Feminism, Sexuality, and Politics: Intersections in the Work of Käthe Schirmacher

by Marti Lybeck


Beginning in the late 1990s, I intended to write my dissertation about the interwar female homosexual community in Berlin. However, as I read and studied I expanded the scope temporally to include the sexual rethinking of the late 19th century. My research questions began to cohere less around documenting homosexual subcultures and more around analysis of the intersection of women’s emancipation, the figure of the New Woman, and sexual subjectivity. Homosexuality was still central, but as a focus point where sources might reveal how historical subjects were thinking about these issues together. Ilse Kokula’s pioneering collection of German-language texts on female homosexuality, Weibliche Homosexualität um 1900, became an important early resource.[1] On its cover is a photograph of Käthe Schirmacher together with Klara Schleker. The photograph itself made a bold claim for the interpretation of Schirmacher and Schleker as a homosexual couple. The book’s text identified them as the “only known lesbian couple” in the women’s movement of the time.[2] As my research progressed, I became acquainted with Schirmacher as one of the most intriguing figures and informants in the field I was excavating.

My use of theories from gender and queer studies made me profoundly skeptical of straightforward claims of “lesbian” identity when writing about historical figures who did not describe themselves as such. My research methods involved deconstructing “lesbian” into the phenomena commonly cited as its markers: same-sex relationships, feminism or emancipation, female masculinity, and same-sex eroticism. How did each of these figure in representations of women seeking emancipation? What were the meanings and significances that historical subjects attached to them in specific contexts? How did they figure in self-fashioning, in life decisions and in subjectivity formation? How did historical subjects respond to and mobilize the emerging discourse of homosexuality? If historical subjects did appear to have claimed, either publicly or internally, a homosexual identity, how did they understand that to describe something essential about themselves? How did sexuality in general figure into their understanding of emancipation? In the process I would interrogate claims like Kokula’s about Schirmacher. Käthe Schirmacher inevitably became an important historical actor and writer for my research. However, I need to admit at the outset that my research was broad and included dozens of historical subjects. I was unable to do the kind of archival research in depth that might have altered some of the conclusions and interpretations reported below.

As it turned out, it was not the question of sexual identity that led to my first use of Schirmacher’s texts. The dissertation was to be structured as a series of microhistorical case studies of “emancipated” women. One of these encompassed the first women students studying in Swiss universities. Schirmacher’s novel Die Libertad (1891) (written before her time studying in Zürich and reflecting her experiences at the Sorbonne) and her essay Züricher Studentinnen (1896) were among the indispensable sources.[3] Die Libertad in particular was invaluable for its subtle portrayal of the emotional dynamics that shaped the decisions, desires, and affections of women students. A student character refers to the university as the “promised land” that women students were “willing to bear anything rather than give up.” The dialogue between two former students expressed their irritation and humiliation when men saw them only as objects of sexual desire.[4]

My question in understanding Schirmacher as a historical figure was whether her critique of bourgeois heteronormativity stemmed from a “queer” consciousness. In so far as she argued for a radical reform of existing gender arrangements, yes. But none of Schirmacher’s writings on her student days hinted at erotic intensity between the women she represented, although other novelists and memoirists did include incidents that can be read as such. Her rejection of heterosexuality was rooted in her desire to be accepted by men as an intellectual and moral equal. It is hard to find evidence for the young Schirmacher as finding special attraction, intimacy, or erotic fascination in other women, much less a conscious lesbian identity.

My argument about the students was that for most of them construction of an autonomous self was in tension with sexuality and desire. Education and emancipation took priority over passionate love of either sex. Love posed an obstacle to fulfilling their goals. Although all remembered student days with exhilaration, their experiences were seen as a step toward fulfillment of a larger plan for their lives, an instrumental process that would equip them for careers, social activism, or autonomous personalities.

