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‘Frauen waschen Wäsche, und Männer fliegen Flugzeuge’ [book review]

A review of Freiflug (Flying Free) by Christine Drews

In 1974, a young German woman named Rita Maiburg applied for a job as a pilot with Lufthansa. She was fully qualified for the position, having paid for training and a license herself, and regularly flew private jets from Cologne–Bonn airfield. She was able, experienced and ambitious, but Lufthansa rejected her application. The reason they gave was as clear as it was simple: they did not employ women as pilots. Devastation and disbelief soon gave way to anger, and Rita Maiburg sued Lufthansa and the Federal Republic of Germany for discrimination. The case took two years to go through the courts and Rita eventually lost, but during the process she was offered a position by regional airline DLT – thus becoming the first female commercial airline pilot in the world. A little over a year later, she was killed in a car crash, at the age of twenty-five.

Cover image Freiflug

Rita Maiburg’s story is a true one, and the basis of a fascinating new novel by German author Christine Drews. As very little information can be found about Maiburg’s life beyond newspaper articles documenting the court case (the legal files were never archived) and a few biographical snippets, Drews has had free rein to fictionalise the majority of the story and thus balance it equally between Rita and her lawyer, Katharina Berner. (Though Rita really was represented by a female lawyer, little seems to be known about her as well.) The result is a strong, often shocking story about emancipation, ambition, gender (in)equality, and the struggle women still have to be seen and heard.

Freiflug is very much a character-led novel, and both Katharina and Rita are appealing figures with whom it is easy to identify and sympathise. Though Drews does shape social occasions and romantic relationships that give an insight into life in West Germany in the 1970s – Rita, the younger of the two, spends time with her former classmates who are making the most of the new wave of drugs coming from Afghanistan; Katharina, in her mid-thirties, embarks on a complex affair with a man who seems (and is) too good to be true – the narrative action focuses mainly on their careers, exploring female ambition and the struggle they both face to have their professional dreams realised. While Rita’s situation is the most overtly shocking (even when employed by DLT, her gender is kept a secret from the passengers), Katharina too must fight her family and colleagues to establish her own small law firm, and has to deal on a daily basis with prejudice – not to say harassment – in the workplace. In writing about both the obvious and less obvious signs of discrimination, Drews creates a forceful narrative that, unfortunately, maps all too neatly on to the experiences women have today.

The 1970s in West Germany are generally thought of as being pretty liberal, at least in comparison with what went before, so it was shocking – enraging, actually – to learn not just about Rita Maiburg but about the numerous other ways in which women were subjugated in society, work and the home. The prevailing attitude to women having careers, flatshares, ambitions and independence – doing anything other than marrying young and raising children – is epitomised by Katharina’s father and brother, members of a conservative, patriarchal family whose fortune has been made in laundry detergent. The small detail of the detergent is a smart move on the part of Drews, allowing for a whitewashing subtext, but also for lines such as the title of this review: ‘women wash clothes, and men fly planes’. That this kind of sentiment still finds echoes across the world today is the bitter taste left in the reader’s mouth once her irritation with these particular figures has died away.

While I enjoyed the modern parallels and admire the way in which Drews has shaped her story, at times the gender-inequality message was laid on a little too thickly for my liking. One of Katharina’s first clients is a woman who is routinely raped by her husband (marital rape wasn’t considered a crime in West Germany in the 1970s), a sub-storyline involves her older sister being forced to have an abortion in the 1940s before becoming trapped in a loveless marriage, and the subject of women’s mental health is gently probed but not quite satisfactorily explored. While it’s good to have a clear message – and reinforcing it with details that may surprise the audience is also no bad thing – balance is essential, and occasionally I felt I wasn’t being given enough credit as a reader. Even if some of these side stories had been dropped, I would have understood loud and clear what Drews is trying to tell us.

Beyond this plotting element, Freiflug is a realistic novel with a pleasingly strong sense of time and place. This is based on a strong body of research, as the author explains in her afterword: conversations with historians, research conducted in archives, plus advertisements, magazines and television programmes of the period. That she has been thorough in her exploration of the decade shines through, particularly when it comes to social and cultural details that are worked seamlessly into the narrative – the novel is vibrant and atmospheric, written in clear and accessible prose that brings characters and settings alive and makes it easy for the reader to become absorbed. It’s a long time since I visited either Cologne or Bonn; having read this novel, both feel a lot closer.

Based on a true story, populated by likeable characters, and offering a vivid portrait of 1970s West Germany, Freiflug is a compelling novel that manages to be both instructive and escapist – the kind of book I could easily imagine adapted for television. It can be tricky to base a novel on a true story, but Drews’ fine-tuned creativity has blended history with fiction to great effect.

Freiflug by Christine Drews is published by DuMont Verlag and currently available in German. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.


2 thoughts on “‘Frauen waschen Wäsche, und Männer fliegen Flugzeuge’ [book review]

  1. Great review, this sounds like a fascinating read following characters very worth knowing about. I must admit to knowing very little about how women got into commercial aviation, though Maiburg’s story is perhaps not so surprising in the end. It’s a shame history hasn’t remembered her (and her lawyer!) better.

    Liked by 2 people

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