Anneke, Mathilde Franziska (1817–1884)

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Anneke, Mathilde Franziska (1817–1884)

German-born American author and early advocate of women's political and social rights. Name variations: Giesler-Anneke. Born Mathilde Franziska Giesler on April 3, 1817, in Lerchenhausen, Westphalia; died in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on November 25, 1884; daughter of Karl and Elisabeth Hülswitt Giesler; married Alfred von Tabouillot, in 1836 (divorced and retained her maiden name after a long court battle); married Fritz Anneke, in 1847; children: (first marriage) one daughter, Fanny.

Fought alongside her husband in the German revolution of 1848; fled to the United States after the revolution failed; began publishing a militant monthly newsletter about women's rights, the Deutsche Frauenzeitung (1852); addressed the women's rights convention held in New York City (1853); opened a progressive girls' school, the Milwaukee Töchter Institut; founded a women's suffrage association in Wisconsin (1869).

Mathilde Franziska Giesler was born the eldest of 12 children on April 3, 1817, in Lerchenhausen, Westphalia, the daughter of Karl and Elisabeth Giesler . Because Mathilde's father was a wealthy mine owner, she received her education from private tutors at home. In 1836, at age 19, she was married to a considerably older man, the French-born wine merchant Alfred von Tabouillot. The marriage was a disaster and was dissolved after little more than a year. Mathilde fought for custody of her daughter Fanny and to retain her maiden name in the long court battles that followed. Memories of this unhappy marriage played a significant role in Anneke's crusade for women's full legal equality in marriage.

At the time of these difficulties, Mathilde found solace in the Roman Catholic faith in which she had been reared. Her first significant literary efforts, two prayer books, one in verse and the other prose, appeared intended for the edification of pious Catholic women. In 1840, a volume of verse, Heimatgruss (Greetings from Home), was published; it was a curious compilation of her own poems as well as her translations of verse by Lord Byron and Petrarch and selections from the works of Ferdinand Freiligrath and Nikolaus Lenau. Emboldened by the moderate success of this work, she followed it with two collections of contemporary poetry. In 1844, her drama Othono, oder die Tempelweihe was staged to lukewarm reviews in Münster. It did, however, achieve considerable success in the last years of her life, when in 1882 it was performed in Milwaukee before a German-speaking audience of immigrants.

In 1847, Mathilde's life changed dramatically. Her father died in that year, and, in June, she married Fritz Anneke, a Prussian artillery officer whose political and social radicalism distinguished him from the majority of his fellow officers. The 1840s were a decade of great intellectual, social, and political ferment in the various states that comprised the yet to be created united Germany. Mathilde's husband quickly introduced her to the newest and most radical ideas, including socialism. Her enthusiasm focused on the issue of women's social oppression. By the end of the year, she had published a fiery pamphlet, Das Weib im Konflikt mit den sozialen Verhältnissen (Woman in Conflict with Social Conditions).

Fritz and Mathilde Anneke were far to the left of the majority of the bourgeois revolutionaries of 1848. Fearful of a social revolution led by the working class, German middle-class liberals retreated into a state of political impotence, failing to unify Germany or purge it of authoritarian feudalism and militarism. As Mathilde Anneke became increasingly convinced that German society oppressed both workers and women, she developed an open, defiant radicalism. Meanwhile, her husband's passionate advocacy of communism lost him his army commission and resulted in a jail sentence of 11 months. During this time, Mathilde became publisher of the revolutionary communist newspaper Neue Kölnische Zeitung. Nervous local officials quickly banned the paper, but a determined Anneke simply founded a new journal, the Frauenzeitung, which championed the ideal of a united Germany based on a social revolution that would expand women's social, economic and political rights.

Throughout the exhilarating months of revolution that convulsed Germany and Austria in 1848 and 1849, Mathilde Anneke was at the center of events. She often acted as her husband's deputy, meeting with revolutionaries like Karl Marx and Michael Bakunin. Fritz Anneke was an idealist, extraordinarily well-read in literature, philosophy and history, but he was also known to be argumentative, overly sensitive, and incapable of compromise. A brave military commander, he was idolized by many of the 1,200 men in his unit. During the revolutionary battles, Mathilde Anneke joined Fritz in the front lines and was as brave as she was stunning. The tall, blue-eyed Mathilde, an accomplished horsewoman, rode to the battle lines with her black hair cut short and a determined look on her face. Unfortunately, the revolution collapsed in the summer of 1849, defeated by newly energized monarchies, particularly the Prussian. When the Prussian army captured the fortress of Rastatt, Fritz and Mathilde, along with many thousand "Forty-Eighters," fled Germany. After a brief stay in Switzerland and France, the Annekes decided to cross the ocean to the United States.

