Skip to main content

“The foundation for everything that followed”

The commitment of the “mothers of the Basic Law” paved the way for equal rights, says Deike Wichmann, who has written a novel on the subject.

Helen SibumInterview: Helen Sibum, 26.02.2024
© Bestand Erna Wagner-Hehmke, Stiftung Haus der Geschichte

Ms Wichmann, when we consider the mothers of the Basic Law – the four women who helped draft it – how important were they in terms of equal rights in Germany?

Their role was a very important one, especially in the case of Elisabeth Selbert. Without her, Article 3 paragraph 2 of the Basic Law would not have come into being: “Men and women shall have equal rights.” This would have meant that the foundations would have been lacking for all the other developments that were to follow.

Deike Wichmann, author
Deike Wichmann, author © sichtstark fotodesign

What did the mothers of the Basic Law? have in common?

The fact that they were the only four women out of 65 members of the Parliamentary Council was in itself a unifying factor. In addition, all four had already been very politically active in the Weimar Republic; Helene Weber was even a member of the Weimar National Assembly. All four had suffered under the Nazis, three had lost their jobs; Elisabeth Selbert was the only one who had just about been able to go on working as a lawyer.

Dieses YouTube-Video kann in einem neuen Tab abgespielt werden

YouTube öffnen

Third party content

We use YouTube to embed content that may collect data about your activity. Please review the details and accept the service to see this content.

Open consent form

Piwik is not available or is blocked. Please check your adblocker settings.

Were there aspects that set them apart, too?

Yes, there were. Helene Weber and Helene Wessel were middle-class, conservative, Catholic politicians and saw themselves as such. By contrast, Friederike Nadig and Elisabeth Selbert were social democrats. They engaged with different issues and fought for different causes. Helene Wessel and Helene Weber were committed to legal protection for mothers, for example, while Helene Weber and Friederike Nadig formed an alliance for equal pay, unfortunately without success. Friederike Nadig campaigned for the rights of illegitimate children. It was Elisabeth Selbert who primarily campaigned for equal rights, and she is the main subject of my book.

She drew a lot of strength from the realisation that she could make a difference.
Deike Wichmann, author, on Elisabeth Selbert

Where did Elisabeth Selbert find the strength to stick to her cause in the face of considerable resistance?

She herself said: “I held an ounce of power in my hands – and I used it in all its depth and breadth.” Elsewhere she spoke of being in the “corridors of power”. I think she drew a lot of strength from the realisation that she could make a difference.

Statue of Elisabeth Selbert in her home town of Kassel
Statue of Elisabeth Selbert in her home town of Kassel © Dpa/pa

How do you think Elisabeth Selbert would view the current state of equal rights in Germany, 75 years after the Basic Law came into force?

That’s a matter of speculation, of course. I suspect she’d be enthusiastic about a lot of developments. When Elisabeth Selbert was born, women weren’t yet allowed to go to university, and when she was a young woman, they weren’t yet allowed to vote. When she did finally go to university herself, she was one of only four women among 350 male law students. When she was elected to the Hessian state parliament, the share of women MPs was just 6.7 percent. Today the figure is 31 percent, similar to the Bundestag . So a lot has happened there.

Is there anything she’d be critical of?

I do think she’d be disappointed by some things. 31 percent female MPs is not 50 percent. There’s a quote from her from the 1970s in which she calls for women to make full of use of their new opportunities. Now they have all the rights, she said, so it’s time for them to assert themselves and become MPs.

I’m really grateful for what these women achieved for us.
Deike Wichmann, author

Has working on the book changed your own perception of equal rights in Germany?

Of course I’m really grateful for what women like Elisabeth Selbert achieved for us. The opportunities and openings available to me are very different from those that my mother, my grandmothers and my great-grandmothers had. Nevertheless: when I look around, almost all mothers work part-time – including myself. So there’s still a lot to be done.


Deike Wichmann, born in 1979, lives with her family near Frankfurt am Main. Her novel “Die Unbeirrbaren” interweaves the story of the mothers of the Basic Law with a fictionalised account of a young woman who works as a secretary to the Parliamentary Council and meets Elisabeth Selbert in the process.