What is a working woman

The working woman and mother: female employment in the GDR

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The role of women in the socialist system of the GDR

3. The development of gainful employment of women in the GDR
3.1 Causes, characteristics and forms of female employment
3.2 The post-war "myth of rubble woman"
3.3 The fifties and sixties
3.4 The seventies and eighties

4. "The working woman and mother" using the example of industrial work in the GDR
4.1. The expansion of female employment in industry
4.2 Women in industry using the regional example of the Sömmerda office machine plant

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Since the GDR ceased to exist, the history and characteristics of GDR society have been the focus of interest more than ever before. One wanted to see what everyday reality is hidden behind the clichéd image of the happily laughing, married crane operator with children.[1]

“The working woman and mother” is considered to be the image of women in the GDR. This runs like a red thread through the changing female models of forty years of GDR history.[2] From the point of view of this image of women, the focus of the investigation is particularly on female employment. The design, implementation and development of women's employment are shown. Using the concrete example of an industrial company, the Sömmerda office machine factory, female employment is examined more closely in terms of development opportunities, problems and various effects. Gender relationships, differences and traditions play a role that should not be underestimated. The questions about equal rights for women and the different roles of the sexes run through a large part of the work.

2. The role of women in the socialist system of the GDR

"The GDR woman" is considered the trademark of the socialist German republic.[3] What does the term "GDR woman" include? Which ways of life and attitudes towards life are hidden in their biographies? These questions are raised when considering female employment in the GDR. With the inclusion of personal experiences and memories, the most varied images are created. It is the pictures of our mothers and grandmothers who report on very personal family events and everyday life. They are stories about the war, about employment, about raising children, about the household or about living in a shared apartment in the new building block. As individual as these life stories seem, they conceal essential similarities. These are rooted in the women's policy of socialism and its effects.

Equal access for women to professional work was a programmatic component of building socialism in the GDR from the very beginning. Equality, as one of the main goals of socialism, was anchored in the first constitution of the GDR from 1949. All still valid laws of the old BGB, which contradicted this principle, have been repealed. Furthermore, the right to work and equal wages for equal work, the same right to education, the special protection of women in the work process, the joint responsibility of men and women for the upbringing of children and other things were laid down.[4]

Women were needed as labor and female employment was taken for granted. The employment rate of women was very high, which significantly influenced the lifestyle and mentality.[5] The GDR was regarded as a “... child and family-friendly country. Happy, beaming mothers with healthy babies in their arms were among the most popular images of socialist propaganda ”.[6] The women generally got married earlier than was usual in West Germany and had their children earlier. After the birth, most of the work was resumed immediately after the maternity leave period had expired. Many social policy measures served the goal of women's policy of integrating women into the work process. The orientation here lay in the merging of professional activity and motherhood. Job and qualification, as well as raising children and household, which mainly weighed on the shoulders of women, led to a double or triple burden.[7]

The question arises as to the real equality of women in the GDR. The most formative model was that of the working woman and mother, with women having an increased self-esteem and increased social importance. However, women and men seemed to stick with the old gender roles and stereotypes. The old role models maintained an increased burden on women compared to men.[8] The question of full equality is still hotly debated today. I would just like to mention them briefly here in order to continue and discuss them in the further course of the work.

When attempting to describe a specific model for women in the GDR, one encounters difficulties. It is necessary to consider the development in the different periods of time, since the propagated models were influenced and varied by processes of social change.[9]

3. The development of gainful employment of women in the GDR

Women's employment in Germany after 1945 and later in the GDR can be described as an interplay between continuity and upheaval, tradition and innovation. The political and theoretical concept of GDR society included female professional work. As a result, women were very much integrated into the labor market and work was seen as a prerequisite for emancipation in all other areas of life.[10]

In the following section 3.1, a general overview of female gainful employment in the GDR will be given and then the individual development stages of female gainful employment will be discussed in sections 3.2 to 3.4. What is essential here is the subdivision into the post-war period, the fifties and sixties, as well as the seventies and eighties.[11]

3.1 Causes, characteristics and forms of female employment

The main reasons for integrating women into the labor process were the economy, the need for labor, the demographic structure of the country and the need to cover the cost of living. Another cause was the ideological standpoint, which encouraged women to work in a propagandistic way. The inclusion of women in working life was seen as the basis for achieving full equality, as the basis for independence and a possible independent lifestyle.[12] Measures to promote women through extensive qualification programs and diverse socio-political achievements, for example in childcare, should ensure the integration of the female population into the social production process. Another goal of women's policy was the compatibility of work and family. In addition, the necessary professional activity of women was secured by the fundamental obligation of everyone to work and the wage policy, because no family could live on a spouse's wages. A sufficient standard of living could only be achieved by doubling the income.[13]

