Marie Munk


Émigré jurist and transatlantic advocate for family law reform

German-born Marie Munk was one of the most influential personalities of the German feminist movement and, as an émigré in the United States, played an important role in the development of German and American law after World War II. Munk described her role in family and social law saying “I know full well, and I wish to stress it here, that I owe it to my teachers if I have been able to make a small contribution in the field of women’s rights and in my practice of law as attorney and judge. What I learned from them was not so much the knowledge of the law itself, but its interpretation, its philosophy to look for the answer to the age-old question: What is justice?” (LAB B Rep. 235-12 Marie Munk Nachlass, Autobiographisches Manuskript, 36)

Marie Munk was born in 1885 as the youngest daughter of Wilhelm Munk, the director of the regional court in Berlin, and his wife Paula Munk. Growing up in Berlin, she initially attended school only until tenth grade, as women were barred from taking the university matriculation examination. She was educated as a kindergarten teacher and later as a helper in the social work groups of Alice Salomon in Berlin.After taking private lessons, she graduated from high school in 1907.

As one of the first female law students in Germany, Munk became a trailblazer for women in this profession. Attending the universities in Berlin, Bonn, and Heidelberg, she studied under some of the most prominent legal scholars of the time including Friedrich Endemann, Konrad Cosack, Georg Jellinek, Fritz Fleiner, and Gustav Radbruch. Despite having earned her doctoral degree in jurisprudence under Karl Heinsheimer in 1911, the German legal system at that time barred her, as a woman, from receiving the first and second juristic state certification. This discriminatory law was revoked in 1922 when Marie Munk, as co-founder of the German Association for Female Lawyers, set out together with Margarete Edelheim-Meseritz and Margarete Berent to promote the professional equality of women in jurisprudence. After the law’s repeal, Marie Munk became the first female lawyer in 1924 and, in 1930,the first female judge in Berlin.

Advocating Family Law Reform in Weimar Germany

Munk was also the first female jurist in Germany who, in a report written with Theodor Kipp and Alfred Wieruszowski at the 33rd meeting of the Association of German Jurists (Deutscher Juristentag) in 1924, set a precedent by demanding the reform of matrimonial property law. Her demands for reforms in matrimonial law, family law, divorce law, and non-marital law in the legal commissions of German Feminist Movement associations, including the influential umbrella organization the Union of German Feminist Organizations (Bund Deutscher Frauenvereine), were to shape both the parliamentary and non-parliamentary Weimar Reforms between 1919 and 1930. These commissions, which consisted of members of the German feminist movement, represented the legal interests of the movement’s 500,000 members and had very good contacts to members of the German parliament during the Weimar Republic. As a result, many of the changes Munk advocated can be seen in proposals made by members of parliament and, perhaps most clearly, in the draft of a bill put forward during the era of Weimar reform, named the Hanemann Bill.

Though this bill never came into effect, it shows the depth of the reforms sought by Munk and others in the German feminist movement. The provisions proposed in the bill included: The husband would no longer be solely responsible for decision making regarding married life or about custody of children. Husband and wife would both make a contribution to the household’s common income. The legal grounds for divorce were no longer to be based on the guilt of any one party; in the future they would be based on the principle of irreconcilable differences. Additionally, guilt for the divorce would no longer to determine who received custody of the child; the well-being of the child alone was to determine this in the future. Marie Munk also advocated for the rights of illegitimate children and unmarried mothers, and a woman’s right to an equal share of a couple’s property following a divorce.

In proposing changes to German family and marriage laws, Marie Munk often referred to the Scandinavian legal model as a positive example. Modern Swedish laws, developed between 1915 and 1920, had a great influence on the reform process, parliamentary discussions of German matrimonial law, and German matrimonial property law. Weimar-era debates about constitutional reform were also influenced by Norwegian laws which made way for lively debates about the parent-child relationship.

Munk’s work in the Weimar era addressed a number of procedural questions, including the role of the media in the legal process. In doing so, she analyzed the newspaper reportage of the Hußmann case—a sensationalized murder trial, during which the newspaper reportage focused almost exclusively on the homosexuality of the victim and the accused rather than the facts of the criminal investigation. Her study recommended that public relations should, in the future, be a training element within legal studies to ensure a fair trial in the interest of the victim, the presumed innocence of the accused, and the social rehabilitation of the offender. This push for responsible press relation, as well as the legal reforms for which she advocated, were largely brushed aside when Hitler came to power in 1933.

