The Political Woman in Print

German Women’s Writing 1845–1919

by Birgit Mikus (Author)
©2014 Monographs VIII, 260 Pages


This book analyses the depiction and function of politically active women in novels by six female authors from the margins of the democratic revolution of 1848 and the first German women’s movement: Louise Aston, Malwida von Meysenbug, Mathilde Franziska Anneke, Fanny Lewald, Louise Otto-Peters, and Hedwig Dohm. What was their political stance in relation to democratic developments and women’s rights? How did they render their political convictions into literary form? Which literary images did they use, criticise, or invent in order to depict politically active women in their novels in a positive light? Which narrative strategies were employed to ‘smuggle’ politically and socially radical ideas into what were sometimes ostensibly conventional plots? These authors wrote before modern feminist theory was established; however, their proto-feminist observations, demands, and discursive tactics contributed much to the formation and institutionalisation of feminist thought. This book contextualises the authors’ works in their historical and social environment in order to evaluate what can be considered radical and political in the period 1845-1919.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • INTRODUCTION: The politics of women's writing
  • CHAPTER 1: Social and legal history
  • CHAPTER 2: Louise Aston and the politics of the novel
  • CHAPTER 3: Malwida von Meysenbug: The fight for women’s rights on a personal level
  • CHAPTER 4: Mathilde Franziska Anneke: Fighting and writing for the Motherland
  • CHAPTER 5: Fanny Lewald: The ambivalent ‘Première Dame’ of women’s literature
  • CHAPTER 6: Louise Otto-Peters: Women’s politics and solidarity as a matter of course
  • CHAPTER 7: Hedwig Dohm: ‘Bin ich ein Mensch – nichts als ein Mensch’
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index


I would like to thank my supervisor, Prof Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly, for her excellent support in the last three years, not only with regard to this thesis, but also in my other academic activities and endeavours. In the same vein, I would also like to thank my examiners, Prof Ritchie Robertson and Prof Sarah Colvin, as well as my teaching mentor Dr Georgina Paul. I am also grateful to the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages for granting me the Heath Harrison Maintenance Grant, without which I would not have been able to conduct doctoral studies. Equal thanks for financial support in travel and conference costs belong to the Faculty and Exeter College, Oxford. The staff of the Taylor Institution Library, in particular Miss Jill Hughes, have been immensely helpful and supportive.

I would not have been able to write the doctoral thesis on which this book is based without the moral support of my parents and my friends. Therefore I want to thank Gerhard and Gisela Mikus for their unwavering encouragement and their interest and delight in my topic. Among my friends, I am infinitely indebted to Dr Madeleine Brook, Dr Abigail Dunn, and Dr Rachel Harland for their friendship and moral support, for proofreading chapter drafts and other miscellaneous texts (including this), and putting up with my endless sentences. A last ‘thank you’ goes to my students, who keep me sane with a different kind of madness. ← vii | viii →


← viii | 1 →


The Politics of Women’s Writing

The political woman, as a literary image and as a person, should, strictly speaking, not exist in nineteenth-century Germany. Women were by definition excluded from politics, and, once married, not even recognised as independent persons before the law, all this justified by the emerging ideals of ‘natural’ gender roles and attributes.1 The first German Women’s Movement existed in its organised and institutionalised form only from 1865, the year Louise Otto-Peters, Minna Cauer, and several other politically minded women founded the Allgemeiner Deutscher Frauenverein (ADF) [General German Women’s Association] in Leipzig.2 However, even this association focused primarily on campaigns for the reform of marriage law, equal access to education, and equality in the workforce, and explicitly not on women’s suffrage, in complete contrast to the British, French, and American Women’s Movements of the same period.3 Nevertheless, since the Vormärz period at the latest, German women writers concerned themselves with politics and women’s exclusion from it and various other fields of public life, in various ways and genres. The democratic revolution of 1848 provided a unique opportunity to reach a large readership with political ← 1 | 2 → interests, and a number of female authors published explicitly political pamphlets, novels, and poetry with the goal of securing women’s participation in the construction of the new democratic state. These authors faced one particular problem when turning from essay or pamphlet to literature: they had no literary image of a political woman at their disposal, except for the unpopular, mocking image of the Bluestocking. In order to depict their own political points of view, they had to create a literary character suitable to represent their ideas, which had to be distinct from the caricature of the Bluestocking. Since women encountered massive antagonism when trying to engage with matters of state, they had to justify these literary characters, and they had to make them socially acceptable for their – presumably female, less politically aware or interested, and in most cases bourgeois – readership.

