Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Mothers, Morality and Abortion: The Politics of Reproduction in the Formation of the German Nation

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Mothers, Morality and Abortion: The Politics of Reproduction in the Formation of the German Nation

Article excerpt


The nation is, among other things, a symbolic community that is held together by powerful figures of belonging, as well as through an imagined code of shared values built through the repetition of specific historical narratives about key events and people. The ways in which women feature in national discourses as social and biological reproducers is fundamental to understanding the social and cultural renewal of the national community. As Foucault has stated, "sexuality has always been the forum where the future of our species, and at the same time our 'truth' as human subjects, are decided" (1991:111). Building on this theoretical backdrop, this essay will use images from political campaigns, public discourses on abortion, childcare and women's integration into the labour market, to illustrate how reproduction and gender figured as structuring elements in imagining nationhood in East and West Germany between 1949-1990, as well as in the reunited Germany after 1990. Rather than providing a fixed definition of gender (equality), I will trace the ways in which its meaning was reframed and/or reproduced within these shifting contexts.

After World War II, Germany was divided into the American-guided Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the Soviet-led German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and thus became grounds of the East/West political and economic contestations in the context of the Cold War (1949-89). While a majority of academic studies have analysed the emergence of different political and economic identities in the East/West divide, I will focus on how politicians in East and West Germany mobilised distinct gender identities in East and West Germany to assert their respective political system as superior and progressive in the Cold War battle of ideas.

The different political and economic systems of East and West Germany constructed diverging notions of an ideal worker and a model family, which were framed in diametrically opposed ways in the East and West German family and labour market policies. In West Germany, the notion of gender equality was closely tied to that of the US, and was measured in terms of the attainment of the housewife- breadwinner model, which was anchored in the industrial capitalist system of the West. East Germany, in contrast, orientated its social policies on the Soviet project of socialism, which mainly defined gender equality in terms of women's labour force participation. Both in the context of East and West Germany's gender regimes discourses of gender were mobilised to promote and legitimise the respective political and economic systems.

The West's emergence as the winner of the global contestation of liberal capitalism against Soviet socialism meant that the normative Western framework of change would shape the discourses of reunification and transition in Germany after 1990. The emergence of this unequal power relationship between East and West shaped gender discourses in such a way that they gave expression to the hierarchical relationship between East and West and reaffirmed a type of "otherness" that categorised the East as "past" and the West as "future".

The ways in which gender and reproductive policies play an integral part in the national agenda can be observed to the present day. This essay will suggest that while nation-building is a deeply gendered process, this process must by no means be temporally linear or follow previously established patterns. Rather, looking at some reproductive policies like the extension of the childcare system in Germany today, it seems that politicians have "forgotten" about their once-antagonistic stance on East German notions of gender roles. I will thus finish by illustrating the importance of "forgetfulness" in the construction of national imageries on reproduction.

The Gendered Construction of the Nation

It is quite rare for the analysis of national imaginaries to make explicit reference to their highly gendered and sexualised uses of history, narrative and genealogy. …

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