Feminism / History

Helene Weber – The Woman Who Founded Two Republics

When discussing the foundation of the German Bundesrepublik in school my teachers always spoke about “the fathers of the constitution”, those men who after World War II laid the foundation for a democratic state. Only quite late I detected that this was a wrong concept. Truth be told: There had not been many women involved in politics during that time. But even though during the Nazi reign women were confined to motherhood and family care some reclaimed their position in politics quite early after WW II. It were only four women, who were elected into the national assembly working on a new constitution, but those four women made sure that women’s rights were discussed at all. One of them was Helene Weber – the women who contributed in two constituent assemblies.

To gain the right to vote women had to fight even harder than men. During the 19th century the bourgeois women’s rights movement simply fought for a restricted right to vote, only the more radical and socialist women around Clara Zetkin demanded the full and equal right to vote already in 1907. A year later the “Reichsvereinsgesetz” (a law regulating associations) allowed women to become party members.

Helene Weber was not only one of the leading German suffragettes in the early 20th century, she was also as a liberal-conservative politician one of the first women elected into a German parliament. She sat in two national assemblies, 1919 after World War I and 1948 after World War II, to discuss a new constitution. Helene Weber was one of three people in Germany who founded two republics – and she was the only woman. Based on the work of women like her women’s equality became a constitutional right.

Getting information about Helene Weber is not as easy as it might sound. Not many books have been published about the mothers of the German constitution and compared to their male counterparts only short and few articles do exist in newspapers or in the internet. Today a small exhibition travelling through Germany shows at least a short part of their interesting personal history.

Helene Weber’s biography is first quite typical for the daughter of the German educated middle-class of that time. She was born in Elberfeld in 1881 as daughter of a teacher and his wife as second of six children. She visited the school in her hometown before she began her education as a teacher herself in 1897. She started to work as a teacher in Haaren and Elberfeld. Even though she already had the education to be a teacher at primary school Helene Weber started to study history, philosophy, Romance philology and social sciences in Bonn and Grenoble to later be able to teach at secondary schools.

In 1916 she started to engage in the German Catholic Women’s Association, teaching at one of their schools in Cologne. It was the time she became political active. It was in the middle of WWI and it needed at least two more years before women got what was rightfully theirs: On November 12th, 1918 the “Rat der Volksbeauftragten” declared equal electoral rights for men and women. In their statement they wrote: “Alle Wahlen zu öffentlichen Körperschaften sind fortan nach dem gleichen, geheimen, direktem Wahlrecht auf Grund des proportionalen Wahlsystems für alle mindestens 20 Jahre alten männlichen und weiblichen Personen zu vollziehen.” (“All elections for public corporations have from now on to be conducted after an equal, secret and direct suffrage based on a proportionate electoral system for all at least 20 years old male and female persons.”) The new electoral law became effective on November 30th.

It was the base for the first elections in the republic of Weimar on January 19th, 1919 when 300 women ran for a seat in parliament, 37 women were elected in the end – a  small minority among the 423 delegates. Most of the elected women were members of the social democratic party, SPD. Many women’s associations had summoned women to the ballot boxes beforehand to influence the fate of the young republic. 82 per cent of the women entitled to vote used that right. The elected so-called “Nationalversammlung” had the purpose to write the constitution for the young republic.

One of the women elected into the assembly was Helene Weber, a candidate of the “Zentrumspartei”, a liberal party. Above other things Helene Weber was interested in questions of family and marriage and the equality of the sexes.

Shortly afterwards on February 19, 1919 Maria Juchacz was the first woman to speak in the “Nationalversammlung”. Women were not indebted to men and parliament for getting the vote, she said: “What the government did was self-evident: they have given women what was unjustly withheld before.”

In the same year Helene became a consultant in the ministry of “Volkswohlfahrt”, and shortly after the dissolution of the national assembly in 1920 she took over as head of the Department of Social Education and Questions of Youth in Prussia. From 1922 until 1924 she was member of the Prussian parliament before she was elected into the “Reichstag”, the national parliament.