In the period after 1945 there was a continuous increase in female employment. In the mid-1950s, around 50 percent of women in the GDR were gainfully employed, and by the end of the 1980s the frequently cited proportion of 91.2 percent had been reached. Even after deducting the number of female students and apprentices still included here, the proportion of women was still almost 80 percent. The high percentage of working women was also favored by the multifunctionality of the workplace. Professional and private life were closely linked and there was identification with the workplace. Brigade festivals and organized leisure activities were celebrated together with colleagues. The workplace often provided a wide range of supply facilities, such as childcare, shopping outlets and medical care.[14]

Apparently no real equality has arisen from the work of women. As already mentioned, equality was enshrined in the constitution, but in the GDR legal regulations and everyday life were often two different things. Already through the thesis that the liberation and equality of women can be achieved primarily through their inclusion in gainful employment, an assessment and separation of gainful employment and housework was carried out. “Productive” gainful employment was presented as work in the true sense and “unproductive” housework was labeled as non-work. Some socio-political regulations, such as the household day, confirmed that the balancing act between work and family could only be mastered by women.[15] The adherence to the gender-specific understanding of the roles of women and men, the slow surrender of male privileges, male dominance in all decision-making bodies and other things prevented full equality from becoming a reality and guaranteed the tension between family and gainful employment. Women had to do most of the reproductive work and had almost all of the domestic responsibility.[16]

Also in professional work, women and men had unequal conditions and different opportunities for professional qualifications. In gainful employment there were male and female domains and since the late 1960s at the latest one can speak of an economic and occupational structure polarized by gender. Since then, women have been significantly overrepresented in service and non-producing branches of the economy such as social services (1988: 91.8%), education (1988: 77%), health care (1988: 83.1%) and trade (1988: 72%) . In contrast, the proportion of women was disproportionately low in the manufacturing sectors, such as the construction, transport, craft and industry. Women were almost exclusively employed in the immediate production areas of industry, but only at this lowest level.[17]

Women's jobs were often characterized by monotonous and one-sided workload, low qualification requirements, low wages, limited scope for decision-making, high time pressure and one-sided physical strain, or they corresponded to the stereotype of the caring, helping female gender. Women were often not employed in accordance with their qualifications; management responsibility was almost only given to them at lower levels and in lower paid areas. From a certain level upwards, equality can no longer be spoken of in all areas of gainful employment. Even in areas such as healthcare, where the majority of women were employed, the leading positions at higher levels were primarily occupied by men.[18]


[1] see Kaelbe / Kocka / Zwahr, 1994, p. 9, Nickel, 1992, p. 15.

[2] see Merkel, 1994, p. 376.

[3] Merkel, 1994, p. 359.

[4] see Hausen / Krell, 1993, p. 14, Trappe, 1995, p. 55.

[5] see Dölling, 1993, p. 32, Merkel, 1994, p. 359.

[6] Wool, 1998, p. 117.

[7] see Merkel, 1994, p. 359, p. 376f, Trappe, 1995, p. 20, Klenner, 1992, p. 102f, F.-E.-Stiftung, 1987, p. 53.

[8] see Trappe, 1995, p. 55, Klenner, 1992, p. 102f, F.-E.-Stiftung., 1987, p. 54, Merkel, p. 376f.

[9] see Merkel, 1994, pp. 376-378.

[10] see Budde, 1997, p.16, Kaufmann / Schroeter / Ullrich, 1997, p.18, F.-E.-Stiftung., 1987, p.10.

[11] see Helwig, 1998, pp. 24-28, Hampele, 1993, pp. 285.

[12] See Wolle, 1998, p.174, Schrutka-Rechtenstamm, 1992, p.17, F.-E.-Stiftung, p. 7f.

[13] see Budde, 1997, p.10, Joester / Schöningh, 1992, p. 2, F.-E.-Stiftung, 1987, p.12.

[14] see Budde, 1997, p. 10f.

[15] see Dölling, 1993, p. 26, Budde, 1997, p. 15.

[16] see F.-E.-Stiftung, 1987, p. 6, Klenner, 1992, p. 102.

[17] see Klenner, 1992, pp. 100-102, 121, 166, Nickel, 1992, p.13.

[18] see Dölling, 1993, p. 34, F.-E.-Stiftung, 1987, p. 17, Klenner, 1992, p. 98f, Wolf-Braun, 1992, p. 121f.

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