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Kaethe Schirmacher’s “French Connection”

by Karen Offen

I first encountered Kaethe Schirmacher through her book Le Féminisme aux États-Unis, en France, dans la Grande-Bretagne, en Suède et en Russie (Paris: A. Colin, 1898), when I first began to research feminisms in Europe; I don’t remember just how long ago that may have been, but probably in the 1970s. This book had been republished in English translation in 1912, as The Modern Women’s Rights Movement.

As I deepened my research on historical feminisms in France during the 1980s and 1990s, I kept tripping over references to articles by Schirmacher, mostly concerned with questions about women’s employment.  Finally, I realized that during the 1890s and early 1900s she was effectively living – most of the time – in Paris; earlier she had and had studied for - and passed – the agrégation (required to teach in France’s secondary schools); in the meantime she acquired a doctorate from the University of Zurich. Her investigations, published in a variety of venues, were articulate, interesting, and sometimes – when she left her reporterial “objectivity” behind – provocative (as in her insistence on pay for women’s housework, etc.). I was running a file on her, and photocopying all the non-German language articles (including some in English) by her that I could find. Finally I decided (when I was able to focus on my “French book,” Debating the Woman Question (now forthcoming) to analyze all her French publications and publish at least one article about her contributions. That article is now appended to this website.

I did not consult the Schirmacher Nachlass in the course of my work, preferring to examine only the French texts. But in the meantime, I had been collecting some of the German scholarship concerning her, which seemed to focus mostly (and it has to be said, with some repulsion) on her fierce pro-German nationalism of a later period, especially during the Weimar Republic. It has to be said that I found nothing of this sort in the French publications (c. 1895 to 1904) that I had collected and consulted. Schirmacher seemed to be on very good terms then with things French and with French feminists during these years; she spoke regularly at various French conferences and became known as a progressive, even radical feminist. In fact, she was one of only a few feminists of German origin who would actually self-describe as a feminist. But she never restricted her horizons to either France or Germany; she spoke at and participated in international women’s rights congresses, beginning in Chicago in 1893, and became very interested in the suffragettes in Great Britain, on whom she later published a book in German.

In a recent French book that reconstructs the careers and contributions of the German radical feminists, Anne-Laure Briatte-Peters discusses Schirmacher less than I might have expected. Her account focuses far more on the activities of the major figures – Minna Cauer, Anita Augspurg, and Marie Stritt. This is hardly surprising, since Schirmacher spent so much of her time in France. Nevertheless, she was obviously well-known to these radical German women who, in 1899, appointed her as secretary of their fledging international committee of progressive feminists, included her in the roster of their suffrage society, and printed her articles in their periodical.

Kaethe Schirmacher was a remarkable, well-educated, and well-spoken woman. My interest in her persists and I am eager to learn more about her from the results of this Vienna-based research project on her life, ideas, and women’s rights activism.


Karen Offen, Kaethe Schirmacher’s “French Connection”, in: Die vielen Biographien der Käthe Schirmacher – eine virtuelle Konferenz, URL: http://schirmacherproject.univie.ac.at/die-vielen-biographien-der-kaethe-schirmacher/statements/karen-offen/


Karen Offen's article, "Kaethe Schirmacher, Investigative Reporter & Activist Journalist," originally appeared in the Proceedings of the Western Society for French History, Portland, 2011, vol. 39 (2013), pp. 200-211, edited by Joelle Neulander and Robin Walz. Online at quod.lib.umich.edu/w/wsfh/0642292.0039rgn=full+text. Reprinted here by permission from the editors of the Proceedings of the WSFH.

// Verweise zu Publikationen der Statement-Autor_innen zu Käthe Schirmacher finden sich unter Literatur. //

Biographische Notiz

Karen Offen (Ph.D., Stanford University) is affiliated as a Senior Scholar with the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Stanford University. From 2010 to 2015 she served as a member of the board of the International Committee for the Historical Science. She publishes on the history of Modern Europe, especially France and its global influence. Among her publications is the standard work „European Feminisms, 1700-1950: A Political History (2000)“ that has been translated into several languages. Karen Offen has recently completed her book on the "woman question" debates in France over six centuries.

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