„Men and women have grown apart“

Two East German women, two generations: The publisher Katrin Rohnstock and the media consultant Anne Wizorek discuss the legacy of the GDR, sexism and the crisis for men.

Berlin-Katrin Rohnstock, 59, was active in the women's movement during GDR times, today she runs her own publishing house. Anne Wizorek, 38, was born in Rüdersdorf near Berlin. She became known as the initiator of the hashtag Aufschrei (Outcry), which sparked a debate on sexism. To debate each other, they meet for the first time on the roof of ewerk in Berlin Mitte.

Katrin Rohnstock and Anne Wizorek
Katrin Rohnstock and Anne Wizorek

Katarina Witt, a former ice skater from Chemnitz, said in an interview that for her, being an East German woman is a hallmark. Do you feel the same way?

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Anne Wizorek: It's a term that I identify with, but that I also view with ambivalence. It is good that there is more talk about the experiences of East German women. However, it bothers me that these experiences are sometimes glorified without being called into question. East German women are portrayed as strong women without looking at why this strength was to some extent necessary and not just self-confidence. For example, in order to cope with work around the house and in their profession.

Katrin Rohnstock: So what? The individual is always a composite of social circumstances. I would sign off on the word “hallmark”. In the GDR, the socialization of women was privileged compared to today. We had a good education. Women looked for partners on equal terms. Many of my classmates already had children during their studies. We could balance work and family. Professional development, earning one's own money and raising children were a matter of course.

Wizorek: My parents lived that way too. Yet in my case, my mother had to demand from all of us that we contribute to housekeeping so that it all wasn’t left up to her.

Rohnstock: At least your mother demanded something. Compared to West Germany, East German women were far more emancipated.

By the way, the entire sentence by Katarina Witt reads: "I realize that I can be much freer, much more independent, much more liberal and tolerant."

Wizorek: I would put it that way.

Rohnstock: Wonderfully easy-going and confident. When I hear the word "free," I immediately think of physical freedom. When it came to beauty, East German women were not terrorized by the dictates of the cosmetics, pharmaceutical and fashion industries. In the GDR, beauty was not a commodity – an incredible advantage for an economy that was not compulsively geared toward increasing profits. Today, more and more women have eating disorders – men too, by the way. In partnerships, young women exchange beauty for the money of old men.

Ms. Wizorek, you were just talking about your parents and how even your mother had to struggle too. Can you elaborate a bit more on that?

Wizorek: The GDR was also a country shaped by patriarchy. The household day (Haushaltstag) was intended for the women. Though fathers were expected to help, it remained the mothers’ responsibility. In this respect, one must not idealize anything. The pressure situation of homemaking and wage labor was also real. That which we are discussing today under the catchword of compatibility – with regard to all of Germany – happened earlier in the GDR. Although I do not know – was there a real debate in the GDR?

Rohnstock: In the 80s, the household day was also granted to single men. In the GDR, the strategy for gender equality changed over the decades. In the 1960s, for example, it was found that the equal level of education in men and women that the GDR aspired to could not be enforced on its own. For this reason, special programs were set up in which women could complete a degree course during working hours. Many took advantage of that. This is how my mother became qualified as an engineer-economist. And while she was working or learning, I, the ten-year-old, went shopping at the village co-op and set the dinner table. “When Mutti goes to work early..." went the nursery rhyme. In the GDR there was less etiquette, more openness. At work, women could talk openly about it when they didn’t feel so well. The response was usually friendly: "Then take a break". It was more relaxed because there wasn’t this barbaric pressure to perform.

At Berlin Verlag there was also a relaxation room for women.

Rohnstock: There was also one at Zeiss in Jena, where my mother worked. However, the women used it fairly rarely, because they wanted to stand "for their husband". By the way, when men weren’t feeling well, they were also allowed to lie down.