The act of writing as such, especially for female writers, has often been analysed as a political act in itself; in transgressing into the public sphere, by finding, formulating, recording and publishing their own voice, women have put their author persona (if not themselves) in the public, discursive place of the abstract polis,4 where they at least attempt to converse with the ‘natives’, male authors, as their equals on matters of public interest. On this basis, one area of modern feminist criticism had to be excluded from this study, namely the problem field of women’s writing in a patriarchal language system, as developed and analysed by Luce Irigary, Julia Kristeva, and Toril Moi, among others. The reason for this is that the authors discussed here did not attempt to overturn the existing political and social system, but to gain access, if not acceptance into it, as political subjects, and had therefore to provide evidence of their proficiency in the logos to function in and to interact with the structures that it (the system) had imbued with (political) authority. In this context, it is clear that a departure from the dominant language system, even in the cause of expressing specifically female concerns on a political level, would have been counterproductive to the practical, political aims these authors supported with and in their writing. A transgression of norms in their content could not be accompanied ← 2 | 3 → by transgressions in the forms of their language and writing, or else the attempted construction of a politically able self would have collapsed in itself, as Kristeva illustrates:

When he flees the symbolic paternal order, […] man can laugh. But the daughter, on the other hand, is rewarded by the symbolic order when she identifies with the father […]. Therefore the invasion of her speech by these unphrased, nonsensical, maternal rhythms, far from soothing her, or making her laugh, destroys her symbolic armour and makes her ecstatic, nostalgic or mad. […] A woman has nothing to laugh about when the symbolic order collapses.5

Previous German scholarship has paid much attention to the analysis of literary images of women, and of femininity, in both men’s and women’s writing; Sigrid Weigel, Inge Stephan, and Silvia Bovenschen are the most prominent scholars in this field, as well as in the question as to how female authors in the nineteenth century navigated both customary styles of literary writing and women’s literary images. In some ways, this study is also concerned with a literary image, namely that of the political woman, as outlined above; but, since this is not an already established image – in contrast to e.g. the mother, the seducer, the ‘schöne Seele’ [beautiful soul], femme fatale or femme fragile – the focus lies on the strategies the authors chosen employed to construct, present, and justify their images of the political woman, and on the biographical details and experiences which informed not only the respective political localisation of the authors themselves, but also the formation of their political (female) characters. Earlier feminist studies of some of the texts selected often declared and dismissed them as unpolitical on the grounds that they perpetuated the patriarchal system which they were expected to refute, or upheld patriarchal values, with which they were considered not to engage critically, or were found in collaboration with the old order rather than trying to dismantle it. These assessments are generally correct in their analysis within a critical feminist framework; however, it would be premature to pronounce these texts ← 3 | 4 → unpolitical just because they don’t deliver the modern feminist political perspective one might look for or expect. On the contrary, this study will show that all six authors had very definite political agendas which can be mapped throughout their literary works, and that their female characters are indeed political, even though the historical distance obliterates much of what would have been recognisably political to a nineteenth-century reader. The authors’ respective social backgrounds and biographies, it will be shown, played a defining role in their political standpoints, their degree of radicalism, and how they approached their own authorship as well as their renditions of a potential political woman in their literary texts. Therefore, each chapter will supply a political biography of the author being discussed.

The authors chosen for this study – Louise Aston (1814–1871), Malwida von Meysenbug (1816–1903), Mathilde Franziska Anneke (1817–1884), Fanny Lewald (1811–1889), Louise Otto-Peters (1819–1895), and Hedwig Dohm (1831–1919) – all wrote political essays or pamphlets as well as novels. Apart from the last-named, all authors actively participated in the democratic revolution of 1848 on the side of the revolutionaries. Aston witnessed the fighting on the barricades in Berlin and wrote a historically accurate novel about this so-called March uprising. Anneke followed her husband into the Baden uprising and, during the military actions, undertook messenger duties on the front lines, while Lewald and von Meysenbug witnessed the political proceedings of the provisional National Assembly in Frankfurt. They all supported the formation of a democratic state but were appalled when, once again, their fellow male democrats ignored the female half of the population when formulating the ‘equal’ codes of law for the new republic. Even though the authors chosen did not, at that time, demand women’s suffrage as the basis for a democratic state, they campaigned in their essays and pamphlets for the true legal equality of men and women. The six authors differed quite profoundly in the extent of their political focus and radicalism, which is also palpable in their employment of various argumentative strategies. How, then, did they depict politically active women who dared to speak out or to live a life involved in politics in their literary texts? Did they use their novels as ambassadors for their political demands and agendas? And what strategies did they employ in order to keep within the limits of what was thought proper for female authorship, ← 4 | 5 → that is, if they bothered to keep within those boundaries at all? Are their versions of the political woman hidden away in sub-plots, are they minor characters who function as a subversive counterpoint to a conventional story, or do they take centre stage? Did they, in fact, manage to write female characters with political authority, to authorise and inscribe their political vision – or themselves as political beings?

