Dohm, Hedwig

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DOHM, HEDWIG (1831–1919), author and early German feminist.

Hedwig Dohm was born in Berlin on 20 September 1831 as the fourth child and first daughter of a large bourgeois family. Although she was one of eighteen children, she had a lonely childhood. Her father, a baptized Jew who had changed his name from Schlesinger to Schleh, owned a tobacco factory and was distant from the children. He and Hedwig's mother presided over a strict and hierarchical family. Hedwig felt unloved and later wrote about complicated mother-daughter relationships.

After witnessing the revolutionary upheaval in Berlin in 1848, Hedwig convinced her parents to let her enroll in a teacher-training school, which disappointed her because it did not satisfy her desire for an educational challenge. In 1852 she met Ernst Dohm (1819–1883), the onetime revolutionary and editor of the satirical Berlin magazine Kladderadatsch, who was ten years her senior, and they were married in 1853. Little is known about her marriage to Dohm, with whom she had five children. Her eldest child and only son died young; she sought to be a good mother to her daughters. (Her eldest daughter would be the mother of Katia Mann.)

The Dohms ran a salon in Berlin, which was a meeting place for writers, artists, politicians and other members of Berlin's intellectual elite—a social context very different from the confines of her parents' home. She quickly learned about the opportunities and shortcomings of bourgeois society, especially its sexual double standard. Her first independent publication about Spanish literature appeared during this time in 1867.

In 1869–1870, the family encountered serious financial difficulties that led to the temporary dissolution of their household. Ernst and their daughters stayed with friends and relatives while Hedwig lived with her sister, a painter, in Rome. Here Dohm experienced a new kind of freedom and, after her return to Berlin, she began to write more assertive, satirical texts about discrimination against women based on their supposed biological inferiority to men. Dohm believed that women's lives were artificially and unfairly limited by the patriarchal structure of society. She demanded women's emancipation, by which she meant complete equality (social, political, educational, etc.) and women's suffrage, an issue that nobody had seriously raised in Germany at this point. Her particular targets for attack and ridicule included pastors, who argued that it was spiritually and physiologically important to limit women's opportunities ("Was die Pastoren von den Frauen denken" [What pastors think of women], 1872). She also attacked bourgeois women, especially antifeminists, who fulfilled their roles as housewives and mothers without questioning them ("Der Jesuitismus im Hausstande" [Jesuitism in the home], 1873; "Die Antifeministen" [The Antifeminists], 1902; and "Die Mütter" [Mothers], 1903). In addition, she disparaged doctors and other professionals who wanted to bar women from advanced education, because—she argued—they feared the competition and loss of authority ("Die wissenschaftliche Emanzipation der Frau" [The scientific emancipation of women], 1874), and the misogynism of leading philosophers of the time ("Der Frau Natur und Recht" [Women's nature and rights], 1876).

Although Bohm was timid and shy in her social interactions, her writings were clear and peppered with piercing satire. Dohm used the written word as her weapon; she joined few organizations and rarely spoke publicly, but many feminist activists by the 1890s knew her and drew on her writings for inspiration. In fact, the demands she issued in her texts were far more radical and far-reaching than those of other early women's activists who hoped to improve women's positions incrementally and many of whom believed in the fundamental difference between men and women. Dohm, however, always operated in the context of bourgeois society, not least because she perceived the Socialists to be concerned exclusively with men's issues.

After her husband's death in 1883 Dohm turned increasingly to writing fiction, although she never gave up her polemical pamphlet literature. She now published novels, poetry, comedies and serious plays, and short stories about women in various social contexts and situations that were sometimes autobiographical. Her fictional work was less biting and satirical than her pamphlets. Nevertheless, Dohm continued even here to expose the hypocrisy of contemporary bourgeois society as she saw it, especially regarding the position of women. In widowhood and increasing old age, her home remained an important meeting place, especially for leading women's activists. In her writing she continued to be one of the most radical voices for women's suffrage, emancipation, and equality.

When the war started in 1914, Dohm became a pacifist. Hedwig Dohm died on 1 June 1919 in Berlin, just before her eighty-eighth birthday.

See alsoAugspurg, Anita; Feminism; Suffragism.


Brandt, Heike. "Die Menschenrechte haben kein Geschlecht." Die Lebensgeschichte der Hedwig Dohm. Weinheim, Germany, 1989.

Duelli-Klein, Renate. "Hedwig Dohm: Passionate Theorist (1833–1919)." In Feminist Theorists: Three Centuries of Key Women Thinkers, edited by Dale Spender. New York, 1983.

Meissner, Julia. Mehr Stolz, Ihr Frauen! Hedwig Dohm—eine Biographie. Düsseldorf, Germany, 1987.

Müller, Nikola. Hedwig Dohm (1831–1919); Eine kommentierte Bibliografie. Berlin, 2000.

Singer, Sandra L. Free Soul, Free Woman?: A Study of Selected Fictional Works by Hedwig Dohm, Isolde Kurz, and Helene Böhlau. New York, 1995.

Julia Bruggemann

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Dohm, Hedwig

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