In united Germany, 'women are going to be the losers'

Wednesday, May 29, 1991

Like many people in the former German Democratic Republic, HANNA BEHREND cannot find an appropriate term for the "events of 1989". An academic and feminist who has lived and worked in East Berlin for over 20 years, she says it "was a time when we were full of ideas of how we would change the world". She is a member of Women's Solidarity Initiative, one of the many groups formed at the end of 1989 that are now affiliated to the Independent Women's Initiative. In Berlin she spoke to SALLY LOW from Green Left Weekly.

During those "halcyon days" after the Stalinist regime was overthrown, there was a consensus in favour of a society "that was pluralistic, democratic, socialist and feminist". But after several months, these early hopes were "pressurised out of existence. The West German model began to be pushed upon us.

"In December 1989 Kohl came to Dresden, and it was clear nothing would come of the plans for confederation. No money was forthcoming, and at the same time the right were allowed into the country. So there were these many small steps that led people to think the project of retaining a separate, reformed GDR would not work out."

At this time "many leading people, who had always wanted a reformed GDR, capitulated. And after you've capitulated, you needn't be surprised if you are run over completely.

Jobs slashed

"For women, by about the summer of 1990 it was becoming quite clear that we weren't going to reform the world at all. We were going to have our jobs cut out defending what we have — and this is the present situation. Nobody in the independent women's movement wants the GDR back as it was, but now women are going to be the absolute losers.

"There's going to be 50% unemployment. For all its terrible defects, the past system did allow women to achieve a certain amount of economic independence.

"Half the staff at universities were women. In some departments it was three quarters. It was, incidentally the same humanities departments that are very highly feminised in the western world. All the same, there was a much higher proportion in the physical sciences too.

"It was characteristic that these women would only reach the upper middle strata but, unlike in West Germany, at this level they had tenured positions. Now, in some cases whole faculties have been disbanded."

Like other retrenched workers in the east, academics affected by these closures receive 70% of their basic salary for six months. Then, unless offered a job, they "drop into the abyss". Under this scheme "about a quarter of a million will become officially unemployed on July 1".

Women are worst hit, says Behrend, because so many were employed in labour-intensive manufacturing areas such as textiles, shoes and clothes. Many of these have been closed in "a deliberate act of destruction. In this country there were some perfectly competitive industries. For example, a new technique of cotton fabric manufacturing called Malimo had been invented and used. It produces materials you don't need to iron and that keep their colours beautifully. Now it has disappeared."

Abortion

Under the West German penal code, abortion is a criminal offence. West German women must travel to other countries for terminations. The German magazine Der Spiegel has carried reports of women forced to undergo a physical examination by border officials who suspect they may have had an abortion while abroad.

Women in the former GDR, or "new provinces" as it is called, may lose their right to free abortion on demand in favour of this 19th century law. There are some, Behrend says, who try to justify that by pointing to the impersonal and often distressing way abortions were performed and to the lack of adequate contraception in the GDR. She does not agree. " All we needed was more money and resources so we could do away with the conveyor belt situation, and of course we need contraception as well."

Eastern women are also trying to save child-care facilities which, while inadequate, were better than none at all. Very few women want to work full time in the home, she says, and even fewer can afford to.

When industries closed, so too did the creches and kindergartens attached to them. Others, previously state run, are now administered by local or provincial governments "most of whom are broke. They are therefore obliged to economise in all the areas that don't pay — education, child-care and culture, for example."

Kindergartens and creches are closed if they "are not full to the brim. Where more children can be squeezed into one facility you close another one, no matter whether it is convenient for the parents to take them to another place.

"The same is now happening with the elementary schools. They are understaffed according to the standards we had before. The children have to travel further to schools and so on. So really this type of economy is one that lowers the quality of life in every conceivable way.

"After abortion and child-care, there is the issue of compulsory religious instruction in schools. The lack of instruction in such an important cultural area as religion was a big deficit, but to replace it with an ideological stick to beat people into various pigeonholes is not good. Of course it will only be instruction in either Catholic or Protestant Christianity."

Conference

In Behrend's opinion, the Independent Women's Organisation's second conference in March "was typical of anything that I would call left is so difficult to get agreement around basic issues combined with tolerance for disagreements.

"I think in a way the miserable resistance offered at the moment is also part of the general mood or atmosphere. People don't see anyone leading them out of this disastrous situation."

While the conference was a chance for the several hundred women who attended to meet and talk for the first time, it failed, says Behrend, to present enough concrete resolutions for joint activity. Instead it was bogged down by debates over whether or not women should stand for election to parliament and how grassroots democracy should operate.

One topic discussed at length was "how to reach some sort of understanding between East and West German women, because in some ways the country has never been more divided than it is now. On the other hand, there have also never been more genuine efforts to try to understand each other.

"In this part of the world, feminist women, although there are now many who have come out as lesbians, are overwhelmingly heterosexual and they nearly all have children. In western Germany, no matter what the sexual orientation, only a tiny minority [of feminists] have children." Behrend thinks this is because in the West it is so difficult to combine a career with motherhood.

"This colours the demands. [At a recent discussion with feminist academics in Hamburg] it wasn't easy, but we had to learn to accept that we did have this option and we don't think women who do not have children are inferior." But at the same time, women in the West "must not think that women who have children cannot be feminists." She thinks that there are many western women who would support a campaign for abortion and child-care rights.

There had been quite a strong feminist movement in the GDR, especially in East Berlin before 1989. It was "regarded with the same hostility by the government as anything it didn't decree itself. But, for instance, I ran a feminist theory seminar at Humboldt University for the last six years. At that university [which is one of those now facing savage cuts and closures] staff could run whatever seminars they wanted as long as it had something to do with the curriculum.

"But publishing some research was very difficult. There were a lot of papers locked away in drawers in the sociology department. At the college of economy, which has now been closed altogether — so now they can't do anything either — it was far more difficult, but even so there was work."

Behrend acknowledges that the right to travel, access to better consumer goods and the end of the police state are crucial gains, and she thinks the collapse of the old system was unavoidable. "I am still debating with myself when it was inevitably doomed. But what is perfectly clear is that it was no model that could, out of itself, produce something that was really improved. I now think it was probably only reformable after a crash. The crash did come and the unfortunate thing is that it was not made use of. That breaks my heart."

Issue