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East German Minister of Justice, Hilde Benjamin: "Who Has the Say in the Family?" (February 1, 1958)

The equality of men and women was stipulated in the constitution of the GDR, and the SED celebrated its realization as a great socio-political accomplishment. However, in this 1958 lecture, the East German Minister of Justice, Hilde Benjamin, conceded that the ideal of equality was not yet enshrined in people’s consciousness everywhere. Still, in a number of important legal areas, such as family law, marital property law, and divorce law, the regulations of the old Civil Code had already been adjusted to the principle of equality in such a way that the economic dependence of women on their husbands had been eliminated and custody of the children was no longer automatically given to the father. The East German Code of Family Law announced by Hilde Benjamin was not enacted until the end of 1965.

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The reason why women’s equality in the family is especially difficult to realize is because here the stubbornest bits that remain in our consciousness must be overcome. Men who have a thoroughly progressive relationship to their work, who participate in Socialist competition, and who are good members of Socialist work collectives still behave, within their own four walls, like the domestic tyrants into which man has been shaped by the exploitation society. Often it is the men who prevent their wives from working, who insist that women belong in the home, who are unwilling to accept any inconvenience resulting from their wives’ gainful employment. In order to develop genuine equality, society still needs to engage in great educational efforts to help the Socialist consciousness achieve a breakthrough here as well.

We must not fail to recognize, however, that obstacles to the realization of equality also arise from the attitude of no small number of women who have not yet understood that their incorporation into production can ensure real equality. Many still see their ideal only in domestic work, and it still happens all too often that women stop working once they get married. However, a few numbers indicate that progress is occurring here as well, in the sense of an increase in the gainful employment of married women: in 1950, 14% of women who were running a household with a husband and children were gainfully employed; in 1956, that number rose to 18.3%.

The task of achieving further progress in the development of the Socialist consciousness in this area belongs – alongside general social education – above all to our laws. We still have no new family law. The Civil Code from the year 1900 has not been repealed in its entirety. The legal basis for women’s equality in the family is provided by Article 30 of our constitution and by the Law on the Protection of Mothers and Children and the Rights of Women. Added to this is the Decree on Marriage and Divorce of November 1955.

The principles derived from these laws have replaced the still valid provisions of the Civil Code with respect to family law. Under the crucial influence of decisions made by our courts, in which female judges and female lay judges, in particular, also played a considerable role, this has given rise to a number of principles governing the legal status of women within the family, principles that already ensure that women’s equality is fully guaranteed in the family law of the GDR. We are working on a family law code, which was already broadly discussed two years ago, and within which these principles, confirmed by our experience, will be brought together. The most important of these principles are as follows:

All decisions regarding the shape of the shared family life shall be made by the husband and the wife together. Here, we operate under the assumption that the woman has the same right to pursue a vocation as the man; in fact, the possibility should be considered that, under certain circumstances, the wife, for the purpose of vocational training, may not be able to live with her husband for some time. The matters subject to joint decision also include the decision about where to live together. Therefore, it can no longer be the case that the wife is obligated to follow the husband to a place of residence he has chosen against her will. For example, a man who wants to change the family’s place of residence without good cause, and against the will of the wife, can neither demand that the wife follow him, nor possibly derive grounds for divorce from the fact that she did not. Likewise, the principle of joint decision also applies to questions concerning purchases or larger expenses. [ . . . ]

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