Women

   As elsewhere in the Western world, the attack on gender as the basis of social, political, economic, and intellectual discrimination began in the Habsburg Empire during the 18th century. Educational reforms in 1774 made education obligatory for children of both sexes between the ages of 6 and 12. The higher education of women, however, was limited to daughters of the nobility, army officers, and civil servants, for whom special institutes were available. Compliance with mandatory schooling was less than perfect; the Imperial Education Law of 1869, which lengthened the years of mandatory education from six to eight, reaffirmed the requirement that girls attend school. Teaching as a licensed profession was opened to women for the first time as well. Marianne Hainisch founded the Organization of Female Teachers and Educators in 1869. The Society for the Higher Education of Women, established in 1888, opened the first secondary school (Gymnasium) classes for girls four years later. By 1900, there were only 11 academic high schools for females throughout all of the Habsburg lands. However, women could enroll in the university faculties of philosophy (arts and sciences) in 1897; by 1900 medicine and pharmacy were open to them as well. Law, however, remained closed to women until 1919.
   Women had long engaged in menial labor and cottage enterprises. They entered factories from the outset of Austrian industrialization, though they were not welcomed by many of their male coworkers. Though vocational schools were opened for women in the 1860s, a conference of Lower Austrian Trade Unions demanded in 1895 that females be excluded from salaried employment generally. At the same time, however, specific professional niches were being turned over to women, such as kindergarten teaching and nursing. Legally forbidden to engage in political activity, indeed even to join parties, Austrian feminist movements in the late 19th century developed a strongly idealistic strain. Although these groups happily took help from men who supported them, they actively avoided working with male-run organizations. Ideally speaking, women were supposed to think for themselves if they were to counter the corrupting impact of male power wherever it was expressed, including in political parties. Getting the franchise was merely the beginning of a great reorientation of social behavior and ethical norms.
   More pragmatic heads, however, prevailed. Some Austrian women began to form women’s clubs that were tied to the political agendas of the empire’s parliamentary fractions. The Federation of Austrian Women’s Clubs, a union of 13 middle-class liberal groups, was founded by Hainisch in 1902. It joined the International Council of Women in 1904. The Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP) had parallel associations, such as the Organization for the Education of Working Women (1890) and a reading and discussion club, Libertas (1893). In that same year, the Social Democratic daily, the Arbeiterzeitung, carried a supplement for women. By the beginning of the 20th century, there were several Catholic women’s organizations as well. At first dominated by the aristocracy, they gradually extended their reach to the middle class and the working women of the Habsburg Empire. The International Council of Women convened in Innsbruck in 1910.
   With the exception of female owners of agricultural properties, Austrian women did not receive the right to vote until 1919. But the depletion of Austria’s adult male population in World War I gave them a role in the economy that was readily convertible into electoral power. Large numbers of women entered public employment, such as the post office and railroads. They worked in armaments factories as well, where law forbade the use of foreign labor. University positions were more readily available as well. However, relatively few women held elected office, either locally or in the federal parliament of the First Republic. Though women represented around a third of the membership in the SDAP, none reached the ranks of its leadership. There were even fewer women in the other parties. However, educational opportunities for women continued to increase. After 1918, they were able to attend most Austrian high schools, if they chose not to avail themselves of institutions specifically reserved for instructing girls.
   World War II and its aftermath brought even more dramatic changes for Austrian women. Coeducation became a general rule during the conflict; the number of female teachers grew in secondary schools and opportunities for employment in all segments of public and private life grew substantially. The number of women receiving university-level training increased greatly as well. Nevertheless, while organizations representing women’s interests and advancement appeared once again, their actual numbers in political life grew only slowly. In 1971, 11 out of 183 members of the National Assembly (Nationalrat) were women; in 1994 there were 43. The presence of Austrian women in leading political positions became the rule only with the cabinets of Bruno Kreisky, who, as chancellor, never appointed fewer than two female ministers, and, from 1979 to 1983, had six. These numbers continue to increase. In the national elections of 1994, both the new Liberal Forum and the Green parties chose women to lead them in the contest. Susanne Riess-Passer (1961–), from the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), served as vice-chancellor in the government of Wolfgang Schüssel of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) between 2000 and 2003, the first woman to hold such high office in Austria. In the same government, Benita FerreroWaldner (1948–), who became the Commissioner of Foreign Affairs of the European Union after a failed run for the Austrian presidency in 2004, was the foreign minister. And on the provincial level, where a great deal of Austrian political activity takes place and where pensions for government employees can exceed those of their federal counterparts, the incorporation of women into local legislatures and party positions has been striking. Between 1996 and 2005, all of the provincial deliberative bodies registered increases in the percentage of female delegates. The most striking gains, however, came in the traditionally conservative Tyrol, where the local legislature went from 8 percent female in 1996 to 17 percent in 2005, and in the Burgenland, which raised the percentage of females in its parliament from 8 to 19 percent between 1996 and 2005.
   Though the institutionalization of gender equality in Austria made a solid beginning in the 1970s, the realization of the ideal for women has raised some thorny issues that are yet to be resolved. The public media in 2004, particularly the mainstream news reports, continued to report the activities of male politicians far more frequently than the work of their female counterparts. Just how affirmatively the government should support women’s interests has been under debate since the first Kreisky government, which throughout the 1970s created a series of state secretaryships for women’s affairs; by 1983, these offices were being disbanded or folded into other portfolios. The coalition governments of the ÖVP–FPÖ from 2000 to 2003 abolished a ministerial position for women’s issues in favor of Minister for Health and Women. In 2001, the FPÖ was able to push through a subdivision for women’s affairs in the Ministry for Social Welfare.
   The century-old tradition of state intervention in the economy to protect women specifically from exploitation in industry has also given rise to accusations of reverse discrimination against men. Early welfare measures reduced hours of work for women specifically. In the Second Republic, women were allowed to begin drawing their pensions at age 60, five years earlier than men, on the ground that females, who even as jobholders were often responsible for child care and household management, worked harder than the average man. Financial shortfalls and a very generous disability retirement program that allowed women to leave the workforce even sooner, at age 58, led to a pension reform in 2004 that set 65 as the age of retirement for both sexes by 2033.
   For all of the rancor that gender equality has provoked in political circles, however, women in Austria have a very high public profile. Austrian theater, film, and musical stage have long produced female performers who have received public acclaim from members of both sexes. Film star Paula Wessely (1907–2000), the comedienne Elfriede Ott (1925–), and opera soprano Leonie Rysanek (1926–1998) are only three among a legion of examples. From prize-winning poets such as Ingeborg Bachmann, Elfriede Jelinkek, and Friederike Mayröcker, to journalists such as Annaliese Röhrer, whose career has stretched across two Austrian major newspapers, Die Presse and Der Kurier, and Ulrike (Ushi) Fellner, who has focused on women’s issues, sometimes irreverently, it is clear that Austrian women have a wide number of career options.
   See also Maria Theresa; Suttner, Bertha von.

Historical dictionary of Austria. . 2014.

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