UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133b Homepage > Hist 133b Book Essays Index page > Student essay

"Women’s Participation in Germany’s Colonial Movement:
An Overview of Three German States"

Book Essay on: Lora Wildenthal,
German Women for Empire, 1884-1945

(Duke University Press, 2001), 336 pages

by Daina Tilton
March 19, 2007

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1900-1945
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2007

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning
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About Daina Tilton

I am senior double major in communications (with an emphasis in marketing and advertising) and Greek and German history. I have chosen to study German and Greek history at the University California of Santa Barbara because my mother’s side of the family is primarily Greek and my father’s side is primarily German. I traveled throughout Europe for two months and studied abroad in Berlin, Germany for four months. I chose German Women for Empire 1884-1945 because I thought it would be interesting to discover the various roles that women held throughout each of its dynamic and complex government systems.

Abstract (back to top)

German Women for Empire charts women’s activism throughout three German states: Imperial Germany, the Weimar Republic, and the Nazi Regime. Women’s involvement in the colonization process in the late 19th and early 20th centuries enabled women to demonstrate the significance of their roles within the community both socially and politically. After WWI the Weimar Republic gave women the right to vote and constitutionally stated that women were as equal to men (in principle). However, Germany lost most of its colonies after the war. Women promoted the idea of taking the colonies back from the Entente powers through the community and the household. Their purpose was to maintain and spread German nationalism at a time when Germany was weak from the consequences of WWI. The Weimar Republic ended in 1933 when Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. Women’s rights once again became restricted; however, National Socialism held strong motivations for the spread of Germanness not only in colonies but now across Europe. The Nazis’ strict control over active groups within Germany put a hold on feminist movements although they elevated women’s role within society as mothers of pure blood Germans. By analyzing colonial office archives, mission society records, periodicals, women’s memoirs, and fiction, Wildenthal’s book is a well written documentation that illustrates how women were symbols and agents for Germany’s advancement and national prestige.

Essay (back to top)

During Germany’s colonial expansion from the late 19th century and well into the 20th, women became essential figures in the promotion of German nationalism while improving their own status amongst a primarily male dominated society. Germany’s expansion overseas from annexed territory was of interest to German women. They strove to break down the barriers implemented by men who dominated the growing empire. Lora Wildenthal’s German Women for Empire illustrates the dedication of German women to participate and make a place for themselves in the colonialist movement. The author charts women’s progression by analyzing recently accessible colonial office archives as well as mission society records, periodicals, women’s memoirs, and fiction to show how these women created niches for themselves in the colonies as symbols and agents for Germany’s advancement and national prestige (Wildenthal, 2).German Women for the Empire demonstrates how women’s involvement in colonialism, with their dedication to German nationalism, fueled a strong proto-feminist movement as they advocated social, political and other rights equal to those of men.

As Germany began to expand overseas in the 1880s, women began to seek participation in the colonization process, the settlement of annexed territories by the German people(s), primarily dominated by men. Wildenthal explains that,

Between the 1870s and 1914 European states annexed territories in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific at an unprecedented rate; a business not only of explorers and their royal patrons rather shared between royal or republican rulers and the citizens of nations; women as well as men were all demanding rights of political participation (2).

However, men perceived women as un-important to colonial involvement overseas. At the beginning of German annexation German women were not expected to go to the colonies, except as Catholic missionaries or as wives of male Protestant missionaries (Wildenthal, 13); essentially promoters of religious doctrine or companions to their male counterparts. Many women, on the other hand, saw themselves as symbols and agents that would preserve German national identity during a time of expansion, not only in the home land but across seas.

Colonial nursing was the first stage of the proto-feminist movement. Pro-colonial women initiated the idea of nursing in the colonies, a profession separate from the male dominated religious affiliations or missionary work prominent in colonies. Wildenthal explains that women institutionalized their presence in the colonial movement through the practice of nursing by convincing male colonialists that they were necessary to the new expanding empire (14). They were necessary in the colonies because the provided medical aid to German male colonist preserving their health and well-being. Nursing permitted women to travel as nurses to the new colonies, opening the way for the participation of German women in the male-dominated colonist movement (Wildenthal, 14). The profession of nursing in the colonies led women to create the first colonialist organization run by and for women. In addition, women’s participation as nurses overseas promoted the German colonization movement.

