Given the political and constitutional history of the 18th and 19th centuries, universal suffrage and free and fair elections are a hard won freedom in Germany. Currently, Article 38 of the Basic Law of 1949 (Grundgesetz) states that ‘Members of the German Bundestag shall be elected in general, direct, free, equal and secret elections. They shall be representatives of the whole people, not bound by orders or instructions, and responsible only to their conscience’. However, the legal and historical developments up until this point were subject to struggle from strong women.
In March 1871, voting rights were extended to men in a revolutionary step for the German Empire. The roots of universal suffrage can be traced back to the French Revolution and its demand for equality. Margaret Lavinia Anderson comments that, ‘…universal suffrage, while not changing the structure of power or composition of elites, set in motion a revolution in social attitudes that shook the deference that had governed German social relations for centuries.’ Nevertheless, it took almost half a century for women to be granted voting rights. It was not until the first elections of the Weimar Republic in 1919, that universal suffrage was extended to include women. The Social Democratic Party and the socialists Emma Ihrer and Rosa Luxemburg were key figures for the female suffrage movement. The fight for woman’s suffrage was closely connected with the fight for female worker’s rights. Until then, women were completely excluded from elections irrespective of their age, income or rank.
The moderate women’s movement fought for a limited suffrage only. Whereas, the more outspoken socialist women’s movement headed by Clara Zetkin campaigned in the first international socialist women’s congress held in Stuttgart in 1907 for the universal female suffrage. Other more radical women such as the anarchist Louise Michel argued that male privileges such as suffrage were undesirable for woman stating that: ‘What we want is knowledge and freedom. Your privileges? Soon the time will come that you will offer them, in order to give them a new gloss. Keep your rags, we don’t need them.’ About a hundred years later, feminists took these criticisms seriously, and considered that despite formal equal opportunities- public domains such as politics, the education system, the economy and the media remain male-dominated in Germany.
The birth of female suffrage in Germany was an act by the ‘Council of People’s Deputies’ (Rat der Volksbeauftragten) directed to the German people on 12th November 1918. Subsequently, on the 30th of November 1918, the Electoral Law of the Empire (Reichswahlgesetz) entered into force and provided for universal suffrage to all male and female citizens. According to Article 109 II of the Weimar Constitution, men and women have generally the same rights and duties. However, these extended voting rights were jeopardised when the National Socialists took over in 1933. Under the National Socialists, female suffrage was restricted and women were not allowed to be part of the party’s executive committee. From 1933, women’s rights were further restricted and they were removed from senior positions.
Finally, in 1949 the jurist Elisabeth Selbert, one of the ‘four mothers’ of German Constitutional Law argued that the sentence ‘men and women are equal’ had to be read into the German Constitutional law (Grundgesetz) in Article 3(2) as a constitutional principle, making women’s suffrage a natural consequence of this principle.
During the first elections in 1919, the turnout of female voters was 1,7 % higher than of male voters. However, it took until the 1970’s until women and men had comparable turnout of voters, using their active suffrage over a longer period. Even today only 31% of the parliamentarians in the Bundestag are women. Moreover, there is unequal distribution across the parties. The Greens and the leftwing Die Linke both having over 50% share of female parliamentarians. Whereas, the conservative parties ranging between 20 % Christian Democratic Union/CSU (CDU) to 11% AFD of female parliamentarians). The first German Federal Chancellor (Bundeskanzlerin) Angela Merkel is a member of the CDU and has been in office since 2005, however, she is not well known for promoting feminism.
According to Paragraph 12 of the Federal Election Law all German citizens according to Article 116 (1) German Constitution as from the age of eighteen are eligible to vote provided the person has capacity. Whilst, women’s suffrage in Germany should be seen as an achievement, it must be always kept in mind as a means to certain end and not as an end in itself and that which is a mask of the structural inequality between men and women. To realise these ends, feminist movements should focus on the right to get voted in order to pursue their collective interests.