Because of the importance of homosexuality to my analysis, it was impossible to leave my engagement with Schirmacher at that. There remained the question of her later couple relationship and her transition from radical feminist admiring the progress of Anglo-American women to radical conservative German nationalist. In fact, it appeared that her embrace of conservative nationalism coincided with her entering into the partnership with Schleker! All of this seemed entirely counterintuitive to me. My research revealed to me the naivety of my assumption that feminism and same-sex commitments must mean that those who were political would find liberalism or leftist politics most congenial. In other cases besides that of Schirmacher, I struggled to explain how feminist activism and same-sex relationships fit with the conservatism that would surely, in its mainstream iteration, vehemently reject both.

Resolving this seeming antithesis became an important theme of my dissertation.[5] I connected women’s struggles with emancipation and sexuality to morality. Coming from the wealthier classes, most of the students had been raised with social norms that strictly identified women’s sexual desire with prostitution and fallen women. Even as they courageously demanded greater freedom and influence in the public sphere, they were haunted by the way critics might interpret their boldness in a sexual way. To make progress in the most pressing desire of personal autonomy and intellectual authority, they saw it necessary to conform to some aspects of female respectability and to guard their personal sexual honor. For most of the women, I finally concluded, this was not simply a defensive strategy, but integral to what they ultimately hoped to achieve—a more moral society. A number of sources supported the argument that using their education to contribute to the German nation went a long way to relieving and inner sense of guilt or unease at making “selfish” demands. The social problem that fell logically into women’s “duty” was policing and improving the morality of the populace and German culture.

Some additional questions focused on the conjuncture of women’s emancipation, same-sex partnerships, and politics were subordinated or cut from my book.[6] I explored these later in an article, which, due to space constraints, used three other historical figures with stories less complicated than Schirmacher’s. Although I did not directly use her works as sources, Schirmacher certainly contributed to my analysis of the appeal of conservatism for active feminists.[7]

For my questions about feminism and sexuality though, Schirmacher’s simultaneous turnabout from liberal to conservative, from cosmopolitan to narrow exclusionary nationalist, from hetero relationships to a female partnership, and possibly from heterosexual activity to homosexuality, still required explanation. Anke Walzer’s biography cites Schirmacher’s affair with Henri Chastenet as integral to her change in perspective.[8] In her public writing, Schirmacher steered clear of describing anything that might reflect on her personal sexual subjectivity or relationships. (I am at a disadvantage here, not having conducted research using the Schirmacher Nachlass.) I traced Kokula’s affirmative statement of Schirmacher and Schleker as a homosexual couple to a citation to Amy Hackett. Hackett’s extensive dissertation (1976) on relationships in the women’s movement interpreted the Schirmacher-Schleker relationship as homosexual based on a statement in a letter in which Schirmacher said that her feelings for Schleker were the same as those she had felt with Chastenet, as well as on the terms of endearment in letters between the two women.[9] This evidence is suggestive of a sexual relationship, but in no way demonstrates that the two defined themselves, or that others defined them, as homosexual.

In a further section of my book I analyzed articles by Schirmacher and other feminists on the question of extending criminal law to female same-sex sex acts published in 1911 in conjunction with the Reichstag’s law reform process. While we can’t take her arguments as stemming directly from biography, the article suggested that two women might choose a sexual relationship precisely because existing heterosexual relations made a satisfying opposite-sex relationship difficult. She argued that sexual relationships between women should be judged differently from sexual intercourse between men and adding “(I leave aside cases of inborn homosexuality).”[10] Seemingly, she had little interest in homosexuality as it was being defined in sexological texts, but wanted to make a pleading for same-sex love as a faute-de-mieux option under existing conditions.

I recently returned to Schirmacher’s memoir Flammen, pairing it with Heinrich Claß’s Wenn ich der Kaiser wär’, to analyze the formation of nationalist identity from a queer perspective.[11] Although a determined activist in both phases of her life, she presented the transition as having “forced itself on” her, without any agency on her part.[12] It seemed to me that both ideological identities assured Schirmacher internally of the rightness of her position and allowed her present a forceful voice in the face of ridicule. In effect, she traded one extreme identity for another. Both gave her a cause to pursue, and both clearly defined allies and enemies. If she could not find a place as an intellectual woman in heteronormative society, forging a feminist, and then a nationalist life, defined the position she inhabited.

