By Nia Abram
Penelope “Pen” Hassmann
The rain trickled onto our freshly awakened faces this morning as we bustled to the Brandenburg Gate to begin our day. When we arrived at the gate, we met our tour guide Penelope Hassmann, or Pen as she likes to be called. She leads the Women’s Perspective Tour, which gives insight into the women who have contributed to the history of some of the city’s most talked about and controversial stories, museums, and memorials. As the tour kicked, off I began to realize that although Berlin is a fairly young city, it is rich with so much history even in just the past 100 years. So, I began to wonder how Pen located and choose the bountiful information about the women’s perspective. How did she begin to piece together the female presence that is woven throughout German history? To paraphrase Penelope’s response, there’s a part of the women’s experience in everything. She says that she chose to mention the women’s perspective in relation to the places she passed through every day. This seemed especially important to me when thinking about how we can bring women’s issues and experiences to light—we need to recognize women’s experiences in our daily lives.
The FemGeniuses in Berlin with Pen Hassmann at Brandenburg Gate
We walked with intent through the damp streets of Berlin, and Pen told our first fact about one of Berlin’s historical women.She was the first person to die due to her attempt to cross the Berlin wall, Ida Siekmann. As Pen pointed out, in the official government memorial and the “book of the dead,” Siekmann is listed as the first death at the Wall. However, Pen points out that the narrative at this memorial (which is managed by a private company) begins with the first shooting, which was a man, rather than the first death. In cases like this, Siekmann’s death wasn’t considered the first to mark the tragedy of the Berlin wall. It couldn’t. She was a woman.
Hannah Arendt Straße
One of our next stops was at the Memorial for Murdered Jews. As I exited the memorial, I noticed the street sign hanging in the gray sky: Hannah Arendt Straße. A political theorist by trade, Arendt was also a highly acclaimed feminist philosopher. She was Jewish, and her work explored many topics, including anti-Semitism. She had strong opinions about how our political actions relate to our social and economic ones. According to Sidonia Blättler, Irene M. Marti, and Senem Saner in “Rosa Luxemburg and Hannah Arendt: Against the Destruction of Political Spheres of Freedom,” Arendt argued that freedom is the direct aim of political action. More specifically, she argues, “Freedom in the positive political sense is bound to an interaction in which the agents acknowledge each other simultaneously as different and as equal beings.” Arendt’s philosophies changed perspectives and policies; hence, the site of the street sign could not be any more fitting for a brave heroine and the work she did for the Jewish community.
The FemGeniuses in Berlin with Pen Hassmann at Bundesministerium der Finanzen
Our tour continued, and we made our way to the old Nazi government district. We reached a building called the Bundesministerium der Finanzen. This building was used during the height of the Holocaust by the Nazi party, but it was later used by the last German parliament when the Soviet Union took control. Now it’s where the Finance Minister is and decides the budget. On the side of the building is a mural of people celebrating and nearly half of the people are women. One woman is holding a sign that says “socialism.” Pen told us that this mural was made under the Soviet control when East Germany was a communist state. This meant that there was not only more equal economic opportunity, but there was also more gender equality at this time. As Karen Honeycutt claims in “Clara Zetkin: A Socialist Approach to the Problem of Woman’s Oppression,” Clara Zetkin believed that the solution to gender inequality would be to create economic equality for everyone. This meant that women would be just as valuable workers as men are. This was evident in East Germany during the Soviet communist state, as Pen told us that one woman went back to work as early as three weeks after her pregnancy. Pen indicated that the amount of time between a woman giving birth and going back to work seemed to vary widely, and was very much influenced by the point of history at which she gave birth (at times being anywhere from three months to a year). She also notes that it is difficult to get accurate information on official government policy at that time. This challenged Clara’s point of gender equality because it was soon realized that women’s lived experiences were different from those of the men, women were mothers and needed recuperation after giving birth, making her socialist equality principle a utopia that sounded good in writing, but proved to exacerbate social problems in practice. Although communism has had a controversial standing in Germany throughout its history, this mural represents its particular relationship with the women’s experience.
Penelope “Pen” Hassmann
After stopping in a café to grab coffee and some WiFi (to post pictures to Instagram, of course), we eventually ended up at Humboldt University where we learned about Frederick the Great’s wife Elizabeth. While Frederick was fighting wars, Elizabeth was banished to a villa in northern Germany. Although Frederick treated her poorly, she kept up with all the court ceremonies and traditions, and she donated half of her annual $40,000 allowance to charity. But no one knows about her deeds, because Frederick is always the historical main attraction. Pen continued to tell us about a number of incredible women throughout the tour, too many for me to mention, and as her extensive knowledge rolled off her tongue and into our whirring brains, the rain began clear. As we closed our umbrellas and pulled down our hoods we ended our tour conversing about how Germans remember and reconcile the history of the Holocaust. How do they sort out their guilt about the events of the past if they even have any? We concluded that our responses to history are sometimes individual, which has prompted me to end with a quote from R. Ruth Linden’s “Troubling Categories I Can’t Think Without: Reflections on Women in the Holocaust,” “Historical ‘truths’ lie in triangulated points of view, for any given event of historical consequence is experienced from multiplex, situated perspectives. The impact of such an event is felt by many actors, each of whom has a biography fraught with idiosyncrasies (which mediate the event’s meaning).”
Nia Abram is a rising junior, an Environmental Science major, and an avid dancer at Colorado College. She has lived in central New Jersey, Atlanta, California, and northern Jersey (in that order), but in the end, she calls north Jersey her home. Nia enjoys hiking and creative writing, as she often retreats to nature to write short stories and personal essays in her free time. Some of her favorite movies include Coming to America, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Mulan, Howl’s Moving Castle, and, of course, Harry Potter. She has taken an interest in Feminist & Gender Studies; although she does not plan to major or minor. However, she hopes to use her knowledge as a feminist and an academic to address environmental justice issues through an intersectional lens. Optimistically, her future career will allow her to start a non-profit organization that brings environmental science and outdoor education to underprivileged urban girls through a program that teaches science, empowerment, and social justice.