In her short article ‘Die Nebensächlichen’ [The Marginal Ones] Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres decribes how the most important political, or socially radical, messages can be found not in the centre but on the margins of novels by women writers.6 The female authors were writing from a marginalised position themselves, so one strategy for advocating deviant opinions and different blueprints for (women’s) lives was to keep them out of the main focus, to present them as an alternative which creeps in slowly via the margins, instead of turning the world upside down in a full-scale revolution. However, not all of the authors discussed in the following employed this strategy. Aston virtually parades her radically different heroine, Otto-Peters presents the hitherto unheard-of phenomenon – a bourgeois woman who earns her own living – several times as her protagonist, and von Meysenbug boldly puts forward her own life story as an alternative model for the course of a woman’s life. It appears that the more pronounced their stance in depicting political opinion and demands is, the more it is necessary for other writing strategies to take the edge off this transgression of female boundaries. Dohm depicts a woman actively involved in social politics rather unfavourably: she is a friend of the protagonist who is described as having a small hunch, being slightly cross-eyed, and constantly fretting about poor families to whom she cannot give enough help. Lewald favours female protagonists who lead by example and leave theoretical, political debates to the male characters. The question arises whether this should be attributed to the attempt to deliver ‘proper’ female writing, with strategies ← 5 | 6 → such as ridicule or a divide between political theory and practice as a safeguard against the criticism that a female author should not concern herself with politics; or whether the ambivalence can be read as an expression of the (even more) marginal position of an explicitly political woman, a marginality the authors of those texts undoubtedly felt.

The authors chosen are more or less contemporaries and are bound to have taken notice of each other’s political involvement. However, there are few or no extant sources on the interaction or correspondence between them and comments on their respective works are scarce, if they exist at all. For one thing, the literary estates of the authors have not always been kept – in the case of Dohm and Aston there is not even an established archive. Otto-Peters and von Meysenbug were rediscovered by the second Women’s Movement in Germany in the 1970s, and a Louise Otto-Peters-Gesellschaft and a Malwida-von-Meysenbug-Gesellschaft have been founded which have worked towards consolidating archive material in one central archive in each case. Lewald’s literary estate is perhaps the most secure and well catalogued of the six authors, whereas Anneke’s is kept partly in Germany, partly in the United States, with some texts available only as copies or in typescript in one location because the originals are stored in the other one, or are simply lost. The Frauenarchiv in Kassel, the FrauenMediaTurm in Cologne, and the Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach also hold lists and some texts by the six authors; the rest remains distributed across Germany, or, in von Meysenbug’s case, even across Europe. Reconstructing the contacts the authors had with each other and with members of the contemporaneous women’s movement in Britain or America, at least beyond the obvious, is made difficult by this fragmented archival landscape, and is often down to luck, as other scholars note in their attempts.7 Personal contacts between some of the authors can be reconstructed through their direct correspondence, if extant, and through mentions of visits or meetings in letters to other friends. Here especially von Meysenbug’s correspondence, ← 6 | 7 → recently edited and published, has been informative and instrumental in tracing the connections between several well-known authors and political characters.8 Von Meysenbug met Lewald several times, first together with Lewald’s husband Adolf Stahr in 1866 in Rome, where von Meysenbug lived for the second half of her life; then again in 1878 in Rome, and finally von Meysenbug invited Lewald again for a visit in 1881.9 In a letter to Ludwig Geiger, von Meysenbug congratulated him on his preface to Lewald’s memoirs and promised to read the whole book.10 Dohm also met Lewald by chance on a visit to a friend’s place in Berlin and commented on the occasion in her characteristic sarcastic manner.11 Otto-Peters apparently wrote to everyone, and knew everyone, who had voiced support for the women’s movement in Germany, and asked them for contributions to her political women’s newspaper. In the literary estate of Gottfried and Johanna Kinkel, von Meysenbug’s best friends in their political exile in London, there is a letter from the socialist women’s activist Kathinka Zitz, describing a brief visit from Otto-Peters, and forwarding her request for contributions to the Kinkels.12 Johanna Kinkel and von Meysenbug forwarded Otto-Peters’ apparently frequent requests to each other with much ← 7 | 8 → amusement.13 Strikingly, Dohm and Otto-Peters seem to have avoided each other. Dohm preferred to publish her political essays independently, and when she turned to writing frequent articles for newspapers at the turn of the century, she found a forum in more radical newspapers such as Die Zukunft [The Future], instead of the central publication of the ADF, Neue Bahnen [New Paths], which had been founded by Otto-Peters. Influences from the British Women’s Movement are even harder to trace. Although von Meysenbug lived in London for almost a decade, and had, together with the Kinkels, a lot of contacts among international political circles, there are few indications that she actually met or corresponded with leading figures of the British movement. Von Meysenbug, Lewald, Otto-Peters, and Dohm commented on John Stuart Mill’s texts concerning political philosophy and women’s emancipation. It can be assumed that Anneke knew these texts as well, but she did not write anything about them, and Aston more or less vanished from the public stage after her second marriage in 1852. In a letter to von Meysenbug in 1859, Alexander Herzen mentioned that he had given Mill’s On Liberty to her as something she would want to read, and that he wrote a letter to Mill as well.14 In 1869, von Meysenbug told Gottfried Kinkel that she had received a letter from Mill regarding her memoirs, and in 1877 von Meysenbug promised Paul Rée to make him a gift of one of Mill’s letters to her (it is not clear whether this is the letter referring to her memoirs, or whether they had a more frequent correspondence).15 Lewald dedicated one of her collections of political letters to Mill, and in the preface mentions a letter from Mill complimenting her on her earlier political essays.16 Dohm, the youngest of the six authors, quoted Mill and Josephine Butler in her later essays, and Otto-Peters printed translated ← 8 | 9 → excerpts of Mill’s texts, as well as translations of English articles in favour of the women’s movement, in her newspaper.17

