Bäumer, Gertrud (1873–1954)

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Bäumer, Gertrud (1873–1954)

German feminist, politician, and writer whose views on marriage and motherhood contributed to the rightward direction of German feminism in the years from 1910 through the 1930s. Name variations: Baumer. Pronunciation: BOY-mer. Born September 12, 1873, in Hohenlimburg in the German state of Westphalia; died on March 24, 1954, in Bethel, Germany; daughter of a teacher-theologian; attended University of Berlin, receiving a Ph.D., 1904; lived with Helen Lange.

Taught schools in Magdeburg and other German cities (1892–97); went to Berlin to study at the University of Berlin (1898); became full-time secretary to Helene Lange (1899); elected to the steering committee for the League of German Women's Associations (1900); became an editor for the journal Die Hilfe (1912); served as president of the League of GermanWomen's Associations (1910–19); served in the National Women's Service (1915–18); served as member of the National Assembly of Germany (1919) and member of the German Reichstag (1919–33); worked as a high official in the German Ministry of the Interior (1920–33); edited the journal Die Frau (1921–44); deprived of Reichstag and Ministry of Interior positions by new Nazi government (1933).

Selected works:

Die Frau im neueren Lebensraum (Berlin: F. A. Herbig, 1931); Die Frau in Volkswirtschaft und Staatsleben der Gegenwart (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1914); (with Helene Lange), Handbuch der Friedensbewegung (Berlin: W. Moeser, 1901–06); Lebensweg durch eine Zeitenwende (Tübingen: Wunderlich Verlag, 1933).

Faced with an authoritarian state and a militaristic, male-dominated society, German feminists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries tended to ally themselves with the political Left in their country. Such was the case with Lily Braun , whose political allegiance lay with the Marxist Social Democratic party, and Anita Augspurg and Lida Heymann , who combined feminism with pacifism. The most notable exception to this trend was Gertrud Bäumer, the most politically active of all the leaders of the German women's movement, who declared that the natural and honorable role for women in German society was as housewives and mothers. Under her leadership and guidance, the main women's organization in Germany, the League of German Women's Associations, moved steadily rightward during the years leading up to the National Socialist (Nazi) accession to power in that country.

Trained as a schoolteacher, Bäumer grew up in a family which had strong ties to the German Evangelical church. Her father was a teacher and a theologian. The family was sympathetic with the "Christian Socialism" of the minister and politician Adolf Stoecker, who hoped to woo the German workers away from allegiance to the Marxist Party in Germany and make them into strong supporters of the German monarchy. In her memoirs, Bäumer remembered her father fondly, praising his "feisty intellectual energy and realistic, but joyful, view of life." His death in 1883, before she reached her teenage years, was a personal blow to her and a financial blow to the family; after that, they lived in the house of her mother's parents.

While serving as an elementary and high school teacher for six years, Bäumer became interested in politics through her work as a member of the executive committee of the General German Women Teachers' Association. Her curiosity about politics was further piqued when she moved to Berlin in 1898 to study at the University of Berlin. There she renewed an acquaintance with Helene Lange (the two had met the year before), a feminist who had campaigned for the admission of women into German universities. In 1899, Bäumer became Lange's private secretary. The two remained close throughout their lives.

In 1910, only six years after she became one of the first women in Germany to earn a Ph.D., Bäumer gained national prominence when she was elected president of the League of German Women's Associations. Her election was the result of maneuvers by Lange, who had worked to oust the existing president, Marie Stritt , because she regarded Stritt as being too radical. Bäumer would serve as president for nine years, although she would exert a major influence on the organization for more than 20 years through her editorship of Die Frau, a journal founded by Lange.

I firmly opposed doctrinaire ideas which tried to force masculine types of freedom onto women and tried to force women to live as men do.

—Gertrud Bäumer

Only 36 years old when she was elected, Bäumer represented a conservative trend in German feminism. Her intellectual mentor was Friedrich Naumann, a political writer who was influential in the rightward drift of German liberalism before World War I. As an editor, beginning in 1912, of Naumann's journal Die Hilfe, she argued not only that the women's movement should support the aims of the German nation, particularly its aggressive foreign policy, but that it should also work to minimize social and class conflict.

