The New Brunhilda:
German Women and the War

By Katharine Anthony

[The Outlook; February 9, 1916]

When Hansi comes marching home, he will not find his women folk where he left them. They have learned much in his absence. Nor do they plan to hide their new light under a bushel. The Federation of Women's Societies—Bund deutscher Frauenvereine—has announced that as soon as the war is over they will publish a volume describing their own share in it. They do not intend that the nation shall forget what its women have done, or that the Reichstag shall lack a reminder that woman suffrage is overdue.

Before the war, there were nine and a half million women at work in Germany; there are now thirteen millions. Before the war, the poor man's wife did not know what it was to spend a pfennig without accounting for it to her Mann; she now, has a weekly allowance from the Government, a pittance, it is true, but at least she has the sole control of it. Before the war, the average housekeeper had no idea of fair play in the national standard of living; now she has learned, thanks to the bread card, the meatless days, and all the other food restrictions, what it means to forego luxury and waste in order that others may have enough. Before the war, thousands of middle-class women did not know the first principles of organization and solidarity; they are now working side by side with other women for common aims and purposes, released from domestic isolation for united social service.

These lessons of the war-year have left their impress on a whole generation of women. When the last gun has sounded they will have nothing to unlearn. The war, which has brought to the men a setback in the school of civilization, has brought to the women accelerated progress in that school. To produce and conserve the food supply, to protect childhood and further education, to earn and organize opportunities for earning—these are to-morrow's works as well as today's. They are memories which women can well afford to cherish. But trench memories—well, the men most worth while will be those who can forget them fastest.

It was through the Bund deutscher Frauenvereine, whose five hundred thousand members form the core of the German woman's movement, that the famous mobilization of the housewives was made possible. The President of the Federation is a woman of broad economic grasp and skilled executive powers. Every one who is at all familiar with the German woman's movement knows the name of Gertrud Bäumer. Besides being the president of the largest organization of women in the country, Dr. Bäumer is associate editor of "Die Hilfe," one of the best known of the Berlin weeklies. Under her leadership the National Women's Service was perfected and put to work within four days after war was declared. It was a truly spectacular accomplishment, in which Gertrud Bäumer figured as the von Hindenburg of the housewives' army. In this event, as in so many others in which women have been concerned, the state was reaping where it had not sown, for these new defenders had been trained in the woman's rights movement, and derived their powers from their long struggle, with the Government.

The National Women's Service devoted itself primarily to the food crisis. A dramatic beginning was made by the cooks' assembly held in the Prussian Chamber of Deputies. All the cooks of Greater Berlin were invited. Here they sat in the seats of the mighty and heard the programme of food-conservation outlined by women economists and cooking experts. The new war cook book was distributed, and attractive leaflets were given away which-read:

Cook potatoes in the skin. It saves one-tenth.

Use plenty of sugar. Cook up the fruit and do not let it go to waste.

Use marmalades and "Mus" to replace butter.

Meat can be replaced by cheese, milk, and fish.

Use the fireless cooker and save fuel.

Early spring saw the wander-cooks setting out for the country districts. The Bund deutscher Frauenvereine sent a hundred representatives. Having first been trained at the Government's expense for their work, they penetrated into the farthest Hinterland, sometimes walking from village to village, On Sunday afternoons they met the country women in the village church or school and delivered their message of economy and co-operation. The talks were very simple, being chiefly object-lessons centering around the bread card and the fireless cooker.

These peasant women are worth more to Germany to-day than its Uhlans. While the war has added several millions to the women wage-earners in business and industry, it has not increased to any great extent the woman farm workers. On the contrary, it has withdrawn the men and the horses and left the women to do their own work and the work of man and beast. The marvel is that, by some strange power of the second wind, they have done it. When the harvest was in, the Government announced that the children's ration of bread could be increased by two pounds a week!

