Elisabeth Schwarzhaupt

* 07.01.1901 (Frankfurt/Main) 30.10.1986 (Frankfurt/Main) Germany
Fields of activity: Politikerin, erste Ministerin in Deutschland, Juristin
Author: Erla Spatz-Zöllner

Elisabeth Schwarzhaupt

The motive of my life became the question how to adapt the woman’s part to get the same chances of development as men and to have children while the social system is changing”

(Source: http://www.kas.de/wf/de/71.8516/)


Why do I think this woman is important?

In 1932 she disagreed in public with the NS policy on women’s issues. She was crucial for the decision to change the patriarchal legislation in favour of women’s and children’s rights in 1956. As minister of health she initiated new programs in cancer check-up and research, in polio vaccination and in environmental protection.



From a judge to a senior church official

In 1932, as a member of the liberal peoples’ party (DVP), Elisabeth Schwarzhaupt warned in speeches about the politics of the National Socialists. Also in her paper “Significance of women in National Socialism” published in the same year, she disagreed with the NS policy on women’s issues. She suffered herself from the cruelty of the new NS regime, when her fiancé, a Jewish doctor, had to flee to Switzerland because he was not allowed to work any longer in Germany. She stayed in Germany because she could not find a suitable employment in Switzerland. They separated in 1936. He emigrated to the US. To earn her own money was very important to Elisabeth Schwarzhaupt. She knew how her mother was suffering when she was not allowed to work in her profession as a teacher. In Frankfurt Schwarzhaupt started as a trainee judge for women’s legal protection. Here she noticed the discriminatory consequences of the patriarchal family legislation of 1900. To be nearer to her fiancé she went to Dortmund as a substitute judge.

In 1933 she lost this employment because of the NS legislation excluding women as judges. To start a new orientation she went to Berlin and worked for the association of pensioners. She wrote her thesis on the subject of “Foreign currency clauses in the law of obligations”. In 1935 she obtained the doctorate. From 1935 to 1945 Dr. Schwarzhaupt worked as jurist in the office of the Protestant Church. She had to check the legislation reforming the criminal law and the divorce law. Once again she remarked the continuation of women’s discrimination in the texts of the laws. She became a senior church official and went to Frankfurt in 1945 to organize the protestant youth and women’s issues. As a deputy for the international relationship of the protestant church since 1948 she learned much about the situation of women all over the world.


Member of the German parliament (Bundestag) 1953-1969, battle against the decision-making competence of men

“That is very disturbing for a church official” Dr. Helene Weber, a Catholic CDU-member of the parliament, lashed out against Elisabeth Schwarzhaupt when this one prevented in 1956 the draft legislation on family law of the Adenauer government. The history: In 1953 Schwarzhaupt became a CDU (Christian Democratic Union) member of the German parliament. As a member of the committee for laws she influenced the reform of the family law. From her professional career she knew the discriminating effects on women of the former family laws from 1900. Therefore she was fighting vehemently against the right of ultimate decision for men, also known as obedience-paragraph §1354 (BGB). This paragraph and the paragraphs §1628 and §1629 forced women into doing what their men wanted in all questions concerning family and marriage issues and the education and representation of the children. The draft legislation of the cabinet maintained all these clauses and with it the prioritisation of men!

Years of discussions in public and in the parliament preceded the crucial meeting in November 1956. Even a state without any law was accepted since March 1953, because the law was not adapted in time to the equality rights of men and women as required by the constitution of 1949! The committee for family law consisted of 15 persons. One person of the conservative group was missing and Elisabeth Schwarzhaupt ensured that he was replaced by Margot Kalinke, a DP (Deutsche Partei) member. With the votes of Schwarzhaupt and Kalinke the draft legislation was rejected. And in the parliament a new draft legislation without the right of ultimate decision for men was accepted with 186 to 172 votes against the government! The new law came into force in July 1958. As long as she was a member of the parliament Schwarzhaupt worked for equal rights, for better divorce laws for women (1961), for legal protection of working mothers and for the rights of illegitimate children (1969).


Sit-in for the first female minister of Germany (1961-1966)

In 1957 and in 1961 Konrad Adenauer (CDU), the German Chancellor, promised to appoint women as ministers in his cabinet. But he did not do so. This was the reason why Helene Weber (CDU) and Aenne Brauksiepe (CDU) got very angry. With other members of the CDU party they organised a sit-in in front of the cabinet meeting hall with sandwiches and drinks. They demanded the nomination of Dr. Elisabeth Schwarzhaupt as minister. She did not know about the action. Finally Adenauer gave in, although he had already named the new government and there was no department left free. He nominated Elisabeth Schwarzhaupt to the first Minister of Health and with that to the first female minister in the German history. She kept this position under Chancellor Erhard. Henceforth every German government had female ministers.


The Minister of Health: Contergan-affair, polio vaccination, cancer research, environmental protection

Initially she had to build up the brand new ministry. She had not much time to do so. Shortly after her acceptance of the office, information about the congenital malformation through Contergan pills was published. Elisabeth Schwarzhaupt tightened the pharmaceutical law, she established special hospital wards for the affected persons and promoted research of prostheses. Her other priorities were: She reformed the food law with the obligation to inform about other contents, she introduced the universal oral polio vaccination, she reformed the health insurance, inaugurated conditions to keep water and air clean and promoted research on environmental protection. She introduced women’s cancer prevention as a task of the health insurance and founded the Centre for Cancer Research in Heidelberg in 1964.



She resigned in 1969 to run for the parliament. But she remained a women’s right activist her whole life and she supported many women’s associations such as the protestant women’s and the jurist and academic women’s associations.



  • 1965 Grand Cross 1st class of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (first woman)

  • 1976 Wilhelm Leuschner medal

  • 1997 Portrait on a German postal stamp

  • Various places and streets in Germany are named after her


Picture source