Berlin - City of Women
Great Exhibition in a Great City Featuring the Lives of 20 Women Who Refused to Be Bowed Down by the Social Mores of the Time
While in Berlin recently, I came across the exhibition Berlin – City of Women. The exhibition highlights the lives of 20 women who, in the last 150 years, ignored the social mores of the time in order to live the lives they wanted to live.
And an intriguing exhibition it proved to be. For starters, I hadn’t heard of most of the women featured in the exhibition which just goes to show how much of history is HIS – story, because along with these 20 women there must be hundreds and thousands of other interesting women whose stories rarely come to light.
And it’s a thought-provoking mix of women. There are ordinary Berliners such as Anni Mittelstädt, the chairwoman of the Klub der Berliner Trümmerfrauen (Club for Berlin Rubble Women): the Trümmerfrauen being the women who helped rebuild a rubble-strewn Germany after the Second World War literally brick by brick.
Then there are the women who made a name for themselves such as politician Louise Schroeder. She was Berlin’s mayor during the Berlin Blockade and apparently was the most popular politician of her era.
Also featured is Emilie Winkelmann who, as a woman at the turn of 20th-century Germany, was only entitled to attend higher education courses as a guest student and not permitted to take any exams and qualify. Nevertheless she became Germany’s first female architect with many of the buildings she designed now listed buildings.
Of course some of these women also had to contend with the rise of Nazism. Perhaps one of the clearest examples of this was Fritzi Massary, who had forged a successful career for herself as a singer and actress, making up with ambition and determination what she lacked in talent. Despite her enormous success and that of her husband, fellow Austrian Max Pallenberg, who had also become a popular actor on the Berlin stage, both had to flee Germany in 1932 due to acute anti-Semitic propaganda. Unfortunately, Fritzi was unable to replicate her success abroad and her career came to an abrupt end.
Similarly, Dora Lux was excluded by the Nazis from her profession – in her case teaching - in 1933 due to her Jewish origins. Dora had been one of the first women to graduate from secondary school in Germany and one of only nine women to acquire a qualification as “a fully trained, academic teacher” before 1909.
Mind you, as a married woman, Dora was only allowed to teach at private advanced courses for women. In those days married women were not permitted to teach at public schools, as it was felt female teachers should be solely devoted to their pupils and not be distracted with bringing up their own families.
Undaunted by her treatment by the Nazis, Dora wrote essays critical of the Nazi regime in the magazine “Ethische Kultur” (Ethical Culture) and steadfastly refused to use the forename Sara which Jewesses were forced to use by the Nazi authorities.
Meanwhile Gisèle Freund, who faced arrest for political agitation, fled Nazi Germany and became one of Europe’s most prominent photographers. She took photos of the rich and famous such as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Eva Peron as well as carrying out numerous photojournalism assignments for Life Magazine and Time Magazine.
As for pilot and author Elly Beinhorn and her racing driver husband Bernd Rosemeyer, they were the celebrity couple of the day in the 1930s until Bernd’s tragic death in 1937. Despite parental disapproval, Elly followed her dream and became a pilot, first working as a stunt pilot and then becoming famous for adventurous long-distance flights including becoming the first woman to circumnavigate the world alone.
The one woman I had actually heard of was graphic artist, painter and sculptor Käthe Kollwitz. Banned by the Nazis from working as an artist, her work was rediscovered after the war. Her sculpture Mother and Son at the Neue Wache in Berlin is a moving memorial to the victims of war, and definitely worth taking a look at, sandwiched as it is among all the grand buildings along the major Berlin thoroughfare, Unter den Linden.
But besides the women, the exhibition presents the social background these women often had to work against. There is a great visual image of the constraints these women faced when the first object you are confronted with is a corset from the late 19th century, so slender it might even make a supermodel wince with pain at the thought of wearing it.
But these women didn’t just have to contend with restrictive clothing. Prussia was the last German state to allow women to sit their high school exams.
Perhaps what is even more unbelievable for your average modern woman to discover is that it was not until 1962 that married women were considered contractually capable. This had numerous ramifications: married women were unable to open a bank account without their husband’s permission, and until 1958 a husband could terminate his wife’s employment without her agreement.
Then there is the compromise made in 1993 around §218 of the German penal code that still makes abortion unlawful but not punishable (under certain circumstances).
So all in all, if you happen to be in Berlin, this exhibition is worth a visit. If only to make you realise how much we women in the west take our rights and freedoms for granted.
Berlin – Stadt der Frauen
History Told Through 20 Life Stories
Exhibition 17.03. to 28.08.2016
Ephraim-Palais | Stadtmuseum Berlin | Poststraße 16| 10178 Berlin
Opening Hours: Tues, Thurs–Sun 10:00–18:00| Weds 12:00–20:00
Tickets €6.00 / €4.00 concessions | Free entry first Wednesday of every month, pre-arranged school parties and children / Free entry for young adults under 18
Image: Embroidered, natural coloured corset with lace trimming and red ribbon, 1885-1890
Cotton, lace, silk
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Oliver Ziebe