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New Woman, New World: Exploring the vision of femininity in Weimar Republic. 

Written by Helena Gorecka. The Weimar Republic created a whole set of new opportunities for women, who had emerged from the Great War as hopeful for their role in the future. But how did women's fashion play into this? And how can we understand these women as feminists?

Bubikopf (little boy’s hair), became greatly popular among women in Weimar Germany in 1920s. Short hair brought obvious, substantial comfort; nevertheless, such a triviality hid a deeper, symbolic meaning. A woman of the new era was free to wear an unconventional haircut. Therefore, a broad discussion concerning the etymology of the name began. Some calls to introduce a rather gender-neutral nomenclature emerged; why would a hairstyle available to anyone be called a little boy’s one? This rather unexceptional anecdote shows the extent to which the wave of feminisation could have potentially changed the popular perception of gender and social roles. After the end of the Great War, Germany found itself in a greatly different internal setting. Females had become the backbone of the home front, carrying on as the industrial workforce replacement for those on military duty. The social democratic government introduced a set of policies which led to a further disturbance of patriarchal divisions of pre-war society; after the introduction of universal suffrage and granting the rights for gender equality in the Weimar constitution, women accounted for 9.6% of elected members of the 1920 Reichstag (German Parliament). Moreover, the disproportion between the number of women and men rose from one million before 1914 to two million in 1918. The question of fulfilling the feminist agenda immediately became politicised; the possibilities to gain a substantial electorate from most of the German society could not be ignored.  

This article aims to explain two main perspectives on the role of women in German society in the period of Weimar Republic. To a great surprise, it contests the mainstream view as if Weimar characterised with a rapid liberalisation of patriarchal norms and traditionalism. Even though the identity of an emancipated, free New Woman emerged, the popular imagination quickly diverged to prefer the image of a German Woman. The feminist appeal of the latter concentrated on the nationalist appeal to the motherhood and feminine-related attributes to rebuild the German society. 

The image of New Woman is widely perceived as a characteristic of a Weimar period, symbolising the manifestation of contemporary nonconformity and progression towards ‘modernity’. The popular imagination created a role-model of a young, sexually-free female ready to face the challenges of independent existence in a world bursting with economic and political opportunities. New Woman was welcome to wear an outfit of her choice, no matter whether it was a masculine-tailored blazer or a short skirt. The boldness in fashion choices was followed by loosening of patriarchal social norms; females were free to undertake a career of their choice, travel by themselves or even initiate a potentially romantic relationship with a man. They did not have to rely on the support of a husband to survive economically; therefore, the pressure to marry and carry children decreased. A female of twentieth century Germany could stay childless and unmarried without worry for social ostracism. The experiences of being a New Woman of Weimar Republic was promoted by various media outlets, mainly a newspaper Tempo established in 1928. Gathering the most renowned personalities of German journalism, Tempo grew to become the predominant source for deciding upon the trends and preferences among the liberalised generation, no matter the gender. 

The emancipatory movement searched for inspirations from societies which embodied the cultural model desired by the new generations of Germans. Tempo and other sources of influence, as a result, promoted a specific version of New Woman; a Girl, strongly related to the model of femininity developed in United States. Popular culture associated the discussed model of women’s emancipation with the foreign, specifically American influence in Germany. The New Woman related not only to a change in female’s behaviour; it accounted for a general shift towards the American cultural model. It gave hope for a cosmopolitan Germany, a home for growing consumer market and US-styled liberalism.  

Nevertheless, a counterforce to the previously described model of femininity swiftly developed in Weimar Republic. Female politicians of two main parties – the DVP (German People’s Party, Deutsche Volkspartei) and DNVP (German National People’s Party, Deutschnationale Volkspartei) – tried to promote their own interpretation of femininity in German society. A rather conservative image of a mother of the nation emerged; a woman responsible for the wellbeing of her closest surroundings and relationships as well as the prosperity of her homeland which survived the draconic conflict. The patriarchal division could be fractured because of the home front changes during the World War One; however, it has not outright vanished. While women were granted voting rights and their presence in workplaces became more acceptable, a popular belief in a serving a maternal duty arose. The shattered demography of Weimar Republic put pressure on females to search for a suitable partner to conceive and start a family. On a basis of the developments of such appeal, a different than previously discussed New Woman-wave of Weimar feminism emerged; mainly, a German woman. Females of the DVP and DNVP believed in essential differences between genders. While most feminist politicians encouraged their fellow females to engage in the same activities as men did, they still highlighted that women would complete them to a lesser extent than men. Therefore, a right-wing portrayal of a German woman reaffirmed the patriarchal division of a society; the additional dimension of social, public projects undertaken by females was still labelled as a ‘spiritual motherhood’. Sharing expertise in topics related to areas traditionally attributed as feminine, such as education, social care etc. The vision of femininity represented by right-wing politics started to appeal to the nationalistic nostalgia of society rather than progress and liberalisation that seemed to have the chance to prevail in Weimar Republic. It promised a re-establishment of German might, appealing to an atavistic notion of a female as a protector of the household’s fireplace. 

