COLUMN ONE : Walls for Women in Germany : Many female workers in the east now find it harder to get jobs, child care, abortions and divorces. Democracy, some believe, has set them back 40 years.


Sabine Nopens was never supposed to find herself here, pacing the dingy halls of the unemployment office, her restless 4-year-old in tow. When she joined the grass-roots protests that toppled East Germany’s Communist regime in 1989, Nopens believed her future in a united Germany would be rosy. She thought about the trips she could take, the things she could buy, the freedom she would relish.

She didn’t realize what she would lose.

Ten months after the two Germanys merged, women in the eastern sector are coming to the stunning realization that, in many ways, democracy set them back 40 years. And as economic and social conditions force hundreds of thousands of women out of the work force, an embittered new class of hausfrau is emerging.

“I don’t see one single instance where unification benefited women. Not one. It’s only been negative,” declared Christina Schenk, an easterner who represents the alternative Alliance 90 Party in the Bundestag, or lower house of Parliament.

“In terms of women’s liberation,” she added, “this is a developing country.”


Women from the defunct Communist state now find it harder to get a job, child care, a divorce, an abortion or birth control. Katrin Fleischer, a 26-year-old Berlin teacher, summed it up bluntly: “As East German women, we simply had more rights.”

Nopens, a 23-year-old single mother who worked as a gardener before unification, is quick to agree. Despite months of retraining in the insurance field, she harbors little hope of finding a job. “The situation is catastrophic,” she said.

“I really fear for the future,” she added, stroking her little girl’s blond hair. “It will be even worse for my daughter.”

Nor are eastern women likely to find much empathy or solidarity from western women, since polls indicate that their attitudes and ambitions differ considerably. One survey found that in the east, where just over 90% of all women were full-time workers, only 3% could imagine a life as a homemaker now. In the west, where 55% of women work, almost 25% said they would rather stay home.

In the east, many will no longer have a choice. With unemployment in the region at 9.5% and growing, women are losing their jobs in greater numbers than men are, while new positions and training opportunities are going to men first.

“Women already see far fewer opportunities for themselves,” said Renate Miethe, a member of the employees’ council at an electronics factory in the former East Berlin. “Many young women with small children think it’s not even worth it to get retraining. They have too little self-confidence. They fear for the future. They’re more passive than ever before.”

Many western bosses who are modernizing eastern firms also regard women with a jaundiced eye.

“I fear many employers believe men are more reliable workers,” said Peter Hintze, parliamentary state secretary of the Women and Youth Ministry in Bonn.

Eastern women, unfamiliar with western laws, are unlikely to realize that they have any recourse against discrimination. A government-sponsored “women’s information bus” now patrols the eastern states, with counselors available to answer questions about matters such as job-training programs and unemployment benefits.

These are pressing issues because, besides facing unemployment, significant numbers of women have been cut to part-time work or have been forced into early retirement. And experts say the situation is certain to worsen because growth areas are in traditionally male sectors such as construction.

The loss of a woman’s salary, which accounted for more than 40% of the average household income in East Germany, is especially painful as rents and prices go up and state subsidies disappear for items such as children’s clothing.

Analysts blame the imbalance in joblessness on the high number of women in three fields hard-hit by the shift to a capitalist system: textiles, agriculture and administration, which encompassed the lumbering socialist bureaucracy.

The state of Brandenburg recently offered 10,000-mark rewards (about $6,000) to firms that make special efforts to hire or train women.

“Yes, it’s mixed up to have to pay them to do it,” agreed Regina Hildebrandt, whose portfolio in the state government includes women’s affairs. “But in this situation, we have to offer money if we want women in. It’s a fight for survival.”

The federal government also acknowledges that women are suffering the most in the east’s chaotic transition to a free-market system. Hintze said that about 280,000 jobs on public works projects are being earmarked for women.

But the underlying attitude, Schenk charged, is one of neglect.

“The initial state treaty outlining the terms of unification had one single sentence dealing with women: ‘The interests of women and the handicapped should be taken into consideration.’ They went into great detail about how beer should be brewed in united Germany, but there was just one sentence about women,” she said.

Statistics suggest that the struggle to stay employed is toughest for single mothers and women older than 50, who are typically the first to be fired and the last to be hired.

Ilse Erdmann, an electronics fitter in Potsdam, just received notice that her factory will be laying her off in September. Hunting for a new job has left her dispirited.

“The factory promised to help out by loaning out workers to other companies so we could get some retraining,” she said. “Women my age and young women with small children were not taken. I was too old, at 43.”

