Elizabeth Schwarzhaupt is sworn in as a Federal Minister on 14 November 1961.

The Long Struggle of Women

Christa Nickels was not only a co-founder of the Green Party, but also a member of the German Bundestag in the 1980s. In April 2023, she spoke in Japan about political equality. How she made herself heard and why a feminist foreign policy is important.

The interview was conducted by Juliane Pfordte

ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen): Ms. Nickels, you are a protagonist in the documentary “Die Unbeugsamen” [The Indomitable ], which was filmed in 2021. This film portrays courageous women like yourself who fought in the Bonn Republic for political equality and recognition. Would you describe yourself as “indomitable”?

Christa Nickels: Well, that depends. If we’re talking about fundamental issues, where real life, the heart and the head say, ‘Here I stand and I will not stand aside’, then I am definitely indomitable. But if you are always indomitable, then you are stubborn. I am perfectly capable of bending in order to achieve something, but I remain true to myself.

This steadfastness was necessary in order to make yourself heard as a woman in the German Bundestag in the 1980s. The archive recordings in the film show how obviously and blatantly female Members of Parliament were insulted, despised and sexually discriminated against. How did you deal with this on a personal level?

Nickels: When we founded our Green Party, we were slammed by the other parties every single day. We were used to being assertive, especially through the women’s movement, which was one of our founding trends. Whatever topic we tackled or whatever facts we presented, nothing was taken seriously. I’d like to give you a very drastic example: during my time as a member of the Committee on Legal Affairs, I was the only woman. When I brought up the subject of marital rape there, which was still exempt from punishment at that time, a colleague who had hidden behind his BILD newspaper for hours said that I should take my Valium and seek psychiatric treatment. And the Chairman of the Committee said not a word to this comment! Offensive language and protests on women’s policy issues from our male colleagues were our way of life, even in the plenary assembly. Nevertheless, I chose a path for myself: never to attack the person themself, but always to argue strongly and uncompromisingly on the merits of the case. A dispute fought with strong arguments leads, at best, to progress on both sides.

The “Mothers of Germany’s Basic Law”

Statue of Elisabeth Selbert.
Elisabeth Selbert, one of the “Mothers of Germany’s Basic Law” and a fighter for women’s equality, photo: Swen Pförtner / dpa via picture alliance

In Article 3 (2), Germany’s Basic Law guarantees: “Men and women are equal.” Despite this, politics remained a man’s game for a long time. Why did democratic rights not lead automatically to the equal representation of women in the Bundestag?

Nickels: You must take into consideration how long the road was up until then. Let us recall the protagonists of women’s rights in the 18th and 19th centuries who, in part, paid for their commitment in blood, or the suffragettes in England. And we must not forget how hard we had to fight for this article or that one in German Basic Law. We must thank those four women who fought with untiring commitment during the deliberations in the Parliamentary Council in 1948/1949, against considerable opposition from 61 men, to get the Article on Equality into German Basic Law.

The motion fell through twice. But the “Mothers of Germany’s Basic Law” knew how to work together beyond the political party level, how to organise a public protest and mobilise the women in the country for their project so that the parties as well as the Parliamentary Council received baskets full of supportive mail. That was the only way in which this Article made it into German Basic Law at all.

About the Elisabeth-Selbert-Initiative

The politician and lawyer Dr. Elisabeth Selbert (1896 – 1986) was one of the so-called mothers of the Basic Law, along with Frieda Nadig, Helene Weber and Helene Wessel. The protection programme for threatened human rights defenders, named after her, provides a safe place to recuperate, cope with trauma, and when possible, to network and further develop their professional skills. ifa cooperates with civil society actors to carry out the programme. The Elisabeth-Selbert-Initiative organises temporary relocation with host organisations which integrate and accompany the human rights defender and is implemented by ifa with funds from the German Federal Foreign Office.

For years, archaic role models were also legally cemented. Until 1977, it was a legal requirement that the woman had to run the household and required her husband’s permission to be gainfully employed. Didn’t that also have an effect on the percentage of women in politics?

Nickels: Yes, that shaped the image of women in that period and, to some extent, it has had a shaping effect on society to this day. Our economic and working life is still organised on the model of the gender division of labour. Among other things, this can be seen in the child-minding sector which, even in such a rich country as Germany, is still impaired while billions are quickly provided for the economy. Women still spend significantly more time providing care than men. The pandemic has provided shocking examples of this. It was mainly women who – irrespective of how highly qualified they were – reduced their working time or even left their jobs to care for children or parents requiring nursing, because society as a whole simply could not ensure such services.

Why a Quota is Required

You were a Member of the Bundestag for a total of 19 years, with interruptions. What did you actually do to strengthen women’s political position both within and outside your party?

Nickels: The most effective political strategy – and this was a fundamental experience for me – is: whatever you realise is right for you, for which you make claims politically, must be implemented in your own organisation as far as possible. One of the Green Party’s greatest merits is the implementation of a minimum quota in their own party, i.e. gender parity in all offices and mandates. We women in the party fought very hard for this. Similar to the “Mothers of Germany’s Basic Law”, we laid the groundwork in society, organised general meetings for women in the various German states and discussed the “women’s statute”. This statute was introduced in 1986, making the minimum quota binding for the entire party. We also introduced childcare at party conventions and a women’s quota for speeches. And because we were consistent within our own structures and complied with the principle of parity at all levels, we showed that this is possible and leads to good results. Naturally, in the beginning, people laughed at us and called us the “quota women”, but as time went by, they began to respect us for our work performance.