Before Bäumer became president of the League of German Women's Associations, earlier leaders of the organization had adopted a platform which promised a campaign against the section of the German Civil Code which banned abortion. Bäumer pledged to ignore such provisions in the League's platform, and she encouraged others to do the same. Not only was the foetus a living creature, she wrote, but attempts to legalize abortion would destroy the "mother instinct" of German women. Legalizing abortion, she declared, would contribute to the physical and moral degeneration of the German people, culminating in efforts to glorify the "free sex life."

Bäumer encouraged religiously oriented women's groups, such as Evangelical women's organizations, to join the League. She insisted that they did not have to subscribe to all League programs. It has been argued that her encouragement of the Evangelical movement was a calculated step to counterbalance the influence of more "radical" feminists such as Helene Stoecker , whose New Morality sought for women the same sexual freedom accorded to men.

Bäumer did insist that all publications of Stoecker's League of Motherhood Protection and Sexual Reform be banned from League meetings. Yet Bäumer's religious faith—grounded in her belief that she was a pilgrim attempting to understand the mysteries of God—was integral to her feminism. Of the more than 20 books she wrote—including medieval histories and studies of poets such as R.M. Rilke, Dante, and Goethe—many were religious in nature.

Bäumer criticized other German women leaders for seeking a "formal equality" of women with men. Their "old goal of equal rights," she declared, was simply seeking "the freedom to live as men do." The "outmoded and superficial feminism" of the radical feminists, she declared, represented the "oldest kind of liberal thinking" and ignored the "importance of what women could do for society, and could give to society" through their two special niches: marriage and motherhood. For women, the heart of sexuality was fulfillment of the "soul," culminating in motherhood; whereas for men, it was sensual enjoyment.

Through marriage and motherhood, women might bring their distinct talents and "special nature" to bear on the social life and politics of the nation. Women who devoted themselves to the family were "in some ways truer to the ideas of the women's movement than those who entered traditional male enclaves." Outside of the League, Bäumer promoted her ideas through work in the Advisory Committee for Child Welfare and Protection.

Politically, Bäumer aligned herself with the Progressive Peoples Party, formed in 1910 by the union of three smaller liberal parties. Early in her career, she argued that if women participated in the political system, they risked being partly responsible for "men's politics." By the time the Progressive People's Party had been formed, she had changed her mind; she agreed to join the party only if the words "and women" were added to most of the pledges in the party's platform.

During World War I, Bäumer and the women's leaders whom she regarded as "radicals" found common ground in the Women's National Service, which Bäumer co-sponsored. Working with local German state governments, the Service helped organize the food supply, encouraged women to apply for jobs which were available because of military mobilization, made clothing for soldiers at the front, and organized soup kitchens. The Service also looked after the families of soldiers, including orphaned children.

The idea of a Women's National Service had originally been floated by the more "radical" feminists as a way to demonstrate that women could support the war effort as zealously as men who were actually in combat; the goal was to prove women's fitness for the right to vote. In contrast, Bäumer—who acknowledged that the Service would "not have been possible without the prior work done by the German women's movement"—praised the Service as a signal that women placed the "interest of the Fatherland" above all else. It was a theme Bäumer would continue to advance to the end of her life, arguing that the goal of the women's movement should be to advance "national consciousness"—in the words of Naumann, to "make the masses into a true people."

When the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom met in Geneva in 1915 in order to discuss ways to try to negotiate an end to World War I, Bäumer refused to attend. After the Geneva meeting, participants visited the warring nations, attempting to persuade government leaders to agree to negotiations. Bäumer criticized the trip, opposing it as a step to "weaken Germany" by disarming the Germans "in a world filled with weapons." At the end of the war, she also criticized the Treaty of Versailles, which Germany was forced to sign, as a document which "rides roughshod over German blood."

In 1917, Bäumer was named the head of the new Social Pedagogical Institute in Hamburg, one of a series of well-paying jobs she would hold. Within two years, her interests focused once again on politics, and she returned to Berlin, where she lived most of her adult life. In 1919, after the last German monarch had fled the country, she resigned as head of the League in order to run for the National Assembly, which would write the constitution for the Weimar Republic, Germany's first democracy. Bäumer wrote that "my love of the Fatherland" was a "dark, driving, insistent stream." Disturbed that Germans "came out of World War I as an intellectually rootless, confused people, who trusted no one," she saw her decision to enter national politics as a patriotic, rather than a feminist, gesture.

