J. Gehmacher u.a.: Käthe Schirmacher

Käthe Schirmacher. Agitation und autobiografische Praxis zwischen radikaler Frauenbewegung und völkischer Politik

Gehmacher, Johanna; Heinrich, Elisa; Oesch, Corinna
596 S.
€ 57,00
Reviewed for H-Soz-Kult by
Helen Boak, University of Hertfordshire

This innovative biography is the result of a collaborative project funded by the Austrian Fund for Promoting Academic Research. The three researchers, who see Schirmacher as the embodiment of the transformation of European society around 1900, have mined the voluminous archive of the radical feminist and völkisch nationalist Käthe Schirmacher lodged in the University of Rostock to explore the ambiguities, contradictions and tensions in Schirmacher’s life and work. The sections examine her own concept of herself as a “modern woman” and her development into a transnational activist for women’s rights (Gehmacher), and her family networks, intimate relationships and the transnational practices within the women’s movement (Heinrich). Another section focuses on her ambivalent position in the women’s movement and her nationalism (Oesch) which is then explored in more detail for the periods of the First World War and Weimar Republic (Gehmacher). The book concludes with a reflection on the methodological and theoretical questions raised by the collaborative writing of the biography of a subject who clearly determined her own legacy and a brief chronological account of the places she stayed throughout her life.

This biography depicts a woman who was, in many ways, a pioneer; an intelligent high achiever, very hard-working, determined, uncompromising, mobile, with a great belief in herself and her abilities who was brilliant at self-promotion and at marketing herself. “I don’t know of anyone in the women’s movement who can demonstrate similar achievements to mine”, wrote Schirmacher in 1914 (p. 283). She had come second in the competitive French examination, the agrégation, at the Sorbonne in 1887 and in January 1895 she was awarded a doctorate from the University of Zurich, all achievements impossible to attain in Germany. In both Paris and Zurich she was able to defy conventional behaviour, studying in the evening or going for a walk with young men, much to her parents’ dismay. Her first novel, “Libertad”, was published in 1891, her second, “Halb”, in 1893. In November 1885 she wrote to her parents that she could not give them little Klaras, but she could pass nice little exams (p. 79) and a year later that “Women like me don’t usually marry” (p. 201). Her middle-class family suffered financially in the 1870s and she was forced to earn her own living, but was financially supported for many years by her Jewish brother-in-law Otto Münsterberg. The choice of profession available to her was limited. She strategically planned her future. She would have loved an academic career and initially she worked as a teacher and governess in Germany and England, then as a reporter, investigative journalist and novelist, while her very successful lecture tours where she was able to adapt her repertoire to suit her audience fed her desire to travel. Her linguistic skills opened many new opportunities for her. She networked extensively and assiduously, meeting women activists in Berlin, Leipzig and Weimar in the late 1880s. At home in Danzig she worked with the Verein Frauenwohl, through which she offered to give a lecture on “The Marriage Prospects of the Modern Woman” at the World Congress of Representative Women in Chicago in 1893, her first appearance on an international stage, which led to further talks across America and further appearances at international events.

Based in Paris from 1895 until 1910, she provided a link between German and French feminists, writing about France in Germany and about Germany in France, not just about women’s issues. Her extensive lecture tours across Europe gave her the opportunity to cultivate new networks and write about her travels. At women’s international congresses she not only gave lectures but acted as an intermediary, translator and interpreter and it was the accusation that she coloured her translations that led to her being voted off the executive of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in 1909. She was also thought to be living an immoral life. She was known for her belief in improved educational and professional opportunities for girls and women, for women’s work in the home to be paid and for the deregulation of prostitution, which she attributed to women’s poor wages. In 1902 she co-founded the German Association for Female Suffrage though her view of female suffrage changed over time, culminating in her call for female suffrage equal to men. She supported the tactics of the British suffragettes and her 1912 book, “Die Suffragettes”, was reprinted in 1976 and 1988.

Her position within the German women’s movement was not always easy. She had an international profile and worked transnationally, but had no roots in local German women’s organisations. Her radical nationalist activism and her links to the German Eastern Marches Association led to her finding it difficult to place some of her articles in both France and Germany from 1907. Her antisemitism does not appear to have had the same effect. By 1913/14 she had severed her ties with the international women’s movement, and with them lost many of her networks of contacts.

During the First World War she was an enthusiastic advocate of German supremacy in Europe. After the war she was elected to represent Danzig for the German National People’s Party in the National Assembly, and was revered by völkisch nationalist women. She was one of several to write histories of the women’s movement in which she, of course, featured though she now felt marginalised.

Interest in Schirmacher revived in the 1970s in part because of her intimate relationships with women. She was one of few women in the women’s movement to write about homosexuality. She shared her household from 1894 with several women who acted as her housekeeper and her life partner, Klara Schleker, with whom she lived in Marlow, Mecklenburg from 1910 when she was not working elsewhere, also took over the role of her archivist after her mother’s death in 1915. Heinrich believes she also had an intimate relationship for over ten years with the Frenchman Henri Chastenet.

The biography is excellent at exploring the tensions in Schirmacher’s life: the nationalist who lived in Paris and worked transnationally; the radical feminist whose völkisch nationalism and anti-democratic views were anathema to her fellow radicals. As Lida Gustava Heymann, a fellow radical feminist, wrote in her obituary of Schirmacher, “The enthusiastic, happy, fresh, hardworking fighter for women’s liberation became a chauvinistic, embittered, unworthy woman, filled with Prussian military spirit; foreign to us.” (p. 16) It also makes clear Schirmacher’s precarious financial position throughout her life.

Each section of this biography can stand alone, and reflects the research interests of the authors who are keen to stress the collaborative nature of the project. This does, however, mean that different aspects of the same events are explored in the different sections or that some others such as the significance of her anti-French article in 1910 mentioned in the brief chronology at the book’s end are omitted, which would not occur in a straightforward chronological account. This is, however, a minor quibble in a substantial, well-structured, painstakingly researched and eminently readable contribution to the biography of an eminent, if not very likeable, woman who featured significantly in the pre-war international women’s movement and the German völkisch nationalist movement.

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