Migrant Knowledge

Knowledge about the ‘Migrant Woman’ as an Alibi for State Inaction in the Federal Republic of Germany

The family ministry of West Germany funded a group of sociologists to conduct a study on the “non-working wife” of the “guest worker” in 1977. The researchers were tasked with creating knowledge that would be useful to the West German state in a period when labor recruitment had ended but when family reunification continued. Specifically, they were supposed to discover whether the federal government could do anything to encourage the “emancipation” of the wives of guest workers, crudely defined as their participation in wage labor outside of the home.

The sociologists interviewed 100 women, 25 each from Greece, Italy, Yugoslavia, and Turkey. Their study came to the demoralizing conclusion that “sociopolitical initiatives in the Federal Republic can only have a small chance of success in addressing the specific problems of these women.” According to the study, because these women had internalized what the researchers dubbed “Mediterranean norms” of gender roles within the family, “the women see the different position of the sexes … but they do not push against it.”1

I first read the “Analysis of the Situation of Non-Working Wives of Foreign Workers in the FRG” as part of my research into the history of family migration to West Germany. I had been excited to find it in a library because I had repeatedly seen it cited as an important, even path-breaking, contribution to the literature, one of the first studies of “guest workers” to take gender seriously.

When I read the study, though, I found myself confused by its conclusion that the federal government could do nothing for these women. The conclusion simply did not follow from the evidence presented—the women knew exactly what would improve their lives, and they had told the researchers as much.

Over half of the women in the study said that they wanted to work but could not. Many explained that they could not work because they could not obtain work permits—not surprising, since when the study was written, official government policy was that spousal migrants who had arrived since November 1974 were ineligible for such permits. Some large percentage of the women in the study did not work because their work would be illegal.

The women mentioned another specific obstacle to paid employment again and again: childcare. Women in the study explained that they did not work for reasons including “because I am busy with the children, I have no time to work”; “after I had the second child, I unfortunately had to stay home”; and simply, “one can’t leave children alone.”2

One woman complained about how hard it was to combine childcare with working motherhood. When she had worked in a factory, she had spoken to a German social worker who told her that she needed to take her children to a public health clinic to get vaccinations. Unfortunately, “what comes after putting this into practice? The working mother is let go because of frequent unexcused absences.”3 The social worker’s official knowledge had clashed with her own experience, which had shown her that employers were reluctant to accommodate caregivers.

Asked about their willingness to attend German language courses, the women once again mentioned childcare more often than any other challenge. They wanted to go to a language class, but they could not do so “because I have nobody I can give the children to” or “I can’t leave the child alone.”4

In other words, the women had intimate knowledge of what was keeping them out of the workforce: their limited access to childcare. But the researchers seemed so intent on telling the West German state what was foreign about these “non-working housewives” that they missed what was female about the “non-working housewives”: the fact that they lived in a country that already made it extremely difficult to combine waged work and childcare.

If the research contract had gone to the feminist sociologist Helge Pross, who published the first statistically representative study of West German housewives in 1976, would the study have actually paid attention to the women’s embodied knowledge of their own situation? Pross herself interviewed over 1,200 “non-working” German wives. She argued that viewing these women as “only housewives” fundamentally misunderstood their role in society: “they are now, and for the foreseeable future, indispensable and irreplaceable. The community would not survive without the functions they perform.”5 The most important function was childcare, which women continued to perform well beyond the infant and toddler stage. West Germany institutionalized half-day school, which meant that parents had to prepare three meals a day for their children rather than two. Pross explained that the fact of half-day school meant that “the functioning of the West German social system is … dependent on the domestic labor of women” and that thus “the individual woman has no alternatives to the role of the housewife as it is currently constructed. These alternatives must be created by political decisions.”6

Pross’ study also showed that mothers who worked outside the home usually relied on their own mothers to provide childcare. “But what about where there is no grandmother? What is supposed to happen if one day grandmother no longer wants to or no longer can help? … then many women’s waged labor would be over.”7

Many of the immigrant women who had been interviewed for the “Non-Working Wives” study were already living in the reality “where there is no grandmother,” and they were experiencing precisely the pressures on women’s waged labor that Pross had observed.

Many foreign couples both wanted to work for wages, in part so that they could save up money for a return to the home country more quickly. Some had tried to implement what social workers informally called the “grandmother solution” on their own, bringing grandmothers on tourist visas and then applying to regularize their status. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, many individual communities and some federal states accepted this ad hoc solution, seeing it as a way to continue to secure access to the labor of foreign women without having to build new kindergartens or lengthen the school day.

Baden-Württemberg let grandmothers stay on a case-by-case basis starting in 1968. North Rhine Westphalia issued a circular allowing for the residence of grandmothers in 1970. West Berlin had the highest proportion of female foreign workers of anywhere in West Germany because of its electronics and textile industries, and in 1970 it began to issue “grandmother visas” for six to nine months instead of the standard three.

