Ideologies of motherhood : literary imaginaries and public discourses




Walter-Gensler, Christina Cindy

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Compared to other industrialized Western nations, the number of female professionals in Germany remains low, and fewer women combine a career with raising children. Public debates repeatedly argue that only stay-at-home moms can secure the ideal upbringing of children. This contemporary German social phenomenon is examined here as a failure of Germany’s shared social imaginary to provide images of alternative social roles for adult females. To do so, this dissertation traces discourses about motherhood and female identity construction reflected in German novels since the nation’s 1871 foundation, demonstrating the persistence of a limited number of images of female identities that constrain “acceptable” roles for women to family contexts. The study, however, does not seek a complete history of Germany’s maternal images, but rather provides an archive of persistent and visible gender identity scripts inscribed into Germany’s social imaginary and secured by law, custom, and usage in the public—to fill a lacuna in understanding the century-old dominant ideologies about women that sets Germany apart from other European nations and the US. Setting the scene by examining the available roles for women in literary works dating to the Wilhelmine Empire at the end of the dissertation’s introductory chapter, I then address selected highly visible German novels written during the Weimar Republic (Vicki Baum), the Third Reich (Ina Seidel), West Germany’s early postwar period (Heinrich Böll), West Germany from 1968 to 1989 (Gabriele Wohmann), and postreunification (Hera Lind). As I argue in my conclusion, a close look at the public perception of motherhood as manifested in these popular, visible narratives suggests that, despite the nation’s multiple transformations, the novelistic rhetoric about women’s roles scarcely changed, even if state ideologies and legalities did. They still state or insinuate that there is no “suitable” place for women outside the nuclear family. This result is significant because novels provide descriptions of women’s roles as mothers that become memorable and hence “true” for many of their readers, who reproduce the images as “normal” within social reality—there are few literary counterimages that might foster the emergence of alternative roles for German women in the twenty-first century.


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