Why should we fight for women's rights?

Women's suffrage

Dr. Kerstin Wolff

Study of history and political science, historical doctorate in 2002. Since 1999 head of the research department in the archive of the German women's movement (AddF) in Kassel. The main research areas are the protagonists and actions of the women's movement in Germany between 1848 and 1970.

In November 1918, the Council of People's Representatives introduced women's suffrage. So hadn't the women's movement in Germany fought for this right? Is it all due to the world war and the revolution?

Suffrage stamp of the German Association for Women's Suffrage, approx. 1909. (& copy AddF Kassel; ST-40-1)
The interlinking of the end of the First World War (1918), the beginning of the November Revolution and the introduction of women's suffrage in Germany has led to these events becoming closely linked in public perception. It seems to be the case that it was above all the Council of People's Representatives, the November Revolution and, indirectly, the lost war that made women's suffrage possible in Germany. However, this interpretation of the historical events overlooks the long struggle of the women's movement in the 19th century and shortens the process of debating a democratic right to vote to a few years. The controversy over the right to vote - and thus also about the right to vote for women - began as early as the 1840s and finally culminated in the reform of the electoral law, which was carried out in November 1918 by the Council of People's Representatives.

In order to better assess these events at the end of 1918, the struggle of the women's movement in the 19th century for women's suffrage will be presented below. For this purpose, it makes sense to divide the long process into three phases, namely an early propaganda phase, which was initiated by the ideas of the French Revolution and had its first climax in the 1848s. Then into the organizational phase, which was prepared from the 1890s and ended in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I, and thirdly, the actual fighting phase between 1917 and 1918.

The early propaganda phase

Triggered by the ideas of the French Revolution of freedom - equality and fraternity, the first women in Germany formulated the demand for an expansion of the right to vote in the 1848 revolution. Above all, Louise Otto, activist of the bourgeois revolution, editor of a political women's newspaper and socially critical writer made this demand very unequivocal. So she wrote in the first issue of her 'Frauen-Zeitung' on April 21, 1849:

"Well then, my sisters, unite with me, so that we do not stay behind, where everyone and everything around us presses and fights forwards. (...) We want to demand our part: the right, the purely human in us more freely To train development of all our forces, and the right to come of age and independence in the state. "

In another article she also spoke out in favor of female voting rights. In 1849 the first issue of the publication 'Die sociale Reform' appeared, edited by Louise Dittmar. In this four-issue magazine, Louise Otto made it very clear that women should be involved in the laws that affect them. But not only that. She also called for women to be included wherever it was a matter of electing a representative of the people - so she called for the right to vote for women. The Louise Otto expert Susanne Schötz even assumes that Otto was the first woman in Germany to demand the right to vote for her gender.

Another single voice that provided arguments in favor of women's suffrage and voting rights in this early phase was the eloquent and sharp-tongued thinker and writer Hedwig Dohm. In her work, 'Der Frauen Natur und Recht', published in 1876, she devoted a large part of the book to women's voting rights. This text was a beacon for the right to vote, an essay that is still easy to read today and which was severely judged against the prejudices of the time. In contrast to demands from previous decades, which never failed to explain why women should have the right to vote, Dohm turned the argumentative tables and asked why women did not have it. In Dohm's own words:

"Women demand the right to vote as their right. Why should I prove first that I have the right to do so? [...] In order to exercise the right to vote, a man needs a certain place of residence, a certain age, a property, why does it Woman even more? […] Society has no power to deprive me of my natural political right, unless this right turns out to be incompatible with the welfare of state life. We must demand proof of this antagonism between state life and women's rights . We will be made to wait until the last day and in the meantime we will appeal to the judgment of God, which has characterized the woman as an apolitical being by the lack of a beard. "

With these statements by the publicist Hedwig Dohm, the topic of women's suffrage had penetrated further into the public eye, but so far these were only individual votes. This early propaganda phase is characterized by the fact that the topic was formulated and argued for, but that there was no politically organized struggle.

The organizational phase

Lida Gustava Heymann: Brochure on women's suffrage, ed., By the German Association for Women's Suffrage, Munich 1907. (& copy AddF Kassel; B-Nr-19775)
The organizational phase includes an argumentative preparatory phase from the 1890s and the establishment of the first women's suffrage associations from 1902. In order to be able to discuss the demand for the right to vote within the women's movement, the topic has been discussed since the 1890s, when the women's movement reached its peak important protagonists of the movement are presented and presented in independent publications. Also in the movement's publications, i.e. in the women's movement's own magazines, more and more articles on this topic were now appearing. For example, the women's rights activist Helene Lange, who in research is primarily regarded as an expert on the education of girls and women, published a pamphlet on women's suffrage in 1896. Minna Cauer, who saw herself as a radical within the bourgeois women's movement, spoke about the right to vote in a publication in 1899 and the socialist Clara Zetkin also devoted herself to this topic.

