Today the women’s movement in the Federal Republic of Germany is everywhere and nowhere. This ubiquitous non-existence has perhaps long been a feature of the new women’s movement, but the recent shifts may be best understood in the contradictory terms of a successful defeat. The State, initially under the Social Democrats, but currently also under Kohl’s right-wing coalition, has treated the question of women as a legal, financial and symbolic issue. There are now linguistic rules, such as that which stipulates that job advertisements must refer to both sexes; there are experiments making it easier for women to learn male professions; thrifty yet irreversible measures are being taken to finance refuges for battered women; new agreements have been reached between universities to improve the proportion of female teaching staff; the law obliging a married woman to seek the consent of her husband before taking up employment was abolished long ago. The Green party has a female leadership in Parliament. In Southern Germany, thanks to a local electoral law, women in the Social Democratic Party (spd) and the Christian Democratic Union (cdu) are making headway against lowly placing on candidate lists for the Landtag. Yet the stronger that women’s position becomes in public life, the weaker the women’s movement appears. Similarly, just as the importance of ‘new social movements’ in general is increasingly emphasized on the Left, the actual self-confidence of the women’s movement seems to diminish accordingly. Women’s bookshops, women’s newspapers, women’s publishing firms—none are escaping the crisis. Although events with feminist themes still attract a growing number of interested visitors, there is nevertheless a certain atmosphere of resignation. The energy drawn from many different sources seems to be yielding to a centrifugal force that is pulling it into the void.

In this situation, to reconstruct the history of the new women’s movement also involves a kind of reconstruction of the movement itself. This may sound presumptuous, but I feel it is important to bring out the strengths and weaknesses of the movement for the benefit of future action. This option necessarily puts the character of the historian, namely myself, into the foreground of initial considerations. Commissioned to write a survey of the history and current prospects of the West German women’s movement, I reacted with initial pleasure. At last there would be an account in which the role of socialist feminists, who from the beginning constituted a major part of the movement, would not be passed over in silence or at best mentioned briefly and negatively, like a kind of historical error. It was my intention, therefore, to write an ‘objective’ report. As a socialist feminist, and a member of the new women’s movement from the outset, I imagined this would not be difficult.

Yet my first attempts to analyse what seemed to me important events, actions and ideas were not successful. A sense of modesty precluded giving undue prominence to those experiences in which my own participation, or that of my group, found some echo or had a lasting effect. Where, on the other hand, numerous accounts of the German women’s movement ignored our role, I was plagued by doubts as to whether they might not be right to have done so. Finally I came to the conclusion that the history of a movement in which one was and still is active always requires a construal of the meaning of one’s own actions. One arrives at a history by grasping oneself historically, at least in retrospect. Therefore my aim could no longer be just to reproduce the multifarious record of the movement as objectively as possible. On the contrary, I would have to work my own partisanship into the story in such a way that the socialist and feminist perspective would be identifiable as its procedural material. Thus I write as a feminist among socialists and as a socialist among feminists. I think this standpoint is fruitful and appropriate to the subject, for the new West German women’s movement emerged from the start against the grain of ‘socialism’ as then understood: whether the ‘real’ variant in the German Democratic Republic, the ‘theoretical’ variety on offer in the West German student movement, or the ‘traditional’ conceptions championed by the labour organizations of the German Federal Republic.

The early history of the contemporary women’s movement was characterized by ginger attempts at distance within an overall attachment (such as autonomous women’s organizations or groups in Left parties). Then there developed angry demands for acknowledgement of its basic political legitimacy (in reply to the accusation from some quarters that women’s groups would split the labour movement). Finally there came scathing criticism of Marxism (a small book entitled Bebel and Engels: Fairy-Godfathers of the Women’s Cause appeared as a sacrilege to forces of the student left rallying to female emancipation). Ultimately the women’s movement developed new forms of struggle, expressly intended to be different from the traditional labour practice of strikes, demonstrations and leafleting. Amidst tortuous political disagreements—right-wing objections to the new women’s movement as a manifestation of the Left; left-wing suspicions of bourgeois influence in the new women’s approach to their own liberation; non-socialist women’s opposition to socialist women—the situation of women in East Germany was a constant reference point. For some, their high level of employment (now ninety per cent engaged in the work-force) could be triumphantly cited as the fruit of a socialist transformation of society; for others, their continuing absence from political or economic positions of authority, and their omnipresence in housework and child-rearing, demonstrated that the oppression of women was independent of the suppression of class.

Thus the specific dynamic of the women’s movement in West Germany has been determined by the country’s peculiar relation to East Germany, as well as by Social Democratic policies of the past decade. But at the same time the women’s movement—even more than the student movement—is an international phenomenon. Political forms, theoretical debates, practical routines, institutional projects, even the most important literary, sartorial or behavioural patterns, have in some respects been similar the world over, as if there were no more spatial distances, no different cultures, no language barriers and no national limitations. One might say that in this regard the women of the world seem to be realizing what the workers of the world have been unable to achieve. The plan of this journal to make reports on national movements mutually accessible to each other accords with this practical internationalization. Since the women’s movement does transcend national frontiers, I intend to sketch only briefly those phenomena I know to be uniform and to concentrate instead on national peculiarities here. This procedure seems the best way of highlighting the strengths of the West German movement, and of showing that its weaknesses are surmountable—indeed in favourable circumstances can be consciously transformed into conditions for political action.

It is usually difficult—even arbitrary—to pinpoint the exact beginnings of a movement, but in the history of the West German women’s movement there was one spectacular event which was heard and understood by many as a signal. In September 1968 Helke Sanders made a now-famous speech at the delegate conference of the League of German Socialist Students (sds) in Frankfurt. She was speaking on behalf of a small women’s group from Berlin, calling itself the Action Committee for the Liberation of Women and appearing here for the first time in public. Amid growing commotion she sketched out the themes which to this day are the main concerns of the women’s movement: that we live not only under capitalism but in a patriarchy; that we have to ‘perceive oppression in our private lives not as private but as politically and economically conditioned. We need to change the whole quality of personal life, and to understand the process of change in terms of political action’ (Frauenjahrbuch 1975). ‘Personal development must converge with a practice that prefigures a future society—which at once eroticizes all existential relationships and renders aggression productive.’

Why was this attempt to formulate a dominative nexus between the private and public/political dimensions of life derided by our comrades? After all, the student movement articulated and lived much of its own protest in this same sphere. In the student revolt various dimensions overlapped: outrage at the us war in Vietnam quickly extended to solidarity with the peoples of the Third World and thereby to a protest against imperialism abroad and the power of monopolies at home. The newspaper king, Axel Cäsar Springer, became a symbol of the monopoly of capital and manipulation of the masses. The student revolts in Berkeley and above all the Cultural Revolution in China further influenced the nature and direction of the student upsurge in West Germany. Sexual liberation and collapsing authority in the universities, alternative communes and mass sit-ins in lecture-halls, were just as much part of student tactics as demonstrations, spontaneous riots and street-fighting with the police. So why did the argument that personal oppression in the private domain of life is an element of the ruling system as a whole meet with such ridicule? The spectacle of it reached its peak when Berlin women found it necessary to bombard their male comrades with tomatoes.