The Legendary New Woman of Weimar – Revisited

Aneka Meier (East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania)

The ‘Golden Twenties’ are generally characterized as a period of loosening mores, the shattering of taboos, and a new unfettered spirit. Novels and movies, even today, celebrate the fashionable and financially independent New Woman, who smokes in public and drives the latest automobile, as sexually emancipated and carefree. While academic cultural scholarship does provide a somewhat more differentiated picture, even there, but above all in popular culture, the myth dominates.

My analysis will challenge a number of received wisdoms that have become established in the last twenty years. While it has been widely claimed, for example, that the Weimar period was one in which young women were able freely to emancipate themselves from the risk of pregnancy during pre- or extra-marital sex through access to contraception, I will show that this was far from the case: access to contraception was slow to come about in Germany in the Twenties, and had only started to become available when it was stopped in its tracks by the Nazis coming to power and, over and above that, the groups pursuing liberalization were traditionally minded, in that their aim was to free married women from the burden of a series of pregnancies, rather than to help the unmarried. In addition to this myth is the one of women enjoining great emancipation during the years of the Weimar Republic, only to find the clock turned back by the conservative socio-cultural policies enforced by the Nazis. The situation was far more complex than that: The Weimar years were ones of tension between a clinging to older values and the desire for modernity, and nowhere was this more evident than in the minds of the young women who were ultimately driven by the desire for conventional marriage.

Specifically in my analysis of literary works of the Weimar period and images in the fashion magazine Die Dame, I conclude that, beneath the surface of apparent modernity and modern glamour, we can detect the continuity of the ideal of the more traditional and feminine body. The movement from Weimar to National Socialism is, given this continuity, not such a surprising transition.


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