Margarete Berent was the first female lawyer to practice in Prussia and the second female lawyer ever licensed in Germany. In 1925 she opened her own law firm in Berlin. Not only was she the first female lawyer and the head of her own law firm, but she was also an ardent feminist and active in promoting opportunities for women.
In 1933, when the Nazis came to power, Berent, like all Jewish lawyers, was banned from the practice of law. It would be twenty-eight years before she was once again able to practice law. Nevertheless, she was one of the rare German Jewish women who, with great difficulty, tried to focus on her career while living in exile. In 1951, at the age of sixty-four, Margarete Berent showed her extraordinary courage by opening her second law firm, this time in New York City.
Margarete Berent was born to businessman Max Berent and his wife Natalie (née Gabriel) on July 9, 1887 in Berlin. She grew up with a bourgeois family background. After graduating from school, she chose to study teaching, a very typical educational choice for women and one of the few educational possibilities open to women during this time. From 1906 to 1910 she worked as a teacher at a number of schools in Berlin. In her free time she prepared for an examination that would enable her to study at a university. As soon as she had successfully passed this examination, Margarete became a student of jurisprudence and politics in Berlin. Although she did well in her studies, women were not allowed to take the licensing examination for lawyers in Berlin or Prussia. Berent therefore went south to Erlangen in Bayern, where she successfully qualified for her license to practice law. In 1913 she completed her Ph.D. studies with a dissertation about the “Community of Goods for Married Partners”—an important topic in German jurisprudence as well as in feminist circles.
After graduating from university, law students were required to complete a clerkship. After two years and another examination, the students were allowed to practice as lawyers in Germany. At the beginning of the twentieth century, women were not allowed to do a clerkship. So, from 1914 to 1915, Margarete Berent worked as an auxiliary official for a law firm in Berlin. When her male colleagues were drafted into the army during World War I, Berent was more than ready to step forward to represent the firm.
After 1915, Margarete Berent held several different positions. One was working in the legal department of a large electronics firm (Allgemeine Elektritizätswerke/AEG). Another was as a teacher of commercial law and legal procedure studies. For a short time she was an editor for the Newsletter for Guardianship Cases, Youth Welfare and Juvenile Court Aid (Zentralblatt für Vormundschaftswesen, Jugendfürsorge und Jugendgerichtshilfe).
In 1918, after World War I, German women received not only the right to vote, but other rights as well. In 1925, Margarete Berent could at last complete her clerkship and take the final qualifying legal examination to become the first female lawyer in Prussia. This was the same year in which she opened her own law firm. She had finally reached her goal.
During her university studies, from 1910 to 1913, Berent began her lifelong interest in feminism, becoming active in several women’s organizations. These were not Jewish organizations, but were part of the German, non-religious feminist movement. One of her chief interests as a lawyer was to advise women about their rights, and, secondly, to fight for women’s rights in legal affairs. She told anyone who would listen that legal disputes are created by men and that women are needed to change this method of resolving differences.
Margarete Berent fought for her ideas through numerous women’s organizations. She was active in the Federation of German Women Associations (Bund Deutscher Frauenvereine), in the League of German Female Lawyers (Deutscher Juristinnenbund), and in the International Organization of Women Lawyers. Furthermore, she was one of the founders of the League of German Academic Women (Deutscher Akademikerinnen-Bund) and a member of the Soroptimist Club, a professional club for women. From 1933 on, after being denied the right to practice law in Germany because she was a Jew, Berent became active in the League of Jewish Women.
Beside her commitment to these organizations and to her career as a lawyer, Berent gave classes, produced features for a radio station and offered lectures and seminars. These activities were abruptly interrupted in 1933. The Nazi regime changed the course of her life drastically: Margarete Berent lost her law firm and had to find other work. During the summer of 1933 she became an employee of the Central Committee for Jewish Economic Aid (Zentralstelle für jüdische Wirtschaftshilfe) in Berlin, where she served as head of the department for women’s issues and women’s professions.
