Cover of 2000 German

Feminism and Motherhood in 19th Century Germany
Book Essay on: Ann Taylor Allen,
Feminism and Motherhood in
Germany, 1800-1914
(Rutgers University Press, 1991), 299 pages. UCSB: HQ 759 A42 1991

by Emily Pelling
November 11, 2006

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
19th Century Germany
UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2006

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About Emily Pelling

I am a third year History student at the University of Edinburgh . I am currently on exchange for a year at UCSB. I entered this course with minimal knowledge of German History prior to the 20th century. I studied 20th century Germany for my A-Levels at Godalming Sixth Form College, and thus was intrigued to gain an understanding of Germany before Hitler and National Socialism took hold. I chose Allen’s book partly because, as a woman myself, I wanted to gain a greater knowledge of the formative ideas behind feminist activity in Germany, how my female predecessors were able to counter their political and personal subservience. I was also interested in analysing to what degree the principles of the 19th century feminist movement in Germany were upheld under 20th century Nazi Germany, by reading this book I was able to piece together the puzzle, consolidating my previous learning.

Summary (back to top)

A.T.Allen’s book, Feminism and Motherhood in Germany, 1800-1914, looks at the growth of the feminist movement within Germany, and especially how this movement was grounded in maternal values. The book is divided into two sections. The first half focuses on the origins of the feminist movement while the second deals with the broad scope this movement began to have, and the development of radical feminism. The book is chronological, thus allowing readers to understand the development of feminist thought, and its context, very clearly.

In the first section of the book, Allen begins by providing readers with an insight into females subservient position within society. Allen uses biographical accounts of women from the feminist movement to allow readers to gain an insight into the rationale and causes of the growth of feminist activity in the first half of the 19th century, in particular the development of ‘spiritual motherhood.’ It also helps to support her thesis, that the movement was grounded in the maternal idiom.

The second half of the book demonstrates how women were able to breach the boundaries between the public and private spheres, with an increasing shift from the spiritual motherhood concept, to a more biologically grounded feminist focus.

Alongside this, Allen constantly contrasts and compares the growth of the feminist movement with that of its Western counterpart, the American feminist movement. Her ability to draw parallels between the two movements, and to provide the context in which the two movements developed, allows readers to gain an understanding of the reasons for difference in feminist thought on an international level. Allen goes a step further, arguing that while historians such as Claudia Koonz have linked the ideology of 19th century feminist movement with the practices of the National Socialist regime in the 20th century, the activities of the feminist movement within the 19th century were a reaction to, and exploitation of, their position in society at the time, and not evidence of willing collaboration with Nazi ideology.

Thus Allen’s monograph is clearly written, and the inclusion of biographical extracts from both conservative and radical feminists allows deeper insight into the mechanics of feminist thought throughout the century.

Essay (back to top)

To what extent did the role of the mother shape the aims of the
feminist movement in 19th century Germany?

In the book, Feminism and Motherhood in Germany, 1800-1914, A. T. Allen looks closely at the development of the feminist movement within Germany over the course of the 19th century, particularly in relation to the role of motherhood. In this essay I ask to what extent the feminist movement was motivated by the mother-child bond, and to what extent external factors such as governmental initiatives and international circumstances played a part.

Allen argues that the early feminist movement developed in a response to the subordinate position of mothers within both the public and private spheres in early 19 th century Germany .

At the beginning of the 19th century the role of mothers had become more of a governmental focus point. With the social upheavals under Napoleonic occupation still fresh in the mind, the Prussian Government had been quick to implement preventative measures, designed to strengthen the German states and increase their military capabilities. Alongside this, much pedagogical and political discourse advocated the necessity for paternal authority within the family, and a clear division between the private and public spheres. With this backdrop the Prussian legal code was composed, which articulated mothers’ function in society; namely to procreate and thus help build a strong nation. With regard to the raising of children, governmental legislation advocated authority being given to the father; whose role was to enhance the child’s cultural and intellectual well-being. Despite the fact that state intervention into the home marked a break with tradition, there is much debate as to whether this interaction brought a decline in the status of German mothers, since the legislation confined their activities to within the household, and their status was one of deference. This initiative by the government was by no means designed to enhance the position of women in society, yet what significance did it have on the feminist movement?

