Competing Visions of Womanhood in a Communist State

At a Women’s Studies colloquium, history professor Stewart Anderson argued that the downfall of the German Democratic Republic was possibly influenced by competing representations of womanhood in East German television in the ’50s and ’60s.

PROVO, UT (Feb. 13, 2015)— A former Olympic athlete from the Nazi era works part-time coaching young men and women in track and field events by day, by night switching to the role of a devoted mother who helps her children with their homework and works to convince her husband to join the communist party.

IMG_0988In contrast to this image of urban motherhood, a peasant woman with four children and an abusive husband struggles to compensate for her husband’s shiftless lifestyle. She takes a job with a collective’s pig stall, an opportunity that transforms her from a submissive, abused wife to a confident, hard-working woman who leaves her husband and becomes a factory manager in the city.

At a Women’s Studies colloquium, history professor Stewart Anderson explained that in East German television in the 50s and 60s, these two competing representations of East German womanhood existed alongside one another: proletariat comrade and loyal mother.

“Television served as a powerful mediatic platform for this vision,” Anderson said. “Nevertheless, because they were forced to walk a fine line between these two projects – progressive and conservative – the representations of women were varied, and sometimes quite contradictory.”

Contrasting depictions of womanhood were used as a strategy to gain support for the communist regime and to create a believable vision of a socialist society. Anderson argued, however, that these incoherent representations cost the regime legitimacy, contributing to the eventual dissolution of communism in East Germany.

Anderson explained that in the 1950s East German political authorities treated television in the same way they would use propaganda fliers or radio, recognizing that television was a popular space to vie for with West Germany.

Women’s equality featured heavily in East German television programs. Anderson said that considerable resources were spent to attract women viewers and provide them role models to emulate.

“While few historians have stopped to consider television as part of this process, many have noted the East German regime’s struggle to win favor in the eyes of women,” said Anderson. “It has been well established that this regime was deeply committed to reshaping women’s roles, giving women greater rights and responsibilities.”

Anderson pointed to evidence suggesting that the efforts of the communist party to reshape women’s roles began to pay off by the 1960s. Between 1949 and 1965, he said that the number of women graduating from university had doubled, and that the proletarian workforce had a higher percentage of women than ever before in German history.

Proletariat WorkerThough representations of working women and motherhood were both represented on television, these dual roles caused background tensions. Producers and politicians alike debated the role of women in a communist worker state, even though within that state women were now working. The solution for the screen? Communist mothers.

“It’s hardly surprising that mothers appear in East German television plays,” said Anderson. “The way in which they are represented is striking, however. Producers and writers grafted motherly attributes and characteristics onto a communist agenda. Mothers were seen as supportive of the regime in their calling as mothers, nurturers and caregivers.”

Anderson shared clips from a television fiction program called “The Mother and the Silence,” a story about a 60-year-old mother named Clara living in Berlin during the 1930s. In the program Clara hides a communist agent from the Gestapo, who she later discovers knows her son. The agent relates to Clara her son’s bravery amidst Nazi opposition and persecution, which eventually inspires Clara herself to join the communist cause, Anderson explained.

“As she learns more about the cause her son is fighting for, she demonstrates solidarity by accepting secret missions of her own,” Anderson said. “Her role as a mother does not disappear. The film circumscribes her actions as part of her motherly duties.”

Clara eventually starts recruiting other mothers to help her. “Not just other people, not just anybody off the street, but specifically other mothers who may or may not be mothers of communist agents,” said Anderson.

Anderson continued, “Clara’s character was thus intended as an on-screen surrogate for German mothers in East Germany, a hero for a specific subset of the population.”

East German motherAround 1960, as the East began to lose the ideological war with the West, Anderson noted that attitudes began to change. By 1959, working proletarian women as comrades began to surface on television, which Anderson said was a conscious decision by both the station and political authorities to recruit women as a bulwark against Western sympathies.

By 1962, programming emerged that focused on successful career women. One example was “Masters of Chemistry,” a program that highlighted successful women working as chemists in East Germany. This worked to promote the idea that women could do traditionally male occupations in the sciences and in engineering.

“Programs began to present women as capable and equal partners in their respective spheres and in the socialist building project,” Anderson said. “Based on this kind of visual evidence the message was clear: In communism, women are treated as equals and allowed to hold men’s jobs on the basis of merit – not their gender.”

Under the communist regime more and more women began to attend university, which in turn encouraged them to become more politically involved. As a result they used their position within the party to push for more rights, like generous maternity leave and the creation of more daycare facilities.

“They began to revolt against the ostensibly progressive, but in reality quite patriarchal and conservative regime,” Anderson said, suggesting that the communist regime could not maintain legitimacy in the face of competing visions of womanhood that it had created.

Dual representations of women as domestic caretakers and workers in a proletariat state created tensions between conservative and progressive visions of what communism should look like in East Germany, Anderson explained.

He concluded, “The regime’s inability to resolve this tension helped create the circumstances which eventually led to the state’s destruction.”

Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English ’17)