Considering the contacts five of the six authors had with each other, it is also safe to assume that they took note of each other’s literary publications. Von Meysenbug’s and Lewald’s memoirs were certainly mentioned and discussed by the wider public; however, only Aston managed to provoke two of the other authors, Otto-Peters and Anneke, into reacting to her literary endeavours. Aston started to publish political poetry in the Vormärz period, taking the Saint-Simonian’s stance of free love as the path to women’s emancipation. Already infamous in Berlin and beyond for her scandalous behaviour during the years preceding the revolution, Aston set herself even further apart from her contemporaries by creating in a novel a powerful literary woman who broke the mould for acceptable female behaviour in every way. Most of the other authors in this study made efforts to distance themselves from this particular image of a political woman, and even from Aston herself. Otto-Peters attacked Aston and her texts in her political newspaper, accusing her of damaging the efforts other women were making towards legal emancipation by depicting a literary character who seems to forget her ‘natural’ feminine character, and who misuses the upheaval of the democratic revolution for her personal benefit.18 Anneke, on the other hand, came to Aston’s defence, at least up to a point. Anneke unmasked the loudest personal accusations against Aston as based on society’s moral double standard, but did criticise her poetry and first novel with regard to their political content. For Anneke, Aston remained too ensnared in her personal experiences, and did not take the next mental step from demanding individual to demanding legal freedom. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the other authors in this study sought to achieve a literary representation of political women which very carefully avoided both the categorisation of the Bluestocking and Aston’s almost fantastical early attempt. ← 9 | 10 →


← 10 | 11 →


  1  See e.g. Barbara Duden, ‘Das schöne Eigentum. Zur Herausbildung des bürgerlichen Frauenbildes an der Wende vom 18. zum 19. Jahrhundert’, Kursbuch, 47 (1977), pp. 125–40, and Karin Hausen, ‘Die Polarisierung der “Geschlechtscharaktere” – Eine Spiegelung der Dissoziation von Erwerbs- und Familienleben’, in W. Conze (ed.), Sozialgeschichte der Familie in der Neuzeit Europas (Stuttgart: Klett, 1977).

  2  See Richard J. Evans, The Feminist Movement in Germany 1894–1933 (SAGE Studies in 20th Century History, 6; London, Beverly Hills: SAGE Publications, 1976), p. 24. The association will in the following be refered to as ADV.

  3  See Bonnie S. Anderson, Joyous greetings: the first international women’s movement, 1830–1860 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 135–36 and 157–58.

  4  After Hannah Arendt’s discussion of the polis in Vita activa oder Vom tätigen Leben, Munich: Piper 2010.


VIII, 260
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (August)
Literary critique Political literature Women movement Feminist literature
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. 260 pp.

Biographical notes

Birgit Mikus (Author)

Birgit Mikus holds a D.Phil in German Literature from the University of Oxford and is now based in the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, University of Oxford, as a member of the research staff. Her research interests include nineteenth-century studies, women’s writing, political literature, and philosophy of language.


Title: The Political Woman in Print