Marie Munk was forced to leave the legal profession on account of her Jewish roots. Even before the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service (Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums) was enacted in April 1933 by the Nazi government, every Jewish attorney was forbidden from entering the court for legal representation. On March 31, 1933 Marie Munk had received a suspension from the bench and a few months later she was forced into retirement without payment. Many other Jewish judges and attorneys similarly lost their positions and their license. Marie Munk remembered: “After the first three months an organized resistance movement was almost impossible. By that time, the National Socialists had placed their spies practically everywhere.” (LAB B Rep. 235-12 Nachlass Marie Munk, Autobiographisches Manuskript, 26)

An Interdisciplinary Approach to Law in the United States

Following her dismissal from the court, Marie Munk traveled to the United States to lecture and to conduct research. When she arrived in New York, her nephew, Peter Muller-Munk, who had immigrated in 1924 following the German economic crisis, met her at the pier. In July 1933, Marie Munk gave a lecture at the International Congress of Women in Chicago. From then until the end of 1934, she traveled the United States and researched the rehabilitation of delinquent girls from immigrant backgrounds in a reformatory—a youth correctional facility—in New York State. In search of future professional opportunities, she shifted her research emphasis to topics concerning youth. At the same time, she maintained contact with the English Settlement Movement and Jane Addams in Chicago, discussing socio-scientific approaches to social reform.

Munk briefly returned to Germany for personal reasons in 1934 before finally emigrating to the United States in 1936. She did not have much money and at first she stayed with friends in Philadelphia. She later recalled that “When I returned in 1936 […] I would not want to live again permanently in Germany. This change in my own attitude surprised me. I wonder if Americans are able to understand the feelings of them who aspire to become American citizens and what it means to them when they finally receive their naturalization paper. I do not intend, nor would it be possible for me to give a detailed account of my life in the USA and for my process of Americanization. I can only mention a few highlights which may also explain why… I love America and its people and why I am proud to be an American.” (LAB B Rep. 235-12 Marie Munk Nachlass, Autobiographisches Manuskript, 2–3)

In the United States Munk wanted to broaden her knowledge and to familiarize herself with new teaching methods. After completing her criminology studies at the University of Pennsylvania under Thorsten Sellin, she made contact with Leon Stern, director of the Pennsylvania Committee for Penal Affairs and editor of the Prison Journal, and John N. Patterson, managing director of the Public Education and Child Labor Association in Philadelphia, and developed a particular affinity to Negley King Teeters at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Her scientific work on childcare in Germany and a comparative study of the execution of sentences and social rehabilitation in Germany and the United States are Munk’s greatest contributions to the new modern sociological theories of that time. After her lecture tours in the United States, the Carl Schurz Memorial Foundation financed a teaching position for her in the social sciences, religion, domestic science, history, and German at Hood College in Frederick, MD. From 1939 to 1941, she taught as an assistant professor at Sophia Smith College in Northampton, MA, giving interdisciplinary lectures on domestic relations between law and the social sciences. According to her convictions, democracy began in the family. Marie Munk's interdisciplinary research interests established her membership in the National Conference on Family Relations. Other notable German emigrant scholars to belong to this scientific society included Hans von Hentig (University of Colorado, Boulder), the brother of Werner Otto von Hentig, and Max Rheinstein (University of Chicago). Contributing to the discourse on American matrimonial property law—together with Max Rheinstein, who was also a former student of Ernst Rabel—she became an active member of the Committee on Family Law.

In 1943, Marie Munk passed the American Bar Examination and was granted American citizenship. As a marriage counselor in Toledo, OH, she assisted family court judges in divorce cases and developed her concept of a Life Adjustment Centre, which aimed to help families in times of crisis. The help offered at such centers included medical, psychological, socio-pedagogic, and educational advice, as well as social reintegration, crime prevention, and legal aid. The program’s goals were further supported by education for parents and children in all forms of schooling: education for life and marriage. A counseling department arbitrated disputes between married couples over child support and custody after separation and divorce. Marie Munk petitioned consistently to move American juristic training away from its tendency to favor confrontation and payment over mediation and cooperation.