Equally important in her account of the transformation is the rejection and humiliation she felt when she tried to bring the nationalist perspective into the existing feminist organizations and contacts that had shaped so much of her life. These sections are the most emotional and personal in the document. Here she portrays herself as the victim of chicanery and mistreatment on the part of her former friends and colleagues. It is not hard to see in the text the operation of one common dynamic associated with extreme nationalism: the politics of resentment and the claim of innocence for the “self.”[13] In this connection Schleker plays a role as one of the few who recognized Schirmacher’s innocence and supported her in her feelings of betrayal and rejection.

Schirmacher’s formidable intellect and prodigious oeuvre provide impossibly rich material for considering the paradoxes and complications of women’s emancipation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I have introduced some of the ways in which her work has forced questions and problems for me at the intersection of gender, sex, and politics.

[1] Ilse Kokula, Weibliche Homosexualität um 1900 in zeitgenössischen Dokumenten (München: Frauenoffensive, 1981). 

[2] Kokula, 31.

[3] Käthe Schirmacher, Die Libertad: Novelle (Zürich: Verlags-Magazin, 1891); Käthe Schirmacher, Züricher Studentinnen (Leipzig and Zürich: Verlag von Th. Schröter, 1986).

[4] Schirmacher, Die Libertad, 26-27 and 51-52.

[5] Marti Lybeck, “Gender, Sexuality, and Belonging: Female Homosexuality in Germany, 1890-1933,” PhD Thesis (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2007).

[6] Marti Lybeck, Desiring Emancipation: New Women and Homosexuality in Germany, 1890-1933 (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2014).

[7] Marti Lybeck, “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough: Emancipation, Sexuality, and Female Political Subjectivity,” in German Modernities from Wilhelm to Weimar: A Contest of Futures, ed. Geoff Eley, Jennifer Jenkins, and Tracie Matysik (London: Bloomsbury Academic, forthcoming).

[8] Anke Walzer, Käthe Schirmacher: Eine deutsche Frauenrechtlerin auf dem Wege vom Liberalismus zum konservativen Nationalismus (Pfaffenweiler: Centaurus Verlagsgesellschaft, 1991), 57-59.

[9] Amy Hackett, “The Politics of Feminism in Wilhelmine Germany,” PhD Thesis (New York: Columbia University, 1976), 290-291. Walzer also cites Hackett in describing Schirmacher and Schleker as having a “lesbian relationship.” Walzer, 59.

[10] Dr. Käthe Schirmacher, “Paragraph 175 des deutschen Strafgesetzes,” Der Abolitionist, 1 January 1911, reprinted in Kokula, 257-258.

[11] Käthe Schirmacher, Flammen: Erinnerungen aus mein Leben (Leipzig: Dürr & Weber, 1921); Daniel Freymann [Heinrich Claß], Wenn ich der Kaiser wär’: politische Wahrheiten und Notwendigkeiten, 4th ed. (Leipzig: Dieterich’schen Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1913); Marti Lybeck, “The Queer Radical Nationalisms of Käthe Schirmacher and Heinrich Claß,” under review.

[12] Schirmacher, Flammen, 45.

[13] See for example, Ronald Grigor Suny, “Why We Hate You: The Passions of National Identity and Ethnic Violence,” Berkeley Program in Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies Working Paper Series, 2004. escholarship.org/uc/item/3pv4g8zf. Accessed June 30, 2015.


Marti Lybeck, Feminism, Sexuality, and Politics: Intersections in the Work of Käthe Schirmacher, in: Die vielen Biographien der Käthe Schirmacher – eine virtuelle Konferenz, URL: http://schirmacherproject.univie.ac.at/die-vielen-biographien-der-kaethe-schirmacher/statements/marti-lybeck/


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

Biographische Notiz

Marti Lybeck is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse. She has recently published, Desiring Emancipation: The New Woman and Homosexuality in Germany, 1890–1933 (SUNY Press, 2014) and is now working on an examination of the role of cinema in shaping and solidifying ideology and social patterns of romantic love in the Weimar period, tentatively titled ‘Love for the Masses’.