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Life is (more
than just) a Cabaret: the 'New Woman' in Weimar Germany
By Kasey West
Leave your troubles outside!
So- life is disappointing? Forget it!
We have no troubles here! Here life is beautiful...
The girls are beautiful...
Even the orchestra is beautiful! (1)
It is Germany, 1928. Raucous laughter from the cabaret seeps outside
as Lotte passes in the shadows of the cold Berlin night. The streets
are sexually charged, lined with a heady concoction of prostitution,
homosexuality, transvestism and drugs. Still spinning from the collective
lust roaring unashamedly through the theatre that evening, Lotte
heads now for the café bar at the Eden Hotel where she lives. Jostling
with leggy glamour girls as she takes her drink, Lotte pushes a
straying strand of short hair behind her ear, settles her slender
trouser-suited body into the deep folds of an armchair and smiles
provocatively as she lights a cigarette.
Berlin's interwar reputation of hedonistic decadence and debauchery
is familiar through scenes from Metropolis by Fritz Lang, images
of Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel by Josef von Sternberg and
stage productions of The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht. A ferment
of artistic and sexual experimentation, the Weimar Republic (1918-1933)
privileged an outpouring of cultural creativity in the Bauhaus movement
of modern art and the development of the International Style in
modern architecture. Against a background of inflation and depression,
Berlin drew the talent and energies of the rest of Germany towards
its glittering cabaret performances and burgeoning sex tourism industry.
From within this hotbed of frenzied immorality, supposedly constitutional
sexual equality worked to create the myth of the sexually liberated
and financially independent 'New Woman' in Weimar German society.
Born out of Germany's disastrous defeat in World War I, the Weimar
Republic exercised democracy amidst continuing chaos and political
upheaval. Economic crisis followed the devaluation of the German
Mark in wake of the undermining of payments demanded in the Versailles
reparations clause imposed on Germany at the end of World War I.
The political and economic collapse resulted in the "destruction
of the inherited framework of beliefs and certainties which had
given Germany its particular reassurance" (2). Unable to maintain
the image of a strong, victorious Reichswehr, or Reich Defence,
former Imperialistic values of hard work and national pride were
subsumed in the emergence of a new decadence and urban proclivity.
The socially correct role of women was similarly transformed in
face of the erosion of old traditions and moral principles. In the
19th century, Kaiser Wilhelm II had defined women's position in
society as centering on the 'Kirche, Kueche, Kinder', or church,
kitchen and children. After the adoption of the Weimar Constitution
in 1919, women were guaranteed a new status of equality with men
in terms of their enfranchisement and legal and economic standing.
However, these advances were little more than token gestures of
appeasement. The 1919 Constitution was never enforced through legislation,
and the Kaiser's restrictive Civil Code of 1900 continued to control
the legal and financial rights of women. As the historian Claudia
Koonz states, "[the] Weimar leaders grafted a democratic state onto
a traditionalist and conservative social structure and a thoroughly
capitalist economy" (3).
Nevertheless, the myth arose of a 'New Woman' challenging men in
the realms of politics and economics. Mass advertising in the Popular
Press capitalized on the power of this image in selling branded
products and promoting specific lifestyle choices. A magazine article
from the period described the new generation of women, claiming
"They go to the cinema in the evenings, wear skirts that end above
the knees, buy 'Elegant World' and the film magazines" (4). Portrayed
in films, newspapers and Pulp fiction, the 'New Woman' was typically
depicted as a sexual object for the satisfaction of male desire.
Sexually predatory and educated, she achieved financial independence
through employment and spent her earnings on fashion and fun. She
had short bobbed hair, wore relaxed masculine clothes, smoked cigarettes
and enjoyed the globally notorious nightlife of Berlin's theatres,
cinemas, cafes and bars. According to the historian Ute Frevert,
the Weimar women were "children of the new age who were variously
celebrated or accursed" (5).
Despite their apparent emancipation from oppressive tradition,
they were feared by the older generation for their individualism
and selfishness. Much of this fear lay in the promulgation of a
childbearing strike by the Syndikalistische Frauenbund or SFB (Syndicalist
Women's Union), established in 1920. An article written in 1921
stated that "the advancement in the intellectual development of
women [could] not be possible without the liberation from the slavery
of childbearing" (6). Accordingly, many young women campaigned at
public rallies, calling for the criminalization of contraception
(paragraph 184.3 of the Constitution) and the prohibition of abortion
(paragraph 218) to be revoked. However, these moves towards allowing
women the possibility of legitimate birth control were deemed inherently
selfish rather than sexually liberating in light of the falling
birth rate and depleted population at the end of World War I.
In general therefore, the 'New Woman' was represented negatively
and blamed for the degeneration of Weimar society and culture. However,
the reality of life for the majority of women in the Weimar Republic
was vastly different from that of the 'New Woman' they avidly desired
to emulate. Confronted by exploitation and underpromotion in the
workplace, many women continued to embrace the 'Kinder, Kueche,
Kirche' ideal of the former monarchy. Notions of political liberation
were also tenuous. Despite enfranchisement in 1918, their representation
at all levels of Weimar German political party leadership was minimal.
It is therefore an inescapable conclusion that depictions of the
'New Woman' were media-generated and founded in male constructions
of sexuality that reflected the underlying social, economic and
political insecurities and anxieties of the era. Indeed, the very
popularity of misogynistic and distorted images of the 'New Woman'
among women themselves reveals the impossibility of their liberation
at even the level of being able to reject their own stereotypical
Kasey West is currently a student at the Open University in England.
Kasey has an honours degree in Psychology and an honours degree
(1) From Cabaret, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb. Carlin
Music Corp., 1967.
(2) de Jonge, A. (1978) Weimar Chronicles, New York, Paddington
Press Ltd., p. 13.
(3) Koonz, C. (1987) Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family
and Nazi Politics, New York, St. Martin's Press.
(4) Wehrling, T. (1920) 'Berlin is becoming a whore' in Das Tage-Buch.
(5) Frevert, U. (1989) Women in German History: from Bourgeois Emancipation
to Sexual Liberation, New York, Berg.
(6) Wittkop-Rocker, M. (1921) 'Frauenarbeit Frauenorganisationen'
in Der Frauenbund, Monatsbeilage des Syndikalist , 1, October.