Family and Work - Women in Germany after Unification

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

20 Pages, Grade: A


Table Of Content's


Women in the Two German States Before Unification
West Germany: Equality – The Unmet Promise
East Germany: Equality by Decree

Women in Germany After Unification



When in 1990 the two German states unified, the government of the FRG and the populations of both states faced a great challenge. During forty years, the democratic West Germany and the socialist East Germany had developed in opposite directions. The different legal, ideological, and economic systems were reflected in policies pursued by the governments. While individual lives in the East were substantially predetermined by the state, people in the West had greater personal autonomy in shaping their lives.This was highly visible in respect to the relationship between two essential life spheres: family and work. Despite the generally higher level of modernization, in the FRG the traditional family form of male breadwinner and female homemaker was prevailing and endorsed by the government. In the GDR, in contrast, policies focused on gender equality and the compatibility of employment and family for women.

The process of unification, thus, meant a long and – initially underestimated – process of adaptation and accommodation. Speculations that women would turn out to be the losers of these developments soon proved right. They had to struggle in various domains: since the breakdown of Eastern industry, unemployment was a permanent threat; previously universal childcare centers and crèches closed in huge numbers; traditional gender roles and a completely different value system predominated in the new society. For East German women, therefore, new opportunities such as freedom of speech and to travel were accompanied by unknown feelings of uncertainty, insecurity, and fear of their own and their children’s future.

This paper seeks to provide insight in the effects of German unification on women, in particular in the former GDR. The first section focuses on the circumstances, especially in terms of employment and family, under which women lived in the two German states. The major part of the paper discusses women’s lives after unification. A closer look is taken at changes in the spheres of work, fertility, marriage, housework, and at last women’s attitudes toward aspects of their ‘new lives’.

Women in the Two German States Before Unification

West Germany: Equality – The Unmet Promise

During and after World War II, women’s labor was needed in both German states since the population of able-bodied men was quite depleted. In contrast to the East, West Germany did not suffer long from a shortage of labor. The ‘economic miracle’ occurring in the following decades made the successful integration of eight million refugees from German territories, two million people moving from East Germany, and some million ‘guest workers’ from southern Europe in the labor market possible. These developments inevitably affected the status of women in West Germany.

Article 3 of the Fundamental Law envisaged full equality and equal opportunities for men and women. As it would turn out, however, this constitutional promise was implemented very tardily. One reason was that the principle of gender equality collided with the principle of freedom of contract between employer and worker, that was also embodied in the Constitution. As the state’s role was considered to set general norms rather than to interfere in private lives, it is not surprising that the government had difficulties in putting equal rights for men and women in effect (Rueschemeyer 1994).

The West German socially conservative welfare state represented the philosophy that employment is essentially incompatible with motherhood. The state actively supported the traditional family form of the male breadwinner and female homemaker, i.e. policies endorsing women to enter the labor market were scarce. The old German phrase Kinder, Kirche, Küche (children, church, kitchen) reflects the prevailing view of women’s appropriate roles in the past, and although it was rejected in the seventies, it still visible in current policies. Only in 1977, the Marriage and Family Law was reformed, a law that had idealized the full-time motherhood and male breadwinner model and even granted men the right to decide about their wives’ work to some degree (Walper and Galambos 1997).

By the mid-eighties, working women in the West had a total of fourteen weeks maternity leave, during which they received financial support from the state as well as a part of their previous income from their employer. Places in daycare facilities and kindergartens were rare; only 3 percent of children under the age of three were in public daycare centers (Rueschemeyer 1994). Instead, private childcare was quite common, which was not easy to find and expensive. Consequently, the standard biography for women was characterized by what has been termed the ‘three phase model’: full time employment after occupational training until the birth of a child; exit from the labor to raise child(ren) to school age; labor market return until retirement, mostly on a part-time basis (see Adler 2002). Although female employment steadily increased, especially during the fifties and sixties, at the end of the eighties, only 56 percent of women aged 15 to 65 worked outside the home. Approximately every second of these women had a part-time job (Trappe and Rosenfeld 1988), a much higher proportion than in the GDR.[1] Approximately 40 percent of West Germany’s total labor force was composed of women (Rudolph et al. 1990, cited in Walper and Galambos 1997). Not surprisingly, a mother’s employment status was strongly correlated with her children’s age. In 1987, 37 percent of mothers with children under the age of two were employed, 42 percent of those with children aged three to five, and 52 percent of those with children aged six to thirteen years (Lane 1993, cited in Walper and Galambos 1997).

Nevertheless, some substantial demographical changes took place. Due to the general increase of education and years spent in school, the mean age of women entering the work force rose. At the same time, the percentage of women who were never employed or remained out of the labor market until age 45 dropped significantly from 54 percent for the birth cohorts 1900-1919 to only 28 percent for the birth cohorts 1940-1949. Yet, as will be shown in the next paragraph, compared with women in the East, women in the FRG attained lower levels of education and training, and, what is more, had more limited access to male-dominated professions (Spellerberg 1996).

East Germany: Equality by Decree

In accordance with the socialist ideology, the government in East Germany had implemented a system of planned economy that centered on the production of essential goods by a broad class of workers. In that ‘closed industrial society’ (Reissig 1993, cited in Schulze Buschoff 1997), alternatives of individual life planning were quite limited. The standard of living was well below that of West Germany, while at the same time class differences were less distinct. Officially, the leadership pursued policies that aimed at the adjustment of living conditions all over the country (Schulze Buschoff 1997).

Although facing a continuing shortage of labor as a consequence of the planned economy, the GDR guaranteed women (and men) a right to work and even stated that they were obligated to work (Rudolph, Appelbaum, and Maier 1990; cited in Walper and Galambos 1997: 36). The government did not only incorporate equal rights for women in the Constitution, but also enacted supportive laws and affirmative actions to realize the commitment to gender equality and emancipation (Schaeffer-Hegel 1992).

In particular, over the period from 1949 to 1980, special regulations were introduced that aimed at the improvement of women’s situation in the country. The first stage focused on achieving gender equality and securing women’s participation in the workforce. The second stage, launched in the mid-sixties as a consequence of declining birth rates, aimed at ensuring compatibility between parental and professional responsibilities (Marx Ferree 1993). Regulations included protective measures that barred heavy physical labor, night work, and shift work for pregnant and nursing women and for mothers of preschool children; a guaranteed 26-week period of paid leave around childbirth; the baby-year during which a mother could stay at home without losing her job; one day off per month to do housework; up to six weeks paid leave in case of a child falling ill.

In addition, the government provided a series of benefits for children in order to ensure the compatibility of work and motherhood. Most important, free childcare, nursery schools, and kindergarten were widely available. Free meals were offered in state schools and childcare centers, as well as after-school care for primary school children. Furthermore, the state assured a paid leave up to three years for any mother who could not find state childcare for her children under the age of three. These supports were especially important for single mothers for they provided a solid basis for them to lead a ‘normal life’ (Marx Ferree 1993; Schaeffer-Hegel 1992).[2]


[1] But even part-time jobs were difficult to handle since school children come home at noon.

[2] Women’s involvement in the labor force was also facilitated by the fact that companies served hot meals to their employees and offered laundry services.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Family and Work - Women in Germany after Unification
Johns Hopkins University
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ISBN (eBook)
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Family, Work, Women, Germany, Unification
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Kirsten Kuptz (Author), 2004, Family and Work - Women in Germany after Unification, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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