Selbert, Elisabeth (1896–1986)

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Selbert, Elisabeth (1896–1986)

German Social Democratic activist and attorney who played a crucial role in expanding and defending the legal rights of women in the German Federal Republic after World War II. Born Elisabeth Rhode in Kassel, Germany, on September 22, 1896; died in Kassel on June 9, 1986; daughter of Georg Rhode and Eva Elisabeth Rhode; had one sister; graduated from the University of Göttingen; married Adam Selbert, in 1920; children: sons Gerhart and Herbert.

Elisabeth Selbert was born into modest circumstances in Kassel, Germany, in 1896; her father, a minor civil servant, worked as a guard in the municipal youth detention center. Although Selbert was an excellent student and wished to become a teacher, the family's inadequate income did not allow for the schooling this required. After working briefly as a journalist, in 1916 she found steady employment in the telegraph office of the local post office. Four years later, Elisabeth married Adam Selbert, a printer who was a member of the Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, or SPD).

Supported by her husband, Selbert became politically active in the SPD in the early 1920s, even though much of her time went into raising the couple's two sons. She often spoke out in SPD meetings, and was involved in election campaigns, frequently appearing on the platform with noted national candidates, including senior SPD leader Philipp Scheidemann. Believing that she could accomplish much more if she upgraded her educational credentials, in 1926 Selbert was able to earn an Abitur, the school-leaving certificate needed to qualify for university matriculation. She then enrolled at the University of Marburg. But she was unable to find an advisor for her law thesis at Marburg, so transferred to the University of Göttingen where she successfully completed her studies.

In March 1933, Selbert ran unsuccessfully for a Reichstag seat on the SPD ticket. Within weeks, the Nazi seizure of power resulted in her husband Adam losing his civil-service position and being imprisoned for a period of time in a concentration camp. In December 1934, Selbert became one of the last women admitted to the bar in Nazi Germany, before women were excluded from the legal profession. Because her husband was unable to find permanent employment, Selbert became her family's chief breadwinner over the next decade. Like most Social Democrats during the Nazi period, she avoided active opposition to the dictatorship, convinced that to do so would only bring death, suffering and martyrdom to herself and her family and not advance the cause of humanity. The Selberts' philosophy of "Stillhalten und Abwarten" (keeping quiet and biding one's time) lasted 12 years, until the spring of 1945.

After 1945, Selbert achieved a rapid political ascent, from city representative in Kassel, to a member of the Hesse constitutional state assembly, to deputy of the Hesse Parliament, in which she served continuously from 1946 through 1958. She rose quickly as well in the ranks of her party, serving on the SPD federal executive. Probably the high point of her career came in 1948, when she was chosen to serve on the Parliamentary Council (Parlamentarischer Rat), an American-initiated institution designed to move the Western sectors of occupied Germany toward sovereign status. Along with Frieda Nadig (SPD), Helene Weber (CDU) and Helene Wessel (Zentrum), Selbert was one of the only four women members of the Parliamentary Council, the other 61 members all being male. In many ways, these women can be fairly characterized as the "Founding Mothers of Postwar German Democracy."

During sessions of the Parliamentary Council, Selbert championed the cause of full equality for women. After the body had rejected the principle "Men and women have equal rights," which she had formulated and the SPD had proposed, she mobilized public opinion. Spurred by much of the media and an aroused populace, the politicians looked reality squarely in the eye and relented, accepting Article 3.2 which stated the legal equality of the sexes. This principle would be anchored in the Basic Law (Grundgesetz) of the Federal Republic of Germany when it was born in the fall of 1949. In order to ensure the legal consequences of this principle, Selbert had a measure passed (Article 7) whereby all conflicting laws and restrictions would have to be revised by April 1953. Other issues that Selbert addressed included the legal equality of illegitimate children, judiciary rules, particularly the independence of judges, and the basis for the Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht).

Elisabeth Selbert died in her home city of Kassel on June 9, 1986. She has been honored in Germany in many ways, including a street named after her in Berlin's Neukölln district, and a 120 pfennig postage stamp issued on November 6, 1987. An Elisabeth Selbert Prize to honor those in science and journalism whose work reflects Selbert's ideals has been awarded annually since 1983.


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Böttger, Barbara. Das Recht auf Gleichheit und Differenz: Elisabeth Selbert und der Kampf der Frauen um Art. 3.2 Grundgesetz. Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot, 1990.

Dertinger, Antje. Die bessere Hälfte kämpft um ihr Recht: Der Anspruch der Frauen auf Erwerb und andere Selbstverständlichkeiten. Cologne: Bund-Verlag, 1980.

——. Elisabeth Selbert: Eine Kurzbiographie. Wiesbaden: Bevollmächtigter der Hessischen Landesregierung für Frauenangelegenheiten, 1986.

Drummer, Heike, and Jutta Zwilling. Ein Glücksfall für die Demokratie: Elisabeth Selbert (1896–1986), die grosse Anwältin der Gleichberechtigung. Frankfurt am Main: Eichborn, 1999.

Huber, Antje, ed. Verdient die Nachtigall Lob, wenn sie singt? Die Sozialdemokratinnen. Stuttgart: Seewald, 1984.

Moeller, Robert G. "Reconstructing the Family in Reconstruction Germany: Women and Social Policy in the Federal Republic, 1949–1955," in Feminist Studies. Vol. 15, no. 1. Spring 1989, pp. 137–169.

Mühlhausen, Walter. "Selbert, Elisabeth (1896–1986)," 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. 911–912.

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