that these goals seemed utopian. Remember, until 1958 in Germany husbands had ultimate say over their wives and children. Even if he allowed his wife to work, a man could unilaterally control his wife's salary. Women still needed their husband's permission to have a bank account until 1962.

This kind of "traditional family," built on the backs of women, I can gladly do without. Mother's Day is therefore a good moment to reflect on the long struggle for women's and mothers' rights. Let's not leave our day to fair-weather friends on the right.

Read more: Berlin's Women's Day holiday merits more than lip service

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.