Blog and News

How Has the Media Shaped Feminism? An Example from the West German Women’s Movement, by Dr Jane Freeland

In this fascinating and timely blog, Dr Jane Freeland examines the relationship between the media, feminist activism and domestic violence in Cold War Berlin.

As the postdoctoral coordinator of the International Standing Working Group on Medialization and Empowerment at the German Historical Institute London, I have been exploring the entanglements between the mass media and feminism. Women’s movements have relied heavily on the media to campaign for women’s equality. But this is not just a one-way street. As the media has grown, spaces of communication have become increasingly dense and interlinked, exerting pressure for other social sectors to conform to the conditions imposed by the media. Our project examines this interrelationship, looking at how feminism has both shaped and been shaped by the media.

I’m also a historian of modern Germany, completing a book on feminist activism against domestic violence in Cold War Berlin. Responding to domestic violence has been one of the most successful feminist campaigns in Germany, but I argue that this has come with a cost. In order to get the public onside, activists and politicians have watered down some of the more radical dimensions of feminism. While the media is certainly an important part of this research, I had never considered it as an historical actor by itself. What follows is a brief overview of how centring the media may change our histories of feminism.

The first women’s shelter in Germany opened in West Berlin on November 1, 1976. It was the culmination of two-years of activism by the feminist group “Women’s Shelter-Women Helping Women.” During this time, the shelter initiative led an extensive public relations campaign to break the taboo of violence against women and 1976 saw a veritable explosion of public discussions of domestic violence in the West German mass media.

However, this media attention was a mixed blessing. The Berlin shelter opened at a time when feminism was in the public eye in West Germany as never before. The early and mid-1970s saw the release of a flurry of feminist publications and publishing houses, including the magazines Courage and EMMA and the publishing house Frauenoffensive. It was also a time of major European and International feminist events: the UN’s International Year of the Woman in 1975 and the Brussels Tribunal on Violence against Women in 1976.

Feminism also came under close public scrutiny. After a very provocative campaign to decriminalize abortion in West Germany, in 1975 the Federal Constitutional Court ruled that unrestricted first trimester abortions were incompatible with the Constitution. In response, feminists took up highly confrontational protest strategies, designed to grab media attention, including pouring red paint on the stairs of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church and even planting a bomb at the court in Karlsruhe.

Capitalizing on this tension between popular interest in women’s rights and an uneasiness or scepticism of feminism, some journalists went to great lengths for a scoop. They went undercover to investigate what it was really like in women’s crisis housing and they lay in wait to catch women leaving the shelter in Berlin.

Efforts were made  to challenge this kind of journalism and re-centre the shelter’s important work. Media reports reveal an attempt to legitimize domestic violence activism to a popular audience by situating it within an international context. Almost all the articles appearing in 1976 emphasize the fact that the Berlin shelter was modelled on similar projects in the UK and the Netherlands. They also frequently discuss the work of leading-UK activist Erin Pizzey and draw from her book Scream Quietly or the Neighbours Will Hear (released in a German translation in 1976).

Despite discussing feminist projects and texts, these articles do not actually discuss feminism or the women’s movement. In an article from Der Spiegel in January 1976, for example, there are no references to feminism and only one to the women’s movement. Even then, it is the American women’s liberation movement not the West German. Moreover, in an article written by feminist activist Sarah Haffner, there is only one mention of the women’s movement in Germany. Instead, these articles overwhelmingly stress statistics and stories of individual women. Particularly common are references to the fact that “4 million” German men hit their wives, and to the statistic that every 12th woman visiting a family counselling centre in Berlin was seeking help with abuse.

On the one hand, using the stories of domestic violence survivors reflects the very feminist methods of empowerment on which the shelter was built. On the other hand, it also emphasizes women’s victimhood. The critiques of patriarchy at the heart of domestic violence activism was lost, replaced by stories of Olga, Gudrun and Erika. While this illustrated the seriousness of abuse and legitimized the need for shelters, it was also highly gendered, emphasizing women’s vulnerability. It also had a racial component, as the use of women’s stories was strongly critiqued by feminists from migrant backgrounds in the 1980s, who were “fed up” with the way white German feminists would use their stories to speak for them.

While this is not an exhaustive study of media representations of domestic violence, it does suggest that debates surrounding women’s rights not only played out in the media, but were also shaped in response to it. We can see that there is an effort to legitimize the shelter as a necessary social service, based on international experience and individual need. At the same time though, this seemingly involves de-coupling domestic violence activism from the women’s movement and feminist critiques of patriarchy.

In my original research, I had always understood this de-coupling of the shelter from its activist roots as a process that took decades. Looking at the media though it is clear that this process of deradicalization is present from the very beginning of the media involvement. This has not only encouraged me to reconsider how processes of social change and co-optation take place, but it also suggests that the media has played a much more divisive role in West Germany, shaping the playing field that women’s rights were, and are, campaigned on.

Dr Jane Freeland is the postdoctoral coordinator of the International Standing Working Group on Medialization and Empowerment at the German Historical Institute London. This major project is part of the international project “Knowledge without Borders: Internationalisation, Networking, Innovation in and by the Max Weber Stiftung.” It is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Her research focuses on the history of feminism in modern Germany, and she is completing a book manuscript entitled “Feminist Transformations: Domestic Violence in Divided Berlin, 1969-2002.”