Why is parity important?

Nickels: Because it has become apparent that women’s policy issues only have a chance to be implemented in parliaments if there are so many women in all of the parties there that they can achieve a majority across all parties, if necessary. Women are not the better people, but they are more than half the population, and a democracy is not complete as long as women are not equally represented in parliaments and cannot bring their deepest concerns, experiences and view of the world into parliaments in an authentic manner.

Lecture Tour to Japan

The political participation of women was also the topic of the lecture tour which brought you to Japan in April. In 2021, the percentage of women in the Japanese parliament was about ten per cent. What obstacles did local women talk about on their way into politics?

Nickels: Many of the women with whom I was able to speak are disillusioned with regard to their right to vote and the prerequisites for standing for election. They told me that it is normal in Japan to pay a deposit of about 15,000 euros if someone wants to stand as a candidate for election. If this person is not elected, the money is lost. Under these conditions, I would never have been able to become politically involved as a young woman, what with two small children and a new house to pay off. Nor do they receive financing for the parties, as we do in Germany. To make oneself known during an election campaign, a person must be able to mobilise a great deal of money, which is hardly manageable without networks, and this is what women often lack. My meeting with the “Chairman” of a cross-party parliamentary group, a man, was a bizarre but also very enlightening experience! It’s absurd that a women’s group is represented by a man, especially in such a culturally and economically leading country as Japan.

The lecture tour resulted from a film festival held by the Goethe Institute, at which the film mentioned above was also shown. How did the audience react to it?

Nickels: At the festival, the whole film was shown; excerpts were also shown at the Women’s University in Kyoto, Sophia University in Tokyo and other Japanese cities. The audiences consisted mainly of women. Everywhere, they reacted just like here in Germany: they laughed, applauded individual scenes and made enthusiastic comments in between. Once, there were even two older ladies who approached me in tears after the film to thank me. The discussions after the film also showed that the women were very moved. Almost all of them said that the film shows exactly what women in Japan are experiencing today. Many asked me for advice as to where they should begin, where they should find the courage to become more politically involved. The film had shown how much scorn and derision we women had had to put up with in parliament.

And what did you reply?

Nickels: One important approach is to network with civil society and work together on women’s policy issues across both milieus and parties even if, in the beginning, only three women meet in a café or at someone’s home and exchange their views on such issues. In a democracy, each and every person can make a difference, and this starts on a small scale.

Transforming Anger into Courage

Which moments or encounters during this journey have stayed in your mind?

Nickels: On the one hand, I found the enthusiasm of the Japanese women very moving. Their longing to become full citizens in their society and assist in shaping the development of their country reminded me very much of the early stages in my political career and how we women in the Green Party managed to transform our anger over the injustice into courage. The meetings with survivors from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima were also very moving. I was able to lay a personal wreath at the foot of the Peace Monument. At a time when there is once again the threat of nuclear weapons, this was a very touching moment for me.

Which message would you give women in the younger generation?

Nickels: Women often prefer to work quietly by themselves, but it is important that for such a cause they also make a public appearance, all the more so for women’s policy issues. And: look over the garden fence! There is no doubt that we have achieved a great deal in Germany, but what we have achieved can be lost. When I look at the global development in women’s policy issues, I become very frightened and anxious, because what we have fought so hard for so many years is now being threatened.

In Poland and the USA, the statutory possibilities for a legal abortion have been repealed or greatly restricted. After the desolate withdrawal by the international community, Afghanistan has fallen back into a political stone age for women. I was there four times during my time on the Human Rights Committee. Certainly not everything went well at that time, but women had access to education, to a profession, to protection from violence, and security.

Black and white photograph of the so-called Feminate, the all-women executive committee of the Green Party in 1984.
In 1984, the Green Party voted for an Executive Board composed entirely of women, the so-called ‘Feminate’ or female leadership team. Left to right: Heidemarie Dann, Annemarie Borgmann, Antje Vollmer, Erika Hickel, Waltraud Schoppe and Christa Nickels, photo: Sven Simon via picture alliance

This is why a feminist foreign policy to which the current government is committed is so important, because the status which women enjoy in a country is one of the most important indicators of how well all the people in a country are doing.

Portrait of Christa Nickelson at the premiere of the documentary film "Die Unbeugsamen".
Christa Nickels
Former German Politician

Christa Nickels was born in 1952 and completed her training as a nurse after successfully finishing grammar school. In 1979, she was a co-founder of the Green Party in North Rhine-Westphalia. From 1983 to 2005 (with interruptions), she was a Member of the German Bundestag as well as Chairwoman of two expert committees, Parliamentary State Secretary and the Federal Government’s Commissioner on Narcotic Drugs. In 2008, she was awarded the German Federal Cross of Merit for her services.