Wuppertal women's rights activist: Helene Stöcker
Prof. Dr. Anne-Rose Meyer / German Studies

Photo: Friederike von Heyden

"The desire for female self-determination".

Prof. Dr. Anne-Rose Meyer on the Wuppertal women's rights activist Helene Stöcker and her only novel "Liebe" (Love)

Helene Stöcker was born in Elberfeld in 1869. Who was this woman?

Meyer: Helene Stöcker was one of the most important campaigners for women's rights in Germany. She campaigned for women to be allowed to attend schools and universities, propagated sexual education and female self-determination. The basis for this was that she saw women and men as equals. She held views that are still considered modern today: for example, that femininity and education and femininity and professional activity are not mutually exclusive, nor are marriage and study and marriage and professional activity. What was self-evident for men, Stöcker wanted to achieve for women as well. Even as mothers, women should be personalities to be taken seriously. Thus, in 1902, in The New Mother, she wrote: "No dogma should be made of the 'mothering profession' that inhibits the free development of the individual woman's personality." In addition to her commitment as a feminist, she was active as a pacifist and publicist.

In 1896, as a woman, she took up studies in Berlin and faced massive difficulties. What were they?

Meyer: Women were not yet regularly admitted to study at universities. Stöcker was one of the first female students who were allowed to attend Berlin's Friedrich Wilhelm University as a guest student - provided the professor giving the lecture or seminar expressly agreed. The 'female students' had to fight against many prejudices. Stöcker writes about this in her memoirs. Lecturers, for example, held the view that women were destroying the universities, that they were incapable of scientific thinking. Only men had logic, independence of thought and action, the ability to perform and judge, creativity, originality and productivity. At best, women were ignored at universities; at worst, they were ridiculed and publicly belittled. That they earned academic degrees was not envisioned. But Stoecker was not discouraged. In 1896, she founded the Verein Studierender Frauen, a forum where women could lecture and be heard. The members of the association rejected the form of address "Fräulein" and advocated the form of address "Frau." In 1901, against all odds, Stöcker received her doctorate from Oskar Walzel in Bern with an interdisciplinary thesis Zur Kunstanschauung des 18. Jahrhunderts: Von Winckelmann bis zu Wackenroder .

As early as 1905, she founded the League for Maternity Protection, which advocated for unmarried mothers and their children. That was extraordinary, wasn't it?

Meyer: Absolutely. The Bund für Mutter schutz was a result of Stoecker's so-called new ethical thinking. She assumed that men and women were not the same in their physiognomy, in their thinking, feeling, acting, but that they were equal and therefore should have equal rights. In her opinion, this also included not discriminating against women who had become pregnant out of wedlock, but supporting them. The father of the child should also contribute to this, because Stöcker spoke out against the social double standard, according to which the man was granted the right to a fulfilled sexuality, even out of wedlock, but the woman was not. Ideally, man and woman - whether married or not - should care for their children together.

In The Love of the Future of 1920 she writes: "'The' man, 'the' woman, 'the' type - may one then in the age of the deeply recognized relativity of all things [...]: that there are no hundred percent men, no hundred percent women, but that we are all only infinitely different mixtures of 'M' (man) and 'W' (woman), - may one now still argue with something as unreal as 'the' man, 'the' woman as such? No, thank God." These are thoughts that seem very contemporary. Stöcker understands motherhood as a social achievement. Married and illegitimate children should have equal legal status, was one of her demands. She advocated sexual education, which included contraception. Unmarried mothers could find help in homes run by the Federation for Maternity Protection, of which there were already 36 in 1912. Stöcker and her comrades-in-arms also campaigned for the introduction of maternity insurance - financial support in the period surrounding childbirth, comparable to today's maternity benefit. Another important goal was the decriminalization of homosexuality, which was also very progressive.

After her studies, she wanted above all to preserve her independence and gave lectures on women's education and women's rights, among other things, in which she called for social justice with opportunities for individual development. But she was also too radical for some contemporaries, wasn't she?

Meyer: Yes, Helene Stöcker was polarizing. Because what she demanded meant a loss of power for men: women should no longer be obedient slaves, but equal companions and equally important lovers. Her achievement of bearing and raising children was to be not only ideally appreciated, but also financially compensated. In her writing Our Revaluation of Values, Stöcker demands the possibility of becoming a "dentist and lawyer" as a woman. The masculine grammatical form expresses the demand for equality, social participation, influence and education. Stöcker sees financial independence for women and men as a basic condition for freedom. The "core of the women's question" is a different education for men, she writes! Again and again she was fiercely attacked for her views, both publicly and privately. Above all, her demands for a right to abortion provoked opponents - also within the circle of women's rights activists and the members of the Bund für Mutterschutz. According to Stoecker's demands, abortion should be exempt from punishment not only after rape or harm to the child, but also in cases of expected physical or mental illness of the child, economic hardship, or any other kind of threat to the existence of mother and child. But she also had many supporters and was in regular contact with prominent contemporaries such as Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Naumann, Ricarda Huch.

