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The Employment of Women: Conservative and Liberal Views (1872)

As traditional gender roles changed, women’s suitability for particular kinds of employment became a significant issue. In this excerpt from a debate on the floor of the Reichstag, Postmaster General Heinrich von Stephan (1831-1897) lays out the conservative position. Stephan argues that female "delicacy" leaves women without the assertiveness needed to deal with customers at the post office and railway ticket booths. As he suggests, women must be spared wrangles with traveling salesmen and ill-mannered servants. Jumping into this heated discussion, the left-liberal deputy Dr. Wilhelm Löwe stresses women's need for – and right to – independence, even in the face of state prudery: otherwise, he argues, women would be faced with the unacceptable alternatives of prostitution or continued underemployment in low-paying jobs. But given the latter concern, there is some irony in Löwe’s claim that women show greater facility than men in the role of telegraph operator.

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Postmaster General [Heinrich von] Stephan:
[According to Postmaster General Stephan:]

Women are hardly suitable for work at transport facilities [i.e., railway, post, and telegram offices]. They might, however, be better suited to keeping books and registers in courts, recalculating building designs in architects’ offices, or working in municipal service.

Thus far women have been hired only when absolutely necessary, that is, when no men were available on account of low wages. The prerequisite was that these women possessed the same intellectual abilities as men.

“Work at these facilities, under all circumstances, means exposure to the public sphere, and I would like to spare the fair sex that experience for reasons of delicacy. The exchanges that can be heard between postal officials and traveling commercial clerks! The battles that occur between pack masters and bellboys who come to the post office, etc.! The fact is that we do not just deal with an educated clientele: the post office serves far too many types to assume that when a lady sits behind the counter she will always be met with polite manners.”

Stephan then makes reference to

the “robust physical strength” needed in these facilities;

“various other circumstances” that may prevent women from fulfilling their duty
even though service “continues regularly and tolerates no interruptions”;

the necessary authority that is difficult to maintain vis-à-vis retired noncommissioned
officers and sergeants;

the change of personnel caused by [maternity] leaves; the office was constantly
forced to search for new personnel and train them; about one third of the staff were
constantly engaged in training another third,

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