Schwarzhaupt, Elisabeth (1901–1986)

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Schwarzhaupt, Elisabeth (1901–1986)

German judge and politician who became the first woman in Germany to serve in a government Cabinet post. Born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on January 7, 1901; died in Frankfurt am Main on October 29, 1986; daughter of Wilhelm Schwarzhaupt and Frieda (Emmerich) Schwarzhaupt; never married.

Served as a member of the Christian Democratic Union and of West Germany's Bundestag (1953–69); was instrumental in drafting reform legislation aimed at gender equality (article 3 of the Basic Law).

In 1961, Elisabeth Schwarzhaupt became the first female Cabinet minister of the Federal Republic of Germany. Born in the traditionally democratic city of Frankfurt am Main in 1901, Schwarzhaupt grew up in a cultured and liberal middle-class milieu. Her father Wilhelm Schwarzhaupt, who often discussed political issues with his daughter, was Frankfurt's superintendent of schools and had been active before World War I in the National Liberal Party. After 1918, he served as a delegate of the moderately liberal Deutsche Volkspartei (DVP, or German People's Party) to the Prussian Landtag (state legislature). Her mother Frieda Emmerich Schwarzhaupt also had a considerable influence on her, emphasizing the crucial connections between politics and morality. Schwarzhaupt had originally planned on a career in journalism, but in compliance with her parents' wishes she studied law, hoping to be a juvenile court judge. In 1930, she passed her examination as an assessor (assistant judge). As the Nazi Party grew to national prominence in the early 1930s, Schwarzhaupt took a strong stand against it, sometimes attending DVP meetings with her father where heated arguments broke out.

Shortly before Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Schwarzhaupt published a brochure censuring the Nazis, particularly for their stated intention of keeping women in an inferior status in their new social order, and defended her views in a public meeting near Frankfurt that was packed with Nazis. Schwarzhaupt had just begun her career, having obtained a limited-term civil-service position as a judge, first in Frankfurt and then in Düsseldorf. Her professional hopes were shattered when the nascent Nazi regime did not renew her contract. Her personal life was affected by the emergence of the Third Reich as well, for her fiancé, who was of Jewish origins, was forced to emigrate. After living at home with her parents and writing a legal dissertation, in 1934 Schwarzhaupt began working in Berlin as a legal advisor to the Reichsbund der Kleinrentner (Reich Association of Pensioners), which represented the interests of small investors and pensioners. This position, which would last until 1936, gave her insights into the plight of the aged whose savings had been destroyed in previous years by inflation.

In 1936, Schwarzhaupt became legal counsel to the central administrative board of the German Evangelical (Lutheran) Church. By this time, the church was deeply divided by internal struggles between pro-Nazi elements and those who for varying reasons wished to halt Nazi encroachments on the church. In subtle ways, Schwarzhaupt took the side of those who opposed National Socialist influences in the church, particularly by standing up for the persecuted vicars of the oppositional wing, the Confessing Church (Bekennende Kirche). Having gained the trust of important church leaders, in 1941 Schwarzhaupt was named superior church councilor. After Germany's defeat in 1945, she became a member of the church's constitutional committee. In 1947, she took on the responsibility of legal expert for the church's office of external relations, working under the renowned anti-Nazi hero Martin Niemöller.

In 1953, Schwarzhaupt overcame her reservations about joining the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the governing conservative party headed by Konrad Adenauer. She had long wondered how a political party calling itself "Christian" might translate the ethical and moral teachings of the churches into daily reality. Yielding to pressure from various CDU members, she became a successful candidate for the Bundestag, holding a seat there from 1953 through 1969. Her most important work was done in the parliamentary committee on legal affairs, where all questions pertaining to the reform of family law were referred to her. She promoted improvements in the legal position of married women as well as the entrenchment of the principle of gender equality in the Basic Law of the Federal Republic (Grundgesetz), through her work on drafting article 3 of the Basic Law.

In 1961, in what has been described as the "uprising of the CDU Amazons," a number of CDU women members of the Bundestag petitioned Adenauer, pointedly reminding him of an earlier promise—now conveniently forgotten, they feared—to appoint a woman to his Cabinet. When Adenauer formed the Federal Republic's fourth government in the fall of 1962, he designated Schwarzhaupt as the first woman government minister in German history. Although she was sworn in as Minister of Health on November 14, 1961, her ministry did not then exist. Not until January 29, 1962, was the Ministry of Health officially established and given responsibility in all questions involving public health. After taking office, Schwarzhaupt embarked on an intensive program of study, not only attending numerous conferences, but also reading books and reports in order to become thoroughly familiar with the concerns of her ministry. One of her first projects was to authorize ongoing research into the "diseases of civilization," particularly heart and circulatory diseases and cancer.

As West Germany's chief health official, Schwarzhaupt investigated the dangers to the national well being from pollution of air and water, as well as the threats posed by noise, radiation, the purity of medications and food, and the problem of illegal drugs. Growing signs of major pollution in German streams and rivers

brought forth such measures as the launching of a research vessel on the Rhine in 1964, and the construction of water-purification facilities on other at-risk rivers. The problem of cigarette smoking also came to her attention; in this instance, she was convinced that education rather than legislation should be the preferred strategy. Serving as Health Minister until 1966, Schwarzhaupt remained realistic, even critical, about how much change her appointment truly signified, conceding that in many ways she had been chosen as a token woman by Adenauer and his inner circle. During her tenure, she became a veritable magnet for women's grievances (Klagemauer für Frauen) in the Federal Republic.

After retiring from the Health Ministry in 1966 and from the Bundestag in 1969, Schwarzhaupt assumed honorary positions in which she was still able to exert influence, if only on an informal basis. In 1966, she was awarded the Federal Republic's Grand Cross of the Order of Merit. Schwarzhaupt died in her home city of Frankfurt am Main on October 29, 1986. In her honor, a 100 pfennig postage stamp was added to the definitive series "Women in German History" and issued on October 16, 1997.


"Bis zur Bahre," in Der Spiegel. Vol. 15, no. 48. November 22, 1961, pp. 29–30.

"Dr. Elisabeth Schwarzhaupt, Germany's First Woman Cabinet Minister," in The Times [London]. October 31, 1986, p. 24.

Elisabeth Schwarzhaupt Nachlass, Bundesarchiv Koblenz.

Reinicke, Dietrich, and Elisabeth Schwarzhaupt. Die Gleichberechtigung von Mann und Frau nach dem Gesetz vom 18. Juni 1957. Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1957.

Salentin, Ursula. Elisabeth Schwarzhaupt, erste Ministerin der Bundesrepublik: Ein demokratischer Lebensweg. Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 1986.

Schwarzhaupt, Elisabeth. Gottfried Keller und die sozialen und volkserzieherischen Probleme seiner Zeit. Inaugural-Dissertation, Universität Frankfurt am Main, 1929.

——. "Lebensbericht," in Abgeordtnete des Deutschen Bundestages: Aufzeichnungen und Erinnerungen. Vol. 2. Boppard am Rhein: Verlag Harald Boldt, 1983.

"Schwarzhaupt, Elisabeth (1901–86)," in Dieter K. Buse and Juergen C. Doerr, eds. Modern Germany: An Encyclopedia of History, People, and Culture, 1871–1990. Vol. 2. NY: Garland, 1998, pp. 902–903.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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