Dittmar, Louise (1807–1884)

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Dittmar, Louise (1807–1884)

Self-taught German philosopher and feminist active in the 1840s who challenged the notion that there were any natural differences between the sexes, and (while also drawing on the Christian tradition) used a critique of Christianity to explore both the ideological oppression of women more generally, and to defend women's rights to sexuality. Name variations: Luise Dittmar. Born on September 7, 1807, in the German town of Darmstadt; died on July 11, 1884, in the village of Bessungen (now a part of Darmstadt); daughter of Heinrich Karl Dittmar (a higher treasury official at the court of Hesse-Darmstadt); self-taught; never married; no children.

Published nine books in the space of five years (1845–49); founded and edited Soziale Reform, one of the five women's journals launched in Germany during the revolutions of 1848 and 1849.


Bekannte Geheimnisse (Open Secrets, 1845); Skizzen und Briefe (Sketches and Letters, 1845); Der Mensch und sein Gott (The Human Being and His God, 1846); Lessing und Feuerbach (Lessing and Feuerbach, 1847); Vier Zeitfragen (Four Timely Questions, 1847); Zur Charakterisierung der nordis-chen Mythologie (Characterization of Nordic Mythology, 1848); Wühlerische Gedichte (Subversive Poems, 1848); Brutus-Michel (1848); Das Wesen der Ehe nebst einigen Aufsätzen über die soziale Reform der Frauen (The Essence of Marriage, Along with Some Essays about Women's Social Reform, 1849).

Louise Dittmar emerged from the comfort, and claustrophobia, of unmarried daughterhood in a privileged upper-middle-class household to become Germany's most brilliant (and yet often misunderstood) feminist theorist of the 1840s—only to die in complete obscurity four decades later. Not until the 1970s was her work rediscovered and excerpts republished; only in the 1980s and 1990s did she begin to receive the critical scholarly attention she deserves. Her work includes political satire, religious and mythological history, philosophical and theological exegesis, poetry, and journalism. It provides an important example of that peculiar hybrid blend of radical liberalism, pre-Marxist socialism, and humanist Christianity that characterized many utopian visions in 1840's France, England and Germany.

Although Dittmar's father worked at the court of Hesse-Darmstadt's grand duke, the family did not have conservative leanings. At least two of Dittmar's brothers had ties to leftist circles. One was a friend of the radical writer Georg Büchner, and one married the daughter of C.W. Leske (Karl Marx's Darmstadt publisher) in whose home many radicals gathered. These familial ties presumably reinforced Dittmar's own political instincts, and it was to these small gatherings of leftist friends that she first presented her work. But as the one daughter to remain unmarried in a family that also had eight sons, Dittmar was weighed down by many domestic duties and was unable to receive any formal education. Indeed, it is striking that it was not until after her parents' death, when she was 38 years old, that she began to publish her writings. Meanwhile, in the atmosphere of the time, female writers—especially on those "important" subjects of politics and theology in which Dittmar was most interested—were rarely taken seriously.

Consequently lacking in confidence, Dittmar published her first four books anonymously. Bekannte Geheimnisse and Skizzen und Briefe, while including scathing critiques of women's disenfranchisement, also covered a wide range of political and social issues. As these first books showed, Dittmar—much like utopian thinkers in France and England during the 1830s and 1840s—was as concerned with the role of the military, the death penalty, the growth of national and racial hatreds, the mishandling of industrial development and the growing poverty of her day, as well as the hypocrisy of a Christianity that (in Germany) still intolerantly denied political equality to Jews, as she was with the oppression of women. She embedded her critique of the extant gender relations in a critical analysis of all forms of social injustice, both along class and along religious lines, calling for a redistribution of wealth and for a radical humanism that considered Jews to be Christians' moral equals. Her next two books were even less explicitly concerned with gender relations. Although they also contain passages that help clarify Dittmar's particular brand of feminism, Der Mensch und sein Gott and Lessing und Feuer-bach are best understood as standard exemplars of the sort of rationalist and humanist religious criticism that was gaining widespread popularity in Germany.

And I just don't see that those many men who claim for themselves so great a right to shape the life of the world are all such geniuses.

—Louise Dittmar

Meanwhile, despite the anonymity, Dittmar's reputation was spreading within the intricate network of religious and political radicals evolving at the time, and her latter two books in particular were well-received within the then-growing movement of religious dissenters. The movement was composed of both Catholics and Protestants who were alarmed by the unexpected revival of religious conservatism in the supposedly so "enlightened" 19th century. From 1845 on, the dissenters split from the established churches and founded democratically run congregations dedicated to individual freedom of belief, cross-confessional cooperation, and the separation of church and state; the goal was to develop a humanist and tolerant form of Christianity in which individuals could combine reason and spirituality. Across the German lands, the movement reached a peak of between 100,000 and 150,000 members by 1848, making it the largest protest movement of any sort in Germany before the outbreak of revolution in 1848, and indeed many dissenters subsequently became revolutionaries. The movement also provided the seedbed for Germany's first organized women's movement, for the dissenting movement's male leaders were vocal advocates of equality between men and women within marriage, and of an expansion of women's spheres of activity into congregational and communal life.