Allen argues that “The early feminist positions developed within the framework of the nineteenth century discourse on motherhood, family and the state.” (41) Indeed, the concept of the Pestalozzian mother-child bond, where “women’s roles in family, economy and community were integrally interlinked,” (26) was significant within the ideology of the early feminist movement. “Quotations from Pestalozzi appeared frequently in the works of German feminists..” (26). Allen argues that the feminist movement was grounded in the maternal metaphor, namely the moral virtues of a mother are inherent within every woman, mother or not. By exploiting such gender specific qualities for the good of the state, exclusion from the public sphere was to be remedied by the very same reason they had entered the public sphere in the first place. Early feminists were able to counter their subordination by emphasising the importance of women’s moral function within society, and of that of the mother-child bond, which indicated that “the origin of the child’s individuality was in a human relationship” (77). Thus, they advanced the idea of a distinctively female sphere, and unique role for the woman within the family. Allen argues that the position of the mother was not seen as an oppressive role, it was the male superiority within the house which was oppressive, and thus much of the energy of the early feminist campaigns was focused on achieving more maternal authority in the upbringing of their children. The bibliographical testimony that Allen includes helps to support this. One such example can be seen in Henriette Goldschmidt. Goldschmidt, a femininst of early 19th century, is described as having had a life devoid of maternal influence, such that her childhood memories were embittered by the hostility she felt towards her father. Allen argues that “Goldschmidt traced her future decision to become an educator to her resentment of her father’s devaluation of child-rearing.” (44).

Alongside their espousal of the morally nurturing role of the mother, and their use of public discourse to support this, the early feminist movement helped to create institutions that focused on child-rearing. The Froebelian Kindergarten movement is an example of this. This movement was aimed at facilitating a cross class educational system to bring about moral and cultural improvements for children, and thus was regarded as providing “training in the values of citizenship”(61). It was based upon the ideological premise of “spiritual motherhood,” which advocated a “public nurturing role for women”. (36). It provided a bridge for women, from the confines of the home and the private sphere, to the public sphere.

Throughout the century this movement allowed women a forum for advancement within the public sphere, offering vocational opportunities for females wishing to teach, and as an institution to advocate and debate political concerns regarding child welfare. Allen provides readers with an example of this in her bibliographical discussion of Emilie Wustenfeld. Allen states that Wustenfeld was one of the prominent advocates of the Kindergarten movement, perceiving it as a means to achieve social advances for women on the political scene. Allen notes that Wustenfeld had been “Gravely disappointed by the narrowly confessional orientation of existing charitable organisations, she was receptive to a cause that seemed to promote an active role for women in social reform.” (66). The kindergarten movement came to encompass greater ideals, such as the “great social household,” which advocated an expanded “maternal” role for women within society, and an increasing social service function. Amongst such women proposing this was Charlotte Paulsen. Allen demonstrates how Paulsen founded the “Women’s Society for the Support of Poor Relief,” whose aim was to provide assistance to the less fortunate. Allen argues that Paulson was appalled by the “physically deprived and morally neglected” (81), children she had come across in the lower echelons of society, and that “Her activities linked private and public spheres, and social and familial responsibilities” (81).

The feminist movement was not a homogenous group, and the later post- revolutionary half of the 19th century bore witness to greater divisions, and to the emergence of a more radical strand of feminist activity. The radical wing of the movement tended to place greater emphasis upon biological, rather than spiritual motherhood, in particular looking towards legislative and policy changes, for example divorce laws. Allen uses biographical examples to argue that,

whereas the women who had grown up in the early nineteenth century had interpreted their adolescent restlessness as spiritual….,many women of the later nineteenth century...attributed this restlessness to puberty and awakening sexual curiosity. (152)

Helene Stocker was one such woman. Stocker attributed her radical activity in the feminist movement to her personal recollection of the trials of puberty, speaking of the “‘dangers, the destiny that threatened a woman when love came into her life- that was shown to me in the full horror of an annihilating fate’”(153). Some historians dispute any continuity between the feminist movement at the beginning of the century, and that of the second half, but Allen discredits this opinion. Allen argues that despite some obvious differences, the underlying foundation remained rooted in motherhood. “The radicals, although criticising the ethic of spiritual motherhood, preserved and even exalted the idea of a female ethic based on the nurturing role and the mother-child bond.” (172). Indeed, the League For the Protection of Mothers, which was criticised as being a radical institution by the conservative feminist movement, often advocated and modified old ideas from the early parts of the century, for example Prussian legislation on unmarried mothers. Similarly, though the radicals had different perspectives on issues of sexual morality and illegitimacy, as Allen states, their perspectives were always justified as being grounded in maternal values:

…their positions on sexual morality arose directly out of concern for the welfare of mothers and children, expanded to included the hitherto neglected households of unmarried mothers. (174).

