A sociologist’s life dedicated to women’s rights

©Anneliese Fikentscher

Maria Mies is a leading Marxist sociologist and feminist academic. She founded the Women and Development programme in The Hague and her books are staples in the studies of colonialism and women’s oppression. Her groundbreaking work on ecological disaster having a particular impact on women Ecofeminism (co-writen with the equally brilliant Vandana Shiva) is now in its second edition and available from Zed Books now.

What made you want to study sociology and write about feminism?
Sociology was not my first but my second choice. I had first studied English and German and taught these subjects for many years. In 1963 I was invited by the Goethe Institute to a lecturer’s post in Poona, India, where I had to teach Indian students German and introduce them to German culture, history, politics and the land. Our students were women and men from all over India. I was curious to know why they wanted to study German and made a short questionnaire which had the title “Why German?”

As I expected the men wanted to go to Germany to find a job there, or to study science. But the motivation of the women was different. Most of them wanted to learn another language, because they wanted to postpone the “marriage talk”. I did not know what that was. The women informed me about the Indian marriage system, the status of women in India, about the rules even middle class women have to obey if they do not want to become outsiders. An unmarried woman has no status and no economic security.

One of the worst marriage laws was that the bride’s family had to pay an enormous amount of money to the family of the bridegroom before this family agreed to accept the bride as a “daughter- in- law.” All marriages were arranged by the heads of the two families – usually the men. The young people had no say in these negotiations. They were not allowed to meet each other before marriage.

Another strange custom was the strict sex segregation in trains and in all public places. Middle class women were not allowed to have a paid job , particularly not where they had to “mix” with men. I began to understand why my women students wanted to “postpone” this marriage talk”. However, in the Indian middle class families higher education of daughters was accepted and was even prestigious. After many of such talks with my women students I began to look more critically at the way women were treated in this “patriarchal” society, although I did not yet really understand what “ patriarchy” means in practice. But I began to observe it all over the country, in high caste and rich families as well as in poorer, low caste ones.

So what happened next?
In 1968 I returned to Germany. But I did not want to go back to my teaching job. I wanted to know more about Indian women and about the Indian society. I decided to go back to the University and study sociology, with a special focus on India and Indian women.

I went to the University of Cologne where I met Professor Koenig, an internationally known sociologist. I told him that I had been in India for five years and wanted to study the social status of Indian women more thoroughly. Professor Koenig was fascinated by my story and asked me: “Why don’t you do a PhD on this subject?” I was surprised and said: ”If that is possible, I’ll do that”.

Although Prof. Koenig did not know much about India, let alone about Indian women, he was curious and wanted to learn something new. For me his offer to be my guide was such a great opportunity that I hardly could believe my “good luck”. I began to study sociology first and discovered that sociology was the right thing for me. Then I went back to India to do the necessary fieldwork on the role conflicts of educated, married, and employed Indian middle class women. I wrote my doctoral thesis on this subject. The title of the English translation is Indian Women and Patriarchy.

And was this how you became a feminist?
You see, I studied sociology because I had first hand experience about the situation of women in a patriarchal society. And this experience was also the reason why I joined the feminist movement in 1968. It was just good luck that all these “auspicious” circumstances came together at the same time.

Yet another outcome of my research on Indian patriarchy was the discovery of German patriarchy. Although the manifestations of patriarchy may be different in different countries the deep structure of this system is the same everywhere. It is based on violence against women, contempt of women, oppression and exploitation of women, both as mothers and as workers, and generally their subordination under the rule of men. In a patriarchal system the main worldview is based on the belief that fathers are the creators of human life, not mothers.

Another of such “happy coincidences” was the fact, that the students’ rebellion in Germany had begun around 1968 – the same year when I had I returned from India. I had not been very political before, but when I came back the students movement was in full swing. From my co-students I learned what socialism is, what Marx, Engels and other leftist writers had written in the 19th century about the capitalist society. And how it could be changed. With my experience in one of the poorest countries in the world this all made sense to me. Hence, from then onwards I cannot separate the “woman question” – as it was called in Germany – from the “social economic and political question”. This is my position even today.

And how was it entering the field under all that commotion?
I was lucky when I was looking for a job. I got my PhD in September 1972. And in December 1972 I got a job at the Fachhochschule (School of Applied Social Sciences) in Cologne. My field was family sociology. When you have to teach family sociology you cannot ignore the “woman question”. Here again I found a situation when I could combine my main political concerns with my professional duties. This is a very rare opportunity and explains why I loved what I had to do.

The students criticized not only the capitalist society but also the rigid, authoritarian and sterile university system where students got a lot of theoretical knowledge without knowing how to apply this knowledge in practice. They demanded a system where theory and practice were united. The new Fachhochschulen were a response to this demand. Here practical work was combined with theoretical studies. I found this combination of practice and theory very inspiring and creative.

I’ll give you one example of how this worked:

I had given a course on the history of the women’ s movements in the 19th and the early 20th centuries. These early movements were stopped because the male dominated society could not tolerate such independent, “only women’s” organisations. My women students, who were already infected by the virus of feminism, said: ”This will not happen again.” I asked them what they wanted to do. They said: “We want to get a shelter for battered women in Cologne”.

Domestic violence against women was a “hot” issue amongst feminists in those years. Some students went to the Office of Social Services and demanded such a “Women’ s House” for Cologne. The reply of the man in charge was: “This problem does not exist in Cologne. First you have to make a statistical study to prove that women in Cologne are beaten by their husbands.” When the students told me this story I said: “This man is crazy. We must make an action to show that also in the Holy City of Cologne women are battered by their husbands.”