These visas were formally gender neutral, but grandfathers were almost never issued such visas. In fact, many “foreigners’ offices” (Ausländerbehörde) systematically denied visas to male relatives who claimed that they intended to care for children. Forced to defend this practice in 1971, the West Berlin foreigners’ office explained that men doing housework was “unnatural.”8 The Bavarian interior ministry agreed, writing that male childcare was “incompatible with Western beliefs about the man’s duty to the family.”9 The federal interior ministry sided with Berlin and Bavaria: any man who claimed to be caring for a child or a household was “unreliable” and likely using childcare as a cover story for some more nefarious purpose.10

As foreign women’s labor became less valuable in the context of high unemployment in the second half of the 1970s, local foreigners’ offices became markedly less sympathetic to the grandmothers whose care work enabled that labor. By the early 1980s, the state considered implementing a ban on the entry of foreign parents, even those of naturalized German citizens. According to the state, this ban was fundamentally humane because it was in the foreigners’ own interest. Grandparents endangered the “integration” of their grandchildren by speaking the wrong language.

Cut off from the “grandmother solution” still accessible to a majority of native-born German women, working foreign mothers turned to new strategies to keep their children safe during the workday. One group in West Berlin squatted in an abandoned building in order to create a kindergarten. Other women across West Germany deliberately chose to work under the table because they found it easier to combine “illegal” work with their care work. Women who labored as nightshift cleaners or domestic workers could send friends in their place if a child were sick, or even bring a child along on the job.

One Turkish woman in West Berlin remembered a different solution. Although her husband also worked in Germany, she represented herself as a single woman in order to secure a spot in a kindergarten for her son and so the ability to continue working. Another Turkish woman, a union representative at her factory, was always defending working foreign mothers trying to juggle their roles: “sometimes when I have to support a foreign woman in a meeting because of her ‘frequent absences,’ I can’t explain her situation correctly. Well, I can explain it, but a German colleague can’t understand it. The employer says ‘you have three children. Why don’t you stay home and take care of your children?'”11

For all of these women, it was not themselves or their families, but rather West German expectations about good motherhood that stood in the way of their access to paid labor.

If Pross had been given the assignment, she might have recognized that German women and foreign women had the same problems. But she wasn’t. The federal officials and the social scientists who tried to construct knowledge about these women consistently sought to apprehend them as “foreign” rather than to consider their problems as linked to the broader structure of the West German welfare state. To give just one example, the West Berlin officials who issued nine-month “grandmother visas” explained their decision as follows: “we should accept the foreigners’ different definition of the family and … allow the grandmother to stay, when she can be used to look after the unattended children.”12

Was a grandmother not part of the German family? Recall that over half of West German mothers who worked for wages relied on their own parents to look after their children when they were at work—a proportion that remained largely unchanged from the 1960s through the 1980s. Foreign women had not invented the “grandmother solution.” They just needed the state to grant them residence permits in order to make use of it.

The 1977 study of “non-working wives” made the same error of assuming that foreign women’s problems were inevitably rooted in their difference rather than their similarity. By filtering out women’s statements about how lack of access to childcare prevented them from working or going to German language classes, the study missed the opportunity to connect the situation of foreign women to the situation of West German women. Foreign or native-born, women struggled to combine employment with family in the context of a welfare state that assumed mothers would stay home.

The insistence that foreigners’ problems could be rooted not in the structure of the welfare state but instead in something different, something deviant, something foreign, meant that the 1977 study on “non-working wives of foreign workers” let the state off the hook entirely. It concluded, “as paradoxical as it may sound, the non-working wife of the foreign worker can only emancipate herself with the permission of her husband.”13

In over 200 pages of results, only one of the hundred women interviewed is quoted saying anything about her husband denying her permission to do something. When asked why she did not work outside of the home, she replied, “first, my husband does not allow me to work, and second, I have my children, who I have to look after.”14 This raises the question: to what extent was her husband’s prohibition linked to the presence of the children? And yet another question: how many West German women could have uttered exactly the same sentence?

The study’s statement that foreign wives could only emancipate themselves with the permission of their husbands had in fact been literally true of West German women until 1976, when a marriage law reform finally deleted the provision stating that a married woman needed her husband’s permission to work outside of the home.

An entire twelve months later, West Germany evidently no longer had any women confined to the role of the housewife against their will. Now foreign women who did not work were reinterpreted as signs of a culture that oppressed the undifferentiated “Mediterranean woman.” The women’s “Mediterranean husbands” took the blame, now stigmatized as tyrannical patriarchs who locked their women at home.

The just-so story of the oppressive husband has gone on to produce recurrent moral panics that mark foreign men as perpetually other, unfit subjects for German citizenship. The figure of the oppressive husband also conveniently erases the way that the West German state routinely made foreign women’s lives harder. It was the state that failed to consider or provide childcare, the state that routinely denied male relatives residence permits, the state that waffled over whether to allow grandmothers to remain for more than three months.