Ms. Rohnstock, in December 1989 you were one of the founders of the GDR’s Independent Women's Association. At that time, a manifesto was published which highlighted the situation of GDR women very critically. It says: "We no longer want to be the humble, underpaid helpers and co-workers who were played for fools, to whom one gives their thanks on March 8th."

Rohnstock: I also reread that yesterday and marveled at how critical we were of the GDR back then. The women were not proportionately represented in all sectors. Thousand-year-old patriarchal structures cannot be dismantled in just a few decades. And the appropriate methods do not fall from the sky. Lots of things have to be tried out. We young women wanted to shape society. Starting in the mid-80s there was a huge reform bottleneck in the GDR – similar to today, by the way. Today I see the GDR as a great experiment – to build an alternative society. In doing so, many mistakes were made, but many things succeeded as alternatives to what the Western model had to offer.

Where do you see a need for reform today?

Rohnstock: At every turn. But at its core, the problem is the lack of participation. My company, Rohnstock Biografien, organizes so-called storytelling salons – regularly in our office in Prenzlauer Berg, but also in Lusatia, in the Thuringian Forest, in the Ore Mountains (Erzgebirge). I hear many stories – from people of different generations and social backgrounds. I can therefore say that many East Germans are worried about how to solve the issues of securing a livelihood, mobility, care, education and digitization, both today and in the future. People are by all means developing ideas about what they could do locally. However, fossilized, bureaucratized structures are everywhere. Politicians cannot solve the problems ahead on their own. However, they could encourage structures that enable citizens to successfully participate in a way that is not bureaucratic.

Do you also see it that way?

Wizorek: I would also add the climate crisis and the social question.

Rohnstock: Yes, I agree, of course.

Wizorek: I would like to add something on the topic of digitization. On the one hand, Germany is lagging very far behind in terms of technology. On the other, people aren’t seeing its potential benefits. By reorganizing work, one could basically call into question the standard 40-hour week, as it makes us feel burn out both physically and mentally. Why aren’t we thinking about new working models? Currently, digitization, if anything, is being used more and more to exploit us. As a consequence, e-mails are sent after-hours which are expected to be answered immediately.

The biggest feminist topic last year was the fight against Paragraph 219a [forbidding the advertisement of abortion services]. It actually wasn’t about new working hour models for women and men. Why is that?

Wizorek: I find this hierarchization difficult, because sexual self-determination is a central issue. The perception of campaigns also has to do with how attention economics generally operates within the media. Take, for example, the work of the Care Revolution. Its main point is that one should not only have more time for their family, but also for themselves. More of a life-work balance.

Ms. Wizorek, in 2013 you started a discussion about sexism under the hashtag #Aufschrei. Can you summarize what has been accomplished since then?

Wizorek: We had published a report on our blog Kleinerdrei.org about sexual harassment on the street, which on Twitter our reader Nicole von Horst commented and expanded upon with her own experiences. I then proposed the hashtag Aufschrei to group together these posts. Women especially then wrote about their own sexist experiences. This coincided with the publication of an article in Stern on the sexist behavior of the FDP politician Rainer Brüderle. For me it was an important but also stressful time, as I myself also became much more visible.

Were you attacked?

Wizorek: Yes, there were attacks, from misogynist insults to an anonymous murder threat. I have not read any comments beneath my interviews in a long time. In the meantime, educating others about digital violence has become a focus of my work.

After #Aufschrei came #MeToo. Did you experience any déjà vu there?

Wizorek: Yes. But I thought it was good that it was left to those affected to be able to say beyond “MeToo” how much they talk about their experiences, because it’s first and foremost about the healing process. However, in media debates, this isn’t taken into consideration as much.

Do you have any point of reference to these sexism debates, Ms. Rohnstock?

Rohnstock: I think it’s important that dependent and power relationships became transparent through the #MeToo debate. I find it problematic that men are attacked with such blanket statements or accusations. Our neighbor told me about how her boss affectionally gave her a pat once in GDR times. She said, “Stop it, I do not want you to do that.” When that didn’t change anything the third time either, she put her fist in his nose. He got the message. After that they had a relaxed relationship.

