Inspiring Thursday : Johanna Dohnal (1939 – 2010)

“There are people who have an absolute majority in the population and who have the fewest seats in parliament. Ask the men why. ”

Johanna Dohnal was born as Johanna Diez in Vienna, Austria in 1939. She grew up as an illegitimate child with her grandmother, a seamstress, because her mother suffered tuberculosis. Her childhood was shaped by her grandmother’s struggle for survival, the chaos of war, the National Socialist rule and the rapidly weakening spirit of optimism as well as the restorative change in Austria after 1945. After attending elementary and secondary school, she began training as an industrial clerk in a plastic factory. She was denied higher education for financial reasons.

Her political engagement began in 1957 when she joined the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) and became involved in district organization as well as the “Kinderfeunde” (Children’s Friends) by organizing party events and play afternoons for children.

In 1957 she married Franz Dohnal, from whom she separated after 19 years of marriage. In 1959 she became a mother for the first time. From 1960 Dohnal lived with her husband and from 1961 with two children in a communal apartment of the city of Vienna on 48 m² of living space. Because the money was urgently needed, Dohnal started working again a few weeks after the first birth; after the second birth she was fired. From 1969 Johanna Dohnal worked part-time as an office worker in a plumbing shop. Her mother, now retired, helped with childcare. In the same year, Johanna Dohnal became district councilor in Penzing, a Viennese district, and in 1971 she was elected chairwoman of the Penzing socialists.

The struggle to legalise abortion in Austria made Johanna Dohnal more aware of women’s concerns. In 1972 she made politics her profession and became Vienna’s state secretary for the SPÖ and in the same year she was a member of the federal party executive board. In 1973, Johanna Dohnal was sworn in as a Vienna city councilor and member of the state parliament. In this role, she primarily campaigned for the expansion of social services and the promotion of sex education in schools. In 1978 the first women’s shelter in Austria went into operation in Vienna. The implementation of this project, conceived by representatives of the autonomous women’s movement, is thanks to the initiative of Johanna Dohnal. She ensures that the  ensuing Viennese women’s shelters are managed autonomously, but that financing is a fixed component of the city of Vienna’s budget.

In 1979 Johanna Dohnal was sworn in as State Secretary for General Women’s Issues in the Federal Chancellery. In this function, she had a support program for women in the federal service drawn up. At the 2nd World Congress of Women in Copenhagen in 1980, she headed the Austrian delegation and was Vice President of the conference, which also led to her entry into development cooperation.

In 1987 Johanna Dohnal was elected chairwoman of the Austrian socialists, then deputy federal party chairwoman of the SPÖ. During her time as state secretary, Johanna Dohnal implemented sustainable initiatives in family law, sexual criminal law and social law. In 1990 Johanna Dohnal was sworn in as Federal Minister for Women’s Affairs in the Federal Chancellery, becoming the first woman’s minister of Austria. At the beginning of the 1990s, elementary women’s rights were legally established in Austria on the initiative of Dohnal, such as the removal of official guardianship of single mothers, the right to refuse entry in the event of violence in marriage and the legal prohibition of sexual harassment.

The compatibility of gainful employment and family work and the protection of women against (sexual) violence remained important to her. In 1992 Johanna Dohnal was voted “Woman of the Year” by 500 journalists. At the initiative of the Minister for Women, the campaign “War Victims: Raped Women” started in 1993, in which Minister of Family Rauch-Kallat and Caritas also took part. The campaign provided medical and psychological support for raped women and children in former Yugoslavia and the establishment of counseling centers and women’s shelters. In the same year, Johanna Dohnal chaired the women’s rights committee of the UN Human Rights Conference in Vienna. Although she had withdrawn from all political functions in the autumn of 1995, Johanna Dohnal publicly took a position on women, human rights and social issues until her death.

In 1995/1996 she held the proseminar “Historical and Structural Requirements for Institutionalized Women’s Policy in Austria” at the Institute for Political Science at the University of Vienna and in 2007/2008 she taught as a visiting professor at the University of Innsbruck in the faculty series “Politicians in Residence”. She was involved in the “Women’s referendum” initiated by the Independent Women’s Forum in 1997, which was signed by more than 645,000 people.

In early 2010, Johanna Dohnal and her long-time partner Annemarie Aufreiter entered into a “registered partnership” shortly after this was possible in Austria.

On February 20, 2010 Johanna Dohnal died in her house in Mittergrabern, Austria.

Written by Lina Piskernik, WAVE Digital & Social Media Coordinator