Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

"Der Sozialismus Siegt": Women's Ordinary Lives in an East German Factory

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

"Der Sozialismus Siegt": Women's Ordinary Lives in an East German Factory

Article excerpt

Introduction

The German Democratic Republic (GDR) followed the socialist principle that emancipation was possible only if women were equally involved in the work force. Only then could they become socially and economically independent. However, the economic situation in the first decades of the GDR was stagnant and weak; every worker, male and female, was needed, due to the postwar labor shortage and the mass exodus from the GDR. In the founding years of the republic, the primary aim of the state's policy was not emancipation or equality of the sexes, even though the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) declared emancipation its goal, but to jumpstart the economy. In 1949, when the GDR was founded, Article 20 of the constitution declared, "men and women are equal; they have the same rights in all spheres of society." (3) The support and promotion of women, especially in the field of professional training, was to be a leading task for the state. Equal employment opportunities, equal payment, and education were encouraged by the SED, and already implemented by the Soviet Military Administration in Germany (SMAD). Through special programs, the state promoted the goal of moving as many women into the labor force as possible. In addition, Article 38 of the constitution declared, "marriage, family, and motherhood are under a special protection by the state." (4) This article also contained particular support for mothers, for example, one-year maternity leave, special medical treatment, material and financial support for births, and family allowance. The protection of the family and the prevention of women becoming materially dependent, were the major duties of the communist state. (5) The founders of the GDR believed that through education and equality between men and women, the socialist personality (sozialistische Personlichkeit) (6) would be strengthened.

This article examines the state-sanctioned women's policies, their implementation in the Buromaschinenwerk (BWS [Office Equipment Factory]), and how women perceived these policies and the officially proclaimed emancipation of the sexes. It further explores the everyday lives of women working in the BWS between 1949 and 1990. I refer to ordinary and everyday lives of women in the GDR supporting the idea that normal lives were possible under state communism distancing myself from the wide-spread belief that the GDR was purely a niche society and/or a dictatorship. (7) There is no question about the restrictive and repressive nature of the state but the abundant discussions among academics do never clarify what is meant by ordinary, hence this article is placed within the larger context of this issue arguing that East German women and men lived ordinary lives since they lived in this specific society, a society, I argue was neither a niche society nor a dictatorship.

The Larger Historical Context

Sommerda had 23,411 inhabitants in 1989 (8) of which 13,000 (nearly half of them women) worked in said factory. The city was proudly called "the capital of computers," occupying a special role in the economy and in the development of the GDR thus representing a unique case of urban development and socialist state support that included, amongst many other things, housing projects, laundries, child care facilities, cafeterias, a swimming pool, showcasing the state's anticipated unity of economic and social policy. The BWS was the biggest producer of personal computers and only producer of dot-matrix printers in the GDR, (9) and can hence be seen as a model factory, possibly also for the implementation of women's policies. This micro-level analysis, though not applicable to the GDR as a whole, draws a comprehensive picture of the GDR's women's policies in action. The research relies on archival records from the City and District Archives in Sommerda, (10) including the factory's newspaper Pulsschlag der Arbeit (11) (The Pulse of Work), and the State Archives in Weimar as well as personal accounts of women who worked in the factory in various departments and positions. …

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