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The Impact of a Monograph: “A Woman without a Husband Is Like a Fish without a Bicycle”

November 4th, 2019

Scholarly books have long been the backbone of academia, but too often these books do not get the attention they deserve. In this series, we ask our authors which academic works have had a lasting influence on them. Follow this link to see the rest of the series.

This post is written by Nancy Wingfield, a series editor for our Central European Studies series.

“A Woman without a Husband Is Like a Fish without a Bicycle”


When Justin Race, the director at Purdue University Press, asked if I would like to blog about a monograph that has had an impact on me, I agreed with alacrity, before I’d thought through quite what kind of impact I might address. It didn’t take long, however, for me settle on Elizabeth D. Heineman’s What Difference Does a Husband Make?: Women and Marital Status in Nazi and Postwar Germany (University of California Press, 1999). The first part of the title always makes me snicker, while the subtitle precisely explains the topic.

Nancy Wingfield holding "What Difference Does a Husband Make?"

What Difference Does a Husband Make? is the providential combination of a book that impressed me greatly and that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. It taught me to think broadly about gender. I’ve regularly cited it in my own work, recommended it to other scholars, and assigned it to students in a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses. Indeed, I pride myself that my letter to the University of California Press about this book’s popularity among my students, many of whom couldn’t afford to buy it in hardback, helped get it published in paper. This pathbreaking book has a clear thesis, a well-written narrative, useful arguments, and interesting examples based on a wide variety of primary and secondary sources. The chapter titles, like “Marriage Rubble: The Crisis in the Family, Public and Private,” are enticing. Evocative images, often of Heineman’s female subjects, are incorporated into the text. In my opinion, it’s the very model of a monograph, from the elegant dustjacket (monochromatic; no red and no swastikas) to the comprehensive index. I even like the typeface. Every monograph should be as attractive to the eye and to the intellect as this one.

For those of you who don’t know Heineman’s book, it is a gender and social history of a long neglected, but crucial, element of the Third Reich: women. In her impressive work, Heineman doesn’t employ the standard political-historical divisions, but, rather like a social-history superwoman, she leaps over chronological barriers in a single bound. The wide sweep of her narrative arc includes analysis of women—unwed, married, divorced, and/or widowed—at work and at home across three German political regimes. The categories of women Heineman analyzes are not hard and fast, and women standing alone, from those the Nazis refused to permit to marry to those who looked at imploding families in the postwar era, and chose not to, populate the narrative. In her exploration of the construction of marital status, Heineman traces transitions in the relationships between women and the state from the prewar National Socialism of the 1930s through World War II and to the postwar consolidation of liberal democracy—and the reconstruction of the family—in West Germany and of communism in East Germany. As Heinemann writes, she attempts to untangle a web of comparative and interlocking histories: those of three German states and a period of statelessness.

I found Heineman’s book and the rest of her work, which I have voraciously consumed, useful in my own research, an excellent source for lecture material (above all the variety of behaviors the Nazis considered asocial), a popular reading assignment with undergraduates, and an enthusiastically dissected book in graduate seminars. It seems to me that a monograph can’t really be expected to do more.