Post-Communist Feminism in Germany: Equality and Difference in the Party of Democratic Socialism

By Fisher, Pamela | German Politics and Society, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview
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Post-Communist Feminism in Germany: Equality and Difference in the Party of Democratic Socialism


Fisher, Pamela, German Politics and Society


In December 1989, the ruling communist party of East Germany, the Socialist Unity Party (SED), was reconstituted when it adopted the name Socialist Unity Party-Party of Democratic Socialism (SED-PDS), which was simplified on 4 February 1990 to the Party of Democratic Socialism. (1) The brand of Marxism-Leninism that had prevailed in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) appeared to be irredeemably discredited, and the new leadership of this successor party was obliged to create an alternative vision of socialism and to redefine their political goals. The PDS program of 1990, (2) with its clear adoption of a feminist agenda, constituted a breach with the party's political past. Whereas the Marxist-Leninist theory underpinning SED policy had been based on the principle that inequality is economically determined, the new PDS program acknowledged patriarchy as a separate issue.

Shortly after the collapse of the socialist regimes of eastern Europe, some western feminists, well versed in liberal theories, began expressing their fears that German unification would result in a weakening of feminism because of a perceived lack of feminist consciousness among women in the GDR and throughout eastern Europe. (3) The widely observed mutual incomprehension that existed between eastern and western women was due primarily to the opposing underlying values of the two groups. (4) Western feminist theory--generally based on the principle that human beings are ontologically separate from and prior to society and that their rights as individuals may therefore be seen in isolation from the wider social formation--proved alien to many women in eastern Europe. Whereas in liberal western democracies, the significance of individual equality is regarded as paramount, state socialism fostered identification with groups, such as the family or the working collective, which crossed the gender divide. Both at the ideological level and in terms of everyday practicalities, group interests were deemed more important than individual needs.

Feminists have not generally regarded the classical tenets of Marxism as compatible with feminist theory. Whereas the latter identify gender as a useful sociological category, Marxists have tended to attribute all forms of inequality to the main antagonism between labor and capital. Marx wrote relatively little about women, a fact that has been attributed to the impact of August Bebel's discussion (5) of the "woman question" during the late nineteenth century. Bebel was fundamentally opposed to "bourgeois feminism" and regarded the future equality of women as contingent on the victory of the proletariat. This view dominated the thinking of those who founded East Germany and subsequently became a component of official ideology. Despite having been taught that their interests were best served through class struggle rather than an emphasis on individual and gender rights, East German women ultimately managed to create an alternative political culture that was distinctly made for and by women. Brigitte Young (6) has highlighted the prominence of women in the East German uprising of 1989 and outlined some of the relationships within German feminism going back to the nineteenth century. In fact, the political-cultural framework of the women interviewed for this study included classical Marxist perspectives on the "woman" question; these perspectives were developed in detail by Clara Zetkin (1857-1933), (7) a political figure who greatly influenced "women's policies" in the GDR A founding member of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and a Reichstag member, Zetkin was in direct contact with Lenin and concurred with his view that "the woman question" was linked to the class issue. On 8 March 1947 (International Women's Day, which was founded by Zetkin in 1910), the SED launched its Democratic Women's Union of Germany (DFD). The DFD's primary role was to communicate SED policy to women and to educate working mothers so that they were able to conform to male norms in the workplace.

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