However, one also has to look at how external circumstances affected the feminist movement. For a start, one may argue that had the Prussian Legal code not deliberately placed women in a position of servitude, then the feminist driving force would have been very different. Indeed, devoid of the maternal platform, one has to question whether the development of feminism would have occurred at all, or least not when it did. It can certainly be argued that the governmental intervention into the home influenced the growth of feminist discourse, as well as the creation of the concept of “spiritual motherhood.” Allen depicts the basis of the American feminist movement which placed the struggle for equal rights at the centre of its campaign. Had German women not been circumscribed in their function in society by the state, it is possible that the focal point of German feminists could have been driven by similar designs on equality.

Thus, events within Germany throughout the century also had significant effect upon the development of the German feminist movement. The Napoleonic repercussions initiated women’s new found place in the home in the first instance. Added to this, the revolution of 1848 brought about a political climate that was more sympathetic to reform. The Kindergarten movement was initiated during this time, and it was the post- revolutionary clamp- down by the government which halted its progress. Allen states, “The utopian ideals of 1848 were soon deflated by the failure of the revolution and the imposition of new restrictions on women’s political activities” (79). Indeed, much of the feminist activity within the decade was met by resistance from the state.

The 1860’s-70’s feminist activity can also be seen as being influenced by the state. Indeed, Allen argues that, “German feminists were caught up in the central political event of their time - the unification of the German states and the creation of a new nation” (95). Thus the emergence of a more national level of feminist activity can in part be attributed to the political climate. By the end of the century, with the implementation of the first draft of the new Civil Code, radical feminist discussion came to be more pronounced. Their opposition to the legislation was born out of dissatisfaction with the state’s actions, as well as in reaction to conservative feminism. “The creation of a feminist standpoint on reproductive rights was in part a response to increasing governmental control of reproductive decision making” (189). The end of the 19th century saw a decline in birth- rates, and thus the government’s legal code included measures designed to reverse this, for example more stringent limitations on conditions against abortion.

In addition to this, there is evidence to suggest that international factors also contributed to the formation of the German feminist movement in the 19th century. Historians have often criticised the feminist movement within Germany for placing an emphasis on the maternal role of women as opposed to trying to obtain equal rights. Allen’s book draws attention to this different focal point, contrasting the German feminist campaigns in the 19th century to their western counterpart, that of the United States . However, although Allen acknowledges the difference between German feminism and American feminism, she is also quick to point to the parallels between the two. In doing so she refutes the argument that 19th century German feminists were, in adopting a maternal platform, then to become proponents of, or passive to the ideals of the Weimar Republic and National Socialist regime of the 20th century. Historian C. Koonz argues that the ideas of 19th century feminists were achieved through the Nationalist Socialist policies, which advocated a ‘Volksgemeinschaft,’ and rewarded mothers for their function within such a community. Allen discredits this argument, stating that much of the feminist campaigns in 19th century Germany were mirrored in other countries, for example in the United States, where National Socialist ideals had not taken root. Similarly, the primary function of the mother, and espoused within the duty of ‘the great social household,’ was to cater to people of all classes and religions. Such a tolerance was in stark contrast to the theory of social Darwinism that shaped the eugenic strain of thought in Nazi Germany.

Conclusion. (back to top)

In conclusion, the role of mothers can be regarded as pivotal to the development of the German feminist movement. Though motherhood and feminism are often juxtaposed to one another, in the instance of 19th century Germany , the two were integrally interlinked. The role of the mother was to change throughout the course of the century, and with it the feminist movement also. One has to remember that while the mother figure, and the mother-child bond was advocated and remained crucial to feminist ideology, increasingly throughout the century the nurturing mother image was used to justify expanding female activity into the public sphere, thus the mothering role was often metaphorical. Women were becoming more able to influence policy, and began to adopt broader- reaching ideas. The ‘great social household’ demonstrates the expanding role of women into society, under the guise of maternal duty. The ‘mother’ figure was advocated as the female counterpart to the male soldier, and thus increasingly it was argued that if military service to the state equated citizenship and enfranchisement for males, the mother function, and the moral virtues of a woman should be rewarded accordingly. Throughout the century, governmental intervention and the domestic political climate proved to be influential in the timing and the achievements of the feminist cause, and the international backdrop was such that German feminists often looked to western women for guidance, hence parallels can be drawn in the scope of international feminism. However, while external factors did play a part in the formation and timing of feminist activity, the concept of motherhood remained integral to the feminist campaign throughout Germany.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)