Around the year 1920 many women’s associations, formerly the centre of women’s political activity, dissolved – some because they believed their goals achieved others because during the inflation of the 1920th they could no longer be financed. And in addition the community assumed many of their tasks.

Unrestricted Women’s Suffrage in Europe between 1900 and 1945:

1906 Finland is the first European country granting women’s suffrage

1913 Norway

1915 Denmark and Iceland

1918 Germany, Austria, Poland and Russia

1919 Belgium, Hungary, Luxemburg, Netherlands

1921 Sweden

1928 United Kingdom and Ireland

1930 Turkey

1933 Spain

1944 Bulgaria

1945 France, Yugoslavia

Helene Weber was Member of Parliament until under the new National Socialists rule on June 30th, 1933 she was dismissed from civil service. The new German rulers forbade her every political activity due to “political unreliability”, so the official term. In the debate about the so called “Ermächtigungsgesetz” in which parliament gave the government exceptional delegate powers and which laid the basis for Hitler’s dictatorship she had spoken up against the new law. In the ballot she then swivelled into the official direction of the “Zentrumspartei” and voted for the law even though it was against her own conviction.

With the National Socialist’s raise to power women’s rights experienced a big setback. Quite early in 1921 the National Socialist Party had decided not to involve women in the party leadership or in the leading committees. After 1933 they passed laws to replace women in leading professions and appealed to them to engage in motherhood and an existence as housewife. And women could no longer be elected into any parliament.

For Helene Weber this did not only mean an end to her political career, she also became a political target. She was working for organisations of the Catholic Church but had now and then to change her residence out of fear of being arrested by the secret police, the Gestapo.

In 1945 shortly after the end of World War II Helene Weber became a member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and was elected into the national assembly which had to work out a constitution for the western German state, the Bundesrepublik. She was part of a minority in three different ways: 1. She was the only women member of the conservative party who was elected into the national assembly. 2. She was one of only four women elected at all. 3. She was one of three members of the national assembly who had already discussed the constitution of Weimar in 1919.

„The woman has to engage in politics, she has to have a political responsibility“, said Helene Weber 1946, one year after the end of WW II. Helene Weber never spoke of the equality of men and women, wanted women to keep their “intrinsic value”, but she was also one of the first to demand equal payment for men and women. Speaking of family values Helene Weber was quite conservative and had reservations against equal positions of men and women in family structures. In the end she supported Elisabeth Selbert’s initiative to anchor the formal recognition of women’s rights in the constitution none the less.

Even in the constitution of Weimar equal rights for men and women were legally fixed. In 1948 the four women involved with writing the new constitution declared that they did not want to step back behind this and infuriated their male colleagues with their persistence that the new constitution had to go even further. Since they were a minority their first attempt to legally fix women’s rights was therefore overruled.

But instead of giving up the women around Helene Weber started a campaign in media and women’s associations and even influenced the wives of male delegates. Clothes baskets full of mail was sent to the delegation asking for women’s rights so that in the end the assembly was forced to pass article 3, paragraph 2: “Men and women have equal rights.” The “Grundgesetz”, the new German constitution, declared it to be a responsibility of the state to establish equality and to eradicate existing disadvantages for women.

But until today women’s fight for political equality is not over: Even today barely 32 per cent of the delegates of the German Bundestag are women, with that Germany is on place 19 in the international ranking. Great Britain is on place 48, the US on 70. On the prime places are Ruanda, Sweden and South Africa, followed by Cuba, Iceland, Finland and Norway. But only in Ruanda women have more then 50 per cent of the seats in parliament, in every other country women are still out ruled by men.

Helene Weber fought for women’s rights until her death. In 1956 the Bundesverdienstkreuz, the highest German order, was bestowed upon her for her political work. She counted as the most influential women in the CDU-party. Helene Weber died in 1962 at the age of 81.

Jessica Holzhausen

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