For many centuries, the role of women in German society could be described using three (or sometimes four) words: children, church, kitchen and the fourth being clothes. Throughout the 20th century, women claimed equal rights throughout the world, and Germany was not excluded from this revolution. For example, in 1919 in the aftermath of World War I women were given the right to vote and after World War II women began to assume positions in the workforce traditionally held by men. For example, in the aftermath of the war Trummerfrauen, or women of the rubble, were heavily involved in helping the wounded, burying the dead and clearing away the rubble.
It was not until 1949, as a result of the Basic Law, that men and women were declared equal under the law in West Germany. However, the civil code was not changed to reflect this until 1957. During the 1950s society still viewed women's place as being in the home, and young German women would be dismissed from their positions once married. However, since there was a shortage of German men in the post war years this was not necessarily such a problem, although society did still idealize the family model of a male breadwinner with the wife at home looking after the children.
However, in Soviet East Germany women were part of the workforce, in accordance with Soviet laws. The government opened up new opportunities in education and the workforce for women. In the early 1950s abortion was legalized under certain conditions, and a state childcare system was set up to look after young children so women could be both productive workers and mothers. As a result of these reforms women in East Germany entered higher education institutions and the workplace in record numbers. However, a lot of those reforms were created out of necessity rather than choice as East Germany had a deficit of men, both due to World War II but also because most defectors to capitalist West Germany were men, leaving behind lots of women. Because of this East German women were active in the Free German Trade Union Federation and the Free German Youth and in 1988 just over one third of membership of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany was made up of women, compared to less than five percent of West German women who were politically active.
In the 1970s women in West Germany began to demand changes to their social status. These protests were arguably an offshoot of the 1960s student protests but resulted in gains for women in West Germany such as having abortion legalized. In 1977 a law was passed that gave women equal rights within the marriage and they were for the first time able to instigate divorce proceedings against their husbands. They could also work outside the home without the permission of their husbands. Even taking into account all these changes, Germany remained a patriarchal society both at home and in the workplace. However, since the mid-1980s offices have been created to help advance equal rights for women, both in West Germany and in the unified Germany.
After unification women, especially from Eastern Germany, suffered the most. As a result of the political, social and economic upheavals caused by the unification of West and East Germany in the 1990s, a lot of women became unemployed or had to take part-time positions and also day-care and after-school clubs were shut down, which made it much more complicated to combine the roles of being a worker and a mother. This resulted in a decline in the birthrate from 12 births per 1,000 people in 1989 to 5.3 births per 1,000 people in 1993. One of the causes of this was that some East German women opted for sterilization in order to make themselves more attractive to employers.
Since unification German women have made some progress in gaining positions of power, most notably Angela Merkel who was elected as Chancellor of Germany in 2005.