She had one offer from a nursing home.

“It involved cooking and cleaning, but it would have meant working shifts and weekends, too. I spent 27 years working shifts. I don’t want to now, not for 1,400 marks ($800) a month as a servant.”

Shift work also poses a problem that eastern women never faced before: New laws inherited from West Germany forbid women to work night shifts, a handicap that naturally makes employers in large factories more inclined to hire men.

For single mothers such as Katrin Fleischer and Sabine Nopens, one of the biggest obstacles on the career path is the loss of free child care, which the socialist system in the German Democratic Republic provided to keep women in the work force.

Nopens said she is “asked all the time if I have children” when she applies for jobs. As a single mother, she is regarded as a risk.

Under the old system, the parents could take a total of 40 paid days off each year to care for sick children. That compares with five days under West German law. Most big factories and businesses had on-site nurseries and small grocery stores on the premises as well. Families could also dump dirty wash off at heavily subsidized laundries.

The situation was hardly perfect, though.

“In the ex-GDR, a woman was almost forced to work because production was low and they were desperately needed in the labor force,” Hintze said. “If a woman wanted to stay home and care for her family, it was regarded as asocial behavior to the point that in some cases the children were taken away. Women had no choices.”

But the problems go beyond simple economics because unification foisted the west’s more conservative laws and attitudes onto the east. Again, women are the ones most seriously affected.

Schenk is insulted by the Stone Age attitudes she has encountered in the west.

“Here, I constantly get the feeling that women are seen as incapable--dumb, even,” she said. “We’re not taken seriously. You see it in day-to-day life. If I go into a shop and want advice on anything technical, like a stereo, the salesmen ignore me. I’m a physicist. I probably know more about it to begin with than they do.

“When my secretary contacted a craftsman to have some work done, he returned the call and insisted on speaking to her husband, as if she were too stupid to make an appointment and explain what needed to be done,” Schenk added.

The western women’s movement is only beginning to fight “for what we already had here,” said Hildebrandt. “We didn’t treasure it. We took it for granted because of the socialist system. Now we realize what we had, and we’re trying to install even a watered-down form of it in all of Germany.”

Motherhood was encouraged and financially supported even outside marriage in East Germany, where raising the birthrate was a key concern of Communist officials. One-third of the east’s children were born out of wedlock. Since unification, single mothers from the east have been dismayed to find out that their children, even ones now in their teens, are being officially classified as illegitimate.

Abortion is another thorny issue.

In East Germany, abortion was available on demand and paid for by the state. Birth control was free, too. No counseling was required.

But western Germany forbids abortion except in rape cases or unless the mother’s life is endangered by the pregnancy. Violators of the strict laws are punished, including western German women who leave the country to have abortions. Some state police have reportedly forced women returning from the neighboring Netherlands to undergo gynecological examinations to prove that they didn’t have an abortion there.

The Bundestag has until the end of 1992 to decide on abortion legislation for united Germany. The debate is expected to be the most divisive yet between east and west.

Divorce laws also differed radically in the two Germanys.

In East Germany, if one partner demanded a divorce, “it was fast and easy,” Schenk said. The marriage could be declared over with just one visit to a judge. Now, the laws of the old West Germany apply. A couple must separate for a year before divorce is granted. If one spouse contests it, the waiting period is extended to three years.

“It also becomes a financial question for women now,” Schenk said, “because you have to hire a lawyer, and you have to worry about alimony and child support too. The state took care of you in the east.”

Unemployment, the lack of child care and the more complicated divorce laws will make it tougher for women to leave abusive relationships, Schenk fears.

Violence in the family was a taboo subject in the east; it did not belong in the socialist family portrait. Since unification, shelters for battered women and children have sprung up in the east. Administrators say the shelters are already overflowing.

“Violence is escalating something terrible,” Hildebrandt said. “You have a combination of jobless men, social uncertainty and all this tension in the home.”

Still, the anger and frustration among women in the east have not given rise to any cohesive protest movement.

“There’s a certain fatigue and lethargy,” lamented Fleischer.

Women in the east “still have this idea in their head that it can be something else,” Schenk said. “What will come of this when they grasp in a couple of years that it will never be the same, I don’t know. It could stir a women’s movement, but it could also just lead to depression and resignation.”

The basic problem, she believes, “is naivete. In the east, people just go around saying, ‘They can’t treat us like that.’ Well, they can. And they do.”

Times researcher Petra Falkenberg in Berlin contributed to this report.