After this preliminary written work, Anita Augspurg founded the first women's voting rights association in Germany in 1902. The Bund deutscher Frauenvereine (BDF), the umbrella organization of the bourgeois women's movement founded in 1895, included the fight for women's suffrage in its program at its fifth general assembly in 1902. With this step, the struggle for women's suffrage entered its actual organizational phase. It is interesting that with the foundation of Augspurg the connection to the worldwide women's suffrage movement could be achieved. Because the women's suffrage association was founded in 1902 because an international women's suffrage conference was to take place in Washington in February and Germany, for lack of an independent organization, would not have been able to participate. In addition, an independent association was also the basic requirement for membership in the World Association for Women's Suffrage, which was founded in Berlin in 1904. From 1908, the German voting rights movement grew strongly, because in that year a uniform right of association was enacted throughout the empire, which finally allowed women to become politically active. What grew with it, however, were controversies about the exact content of the women's suffrage demands and which suffrage should be sought. Faced with this question, the movement split. After all, before the outbreak of World War I, there were three directions, all of which advocated women's suffrage, but each wanted to achieve it through different methods. They were by no means agreed on whether stages on the way were acceptable - such as First of all, for example, the introduction of municipal women's suffrage or the expansion of the three-class suffrage to women as well - or whether it should be a question of calling for a democratic right to vote in the Reichstag without further ado.

Alongside this civic engagement there was the struggle of the social democrats for their right to vote. As early as 1891, the SPD was the only party to include women's suffrage in its electoral program. Clara Zetkin, until 1917 a member of the SPD (later the USPD, then the KPD), succeeded in establishing an annual propaganda day for women's suffrage in Germany with International Women's Day. It was proclaimed in 1910 at the II International Socialist Women's Conference in Copenhagen. The women decided here to install a women's day in every country, which should primarily serve to agitate for women's suffrage. The first Women's Day in Germany took place on March 19, 1911 and, through demonstrations, independent publications and public events, set a loud signal for the introduction of women's suffrage. Clara Zetkin never tired of emphasizing that she would not fight for bourgeois women, but for the workers alone.

The organized phase, in which both the bourgeois voters and the socialists brought the issue of women's suffrage to an ever wider audience, ended abruptly with the outbreak of the First World War. The women's movement largely decided to support the war and abandoned its "special demands". Only a small minority turned to pacifism and became involved in the peace movement.

The combat phase

The decisive third phase, the fighting phase, began in the middle of the World War, in 1917. The background was the disappointing so-called Easter message from the German Emperor Wilhelm II, in which he promised reform of the electoral law, but did not say a single word on women's suffrage. Angry and disappointed, the women then resumed their sleepless voting rights work, and in the next few months a broad women's alliance developed that hadn't existed before the war. This broad organizational front arose from the fact that during the war the joint work in the National Women's Service brought about a rapprochement between social democrats and civil women's rights activists. All voting rights associations, the BDF as the umbrella organization of the bourgeois women's associations, the social democrats, trade unionists and other party women now became jointly active and began again with their propaganda work through petitions, meetings and special publications. The years 1917 and 1918 were marked by a massive campaign for women's suffrage.

In October 1918 the protests reached a new high point. This month the broad women's coalition sent a petition to the Reich Chancellor asking for an interview so that "the demands of women [...] who have been fighting for political equality in Germany for decades [...] can be substantiated in detail" (Zeitschrift für Frauenstimmrecht, 1./15.11.1918, No. 21/22, p. 43). In order to emphasize this request, there were large demonstrations and rallies in Berlin, Hamburg and Munich at the beginning of November. However, there was no longer a meeting with Chancellor Prince Max von Baden, because he was no longer in office.

On November 12, 1918, the Council of People's Representatives, which had taken the political reins in hand after the sailors in Wilhelmshaven and Kiel had initiated the overthrow of the monarchy through their uprising, declared that in future "all elections to public corporations [...] would from now on according to the same, secret, direct right to vote on the basis of the proportional electoral system for all male and female persons at least 20 years old [are; KW] "With this the hotly contested women's right to vote had become a reality in Germany. Introduced by the Council of People's Representatives; arguably prepared and massively challenged by the women's movement.