Commitment and Professionalisation. Käthe Schirmacher (1865-1930) – Self-Invention between Radical Women’s Movements and German Nationalism

Around 1900 many young middle class women in Europe and North America reached for new positions in their societies. They entered the labour markets and rejected traditional trajectories. This development was due to the dramatic economic changes and crises the developing industrial societies underwent. It did not go unnoticed: differing political positions concerning the issue where discussed under the topos of the “women’s question,” and concepts such as the “modern woman” reflected the search for new models of female individuality, a concept that was initially discussed by women’s rights activists, but soon resonated in society at large. 

This project will take the biographical example of Danzig-born Käthe Schirmacher – journalist, women’s rights activist and later German nationalist politician – to discuss the discourses and conflicts surrounding the fight for a transformation of the hegemonic concept of female subjectivity. Our case study will provide relevant and innovative insight in several research contexts. Schirmacher was one of the first German women to obtain a doctorate, and she earned her living as an author of books and as a journalist. Discussing her case, we will contribute to the history of women’s integration into higher education and the professions. In particular, we will be able to develop differentiated theses on the gender history of journalism. We will also contribute considerably to the international history of women’s movements and to the analysis of nationalist movements in Germany in the early 20th century. With the analysis of Schirmacher’s extensive academic, literary and journalistic writings, we will make visible and discuss specific frames and patterns of interpretation provided in her respective political milieus. The main aim of our project will be to analyse gender concepts and the different formulations of the “women’s question” in different political milieus, and the increasing importance of nationalism and racism in public discourses before World War I. 

In addition to these thematic aspects, our project will reflect on the theory and methodology of interdisciplinary biographical research. We will take up newest developments of biographical research, and complicate them with Women’s and Gender History perspectives. We will further argue for a theoretically sound inclusion of biographical perspectives in fields of research such as the history of social movements and the history of education. Methodologically, we will follow a recent proposition to connect discourse analysis and biographical research, and develop and propose an approach that systematically links the analysis of self-inventions and autobiographical texts with a special attention for different concepts and perspectives of temporality. By discussing theoretical and methodological questions of biographical research in interdisciplinary contexts, our project will open up new ways of biographical writing.