There is not much of a women’s movement in Germany today, in either West or East. A strong backlash can be felt from the relatively united male sector of the population against the achievements of the women’s movement over the past twenty years, and also against the hopes and expectations of women from the former gdr. Though a very prosperous country, Germany faces ever growing structural unemployment, part of this being solved at women’s expense. The number of unemployed women is steadily increasing, and according to Der Spiegel by May 1994 had reached 42.8 per cent in West Germany, and 64.6 per cent in the East. Seventy per cent of women in work are said to receive less than 560 dm per month, which means they are without social security. It would be easy to go on describing the ever worsening conditions for women—in education, in childcare, in income, in old age—in fact everywhere. The crisis is striking women first.

In this article I want to concentrate however on some of the difficulties of a women’s politics, and outline some surprising paradoxes for feminist engagement in Realpolitik. I choose the example of quota politics, the struggle for a certain guaranteed percentage for women in social positions. Quota politics immediately sounds very boring and old-fashioned, yet it has become an explosive centre for all sorts of struggles in the last decade. Recall that the idea of winning ‘half of heaven’ for women was one of the original goals of the women’s movement of the late 1960s—even if the autonomous women’s movement soon concentrated on fighting patriarchy as such, especially violence against women. Later, however, when feminism became more academic, the idea of equality was overruled by the politics of ‘difference’. The claim for equality was linked with socialist or labour politics, its underlying assumption being that women had lives inferior to men’s, and should seek compensation. Women were to get the same positions, jobs, work and opportunities as men. In those early days there was little attention paid to, the problems men faced in relation to the gendered and thus unsatisfactory pattern of the overall social structure—save for the proviso that capitalism had to be overthrown, at least for the socialist part of the women’s movement. As far as the feminist and autonomous wing of the movement was concerned, quota politics fell into oblivion.

In 1984, though, there was something like a feminist rush into parliament. Women in the Green Party successfully put through quota regulations that gave them 50 per cent representation in its Bundestag delegation, and 100 per cent of its leadership. It was hoped that this example would encourage women in other parties to increase their numbers in decisive positions. The first sign of this came four years later, when the Social-Democratic Party published a complicated plan according to which women were to gain 40 per cent of all decision-making positions within a decade. This rather modest proposal only made plain how far this party was from a model that could be called democratic. But nonetheless it generated an uproar in the media. Every day, absurdly pugnacious articles would appear, aiming to stifle quota politics and accusing the spd of charges ranging from total stupidity, through incompetence at all levels (especially economic), to betraying the ideals of the French Revolution. I shall return to this later.

Whereas women are generally rather invisible in the mass media, we suddenly had reports every day on their virtues and vices, especially their lack of capability. Women seemed poised to flood society with every evil, accompanied by chaos and catastrophe. I wrote an analysis of this campaign against the seemingly innocent idea of having women participate in politics in more adequate numbers, and tried to present my results at a large assembly of spd politicians and scholars in honour of Willy Brandt’s seventy-fifth birthday in 1989. I had condensed my analysis down to ten theses, but never made it further than number three. With the exception of two or three rather timid women, the whole audience was male and stressed this by ostentatiously starting to read newspapers, talk to each other, walk out to get some beer, and so on. No one was interested in quota politics, or even in an analysis of the media campaign against the spd’s own decision. Five years later, in April 1994, there was a discussion in the Bundestag on equality and equal status for women. The newspapers reported that this debate was held during the break, so that everyone (including the journalists) went to lunch, while a handful of politicians worked on some regulations, the outcome of which is still obscure.

There is a sense in which the very demand for a quota system is a paradox. It means asking in the name of equality for genuine equality among equals, thus presuming an inequality that has to be adjusted; inevitably this demand comes up against the implicit consensus that equality already exists, laid down as it is in the constitution. At the same time it is obvious that true equality between men and women who are unequal is neither possible nor really desirable. This is a horrific state for any politics of equality, as nothing approaching hegemonic consent to such a politics is likely to be gained, either among men or among women.