A distinguished female colonist named Bulow and eleven other women formed the German National Women’s League in 1886, with efforts to separate themselves from the Evangelical Missionary headed by (clergy)men. They wanted authority, decision making power, and control over nursing practices in the new colonies that were primarily headed by men associated with religious affiliations. The league was successful in separating itself from the missionary movement, establishing the first secular organization managed and utilized by women in the colonies. In addition, the women within the league were dedicated to the spread of the German empire abroad. The German National Women’s League proposed the creation of hospitals, schools, and churches in the colonies as the “most effective means” of upholding “Germandom” (Wildenthal, 23). The author further explains that Pfeil saw these institutions as a nationalist mission to both Germans and Africans, “With them, we will make it easier for our colonists to remain thoroughly German” (24). The German National Women’s League (changed its name in April 1888 to the German Women’s Association for Nursing) was a step for the feminist movement because it detached the profession from missionary work, essentially separating itself from religious or spiritual connections and influences and also from the domination of men. German women were now fully entrenched in the colonists’ movement, establishing a place for themselves in a male dominated colonist society. In addition, the association approached issues of women’s emancipation and also served as a mediator among women’s and men’s secular colonial interest (Wildenthal, 53). As German women were able to foster German tradition and values in the colonies, they were also able to expand the feminist movement.

One of the common themes intertwined through Wildenthal’s book is the strong national identity upheld by the women of Germany in the colonies. These women first viewed themselves as Germans and then as women (52), completely separate from natives in the colonies. They sought to distinguish themselves from the natives, as agents for the preservation of German identity. In this respect, German women were launching a women’s movement that was raising questions of rights for German women, but not for native women. German women who participated in the colonial movement perceived themselves as people who deserved rights equal to those of men; however, they did not view ‘others’ or non-Germans worthy of these same equalities. Women’s involvement in colonialism with their dedication to German nationalism created a barrier between themselves and women of other races. While the feminist movement was advocating social, political and other rights equal to those of ‘German’ men, their strong German nationalism can be interpreted as a type of racism due to their disregard of the progression of rights for ‘others’ or natives.

An example of this type of German feminist racism is illustrated between Bulow and her lover, Carl Peters, both well known colonists during the late 1880’s and early 1890’s.. Peters was accused of murdering both African men and women who did not obey him, and also was accused of holding African women as sexual concubines for his own personal pleasure. Bulow, as previously stated, was a founder of the German National Women’s League. She was a radical nationalist and also played a leading role in women’s participation in colonization. Bulow’s colonial convictions were in tension with her views about progress (for women) and the attenuation of male brutality; her conclusion was a racial division: German or white women, on the one hand, and African women, on the other (77). She rationalized Peters’ brutality and violence towards women as a racial hierarchy. Wildenthal argues that “Bulow wrestled with issues of lasting difficulty for feminists and other women in Imperial Germany: careers, freedom, sexuality, and violence” (78). Her ideas and opinions about issues of race and feminism did not differ from other colonists’; however, the author explains that Bulow was unlike other women writers and activists of this time, who buried the issue and didn’t publicly speak or write about their opinions on this particular issue (78).

German women planted the seeds for German morals, conduct, and values in the overseas colonies. They wanted to preserve German national identity by promoting and enforcing German ideals. The idea of purity was brought forth when interactions between Negro women and white German men began to appear. By 1914 most colonialists agreed on two strategies for reducing racial mixing: 1) restrict the rights of African and Pacific Islander women, while dissuading German men from having sexual relations with them, and 2) encourage white German women to settle in the new territories (Wildenthal, 129). These new strategies would allow men to hold their present rights - freedom of choice -, and they also gave women a significant role as colonizers. Women were now considered an asset to preserving the pure German race. One pamphlet notes that, “It is a beautiful task for German women to act as protect tresses of German manners and morals towards foreign elements” (Wildenthal, 23). Women were recognized as being necessary to overseas colonization because their encouragement and promotion of German nationalism on foreign territory. Women saw it as their obligation to conserve the colonist men as Germans – to preserve their “pure” national identity.

Women now had a cultural, racial and national significance in the colonization process beyond nursing and missionary services. Their motivations were in the settlement of German women in Africa and other colonies with efforts to spread Germanness into annexed territories. The colonial expansion brought forth issues of race; thus a ‘race war’ began. The Women’s Question of equal rights became about race; sustaining racial purity of Germanness amongst the colonies. A new group of women disassociated themselves from feminists and started the “The German Colonial Women’s League,” urging German women to leave Germany for the colonies where they would become wives of colonial war heroes and at the same time solve a colonial policy problem (Wildenthal, 143). The colonial policy problem was defined by “racial mixing” of native and German blood. In 1907 the German Colonial Women’s League called on women to be “conduits of colonist sentiments in the home and community, claiming that women were uniquely capable of making public politics into private ways of living” (Wildenthal, 144). While these women were not active in the proto-feminist movement, they did form an organization by and for women that advocated women’s role in the colonial movement; signifying their importance overseas.

