When a woman was mayor

Today's International Women's Day! In honour of that here's the tale of Louise Schroeder, Berlin's only female mayor, and a question: why hasn’t a woman governed Berlin in the 65 years since?

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Photo courtesy of Archiv Gerda Schimpf, Berlin

Today’s International Women’s Day! In honour of that here’s the tale of Louise Schroeder, Berlin’s first, and only, Bürgermeisterin in the years after World War II.

Louise Schroeder’s path to the Rathaus started in 1910, when, encouraged by her construction worker father, the then 23-year-old joined the left-wing Social Democratic party (SPD). That same year, she became chair of the SPD board in her home borough of Altona, Hamburg. When German women received the right to vote in 1919, she became the youngest and first female member elected in the Weimar National Assembly, and she moved to Berlin to sit in the Reichstag. In the capital she was involved in the foundation of Arbeiterwohlfahrt, a workers’ welfare organisation, and taught at its school. As a member of the SPD, she was banned from the Reichstag in 1933 by the new Nazi government. A short-lived back-up career as a bakery owner was scuttled after she refused to give the Hitler salute. After the war, she helped to re-establish the SPD in Berlin, and eventually became the party’s deputy chairman.

By 1947, in a city reduced to rubble, where a vast number of political actors had been either murdered by the Nazis, killed in the war or compromised by their allegiance to Hitler’s regime, she was able to rise up to become mayor of West Berlin, governing during the city’s first post-war crisis, the Soviet blockade of 1948 and the Berlin Airlift.

How did she do it? “Louise Schroeder was an extremely dedicated woman,” says historian Sebastian Ruff. “She didn’t have children or a husband, not even a boyfriend that we know of. She made her way in a man’s world, which was an exception at the time.” He posits that her gender may have even worked in her favour at the time she was elected.” Berlin needed a public figure with ‘soft values’, someone who could function as a mediator between German politicians and the Soviets.”

Women’s history researcher Claudia von Gélieu points out that simply calling Louise Schroeder dedicated and driven is only half the story. “The truth is, Louise Schroeder was elected mayor because in 1947, the Soviet Union vetoed the appointment of the SPD’s Ernst Reuter. A replacement had to be found within short notice, and because Louise Schroeder was the only other SPD party chairman, she was given the position. If there had been a male candidate, he would have gotten the post.”

The American, British and French occupied sectors joined together to form West Berlin in 1949 in response to the year-long Soviet blockade of all supplies to the western half of the city. Famously, thousands of American planes landing at Tempelhof delivered food to cut-off western Berliners. Schroeder became mayor of the new provisional West Berlin government and remained in the position until Reuter formed the first Senat in 1951.

Von Gélieu says Schroeder wasn’t particularly celebrated as a “strong woman” during her time as mayor, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t a good social politician: “She made a huge effort in mediating between the East and the West, and,even though she didn’t succeed in preventing the division of Berlin, she tried to institute more humane policies.

”By now, with a female chancellor and a German parliament that is one-third women, a legitimately elected Bürgermeisterin shouldn’t feel like such a faraway goal. Does the role of mayor just not appeal to German female politicians? Or do they just not believe themselves capable of performing it well?

“Berlin does have four female district mayors,” points out Mechtild Rawert, an SPD member of the Bundestag and board member of the Women’s Council Berlin. “These four women have a long political history behind them and a lot of experience, which is of course the most important thing if you want to reach a position like this. There are a lot of women in politics capable of that. But generally, men are more willing to speak up. Women think that to reach the top positions, they should be perfect at everything – and generally, women are more engaged in social areas than political ones.”

Just because women have the same possibilities as men now doesn’t mean things have changed so much.

Von Gélieu puts it more bluntly: “Just because women have the same possibilities as men now doesn’t mean things have changed so much. Men still hold the powerful positions. That a third of the parliament today is female is only because of the Frauenquote.”

Schroeder came back into focus last year as part of the exhibition Berlin – A Stadt der Frauen exhibition at the Ephraim-Palais. On the top floor there was a questionnaire for women. The last question: “Which law would you implement as mayor of Berlin?” The answers suggested that a huge focus point is not only the so-called “soft values”, but also what could be considered “women’s issues”: Better and earlier opportunities for kindergarten spots, better care for single mothers, better care for victims of abuse. One woman wrote: “Berlin is still not a city of women – not until women have all of the same rights as men!”

Rawert could not agree more: “We need to modernise the structure of society. Equality won’t be reached until women are as equally represented in all areas as men.”