Through her teaching, Marie Munk was able to share her conception of jurisprudence infused with sociology and social work. Socio-scientific, medical, psychological, and psychiatric fundamental knowledge became compulsory for courses of legal study. The courts no longer simply handed out divorces and orders for financial support; they became family courts and “multi-door courthouses” that offered members of the public a number of different options for resolving disputes. In addition to adjudication, mediation attained its proper place in juridical cases. In 1944, the Committee on the Family and the Law recommended Munk's reform package which addressed not only the role of the woman but also the joint responsibility of both partners. Marie Munk influenced the development of counseling services in America, in that she drew on the legal knowledge and socio-political experience she had gained in Germany. She demanded that marriage counseling centers and public health interventions be financed by the community. As advocated by the German women's movement, Munk also believed that something should be done about the infant mortality rate and that public health care would increase economic prosperity.

Postwar Legacy

Following the end of World War II, Marie Munk expanded her professional focus to help German emigrants with the reparation process. She worked together with a law office in Germany which also handled Munk's personal case for lost property and monetary compensation. She settled in Cambridge, MA and, after interdisciplinary studies, attained the academic level of Adjunct Art Degree from Harvard University. Munk also traveled through Europe to support European legal developments.

Her visit to Europe was dedicated to the postwar development of the women's movement there. Marie Munk gave lectures on the important role of women in building a new democracy in Germany. Her six-month stay there in 1956 was sponsored by the Office of the U.S. Department of Labor, Women's Bureau and Director Alice K. Leopold’s project on “The Effective Use of Woman Power.” During her visit to Germany, Munk gave radio interviews in which she compared family law in Germany and America, which differed greatly shortly after World War II. For example, according to the Civil Code of 1900, a German woman was not able to decide for herself in matters concerning property she brought into the marriage. Once married, the husband acquired the rights to preside over the assets of his wife. The wife was unable to take legal action against this and the husband could, as a result, squander her wealth and even go bankrupt. In contrast to this, under American law the judge could pass the responsibility for the assets to the wife.

Pursuing her interest in Scandinavian legal models, Marie Munk also traveled to Sweden where she informed herself about the Swedish model of sex education, marriage counseling and education, health and conflict management, as well as the school and marriage education classes for the younger generation. She was inspired by the Swedish model, which influenced in her work in establishing the American Life Adjustment Center, the Department of Conciliation, and mediation and family education. She concluded her legal and political academic career with a scientific comparison of South American and North American marital law in the American Uniform Law Movement in the 1960s.

Back in West Germany, Munk’s reform efforts, first conceived during the Weimar era, slowly came to fruition. Once the Federal Justice Ministry in Germany had freed its marital and family law from national socialist aims and began to fundamentally formulate it anew, it drew on Marie Munk's demands for reform during the Weimar era as a reference. In the late 1950s, laws were passed that revoked the husbands’ sole rights to make decisions about every aspect of married life.The decades that followed saw the introduction of legislation to protect the rights of unmarried mothers and illegitimate children, as well as to recognize irreconcilable differences as grounds for divorce and to protect the parent-child relationship following separation.

In the United States as well, Marie Munk’s writing, teaching, and advocacy served as a strong voice for change with a lasting impact. Her 1940s call for the introduction of counseling departments and Life Adjustment Centers with children agencies was far ahead of the pilot project of the “multi-door courthouse” in the 1970s. Marie Munk’s model for a mediation process, to be used as a way to solve differences between husband and wife in an effort to avoid divorce, drew on her experience with the German women’s movement marriage guidance initiative during Weimar era.

Through her legal scholarship and advocacy, both strengthened through international comparison, Marie Munk shaped matrimonial and family law in the United States and postwar Germany. At the International Congress of Women in 1933, Munk stated that “There are many questions in marriage, divorce, and family laws which ought to be solved by cooperation between all nations […] Therefore, I mean, as far as the interests and conditions of the respective nations may ever allow it, we should try to realize an international law which would unite all nations and which would be the best foundation for a future League of Nations.” (Munk 1933, 158–61) Though this dream of international legislation has never been fulfilled, Munk saw many of her recommendations become law before she died on January 17, 1978 in Cambridge, MA.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Marie Munk
  • Coverage 1885-1978
  • Author
  • Keywords Marie Munk, law, legal, jurist, judge, women's rights, feminism, feminist, family, children
  • Website Name Transatlantic Perspectives
  • URL
  • Access Date June 24, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 29, 2018