Not all women would dare to do that.

Rohnstock: Yes, that was very defensive.

Wizorek: The depictions on #MeToo and #Aufschrei have also shown that women who defend themselves sometimes only come under more pressure. They were harassed out of their jobs or experienced even more violence.

Rohnstock: That’s because it is all about dependencies. Today my neighbor couldn’t do that because she would then get the axe. You could not be fired in the GDR. This enabled a certain degree of freedom.

Do you think that women should take more drastic measures to defend themselves, Ms. Rohnstock?

Rohnstock: Yes, but not in a way that harms the relationship between genders. That's one criticism that I have of feminism. Women need men, men need women. I would prefer to look for emancipatory behaviors that prevent walls from being raised between genders. If, for example, I were to witness the former General Manager of Kosmetik Kombinat Berlin, Christa Bertag, in a circle of men of equal rank in our salon for state holding company directors, I would see a relaxed attitude, wit, articulateness and self-confidence. That impresses me. I wish for more motherliness in our society, for both women and men. There’s an outcry coming from women, it’s true, but what good is that? They remain in the role of the oppressed, as victims.

But not all women want to be maternal in the working world!

Wizorek: I find it significant that this type of discussion always focuses on women's behavior. Motherliness and quick-wittedness are survival strategies, and I find it problematic that this is not called into question. MeToo and Aufschrei were also opportunities for men to reflect on their behavior. Some do this, but the majority do not.

Many men are insecure and no longer know what they are allowed to do and not do.

Wizorek: But a sense of insecurity is good because it means that things are changing and that the classic image of masculinity is being called into question. When we talk about walls being raised, I see this to be more the case with men. They refuse to acknowledge that this subject could have anything to do with them. Every third day in Germany, a woman is murdered by her partner or ex-partner; these are not just attempts at flirting that have gone awry – there is something structural behind it. And this we need to talk about.

Rohnstock: That shows great helplessness. At the moment we are experiencing a huge change in gender roles. Men cannot and do not need to fulfill the role of family breadwinner. But what socially important responsibility replaces this loss?

Wizorek: But it can be a positive thing to be liberated from the burden of being the breadwinner!

Rohnstock: Absolutely. But what is filling this void? It’s not role reversal. In our book "Thrown Off Track", we have seen that the housewife role satisfies men as little as it does women, and also sickens them just as much. And men who are or become unemployed, where do they get their recognition from? Of course, they could join the SPD or get involved in their community – by helping the homeless, for example. But these options are obviously not compatible with their needs. This creates a vacuum that is filled from the outside by the far-right. The scarce amount of men's groups are more likely to appeal to those with a middle-class, metropolitan social background. For craftsmen, workers in rural areas, these are pampered, baby-faced boys. Here there is a big, growing risk for society. The Halle perpetrator was a lonely young man – as are all gunmen by the way.

Wizorek: ... who then become radicalized, primarily, through right-wing networks on the Internet.

Rohnstock: Yes, for these young men, it’s the only option that gives them a sense of identity.

Wizorek: The fact that men specifically are so prone to this also has to do with our notions of masculinity. The attack in Halle shows the interplay between anti-Semitism, anti-feminism and racism.

What kind of options should there be?

Wizorek: It should not just start with adults; one should begin with gender-sensitive education in kindergarten. At that age, it is already the case that pink and light blue are divided. There the power gap is already being cemented, as girls and boys are forced into certain roles and boys cannot express their vulnerable side.

Rohnstock: It is not only done with increased sensitivity to gender. Individualism, absence of communities and loneliness are all a big problem. In a storytelling salon in Lusatia, we asked young people "What can you do for the future of your community?" Both right- and left-wing young people wanted a youth center. They had tried to renovate a vacant house for it, but were thrown out because the ownership status hadn’t been resolved. Young men have strength and energy that they need to find an outlet for. But where are the possibilities for action? In economically underdeveloped areas, there are thousands of empty houses – why don’t we let them be restored and shared by young men? There must be community spaces again. Someone who enjoys friendship, plays skat with others, digs a patch, or is involved in projects does not become a gunman.