The discussed interpretations of femininity and their role in rebuilding the nation expose existing social tensions. The German Woman appealed to those who opposed the development of social democratic government and believed in a widely cultivated myth of stab-in-the-back. The attempted Communist revolution of 1918 for many functioned as a symbol of betrayal of Germany’s war interest. The disillusion of popular opinion concerning the conditions of the German army and internal crisis only magnified the anger towards the representatives of left-side of politics. There was a close relationship of between the New Woman and progressive notions of Weimar’s social democratic government. The opposition to the females’ emancipatory movement was derived from the lack of support to the initial democratisation under the banner of SPD (Social Democratic Party, Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands). The universal suffrage introduced by Weimar was supposed to signal progress and liberal changes. Popular support for such changes grew to differ in the reality of German society; with time, the polarisation would grow in visibility. Liberated females who rejected the patriarchal duty to start families and carry children were perceived as those who betray the nation. The denunciation of this version of womanhood was relatively popular – especially since majority of females preferred to protect their domestic territory and duties. Even the rather conservative feminists of DVP and DNVP – accepting and embracing the gender differences – would soon experience growing dismissal of their postulates within their parties.  

Not only did the New Woman oppose conservative values preserved within the society, but it also addressed instabilities of Weimar in an international arena. The belief that Germany had been treated unfairly emerged from the very first months after the armistice; the issue of the Article 231 (the infamous War Guilt Clause) of the Treaty of Versailles imposed the full responsibility for the developments on the European continent from 1914. The conclusions of the Paris Peace Conference triggered the resistance of the German society: demilitarisation, reparations inadequate to the potential of Weimar economy, or loss of substantial territory – to name a few – generated hostility towards any form of foreign influence. When the popular association of the model of New Woman with the liberalism and American-style consumption evoked feelings of resentment, the bastion of national identity had to be protected at every cost. The embodiment of such interpretation of femininity could be understood by the conservative majority as a rejection and critique of the national, universal struggle to rebuild the might of Germany.  

The social divisions influenced the normative interpretation of discussed perceptions of the women’s role. The period of Weimar Republic, due to its extraordinary character of having simultaneously the most democratic constitution of its time and the emerging Nazi-supporting electorate, is often portrayed wrongfully in the mainstream, historical imagination. While it should be highlighted that the modern, twenty-first century feminist historiography did emerge; it acquired some vocality and publicity as a social phenomenon. Nevertheless, it stayed as a trend among a minority; it never achieved a truly political dimension and impetus. On the other hand, the conservative vision of femininity was the product of its times and momentum of Weimar Germany. Those greatly unsatisfied with the outcome of the Great War were predetermined to support a specific, strictly nationalistic political agenda. The same applied to women, who were trapped in the paradox of nationalism. As Raffael Scheck stated, while nationalism is about the nation (including all gender), it also promotes a conservative non-fluidity of public and private spheres of living. Weimar feminism of its times, as a result, could only support the prolonging the conservative division of society.  

Written by Helena Gorecka 

Bibliography  

Graf, Rudiger. “Anticipating the future in the present: ‘New Women’ and the other beings in Weimar Germany” Central European History, vol. 42(4), 2009, pp. 647-673.  

Harvey, Elizabeth. “The Failure of Feminism? Young Women and the bourgeois feminist movement in Weimar Germany 1918-1933” Central European History, vol. 28(1), 1995, pp. 1-28.  

Hung, Jochen. “The Modernized Gretchen: Transformations of the ‘New Woman’ in the late Weimar Republic”. German History, vol. 33(1), 2015, pp. 52-79.  

Roos, Julia. Weimar Through the lens of gender: prostitution reform, woman’s emancipation, and German democracy 1919-33. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2010.  

Scheck, Raffael. Mothers of the Nation: Right-wing Women in Weimar Germany. Oxford, New York: Berg, 2004. 

Sneeringer, Julia. Winning women’s votes: propaganda and politics in Weimar Germany. Chapel Hill, London: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.   

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