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Feminist icon Alice Schwarzer, and the next generation

Christine Lehnen
December 3, 2022

As Germany's prominent feminist turns 80, a look at how her work impacted women's rights, and how young feminists are pursuing the fight.

Alice Schwarzer in a black top with a red bag.
Alice SchwarzerImage: Oliver Berg/dpa/picture alliance

Some names are unmistakably associated with shaping second-wave feminism, from Simone de Beauvoir in France to Gloria Steinem in the US. In Germany, Alice Schwarzer, who turned 80 on December 3, took on that role.

As the founding editor-in-chief of Emma, one of Germany's first important feminist magazines, Alice Schwarzer had a strong influence on many women in the country. 

German journalist, feminist and founder of the Afro-German magazine RosaMag Ciani-Sophia Hoeder is among them: "She politicized me on the issue of abortion rights and the way female bodies are used by politicians on political and cultural battlegrounds," she told DW. 

Ciani-Sophia Hoeder sits in a park and smiles.
Ciani-Sophia Hoeder is a journalist and feminist from BerlinImage: Anne Höhn/DW

A milestone of women's rights: 'We've had an abortion'

Alice Schwarzer became a feminist icon in Germany through her tireless fight for abortion rights.

Alice Schwarzer: 'We need to stand by these ideals'

Among her notable campaigns, her article "Wir haben abgetrieben" (We've had an abortion) marked German history.

Published by German weekly Der Stern on June 6, 1971, the piece featured 374 courageous women in Germany, among them film star Romy Schneider, who confessed to having had an abortion — which was still a punishable offense at the time. In the article, they demanded the legalization of abortions.

"I was living in France at the time, where I worked as a freelance correspondent and was active in the Parisian women's movement," Schwarzer recalled in an article published in her magazine, Emma, in 2011. "But while women all over the Western world began to stand up for the rights, the German Gretchen kept quiet."

That changed with Schwarzer's provocative feature, inspired by a similar piece published by French weekly Nouvel Observateur in April 1971, in which 376 women had likewise confessed to their abortions, making international headlines.

In Germany, Schwarzer's article and further political activism by many women eventually led to legal reform: Women could no longer be punished for having an abortion under certain conditions, and abortions are generally possible within three months of conception.

What's it like to be a woman in Germany?

Abortion: Still a controversial topic

Despite those gains, the fundamental right to have access to a safe and legal abortion is still under threat 50 years later, as made clear by the US Supreme Court in June 2022, when its judges overturned Roe vs Wade, the ruling that had established the constitutional right to abortion in 1973. 

Progress is still being made in Germany, where the Bundestag liberalized abortion laws in the summer of 2022 by repealing Section 219a of the German Criminal Code, which until then prohibited advertising abortions. Doctors in Germany are now allowed to provide information about abortions without fear of prosecution.

Activists are now demanding that abortions be removed from the criminal code altogether.

A new generation of feminists

Ciani-Sophia Hoeder also emphasizes how topical Schwarzer's concerns remain and how urgently women's anger is still needed today: "Because of the work of feminists like Alice Schwarzer, we sometimes feel as if we have already achieved gender equality. But when we look more closely, we realize: Not everything is as it seems."

She cites Angela Merkel's chancellorship as an example: "We had a female chancellor for a long time, but nevertheless women are still exposed to an incredible amount of violence in our societies, and the gender pay gap also still exists. We still haven't reached gender equality, and we have to keep going."

Climate, gender, feminism: a global movement

A new generation of feminists is setting out around the world to carry on the baton of feminist icons from the 1970s.

The activists and their causes have diversified too. For example,Vanessa Nakate from Uganda combines political activism for the climate and for women's rights; Alok Vaid-Menon, a nonbinary person from the US, advocates for the rights of trans and nonbinary people.

Alok Vaid-Menon with a red wig, golden earrings and purple lipstick.
Alok Vaid-Menon fights for the rights of trans and nonbinary peopleImage: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/picture alliance

Hoeder is also a member of this new generation.

In her book "Wut und Böse" (Anger and Evil) published in 2021, she demonstrates that women are still discredited when they express their anger at political injustices in public, while the concerns of angry men are taken seriously. Women of Color are particularly affected by this social attitude, she says.

Vanessa Nakate: Leading Uganda’s climate change movement

Hoeder is also critical of the kind of feminism Alice Schwarzer promoted, because it was "white feminism," focusing primarily on the concerns of white women.

She nevertheless still has a lot of appreciation for this German feminist icon, because it's important to know that you're not fighting alone: "You know that someone else has done this before you, you know that you're doing it now," she says. "Surely that means someone is also going to follow after me. I'm happy thinking that one day I'll be passing on the baton." 

This article was originally written in German.

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