Racial hierarchy and separation continued into the beginning of World War One. Wildenthal explains one women’s role in the advancement of women in the colonization process. Hedwig Heyl, a feminist who pushed the German Colonial Women’s League closer to a women’s movement, addressed the Women’s Question of equal rights and their involvement overseas. She proposed the idea of creating new careers for women in the colonies that would entice more women from Germany to settle there. The development of women’s colonial careers would include “kindergarten schools, midwives, governesses, and agricultural overseers in Africa”. All of the institutions would be for a progressive settlement in the colonies for “pure” Germans and their children. Heyl claimed that this would preserve German purity because (white German) children would be “removed from the ‘danger’ that African nannies and servants posed” (Wildenthal, 162). Based upon Heyl’s proposal and reasoning, the Women’s League began to send more and more women to the colonies. Compared to the German Colonial Society, which sent 111 women between 1898 and 1907, The Women’s League sent 561 between 1908 and 1914 (Wildenthal, 163). The significance in this process is that the Women’s League succeeded in transforming the female emigration program, allowing more women to participate and take action in the colonization process. Women in the colonies were now a pertinent asset to colonization; men were not the only agents of the colonization process.

Germany lost its colonies to the Entente Powers after being defeated in World War I, and the Weimar Republic, a new form of government, came to power shortly thereafter. This was Germany’s second state and its first democracy. The Weimar Republic extinguished Wilhelm’s Reign and with it ended the inequality of women - a new constitution stated that women were ‘in principal’ equal to men and the government allowed women the right to vote. Wildenthal argues that women who had once opposed feminism and suffrage rights before the war were now eager to seize the new political rights bestowed upon them by the Weimar Republic (176). The author fails to present information on women’s newly acquired political right to vote during the time period. Julia Sneeringer’s The Political Mobilization of Women in Weimar Germany explainsthat women lacked the motivation to advance gender equality during the Weimar Republic, as illustrated by their voting behavior(s). Sneeringer states that:

During the first election in which women could vote, all major parties assumed that women were primarily interested in gender equality. The Democrats promoted themselves as 'the party of women' and introduced the concept of a new female German citizen. When the voting results came in, the ballots showed that women were voting along the same class and religious affiliations as men. The Democrats and Socialists altered their campaigns to stress women's 'motherly' role in politics and the threat of female suffrage evaporated (5-10).

We see that women used their newly gained political power to vote, but not for the continuation or advancement of women’s issues. The women in the Weimar Republic focused more on the household and the preservation of German ideals and morals, not necessarily practicing their newly gained rights to become equal to men. The Women’s League and the Women’s Red Cross Association argued that “the best way to overcome the decolonization imposed by the Entente was a gradual, informal retaking of the former colonies household by household, community by community” (Wildenthal, 175). The German women who still remained in the colonies thought that the best way to regain the territories was through the promotion of German morals and values in the household. Colonialist women’s focus on feminine essence and the household rather than formal political boundaries was now a positive advantage, for after the First World War the household was the only territory that many Germans felt they could still control (Wildenthal, 176). Rather than engaging in colonist issues previously demonstrated through direct, organizational and feminist efforts, the women promoted colonization through the German ‘household’, both overseas and in the homeland.

The Weimar Republic collapsed and the National Socialists began their official reign in 1933. The Nazi party state had complete control over every aspect of German life: laws, institutions, organizations, military, social and private life and the economy. The progress of women’s equality essentially ended when Hitler came to power. The Nazi regime’s attitude towards women regarded them solely as child-bearers and supporters of their husbands. The regime’s policies for women were based on the 3 K’s: Kinder, Kirche, Kuche; respectively children, church and the kitchen (Linville, 1); all essentially issues surrounding racial policy and eugenics. Hitler’s main premise for women was that it was their sole responsibility and duty to expand the German race by bearing pure-blooded German children and raising them with German morals and ideals. Women in Germany and the colonies, activist and non-active, all well supported the spread of German nationalism; because of this, they were eager to conform to Hitler’s idea of spreading nationalism through bearing pure blood Germans.

