Before Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Germany experienced its ‘roaring 20s’ through a parliamentary democratic system—the Weimar Republic. Weimar Republic 101 article series aims to introduce some of the key themes and debates in the historiography of the Weimar Republic, from its inception in 1918 to its death in 1933. Continuing with the discussion of German society and culture from chapter three, chapter four introduces the 'New Woman' phenomenon that changed how women were portrayed in the media. This chapter focuses on separating the myth of the 'New Woman' from the reality that German women experienced.
Weimar Republic 101 is divided into six chapters:
Weimar Republic 101: The ‘New Woman’ in Post-War Germany
Weimar Republic 101: The Great Depression 1929-1933
Weimar Republic 101: The collapse of a democracy
The ‘New Woman’ was a global phenomenon starting at the end of the Victorian era. In Weimar Germany, the impacts of World War I greatly affected how women experienced life in society: It was increasingly more common for women to have paid work and to be unmarried. The ‘New Woman’ challenged traditional gender roles and represented an emancipated femininity.
The greatest challenge to studying this phenomenon is the way it was represented in the media of the day because it might inaccurately define real women’s experiences. Here it is explored how we can overcome this challenge and not dismiss the ‘New Woman’ for supposedly, being nothing more than a media construct, and approach it as a historical reality that reflects the politics and culture of Germany's Weimar democracy itself.
This figure is often understood as a media construction that is misrepresentative of the lives of women at the time. Indeed, this is the view held by Storer (2013, p. 153) and Epstein (2015, p. 17), who describe the ‘New Woman’ as the bobbed-hair, short hemline-wearing flapper of the 1920s. Hung (2015, p. 52) agrees that we must be careful in how we discuss the historical reality of the ‘New Woman’ compared to how she was represented in the media. Hung (2015, pp. 57-58) identifies that the German media was interested in representing a new type of woman to appeal to a female audience who now had the right to vote and access to their own income, which they could spend on new consumer goods.
To understand how the media could be placed to advertise the image of the ‘New Woman’ to the public, it is critical to first establish the historical context that allowed for a ‘New Woman’ to enter the society.
Epstein (2015, p. 17) identifies that two of the things that made the ‘New Woman’ “new” were how she was employed and unmarried. At the end of World War I, there was a demographic shift that challenged how traditional gender roles were performed in society (Storer 2013, p. 150). While the men were fighting at the front, women started to take up more paid work outside the home (Storer 2013, p. 150). After the war, women kept their working roles, and by 1925, two-thirds of workers in the service sector were women (Storer 2013, p. 152).
As for being unmarried, the impact of the war, which cost the lives of 19% of the male population, left approximately two million young women “without the prospect of marriage” (Storer 2013, p. 28, p. 151). There are clearly contextual relationships between the behaviours of the ‘New Woman’ and the post-war milieu of Weimar Germany. In spite of these trends, the historical reality of the ‘New Woman’ falls short of the media representation.
If the historical reality of the ‘New Woman’ was not accurately represented in the media, how did women experience life during this period?
Women in Weimar Germany did experience some political equality with men. Matysik (2013, p. 361) claims that in the Weimar Constitution, women and men experienced “legal and political equality”, yet a closer examination of the Constitution reveals this is not the case. While it is true that Germany was the first country to give women the right to vote in 1919, women did not experience equality with men in the Constitution (Henig 1998, p. 12).
Hung (2015, p. 54) identifies that in the Weimar Constitution, the German Civil Code, which “subordinated the wife to the husband” stayed in effect after 1918. While women worked, they earned 10-25% less than men for the same work (Hung 2015, p. 54). As a result, even before the Great Depression, young, single women were receiving more welfare support compared to men because employers still preferred men over women as job applicants (Storer 2013, p. 154).
We can therefore understand how we have to be careful when analyzing representations of the ‘New Woman’ in the media and in the historical reality of Weimar Germany. While German women did adopt lifestyle changes characteristic of the ‘New Woman’, such as being employed and unmarried, their experience was not accurately represented in the liberated, flapper media image.
The critical question to address is that if the ‘New Woman’ did not accurately define the lives of women in Weimar Germany, how can we use this media phenomenon to understand their life?
Graf (2009, p. 647) and Hung (2015, p. 52) recognize the ‘New Woman’ can be analyzed as a historical reality representative of the Weimar democracy itself. Indeed, Epstein (2015, p. 17) has described the ‘New Woman’ as “Weimar incarnate” in how she “tested the limits” of her society. Graf (2009, p. 672) identifies that politics in post-war Germany were “highly futurized” and “privileged short-term visions of break and renewal over long-term visions of continuous development”.
The ‘New Woman’ archetype thus fits comfortably in Germany’s post-war political culture as the representation of a break from the traditional: a paradigm shift. When viewed this way, the ‘New Woman’ transcends being a media phenomenon that distorted the reality of women’s lives in Weimar Germany and becomes a useful historical tool with which to understand the culture and political milieu of Weimar society.
Demographic changes after World War I led to more women being employed and unmarried. The Weimar Constitution also offered women more political opportunities, such as the right to vote, which enabled them to be more active agents in society. It is therefore important to recognize the 'New Woman' as more than a media construct, or we run the risk of delegitimizing the experiences of women in Germany's Weimar Republic.
Epstein, C. A. (2015). Nazi Germany [E-book]. Wiley.
Graf, R. (2009). Anticipating the Future in the Present: “New Women” and Other Beings of the Future in Weimar Germany. Central European History, 42(4), 647–673. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0008938909991026.
Henig, R. (1998). The Weimar Republic 1919–1933 (Lancaster Pamphlets) (1st ed.) [E-book]. Routledge.
Hung, J. (2015). The Modernized Gretchen: Transformations of the “New Woman” in the late Weimar Republic. German History, 33(1), 52–79. https://doi.org/10.1093/gerhis/ghu113.
Matysik, T. (2013). Weimar Femininity: Within and Beyond the Law [E-book]. In P. E. Gordon & J. P. McCormick (Eds.), Weimar Thought: A Contested Legacy (pp. 361–376). Princeton University Press.
Storer, C. (2013). A Short History of the Weimar Republic (I.B.Tauris Short Histories) [E-book]. I.B.Tauris.
Citroen, U., & Citroen, P. (ca. 1929). left to right: Alexa von Porewski, Lena Amsel, Rut Landshoff, unknown[Photograph]. Art Space. https://www.artspace.com/magazine/art_101/in_depth/the-other-art-history-the-forgotten-women-of-bauhaus-55526.
Kino International. (1929). Film still from G.W. Pabst’s Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box) [Photograph]. Digital Culture Books. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/dcbooks/9475509.0001.001/--new-woman-international-representations-in-photography?g=dculture;trgt=pb_223;view=fulltext;xc=1.
ullstein bild, Contributor, & Getty Images. (n.d.). A crowd of women standing in line at a polling station in the Weimar Republic in 1919, the first year women were allowed to vote. [Photograph]. Facing History and Ourselves. https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/image/women-voting-weimar-republic?backlink=https://www.facinghistory.org/holocaust-and-human-behavior/chapter-4/women-weimar-republic.