Bré, Ruth (1862–1911)

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Bré, Ruth (1862–1911)

German feminist poet and author. Name variations: Bre; Elisabeth Bouness. Born Elisabeth Bouness in 1862; died in December 1911; daughter of unmarried parents.

Was an elementary school teacher and unsuccessful poet; founded Liga für Mutterschutz (League for the Protection of Mothers, 1904); for a brief period, the organization and its ideas helped the German feminist movement focus its ideas and influenced the development of feminist ideology throughout the Western world; eased out of the organization she had founded (1905).

During the first decade of the 20th century, poet and author Ruth Bré enjoyed a fleeting period of fame in Germany as a result of having founded the Liga für Mutterschutz (League for the Protection of Mothers; LPM) in 1904. Born in 1862 to unwed parents, Bré led a difficult and eccentric life on the fringes of respectable society, writing unsuccessful poetry and generally making a poor impression on members of the traditional establishment as well as on leaders of the emerging feminist movement. As an elementary school teacher, her social status was relatively low and economically she had barely entered into the lower rungs of the middle class.

Founded in Leipzig on November 12, 1904, the LPM was strongly influenced by ideas that Bré had already developed in previous writings. These included polemics calling for the cessation of the "capitalist rule of man" and the restoration of a matriarchal form of social organization. Strongly influenced by the ideas of Social Darwinism, she was impressed by some of the writings of the Swedish social reformer Ellen Key , which had become available in German translations. In its first programmatic manifesto, the League announced that it was planning to found "mother-colonies" in the countryside, the purpose of which was to make it possible for unmarried mothers and their children to live a healthy life. Supported by state subsidies and the profits from moderately physical agricultural labor, the aim of these settlements would be the "improvement of the state of the nation through the breeding of the healthy." With this in mind, only healthy mothers would be accepted on these settlements.

Deeply concerned about illegitimate children, Bré noted ominously that there was an extremely high incidence of sickness, criminality and infant mortality among the illegitimate. She argued that if her plans could be extended to a high percentage of the 180,000 children born illegitimate in Germany every year, the "racial health" of the German Reich would quickly improve dramatically. Implicitly, this meant that the nation would be stronger, both in peace and in war. Bré's ideas were not original, resembling in many ways the anti-urbanist sentiments of the völkisch extreme Right publicists who since the 1880s had argued that Germany was becoming soft as a result of democracy, socialism, urbanism and humanitarian ideals. The racialist and Social Darwinist aspects of her ideas were also not original. What was new in Bré's writings was her feminist emphasis. The idea of an organization lobbying for the protection of mothers was regarded as eminently reasonable, and as a consequence the organization was maintained but its founder was eased out of power.

With the argument that her organization could be more effective with Berlin rather than Leipzig as its headquarters, Ruth Bré was persuaded in 1905 to resign the LPM presidency. Her advocacy of homes in the countryside, and the generally Utopian spirit of the organization, were also quickly discarded as a well-oiled machine of feminists took over. Helene Stoecker , who thoroughly disapproved of Bré's notions, described her as a "totally undisciplined person" who was "a little crazy." The newly defined League now concentrated on more traditional welfare approaches within an urban setting. Outmaneuvered, Bré complained bitterly prior to resigning all of her offices in the League as a final act of protest:

Instead of providing mothers and their children with a modest standard of life on a small country estate, instead of preparing a home for them, a home that the father or husband cannot or will not provide—instead of this, they are to be put in 'homes' with an institutional character, within city walls.—Instead of breeding human beings who are capable of work, they are bothering with the inferior once more.

Bré attempted to keep her original ideas alive by founding a renamed "First German League for the Protection of Mothers," but her organizational skills were weak and the effort faded. Politically skilled feminists like Helene Stöcker now dominated the field of maternal protection, and amateur enthusiasts like Ruth Bré slipped back into the obscurity from which they had briefly emerged. Deeply disillusioned with her brief experience with feminist politics, Ruth Bré died in December 1911.


Allen, Ann Taylor. Feminism and Motherhood in Germany, 1800–1914. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1991.

——. "Mothers of the New Generation: Adele Schreiber, Helene Stöcker, and the Evolution of a German Idea of Motherhood, 1900–1914," in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. Vol. 10. No. 3. Spring, 1985, pp. 418–438.

Bouness, Elisabeth [Ruth Bré]. Das Recht auf Mutterschaft: Ein Forderung zur Bekämpfung der Prostitution, der Frauen- und Geschlechtskrankheiten. Leipzig: Frauen-Rundschau, 1903.

——. Kaiserworte: Fürsorgegesetz und Lehrerschaft: Betrachtungen aus Liebe zum Vaterlande. Leipzig: Frauen-Rundschau, 1903.

Bré, Ruth. Staatskinder oder Mutterrecht? Versuche zur Erlösung aus dem sexuellen und wirtschaftlichen Elend. Leipzig: Frauen-Rundschau, 1904.

Ehe? Zur Reform der sexuellen Moral, von Hedwig Dohm, Anita Ausgpurg, Helene Stöcker, Adele Schreiber, Käte Schirmacher, Grete Meisel-Hess, Ida Boy-Ed, Hans von Kahlenberg, Franziska Mann, Hermione von Preuschen, Elisabeth Dauthendey, Toni Schwabe, Ruth Bré. Berlin: Otto Beckmann Verlag, 1911.

Evans, Richard J. The Feminist Movement in Germany 1894–1933. Beverly Hills: SAGE Publications, 1976.

Hackett, Amy Kathleen. "The Politics of Feminism in Wilhelmine Germany, 1890–1933." Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1976.

Meyer, Alfred G. The Feminism and Socialism of Lily Braun. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.

Nowacki, Bernd. Der Bund für Mutterschutz (1905–1933). Husum: Matthiesen Verlag Ingwert Paulsen Jr., 1983.

Plothow, A. "Ruth Bré," in Berliner Tageblatt. December 15, 1911.

Schreiber, Adele. "Persönliches von Ruth Bré," in Dresdner Neueste Nachrichten. December 24, 1911.

Wickert, Christl. Helene Stöcker, 1869–1943: Frauenrechtlerin, Sexualreformerin und Pazifistin. Eine Biographie. Bonn: J. H. W. Dietz Verlag, 1991.

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