East German Feminists: The Lila Manifesto

Lisa DiCaprio. Feminist Studies. Volume 16, Issue 3. Fall 1990.

“In the GDR the ideal of a socialist society of self-determining and self-creating women, men, and children was sacrificed to a social concept in which people were subordinated to economic premises, prescribed from the outside, and finally, made into objects of politics.” So states the manifesto of the Lila Offensive (Lila), a Berlin women’s group in the Autonomous Women’s Association (Unabhangiger Frauenverband) of the German Democratic Republic. One of several new organizations created in East Germany in the wake of the “November 9, 1989, Revolution,” the association was formed in a public meeting in East Berlin on December 3, 1989, when more than 1,000 women who packed the People’s Theater (Volksbuhne) in the center of town answered the question, “Do you want an autonomous women’s association?” in the affirmative. An umbrella organization, the association brought together over two dozen groups throughout the GDR under its slogan, “Cooperation, Ecological Awareness, and Multiculturalism: Against: Sexism, Social Cuts, and Cuts in Pay.” Christina Schenk, the association’s Berlin candidate in the March 18, 1990, elections, explained: “The Autonomous Women’s Association is a societal-cultural concept to ensure that women will not be cut short in the new political process.” The association was the only national women’s organization to emerge from the political transformations which took place throughout Eastern Europe in 1989.

The Lila Manifesto, which we are reprinting here, was published in January 1990, in the pamphlet, Frauen in die Offensive. A shortened version of the Lila Manifesto was circulated in the January 1990 issue of Blattgold, a women’s calendar published in West Berlin. At the time, it represented one of the first public statements of women’s interests in the new East Germany. Today, the Lila Manifesto is both a historical and a contemporary political document. It is contemporary in that Lila’s demands remain relevant to the current struggle of women in Germany. However, the specific circumstances which inspired the manifesto no longer exist. The Lila Manifesto was formulated at a moment when an independent restructuring of the GDR appeared as a distinct possibility and when women’s issues were taken up as part of a radical transformation of society as a whole.

Although many of the Lila goals are the same as those of feminists in the United States, the origins and context of feminist activity in East Germany are very different from those of both the United States and West Germany. Whereas in both the United States and West Germany, the autonomous women’s movement arose out of the New Left in the 1960s, such a movement could not emerge in the GDR as long as the Communist party of the GDR, the Socialist Unity Party-Party of Democratic Socialism (SED-PDS), maintained a monopoly of political power. The SED did not permit any autonomous organizing among women and only recognized the official women’s organization—the Democratic Women’s Union, or DFD (Demokratischer Frauenbund Deutschland). The DFD is generally credited with bringing women into the trades and professions in the immediate postwar period. And, in 1972, it played a key role in getting an abortion bill passed in the People’s Chamber (Volkskammer, the GDR parliament). As a result, the GDR constitution allows for abortion on demand in the first trimester. It is clear, however, that the DFD did not act independently of the SED. Moreover, the DFD did not challenge the SED’s condemnation of feminism as a bourgeois importation from the West. In the People’s Chamber, for example, the DFD promoted abortion as a means of enhancing the position of women in the work force. It did not take up abortion as a guarantee of women’s freedom of sexual expression. The passage of the abortion bill also did not involve any public debate.

The DFD’s capitulation to the SED and its limited approach is now openly criticized by East German feminists. In a critique of an official history of the DFD, Lila member Annet Groschner stated, “The entire history of the DFD is based upon the erroneous premise that the emancipation [of women] automatically followed from the construction of socialist modes of production or as Walter Ulbricht so vividly put it, the ‘liberation of woman from capitalist servitude and inequality’ (from the VI party congress).” The logical outcome of the SED’s failure to consider women’s issues in social and cultural, as well as economic, terms was its declaration made in 1971 that women had achieved equality with men. The SED’s claim was based on the integration of 90 percent of GDR women into the work force. In reality, women workers occupied an inferior position in relation to their male counterparts. Until recently, access to work was not an issue in the GDR, but the GDR’s self-proclaimed “socialist” economy favored men over women for economic advancement and promotions. Three-quarters of women worked in traditional jobs, and women typically earned 25 to 30 percent less than men. Further, the official emphasis on the “socialist family” privileged heterosexual marriage and presumed that women should assume the greatest share of responsibility for housework. Compared with the West, an extensive system of childcare made it possible for women with small children to work; however, the position of single mothers (both unmarried and divorced) remained difficult, given the level of women’s earnings. The unavailability of childcare after working hours also meant that mothers were unable to take the time out for special job training and could not work the more remunerative night shifts. According to the Lila Manifesto, “women are expected to assume a double burden through the unilaterally prescribed ‘reconcilability of occupation and motherhood.’“

