In a talk entitled ‘Women – Victims or Culprits?’, at the first West Berlin People’s University in 1980, I attempted to construct a theory of the process of women’s socialization. My chief concerns were to show the role played by women themselves in reproducing their own oppression, and to argue that self-sacrifice is a form of activity. From the outset the opinions outlined in this brief lecture, and subsequently developed in my book Frauenformen,footnote1 became the subject of heated political debate, because of their implicit postulate that women too would have to change themselves. One point of conflict was the question of guilt. Doesn’t simply raising the possibility of the complicity of women in their own subjugation mean holding them responsible for the social conditions which oppress them? Such a stricture is moral in nature and so I stood accused of being moralistic. Of course, the words ‘victim’ and ‘culprit’ themselves shift uneasily between the realms of ethics and law.

But as the controversy over them showed, any attempt to discuss the role of morality in the socialization of women is always likely to raise the temperature of the debate. It was the realization of this that induced me to take a closer look at the relationship of women to morality.

What actually are women as moral beings? The question at once turns out to be too complex. I must therefore go back a stage and pose a simpler one: What are women?

A glance at a dictionary, or even better at several dictionaries, is always salutary when tackling very general or fundamental problems. You not only learn what you already knew or suspected, but you also discover extra pieces of information. These not uncommonly document prevailing opinion without making any bones about it, but to see in cold print opinions which we normally accept tacitly as if they were selfevident facts, often serves to call their truth-value into question.

Of all the dictionaries I consulted I was most struck by this entry from an older encyclopaedia (published in 1818): ‘Women are the representatives of love, just as men are the representatives of law in its most general sense. Love is reflected in the form and nature of women and any profanation means their disgrace. The public and domestic position of women has always been, and still is, the true mark of genuine culture in the state, the family and the individual.’footnote2 This quotation is a blend of the predictable and the remarkable. The association of women with love is familiar and harmonizes with their social status: a woman presides over the household, she is a wife and a mother, her task, we would say today, is concerned with relating to others. But of what concern is that to the state, why is it seen as a parallel to the law and how is the law embodied in men?

Information of this kind speaks at once in riddles and in certainties. Does it have any bearing on morality?

I automatically relate this question to myself as a woman and, no less instinctively, I immediately conceive of morality, and particularly the absence of morality, as connected with sexuality. For example, if I were immoral, or strayed from the path of virtue, or left the straight and narrow, fell into bad company or offended against decency; even worse, if I lost my innocence too soon, if I became a fallen woman; if my way of life were tarnished; or if I were deceitful, if I fell into disgrace, became a worthless person because I gave myself to the first comer and so was dishonoured; if I yielded to temptation and hence was ruined . . .