Wizorek: I don’t know if one can make such a generalization. Right-wing groups also have their version of camaraderie.

You are both women who try to get other people to talk. How big is the impact of storytelling?

Rohnstock: Storytelling is a miracle cure. With storytelling, we reflect on our lives, learn to express contradictions, process frustration, stabilize our self-esteem, assure ourselves of our potential. It’s great.

Reappraisal is more of a women's thing, right?

Rohnstock: No, that’s not our experience. Just as many men come to the storytelling salons as women. Garbage collectors, Wismut miners, glassblowers and stonemasons tell us their stories alongside women nurses, artists and trade unionists. Meanwhile, just as many women are writing their autobiographies as men. But there are differences in social background. In the West, I met women who were barely able to tell their stories, as after 60 years of civil marriage they had been constantly interrupted and corrected by their husbands. They could not formulate their own thoughts. I’m not familiar with anything like that from the GDR.

Would you say that since 1989 women and men talk less with each other?

Rohnstock: Well, anyone who has a job and has less time must also make communication efficient.

There are clear figures on the status of emancipation among German women today: 90 percent of all women between the ages of 30 and 50 earn less than €2,000 a month according to the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs. Nearly a third of all women in Germany pay not a cent into a private pension plan. Two-thirds of domestic work and parenting is still in the hands of women. So how far really have women come since 1989?

Rohnstock: Many East German women have grown enormously. Through their self-image of being equal, they were able to undermine entrenched West German behavioral patterns. The best example is Ms. Merkel. But overall, the relationship between genders has moved away from an emancipatory – equal education, equal pay – partnership.

Do you also think that’s the case?

Wizorek: Overall, we are experiencing a breakdown in behavior that reflects solidarity, not only in the relationship between genders. The proportion of women in the Bundestag is extremely low, and we cannot be satisfied with just having Ms. Merkel in office. I don’t think that’s enough. What I am already seeing is that men would be happy to spend more time with their children, but sometimes fail to do so because of the same obstacles that have already caused women to fail. I’ve heard many stories about men who wanted to take more than the usual two months parental leave and where the boss said: Then you can leave right now. I come back to my question: Do we all have to work so hard until we fall over from exhaustion? We should thoroughly question today's status quo.

In the new study of young people, 54 percent of respondents say that they prefer the male main-earner model. Are we in a phase of traditionalization?

Rohnstock: What the young people want to avoid is this stress that emerges from having to reconcile their housekeeping, children, partnership, work and professional development – and not being able to support grandparents. That is why many women academics refrain from having children. Women adjust to the circumstances.

But why is it always the woman who puts up with everything?

Rohnstock: Young mothers want to spend time with their children. That's why they want to work less hours. However, there is a lack of half-day jobs. My daughter, who has studied sociology and German studies, cannot find a job that is 20 hours per week.

Wizorek: Also, there are too few positive role models where one sees things happening without much ado. I also see that in my environment: As soon as there are children, an equal partnership is hardly possible anymore.

How do you imagine Germany in the year 2029?

Wizorek: I would like a representative democracy that is worthy of the name, in which people of different social backgrounds and gender identity can be found. In addition, we’ll have finally achieved the abolition of Paragraph 218, which would mean free access to abortions.

Rohnstock: Industrialization has divided people into "capable" and "incapable". Those who are not capable (anymore) are separated: old people are put into nursing homes. Anyone who falters is marginalized. This separation must go away. We have to ask ourselves: how do we want to make use of our time in the future? How can we use new developments to rebuild society? It requires a transformation in larger communities so that the concept of “We” is finally a priority once again.