Written by Yianni Theochari

In 1945, after the fall of the Third Reich, it was decided by the Allies at the Potsdam Conference that Germany was to be divided into four occupation zones: the Soviet Union in the east, the United States in the south, the United Kingdom in the northwest, and France in the southwest. Berlin, the capital, was similarly divided into four sectors. In 1949, the three zones of the Western allies were merged, forming the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and West Berlin, which was aligned with capitalist Europe (later the European community). The Soviet zone became the German Democratic Republic (GDR) which was part of the Communist bloc. The FRG was a member of the Western military alliance, NATO. Contrastingly, the GDR was a member of the Warsaw Pact.

This division, which lasted forty years, created two different societies, both having distinct ideals and governments. A prominent societal contrast was the role of women in the workforce and at home. The Federal Republic intended to instill traditional values. On the contrary, the GDR rapidly integrated women into the workforce. This is exhibited in the 1950’s when the GDR entrenched the legislation on the: ‘Law on the Protection of Mother and Child’. This legislation removed men’s superiority in household decisions; instead both partners could discuss family affairs. Additionally, in 1965 the ‘Family Code’ legislation was enforced in which both men and women were to share household duties.

Nonetheless, although these laws were ratified, East German societal ideals regarding the role of women underwent minor changes, with similar demands for women in the domestic sphere as their counterparts in the FRG. The constitutions within both the GDR and the FRG granted women equal rights to men; nevertheless, both states expected women to hold different roles in society. The East German constitution stated: “men and women not only had the right to work, but the obligation to work”. Although men and women were not forced to work, they were expected to due to low productivity in the GDR.

They were further encouraged to do so as low wages continued to be an issue. The GDR stated that working was a “citizenship duty”. Whilst one half of the East German workforce was women, and ninety-one percent of women worked, they made only about forty percent of the household income. Contrastingly, West German women comprised of only forty percent of the workforce of the FRG and contributed only eighteen percent to the household income. A major distinction between East and West German women was that many of the women in the FRG worked part-time, while a majority of the women in the GDR worked full time. Therefore, despite reasonably similar societal ideas and legislations, the results differed.

The Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), was the governing political party of the GDR, from the country’s foundation in October 1949 until its dissolution in 1989. It was a one-party state, but other institutional front parties were permitted to exist in alliance with the SED. The SED had avidly promoted the movement of women into the workforce. All primary and tertiary sectors were forced to have programs which involved the “recruitment, training and promotion of women”. The SED, acting as a client state to the Soviet Union, molded women’s ideas about working outside the home; moreover, low productivity rates and a weak economy within the GDR was a paramount factor for motivating women into the workforce.

Adversely, women in the FRG followed a “three-phase model”. Firstly, they worked in tertiary and secondary sectors before they were married and had children. Then, they withdrew from the workforce until their children were of school-age. Only after their children were in school would they re-enter the workforce, however, this was part-time. Societal standards opposed mothers working outside the home whilst the children were young, hence, part-time work was a permanent state for West German women and not a transition to full-time employment. Notwithstanding, if a woman did choose to work, she was forced to show proof of daycare for her child if she wished to collect unemployment benefits.

This was difficult as there were negligible daycares for children. The FRG advocated the ideology that a woman’s career was motherhood, therefore, women were not concerned by the lack of intellectual or monetary compensation.As it was instilled in East German women to work, they wanted and felt a responsibility to have a career. Approximately, only three percent wanted to be housewives. Consequently, women in the GDR were more focused on their careers than women in the FRG. This differing approach and the attitude of women in the workforce had an impact on family life; there was more of a focus on family in the West compared to the East.

The East had higher divorce rates, abortion rates, and, although there were more mothers in the East, there was also a higher rate of single mothers, with one third of babies born within the GDR having single mothers. East German women did not support the ‘husband breadwinner’ philosophy as their Western counterparts did. Social ideologies within the FRG encouraged women’s support for men as provider and their role as wife and mother. Diversely, there was a negative stigma placed on West German women who worked while they had young children, and also for those who had full-time employment. During a labor shortage in the West, the FRG brought in immigrant men to bridge the labour gap rather than calling on women’s aid in the crisis.

Summarising, women in East Germany were not just expected to have employment but were compelled to due to low wages; men alone could not support an entire family. Employment within East Germany was a lifelong commitment and women were not forced to choose between family and career, but rather were expected to find an equilibrium between both roles. The constitution recognized that women were obligated to work, but not forced. However, women were not considered respectable citizens if they did not help contribute in advancing the economy. Alternately, citizens within the FRG prioritise social issues rather than a women’s right to work. The FRG resolved that a sacrifice had to be made for better health of the family.

After World War II, women in East Germany had more career options than women in the Western Allied states, as the Soviet Union required women to work and invested highly in human capital. Women in the GDR were well trained and educated; forty percent of employees with a college degree were female and half of university students were female. Professional training was cardinal in East Germany, with eighty-seven percent of all employed women having a professional certification or a college degree. Furthermore, women were also eligible for part-time pay whilst they were in education.Contrastingly, women in the West were not as highly educated; only 65 percent had a higher degree and a mere seven percent had a college degree. Thus suggesting that women in West Germany did not have as many career opportunities as their Eastern counterparts, as is demonstrated with only ten percent of engineering students being female in the FRG, whereas twenty percent of females achieved this profession within the GDR. Women in the GDR were given equal right to study and pursue a career; subsequently, many fields were female-dominated.

