Otto, Louise

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OTTO, LOUISE (1819–1895), German feminist.

Louise Otto was born in Meissen in the kingdom of Saxony, which was then a state of the German confederation. The youngest daughter of a lawyer, she and her three sisters grew up in a prosperous and busy household, where women combined domestic and cultural interests. Although she attended school only until her confirmation at the age of sixteen, she continued to educate herself and developed a vocation for literature. Her parents died when she was sixteen. Her career as a writer and as a feminist was launched in 1840 with a poem entitled "Die Klöpplerinnen" (The lacemakers), in which she invoked the hardship suffered by women workers in the textile industry. Though her first novel was published under a male pseudonym, her subsequent novels—many on political themes—appeared under her own name. Her literary reputation grew steadily.

In 1844 Otto declared in a newspaper edited by the prominent left-wing politician Robert Blum that participation in politics was both a right and a duty of women. In 1848, a year when revolutions broke out in many German states, Otto gained public visibility by publishing a political statement entitled "Petition of a Girl," which urged the government of Saxony to give women workers the right to organize. Her involvement in left-wing causes brought her together with August Peters, a working-class leader to whom she became engaged. In 1849 Peters was arrested and condemned to prison for his participation in a working-class uprising in Dresden.

In 1849 Otto founded the Frauen-Zeitung (Women's magazine), Germany's first major feminist journal. The magazine featured articles by Otto herself and a group of like-minded women based in Leipzig. As editor, Otto distanced herself from such controversial women as the French George Sand or the German Louise Aston, whom she called "caricatures of men." She urged women to develop their distinctively feminine vocation for compassion and caring rather than to imitate men. But she affirmed gender equality as well as difference, and championed women's right to assume "a mature and independent" role in the democratic state that she hoped would result from the 1848 revolutions. Though she praised marriage and domesticity, Otto also insisted that women must also have the means to become economically independent. The journal devoted a great deal of space to vocational opportunities for women. Among these was the kindergarten, an innovative form of early childhood education developed by Friedrich Froebel, who insisted that women were best fitted to teach young children.

After the defeat of the revolutions, women journalists and political activists were among the first victims of a wave of counterrevolutionary repression. In 1850 a Saxon law aimed specifically at Otto prohibited women from editing newspapers or magazines. Though she moved her headquarters from Saxony to the Prussian town of Gera, Otto was forced to cease the publication of the Frauen-Zeitung in 1853. In 1851 laws were passed in Prussia and in other states that prohibited the kindergarten and forbade women to participate in political parties and associations.

In the 1850s Otto withdrew from politics, wrote novels, and married Peters after his release from prison in 1858. Thereafter she was known as Louise Otto-Peters. The couple published a newspaper, the Mitteldeutsche Volkszeitung, in Leipzig. Peters died in 1865. The marriage produced no children.

In 1865 Otto-Peters convened a women's conference in Leipzig. The result was the founding of Germany's first national feminist organization, the Allgemeine Deutsche Frauenverein (General German Women's Association), or ADF, which Otto-Peters cochaired with the teacher Auguste Schmidt. Otto-Peters edited the organization's journal, Neue Bahnen (New avenues) until her death. Prevented by the law against women's political participation from advocating women's suffrage, the ADF focused on educational and vocational opportunities. But Otto-Peters also raised controversial issues such as pacifism and the reform of the laws that defined the status of wives, mothers, and children. Otto-Peters died in 1895 in Leipzig.

Otto-Peters was among the most important founders of feminist movements in Germany and in other central European countries. In her long career as a politician, journalist, and author (she was the author of thirty books, including works of fiction and of feminist theory), she developed an ideology that would inspire the next generation of feminist leaders, including Helene Lange and Gertrud Bäumer. The aim of feminism, she believed, was not to make women like men but to empower women's distinctive gifts for compassion, nurture, and social responsibility. Otto-Peters combined this belief in gender difference with a strong commitment to democracy, social justice, and the right of individuals, both men and women, to live in freedom.

See alsoAnneke, Mathilde-Franziska; Feminism; Germany; Revolutions of 1848.


Primary Sources

Gerhard, Ute, Elizabeth Hannover-Druck, and Romina Schmitter, eds. "Dem Reich der Freiheit werb' ich Bürgerinnen": Die Frauen-Zeitung von Louise Otto. Frankfurt am Main, 1890.

Otto-Peters, Louise. Frauenleben im deutschen Reich: Erinnerungen aus der Vergangenheit mit Hinweis auf Gegenwart und Zukunft. Leipzig, 1876.

——. Das erste Vierteljahrhundert des ADF. Leipzig, 1890.

Secondary Sources

Allen, Ann Taylor. Feminism and Motherhood in Germany, 1800–1914. New Brunswick, N.J., 1991.

Bäumer, Gertrud. Gestalt im Wandel. Berlin, 1950.

Boettcher Joeres, Ruth-Ellen. Die Anfänge der deutschen Frauenbewegung: Louise Otto-Peters. Frankfurt am Main, 1983.

Bussemer, Herrad-Ulrike. Frauenemanzipation und Bildungsbürgertum: Sozialgeschichte der Frauenbewegung in der Reichsgündungszeit. Weinheim, Germany, 1985.

Ann T. Allen