Women's rights are human rights

An Jahr100Wissen / 100 years ago interview with the Head of the Equal Opportunities & Diversity Staff Unit, Sophie Charlott Ebert, on the introduction of International Women's Day in 1921

We have always celebrated International Women's Day since 1921. It is also known as Women's Day, International Women's Day or Women's Fight Day, on March 8. Why do we need an International Women's Day at all?

Ebert: Every year it is that time again, Women's Day, and on this special occasion feminist and less feminist contributions trickle through the media channels. A day that, in addition to a slight increase in sales in the floristry and confectionery sector, is classically used to reflect on the current state of equal rights, only to then return to other topics back again under normal conditions.
Why do we still need this day? We need it, because not everyone has yet understood that equality and equal opportunities are not a state that we have achieved. Rather, it is an objective and a constant development task of our society, on which we must continuously work. We live in a time in which young women are living the freedoms that our predecessors had to fight hard for in a way in which they take it for granted. We may be slowly approaching the great ideal of equality, but the historical development of equal participation shows: it is not stringent. Marked by fractures and resistance, in the discourse of different political currents, it reminds us that there are still so many issues that are currently being worked on, things that need to be changed and patterns of thinking that need to be broken. And that is why we should take this day as an impetus to question ourselves above all, to think permanently about discriminatory structures, to recognize potential for improvement and to promote development. So that we begin to critically examine these issues even in the normal state of affairs and understand that equality is a continuous cross-sectional task that affects us all.

Women were again reduced to household chores and childbearing during World War II . It was not until the 1960s that the Women's Movement picked up speed again. What successes were achieved during this time?

Ebert: The division of the country, which was influenced by the Cold War, affected Women's Day in particular and changed it massively. Henceforth, there was the Women's Day of the GDR, which was celebrated as a day of honor for women, and the Women's Day of the FRG, which was forgotten for the time being.
In the GDR, Women's Day was not a holiday, but it was celebrated extensively in many families and, thanks to state subsidies, in every company. Husbands set breakfast tables, female employees were presented with red carnations and invited to coffee tables. The party exerted great influence on Women's Day. "Women activists of socialist labor" were honored, speeches were made on their outstanding achievements for the Republic. The state and party leadership, which primarily consisted of men, invited women to a "festive get-together at the home of the Central Committee of the SED".
This orientation of Women's Day should first and foremost be viewed against the background of the distribution of roles in the GDR. The policy aimed to integrate women into the work process, not for ideological reasons, but rather out of economic necessity. The basis for women's unrestricted inclusion in the work process and professional qualification was anchored in the constitution of the GDR. Socio-political measures such as the baby year, state aid for childbirth, child care and education, the comprehensive and flexible child care system, the women's special study program, and others made it possible to combine childbearing and gainful employment. In 1988, an average of 90% of wives with children were employed in the GDR, compared to only 41% in the old Federal Republic. Starting in 1972, women in East Germany were allowed to decide about their family planning with the free "Wunschkindpille" for themselves, and abortions were exempt from punishment. The image of the emancipated East German woman remains in the collective memory. Politically, however, despite many advantages for women, the GDR was ultimately not about their emancipation, but about solving the economic, political and social problems of the SED state. While conformist women benefited from the system, non-conformist women were persecuted. There were indeed women who risked a great deal for their freedom due to their feminist efforts in the GDR system, which was characterized by surveillance. To this day, too little is known about them. According to historians, this is primarily due to the way in which the history of the GDR has been reappraised since 1989. The history of women remains almost invisible.
The situation was different in the former Federal Republic. In 1949, the Social Democratic member of parliament, Elisabeth Selbert, succeeded in including Article 3 in the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany which stated "Men and women have equal rights", but the reality was different. Women in the old federal states were anything but equal in the 1950s and 60s. Marriage and family law made the man the sole ruler over his wife and children. Abuse was considered a private matter, illegitimate children a catastrophe, and women needed their husbands' permission, hardly imaginable today, to pursue gainful employment. It was not until the protests in the 1968 movement by students that values changed in the FRG and a new Women's Movement emerged. Above all, the fight for the abolition of paragraph 218, which made abortion a punishable offense, was the focus of demands. Women fought for self-determination. In the 1970s, the paragraph was then reformed several times. Marriage and family law were also adapted. In 1977, the partnership principle replaced the housewife marriage. Issues surrounding marriage, motherhood, sexuality and abuse entered the public debate as a result of the feminists. They founded bookstores, publishing houses and newspapers, initiated exhibitions and events, advocated for victims of abuse, and set up women's shelters and emergency numbers for rape victims. Women's and gender studies found their way into the universities. It was not until the 1980s that members of the Autonomous Women's Movement also revived Women's Day in the FRG in order to place their political demands.
There has never been a synergy of the systems. The invisibility on one side and the highly visible struggle for emancipation on the other side continue to shape us today. Many effects of the division are visible again and again, not only in statistics, but also in political debates, such as the discussion about proclaiming Women's Day as a public holiday in Berlin.

100 years ago, the main goal of women was to achieve the right to vote. What are the priorities today?

Ebert: The very fact that there are still discussions about gender as a social construction or as a law of nature shows: There is still a lot of work ahead of us, and the dimensions are very complex. Above all, there is the question of what we, as a society, will do with the new freedom when we are no longer stereotyped and confined in binary gender pots?

According to current figures from the Federal Statistical Office, the wage gap between women and men is 19 % in Germany. That is definitely 19 % too much! With this result, Germany occupies one of the lowest positions in a European comparison. 71% of the pay gap is due to structural factors, i.e. the fact that women continue to work in lower-paid jobs and are less likely to reach management positions. It is also interesting to note that the earnings gap between men and women in western Germany, is almost three times as high as in eastern Germany.

