Questioning Assumptions about Gender and the Legacy of the GDR


If we examine the status of women strictly from the socioeconomic perspective, this portrayal of reunification [as the silencing in which traces of the East German social, cultural, and ideological framework were erased and replaced by the Western capitalist social, economic, and cultural framework] seems apt.  Indeed, scholars persistently describe the reunification as a shock, especially for women, as an irreparable loss, and declare women to be the losers of German reunification.

As is well known, the so-called gender contract of the GDR espoused the ideal of the working mother.  Official propaganda claimed that the GDR was a fully emancipated country, in which women were an active and productive force in the public sphere.  Due to social support structures such as universal daycare, workers’ collectives, and others, in the year of reunification, a little over 91% of East German women were employed, compared to merely 58% of West German women.  Additionally, East German women were highly skilled and had made significant inroads into the traditional male sectors of the labor market, especially compared to West German women.  The socioeconomic picture supported the value system that did not view the man as the principal breadwinner and did not consider marriage and the nuclear family to be the only acceptable norm for gender relations.

By comparison, in the West, daycare spots were scarce, and the labor and family legislation was far from progressive.  Accordingly, West German men and women considered the man to be the principal breadwinner, and women struggled to reconcile motherhood and careers, often accepting significant professional setbacks such as pay cuts, shift to part-time employment, and even job loss.  The reunification, therefore, was not only a shock to East German women because they had to adapt to this system; but the shock was further amplified by the economic devastation that occurred in the process of East-West integration, from which many Eastern regions, with unemployment numbers well into double digits, still don’t seem to have recovered.

So, where are we, twenty years later?  East German women are adapting increasingly better to the Western system.  So, the disparity is diminishing between East and West German women.  But this only means that East German women have joined their Western counterparts in the struggle to reconcile motherhood and careers, by either opting to delay motherhood for the sake of a career, thus making significant contributions to the low fertility rate in Germany, or by accepting professional setbacks.  According to a recent study from May 2009, despite its now much more progressive labor and family legislation, Germany still lies far behind such countries as Great Britain and the US, not to mention the Scandinavian countries, in providing women with the social support structures that would enable them to harmonize the two life spheres.  Thus, according to the recent figures from the Statistisches Bundesamt [Federal Statistics Office], female employment has only improved by a small margin since reunification, from 58 to 62%.  There still is a significant wage disparity between men and women.  And, for many women, motherhood still comes at a comparatively high professional cost.  Thus a long road still lies ahead for East and West German women alike.  So, they have a unified struggle at any rate.

Elena Pnevmonidou is Assistant Professor at the Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies at the University of Victoria.  This video is part of “Twenty Years after the Fall of the Wall: The Legacy of Germany’s East-West Divide,” an online forum sponsored by

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