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“Alles, was ich schreibe, steht im Dienst der Frauen.” Zum essayistischen und fiktionalen Werk Hedwig Dohms (1833-1919)

“Everything I write is for the cause of women.” Hedwig Dohm once summarized her intention as a writer in this programmatical sentence which provides the title quote for this thesis. Her literary work encompasses theoretical essays, polemical pamphlets, dialogues, articles and book reviews, as well as comedies, novellas and novels. Since the rediscovery of her writings by feminist publishers and scholars in the early to mid-1970’s, research on Hedwig Dohm has concentrated largely on her considerable contribution to the development of feminist thought in nineteenth-and early twentieth-century Germany. Because of the radical nature and brilliant wit of her essays on women’s emancipation and the ‘Woman Question’ (‘Frauenfrage’) she is regarded as one of the most important ‘foremothers’ of contemporary feminism in Germany. In contrast, the less easily accessible fictional work has received little attention. The aim of this thesis is to provide the first comprehensive study of Hedwig Dohm’s work in its entirety; to illustrate the links between the theoretical essays and fictional works and to show how important themes of the former are developed in a fictional context. The first part of this study gives a brief introduction to Hedwig Dohm’s life and work, based on both published and unpublished source material. Part Two is devoted to Hedwig Dohm’s essays and theoretical writings, which span a period of almost half a century; from the time the German women’s movement was formally established until the 1914-1918 War. Hedwig Dohm’s theoretical works, her analysis of contemporary society and her proposals for social reform are examined in this historical context. Many of the demands expressed in her earliest works foreshadow aims not widely accepted within the German women’s movement until several decades later. These include her demand for equality of educational opportunity for girls, access for women to universities and to the professions and the civil service, as well as her insistence on the importance of political rights, especially the right to vote, as a pre-requisite for social change. Hedwig Dohm maintained her passionate interest in women’s emancipation throughout her life and during significant phases of growth of the women’s movement in Germany. Through her publications she continued to play an active role as an independent figure, allied to no one particular pressure group within the organised movement, although her position on many issues most closely resembles that of the ‘Radicals’. Issues which dominate her later work include the debate on a specifically female cultural contribution to society, the increase in anti-women propaganda in the first decade of the twentieth century, the contemporary discussion on sexual morality and finally, her belief in the necessity of an international women’s peace initiative. The third part of this thesis comprises a detailed analysis of Hedwig Dohm’s fictional work, much of which survives today in only a few libraries and archives. The early comedies present charming and intellectually independent ‘heroines’ within a conventional literary form; there is little overt discussion of issues relating to the ‘Woman Question’. While the themes of social and political oppression which dominate the essays are present in the novellas and novels, emphasis is given here to the psychological effects of the strictures of patriarchal society on women’s consciousness. Perhaps the most powerful novella, Werde, die Du bist (Become who you are), shows retreat into madness as the only alternative possible for an ageing woman who is no longer prepared to conform to society’s expectations of her. This echoes a theme prevalent in women’s writing of the nineteenth century, not only in Germany, but also in English and American literature. A detailed examination of the women characters in Hedwig Dohm’s fictional work, in particular of those in the novel trilogy - Sibilla Dalmar, 1896, Schicksale einer Seele (Destinies of a Soul), 1899, Christa Ruland, 1902 - shows that they are designed not merely as victims of patriarchal oppression, nor as models of the ‘New Woman’, but as transitional figures who exemplify the inner conflict of women attempting to assert their individuality and to confront patriarchal modes of thought and expression which they too have internalised. Hedwig Dohm presents this conflict as representative of the generations to which these women belong. Each of her major women characters develops different strategies for coping with or overcoming the disadvantages of her situation; the extent to which they are or are not successful in this underlines the author’s conviction of the necessity for further social change in order for women to be able to develop freely and express their own identities. Using insights gained from recent feminist literary criticism, it is possible to interpret Hedwig Dohm’s fiction in a new light; as a contribution in the struggle against an ideology of woman as an abstraction. Hedwig Dohm’s entire work represents a conscious attempt to write as a woman, for women in a male-defined and male-dominated culture.
Type of thesis
The University of Waikato
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