Julia Sneeringer. Winning Women's Votes: Propaganda and Politics in Weimar Germany. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. 384 S. $32.50 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8078-5341-2; $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-2674-4.
Reviewed by Raffael M. Scheck (Department of History, Colby College)
Published on H-German (November, 2002)
Julia Sneeringer's book thoroughly analyzes the propaganda that the parties of the Weimar Republic devised for women. In doing so, it offers insights into generic visions of women in Weimar's political culture as well as a better understanding of the parties themselves. The book is well researched, drawing from all the important collections in Germany as well as the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford. I wonder only whether the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam, which was not consulted, could have offered some more material on the socialist parties.
The book is organized chronologically, following the principal national elections. Material from local elections occasionally complements the chapters. Sneeringer shows how the parties initially courted women, whose enfranchisement in 1918 was perceived by traditional politicians as both a threat and an opportunity. The elections for the National Assembly in January 1919, the first elections in which women could participate, therefore generated much propaganda dealing with the woman as a citizen. The German Democratic Party (DDP), in particular, presented women's suffrage as an integral part of the new democratic order and fashioned itself as the "party of women." Even parties on the right were quick to encourage women to vote, stressing women's importance for the nation in terms of numbers and their role in the family and the economy. The rhetoric about women as citizens, however, soon waned from party propaganda. It became clear that a party's stands on the political and legal rights of women were not decisive for winning women's votes. The parties most successful at attracting women's votes, the Center and the German Nationalist People's Party (DNVP), fared well with cultural, religious, and welfare themes that they addressed to women. Soon, parties across the political spectrum related to women mostly in these contexts. Although questions of women's employment did get some attention during the middle years of the Republic--when discriminatory practices against married civil servants were prolonged in contradiction to the equality decreed in the 1919 constitution--parties became increasingly reluctant to address specific women's issues and turned more hostile toward women's work, as exemplified by the broad majority for the dismissal of married women in the civil service emerging in 1931-32. Sneeringer also shows how the Nazis, who had received a weak women's vote until 1930, managed to close the gender gap by appealing to religion and more moderate cultural themes in 1932--the very tunes that the Center and DNVP had played from the start. The Communists, on the other hand, propagated a radicalism and militance that alienated even many working-class women. Their insistence on prioritizing the class struggle over women's rights issues, moreover, deterred women who otherwise would have appreciated the party's stands on the rights of women (for example free choice regarding abortion).
Sneeringer's view on propaganda thus confirms the prevalent gloomy view on women's politics in the Weimar Republic, which stresses a more or less promising beginning in 1919 followed by an increasingly misogynist trend in all parties at all levels. Yet the story is a little more complicated, as Sneeringer seems to indicate. Although women showed a higher voter abstention rate than men after 1919, it is striking that they did return to vote for parties whose male representatives ignored or even fought women's rights. The cultural and religious themes stressed by most parties' propaganda for women seem indeed to have pleased a large section of German women enough to ensure their loyalty. Here, I think, we need a careful historical eye, taking into account that women in the Weimar period perceived women's issues quite differently from most Germans or Americans today. Women in general were conceived much more in essentialist terms--as caring, peaceful mothers and housewives--and they accepted this definition with few exceptions. This was true across the political spectrum. Even the Communists, who supported women's right to abortion, imagined women in maternal roles when discussing communal kitchens, for example. It therefore seems to me that we have to distinguish two political axes relevant to women: one regarding general political issues along the traditional lineup from left to right; and one on women's rights, which did not strictly follow the left-to-right scheme. Women who disputed the essentialist definition and the gendered role separation following from it could be found in all parties from radical left to radical right. In the DDP (later German State Party, DStP), we find Marie-Elizabeth Lueders as an outspoken advocate of women's rights next to a Gertrud Baeumer, whose interest in organic-voelkisch ideology began to cloud her commitment to women's rights after 1930. In the DNVP, we find a feminist radical like Kaethe Schirmacher next to women like Margarethe Behm, who, though outspoken on some women's rights, never questioned the essentialist role model. Similar examples exist on the left as well. Sneeringer seems aware of these two only loosely connected axes, but a fuller discussion would have been rewarding.
The book is very sound when dealing with propaganda, but there are some ambiguities or errors mostly dealing with the context. The DNVP, for example, had not a weaker women's committee than the other parties (pp. 9-10) but a well-organized one that was initially the envy of women in the DDP and DVP. Generally, I think the women of the DVP and DNVP were less docile than they appear (see, for example, p. 35 on the DVP). On several occasions they protested vehemently against their lacking consideration by the leading men of their parties, as their newsletters reveal, and the DNVP women did not at all stand aside in the criticism of Nazi views on women. The German East, moreover, was not a non-gendered issue (p. 260), as an article by Elizabeth Harvey on women's pilgrimages to the "bleeding border" in the East shows (Women's History Review 9, 2000, pp. 201-229). Statistics on the Center Party are confusing because they sometimes exclude and sometimes include numbers for the Bavarian People's Party, an independent party that had split off from the Center but is not considered in the book although it played a considerable role in Weimar politics.
I am aware that dealing with almost all important Weimar parties is a daunting task given the broad literature on most of them. Still, the description of the party context in the book would have been more complete if the large body of recent German work had been more fully consulted. Among the most important omissions are Angelika Schaser's thorough 1996 article on women in the DDP from the Historische Zeitschrift. Schaser's biography of Helene Lange and Gertrud Baeumer (2000) is also relevant but may have appeared too late for Sneeringer's final draft. Important, too, is Nationalsozialistische Frauenpolitik vor 1933: Eine Dokumentation (1995) by Hans-Juergen Arendt, Sabine Hering, and Leonie Wagner, which has a substantial introduction that deals with propaganda.
I would also have appreciated a more elaborate discussion of what constitutes propaganda in the context of Weimar women. Are we dealing only with posters and pamphlets? Or are women's speeches in parliaments and during campaigns or their newspaper and newsletter articles also considered propaganda? What about women's meetings?
These criticisms aside, Sneeringer deserves praise for a thorough and thoughtful book on propaganda. Her focus on structures and patterns that transcend party lines is a welcome corrective for people who, like me, deal with women in individual parties.
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Raffael M. Scheck. Review of Sneeringer, Julia, Winning Women's Votes: Propaganda and Politics in Weimar Germany.
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