Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Limits of Maternalism: Gender Ideology and the South German Catholic Workingwomen's Association, 1904-1918

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Limits of Maternalism: Gender Ideology and the South German Catholic Workingwomen's Association, 1904-1918

Article excerpt

In 1906, Elisabeth Gnauck-Kiihne, a middle-class Catholic convert who was instrumental in the organization of German Catholic workingwomen, openly rejected the idea that the "women's question" would be solved if only women could return to their homes. The old paternalist slogan "everything for-but nothing through the worker," she provocatively replaced with a feminist one: "We do not want your soup; give us our rights, and then we will eat meat!" She would not tolerate any suggestion that a woman's double burden of labor inside and outside the home was not a reality that had to be addressed:"The saying, that [women] 'belong in the house' regrettably does not meet with reality any more. In fact it has become a bitter irony."' To many of her contemporaries, a Catholic middle-class woman speaking of working-- women organizing for themselves, of workingwomen's "rights," and of the "bitter irony" of workingwomen's double burden seemed oddly out of place.3 As a writer and organizer, Gnauck-Kuhne stood firmly within a Catholic corporatist and theological tradition that embraced paternalism and social hierarchy, and rejected socialism and liberalism, especially their ideas of individual or class-based rights. What then did she mean when she spoke of these issues, of the rejection of paternalism, the assertion of women's rights and the acceptance of the reality that many women had to work both outside and inside their homes? What sort of rights did she envision that would enable workingwomen to reject the paternalist's soup and "eat meat"?

A clue to these questions lies in recent efforts by historians to come to grips with a variant of feminism that goes by several names: materna(ist feminism, relational feminism, or social feminism.' This essay will refer to these slightly different ideas under the term maternalist feminism, or more simply, maternalism. First and foremost, maternalist feminism views the reality of gendered perspectives as integral to any social ideology. Desiring equality in difference, it asserts both biological and gendered distinctions, a sharply defined division of labor, and the centrality of the "complementary couple and/or the mother/child dyad to social analysis."' The essence of maternalist feminism is thus the twin ideas that women are valuable because they are different and that their public roles derive from their private roles. Like other forms of feminism, it contains both the demand for women's rights-justice and equity-and the demand for emancipation-self-determination and autonomy. It also rejects female dependency and the impermeability of separate spheres. It reinterprets "female" traits, refusing "to allow the exclusion from social influence not just of women as individuals, but of the values and competencies associated with women."6

Advocates of maternalism assert that the social value of women that is rooted in reproduction and biology is necessary for the reform of the male sphere. As such, maternalist feminism represents the secularization of the concepts of child-rearing and maternal duty, incorporating these values into public policy and challenging the distinction between public and private spheres by claiming the personal dimension of politics and the political nature of the family.7 Maternalist feminism can be seen as an effort to gain a point of entry into discussions of politics and society, while criticizing and transforming them. For example, claiming public roles for women based on their maternal roles undermined the biological determinism behind the ideology of separate spheres, while simultaneously maintaining the distinction between the sexes.8

This essay, through an analysis of the ideology and practice of the South German Catholic Workingwomen's Associations, seeks to help refine the idea of maternalism and delineate its limits as a form of feminism. The Catholic Workingwomen's Associations supported some elements of what has been called individualist or equity feminism: equal pay for equal work, equality under the law, an end to sexual oppression and harassment, and the right to organize publicly and to advocate their class and gender interests. …

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