Reuniting Germany after Berlin Wall's demise is a burden for women of the east

May 09, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- The cost of reuniting Germany has become a heav burden for the women of the east.

They gained the right to travel when the Berlin Wall came down and communism collapsed. But most don't have the money to go anywhere. They gained the right to choose where they want to work. But they lost their jobs. They won political freedom but lost social independence.

In the old Communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), 92 percent of the women worked. Now women make up 62 percent of the unemployed. Of the people who get work, only 30 percent are women. Of the 1 million east Germans over 55 forced to take early retirement, two thirds were women. Most of them will never get a job again.

A 'catastrophic situation'

Abortion, once freely available, is now restricted. Divorce, once simple, is now complicated. The elaborate and virtually free child-care system of the GDR is being hacked away, privatized and made expensive. The births among women in the east have plummeted 52 percent. For every three children born in 1989, one is born now. Marriages have dropped 50 percent.

"It's a catastrophic situation," says Dr. Regine Hildebrandt, the minister for work, social services, health and women in &r Brandenburg, the largest of the former East German states.

Tough, compassionate and viewed as totally honest, Dr. Hildebrandt is the most popular woman in German politics, and second most popular overall after ex-foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. She's a lot better off than many.

The society that is developing in the east of Germany is not the one she envisioned before the wall came down. "In the East we had many illusions," she says. "The wall was there, and we only had television. Life [in the West] looked like one big commercial."

For east German women, the end of communism has often turned out to mean only more consumer goods for those who can afford them. "Clothes, fashion, cosmetics," Dr. Hildebrandt says, a bit scornfully.

Isn't that important?

"Not for me," she says, with a certain irony.

No apologies

At 52, Dr. Hildebrandt looks like a professor of classics at some obscure liberal arts college. She wears sensible white shoes, a gray skirt, a checked jacket and a white shirt. She wears no makeup; her iron-gray hair is cropped. She has a strong, plain face. People trust her.

Even though she believes east German women have lost more than they have gained, she is no apologist for communism. "I was born on Bernauer Street, the border between east and west," she says. "In 1961, they walled up the windows and front door of our house, and our family across the street remained in the west. We were divided by that horrible, horrible wall."

But between east and west Germans there really is a lot of misunderstanding.

"I did not want to believe the Communists when they said east and west Germany had grown apart an enormous distance. But now it has caught up with me in a terrible way, and yes, it is true."

East German women find themselves in a society where for many people the ideal woman is a housewife with a couple of children, who dotes on her husband. Men come first in jobs, education and family.

Before the "Wende," the turning point when communism collapsed, East German women earned 40 percent of a couple's income, West German women 18 percent. Women got good technical or university educations and got the jobs they were qualified for. Women in the east had more than 50 percent of the jobs in the technical professions. In the west they had 18 percent.

"They [east German women] were pushed out because it is not customary in the west," said Dr. Hildebrandt.

Now it's not uncommon to find women who performed high-tech jobs in the GDR making beds in the high-priced hotels that are among the most visible signs of privatization.

Women's groups emerge

"Emancipation in the east was much stronger than in the west," Dr. Hildebrandt says. "But not in the head. It was ideology. The state created emancipation."

"You didn't have women's groups that got together and showed their strength. The state did it from above. We didn't fight to get our rights, and we didn't value them.

"East German women were not used to fighting for their rights," she said. "But here and there women's groups are forming."

The GDR wasn't being particularly altruistic in encouraging the emancipation of women. A severe labor shortage plagued East Germany for all of the 40 years it existed. They needed everyone they could get in the work force.

East German men were not necessarily less chauvinistic than Westerners either. They shared in the housework and child care when the wall was up and women were earning nearly half the family income.

"After the Wende," Dr. Hildebrandt says, "suddenly men found they were not responsible for taking care of the house or children, the women were."

The shock of change recorded in the statistics Dr. Hildebrandt cites is embodied in Ellen Becker, who works for one of the biggest new women's groups in eastern Germany, the Independent Women's Association.

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