In March 1976 the students organized a public action in a shopping center. They had made posters, fliers, a paper with a “Call to Action”- with our demands which people could sign. They shouted slogans like: “Women are not for beating!” I had a casset-recorder and went around and asked people whether they knew of women from Cologne who had been beaten by their husbands. If so, they could sign our appeal to get a house for battered women. During that afternoon we collected 2000 signatures.

There was also a feminist journalist among us and she wrote a short article about our action and its results. She had also given the address of one of the students where women could get shelter and get more information. This article was published the next day in the local newspaper. Now the problem was “on the table”. Nobody could say any longer: ”Wife beating does not exist in Cologne.” As soon as this address had been published, many women wanted to come to this “Women’ s House” which did not yet exist. We immediately formed an association called “Women Help Women” and formulated a paper of our purpose.

Many women supported us with money and by offering us a place to talk about the problem. The students had to learn very quickly how to talk publicly about the issue of domestic violence. At the same time they had to fight with the municipal authorities to give us this shelter. The officers could no longer say that wife beating does not exist in Cologne, but they did not act either. Finally, in December 1976, we occupied an empty house. It was immediately full of women who sought a shelter. But we got a lot of help, mainly from women.

Our action became known all over Germany. Ours was the “First Autonomous House for Battered Women” in Germany. It was soon followed by many more in other cities. The founders of these shelters also adopted the name we had given to our associations, namely: “Women Help Women”. This association still exists and also many of the “Women’ s Houses”

Is that why do you love what you do?
Not only did I love what I did but my students also. One reason is: We were successful.

The students had not only learned through practice what they never would have learned by reading many books. I also asked them to write down their experiences and read about the cause of male violence in our “civilized” society. They then could use this practical and theoretical knowledge to write their dissertations. At the end, they all wrote a small book together about why women women suffer such horrible violence for so long without running away.

There were two reasons: One was that there was no place where to run to. The second reason was, that the women wanted to be “loved”, but “love” was always accompanied by violence. Therefore they chose as title of their booklet News from the Ghetto ‘Love’.

For me this action was also a great eye-opener with regard to the methodology used in social sciences. I realized that quantitative, so-called objective, research was of no use if we want to understand women’ s problems. I wrote down my critique in a paper whose title was Towards a methodology for feminist research. My essay started a heated discussion among feminists which continues till today.

What is the thing you are most proud of having accomplished as an author and as a sociologist?
I cannot say that I am “proud” of my achievements as an activist and writer. I am happy that my books inspire many people. Such experiences as our fight against male violence in Cologne opened my eyes to male violence against women which exists everywhere, even today. And with other women we fight against this violence. In fact, this violence has even increased since 1976. So, what is it I can be proud of? I begin to doubt whether it is sufficient to write books. We definitely have to fight against violence against women, against nature and against foreign peoples. Particularly today when wars have become “normal” again.

How hard was it for you as a woman to progress in academia? Could you give us an example of things running against you because of your gender?
I find it difficult to answer [these questions]. As I said before – I had no problem as a woman to get a job in an academic institution. In 1972 nobody cared about whether a candidate was female or male. This discrimination started later, when more and more highly qualified women had begun to compete with men for the rare jobs in a university. Particularly after feminists had begun to criticize “malestream” science and research. They published their critique in a number of feminist journals and books. They founded feminist publishing houses and book shops. Some had also been successful in establishing “Women’s Studies” in their universities. The men began to see that many young women were attracted by Women’ s Studies. This all was a challenge to men’s monopoly over the content of studies as well as over the choice of candidates for new posts.

For women this situation became worse after the whole discourse on “Gender” began. The word “woman” disappeared from the academic and political discourse. Now everything what had to do with women was re-named “Gender”: Gender Institutes, Gender Studies, Gender Politics, Gender Mainstream and so on. The argument for the introduction of this concept was, that it was biologically “neutral”. The political purpose of this innovation was however, that men wanted to enter the fields which women had introduced into academia.

Financial considerations also played a role in this “gendering” process. I know internationally known feminists who had started “Women’s Studies” at their universities. But after “Gender” became the mainstream concept they lost their jobs and the erstwhile Women’ s Studies became Gender Studies. Due to such experiences I wonder whether it is worthwhile to demand that the “academia” as it is today should do more to attract women. The women who might get a job today will certainly not be feminists.

Some years ago students from Cornell university told me: “With your ideas and the books you have written you would not find a job at our university today.” They also told me that their university was sponsored by mighty private corporations. These determined the curricula, the textbooks to be used, the teachers to be hired. “Cornell has become a private corporation,” they said.

This shows, how much has changed since 1972, when I began my career and when feminism was not yet a “bad word”. At that time universities and schools were still funded by the state, at least in Europe. This change in university politics is due to the introduction of Neoliberalism as the new economic policy which functions according to the principles: Globalization. Deregulation, Privatization and Competition. These principles determine not only the economy but also politics and all sciences, including social sciences and gender studies. The only purpose of all these changes is more profit, more money.

What should the academic world do to bring more women into it? And how should it help them progress?
I find it difficult to advise young aspiring women to fight for an entry to academia and study sociology and write books as long as they still have to follow the norms of the prescribed neoliberal university system. If they only want a career they must obey the rules of the game. To get a place in this system may be necessary as long as they keep up a critical view at what they have to learn. But if they want to change our society they must look beyond the horizon of the existing academic world. I can advise them to get together outside the academia and ask first what the main problems women have today all over the world. They will discover that violence is still one of the worst problems. To understand and solve these problems they can use the same action-research methodology which we used in Cologne in 1976. Of course, the situation today is totally different from what it was then. What is different today is above all a lack of hope and enthusiasm which inspired us in the seventies and eighties of the last century.

But your initiative to start a new feminist online magazine is a source of hope. I wish you success and joy with this project.


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