Beware of the Blond Woman: Gender, Sexuality and the State in Modern Germany


Lola Lola, played by Marlene Dietrich in the 1930 film The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel), regales the cabaret audience with this advice: “Beware of blond women.” (Nimm dich in acht vor blonden Frauen.). As the first German “talkie” and with the definition of masculinity in question during the interwar years, it’s no surprise how The Blue Angel incorporates sound as a cinematic device to represent the “victim” of Lola’s gaze, Professor Rath. After meeting this strong-willed sex symbol, Rath’s voice devolves from a respectable, crowing rooster to the castrated whimper of a cuckold. Lola Lola typifies the modern woman, the “new woman,” who experienced greater opportunity and freedom as a wage earner while working on the home front during World War I.[1] Considering the percentage of men injured or killed in the war, women remained in the work force throughout the Weimar period, becoming a source of tension in light of high unemployment rates and a target for those frustrated by Germany’s economic turmoil. At the same time, influenced by Margaret Sanger’s crusade to promote access to birth control in the United States and the Soviet Union’s position in support of a woman’s reproductive freedom, German organizations redefined sexuality in new and different ways during the Weimar years, as historian Atina Grossmann has shown.[2]

The Blue Angel serves as a warning to a society that embraces modernity, reflecting the fear and threat believed to be in the allure of female sexuality among conservatives and the far right during interwar Germany. Lola is “an image iconic of both memory and leaving: the image of a woman as openly sexual and lascivious as she is motherly; an image that died, along with the Weimar Republic, in National Socialism,” according to Gertrud Koch, a professor of theatre studies at the Freie Universität Berlin.[3] Within five years of the film’s release, the Nuremberg Laws imbued sexuality with implications of race and “deviancy,” harshly regulating marriage, sexuality, and reproduction.

Lacoss magnus hirschfield

In our present time of angst over the recent legislative decisions that deny women their sexual freedom—the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby; state rulings such as those in Texas, Mississippi, and Ohio that shutter more and more women’s health centers; and the ubiquity of shaming the victim in rape cases—I thought it appropriate to include a list of books centered on female sexuality and the state. Although several of these books focus on Germany, they transcend this geographical confinement by providing a glimpse into the politicization of the female body and sexuality over the course of the early modern and modern periods, and serve as references for gender studies as well. As the books included in this latest “listcicle” show, the relationship between sexuality and state in Germany exemplify that “’body politics’ are nearly indistinguishable from ‘sexual politics,’” as historian Kathleen Channing has reminded us. [4]

Establish abortion clinics here
Precursor of the food truck: sign on car reads “Establish Abortion Clinics Here.”


Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (1990)


Kathleen Canning, Gender History in Practice: Historical Perspectives on Bodies, Class, and Citizenship (2006)


Marion Kaplan, Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany (1998)


Claudia Koonz, Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, Family Life and Nazi Politics (1988)

when biology became destiny

Bridenthal, Renate, Atina Grossman, and Marion Kaplan, eds., When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany (1984)


Donna Harsch, Revenge of the Domestic: Women, the Family, and Communism in the German Democratic Republic (2008)

Protecting Motherhood

Robert Moeller, Protecting Motherhood: Women and the Family in the Politics of Postwar West Germany (1993)

Cinderella goes market

Barbara Einhorn, Cinderella Goes to the Market: Citizenship, Gender, and Women’s Movements in East Central Europe (1993)


Barbara Duden, The Woman Beneath the Skin: A Doctor’s Patients in Eighteenth-Century Germany (1991)


Isabel Hull, Sexuality, State and Civil Society in Germany, 1700-1815 (1997)


Eve Weinbaum, Priti Ramamurthy Lynn M. Thomas, Uta G. Poiger, Madeleine Yue Dong, Tani E. Barlow, editors, Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity and Globalization (2008)


George Mosse, Nationalism and Sexuality: Respectability and Abnormal Sexuality in Modern Europe (1985)


Atina Grossman, Reforming Sex: The German Movement for Birth Control and Abortion Reform, 1920-1950 (1995)


Jill Stephenson, Women in Nazi Germany (2001)


Elizabeth Heineman, What Difference Does a Husband Make?: Women and Marital Status in Nazi and Postwar Germany (2003)


Dagmar Herzog, Sex After Fascism: Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany (2005)

Michelle Lacoss holds a Masters degree in History from Georgia State University, where she focused on Modern European and German history.


[1] Of course, the “new woman” existed throughout the world and was not a product of German sexual politics alone, as artfully shown in The Modern Girl Around the World.

[2][2] Atina Grossman, Reforming Sex: The German Movement for Birth Control & Abortion Reform, 1920-1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 37-41.

[3] Gertrud Koch, “Between Two Worlds: von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930)” in German Film & Literature Adaptations & Transformations, ed. Eric Rentschler (New York: Methuen, 1986), 13, as quoted in Elisabeth Bronfen, “Seductive Departures of Marlene Dietrich: Exile and Stardom in The Blue Angel,” New German Critique no. 89 (Summer 2003), 11.

[4] Kathleen Canning, Gender History in Practice: Historical Perspectives on Bodies, Class, and Citizenship (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006), 27.