UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133c Homepage > 133c Book Essays Index page > Student essay

Are Women Better Off Without Men?

Book Essay on: Elizabeth D. Heineman, What Difference Does a Husband Make?
(Berkeley: University of California Press, Ltd., 1999), 374 pages. UCSB: HQ 800.2 H45 1999

by Victor Fernandez Murillo
June 5, 2007

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1945-present
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2007

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
$19 & searchable
at amazon

About Victor Fernandez Murillo

I am a junior history major who has been studying both North and South American history with European history as well. I’ve traveled trough Europe during my junior year in High School and seeing how Germany is a main focus of interest of WWI, I’m extremely interested in learning Germany history a little better. I decided to write about German Women during the post war period because I’m interested in women’s treatment during that time.

Abstract (back to top)

This book gives a great detailed history of the way women were treated in Germany before and after World War II. Also, it states how women endured the hardship that war brought upon them with the absence of men during this time. It starts by describing how the “perfect citizen” was being planned by the government before WWII broke out. It tells the reader how true Aryan blood was classified, and how women who were not classified as desirable, were sterilized. The book then moves to the time period of WWII. It describes how women did not have male support back at home due to the fact that they were almost all at war. Because of this, women had to “stand alone” and found ways to support their families. However, politics did very little in establishing the status of married women; and women did not “stand alone” because they were not alone.

Essay (back to top)

What Difference Does a Husband Make?

During the World Wars era, women in Germany were belittled; they were taken advantage of, and minimized compared to the male sex. In the first chapter of the book, Heineman introduces the hardship that women began to experience post World War I, up until post World War II. The chapter begins with stories of Mathilde and Helene. To avoid the scrutiny she would have encountered, Mathilde claimed to have divorced her Gestapo husband. Helene’s story was that of thousands of women after their husbands returned from WWII. Helene’s relationship with her husband Kurt never recuperated and the couple separated before Kurt married another woman. However, the chapter introduces the great amount of male shortage that Germany went through after WWII. The first post war census showed that there were about seven million more women than men, compared to the post WWI census that showed two million more women than men. The Nazis however, had a plan to restore the idea of marriage to women’s lives.

The second chapter deals with women’s lives under Nazi control. Nazis introduced the idea that not all women should marry and have children. According to Nazi belief, these women “…were undesirable as wives and mothers because of their race, their genetic material, or conduct,” (Heineman, 17). Due to the division of women into two types: valued and unvalued wives, unfair treatment toward ‘undesirable’ women began. To promote marriage between healthy fertile ‘Aryans,’ marriage loans were introduced to them. By 1938, forty percent of married couples received such loans. Not all was guaranteed. Men could very easily divorce women. Courts granted divorce if they found wife of suffering mental illness, physical illness, refusal to reproduce, if she became infertile, if they were of Jewish background, or simply if there was another woman who showed a greater potential of reproduction. The same restrictions dealt with those who wanted to marry. In 1935, Nazis confirmed the Nuremberg racial Laws that prohibited the marriage between Aryans and people they considered to be of ‘foreign blood.’ During this era, a great number of women were forcibly sterilized if they were assumed to be asocial or unworthy of having children. In many cases, it brought forth rape or harassment which was received with skepticism by social workers. If the mother of a child was considered to be asocial, the child inherited the same stigma. This made it impossible for the children to have equal rights as those children who were ‘valued.’ Public disgust for asocial women aided Nazis to their rise to power.

Chapter three deals with the decisions women made during World War II. The most obvious thing that occurred during this period of time was the government decision to employ millions of young single women in military jobs. During this time, sterilization dropped steeply, and women who were once considered to be ‘undesirable,’ now found themselves to be treated equal to women who were ‘desirable.’ Without a doubt, the war brought a new wave of widow women in Germany. Of three to four million German casualties, forty percent were married. The war caused many women to become unfaithful to their husband off at war. Young women that were unmarried were easily tempted by foreign soldiers or foreign prisoners to commit sexual acts. If they were caught, sentencing could vary from prison time, to concentration camps, or execution.

The following chapter describes the amount of things women adapted themselves to in order to guarantee their, as well as their family’s survival. Women positioned in labor zones in the Soviet zone had very different lives from those who were in the western zone. I the western zone, women saw their contribution to the labor shortage as a familiar pattern. They were given the name, “women of the rubble.” Women in the Soviet zone were forced into labor. Another difference between the two zones was the fact that in the western zone, fraternization with foreign soldiers was very popular after the war; while women in the Soviet zone had been raped during the end of the war. During this time, the black market became the primary source of trade within Germany. With the Nazi regime looking prosperous in the future, the beginning of the war went extremely well. However, towards the end, women saw their life as a pattern: bombing, flight and rape; the second half of the war was extremely difficult.

As chapter five describes, when soldiers returned home from the war, difficulties in the family continued. After years at war, many husbands who were severely injured, starved, or encountered psychological issues returned home only to find out that their wives had a lover, didn’t have a wife anymore, or if he did that she had been raped. Not only that, but their home was not as they remembered. Instead, it was just rubble. On top of that, many had to deal with de-nazification or the fact that they could not find a job. Women suffered as well. They had to live with husbands who were emotionally unreachable because they had spent harsh times at prison camps. Women who had been raped had to deal with the fact that their husbands wanted nothing to do with them. Many women saw their husbands to be incompetent in providing for the family. All this caused a great number of divorces, abandonments, and a decline in marriages’.