Book Reviews:

  • by Mary Jo Maynes in: The American Historical Review, Vol. 98, No.1, Feb 1993, pp190-191:
    This review provides an insight into the structure of the book, arguing that the first half is focused on the 'spiritual motherhood' and the second on 'biological.' It also provides some criticism of the bibliographical foundations of Allen's research, which helps readers gain perspective when reading book.
  • by Katharine D. Kennedy in: History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 33, No.2, Summer 1993, pp.270-272:
    This review refers to the unusual 'juxtaposition of feminism and motherhood' that Allen's book provides the readers with. It also refers to Allen's use of comparison between German Feminists and American Feminists, and how Allen is able to demonstrate continuity between the two, as well as reasons for their different approaches.
  • by Ute Frevert in: The Journal of Modern History, Vol 66, No. 3, Sept 1994, pp648-649:
    This review was also mostly flattering of Allen's work, arguing that the bibliographical extracts Allen used assisted a greater understanding of political, social and cultural thought at the time. It is interesting in that it highlights Allen's ability to propose a counterargument to that which sees 19th century feminism as a precursor to the thoughts of the 20th century Nazi regime.
  • by Katharina Von Ankum in: German Studies Review, Vol. 16, No. 2. (May, 1993), pp. 365-366.

Books and articles:

  • Ann Taylor Allen, Feminism and Motherhood in Western Europe, 1890-1970: The Maternal Dilemma (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2005), HQ759.A45.2005
    This book by Ann Taylor Allen helps to gain a greater understanding of the feminist movement, in particular across the European continent. It is useful in contextualising the feminist movement.
  • Ute Frevert, Women in German History: from Bourgeois Emancipation to Sexual Liberation (Oxford; New York: Berg 1989). HQ1627.F69713.1989
    U. Frevert is the author whose review I used to help consolidate my understanding of Allen's book. This book is useful in understanding the significance of gender. In my essay I spoke of the sexual awakening of the radical feminists of the later 19th century. Frevert's book also looks to this development, and how significant it was in terms of the feminist movement. The book actually provides a broader study of feminism, including insight into the National Socialist Regime of Nazi Germany in the 20th Century. Whilst my essay is focused on the 19th century feminist movement in Germany, this book does help in contextualizing the legacy left by such women.
  • Nancy Reagin, A German Woman's Movement: Class and Gender in Hanover, 1880-1933 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 1995). HQ1623.R43.1995
    This book provides a deeper understanding of the women's movement in relation to class, and thus helps to provide insights into the profile of 19th century feminists. It demonstrates the significance of gender in Germany, with regards to cross class relations, as well as in understanding women's intervention into the public sphere.
  • I. Schroder and A. Schuler, "'In Labor alone is Happiness:' Womens work, social work and Feminist Reform Endeavours in Wilhelmine Germany--A Transatlantic Perspective." Journal of Women's History, 16:1(2004),127-147. Project Muse
    This article focuses on the women's movement in Wilhelmine Germany. It portrays the social developments of these women, for example how the more radical strain of feminist thought endeavoured to help bring social improvements for the poor. The article is primarily concerned with demonstrating women's participation in the public sector, and how German feminists attempted to expand women's role in the labour movement. It also looks at the difference between Germany and other countries, for example, the United States. This article is more specific to one area of German feminist thought than my essay.


  • For more Friedrich Froebelinformation on the Froebelian Kindergarten movement a useful site is: This site was created by members of the Froebel family, who are committed to providing information on the Froebel legacy.
    This website provides a deeper understanding of the formative thinking behind the Froebelian Kindergarten movement. The Kindergarten movement was an integral aspect of the early German feminist movement. The ‘spiritual motherhood' of the first half of the 19th century placed much emphasis upon the significance of child welfare, and the need for women to turn their attention to the moral upbringing of the younger generation. Froebel's discourse was inspiration, and thus, the Froebelian movement came to be of such importance.
  • Penny Welch, "The first wave of feminism in Europe," created in September 1999, updated July 2002 and September 2003:
    This website is at Wolverhampton University. This article is the first of weekly installments regarding women in Europe. The article is divided into different sections, paying attention to the definition of feminism, the different organizations, the various ideological thinking behind such movements, the main aims of the movements, and the significance of economic and cultural change.
    This website outlines the development of feminist thought in Germany, and throughout Europe. Though not specific to Germany, it does help to provide a comparatives study of feminism on an international level. At the same time it provides links to books written on German feminism, if further research is needed.

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