Women’s Role in Roth’s Collection

The ways in which women are treated and discussed in parts of Roth’s What I Saw really stuck with me, specifically amongst the sections “Nights in Dives” and “Election Campaign in Berlin.” The contrast of the hypersexualized sex workers and the “offensively” sexless political activists is particularly striking. What do you make of this dichotomy? What do you make of the position of the sex worker in general during this time–how do they fit within the sociopolitical world of Berlin? How does “Nights in Dives” treat them? On the supposed opposite end of the spectrum, how do we parse out the following section from “Election Campaign in Berlin:” 

“You see them at railway stations, the blooming, wheat- blond girls, born to be mothers, but turning into political Furies. They wear shapeless windbreakers, full skirts, and short haircuts. They have unnaturally long strides and absurdly mannish gestures, but nature takes its revenge on them, because as soon as they shout out their “Heil!” or their “Yech!” their voices take on the repellent shrieking edge of hysteria” (Roth, 192).

Why does this section end with this quote? What does this say about women’s perceived role vs. their actual role in German society? How does the physical inspection of these women compare to the physical inspection of the sex workers in the Dives section?


Roth, Joseph. What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933 (p. 192). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

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