In 1922, Helene Stöcker wrote her only novel, entitled Love, about a self-confident and economically independent woman who enters into a sexual relationship only for love. An autobiographical story?

Meyer: Yes, the novel is indeed autobiographical. As a young woman in her Berlin days, she herself experienced an amour fou with an editor for German language and literature, Alexander Tille. The pastor's son was married and had two small children. Not only according to Wilhelmine moral concepts, but also according to today's, this is a difficult situation. Helene Stöcker was attracted to Tille both physically and spiritually. Common interests were the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, socialism, German poetry and romanticism. When Tille's wife died unexpectedly and Stöcker could have taken her place, she recoiled. She was afraid that she would only have to be a mother, wife and housewife. Her lover was disappointed in her. They separated and Tille died of a heart attack as early as 1912. The novel Liebe deals with a comparable conflict between the desire for female self-determination and devotion to the beloved man: Robert is a handsome, married professor of art history who ensnares the young, aspiring art student Irene. She falls for him, becomes his lover, and temporarily puts her artistic ambitions on the back burner for their relationship. In the form of a diary - at times somewhat pathetic from today's perspective, but very true to life and stirring - the novel traces the psychogram of a love that first becomes hotter, then colder and colder, from the perspective of the young woman. Topics such as the first sexual intercourse and erotic attraction are not left out. However, this wears off: Robert proves incapable of breaking with bourgeois double standards. Not only does he not divorce his wife, but he also maintains other love affairs besides the one with Irene. The latter registers her gradual loss of ego and at the end of the novel finds her way back to her destiny as an artist and her life as a self-determined woman. But she retains numerous painful psychological injuries.

The novel bears witness to a human image of loving equality. She dedicated an edition in handwriting to the German-Jewish couple Armin T. Wegner and Lola Landau, which is now in the Armin T. Wegner Room of the Wuppertal Public Library. Did she see her fiction realized in the two literary figures?

Meyer: As far as self-determination and freedom in marriage were concerned, certainly. But the love between Lola Landau and Armin Theophil Wegner did not last either. They divorced in 1939 because Landau wanted to live in Palestine with her children.

For Stöcker, sexuality was "one of the highest pleasures of man." Therefore, in her opinion, it was desirable "to make this highest joy of life accessible to as many people as possible." That was the supergau for moral concepts of the time, wasn't it?

Meyer: It was highly shocking for broad circles what Stöcker had to say about sex. It should be consensual, and women should also find satisfaction. Outrageous! But Stöcker's argument about physical love was not only about the bed. She was striving for something higher. In her 1920 paper The Love of the Future, she argued that an equal, harmonious relationship between man and woman was the seed for a better, a "truly human community of the future." This includes a fulfilling sex life. She openly criticizes a purely male society, which is "a dominion of the sexes".

She was a very contentious woman who always openly expressed her opinion. Was that why she had to flee in 1933?

Meyer: Helene Stöcker was not only a women's rights activist, but also a pacifist. As such, she had already condemned the First World War. Rearmament filled her with concern. After the Reichstag elections in 1933, she went to Switzerland. At that time, she was not exposed to any concrete threat or persecution by the National Socialists, but she also no longer saw any possibility of political freedom in Germany. She had also registered the growing anti-Semitism with horror at an early stage. There was nothing left for her in Germany.

Via Switzerland to Sweden, further via the Soviet Union and Japan to the United States, she died impoverished of cancer in New York City in 1943. Since 2014, there has been a Helene Stöcker memorial on Schulstraße, designed by Ulle Hees and Frank Breidenbruch. What is her legacy to us today?

Meyer: Our society has been shaped quite significantly by Helene Stöcker. What is exemplary is how she asserted herself in a misogynistic environment, as the universities of the time were, and how she wrote and defended her doctoral thesis. Especially in this day and age, equality in the workplace, in education and in university is still a central issue. Through Corona, it has become very present again for many. Financial compensation for women who devote more time to raising children is widely discussed today, though still not sufficiently accomplished. Here Stoecker's writings can act as reminders! However, she never held the view that a woman should only be a mother. Her ideal was that of a woman who is challenged and fulfilled by a profession in a positive sense, who naturally also has children and raises them with her husband in a fair division of labor.

We benefit in our society today from the fact that Stöcker propagated the female right to sexual self-determination and that she showed us how important it is to take physicality and desire seriously in both men and women. That equal, harmonious sexuality is not only something private and individual, but also a fundamental social value, is an insight we owe to Stöcker. Her advocacy of the rights of homosexuals and her thinking, which on the one hand presupposed antagonisms between men and women, but on the other hand also broke them down, seems eminently modern today and should be reconsidered under the auspices of contemporary gender studies. Not least, her advocacy of world peace makes her an important thinker for today as well.

Uwe Blass

Prof. Dr. Anne-Rose Meyer studied General and Applied Linguistics, Modern German Studies, and Romance Studies at the University of Bonn and received her PhD ibid. in 2000. Meyer habilitated at the University of Paderborn in 2009. In 2018, she was appointed apl. professor at Bergische Universität. She teaches Modern German Literature in the Faculty of Humanities and Natural Sciences ibid.


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