Posts Tagged With: women’s history

What Difference Does a Husband Make?



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

“Sapphistries” by Leila Rupp



Rupp, Leila.  Sapphistries: A Global History of Love between Women.  New York, New York University Press, 2009.

Subject: Sapphistries is an impressive survey that covers a global history of love, desire, and sex between women from the beginning of time to the present.

Author’s Main Argument(s): From the beginning, Rupp acknowledges the inherent challenges in writing a history with such a large temporal and geographic scope (the entire world throughout all time!).  Yet, she claims that by using a global scope, we may discern patterns of how female same-sex desire, love, and sex have been viewed by outsiders and by the women involved in those acts.  Finding these patterns does not mean, however, that Rupp is looking for an “essential lesbian” that has existed throughout time.   In fact, Rupp doesn’t use the term lesbian because it’s broad and downplays the differences among women, “especially when the concept and identity of lesbian is available and women choose not to embrace it, as occurs in many parts of the world” (3).  She chooses the word Sapphistries (and Sapphric) because they have a longer and more widespread history than lesbian.  Moreover, her term embraces all the diverse manifestations of women and “social males” with women’s bodies who desired, loved, made love to, formed relationships with, and married other women (1).

Rupp concludes that very different societies shaped erotic relationships between women in quite similar ways.  The patterns that Rupp’s work reveals are: 1) the role of female masculinity, and 2) the eroticization of friendship.  These patterns, of course, do not overshadow the historically specific differences of how these societies viewed and reacted to relationships between women, but she cautions that we should not let these particularities blind us to the similarities.

The ways that love between women has been understood is 1) a woman who desires other women is masculine, and her body marks her different from other women, that she hates and is deprived of men.  The ways in which women-loving women have understood themselves are characterized by two relationships:  masculine-feminine attraction, in which “gender difference is eroticized,” and erotic friendships, in which sameness shapes desire (7).

In pointing out these patterns, Rupp says that the story of female homosexuality takes a different path than male homosexuality (particular the story portrayed by David Halperin). Male homosexual relationships tended to be understood in terms of relationships of difference: differentiated by age, by gender, or by class and race.  A lot of the history of male homosexuality revolves around the right of a superior man to penetrate his inferiors (the negative association of homosexuality was reserved for the male who was penetrated by another man).  Rupp argues that these relationships of differentiation are not central to the history of female homosexuality, because nondifferentiated relationships seem to be much more common.

Another goal of Rupp’s book is to decenter a Western-dominated story of progress and to present a complex understanding of the ways that local and global identities interact in the contemporary world (8).  In doing so, she questions the narrative of triumphal progress in which gays and lesbians ultimately win social acceptance and political rights.  She claims that a global perspective shows that the emergence of gays and lesbians into and gaining acceptance by the public at large is not significant everywhere.

The actual evidence and stories that she tells throughout the book are not only interesting, but they’re convincing (with perhaps the first chapter being the exception).  She talks about how women in the ancient world were seen as less important than men, and that could perhaps explain why what they did with one another was of no interest or consequence (40).  She also talks about spaces that were conducive for women to express desire (erotic and non-erotic) for each other, and surprisingly enough, these were often religious or political spaces, such as Christian nunneries, Ottoman harems, and Chines polygamous households.  Even more interesting is her chapter on “In Plain Sight,” in which she studies the ways in which different cultures have directly confronted and understood love between women, and the complex nature of gender itself.  Beginning in 1500, she argues, there is evidence of European women actually gender crossing and living as men.  She also devoted a lot of time (rightfully so) to Indian cultures that opposed a binary view of gender by creating a special place for people who did not fit into the “man” or “woman” category.  Hijras (eunuchs) enjoy important roles in social and religious rituals.  Native Americans cultures also defied the binary view of gender by recognizing a third gender, or a “two-spirit,” which was a person who exhibited characteristics of both genders, or loved someone of the same gender (81).

Beginning in 1600, women-loving women were able to come out of isolation and form communities, due to urbanization and capitalization (this fits within the lager historiography of homosexual community building).

My Comments: 

I could get carried away with all of the interesting examples and narratives that she provides throughout the book.  It was a pleasure to read, and I hope to be able to sit down and read it more thoroughly one day.  It’s a great survey, and while the global aspect may overlook some details, the pros greatly outweigh the cons in my opinion.  I like comparative works, and reading examples from non-Western societies was refreshing.  The main thing that I got out of this book is how male and female homosexuality took different courses in their development.

For more books on the history of sexuality, see my list of reviews, here.

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