Joeres, Respectability, cover

Women Writers: Breaking Social Norms in 19th Century Germany
Book Essay on: Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres,
Respectability and Deviance: nineteenth century German Women Writers and the Ambiguity of Repression.
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 349 pages.
UCSB: PT345.J64 1998.

by Judith Felz, December 11, 2006

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

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About Judith Felz

I am a fourth-year senior, majoring in history at the University of California Santa Barbara. Although my father’s side of the family came from Germany, I was unaware of all things having to do with the German people until taking Professor Marcuse’s History 133A class titled, "19th Century Germany". I chose this book because I have a passion for historical gender relations and their impact on society. I was intrigued with Boetcher Joeres’s book, since it focuses on an entire group of people that has been forgotten or lost, namely women writers in nineteenth century Germany.

Abstract (back to top)

Respectability and Deviance depicts the lives and the texts of five women writers in nineteenth century Germany. Patriarchal divisions were strict in nineteenth century Germany. The ideal was for the man to be the family face to the outside world while women were supposed to remain in the privacy of the home. Because of these gender ideologies, many believe that the writing profession was restricted to men, especially because it was not common for a woman to even obtain an education. However, after recovering numerous letters, books, newspaper articles, novels, journals, biographies, poems, letters and essays, Boetcher Joeres proved this wrong. Although she had hoped to unearth more progressive writings, her book deals with the high level of ambiguity that she found in the works of all German women writers in the nineteenth century, namely that they were both progressive and conservative. Joeres puts forth many reasons for these inconsistencies such as gender roles, class position and lack of education. I believe that such divides caused nineteenth century German women writers to manipulate the system by using tactics in both in their private and public lives, such as upholding and promoting strict gender ideologies, pretending to be insane, and imitating male writers in hopes that they would not be ostracized.

Essay (back to top)

"Things Are Not Always What They Seem"
Women Writers: Breaking Social Norms in 19th Century Germany

The mid-eighteenth-century was a time marked by revolutionary philosophies occurring throughout Europe. During this period, which many historians consider the era of "Enlightenment", people began to rebel and question many long held customs and beliefs. While many in various levels of society criticized the world as they knew it, a world dominated by the church and monarchy, intellectuals tended to use logic and reason to examine traditional ideals and institutions established in the old order. Due to this inquiry, a period of revolution ensued throughout Europe that affected all categories of citizens. In Germany, this revolutionary presence emerged in the nineteenth century at a time when the German states were seeking unification. Joining with the rest of Europe, Germans seized the opportunity to institute social change, and began to fight for authority and break down divides. At the same time, technological advances made during the industrial revolution brought about even more transformation in nineteenth century Germany. As new machinery took the place of skilled workers, a new expendable wage earning labor force was needed to tend the machines. This created instability in the workplace and much poverty for those who did not join this labor force. Therefore, many women who formerly could contribute to a cottage industry were forced out of the home and into the traditionally masculine sphere of public work.

This breakdown of gender roles was troublesome during a time filled with such political, social and economic turmoil. Men did not want to give up the one thing that was left for them to control: women. Consequently, a struggle ensued to refurbish patriarchal relationships. The resulting struggle did not end in a compromise, but in the favor of the former order. Not only were German women expected to be submissive and modest, they were to remain in the confines of their own homes to take care of their households. Men on the other hand, were supposed to have authority over their family, and their job was to provide food, and be the family face to the outside world. To validate this model, some experts of the time published findings that established a definitive separation between the sexes, both physically and mentally, based on biology. Further, as women were denied the right to obtain an education past the age of fourteen, they were unable to disprove such studies. As a result, publications by authors such as P.J. Möbius, who’s book The Physiological Mental Weakness of Women "scientifically corroborated" the inferiority of women, remained popular throughout the century (Joeres, 4).