Although women’s issues were discussed within small closed circles, women, along with all other alternative groups, could only organize under the auspices of the Lutheran church, which played an essential role in the events leading up to November 1989. States Schenk, “The church gave space for meetings for everyone, including those with non-Christian views. These included lesbian/gay working groups, ecologists, and human rights and peace activists.” Many of the women’s groups which originated in the church went under the name of Arbeitskreis or “working group.” As the SED maintained a monopoly on print, women’s publications could only appear under the aegis of the Women’s Department of the Church. A lesbian newsletter, Frau Anders (Ms. Different), was produced and distributed in this way through the church.

With the abolition of STASI (the secret police) and the monopolistic position of the SED, a new political culture emerged in the GDR. Manifestos, programmatic demands, and research on women in all spheres of GDR life proliferated. At Humboldt University in then East Berlin, the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies on Women is now able to pursue research on the social and economic status of women in a freer manner. Women’s cultural initiatives since November 9 have included the establishment, on December 30, 1989, of the first Autonomous Women’s Center on the Schonhauser Alle in East Berlin. In January 1990, the Lesbischen Arbeitskreis, a new lesbian working group, was formed in East Berlin. Its aims include more cultural and political activities of lesbians outside of the church and joint Take Back the Night and Gay Pride events with West Berlin activists.

The opening of the borders also allowed for unprecedented dialogue between East and West German feminists. A women’s festival, organized in December 1989 by the West Berlin group, Goldrausch, drew over 1,000 women from East and West. In January, a meeting at the Women’s Research, Education, and Information Center, or FFBIZ, in West Berlin, brought together nearly 100 social science researchers from both East and West Berlin. And on March 8, 1990, East and West German feminists held a joint International Women’s Day demonstration in East Berlin. The slogans of the demonstration emphasized daycare for children and other “mother-child issues.”

It was at the beginning of this period of new political openness that the Lila Manifesto was published. Its standpoint was feminist, leftist, and anti-capitalist. The tensions involved in this strategy were evident in the activities of the Autonomous Women’s Association. On the one hand, the association recognized the necessity of autonomy so that women could draw up their own demands and create an organizational base of strength. At the same time, the association recognized the necessity of cooperating with leftist opposition groups. The association gained official status at the Round Table, which served as a forum for the exchange of political ideas and as a controlling mechanism on the government and the state apparatus while it was still dominated by the party. Association members sat on key Round Table commissions on the media, equal rights for women and men, national minorities, and on the new national constitution. The association also participated in the Round Table’s formulation of a social charter and draft for a new GDR constitution. At the Round Table, the association demanded the establishment of a secretary for equal opportunity on the cabinet level and 50 percent quotas for women at all levels of decision making.

Consequently, members participated in the March 18, 1990 elections, running on a slate with the Green party, which supported the association’s demands for quotas. Although its political positions were adequately represented in the “Green-Lilac” campaign literature, the association failed to secure a place in the new German parliament due to the Green party’s violation of a preelection agreement concerning the distribution of electoral seats. How cooperation with Left groups in the new unified Germany will work out remains to be seen. For the December 2 elections, the Autonomous Women’s Association is in the electoral alliance, Greens/Alliance ’90-Citizens’ Movement, comprised of East German dissident groups with roots in the underground resistance of the 1980s—New Forum, Democracy Now, the United Left, the East German Greens, and the Initiative for Peace and Human Rights.

Abortion will be a major issue for both East and West German feminists. For fifteen years, West German feminists have unsuccessfully sought to reform Paragraph 218, which states that a woman may only obtain an abortion if she sees a counselor and if two physicians determine that she has met one of three conditions—socioeconomic difficulties, pregnancy as a result of rape or incest, or danger to the health of the woman. A compromise reached in August 1990 stipulates that both the permissive East German and restrictive West German laws will pertain in their respective regions for two years following unification, but that after this time the whole matter will come before the Bundestag again. The right to abortion, however, is only one of the many social guarantees to which East German women have become accustomed. Equally important guarantees now threatened by the unification process are paid maternity leave, access to trades and professional employment, housing, education, and work. Today, feminists of the former GDR are determined to play an active role in the new political situation and not to again be made into the “objects of politics.” As one of the warnings issued by the Autonomous Women’s Association states, “Those who don’t resist will find themselves in front of the kitchen stove.”