Bäumer was elected to the main parliamentary body for the Republic, the Reichstag, as a deputy for the new German Democratic Party. She served in that position until the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. She also worked as a high advisor in the German Ministry of the Interior. When Germany was admitted to the League of Nations in the mid-1920s, she became a member of the first German delegation to the League. She was, in the words of one author, "not only a very persuasive" politician but also one of the most "politically savvy of German women leaders" at the time. One author even called her the "only bourgeois woman of any consequence in Weimar Germany."

As National Socialism became stronger in Germany, Bäumer remained distant from the Nazi party, although she did threaten, in 1927, to leave the German Democratic Party because, she said, "Jewish liberals" were exerting too much influence within the party. Following the Nazi accession to power, she was removed from both her Reichstag and Ministry of the Interior positions.

She hoped to demonstrate to the new Nazi government that the women's movement was not hostile to it. When the Nazi government attempted to force the women's movement into the Nazi Women's Front, Bäumer favored the move, although it would have required expelling all Jewish members. She argued that the Nazi-sponsored Front would be an "organization that is only spiritually different" from the women's movement. She also declared that women should join in the Gleichschaltung, or Nazi-led "coordination" of German society to Nazi aims and ideas. Rejecting her advice, the leadership of the League of German Women's Associations chose to disband the organization.

Although she said that she was investigated by the Gestapo, and that Heimrich Himmler signed and then withdrew an arrest warrant for her, Bäumer was allowed to retain her editorship of Die Frau, which continued publishing through World War II. During the 1930s, she wrote books in which Christian mysticism was mixed with historical topics such as the Middle Ages, as well as studies of literary figures. Die Frau seldom commented on politics. She later said that she was trying, through her writings, to offer a "positive alternative" to Nazism. A friend recalled her saying, however, that Nazism was "correct in essence" but had an "impossibly improper way of dealing with people."

Although many German magazines were forced, by rationing, to suspend publication during the wartime years, the Nazi government provided Bäumer with up to 80% of her paper request for Die Frau. At the end of World War II, the American and British military governments in occupied Germany regarded her with suspicion. Viewed as a possible Nazi sympathizer, she was denied permission to resume publication of Die Frau, and some of her books were banned.

The ban was lifted in the early years of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was seen as a greater threat than possible Nazi sympathizers. Bäumer attempted to return to politics, founding a conservative Christian Socialist Union with Marie Baum . Deteriorating mental and physical health intervened, however, preventing her from re-entering the political arena before her death in 1954.

Of all the German feminists of her time, Bäumer was the most politically active and probably the most politically influential. She used that influence to promote the idea that German women's greatest contributions to their society would come through their roles as wives and mothers—and to try to convince others that this should be the only true goal of feminism in Germany.


Bäumer, Gertrud. Lebensweg durch eine Zeitenwende. Tübingen: Wunderlich Verlag, 1933.

Evans, Richard J. Comrades and Sisters: Feminism, Socialism, and Pacifism in Europe, 1870-1945. Sussex: Wheatsheaf Books, 1987.

——. The Feminist Movement in Germany, 1894-1933. Beverly Hills: SAGE Publications, 1976.

Koepcke, Cordula. Frauenbewegung Zwischen den Jahren 1800 und 2000. Heroldsberg bei Nürenberg: Glock and Lutz, 1979.

suggested reading:

Evans, Richard J. The Feminists: Women's Emancipation Movements in America and Australasia, 1840-1920. London: Croom Helm, 1977.

Kirkpatrick, Clifford. Germany: Its Women and Family Life. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1938.

Stephenson, Jill. Women in Nazi Germany. London: Croom Helm, 1975.


Portions of the correspondence of Gertrud Bäumer are contained in the Deutsches Zentralarchiv, Potsdam, Germany; the Bundesarchiv, Koblenz, Germany; the Archiv des Bundes Deutscher Frauenvereine, Berlin, Germany; and the Helene Lange Archiv, Berlin, Germany.

Niles R. Holt , Professor of History, Illinois State University, Normal-Bloomington, Illinois

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Bäumer, Gertrud (1873–1954)

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