In October 1933 she was called to Cologne to become the head of Jewish welfare for a huge region on the Rhine. She was responsible for coordination of assistance to the many small Jewish communities in this area. It fell to her to organize support for emigration, for a separate educational system for Jews, and for general welfare. In 1939, when Jewish organizations were centralized and some smaller Jewish communities merged into bigger ones, Margarete Berent became the head of one of the eighteen districts of the Reich Association of Jews in Germany (Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Deutschland). Such positions had previously been occupied by men.
As Nazi persecution and violence towards Jews worsened, Margarete Berent decided to flee Germany. She applied for a visa to go to the United States of America, but it was not granted. Too many Jewish people were waiting, day after day, for such a visa. In November 1939, having received an interim visa for Chile, she escaped Nazi Germany via Switzerland and Italy and then went on to Chile. There she had to wait four months before receiving a visa for the USA. She became ill due to inadequate hygiene and nutrition. Finally, in August 1940, she arrived in New York City. She was fifty-three years old.
In New York Berent had a hard time finding employment. At first she worked as a housekeeper and also, during these years, in various other badly paid positions. However, she wanted to resume work as a lawyer and therefore began to study American law. Relatives helped her with a small stipend. After completing her studies, she worked in several law firms. During 1949 and 1950 she received permission to practice law in the United States. At that time she was 60 years old. One year later, in 1951, she was once more the head of her own law firm, the result of sheer determination and hard work.
Margarete Berent died in 1965 at the age of seventy-eight in New York City.
SELECTED WORKS BY MARGARETE BERENT
“Die Neugestaltung des Familienrechts.” Die Frau 38 (1930/1931): 725–730; “Die Reform des ehelichen Güterrechts auf dem 33. Deutschen Juristentag.” Die Frau 32 (1924/1925): 15–16; Zugewinstgemeinschaft der Ehegatten, dissertation. Breslau: 1915; “Die Zulassung der Frauen zu den juristischen Berufen.” Die Frau 27 (1919/1920): 332–334. (Numerous articles about the family law and the divorce laws).
Asaria, Zwi. Die Juden in Köln von der ältesten Zeit bis zur Gegenwart. Köln: 1959, 158.
AJR-Information. Association of Jewish Refugees in Great Britain (September 1965): 12.
Aufbau 9.7.1965, 4.
Biographisches Handbuch der deutschsprachigen Emigration nach 1933, eds. Institut für Zeitgeschichte and Research Foundation for Jewish Emigration, I. München: 1980, 53.
Birnbaum, Max. Staat und Synagoge 1918 bis 1938, eine Geschichte des Preußischen Landesverbandes jüdischer Gemeinden. Tübingen: 1981, 216.
Dick, Jutta, and Marina Sassenberg. Jüdische Frauen im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. Lexikon zu Leben und Werk. Reinbek bei Hamburg: 1993, 53–55.
Kaplan, Marion. Jüdisches Bürgertum. Frau, Familie und Identität im Kaiserreich. 1997, 238–240.
Lowenthal, Ernst G. Juden in Preussen. Biographisches Verzeichnis, Berlin: 1981, 28.
Maierhof, Gudrun. Selbstbehauptung im Chaos. Frauen in der jüdischen Selbsthilfe 1933–1943. Frankfurt/New York: 2002, 92–97, 323.
Stiefel, Ernst C. Mecklenburg, Frank. Deutsche Juristen im amerikanischen Exil 1933 bis 1950. Tübingen: 1991, 75–76.
Tezlaff, Walter. 2000 Kurzbiographien bedeutender deutscher Juden des 20. Jahrhunderts, Lindhorst 1982, 52.
Walk, Joseph. Kurzbiographien zur Geschichte der Juden 1918–1945, München/New York/London/Paris: 1988, 27.
Leo Baeck Institute, New York: Collection Margarete Berent.
Jewish Museum, Frankfurt am Main/Germany: Collection Dora Edinger includes correspondence from Dora Edinger and Margarete Berent.
Berlin/Germany: Landesentschädigungsbehörde Berlin: Restitution file.
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Maierhof, Gudrun. "Margarete Berent." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 28, 2020) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/berent-margarete>.