Since most women were uneducated and limited to the confines of their private station, it is believed that nineteenth century Germany was lacking anything that could be considered a public feminist culture until the rise of the women’s movement in the mid nineteenth century. Assuming that German women were incapable of producing progressive ideas, let alone putting them into writing, many of today’s historians indicate that the literary profession was a male-dominated field. However, Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres projects in her book, Respectability and Deviance: nineteenth century German Women Writers and the Ambiguity of Repression, that although this is true, there were numerous gifted women brave enough to enter into the public realm of publishing. Although many of these women were not well known, in their time or today, they inaugurated a new era of women’s growth in Germany. However, in order to save themselves from persecution and public ridicule, all of these authors shared one attribute: their writings were ambiguous. They carefully embedded public and social matters in the context of novels, journals, biographies, poems, letters and essays. In spite of this, male contemporaries still criticized them and wanted them out of their public sphere. Thus, nineteenth century German women writers manipulated the system by using tactics both in their private and public lives, such as upholding and promoting strict gender ideologies, pretending to be insane, and imitating male writers in hopes that they would not be ostracized.

I chose to examine Louise Otto, Bettine von Arnim, and Fanny Lewald since they each utilized a different method to operate in a male realm. This study begins with the more rational Louise Otto, and ends with the extremist Fanny Lewald.

Louise Otto (1819-1895) Louise Otto

Louise Otto (1819-1895) was an exceptionally well-known and radical German author. Otto not only stepped into the public sphere when she began to publish her many works, she often integrated her own ideologies regarding woman’s rights into her texts. For example, in her 1851 novel Buchenheim, she includes a scene in which a male character, Eugene, declares that men are the source of all of the troubles women face in the world. In the end of this story, Eugene decides to clear his conscience, and establishes a school designed for the higher education of women. Although Otto’s progressive views are unmistakable - men are oppressors and women deserve and need higher education - conflicting ideas are also present. As Boetcher Joeres states, "Louise Otto seemed always intent upon reassuring her audiences that she was above all, an appropriate woman" (Joeres, 137). Consequently, a large portion of this novel endorses the stereotypical belief that women are the "preservers of order" a female virtue associated with the running of the home, a private sphere (Joeres, 269). Although Buchenheim is a work of fiction, Louise Otto contradicted her feminist beliefs by accepting the necessity of the female realm.

Louise Otto also used similar forms of conciliation in other areas besides her writing. Otto is said to have "almost single-handedly… set into motion a women’s rights movement that would change the face of German society" (Joeres, 121). However, I would argue that her tendency to counteract what her male contemporaries viewed as radical ideas negates this argument. She may have been the first to recognize that a national organization for German women was needed, but she did not initially facilitate its establishment. Rather, she passed the torch to a man named Ludwig Eckardt. It was only after he declined to head the group, stating that a woman must fulfill this important role, that she assumed the chief position. Based on her previous record, I believe that Otto realized that becoming a public figure would not allow her the same amount of anonymity that writing from the privacy of one’s home permits. Her reluctance to enter the male sphere of politics, a sphere completely outside the limits of her own, indicates that she wanted to remain somewhat marginal in the public eye.

Bettine von Arnim (1785-1859) Bettina von Arnim

Unlike Louise Otto, another woman of considerable influence, Bettine von Arnim (1785-1859), did not try to counteract her radicalism within her literature. Instead, she shielded herself from ostracism by devising a child-like alter ego. She presented herself as a child throughout her life, and acted accordingly. She often played pranks, jumped atop tables, blurted out odd comments, and most of all, questioned everything. However, there are various other interpretations of her odd behavior. Some authors follow the same thinking as my own, that her outrageous behavior was a gimmick that allowed her to say and do what she pleased. An alternative view is that she was acting out what she perceived to be the female role in Germany in the nineteenth century, a childlike life of limited rights and knowledge. Lastly, some scholars believe that she was merely insane.

Nonetheless, Arnim defied her social position and did not refrain from commenting on what she considered the masculine institution. Not only did she publish literary, philosophical and scientific writings, she also critiqued numerous social topics such as the institution of the monarchy, the persona of the king, revolutionaries, etc. Although I believe that gender historian Angeline Goreau was correct in assuming that she was "crazy like a fox" and that there was method to her madness, I also believe that Bettine von Arnim’s outlandish behavior caused her revolutionary work to be overlooked (Joeres, 101). No one takes a child seriously. Although she may not have been labeled deviant, the classification she ultimately chose lessened the effect of her ideas.

