The Social Realities of Social Realism or The Dual Role of Women in the GDR

An article by Juliane Schremer, former Wende Intern extraordinaire, on the occasion of the International Women’s Day 2011

On March 8th countries around the world will celebrate International Women’s Day. In many societies, women will be spoiled with flowers, candy and little gifts. But this day is not merely about the celebration of the existence of women. In Germany for example, where this article is written, the weeks leading up to this occasion are often used to discuss the changing status of women within society and the professional world. What has often been ignored and has only in recent years become a topic of discussion, are the different approaches to the emancipation of women in East and West. This division has not only been observed among German feminists, but can at least be considered a European phenomenon, which is reason enough to look back on the situation of women in the last 20 years of the GDR’s existence.

In 1989, 91.2 % of women in the GDR were employed. This number has often been referred to in support of the argument that women in the socialist state enjoyed more privileges than in other countries at the time. The full employment of women was in accordance with Marxist-Leninist theory and was promoted by the government in many ways. Take for example the 10 Mark bill of the GDR, the bank note that would pass through everyone’s hands in daily life.

The front of this bill depicts Clara Zetkin, a passionate German feminist, communist and famous initiator of the International Women’s Day. To make this important woman the front of an everyday bank note reflects the importance that was ideologically given to the equality of women. The back of the bill shows a woman working at a control center in an industrial setting. It is interesting to note that this artistic choice deviates from usual romantic depictions of women, e.g. as the bearers of the nation (see for example the 50 Pfennig coin of West Germany showing a woman planting a German oak tree) or the personification as a young and strong woman (see for example the French Marianne).

The East German ideal of the working woman has been an important part of Social Realism, the state-supported art form in most socialist countries. Woman were often depicted in a working environment such as the one on the 10 Mark Schein. Take for example the picture The Female Factory Worker (n.d., 1971) from the Vault of the Wende Museum.

This picture is representative of one important aspect: the neutral depiction of women in Social Realism. The worker in the picture appears neither as a mother nor a very feminine figure. The ideal she is supposed to represent is very different from such romanticized pictures of women. The painting shows her, first and foremost, as a worker contributing to the building of a socialist state. An employment rate of 91.2 % is the statistic realization of this ideal.

What has often been left unconsidered in discussions after the Wende, were the social realities of Social Realism. Even though the rate of employment for women was indeed very high in the GDR, inequalities continued to exist both in professional and private life. Not only were women employed in less well-payed jobs than men (25-30% difference in pay), there was also an undeniable glass ceiling that was only seldom broken for representative reasons.

At the same time, women still had to deal with the social pressures of a still patriarchal society. Even though political ideology expected both partners to contribute to daily family chores (a single life for a woman was hardly tolerated both socially and politically), these tasks were often left to be done by the wife. Women were therefore pushed to really work two jobs, one professionally and one at home.

Here lies the reason for the fundamental difference in the two streams of feminism. While Western feminists often argue for a general access to the professional world supported by public childcare facilities, many East Germans or Eastern European feminists argue for the possibility to freely choose between family and job.

The different approaches have often lead to fundamental misunderstandings but can be clarified by looking at the different developments of a divided Germany and, more generally, a divided Europe. Luckily, International Women’s Day is about acknowledging not the differences in approach, but the rights, wishes and needs of all women around the globe.

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