As Germany was divided into West and East, women’s ideology was divided between West and East as well. As chapter six shows, in 1949 women in West Germany had a constitution that guaranteed sexual equality. With the Allies helping shape the structure of a new political system, women had a stronger voice in the new government, regardless of the fact that men had the majority control over it. During the Parliamentary Council, parties and women demanded equal pay for equal work. It was granted in 1955. However, the court encouraged that ‘heavy work’ should be rewarded over ‘light work,’ hinting that men did the ‘heavy work.’ Things in East Germany were different, as chapter seven describes. The leaders of the new government were raised with classic Marxist teachings which they defined domesticity as a form of slavery towards women. However, there were a couple of good decisions made. East German leaders did not influenced abandonment of marriage, and all laws violating sexual equality were voided by the constitution.

At the end, the demographic imbalance changed very little over time. But, like most change in Germany post WWII, it did slowly change for the better, as described in chapter eight.


The reason why I choose to read What Difference Does a Husband Make? was simple; I wanted to learn about women lives without a husband in Germany during the World War II era. It was a great book to read. Once I began to read it, I could not stop. It was so well researched; it gave a great amount of facts which was helpful in my better understanding of the book. The main thing that caught my attention was the great amount of detail that was given. It really helped me visualize how women in Germany were being treated during this time. It helps by answering such questions as: how were married women treated compared to single women? Also, why were some women classified as ‘desirable’ and others as ‘undesirable? Or, how was the relationship between families during and after the war? However, like many great books, there were certain issues that seemed to be uncertain. The author argues that this era created a self sufficient woman, a “woman standing alone,” (Heineman, 4). Not only is the statement that this time period created a “woman standing alone” false, but the author shows facts that contradict her statement of a “woman standing alone.”

There is no doubt that women became extremely independent during this time. In the case of many married women, they became the strongest person in the family. However, to give them the title of a “woman standing alone,” is giving them too much credit. Simply for one reason, they were not alone at all. They had help.

As described in chapter one, many women who were divorced, widowed, or single, often lived with relatives, children, parents, landlords, and even lovers. Of course this made it much easier, economically, physically, emotional, and most importantly, it made it easier to survive. The majority of women had children who had the unfortunate fate of dealing with these hard times. A survey taken by women in Berlin in 1947 showed that eighty-five percent of women who took the survey had children (Heineman, 84). The children had to adapt to a life with out a father. They did not have a male influence in their life which is extremely essential to have. They did not have the father’s income to support them. This, in many cases, resulted in the children having to provide some sort of income to the family. A lot of children learned how to survive and help their families by working in the black market. As the book mentions “Women occasionally came under unique criticism for allowing their offspring to witness their black-market activity or for sending their children to steal or barter…” (Heineman, 85).

The book does a great job emphasizing the hardship that mothers went through. How they prostitute themselves to foreign officers just for some cigarettes which was the main currency in the black market. Also, how they had to live in what was left of their homes, which were mostly destroyed by bombings, during the cold German winter. All this is truly amazing, and I tip my hat towards them. However, their children had to go through all of this as well. Children had to encounter those freezing winters with no heat and hardly and food. As a child recalls, “My most beautiful day was the day my brother Friedrich died. Since then I have a coat and shoes and socks and a knit vest” (Heineman, 84). Women did an amazing job by taking care of their families and providing for them during difficult times. However, they were not alone in the voyage. When a mother was cold, so was her child, if she was hungry, the kid was starving, if the wife missed her husband, the child missed his or her father. Women did not stand alone.

There is absolutely no arguing that women went through a great amount of emotional pain during this time. Hundreds of thousands were raped by Soviet soldiers in the occupational are. A great number of women were forced into sterilization by Nazi officials simply because they considered these women to be completely undesirable. However, women who had children but no husband were considered to be undesirable as well. The sad thing about it was that if a mother was to be asocial, so was the child. This meant that the child had hardly any rights compared to those children that were considered to be sociable, not only that, they suffered humiliation with the people around them. This is mentioned in the book, “Unwed motherhood was itself an indication of associability, and if a mother was asocial, then her children were undesirable,” (Heineman, 31). This was made law by Nazi officials in order to reproduce Germans that were true ‘Aryans.’

At the end of it all, this was an extremely great book to read and I appreciate the recommendation. You hear about the Jews, concentration camps, the Nazis along with Hitler, but I never had an idea of how horrible women were mistreated, and the hardship that they had to go through. However, as much as women suffered during this time, they had someone to aid them in their struggle. Most of the people who helped women stand strong was their own children. Their children were there to view the same scenery as the mother did. They encountered the same problems. They were equally cold and hungry as their mothers were. Therefore, women did not manage to stand alone. After all, there were about seven million more women then men during this time. They were not the only ones that were going through the same issues, there were others. This issue was the only thing that I disagreed in the whole book, however, that’s the purpose of a good book, to make you think.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 6/x/07)


  • Hildegard von Waldenburg, That’s how it is, my child: The Autobiography of a German girl who lived through the Second World War in Berlin (New York, 1999). http://www.von-waldenburg.com/
  • Nancy Caldwell Sorel, The Women Who Wrote the War (New York: Arcade Publishing, Inc., 1999), 464 pages. Amazon.com review:
    "The women who served as combat correspondents in World War II were a capable, gutsy, and inquisitive bunch. Their bravery snapping photos from bomb-laden B-17s over North Africa or interviewing blood-soaked soldiers fresh from Iwo Jima was matched only by their pluck in overcoming sexist double standards and patronizing attitudes. To a one, they were determined to prove their mettle at a time when "few newspaperwomen had made it from the society desk into the newsroom," as author Nancy Caldwell Sorel points out. Sorel (whose witty First Encounters appeared in The Atlantic for years) tracked down dozens of these women, most well into or past their 70s, and has combined candid interviews with rigorous research to piece together their amazing wartime stories."



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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 6/13/07; last updated:
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