A change in the colonial movement takes place by 1936. All colonist organizations, including women’s, were taken over by Nazi party organizations and dissolved altogether in 1943 as part of the mobilization for total war. Yet one institution remained: the Colonial School for Women at Rendsberg, which aimed to prepare girls for “all domestic and agricultural women’s careers” with an “eye to settlement purposes both at home and abroad” (Wildenthal, 197). This was the only organization left dedicated to women’s participation in colonialism after Hitler took power; however their ideals were consistent with Nazism and independence. “Colonist women’s ideas of race purity, of women’s special duty and ability to preserve Germanness, and of the superiority of German culture and colonization were relatively obvious matches with Nazi thinking” (Wildenthal, 203). Women within these schools facilitated the idea of spreading Germanness across all territories, a common goal of the Nazis. They saw domestication as a career which also corresponded with Nazi ideals while contributing to the economy as agricultural workers. Wildenthal concludes her book by stating that the specially trained women at the Colonial School for Women at Rendsberg found a space of freedom in which to enact, or at least imagine, their own domination of colonial space and colonial others (202). German women acted as symbols and agents, not only in the German homeland as birthing mothers for pure Germans, but across the sea in the colonies implanting and maintaining German ideals and offspring. Their involvement in colonialism and their dedication to German nationalism gave them a name and a place in a male dominated empire.

During Germany’s colonial expansion women became prominent figures in the promotion of German nationalism while improving their own status amongst a primarily male dominated society. German women took action, breaking down the barriers implemented by men who dominated the empire. Lora Wildenthal’s book, German Women for Empire, illustrates the dedication of German women to participate and make a place for themselves in the colonialist movement; in addition, demonstrating how women’s involvement in colonialism, with their dedication to German nationalism, fueled a strong proto-feminist movement as they advocated social, political and other rights equal to those of men.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/x/07)

Book Reviews

  1. Quateraert, J.H. Europe: Early Modern and Modern. The American Historical Review Vol. 108, No. 1. Feb 2003. Pg. 273.
    This review states that Wildenthal's book on German colonial women complements and fits well into the new literature on the German colonial movement. The review is available online at- http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/108.1/br_143.html
  2. Boisseau, T.J. The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 35, No. 1, Special Issue: Leisure in African History. (2002), pp. 152-153.
    This review argues that Wildenthal presents an outstanding account of German women’s relationship to empire, race, and national identity during Germany’s most crucial time period.
  3. Healy, M. The German Quarterly, Vol. 76, No. 1. (Winter, 2003), pp. 126-128.
    This review states that Wildenthal’s book is a ‘ground breaking’ study of women in Germany’s colonial movement. Healy further explains that Wildenthal’s research and analyses can and should be expanded on.
  4. Moyd, M. African Studies Review, Vol. 45, No. 3. (Dec., 2002), pp. 95-97.
    This review is very complimenting of Wildenthal’s work on German women and their participation during Germany’s colonial movement. Moyd explains that Wildenthal brilliantly tackles the 3 themes in modern German history – colonialism, racism and gender.

Relevant Books and Articles

  1. Linville, Susan. Feminism, Film, Fascism: Women’s Auto/biographical Film in Postwar Germany. 1998.
    Linville’s book addresses the issue of German society's inability and/or refusal to come to terms with its Nazi past. The author focuses on the women's feminist auto/biographical films of the 1970s and 1980s illustrating how women dealt with and approached the Nazi past; in addition, opposing the patriarchal and authoritarian nature of postwar German culture. This book presents, through film, how women acted against the male dominated society during the Nazi era.
  2. Tipton, Frank. A History of Modern Germany Since 1815. Continuum, 2003.
    Tipton’s book looks at the economic, social, political and cultural forces that have created modern Germany. The book gives not only a background but also an insight into the three states that Wildenthal addresses in her book, “German Women for Empire 1884-114.
  3. Sneeringer, Julia Elaine. The Political Mobilization of Women in Weimar Germany, 1918-1932 . University of Pennsylvania. 1995.
    Sneeringer’s dissertation illustrates German women’s political discourse throughout the Weimar Republic. She charts women’s role in society through their voting preferences. The author argues that women’s voting behaviors exemplify and illustrate their place in society during the respective time period.

Web Sites / External Links

  1. http://cohesion.rice.edu/humanities/hist/people.cfm?doc_id=2964
    This website outlines Wildenthal’s past and present academic achievements. Her current research examines aspects of human rights activism in West Germany. She is a graduate of Rice University (BA 1987) and the University of Michigan (PhD 1994). In addition, Wildenthal has been a faculty member at Pitzer College, MIT, Texas A&M University, and since 2003 Rice University.
  2. http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~sarmatia/107/271wilden.html
    This website presents another piece by Wildenthal entitled “ Those Who Trespass Against Us: One Woman's War Against the Nazis”. It is a very useful site for reading more material presented by Wildenthal and gaining insight on her perspective(s) on German history.

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