Compulsory Service for the German Woman

By Charlotte Teller

[The Independent; October 9, 1916]

During her recent visit to Germany Charlotte Teller—who is otherwise Mrs. Gilbert Hirsch—studied particularly the problems that the war has brought to women. In The Independent for August 7 she wrote of Hedwig Heyl, "the woman who would not let Germany starve." Here she describes the organization of Germany's army of women whose battlefields are the factories, workshops and fields. Mrs. Hirsch is the author of many stories and articles and of a play, "Higginbotham." —THE EDITOR

There is an army of women working inside of Germany today. Its remarkable efficiency and energy have been recognized by every one. The men of Germany have nothing but praise for the women. The women are full of criticism of themselves. They know with what difficulty some of their results have been achieved. And they attribute this difficulty to lack of training.

For this reason the heads of the army of women are now demanding what the heads of the army of men demanded after the Franco-Prussian war—the institution of a year of compulsory service and training for every able-bodied girl between seventeen and twenty.

"The war has made women aware that, over and above their domestic and professional duties, the state has a claim on them for direct help in the performance of the national task. Out of this awareness the idea of compulsory service has sprung."

So says Helena Lange, one of the most radical feminists in Germany. Besides being an author and teacher, she has for years been a pamphleteer on behalf of the higher education of women, and has organized the Prussian women school teachers into a 'dignified and effective labor union. Associated with her in the demand for compulsory service are Lydia Stocker, who is also prominent in the women's educational movement; Gertrude Bauemer, the orator of the German feminist movement; Hedwig Heyl, who is chief of the great general staff of German women during the war, and Henrietta Goldschmidt, the first woman to make this demand—years ago.

These leaders agree, in the first place, that military training shall not be included in the year of drill. Stories of women fighting in the ranks, of which one hears in the other belligerent countries, are never told in Germany. The German women are too obedient to try to evade the law in this fashion; they are too practical to attempt by such methods to refute ''the last argument against woman suffrage;" and, above all, they are too practical, and too thoroly permeated with the Teutonic faith in specialization, to attempt to do what the men can do better.

During this war, the women have found their field in all the civilian duties ordinarily fulfilled by men. Their year of compulsory service is to make them more efficient soldiers in the armies whose battlefields are the factories, workshops and fields.

In German, the word for political and domestic economy is the same—Hauswirtschaft. And there is a growing consciousness that the tasks are the same. For this reason the majority of women demanding this year of service wish to make domestic economy the basis of all the drill.

"Every woman," says Helena Lange, "must first be master of her individual household duties."

This mastery extends to a mastery of the science of foods, their chemistry and preparation; of nursing and sanitation; of social welfare work for children.

The compulsory, service idea has its opponents. Many are unable to see how the caste system can be laid aside by women—the traditional upholders of conservatism—to permit, of all girls learning together. The war has, to an extent, fused all the women of Germany into a homogeneous mass. But it is feared that when the stress of emotion dies down, class jealousy and snobbishness will again come to the fore. The answer usually made to this objection is that the service will be a state institution; and that, when the state commands, every German, man or woman, is accustomed to obey without question.

Then there is the question of expense. The number of girls who each year reach the age prescribed for training would average about 400,000. A certain percentage would, for one or another reason, not serve. In the case of the men, it is 10% and it is assumed that the percentage for women would be about the same. But this leaves 360,000 girls to be trained by the state each year. The expense would be tremendous.

But it has been suggested that this difficulty—as well as the threatened danger to the caste system—can be met by offering inducements to the girls of the "upper classes" to pay their own expenses. This idea is borrowed from that provision in the men's compulsory service law, which permits a man to serve only one year, instead of the usual two or three, if he pays his own expenses.

Since all the girls are to serve only one year, the inducement to be held out to those who pay their own way will not be a shortening of the period of their service, but greater freedom in the choice of a specialty. If they can show that they are already efficient as housekeepers, they will be allowed during this year to take up other branches of social service.

But the women who have made social and charitable work their profession object to this. They fear the competition of these "amateurs." They have no reason to fear. In Germany the specialist rules, and the amateur takes orders. A further systematizing, of all social welfare work has been planned. The leadership will be given to these women who have made it their profession.

Another outcry has come from the women doctors, women lawyers, women teachers, who fear that this course would interrupt their special training. This is being answered by a proposal to reorganize the entire system of education, for girls and women, in such a way as to include the year of drill in household economy and social service as an integral part of the intermediate schooling. It will be the more easy to do this, as all the schools in Germany, public and private, are under state supervision.

It is interesting that the opponents of compulsory service are to be found in greater numbers among the extremely radical than among the reactionary circles. The militant feminists—and Germany has quite a few of these—maintain that it is an attempt to deprive the German woman of the fruits of that struggle for higher and unrestricted education which she has been waging for the past twenty-five years. They declare that this whole movement is simply a sublimation of the old Kinder, Küche und Kirche ("Children, kitchen, and church") philosophy. They insist that the emphasis on "economy," whether political, national or domestic, lowers the standard, making it merely utilitarian.

But the war is an effective answer to all this. Those women who have been of the greatest help have been the ones trained in domestic economy.

Englewood, New Jersey

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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