Heineman, Elizabeth D. What Difference Does a Husband Make? Women and Marital Status in Nazi and Postwar Germany. Berkley: University of California Press, 1999.
Subject: A triangular comparison between the legal status of (un)married women in Nazi Germany, and then in West and East Germanys, and how these states used marital status to define role of women.
Main Points: Heineman shows that single women (whether they were widows, divorcees, or simply spinsters) were all defined by their status in relation to married women. Under Nazi rule, the married woman was seen as the bearer of the German Volk, quite literally: good German mothers gave birth to good German citizens and passed on good German morals. Unmarried women were often viewed as “asocials.” While this is nothing particularly new, Heineman shows the extent to which the state was involved in encouraging women to marry; financial and legal incentives were implemented in an attempt to inspire women to settle down with a man.
Another of Heineman’s arguments is that an inferior view of unmarried women survived the upheaval that the loss of WWII and the subsequent occupation caused. There was a moment in the final years of the war and the initial years of occupation in which the instability meant the state could no longer influence marital status. But as two new Germanys were established by the Allies, the place of the state returned.
In East Germany, economic necessity along with the Communists’ favorable view of workers (including working women) meant that the state narrowed the gaps between married and single women. Equality, including equal pay for women was established early on. Unmarried women held almost no stigma as long as they were 1) contributing to the labor force, and 2) still raising children.
In West Germany, however, the dominance of married womanhood soon returned. The previous 10 years when women were forced to work and take on “manly” roles because their husbands were off fighting, dying, or being taken prisoner were seen as an inconvenient, shameful necessity that had to be overcome. This was a part of Chancellor’s Adenauer’s family politics that was meant to restore the true and “normal” family dynamic that had been disrupted by the war’s end. Critics claimed that this Adenauer family looked too similar to Hitler’s ideal of family. But marital status remained the main signifier of female identity, and welfare state entitlements and some legal rights were all tied to whether or not a woman was married.
Heineman concludes that 1945 was a lost opportunity for German feminism because that moment of instability could have been seized to put forth a new understanding of female identity, one that was not tied to marriage with a man. Instead, traditional roles were reinstituted in West Germany.
My Comments: This book doesn’t really deal with sexuality itself, but instead focuses more in gender. But I picked it to read because the Adenauer era of family politics was an incredibly important stage in the development of the history of homosexuality in Germany. During this time, the monogamous, heterosexual married life was reinstituted as the norm, and homosexual movements were forced to come up with a new image for themselves to get a chance of dialogue with policy makers. Conservative, masculine, “respectable” homosexuality replaced the flamboyant “fairy” image.
Also, I think another important point from this book is in showing how concerned the state was with gender and sexuality. It attempted to (and in many cases was successful) control the definition of “woman” by dictating that women should be married. By passing laws, or restricting benefits, the state meant to control womanhood and manhood. But this book shows that the female population was divided in one way that the males were not: marital status.
For more books on modern German history or the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews.