Conservative forces defended the traditional bourgeois role of women as wives and mothers, but a new generation of women increasingly challenged this model. The struggle against old patterns of behavior proved difficult, even among left-wing student groups. Demands to reform Paragraph 218, which criminalized all forms of abortion, emerged as the core issue in a new women’s movement that sought to raise public awareness through protest campaigns. The SPD-FDP coalition proposed a law allowing abortions during the first three months of pregnancy, but it was controversial and adamantly rejected by the churches and the CDU/CSU. The law passed in the Bundestag and Bundesrat in spring 1974, but never went into effect; the following year it was declared unconstitutional by the Federal Constitutional Court. The compromise that was ultimately reached permitted abortions for medical or socially compelling reasons but satisfied neither conservative forces, who rejected the social distress inclusion, nor representatives of the women’s movement, who announced that they would continue their fight for women’s rights.
A number of factors contributed to a change in consciousness that slowly transformed the status and role of women in politics, the business community, and the family. These factors included the institutionalization of women’s rights in sections of the bureaucracy (spurred in part by West Germany’s membership in the European Community), the opening of universities to new student groups, and the sexual revolution. The cause of legal equality for women was advanced in the 1970s by a battery of reforms that overhauled the marriage and divorce laws (among others) and parts of the legal code governing the status of children born out of wedlock. For instance, a legal provision was eliminated that permitted women to work only if this work was compatible with marital and family duties. In the eyes of family law, both spouses were now equals. Women also became more active in politics: in 1972 only 5.8 percent of Bundestag representatives were women; by 1987 the number had risen to 15.4 percent. Women mobilized in state parliaments and town/district councils.
From the start, family policy in the GDR was primarily focused on women and sometimes referred to ironically as “mommy policy” [Muttipolitik]. In contrast to West Germany, women’s dual role as both employee and housewife/mother predominated in the GDR on account of both ideology and economic need; in 1965 this model of a socialist family was written into the Code of Family Law. Honecker’s “unity of economic and social policy” supported this model with a comprehensive array of social policy measures, including an extensive network of day nurseries and kindergartens, the extension of pregnancy and maternity leaves, loans to married couples, and housing subsidies (Chapter 7). Hence, in the late 1980s, the GDR not only boasted an extremely high rate of motherhood among women between the ages of 20 and 40 (90 percent) but also the highest rate of female employment in Europe. In 1972, abortion was legalized in the first trimester, and costs were covered by social insurance. Despite gains made towards women’s equality, stubborn social prejudices continued to exist, making it difficult to recruit women for leading positions in the Party. Female representation in politics was governed by the following principle: the greater the decision-making authority, the fewer the women involved. Although some 40 percent of representatives in the East German Volkskammer [the East German national parliament] were women, as late as 1989 not a single woman had been promoted to the rank of full member of the Politburo, the highest decision-making body in the GDR.
Despite opposing social ideologies, the Federal Republic and the GDR placed a similar emphasis on social policy measures to promote the family. The two societies developed similarly in other respects, as well: divorce rates increased, a growing number of women demanded equal rights, and more and more couples cohabited without marrying. Beginning in the 1960s, birthrates fell in both German states but rose again in the GDR in the 1980s.
Both East and West Germany struggled with the issue of homosexuality. Paragraph 175, a holdover from the Wilhelmine Empire, was reformed in the West in 1969 and 1973. Homosexuality was now no longer criminalized, but the public continued to treat it as taboo, and it took some time for gay associations to play an active role in politics. The Supreme Court of the GDR abolished the article earlier than the West, legalizing homosexuality in 1968, but a public debate never emerged. It was only with the spread of the immune deficiency disease AIDS that politicians and society timidly began addressing the issue. The Ministry of State Security regarded homosexuals as risk factors and placed them under surveillance.