Elisabeth Selbert (1896 – 1986) was a German lawyer and politician. The inclusion of equality as a fundamental right in the German Consitution was largely her doing, and she is considered one of the four Mütter des Grundgesetzes (Mothers of the Basic Law). The Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany (Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland) is the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Elisabeth Selbert was awarded the Great Federal Cross of Merti in 1956 and the Wilhelm-Leuschner Medal of the State of Hesse in 1969. Many German cities have streets name after her, and she was celebrated by her birthtown Kassel in 1984.
The Elisabeth Selbert Prize is a bi-annual award given by the Hess State Government “in recognition of outstanding performance for promoting equal opportunities between women and men.”
Martha Elisabeth Rohde was born on 22 September 1896 in Cassel (now spelled Kassel), a city in northern Hesse in the German Empire. She was the second of four daughters. As a child, she learned to do traditionally female tasks such as sewing, knitting and embroidering.
After primary school, the family could not afford to send her on to high school (gymnasium), so from 1912 Rohde attended the Kassel Industrial and Commercial School of the Women’s Educational Association instead. She had her hopes set on becoming a teacher, but a lack of money prevented her from realizing this goal.
While still a teenager, Rohde started working as a foreign correspondent for a firm involved in import and export. After losing this job, she was hired by the Telegraph Service of the Reich Post in 1914. First World War had just broken out, and the shortage of males in the German workforce created an opening for Elisabeth with the Telegraph Service.
In 1918, Elisabeth Rohde met her future husband Albert Selbert, a scholar who chaired the Worker’s and Soldier’s Council in Niederzwehren near Cassel. She started going to political events with him and before the year was over she had joined the German Social Democrats.
The Weimar Republic
During the Wiemar Republic, German women won the right to vote i general elections. In 1919, Elisabeth Rohde stood for parliament as the candidate for the Niederzwehren municipality, and in the following year she participated in the first National Women’s Conference in Cassel.
She married Adam Selbert in 1920 and gave birth to their first child a year later, followed shortly by a second. Despite caring for two children and working at the telegraph office, Elisabeth Selbert had energy left for political activism.
Feeling that her knowlege of theory was lacking in her political life, she started studying at home and in 1925 she earned her baccalaureate. This wasn’t enough to satisfy her hunger for knowledge, and she went on to study law and political science at the University of Marburg where she was the only female student. After Marburg she moved on the the University of Göttingen, where there were actually a few other female students present; approximately five in a class of three hundred students. At Göttingen, the female students were asked to leave the room when the professor spoke about sex crimes.
After six semesters, Selbert graduated with honours. She recieved her doctorate in 1930 with her thesis “Zerrüttung als Ehescheidungsgrund” (Dislocation as Grounds for Divorce).
In 1933, Selbert was on the national list of the Reichstag.
The Nazi era
After the Nazis came to power in 1933, Adam Selbert was fired and placed in “protective custody”. At the same time, the Nazis were trying to enact laws that would prohibit women from working in any legal profession in Germany. At her husband’s insistence, Elisabeth Selbert rapidly sent in her application to be admited into the legal profession, fearing that this window would soon be closed.
On 15 December 1934, Elisabeth Selbert was admitted to the Oberlandesgericth (The Higher National Court). On 20 December 1934, the new regulations that prohibited women from applying for admission to the Bar came into force.
Elisabeth Selbert’s admission to the Oberlandesgericht was truly remarkable, since the Bar Association voted againts her, and Otto Palandt – a Nazi sympathizer – was in charge of the National Judicial Examinations Office and thus responsible for admissions to the legal profession. Selbert’s saviors were two former Senate Presidents who were in favour of her and approved her while deputising for Palandt during the Christmas break.
Selbert began practising law immeditaly after being admitted.
The years right after World War II
State Consultative Assembly
In 1946, Elisabeth Selbert was elected to the State Consultative Assembly as a representative for the Social Democratic Party in Groß-Hessen.
Two years later, Selbert was asked to help writing the constitution for the Federal Republic of Germany, which gave her a chance to put equal rights and duties for men and women into the constitution.
The original wording of Article 3 of the constitution (taken from the Weimar Constitution) read: “Men and women have the same civil rights and duties.”
Selbert changed Article 3 by adding “As an imperative mandate to the legislature…” to the start of that sentence.
This resulted in many of the old laws from the 19th century having to be revised to conform to the constitution.
Family law practise
Selbert’s nomination as the first judge on the Constitutional Court failed in 1958, largely due to a lack of support for her from the Social Democratic Party. Earlier, she had sought a mandate for the German Parliament, and this venture had also been unsuccessful. After these two setbacks, Selbert left politics to focus on her work as a lawyer in her own practise, specializing in family law.
Selbert kept working as a lawyer until she was 85 years old.
Elisabeth Selbert died on 9 June 1986 in her home in Kassel, 89 years old.