The proportion of women working part-time has increased sharply in recent decades in Germany. This is problematic. It occurs even among women with a high level of education. A study by the German Institute for Economic Research shows that even the expansion of childcare has not changed this. Again, the proportion of part-time female workers is higher in western Germany than in eastern Germany. Women would like to increase their working hours, but fail to do so because of the difficulty of reconciling them in everyday life. The unequal distribution of care work continues to play a major role here. This is noticeable particularly at the current time, during the Corona pandemic. Compared to past economic crises, women are more affected this time, according to the DIW. Questions which need to be clarified are questions such as the extent to which working in a home office is reasonable in the long run, in parallel with family and caregiving tasks. Investments in the care infrastructure are necessary. Professions in the social sector and in care, where the proportion of women is very high, must be upgraded. Outdated role models are detrimental to women. It is time to politically push for a more equal division of care and gainful employment between the sexes. Marital splitting should be abolished. There is a lack of incentives for a partnership-based division of paid work and unpaid care work. Partner months in parental allowance could be successively extended. Parental leave must become more attractive for fathers. Above all, the position of single parents must be strengthened. Part-time and low-paid jobs also mean lower pensions, especially for women. On average, women in Germany receive 46% less pension than men, according to an OECD study. Closely linked to this is the growing threat of poverty in old age.

The underrepresentation of women in management positions is a major problem. Barriers to women getting into management positions must be removed. Despite the fact that just as many women as men complete their studies successfully, even a look at universities shows that less than a quarter of professorships in Germany are held by women. Here, it too is about equal participation in important social processes and decisions. Equal representation of women on committees and in politics must therefore be ensured. Statutory gender quotas are one solution. Nevertheless, reforms of electoral and corporate law seem necessary. The actors do not seem to be able to ensure the corresponding participation on a voluntary basis. Instead of mere criticism of this solution, ideas that achieve the same result are needed.
Government resources must be distributed in a gender equitable manner, including systematically analyzing budgets for gender effects.
Even after 100 years of emancipation, restraint is no longer appropriate. Sensitive issues which have been hushed up for far too long, such as sexualized violence must become more visible. Discrimination, such as misogyny, racism, homophobia and transphobia, hinders our social progress. We should see differences as opportunities.

Internationally, there are 24 countries that have declared International Women's Day a public holiday. Among them, there is no European country. The only saving grace is Berlin, which is the only German state which has joined in. Is Europe not as progressive after all?

Ebert: Anyone who has followed the process and the controversial debate surrounding Women's Day as a public holiday in Berlin has certainly noticed that Berlin cannot necessarily take the honors. Compared to other German states, the city simply lacked a holiday. It gives the impression of a makeshift solution. As long as there are politicians who publicly hold the opinion that Women's Day is a day in the socialist tradition with which the majority of citizens have nothing to do. But is it not up to us to use this day? Above all, it offers the opportunity to deal with important gender issues and to make political demands. In 2020, thousands of people went on the streets for women's rights on Women's Day in Berlin. But what speaks for the progressiveness of Europe?
The biggest mistake we can make right now is to rest! The amount of problems are proof on their own that equality lies somewhere between wish and reality in Europe. If we take a look at poorer European countries beyond Germany, like Romania and Bulgaria, where poverty forces young women into prostitution, we see that it is probably not very progressive when they end up in Germany. They would be completely at the mercy of their pimps without papers, in a system that allows this. Or let us briefly turn our gaze to Poland with its almost complete ban on abortions. Self-determination and responsibility are fundamental human rights. These things are happening right on our doorstep. Abortions are still not exempt from prosecution even in Germany, as long as medical information about an abortion can be prosecuted as "advertising", as if it was incitement and not basic medical care. Of course, it depends on the standards by which we measure our European progress in equality, but one thing is becoming abundantly clear, we are still far off from reaching our goal.

Alice Schwarzer from Wuppertal is among the women who have made a decisive contribution to equality in the 20th century. What do you feel is their strongest achievement?

Ebert: Regardless of what views Alice Schwarzer holds, I find it impressive how she has repeatedly introduced important issues into the public debate. For me, the most striking historical example is the famous protest action against paragraph 218. Schwarzer initiated the cover story "I have had an abortion, and demand the right to do so for all women" published in Stern on June 6, 1971. The provocative article contained self-incriminations by 374 women. Thousands of women subsequently fought for their self-determination with the demand "My belly belongs to me." The controversial social debate ended in a compromise solution in the mid-1970s. But the action is considered as the initial spark of the Women's Movement and paved the way for self-determination in the Federal Republic.

What do you view as the main achievements of equality in the last 100 years?

Ebert: This question must remain unanswered for now, because the achievements of the last 100 years are not limited to individual events. The mere brief historical outline of the different Women's Day traditions, and the role models in the GDR, and the old Federal Republic that they revealed, have shown that quite a bit has already been achieved on the way to women's self-determination. However, the multiple points of criticism also indicate that, until today, we have only come close to equal opportunities and real equality. Sometimes it seems tiring to have to address problems over and over again. I am also convinced that every woman, in whatever form, has meeting points with the issues addressed. The influences and backgrounds are as diverse as we humans ourselves. Social change begins with us, it is up to all of us to take responsibility for these issues. Women's rights are human rights. It must not stop at a single day. Positive developments in equality must be purposefully driven forward every day. As long as this has not reached everyone's minds yet, it is important that we use days like Women's Day to remind ourselves of this task.
Equality is not just something for women, it is a value in itself, just like freedom.

Uwe Blass (Interview on February 2, 2021)


Sophie Charlott Ebert is Head of the Equal Opportunities & Diversity Staff Unit at the University of Wuppertal.

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