Ninety-five percent of apprentices in the secondary sectors were female. A high percentage of East German women (compared to the percentage of males) were in education; women finished their university education faster and with better grades than males and performed to a higher standard within the workplace.

The job tendencies of both Eastern and West German women were similar. As a woman became older and had not stopped working to have a child, the prospect of leaving full-time work decreased. However, the longer a woman was unemployed for domesticated rationale, the less likely it became that she would return to work. Additionally, the more qualified and educated a woman was, the higher the likelihood of her returning to employment after marriage and children. 

Contrastingly, West German women did not find work to be as important as their counterparts. Western women placed prestige on family; placing it above all personal and monetary benefits that would be gained through employment. Eastern women found security through relationships with colleagues; Western women did not require this security as they found satisfaction in caring for their family.

The GDR had a multitude of state benefits for women, especially mothers. The GDR believed that the state had both a moral and economic responsibility to aid women as they would be raising the next generation. This became of chief importance to the GDR when the number of unwed mothers began increasing.Women received part-time pay whilst attending school and the ‘Baby Year’ legislation allowed women to take a year off work once the baby was born. This included up to 90 percent of their pay and their job security guaranteed till the end of the year. Mothers with more than one child received cutbacks in working hours, allowing more time for mothers to spend with their children. In addition to this, once a month, women were given a ‘household day’ in which they were given a day off employment to attend to household needs. Activities that could not be accomplished during a day were made accessible to women on workdays; laundry services were located on the sides of major employment buildings so it could be completed with minimal strain to women whilst maintaining efficiency.

Daycare centers were state run and low-cost within the GDR; parents were only required to purchase meals and diapers, additionally, there were enough spaces at East German daycares for up to eighty percent of children under the age of six. Conversely, women in the FRG were not as fortunate, as daycare centers were privatized and expensive. There were enough spaces for 4 percent of children under the age of three, hence, making it difficult for a woman to return to work after the birth of a child. After the birth of a child, mothers in the FRG received six-hundred deutsche mark (DM) each month for the first eighteen months to help raise the child. However, in order for mothers to become eligible for this payment, mothers had to quit work or reduce her hours by 50 percent before the birth of the child. Consequently, this demonstrates the shortcomings of privatized daycares within the FRG, and the difficulties of attempting to be a working mother within the FRG. 

Albeit women in the GDR were given more opportunities than West German women, they still endured hardships. Historian Nahid Aslanbeigui, asserts that the East German women were “burdened”. Although by law men and women were to share household responsibilities, women were expected and trained to work full-time in addition to household obligations. Legislation was ratified to discourage women having traditional domestic roles, however, socially, it was expected by the elder generation that women fully care for the home and raise the children. Moreover, even with the 1965 ‘Family Code’ legislation which was passed to equalize the responsibilities of men and women, it did not change the ‘traditional’ roles of women within the domestic sphere. Women continued to remain the central figure within the family; these expectations were reinforced, as young girls were given household chores and their male siblings were not.

Numerous women accepted low-paying employment with little responsibility or took employment near home. These low-paying and low-responsibility professions attracted mothers of young children and women with more than one child were likely to sacrifice career prospects to find employment near home. Individuals also had to wait up to eighteen years before being legally allowed to purchase a car from the state, hence, looking for job opportunities near residence. The average woman’s salary was only seventy-six percent of a man’s and women retained seventy-seven percent of the lowest paying jobs in the GDR. Overall, this granted women far less independence, juxtaposing the philosophy of the SED, consequently, a plenitude of women decided to have only one child.

There was still inequality between sexes in the East. The assumption persisted that men were more capable of maintaining their career if women played the ‘traditional’ role. Women were viewed as less dedicated and reliable compared to their male counterparts. They had slower career development and were less likely to receive additional training within the workplace; female representation declined as women moved into higher positions. Furthermore, women with the same qualifications as men had salaries twelve percent less than their male colleagues. The gender pay-gap was also apparent in the FRG. Women in the West only made sixty-six percent of the income of men and were encouraged not to work. Dissimilarly, women in the East were strongly persuaded to work.  In 1986, there were no women in the Politburo (the principle policymaking committee of the Soviet Union) and very rarely a woman on a company directing board. Although the government in the GDR portrayed itself as progressive, the reality and ideal of women’s roles in the workforce was significantly disparate. Regardless of this, women in both states were expected to accept all family responsibilities. 

To conclude, although both the FRG and GDR entrenched legislation which attempted to create a progressive role for women within society, societal attitudes counteracted this. Women were regarded in the East as eligible workers, not as individuals with distinct needs from men. However, in the West they were expected to conform to a more traditional lifestyle and largely remain in the domestic sphere. The states and leading parties strived to make women’s live easier with the enacted laws; and yet they strengthened traditional gender stereotypes. Whilst women were encouraged to enter the workforce and pursue careers, they were also contrastingly expected to maintain traditional values as the forefront of the domestic household. Overall, although the East and West had striking differences regarding women and their role within society, they were similarly expected to accept all family responsibilities within the domestic sphere in both states.


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