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Beyond the Bier: The German history of Frauentag

“Frauentag” translates to “Frauen” meaning women and “tag” meaning day. It is an observance celebrated in varying households across German states on March 8th every year.

“Frauentag” translates to “Frauen” meaning women and “tag” meaning day. It is an observance celebrated in varying households across German states on March 8th every year. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Staff Sgt. Kirsten Brandes)

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany --

Beyond the Bier is a cultural series based on German customs, traditions and history in the Kaiserslautern Military Community. Get to know why your new neighbors celebrate, and commemorate certain holidays and observances--often with a beer.

Editor's Note: This story covers a small portion of German history and does not contain all the details of their women’s liberation movement. For more information visit your public library.

Throughout each country’s calendar lies a story for each official holiday and observance day.

This week, is the story of German women’s rights in history.

“Frauentag” translates to “Frauen” meaning women and “tag” meaning day. It is an observance celebrated in varying households across German states on March 8th every year.

Unlike Mutterstag (Mother’s Day), Women’s Day recognizes women of all ages and celebrates their social, economic, cultural and political achievements.

Some German women celebrate by enjoying time with female friends or exchanging gifts. Others use the day to highlight women's rights, emancipation and gender equality.

The first official discussion to introduce such an observance was in 1910, at a Copenhagen-conference with more than 100 women from 17 different countries in attendance. Clara Zetkin, a German socialist and activist, tabled the idea.

The following year, on March 19, 1911, an international Women’s Day was born, and in 1921 the annual date of March 8 was solidified for Germany.

To date, more than 25 countries recognize Women’s Day as an official holiday.

Berlin was the first and only city-state in Germany to make it Frauentag a public holiday in 2019.

Similar to most countries worldwide, the historical oppression of women is a key reason the observance was ignited to celebrate women from all walks of life.

Women’s suffrage in Germany is no exception.

Educating the 50%

When German land was known as the Kingdom of Prussia in 1891, some universities allowed certain women to attend lectures. Though it wouldn’t be until 1908 when specific regions of Prussian universities opened their doors to educate women.

By reducing the number of sewing classes and boosting the amount of available literature pamphlets, the peak of Prussian female education reform allowed German women an intelligent advantage, paying off for generations to come.

Within the next few years, campaigns for women’s rights and empowerment helped the German women’s suffrage movement gain momentum.

In 1914, the beginning of World War I paused the movement as German women went on to support their families and country by taking on men-centric professions for their husbands, brothers and fathers.

Four years later as the war came to a close, the push to legally claim women as citizens came during the transition period from imperial rule to the Weimar Republic.

The momentous result: German women gained the right to vote in 1918.

Womanhood in Nazi Germany

Progress was derailed when the National Socialist Party came to power in 1933, as Michelle Mutton outlines in her 2010 Journal of Social History.

The Third Reich’s Minister of Propaganda, Josef Goebbels, announced the following year their intention was to “liberate women from women’s emancipation,” stating the Reich believed men and women were fundamentally different.

Adolf Hitler, leader of the Third Reich, dictated all “racially pure” Aryan women should center their lives on the three 'Ks': Kinder, Küche, Kirche, translating to “Children, Kitchen, Church.”

According to BBC News in 2020, though single women could remain in “caring” jobs such as nursing, childcare, factories, the Nazi regime pressured couples to wed with the intent to produce more Aryan babies and free up the jobs for unemployed men.

The government also incentivized couples to buy-in to the traditional beliefs by implementing the Law for the Encouragement of Marriage, which was an interest-free loan given to offset the cost of the wife leaving her job to stay at home.

Single-men and childless families were also taxed higher.

Marriages were forbidden between Aryan and Jews, Roma or people of color, while secret birthing houses called “Lesenborn,” were set up to encourage Aryan women to birth with Nazi soldiers.

Additionally, the Third Reich attempted to remove women from careers they had earned, such as purging the civil service and professions of women, barring female judges in 1936, and refusing women jury duty or positions in the German parliment because Hitler believed they could not “think logically or reason objectively.”

While some laws were successful, others were not. Due to a shortage of manual workers, the employment rate for women actually rose 2.4 million between 1933 and 1939 in order to fill factory positions. This resulted in the Nazi regime retracting their employment policy in 1939 to enhance economic production by encouraging women to go back to certain parts of the labor force.

Redefining roles

Decades later, the rise and fall of the Nazi regime and loss of World War II had brought a new perspective to citizens.

Post-war society created a sturdy foundation for promoting gender equality. In 1958, the family law Civil Code known as “Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch” was revised, permitting women the right to employment.

According to the German Historical Institute of Washington D.C., the Civil Code also “left the wife’s premarital assets in her possession, and strengthened her ability to exercise parental authority.”

The following year another revision was made: a husband could no longer terminate his wife’s employment contract. While the law stated women could legally work, social pressures still existed.

Late 20th Century milestones

As more women could legally and independently join the workforce, improvements were being made across the Atlantic for birth control options.

In 1961, Germany was the first European country to legalize the contraceptive pill and it was made widely available for prescription to married women; the birth control pill advanced female autonomy and family planning choices.

By 1977, the Civil Code received another update: a wife could now work with her husband’s consent.

Fast forward to 2005, after being restricted some seventy years prior, Germany elects its first female chancellor, Angela Merkel, who still holds the position today.

The following year, the German General Equal Treatment Act called “Allgemeines Gleichbehandlungsgesetz,” was adopted into German parliament in 2006. This act enable a legal protection to those who might be discriminated against at work due to race, sex, religion, handicap, age or sexual identity.

Due to the trailblazers push for all-inclusive legislation throughout history, modern German women recognize Frauentag and exercise their freedom of choice, to honor their mothers’ and grandmothers’ lack-of choice, a century ago.