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100 Years of Women’s Suffrage in Germany

On November 30, 1918—100 years ago today—women in Germany gained the right to vote and stand for election. With the enactment of the Electoral Act (Reichswahlgesetz), the newly formed Council of People’s Representatives—the provisional government—fulfilled its promise made on November 12, 1918, to allow active and passive female suffrage. November 12, 1918, is therefore generally seen as the birth of women’s suffrage in Germany. The Council decided that elections to a constituent German National Assembly for the Weimar Republic would take place on January 9, 1919.

Germany was not the only country to give women the right to vote at that time; around 25 countries introduced female suffrage between 1902 and 1920, with New Zealand introducing it as early as 1893. Women in the United States, for example, received the right to vote around the same time as German women with the ratification of the 19th amendment on August 18, 1920.

Poster tells women to care for peace and bread and to vote and campaign in the election. (Bernhard, Lucian artist. 1919.) Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g11903.

The Electoral Act stated in § 2:

Wahlberechtigt sind alle deutschen Männer und Frauen, die am Wahltag das 20. Lebensjahr vollendet haben. (All men and women who have completed their 20th year of life on election day are eligible to vote.) (Translation by author.)

Furthermore, § 5 read:

Wählbar sind alle Wahlberechtigten, die am Wahltag seit mindestens einem Jahre Deutsche sind. (All persons entitled to vote who have been German for at least a year on election day may be elected.) (Translation by author.)

The elections on January 19, 1919, were the first in which women were allowed to vote and stand for election. Female voter turnout exceeded 80%. Around 300 women stood for election and 37 women won a seat in the 423-member National Assembly. Before the end of the legislative period, four more women entered the National Assembly, raising the number of female parliamentarians to 41.

On February 19, 1919, representative Marie Juchacz from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) became the first woman to address the German parliament. She said:

Es ist das erste Mal, dass in Deutschland die Frau als Freie und Gleiche im Parlament zum Volke sprechen darf. Was diese Regierung getan hat, das war eine Selbstverständlichkeit; sie hat den Frauen gegeben, was ihnen bis dahin zu Unrecht vorenthalten worden ist. (This is the first time in Germany that a woman has been allowed to address the people in parliament on free and equal terms. What this government has done was self-evident; it gave women something that they have been wrongfully deprived of until then.)

Act on Political Parity

Female representation in parliament remained under 10% until 1983, when it again reached the level of 1919. After that, it continued to rise and reached its peak in 2013 with 36.3%. However, in 2017, the number of female parliamentarians in the German Bundestag fell to 30.9%. State parliaments have seen a similar decline. Various groups have therefore called for an “Act on Political Parity,” which would introduce a quota system for women in politics. The German Female Lawyer Association spoke out in favor of such a law at the federal level. In November 2018, the Green Party also expressed its support. At the state level, the coalition agreements of the state governments in Lower Saxony, Thuringia, and Saxony-Anhalt provide that they will look into whether a political parity act would be constitutional. In addition, in March 2018, the Green Party in Brandenburg introduced a draft act on political parity for the state parliament. The act would require equal representation of men and women on electoral party lists by alternating between man and woman.

Opponents of such rules allege that they would be incompatible with the German Basic Law, in particular with article 28 and article 38, which codify the principles of general, free, and equal elections. In their view, such a violation cannot be justified under article 3 of the Basic Law, which states that “men and women shall have equal rights,” because article 3 requires equal chances and not equal results. Proponents on the other hand rely on a different sentence in article 3 to justify the violation. They argue that the state objective to “promote the actual implementation of equal rights for women and men and take steps to eliminate disadvantages that now exist” requires the state to take positive actions to eliminate the underrepresentation of women. It remains to be seen whether such a law will be enacted.

In November 2016, the activist group “Parité in den Parliamenten” (Parity in Parliaments) brought an action at the Bavarian Constitutional Court requesting the court to determine whether the Bavarian electoral laws violate the Bavarian Constitution by not ensuring gender parity. The Court dismissed the case in March 2018. On May 3, 2018, a complaint against the decision of the Bavarian Constitutional Court was filed with the German Constitutional Court. The complaint is still pending.

Further Reading

The Library of Congress holds a number of items related to women’s suffrage in Germany and around the world, including:

One Comment

  1. Bernd Bartoll
    December 10, 2018 at 1:00 pm

    Von der Gleichbehandlung von Frauen und Männern ist man in Deutschland trotz des Wahlrechts noch immer sehr weit entfernt.

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