Along the Rhine are many bronze statues commemorating the years of '70 and '71. Presumably there will be others in the future dedicated to the current years, however the victory may fall out. The noblest monument of them all belongs to the woman with the hoe, who has dug out of the soil, with her bare muscles, the bread for sixty million people; who has wrung from the enemy earth and the enemy elements the extra two pounds of bread a week for the children.

In the frontier districts the peasant women have borne yet another burden, that of the military quartering. One of the wander-cooks tells this story: "I know of a young woman who lived alone in the country with her sixty-eight-year-old mother. For three or four months she had ten to fourteen men and one officer to provide for. She rose at four o'clock, cooked six or seven liters of coffee, gave each soldier half a pound of sausage for breakfast and half a pound at mid-day. Besides, she had ten horses to provide for; she kept them in her hay-barn, which she had converted into a stable, and in order that neither the horses, nor her property should come to harm, she took care of the animals herself. The soldiers were broom-makers and tailors, and knew nothing about the care of horses,"

Feminism and social work are allies in Germany. The Nationaler Frauendienst, as a matter of course, took over the guardianship of the broken homes of the land. The protection of childhood stands foremost, on their programme. In Charlottenburg, which has always been famous as a municipal mother, a system of school feeding was developed which has been a model for other cities. Children's shelters—"Kinderhorte" as they are called—were opened and directors employed to take charge of children after school hours. In Heidelberg there are ten of these shelters. Kinderhort has come to be as familiar a word as Kindergarten, and the Kinderhortnerin, like the Kindergartnerin, is already a young lady with a recognized profession. Moreover, everybody realizes that Kinderhort has come to stay. The National Women's Service opposes all schemes of child-caring which would bring up the war orphans in institutions, and the Kinderhort will help the working mother to keep her children with her.

Silently and over night, the war has unbarred many gates at which women have battered in vain for many years. The law forbidding the employment of married women in the schools and in the civil service has been repealed. Women are now teaching in the boys' schools for the first time. The code which declared that "the illegitimate child and its father are not related" has been nullified so far as the illegitimate children of soldiers are concerned. The State grants the same pension to the legitimate and the illegitimate alike. Everywhere women are asked to sit on municipal boards and committees, and in many cities they are serving as police officers. It will not be easy to close all these gates when the war is past. The women's services will still be too much needed in the difficult tasks of reconstruction.

Since the very beginning of the war the women have been preparing for peace. One of the problems now much discussed is that of compulsory State service for women. Most of the plans proposed threaten to place undue emphasis on housewifery and domestic science. These plans are favored by the more conservative elements in the woman movement, and by the new recruits who are still too unfamiliar with the history of the emancipation of their sex to perceive an old danger in a new guise.

The more experienced feminists insist that better educational and vocational opportunities for girls and women are all that is needed. They therefore propose that the working-girl shall be given one more year of compulsory school attendance, and that the number of vocational schools for girls shall be Increased. The Bund deutscher Frauenvereine has instructed its local branches to work for continuation schools for girls and has drawn up plans for making these schools compulsory. It has declared that the Lyceum, the type of school attended by the daughters of the well-to-do, must "educate girls in the feeling of responsibility and the sense of duty. The tendency to frivolity and dilettantism must be discouraged. The school must point out that the customary stopping at home without a serious occupation or real employment is bad for the character, and that occupational training is better for the future wife and mother than a planless leisure without duties."

It is commonly assumed that women lack the fighting instinct and have lacked it from the beginning. Certainly this is not true of the ancient Teutonic woman, the Urweib, who fought side by side with her bearded mate in incessant tribal wars. History tells us that the Roman armies had to defeat the women after they had defeated the men. The German legends of Brunhilda, the powerful wrestler, reflect the tremendous prowess of these prehistoric mothers.

It took many centuries for their daughters to forget the scent of the conflict and learn the role of the non-combatant. But they have learned the lesson well. While the old Siegfried is still hacking his way through the forest of the past the new Brunhilda is advancing uninterruptedly along the highroad of the future.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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