The legend of the “Mediterranean family” also erases the state’s response to foreign women who wrote to the federal labor ministry in the late 1970s begging for work permits for their husbands. One such woman had worked in Germany since 1969. Her husband joined her in 1975 and quickly found a local employer willing to hire him, but the local foreigners’ office refused to give him a work permit, leaving him in limbo. Her husband was able to find a job in their small town, she wrote an exasperated letter, “because the wages are significantly lower than in Frankfurt … and out of the question for many Germans. So why is my husband not allowed to work?”15

The labor ministry replied to her, and to many other women, explaining that the husbands could receive work permits on one condition: that the wives stop working and promise to give up their own work permits forever. The labor ministry even had a helpful suggestion about how to make this happen—the best way to convince the local foreigners’ office that the women intended to give up paid work was to get pregnant and announce that they were going to take care of their children from now on.

Again, who exactly was preventing these women from “emancipating” themselves?

When the state turned its gaze on foreign women, it failed to even consider that they might have some of the same problems as German women. Charged with constructing knowledge about “female migrants,” state officials assumed that their migrant status, and only their migrant status, was the source of their problems. In the study discussed above, that meant ignoring women’s statements about their inability to access childcare in West Germany in favor of a fanciful theory that their husbands were exclusively to blame.

But “Non-Working Wives” was not the last study to willfully ignore migrant knowledge about Germany and Germans as it sought to locate migrants’ problems primarily, even exclusively, within the migrant families and their culture. This blinkered focus on identifying the foreign has made the “foreign woman,” her “foreign husband,” and their “foreign family” into a persistent alibi for state inaction. By ascribing immigrants’ problems exclusively to their foreign culture, the German state has tried to avoid being held responsible for solving a problem substantially of its own making.

Lauren Stokes is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Northwestern University and author of Fear of the Family: Guest Workers and Family Migration in the Federal Republic of Germany (Oxford University Press, 2022). You can find her on Twitter under the handle @laurenstokes.
  1. Franz Brandt, Situationsanalyse Nichterwerbstätiger Ehefrauen Ausländischer Arbeitnehmer in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Bonn: BMJFG, 1977), 199, 209. ↩︎
  2. Brandt, Nichterwerbstätiger Ehefrauen, 53–59. ↩︎
  3. Brandt, Nichterwerbstätiger Ehefrauen, 118. ↩︎
  4. Brandt, Nichterwerbstätiger Ehefrauen, 111. ↩︎
  5. Helge Pross, Die Wirklichkeit der Hausfrau. Die erste representative Untersuchung über nichterwerbstätige Ehefrauen: Wie leben sie? Wie denken sie? Wie sehen sie sich selbst? (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1976), 255. ↩︎
  6. Pross, Die Wirklichkeit der Hausfrau, 86. ↩︎
  7. Pross, Die Wirklichkeit der Hausfrau, 83. ↩︎
  8. Landesarchive Baden-Württemberg (LA-BW), EA 2/303, Bü 276, November 25, 1971 VG XI A 200.70. ↩︎
  9. LA-BW, EA 2/303, Bü 276, September 3, 1971, Bayer. Staatsministerium des Innern to BMI and Innenministerien, “Betreff: Ausländerrecht; Nachzug nichterwerbstätiger ausländischer Ehemänner zu den in der BRD beschäftigten Frauen.” ↩︎
  10. LA B-W, EA 2/303, Bü 276, August 26, 1971, Berlin Senator für Inneres to BMI and Innenministerien, “Betr.: Ausländerangelegenheiten; hier: Nachzug von Familienangehörigen.” ↩︎
  11. Gülay Töksöz, “Ja, sie kämpfen—und sogar mehr als die Männer.” Immigrantinnen—Fabrikarbeit und gewerkschaftliche Interessenvertretung (Berlin: Nozizwe, 1991), 194. ↩︎
  12. Landesarchiv Berlin, B Rep 002 Nr. 17348, January 15, 1973, “Niederschrift über die 7. Sitzung des Koordinierungsausschusses für Angelegenheiten der ausländischen Arbeitnehmer beim Senator für Arbeit und Soziales am 12. Januar 1973.” ↩︎
  13. Brandt, Nichterwerbstätiger Ehefrauen, 209. ↩︎
  14. Brandt, Nichterwerbstätiger Ehefrauen, 46. ↩︎
  15. BAK B 149/54467, April 25, 1978 letter from “Frau K” to Herbert Ehrenberg. ↩︎

Suggested citation: Lauren Stokes, "Knowledge about the ‘Migrant Woman’ as an Alibi for State Inaction in the Federal Republic of Germany," Migrant Knowledge, March 29, 2022, https://migrantknowledge.org/2022/03/29/the-migrant-woman-as-alibi-for-state-inaction/.