GHDI logo

East German Minister of Justice, Hilde Benjamin: "Who Has the Say in the Family?" (February 1, 1958)

page 2 of 4    print version    return to list previous document      next document

The regulation of the family’s livelihood shall also proceed on the basis of the principle of equality. Here, it is evident that the equal rights of the woman find their counterpart in equal obligations. The dominant status of the husband was expressed in civil laws also in the fact that he bore the chief responsibility for providing for the family. We hold that this responsibility should be divided equally between the spouses. Of course, the wife who is not gainfully employed cannot make monetary contributions to the family’s livelihood; in this case, her contribution lies in running the household and caring for the children. However, if the wife is gainfully employed, she will also contribute the appropriate amounts of money.

One important area in which equality in marriage finds particular expression is the area of the so-called marital property law. The issue here is above all to regulate to whom the acquisitions and savings made during the course of the marriage belong, who can dispose over them, and what is to be done in the case of divorce. At this time, we are operating under the assumption that in principle all the possessions and assets brought into a marriage by a spouse remain his or her property, and that he or she alone can therefore dispose over them. Moreover, what each spouse acquires during the marriage from his or her means remains his or her sole property. But if acquisitions are made by both spouses jointly and each one contributes from his earnings, those things also become joint property.

This solution seems straightforward and convincing at first. Its difficulties, however, lie in the fact that during the transition period from capitalism to socialism in which we now find ourselves, families present a picture that is by no means uniform but in fact highly variegated. I stated that wives are gainfully employed in 18.3% of all families. What does the situation look like in the other 81.7% of all families?

There are marriages in which the husband or the wife thinks it is better if the wife stays “at home” and is not gainfully employed. – There are families with children in which the wife learned a vocation and worked until she got married, but cannot, for objective reasons, hold a job in addition to caring for her family. – Above all, there are also “old” marriages in which the wife either did not learn a vocation at all, or did not pursue it for decades following her marriage.

In all of these cases, only the man pursued gainful employment; he alone was able to make acquisitions from his means and, as the case may be, set aside savings. What is the status of the wife here?

If here, too, one were to hold to the principle that each person owns what was acquired by his or her means, then, in the case of divorce, all the existing assets would be the property of the man; the woman would get nothing. To avoid injustices in these cases, the decisions of the High Court have established the so-called equalization entitlement on the basis of the constitutional principle of equality. It holds that the wife has a claim to a part of the assets acquired by the husband during the marriage, the amount of which is to be determined by the court, and which can be up to half of these assets.

Even if the legal regulation of divorce is not directly a question of equality, there are important connections in this area as well. For as long as the wife is not economically independent, she is, in a divorce, generally affected much more severely than the husband both economically and, especially for older women, personally.

We are proceeding from the assumption that the Socialist state regards and appreciates marriage as the most basic and most important unit of society; one component of the developing Socialist consciousness is also a new marital ethics that rejects careless divorces. We can note that the divorce statistics in the GDR prove that marriage is becoming more solid. The number of divorces has been declining steadily since 1950. Precisely because Socialist society needs marriages that guarantee progressive development to the spouses themselves, but above all to the children, it permits the dissolution of a marriage only under one condition: namely, only if the marriage is so deeply and irreparably broken that it has lost any meaning and there is no hope that it will ever be able to again fulfill the tasks of a real marriage. If that is the case, the state is not longer interested in preserving the marriage; but then that dissolution should be a truly “clean divorce.”

first page < previous   |   next > last page