Fanny Lewald (1811-1889)Fanny Lewald

For another, the mere act of writing was enough to establish Fanny Lewald’s radicalism. This is due to her decision to publish a three-volume autobiography, Meine Lebensgeschichte (My Life History) in 1861. Although Lewald published books prior to Meine Lebensgeschichte, this text broke boundaries. In nineteenth century Germany, an autobiography was considered an act of public self-admiration. As women of the time were regarded as naturally modest, only men were supposed to enjoy such individuality. Lewald decided that if she was going to face public ridicule and be taken seriously, she must demonstrate her writing capabilities. In other words, she believed that she needed to write like a man. Therefore, she decided to emulate the style of Germany’s most famous writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Using Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth) as a guide, Lewald hoped to finally prove that women did in fact have talent. However, she apparently adhered to his text too closely. Her finished product was considered choppy, hard to follow, and filled with ambiguities.

Conclusion (back to top)

It is likely that these women would still be unknown today if it were not for the persistence of Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres and her colleagues who took charge during the women’s movement of the 1970’s and rescued the unknown. Boetcher has spent thirty years at this work, and still admits that more women exist like these few I have described waiting to be rediscovered. Although we can only guess what we will learn from those yet to be discovered, we do know from these few women writers who have been found that a woman’s life in Germany during the nineteenth century, perhaps reflected throughout the rest of Europe, may not have been what it seemed. Through their letters, documents, books, poems and newspapers, we see that although they were limited in their pursuit of higher education, political and social knowledge, as well as excluded from the public arena of thought, they were able to defy social norms and get their ideas out to the world. Although their writings are often problematic and inconsistent, pushing into the "male" public realm certainly opened new avenues for German, and eventually, all women. It could be said that their efforts could be entitled "Things Are Not Always What They Seem" – both literally and figuratively.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)


  • Joeres, Ruth-Ellen Boetcher. Respectability and Deviance: nineteenth century German Women Writers and the Ambiguity of Repression. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 349 pages. UCSB: PT345.J64 1998. Available at
  • Diethe, Carol. Towards Emancipation: German Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century. (New York: Berghahn Books, 1998), 214 pages. UCSB: PT345.D54 1998.
    This book, a chronicle of twenty nineteenth century German women writers, is especially useful for biographical information.
  • Fuchs, Rachel G. and Victoria E. Thompson. Women in nineteenth century Europe. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). 61-177, 208 pages. UCSB: HQ1587.F83 2005. This book discusses how the various changes that took place in the nineteenth century affected the lives of European women. The pages listed specifically concern German women.
  • Glaser, Hermann. ed. The German Mind of the Nineteenth Century: A Literary and Historical Anthology. (New York: Contunuum, 1981), 125-128, 179-182, 314, 389 pages. UCSB: PT1136.G47. This literary and historical anthology contains short texts written by Bettine von Arnim and Fanny Lewald.

Book Reviews

  • Finney, Gail. Signs, Vol. 26, No.3. (Spring, 2001), pp.896-899.
    This is a review of both Respectability and Deviance and Towards Emancipation: German Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century. The review is available on Jstor and Expanded Academic ASAP.
  • Zantop, Susanne. The German Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 2. (Spring 1989) pp. 276-277.
    This article reviews Edith Waldstein, Bettine von Arnim and the Politics of Romantic Conversation (South Carolina: Camden House, 1988), 126 pages. In this book, Waldstein not only details the life and work of Bettine von Arnim, she examines her style of writing and compares it to what was considered the traditional literary form in Germany in the nineteenth century. This book review is available on Jstor.


  • If you would like to research other early German women writers, I suggest visiting "Sophie’s Project: A Digital Library of Works by German-Speaking Women". The Humanities department at Brigham Young University designed this amazing and comprehensive website to provide students and individuals researching German women writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth century with the texts and translations of many original works.
  • An informative biography of Louise Otto-Peters, written by Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres, is available on the University of Ohio’s "Encyclopedia of 1848 Revolutions" webpage. For this encyclopedia, Professor James Chastain has compiled articles concerning individuals involved in the revolutions of 1848.
  • A short but useful biography of Fanny Lewald, which contains information on her autobiography Meine Lebensgeschichte, from the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1910-1911), is available online at

Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 12/13/06; last updated: 12/14/06
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