Young and optimistic despite the defeats, Fritz and Mathilde settled in the German-dominated city of Milwaukee in 1849. At first, they supported themselves by lecturing on the recently defeated German revolution, but soon they had to find more permanent occupations. Mathilde became a correspondent, working for German-language newspapers both in Europe and the United States. Fritz taught swimming and horseback riding; he also found work as a typesetter and as a draftsman for a railroad. In 1852, Mathilde began publishing a militant monthly journal of women's rights, the Deutsche Frauenzeitung. That same year, Fritz received a tempting job offer from New Jersey, so the couple moved to Newark where Fritz became editor of the Newarkerzeitung.

Mathilde continued to publish her militant journal, one of the first feminist periodicals in North America, despite the difficulties that accompanied this publishing venture. Because the journal never evolved into an economically viable enterprise, the only way to keep the Deutsche Frauenzeitung alive was to subsidize it with money she earned from extensive lecture tours. The hostility of the vast majority of German-American males to the Deutsche Frauenzeitung's demands for total emancipation of women made economic viability more difficult. In addition, Mathilde Anneke's undisguised animosity to middle-class morality and traditional religion also offended many German-American women, the majority of whom remained tied to traditional beliefs and assumptions.

By 1852, the Deutsche Frauenzeitung suspended publication, but Mathilde was not discouraged. By this time, her marriage to the brilliant but unstable Fritz was in crisis, and he returned to Europe to work as a foreign correspondent for a number of German-language newspapers. Mathilde remained in the United States, rapidly forging alliances with American-born members of the women's movement. In 1853, she addressed the women's rights convention that was held in New York City and from this point forward was a familiar figure at women's rights meetings. Invariably, Anneke's speeches were broadly conceived analyses of women's inferior role in society. She advocated female equality and also attacked nativism and clericalism.

Mathilde's myriad activities had led to a serious deterioration of her health by 1860, and she traveled to Switzerland to convalesce and to be with her husband. Her sparse income during these years was supplemented by articles she wrote for the Illinois Staatszeitung and New York City's Belletristisches Journal. A number of her short stories written during the Civil War remain powerful even after more than a century. The main theme of many of these is the double burden borne by America's black women, who faced oppression on the basis of both race and gender.

The unconventional and often troubled Anneke marriage continued its erratic course when Fritz returned to the United States at the start of the Civil War. Like his wife, he was an ardent abolitionist determined to lead a holy crusade against slavery. Although he easily secured an officer's commission in the 35th Wisconsin Regiment of the Union Army, Fritz's uncompromising ideals and flinty personality soon landed him in trouble with his superiors. By 1863, he was dismissed from military service for insubordination. When he died in 1872, he and Mathilde had long been separated although they never officially divorced.

An impoverished but determined Mathilde Anneke returned from Switzerland to the United States in 1865, after another attempt to improve her health. The following year, she opened a progressive girls' school, the Milwaukee Töchter Institut, in association with Cecilia Kapp . Although it would always operate on a financial shoestring, the school had high intellectual standards. It rapidly gained the respect of the Milwaukee German community, attaining a peak enrollment of 65 pupils. Anneke managed the Töchter Institut and taught many of its classes in a wide variety of subjects. Now middle-aged, she still retained the ability to draw upon almost limitless sources of energy needed to keep her school alive, though funding remained a constant problem. Besides giving lectures on current cultural and political themes, she sold insurance policies to the German community and wrote articles for the Illinois Staatszeitung.

In addition, Anneke somehow found the time and energy to continue to work for the women's movement. In 1869, she helped found a women's suffrage association in Wisconsin, and she attended conventions of the National Woman Suffrage Association. In her final years, Mathilde Anneke remained a formidable personality, respected even by those who did not agree with her radical feminism. Few who encountered her ever forgot this "portly figure, robed in black," observed one writer, "who walked with a … military stride." Mathilde Anneke died in Milwaukee on November 25, 1884, and was buried in that city's Forest Home Cemetery.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Anneke, Mathilde Franziska (1817–1884)

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