Worlds apart: utopian visions and separate spheres’ feminism
In the beginning was the Word…And the Word was made Flesh. (“The Gospel According to St John”)
In 1975 a first text by an (as yet) unknown woman writer was published by an (as yet) almost unknown small feminist press in West Germany. Yet despite its modest appearance (pocket-size format, plain cover, and newsprint quality paper) and despite the fact that it was launched with virtually no publicity, Shedding (Häutungeri) became a sensation almost overnight. Advertised by word of mouth within the loosely knit feminist community and distributed through the network of women’s bookstores throughout West Germany, the first edition sold out within three months. And within a year-with over 80,000 copies sold and already in its eighth edition-Shedding had made its author, Verena Stefan, a celebrity, its publisher, Frauenoffensive, financially stable, and “feminism” marketable. For not only was it “the first major literary articulation of the new West German women’s movement”,1 it was a bestseller. That same year another feminist text, Alice Schwarzer’s Der ‘kleine Unterschied’ und seine gro en Folgen: Frauen über sich. Beginn einer Befreiung (The Minor Difference and Its Major Consequences:Women on Themselves. First Steps Toward Liberation) was published by one of the major commercial presses in Germany, S.Fischer. It, too, was an immediate publishing success, going through seven editions in the first year. While Stefan’s approach was literary and Schwarzer’s sociological, the substantive focus of their texts was virtually identical: women’s sexual oppression at the hands of men and, as the subtitle of Schwarzer’s book put it, their “first steps toward liberation.” With the publication of these two books West German feminism moved from what had begun and was then still perceived as a more or less isolated and marginal movement into the larger public sphere. In the process the women’s movement
found a voice and “women’s literature” was discovered as an important, viable, and even lucrative, new field by both alternative and commercial publishers.