Gender roles and attitudes toward women in Nazi Germany were derived from the conservative personal views of Adolf Hitler. The Fuhrer had traditionalist ideas of gender, a view probably influenced by his mother, a simple but caring housewife who had protected her son from his stern and sometimes brutal father. In Hitler’s mind, the natural role for women was domestic: they were best equipped to tend the home, to care for their husbands, to bear and raise children. Hitler believed women were kinder, gentler and more emotional than men. Because of this, they were not equipped to survive the turmoil and pressure of workplaces, business or politics. Hitler preferred women who were quiet, demure and motherly. He found it difficult to relax around women who were confident, outspoken, well educated or professionally successful. These attitudes were reflected in both Hitler’s Mein Kampf and some of his speeches: “Women are the eternal mothers of the nation”; “women are the eternal companion of men”; “the triumphant task of women is to bear and tend babies”; “men are willing to fight … women must be there to nurse them”. Hitler rejected ideas of gender equality. He described the push for women’s rights and equal pay for women as a communist plot. In a 1935 speech, the Nazi leader said that:
“The granting of equal rights to women, which Marxism demands, in reality does not grant equal rights … it instead constitutes a deprivation of rights, since it draws women into realms of society where they are inferior. The woman has her own battlefield. With every child that she brings into the world, she fights her battle for the nation.”
Hitler’s patriarchal views about women shaped Nazi policy and propaganda. One of the Nazis’ first policy objectives was to return women to motherhood in order to increase the population. In July 1933 the Nazi regime passed the Law for the Encouragement of Marriage. Married couples were given an early form of ‘baby bonus’: a state loan of 1000 Reichmarks that was partly repaid every time the wife gave birth (one quarter was deemed paid after the first child and the loan was discharged after four children). Between 1933 and 1936 the Nazi government issued these state loans to almost 695,000 married couples. German women were bombarded with speeches and propaganda that suggested their highest aspirations should be husband, home and healthy offspring. Pregnancy and motherhood were celebrated. Propaganda praised Kindersegen (women blessed with children) as national heroines. Women who bore multiple children were awarded a medallion, the Ehrenzeichen der Deutschen Mutter (‘Cross of Honour of the German Mother’). The cross was awarded in bronze for a fourth child, in silver for a sixth and gold for an eighth.
Mayer, Nazi eugenicist
As well as promoting motherhood, the Nazis also restricted abortion and contraception. During the 1920s Germany led the world in the development of contraceptive devices, including condoms, diaphragms and intra-uterine devices (IUDs). But the Nazis outlawed contraception – not only to increase the birthrate but also because many pioneers of contraceptive medicine were Jewish. Even publicising or discussing birth control was eventually banned in Nazi Germany. The regime also cracked down on abortion, imposing tough requirements for pregnancy terminations on medical grounds and harsh penalties for illegal abortions. Propaganda described abortion as a “crime against the body and against the state”. In 1932, the year before Hitler’s rise to power, just under 44,000 German women applied to terminate a pregnancy and 34,698 of these were approved. Between 1935 and 1940 there were only 14,333 applications and 9,701 approvals. Conversely, doctors would approve abortions – and indeed, even encourage them – if the patient happened to be non-Aryan. In November 1938 a Nazi-run state court ruled that abortion should be legal and freely available for all Jewish women.
While the Nazis hailed German mothers as national heroes, single women and working women were treated as second-class citizens. Hitler was full of scorn for women in paid employment. He called it a Marxist ploy, an attempt to clad women in overalls and work boots to strip them of their femininity. This derision for single and working women was reflected in policy. Unmarried women were viewed by the law as Staatsangehoriger (‘subjects of the state’), the same legal status later given to Jews and the mentally infirm. When the Nazis took power in 1933 there were 100,000 female teachers and 3,000 female doctors working in Germany. Most of them were eventually sacked, forced to resign or pushed into marriage and motherhood. From 1936 women were prohibited from working as judges, lawyers, principals and a range of other professions. Women were also removed from high-ranking or influential positions in government agencies, charities, schools and hospitals, to be replaced by men. University and college places for women were restricted to a firm quota of 10 per cent.
The Nazis also attempted to ‘re-feminise’ women and eradicate what they saw as the decadence of the Weimar era. Cabarets and jazz clubs were closed down in 1935 (though many underground clubs continued, providing entertainment for SS officers and party members). Nazi-run local governments passed by-laws restricting women from singing, dancing or appearing bare legged in public. The Nazis even commissioned fashion designers to develop new styles that would reflect National Socialist perceptions of gender. Women were encouraged to wear dresses and skirts rather than trousers. Clothing made of imported or expensive fabrics was condemned as wasteful. Make-up and excessive or ‘unfeminine’ hairstyles, such as perms or shorter cuts, were also discouraged. Two Nazi groups for women, the Nationalsozialistische Frauenschaft (Nazi Women’s League) and Werk Glaube und Schönheit (Work, Faith and Beauty) ran classes that emphasised fitness, beauty and domestic work. The objective of both groups was to produce Aryan women who were loyal to the Nazi regime, appealing to men and prepared for motherhood.
Evaluating Nazi policies with regard to women and population turns up mixed results. Hitler’s attempts to court German women and win their loyalty was for the most part successful. Having been largely ignored by previous leaders, thousands of German women considered Hitler their saviour. It was not uncommon for German homes to have a picture of the fuhrer, even a small shrine bedecked with candles and flowers. But despite their policies and intensive propaganda, the Nazis failed to achieve much population growth. The German birthrate had been steadily falling since the 1880s – the social policies of the NSDAP did increase it, though only slightly:
|Live births per
1. Nazi attitudes toward women reflected the traditionalist, patriarchal views of Adolf Hitler. According to Hitler, women were best equipped to be wives, mothers and housekeepers.
2. Through both Nazi policy and propaganda, professional women were removed and discouraged from paid employment, while single and working women were marginalised.
3. The Nazis also attempted to boost the birthrate by promoting and rewarding motherhood, through propaganda, state-sponsored loans and medals for women who bore four or more children.
4. The Nazi regime also introduced restrictions on abortion and contraception (though only for Aryan women) and attempted to ‘re-feminise’ women by modifying the way they dressed and behaved.
5. These assertive gender policies and propaganda produced only a slight increase in the birthrate in the first five years of Nazi rule.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Women in Nazi Germany”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], https://alphahistory.com/nazigermany/women-in-nazi-germany/.