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Domesticating the Public

Women’s Discourse on Gender Roles in Nineteenth-Century Germany


Daniela Richter

The domestic sphere, the ideological as well as physical context of female life during the nineteenth century, featured prominently in German women’s writing of the period. Women writers, such as Fanny Lewald, Ida von Hahn-Hahn and E. Marlitt, who had begun to dominate Germany’s book market, addressed domestic life and female gender roles through a variety of genres. At the same time, activists such as Helene Lange and Henriette Schrader-Breymann let their vision of female gender roles shape the kindergartens and girls’ secondary schools they founded.
This book discusses issues of female gender role formation and examines the ways in which women’s writing and activism contributed to the process. As a result, a rich tapestry of female social discourse is uncovered, exhibiting women’s strong commitment to shaping their destinies within a largely misogynistic political and legal national framework.


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Chapter 4 The Life of Unmarried Women: From Misfortune to Opportunity 107


Chapter 4 The Life of Unmarried Women: From Misfortune to Opportunity The experience of unmarried life for women in the nineteenth century varied drastically depending on the social class to which they belonged. For working-class women, single life – living and working outside the parental home without being married – was in fact relatively common (Orthmann 26). In some cases, for domestic servants for example, it was actually mandated by the employer to remain unmarried. Depictions of unmarried working-class women in the literature of the period are there- fore rarely portrayed as out of the ordinary.1 For women of the middle class, this was a dif ferent case: “Only within the family do we find the individual completed” (Riehl qtd. in Kuhn, “Loos” 53). This is the ideal for both men and women as formulated by the prominent social thinker Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl at the middle of the century in his work Die Familie (The Family, 1855). Even though it was much less socially accepted, unmarried life for women of the middle classes was a real possibility and is portrayed in works by both male and female writers. Leading an unmarried life was indeed a reality for about 30–50% of all women at the middle of the nineteenth century (Glöckenjan, Taeger 58; Worley, “Odd” 155; Twellmann-Schepp 27–29; Kuhn “Loos”, 55). Whereas Riehl’s statement shows that marriage was equally expected of men and women, the society of the time exercised even greater pres- sure on females to marry and bear...

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