Posts Tagged With: gender history

Sexual Politics in Wilhelmine Germany

Fout

Fout, John C.  “Sexual Politics in Wilhelmine Germany: the Male Gender Crisis, Moral Purity, and Homophobia,” in Fout, John C., ed.  Forbidden History: the State, Society, and the Regulation of Sexuality in Modern Europe.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Subject: A reevaluation of the fight between homosexual rights advocates and moral purity reformers in late Imperial Germany.

Main Points: In this chapter, Fout gives a good deal of biographical information on many of the leading homosexual rights advocates (Hirschfeld, Kraft-Ebbing, etc) as well as the emerging moral purity groups of the period.  What makes his chapter interesting is that he argues that while the medicalization of sexuality was obviously a central issue in the story of modernity and sexuality, the role played by Protestant moral purity organizers was just as, if not more, important in shaping understandings of homosexuality (at least in Germany).

This is because Fout’s main focus – and he argues that it was the purity organizers’ focus as well – is gender norms, not “sexuality” in the form of object choice determined by biology.  In this sense, “the moral purity organizations increasingly saw their role as championing the existing – and, in their minds, divinely ordained – gender order” (261).  He goes on to say that the “debate was only outwardly about the sins of sexual vice; in reality it reflected an implicit crisis in gender relations, primarily in the form of a growing concern about eroding gender boundaries on the part of a large segment of the middle-class male population as well as a part of the male working class” (262).

Fout makes clear that an important part in this history is the purity organizations’ relationships with the Protestant and Catholic churches.  These close ties with the Church allowed the organizations to speak with authority in restating the dominant sexual and gender paradigm (277).  This paradigm called for traditional, “natural” roles:  sex was procreative only, and only allowed in monogamous, heterosexual marriages.  Men were meant to be hardened and masculine, dominating over the private, weak and feminine women.  This is why homosexuals were seen as abhorrent, because they blurred gender divides.

While studying these organizations more closely, Fout discovers what he argues is an underlying cause for the widespread homophobia in the late years of the German Empire.  100% of membership in these organizations was men; moreover, 70% of membership had a university education; only 4% came from the working class.  Therefore, the idea of “normality” that these organizations were campaigning for was a very specific, bourgeois notion of acceptability.

Moreover, Fout argues that it was sexism that was underlying these organizations’ homophobia and overall plans.  The “moral purity movement was in reality a male-dominated, clerical-led response to the growing presence of women of all classes in the workplace and in the public domain” (279).  The attack on homosexuality, then, was a tool in the overall attempt to keep women in the private sphere.  “The concern was to “keep men on top” literally and figuratively, and that meant the preservation of the myth of male sexual dominance and female submissiveness in all things sexual” (280).  Male homosexuals threatened this dominance by transgressing gender and sexual norms by being sexually passive.

A last interesting point:  Fout concludes that contrary to Hirschfeld and the entire sexology movement, which sought to establish an essentialist understanding of (homo)sexuality (that homosexuality was inborn and had existed throughout all of history), the moral purity movement advocated for what we would now call a social constructionist view of sexuality: that society and individuals could shape and define appropriate sexual behavior.  “While homosexuals in part may have been victims of their biological makeup, the individual’s intellectual and moral capacities made it possible to overcome the body” (288).

My Comments:  Overall, I thought this was an interesting chapter.  I hadn’t read anything in much detail about the opposition to the emerging homosexual emancipation movement in late 19th century Germany (all of the stuff I’ve read tended to be very focused on the emancipation organizers themselves).  I also thought it was important that Fout reminds us that homosexuality was only one of a number of issues that these moral purity organizations were concerned with.

But, the chapter left me with a couple of questions. Number one: where are the women?  Of course, this is a male-dominated story, but you can’t have a chapter about “sexual politics” and never mention lesbians (or never even mention that you’re not going to mention lesbians).  Did they not receive attention from these purity organizations because they weren’t seen as eroding masculinity (but what about the fact that lesbians were taking “their” women away from them and cutting men out of the picture?).

Also, I’d like to know what middle class women had to say about homosexuals – men and women.  Did they view masculine lesbians as an infringement on traditional femininity?  Or would scholars like Marcus and Vicinus say that there was no “lesbian” at this point in time – only a number of female-female relationships that were seen as acceptable?   \

 

For more books on modern German history or the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews. 

Categories: Book Review, German History, History, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

What Difference Does a Husband Make?

Heineman

 

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. 

Categories: Book Review, German History, History, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Home Fires Burning

Davis Book

 

Davis, Belinda J.  Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics, and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin.  Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

 

Beyond being simply interesting and well-written, Davis’ work has far reaching impacts for understanding this period of German history. Beyond raising questions of legitimacy and the definition of politics, Davis’ narrative of the collapse of the German Empire is much different than Chickering’s account of a controlled abdication of the throne from the top.  The fact that women of lesser means, who had no political power, but great symbolic power (136), were able to protest about food distribution, and that the imperial government actually responded to those demands rather than subduing the open protests, represents a profound shift in our understanding of Germany during the First World War.

Davis’ book focuses on the food shortage in Berlin caused by the British blockade of the city during the war.  Because “women customarily controlled the major part of the purchase, preparation, and consumption of food in a German household at this time,” a food shortage suddenly thrust women into the political sphere (33).  While initial government propaganda efforts tried to convince the German population that this food shortage was good for them (by “hardening them up”), working and lower-middle class women quickly dismissed this as the government trying to sidestep its responsibility.  In response, women took to the streets in open protest, demanding that the government do something to help them.

The shortage of bread and potatoes during the winter of 1914/1915 “transformed shopping into a task riddled with anxiety and rancor,” and as a result, the “woman of lesser means” emerged as a new social protagonist.  These women came to “represent the front-line soldier in the inner economic war fought in the streets” of Germany (48).  These women led protests against the government, calling it indifferent at best, and incompetent at worst.  Even the Berlin police commissioner recognized that the “state must act to throw its lot with poor consumers or it would be seen as against them” (75).

Davis also shows how the government responded to these protests: government agencies, such as a national butter distribution authority, were created, and regulations were placed on the economy.  By responding to these women of lesser means, Davis asserts that “imperial officials both acknowledged and legitimated the notion that street protestors should set the agenda for official action” (112). However, by 1918 – even after the creation of the War Food Office in 1916 and a “food dictatorship” under the OHL later that year – the women of lesser means deemed that the government had failed them.  A series of food-hoarding scandals in 1917 dashed notions of the government’s “good intentions,” and poor Berliners concluded that they should no longer place faith in the regime (191).

Davis sees this period as the death of the Staatsnation, in which the nation existed to serve the state, and the birth of the Volksnation, in which the people were the seat of the nation (135).  This is important because when the home front decided that its government was un-reformable and had failed them, it cultivated an atmosphere that helps explain the revolution of 1918.  Davis’ book ultimately shows that women at the home front played a vital role in World War I (and knew that they played an important role) by causing drastic changes in the way the government was perceived, and the way the government perceived itself.  In doing so, she makes us question what constitutes politics (these women had no political power, yet ultimately wielded great symbolic power).

For more books on modern German history, see my list of book reviews HERE.

Categories: Book Review, German History, History | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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