History of the women's rights movement

First women's movement: Advice to go in days gone by

15. February 2024 by Theresa Dirtl
How do I start my own business? What kind of education should my daughter receive? Questions like these moved women around the turn of the century and many referred to protagonists of the first women's movement for advice. The contemporary historian Corinna Oesch studies these 'citizens' letters' as new important sources.

It is not uncommon that one discovery leads to the next. This also holds true for Corinna Oesch from the Institute for Contemporary History: While researching in archives as part of her project focussing on the German women's rights activist Käthe Schirmacher (1865-1930), Oesch discovered letters that Schirmacher had received from women unknown to the activist. "These women have approached Schirmacher with different, often very personal concerns. Since our previous project had a different focus, I could not take a closer look at these letters, but they always lingered in my mind," says the contemporary historian.

Her current Elise Richter-Projekt now focuses on these types of letters: Not only Käthe Schirmacher has received letters from women from the population. Estates of other activists of the women's movement hold many of these letters as well, as Corinna Oesch discovered. "They could be a very interesting source, and I do not know of any work that addresses this topic in more detail," said Oesch, "My research questions are primarily devoted to finding out if these letters are indeed a relevant source and how to conceptualise and describe this new type of source in the first place."

The Elise Richter project follows a transnational approach, i.e. Corinna Oesch and the project member Dóra Fedeles-Czeferner do not only study estates from Austria and Germany, but also from Hungary, England, the US, Poland and France for the historiography of women’s letters.

First women's rights movement

The first women's movement, from the middle of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century, has its roots in the US and Western Europe and was strongly influenced by the ideals of the French Revolution in the sense of equality for all people. It fought for fundamental political and civil rights of women, such as the right to education, the right to paid employment and the right to vote for women, which was enshrined in legal acts in Germany and Austria in 1918. Prominent Austrian representatives of the movement included Auguste Fickert, Marie Lang and Rosa Mayreder, who founded the Allgemeine Österreichische Frauenverein (general Austrian women’s association) in 1893.


Käthe Schirmacher (1865–1930) - Key figure in the international women's movement

Käthe Schirmacher, born on 6 August 1865 in Gdansk, Poland, was committed in the Gdansk association Frauenwohl (women’s well-being) from the 1890s onwards and thus mingled with the radical wing of the German and international women's movement. In the following years, she was part of the organisational leadership of international women's movements. Based in Paris, where she lived from 1895 onwards, she made long tours to give talks, worked as a correspondent for German, Austrian and French newspapers and published political writings, newspaper articles and novels. From about 1904 onwards, Schirmacher increasingly turned to a völkisch, anti-democratic and anti-Semitic political environment. Many activists of the women's rights movement abandoned her as a result. In addition to a large number of documents, Käthe Schirmacher's estate consists of a collection of about 14,000 letters.

More about the Schirmacher project at the University of Vienna 

Encouraged by your articles in various newspapers, in my helplessness I allow myself to seek help and advice from you. Since my childhood, I have lived in this small hick town, in which people feed all prejudices against women's work and female independence with particular tenacity. […]
Sefa Buchinger to Käthe Schirmacher, Olomouc, 1904

Publicly debated ‘women's issues’

The contents of the letters revolve around questions that moved women at the time and which were also partly debated publicly, such as women's education, paid employment, participation in public life, gender relations or self-determined life. "As a working title, I have called these letters 'women citizens’ letters', knowing that this term is quite problematic: At that time, before 1920, women were second-class citizens, who had no right to vote, were legally disadvantaged and excluded from the public sphere," explains Oesch.

‘Citizens' letters’ is a term from historical research and refers to letters from the population, both women and men to politicians (before 1920 exclusively men). Here, Corinna Oesch sees parallels to the letters that women wrote to activists of the women's movement, "Both usually contain autobiographical elements. People writing these letters briefly introduce themselves, describe their situation, their problems. Another parallel is that they describe a specific concern, of which the writer assumes that the recipient has the necessary power, relationships or knowledge to deal with it."

Even if these future dreams are all still on shaky grounds, I am already happy to at least be able to strive for this general education [...]. I am sure I have bored you unduly with these very personal messages and must therefore ask for your indulgence.
Trude Bayer to Käthe Schirmacher, 1906

Prominent, influential women

The first women's movement also increasingly placed female activists in the public spotlight. Now that they had the knowledge required and numerous contacts, they were also regarded as influential, especially by women. "For the first time in history, the female activists are perceived as knowledgeable persons with expertise. In history, this is a really new phenomenon which occurs for the first time with the emergence of women's movements around 1900," explains the contemporary historian.

Often correspondents had very particular concerns: In a letter, a woman asked Käthe Schirmacher for advice on setting up her own company. "From today's point of view, it seems somewhat absurd to turn to an activist with such a special concern," says Oesch, "After all, Schirmacher was not an expert in all these things, but people still perceived her as such." In another letter, for example, a mother asked a women's rights activist about reasonable education opportunities for her daughter, as she could not afford university studies.

Tracing international correspondence

Of course, contemporary historians are not only interested in the concerns addressed in these letters but also in the responses of the respective women's rights activist, "We found some cases of follow-up letters – so there must have been correspondence. So many have responded and tried to help. In rare cases, we even have indications that they met in person." In the project, the contemporary historian Fedeles-Czeferner concentrates on the estate of Rosika Schwimmer, a Hungarian women's rights activist, who has kept all her correspondence letters. "This is, of course, a particularly valuable source for us."

"The first women's movement was also organised internationally and the activists exchanged ideas and travelled a lot for lectures, etc.," said Oesch. Since many of these women, such as Käthe Schirmacher, have also published in newspapers and magazines, they also enjoyed a certain degree of popularity among the general population. "I am specifically interested in letters written by unknown women who, as yet, were not active themselves, but were attracted to the women's movement."

It is true that I want to take up a profession not only so that I am provided for by my own strength in the event of singleness, but also because domestic labour is so joyless for me that I don't want to stay together with it for the rest of my life any more than with an unloved person.
G. Bloch to Käthe Schirmacher, 1904

Imperative to self-emancipation

The peculiarity of this type of letter is that the letters are "an expression and a reaction to an imperative of the women's movement for self-emancipation". Who were these women then? “Many authors of these letters were middle-class women who did not want to follow the ‘traditional path’, but wanted to lead a self-determined life," said Oesch, "Overall, the spectrum is broad, but these are mainly women with a certain level of education, who have also had the time and means to write such letters in the first place."

The project in short

The Elise Richter project Women’s Letters to Women’s Movement Activists, c. 1870-1930, led by contemporary historian Corinna Oesch focuses on German, Hungarian, English and French language areas and sources in these languages. The aim is to study those women who felt attracted to the first women’s movement. Who belonged to this group? How did these women see their situation? Which topics and debates moved them? The project will explore these questions based on the analysis of letters written by ‘unknown’ women to prominent protagonists of the women’s movement.

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Corinna Oesch is a teacher and researcher at the Department of Contemporary History at the University of Vienna. She worked in the project "Commitment and Professionalisation. Käthe Schirmacher (1865-1930)" led by Johanna Gehmacher and funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF).

Currently, she is the leader of the Elise Richter project Women’s Letters to Women’s Movement Activists, c. 1870-1930. Her research interests include contemporary history with a focus on women's and gender history, historiography of women's movements and transnational history