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Enlightened Reactions

Emancipation, Gender, and Race in German Women’s Writing


Traci S. O'Brien

This book investigates a central contradiction in the Enlightenment thinking of emancipatory German women’s writing of the nineteenth century. Ida von Hahn-Hahn, Fanny Lewald, and Ottilie Assing wrote passionate arguments in favor of the emancipation of women, Jews, and blacks, promoting Enlightenment ideals of human worth and social contribution. They protested these groups’ exclusion from social participation on the basis of purportedly natural criteria such as gender or race. However, their rhetoric of emancipation also relied on racializing discourse, demonstrating that these women writers, too, frequently supported social equality at the expense of another excluded group. The author develops her argument by analyzing Hahn-Hahn’s fiction and travel writings set in the Middle East, Lewald’s novels and letters about women and Jews in Germany, and Assing’s «Reports from America» in favor of the abolition of African slavery in the United States. This wide-ranging comparative study offers a unique insight into German women’s contribution to emancipatory struggles around the world.


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Conclusion 299


Conclusion The main focus of this book has been on Ida von Hahn-Hahn, Fanny Lewald, and Ottilie Assing and the thematic aspects of their work which unite them. In the preceding chapters, I have investigated the ways in which these three German women authors of the nineteenth century explore notions of social progress. All three measure progress in terms of increased access to human rights for increasing numbers of people. Read in concert, their works show dif ferent facets of progressive movements which gained in strength throughout the nineteenth century, and address such issues as the right of self-determination and the development of civil society; marriage, the private sphere and the role of women; women’s sexuality, society and gender roles. The desire for autonomy and exercise of self- determination is at the heart of each work in keeping with the idea that the individual now plays an important role in European society. At the same time there are many dif ferences in the ways that these authors developed their central themes. In their attempts to expand on the notion of individuality, Hahn- Hahn, Lewald, and Assing use racializing depictions of other groups, and these depictions are bound up with the main emancipatory thrust of their texts. The image of the slave appears centrally in each author’s work, albeit for dif ferent reasons. Using slavery as a metaphor to explain other sorts of power relationships was not uncommon in nineteenth-century emancipa- tory movements. In a feminist context, for example, it was...

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