Cauer, Minna (1841–1922)

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Cauer, Minna (1841–1922)

German feminist leader and writer. Born on November 1, 1841, in Freyenstein-Ostprignitz, Germany; died in Berlin on August 3, 1922; daughter of Alexander Schelle and Juliane (Wolfschmidt) Schelle; married August Latzel (d. 1866); married Eduard Cauer; children: (first marriage) son (died in infancy).

Minna Cauer was born Wilhelmina Theodore Marie Schelle in 1841, the daughter of Juliane Wolfschmidt Schelle and Alexander Schelle, a Lutheran minister. She grew up in the small Silesian town of Freyenstein and in 1862 married a physician, August Latzel. Within the next five years, however, her life turned to horror when both her two-year old son and her mentally unstable husband died. Refusing to be crushed by these events, Minna prepared herself to be a schoolteacher, passing the examinations in 1867, a year after her husband's death. After teaching in Paris for a year, she married Eduard Cauer, an educator 18 years her senior. The years of her second marriage were spent in Berlin, where her husband was a school inspector, and the Cauers moved in influential liberal circles. She and her husband became close friends of the liberal-minded Frederick William, crown prince of Prussia, and his wife Victoria Adelaide , whose mother was Queen Victoria of Great Britain. Theirs was a happy marriage, ending only with Eduard's death in 1881.

Widowed a second time and without children, Minna Cauer was determined at the age of 40 not to drift or succumb to the forces of depression. Instead, she methodically began to inform herself on all aspects of the major political and social issues of the day. Free of material pressures, she was free to slowly enter the public arena at a time when German women were becoming increasingly assertive. In 1889, she played a key role in transforming the German Academic Alliance, an educational reform organization founded the year before, into a national organization, the Women's Welfare Association (Verein Frauenwohl). At first, the organization's goals were confined to the expansion of women's opportunities in education and the professions. Within a few years, however, Cauer realized that many needs remained unaddressed and the activities of the Verein Frauenwohl were expanded to include voluntary work in nurseries, homes for the blind, and other institutions. Determined that her organization gain a national reputation in the field of social reform, she worked tirelessly to spread the message that new areas of social work needed the skills of idealistic and skilled women.

Although respected by thousands of feminists for her energy and organizing skills, Minna Cauer often found herself in the middle of the turbulent internal struggles of the German women's movement. On one such occasion, in December 1894, her leadership as president of the Women's Welfare Association was seriously challenged by Helene Lange , who found Cauer's strategies too radical, calling for a return of the organization to the older, more sedate pattern of calls for moderate reform. After a stormy meeting, Cauer and her faction emerged triumphant. For the next two decades, she would be the leading voice of the left wing of the bourgeois German women's movement, demanding in no uncertain terms that German women be granted the right to vote. Starting in 1895, she served as editor of the journal Die Frauenbewegung, which provided her with an important platform for bringing progressive ideas to the attention of women throughout the German Reich, whether they lived in Berlin, Munich, or a small town or village.

Refusing to compromise on basic issues or mince words in her writings, Minna Cauer was the impatient voice of the growing group of German women who in the years before 1914 demanded full civil rights. As early as 1904, she told her fellow crusaders that the only time she would believe the promises of politicians on the issue of female suffrage was the day on which they actually wrote this demand into their party platforms. She was deeply convinced that the women of Germany had long since earned the right to full political equality with males. Although she was not a Social Democrat, she was willing to be identified with the much-reviled "reds" by calling for the members of her organization to take to the streets to dramatize their demands. In 1910, she drew headlines in the national press when she provided strong evidence of her militancy by participating in Berlin demonstrations and then calling the city's police chief "a psychopath." For good measure, she characterized the Reich government as "a Junker clique," reminding her fellow militants that in 1848 Germany's women had been forced to pay with their blood in their attempt to free themselves. An anxious Imperial German government surrounded the hall in which she spoke, and the police dispersed Cauer's audience when they emerged into the street.

The start of World War I in the summer of 1914 was a blow to the aspirations of Minna Cauer as Germany became a nation in arms. The immediate aims of the suffrage movement had to be temporarily shelved in order to support the national war effort. By 1915, however, Cauer had regained some of her earlier optimism, arguing that Germany's women could play a major role in the war effort, thus strengthening their case for receiving the ballot once peace was restored. Arguing that all of the nation's women belong to "a greater whole," she noted that only by subordinating the needs of the individual to that of the totality could victory be assured. As it became clear that Germany would lose the war, Cauer's profound sense of nationalism become increasingly assertive. Fearful of revolution from the extreme left, she accepted some of the traditional authoritarian arguments of the ruling elite.

Moving away from the ideals of liberal feminism, Minna Cauer sought comfort in the idea that her threatened fatherland would survive its time of troubles, including the humiliating defeat of November 1918. Deeply alarmed by the appearance of a reborn Polish state that threatened to seize the area in which she was born and grew up in, she pledged the resources of her organization to the struggle to keep Upper Silesia within the borders of the new German republic. In her final years, Cauer did her best to keep from losing hope for her nation. Women had received the right to vote in 1919, but sadly this took place in a time of national chaos and upheaval. One of the last blows that she had to endure came only a few weeks before her death. Her friend Walter Rathenau, Germany's foreign minister, was assassinated in Berlin because he was Jewish and too conciliatory toward Germany's former enemies. Minna Cauer died in despair, barely realizing that she had in fact fought the good fight to raise the political consciousness of Germany's women. Starting in the 1980s, her impressive career has begun to be reevaluated by scholars, most of whom agree that Cauer must be recognized as a major figure in the history of the political emancipation of German women.


Altbach, Edith Hoshino et al., eds. German Feminism: Readings in Politics and Literature. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1984.

Cauer, Minna Schelle. Die Frauen in den Vereinigten Staaten von Nordamerika. Berlin: R. Lesser, 1893.

——. Die Frau im 19. Jahrhundert. Berlin: S. Cronbach, 1898

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

Jank, Dagmar. Vollendet, was wir begonnen! Anmerkungen zu Leben und Werk der Fraunrechtlerin Minna Cauer, 1841–1922. Berlin: Universitätsbibliothek der Freien Universität Berlin, 1991.

Lüders, Else. Ein Leben des Kampfes um Recht und Freiheit: Minna Cauer zum 70. Geburtstag. Berlin: W.&S. Loewenthal, 1911.

——. Minna Cauer: Leben und Werk. Gotha and Stuttgart: Friedrich Andreas Perthes, 1925.

Naumann, Gerlinde. Minna Cauer: Eine Kämpferin für Frieden, Demokratie und Emanzipation. Berlin: Sekretariat des Zentralvorstandes der Liberal-Demokratischen Partei Deutschlands im Buchverlag Der Morgen, 1988.

John Haag , University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia