As we’ve written here in the past, the National Women’s History Museum is fantastic and everyone should subscribe to their Facebook feed to see a procession of mini biographies for great women in history. The posts highlight women’s accomplishments and leave you with the certain opinion that women are awesome.
I was enjoying this snugly bubble when I read Eva Braun: Life with Hitler by Heike B. Gortemaker and realized that this is a somewhat one-sided view.
Quick background: Eva Braun was Hitler’s mistress/companion for almost two decades. She married him shortly before their joint demise in a Berlin bunker at the end of World War II.
Despite the title, the author had typical difficulty piercing the past to reveal the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of a woman hidden from public view and overshadowed by a figure as large as Hitler. In the end, the book said little about Braun herself but Chapter 5: Women in National Socialism altered my views.
According to the chapter, official Nazi ideology held that a woman should focus on her husband, family, children, and home, a view sometimes described as the “cult of the mother.” In reality however, war and labor shortages meant that women were doing a lot outside the home. This included top Nazis’ wives and female confidants, who exercised influence and often participated in the party’s official business (acting as official hostesses, etc.).
After the war, however, they all claimed they weren’t political! They didn’t know anything! They were leading private lives, completely detached from all the horrible things their husbands were doing. They were “weak and oppressed members of society” just like everyone else, pleading “feminine innocence,” afraid of losing their men’s love in the face of terrible “male power.”
The “we were weak, scared, and innocent” line of defense passed in the mid-20th century, but I think we can call bullshit today. While men might be more likely to do terrible things, women are just as capable of being horrible. If we want to own our female heroes (as profiled by the women’s museum), we should be prepared to own our female villains as well. If we want to claim heroic women who resisted the Nazis, I argue we must also claim Madga Goebbels, wife of reich propaganda minster Joseph Goebbels and acting “First Lady of the Third Reich.”
Some might argue that claiming our villains will somehow stall progress. I disagree. Pointing out horrible accomplishments demonstrates female power in ways that are hard to forget. Also, ignoring our villains or claiming “feminine innocence” is hypocritical.
To their credit, the National Women’s History Museum website has a section for “Notorious Women,” but as of this writing it only has 3 entries: Iva Toguri d’Aquino (Tokyo Rose); Belle Boyd; and Martha Jane “Calamity Jane” Cannary. I think we need a few more.