Order 1017647: political, social, religious and ethnic composition of german society from 1871-1924

Working-Class Women in the Empire

Gender and Experience

All German women legally disadvantaged relative to men

Marriage. Civil Code. (BGB). Patriarchy (obedience)

Decision-making (property and possessions ), legal guardianship

Divorce: relatively liberal, but proof of adultery or cruelty required – courts

But, beyond this, history of women characterised by difference

Because social class, ethnicity, location, also determine life course

No vocalised common bond of ‘sisterhood’ felt across the social divide

(Although Quataert on Female factory inspectors )

Workplace divisions

hierarchies even within the same class

Bielefeld 1905: within ranks of female textile workers (Frevert)

Linen factory workers look down on weavers

weavers look down on spinners

‘Rank’ partly a question of ethnicity here.

Linen workers local,

but spinners often from Bohemia (Czech or German speakers in Austro-Hungary ) or Polish speaking areas of the Reich (Silesia and East Prussia)

Problematic to talk of general female experience.

Key areas of Employment


Life course: Servant girl- labourer’s wife (Schulte)

tasks traditionally gender-allocated e.g milking, thinning

Housekeeper (including of household finances)

Usually: Lynchpin of peasant household

Esp. where men absent for seasonal employment or as commuters Mecklenburg, Marpingen (Blackbourn)

Women sometimes work away. Oberlausitz (Quataert)

Domestic Service

Servants in agriculture and in the cities subject to Master and Servants laws ‘Gesindeordnungen’

Restrictive of personal freedom

Work dusk till dawn, at the beck and call of mistress or master

Wages low 150 M p.a. (although bread and board provided)


1/3rd of all females employed in the capital are servant girls

(largest single sector of employment nationwide )

Factory Work

Esp. in textiles (cotton, linen etc), clothing, tobacco, food and paper industries

Wages low at c. 600 M p.a.

Relative independence

Regular (if long) hours = some free time at the weekend.

Majority young, single women although ever greater numbers of married women also employed

Maternity leave (but no pay)

Bourgeois perception that female factory work disrupts family life, because they neglect household duties. (rather than view that wage benefits household)

Textile towns: presence of female wage earners = greater female public presence? Economic influence?

Section on Plauen, Saxony

German Life and Labour (1906), p.141.


Cigar manufacture , Leipzig 1897

Illustrirte Zeitung : wöchentl. Nachrichten über alle wesentl. Zeitereignisse, Zustände u. Persönlichkeiten d. Gegenwart, öff ; 1897, 3, p. 489

Home workers (‘outworkers’)

Take in cleaning, washing, ironing and sewing from middle class households

(clothing industry also relies on large numbers of outworkers, often rural setting)

Married workers often employed in this way

It enabled wives and mothers to make money and take care of the household, husbands and children

(little recognition of childcare and housekeeping as equivalent to paid work)

The Struggle for Better Lives

Women and the labour movement – initial exclusion

Long-standing union resentment at female wage labour per se as cheap competition & exploitative, especially factory work

Eisenach 1869 ‘reduction of female wage labour’

Gotha 1875 ‘abolition of women’s work that is dangerous to heath and morality’

But female wage-labour grows, - greater than male workforce in clothing, tobacco & cigar manufacture by 1860s.

Cigar-makers Union, and Textile Factory Workers Union begin to accept both sexes late 1860s, but most socialist unions do not.

1892. less than 2% (4355) of total ‘free trade union’ membership women

Women and the labour movement – gradual inclusion

1880s- f. workers form associations, with & without middle class influence.

focus on wages, and prepared to strike. Many dissolved 1878-1890, but re-emerge

1890-presence in labour movement grows, though still contested

1890. Erfurt: full legal equality and vote.

Female-workers’ education societies 10,000 members (1907)

Clara Zetkin Die Gleichheit, & ‘On the emancipation of women’ (1889) &,

Rosa Luxemburg.

August Bebel, Die Frau und der Sozialismus (F.P. 1879 – 50 editions by 1909)

full emancipation only with end of capitalism, but action towards it can be taken now. Make common cause with middle-class women’s movement, & join the labour movement

SPD 1906-1913, f. membership rises from 1.7% to 14.4% (141,115), 1913. Free trade unions (8,8% / 223,676)

August 1903-January 1904 Strike and then lockout (8000) and defeat

Key demands: 10 not 11 hr max, lunch break 1-1.5hrs, piece rate wages 10%

Middle class initiatives

Some liberals argue ec. benefit, & independence of f. wage labour…and also criticise long hours & poor pay for women & sexual harassment

Educational & welfare associations for women e.g. 1869, Berlin. Society for advancement and intellectual stimulation of women workers

S. schools for workers’ daughters (Sewing, knitting, cleanliness, hard work and orderliness)

.. Company-led home economics classes, kindergartens

Charitable concern & intent to ‘civilize’ according to bourgeois norms, and in alleviating misery also intend to relieve class tensions

Impact limited. Women have no time and resent strict, moralising approach

A movement which emancipates the providers, giving middle-class women recognition & status of a role in private and public welfare provision (Frevert)

Married life

80% of married females were in full or part time paid employment

Very few families able to do without at least two incomes

Combination of work, childbirth and child rearing and housekeeping debilitating

Frevert refers to women’s strength..

whittled down further by frequent pregnancy, abortion and childbirth

Nine pregnancies per marriage not unusual

1885, Berlin’s working class quarter of Wedding. ¼ of all families have five or more children

“Mother, I’m hungry too”

Job insecurity and prostitution

F. work often poorly remunerated & irregular.

Service & waitressing often cyclical, seasonal, or part-time

..leads some to prostitution (a last resort to avoid destitution)

Some ‘registered’ and legal, subject to police-enforced medical checks, and usually working from brothels.

(attempt to contain STDs, and ‘moral threat’ to ‘public decency’)

Registration stigmatises prostitutes and makes return to ‘decent’ working life harder

Most illegal. Majority of Berlin’s 40,000 prostitutes (1909) are unlicensed.

Repeat convictions can mean workhouse (361 -362 Criminal code.)

In narrow alleys

Vice Cops again!

Well they can’t touch me – I’m registered and I’ve paid my fees

Gloomy prospects

Police registered and old-fashioned clothes on, no chance of making the better sort of acquaintances

His first visit

“You sent for me, I’m the doctor..”

“Of course! Little Meyer!

Don’t you recognise Clara from the Heidelberg pub?!”