BERLIN (WOMENSENEWS)–Adrienne Gerhaeuser left Germany 20 years ago as a dangerous terrorist.
Today she is an emblem of how little a country led by right-of-center Angela Merkel, the nation’s first female chancellor, has to fear from feminist militants. Some women’s rights activists are quick to distance themselves from Gerhaeuser and Rote Zora, the violent anti-patriarchy group to which she belonged.
Despite plotting to commit acts of terrorism and being a member of a group that carried out an estimated 45 bombings and arson attacks between 1974 and 1995, Gerhaeuser received a suspended sentence in April.
After nearly two decades on the lam, she turned herself in and pleaded guilty. The court reasoned that she would be unlikely to re-offend, and the 20-year gap between her crimes and her trial, as well as the fact that her actions weren’t for personal gain, allowed Gerhaeuser to escape a jail term.
The feminists from her era who were not as radical are quick to minimize her influence. Speaking of Rote Zore, Sybille Plogstedt, a journalist who founded the feminist magazine Courage in 1976, says Gerhaeuser’s group accomplished little.
“I never supported them and spoke out against the use of violence in the mid-1980s, but it was made clear to me that being anti-violence wasn’t the collective view at the time. There was a lot of sympathy for militancy amongst intellectuals then.”
“They were very much on the fringe of the women’s movement, both in terms of quantity and quality,” says Ulrike Helwerth, from the German Women’s Lobby and co-author of “Of Mommies and Women’s Libbers: Feminists in East and West Germany,” published in 1995. “They weren’t the core center by any means.”
From Militancy to Photography
Gerhaeuser currently lives on government assistance, but that may not last too long. At her trial she said she intends to become a photographer, specializing in portraying women.
Gerhaeuser’s political story began in 1974 when Germany was still divided into East and West. A group of women got together on the western, democratic side of the wall and formed an anti-patriarchal group named after the red-haired, Robin Hood-like heroine of the 1941 children’s book “Red Zora.”
Their mission was to liberate women from exploitation as sex objects and baby-making machines and to fight the “day-to-day war against women with fire and flames.”
They plotted bomb attacks on targets such as sex shops and bio-technology research centers. The group said doctors who performed genetic engineering and forced sterilizations were equal to “exponents of rape in white coats,” and attacked a pharmaceutical company that produced a drug linked to birth anomalies.
They were women with jobs and children who paid taxes and plotted terrorist acts in their spare time.
At her trial in April, Gerhaeuser admitted to being in the Rote Zora between 1986 and 1987, buying alarm clocks used as detonators and helping build explosive devices.
In 1987, after she was filmed buying a clock which later turned up on a bomb, Gerhaeuser fled the country.
No Longer Wanted ‘Illegal Life’
In 2006 she decided “she didn’t want to live an illegal life any more” and put it behind her since “the political connections which existed then do not exist anymore,” as her lawyer told the Berlin court.
“It became possible for her to come back without having to go to prison, so she did it,” said Ulla Penselin, who was jailed for eight months in the late 1980s on suspicion of being in the Rote Zora at a time when the government was desperate to crack down on the group. “She’d been in touch with the public prosecution office and it was clear that she wouldn’t have been given a jail sentence.”
Some say Gerhaeuser’s ability to slip quietly back into German life reflects the somnolence of feminism in a country where women earn on average 26 percent less than men and make up less than a third of parliament.
“The women’s movement is pretty worn out at the moment,” says Plogstedt. “It hasn’t quite caught on with the younger generation.” Her magazine, Courage, shut down in 1989.
Not all activism disappeared along with the Rote Zora. The German Women’s Lobby, the nation’s main council of 50 different women’s organizations, aims to put the German constitution’s gender equality article into practice and focuses on the workings of government. But the lobby’s demands, like most political women’s groups, are for female economic independence: equal pay, social security and tax law reform, rather than overthrowing the patriarchy.
There is also demand for gender equality in medical research, medical practice and high-level medical decision-making, particularly regarding reproductive rights. So at least one of the Rote Zora’s targets–biotechnology and genetic engineering institutions–is still a bull’s eye for mainstream women’s groups.
The main voice of political feminism in Germany, the women’s twice-monthly magazine Emma (short for “emancipation”) is still going strong after 30 years with a readership of 120,000. The magazine, run without advertising, has organized campaigns for improved child care and against female genital mutilation and pornography. The Rote Zora’s only known interview was with Emma, given anonymously by two members in 1984. It was used as evidence of the Rote Zora’s political motivation in Gerhaeuser’s recent trial.
Lamenting Decline of Feminism
Some German feminists lament that their cause has become unfashionable, especially in its extreme form.
In the 1970s, by contrast, young people were enraptured by militancy of all kinds and revolutionary ideas spread throughout Europe.
It was a time when violence became voguish, when “the guerrillas of South American nationalism were considered heroes and some feminists equated sexual equality with being militant,” says Helwerth.
But as left-wing groups such as the Red Army Faction and the Revolutionary Cells became deadlier and deadlier, police clamped down, and around 1987 the Rote Zora’s members fled the country or went underground.
The Rote Zora claimed it never intended to hurt anyone, just to destroy “symbols of the patriarchy,” and had more success in achieving political aims than many other, far more lethal, groups at the time.
In 1987, the group bombed the department store Adler because its corporation–one of Germany’s largest clothing producers–fired women at its South Korean factory for striking. The bombing injured no one and the women were rehired and paid more money.
“I couldn’t quantify exactly how much success the group had, but the topics that the Rote Zora and other women’s groups were campaigning for on a legal and illegal level became big causes,” says Ulla Penselin, who writes for the radical feminist-lesbian journal Ihrsinn.
Today, however, no one seems more ready to minimize Gerhaeuser’s mark on history than Gerhaeuser herself.
“I feel sorry, but I don’t want to give interviews,” she said in a recent e-mail with Women’s eNews.
In the anonymous 1984 interview with Emma, a Rote Zora member described a future utopia where “every sex trader, violent husband, sexist newspaper editor and pornographer lives in fear of female vigilantes and public humiliation.”
Most traces of the group or its influence are gone. But around Berlin, you still catch occasional glimpses of printed T-shirts or sprayed graffiti of a woman with a gun: “Watch out rapists,” the slogan reads, “we’re going to get you.”
Harriet Torry is a freelance journalist based in Berlin.
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