All of the 20 or so most prominent activist women in mid-19th-century Germany had close ties to the dissenting movement and, although she never formally became a member, Dittmar was no exception. Her first invitation to speak publicly was given her in 1847 by the Mannheim Monday Club, a radical splinter group dedicated to both women's and Jewish rights. It was this group's warm reception that finally gave Dittmar the courage to acknowledge authorship of her previous works (and sign her subsequent ones), and thus ensured her place within historical memory; Vier Zeitfragen was the reprint of the lecture she delivered to the club. Dittmar also delivered further public lectures to audiences in Mainz, Hanau, and Darmstadt throughout 1848. In January of 1849, she founded the journal Soziale Reform, in which she published not only her own essays but also articles by others, the majority of which addressed women's concerns. The journal folded after only four issues, though all but one of the essays in it were reprinted, along with some new ones, in a book entitled Das Wesen der Ehe nebst einigen Aufsätzen über die soziale Reform der Frauen. The essays on marriage in this book, collectively entitled Das Wesen der Ehe, were reprinted separately in 1850, and this is the last book Dittmar ever managed to publish.

Notwithstanding the fact that her theological writings had been favorably reviewed by newspapers not only in Darmstadt and Mannheim, but also in cities as far away as Berlin and Hamburg, and that her own journal had attracted contributions from some of the leading democrats and women's rights advocates of her day, Dittmar was unable (despite repeated efforts) to find a publisher in the post-revolutionary years. During the era of political reaction following the defeat of the revolution in 1849, publishers probably found the causes she advocated simply too risky to take on. Indeed, with the exception of Luise Otto-Peters ' Frauen-Zeitung, which was not forced to shut down until 1852, no women's newspaper outlasted the revolution. (Otto-Peters—less militant than Dittmar—was the most famous and successful of the mid-19th-century German women's rights activists.) Criticized also by other women's rights advocates, Dittmar eventually grew discouraged and stopped writing. From 1850 on, she lived alone, traveling occasionally, also to France and Switzerland, but feeling increasingly self-doubting and withdrawn. In 1880, she moved in with two of her nieces, dying four years later after an extended illness; the obituary mourned the passing of the "good aunt"—even her family had forgotten who she had once been.

In retrospect, what distinguished Dittmar from her contemporaries was neither her political persuasion—her political writings clearly place her within the camp of "radical liberals" or "radical democrats" to which many 1848 revolutionaries also belonged—nor her religious humanism and close ties to the religious dissenting movement, nor her advocacy of women's rights per se. Like other women's rights advocates of her day, Dittmar defended women's rights to education, economic self-sufficiency, and participation in government. Rather, what distinguished Dittmar was her willingness (extraordinarily unusual for the time) to question the notion that there were any differences between the sexes ordained by nature. For almost all other male and female feminists of her time continually linked their demands for greater equality for women, and/or their efforts to expand women's sphere of activity, with concern about retaining women's femininity and difference from men. They distanced themselves—as Luise Otto-Peters put it—from "those who have brought the phrase 'emancipation of women' into discredit by degrading the woman into a caricature of the man." Dittmar, by contrast, repeatedly called attention to just how suffocating and oppressive the feminine ideal could be, and to the ways that what seemed "natural" to others was really the result of social pressure and conditioning.

For example, in her final book on marriage, Dittmar pointed out that to provide no educational opportunities for a woman—to educate her for nothing else but domesticity—"and then to say, 'that is her destiny,' does that not mean that she is being predestined?" In an earlier book, she had argued that "only that which contradicts the nature of a being, is unnatural, aside from that everything that is, is natural. Whether it contradicts the external demands on it or not, in no way diminishes its inner legitimacy." Over and over again, throughout her works, Dittmar would extol "individual peculiarity, without which people themselves and all of life are without charm," and insist that every individual "must be understood and treated as an end in himself [sic], as he is, while the purpose of the whole must be directed toward transforming unity into the greatest possible diversity."

Dittmar found the strongest support for her emphasis on individual peculiarity and diversity and the need to encourage the development of individual self-esteem (which she felt women in particular were lacking) in the rhetoric of religious criticism—even as her critical engagement with theology also helped her to articulate just how difficult achieving autonomous selfhood was. Dittmar, in short, was drawn to a study of Christianity because of her more general interest in the workings of ideological systems of all sorts, in the powerful hold they had on individuals' souls, and the problems individuals invariably encountered in constructing a self unbe-holden to any higher authorities. This was why she was particularly attracted to the work of the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, and to his notion that what people worshipped as a God was really only the projected image of their own potential perfection; in projecting perfection onto a fictive being, according to Feuerbach, they denied their own worth. As Dittmar put it: "As long as we assume the existence of a 'higher' reason, so long must we naturally despise our own reason." For, as she argued, "the faith in a power that takes care of us leads to faith in a power that does our thinking for us."

In addition, Dittmar engaged critically with Christianity because of what she perceived to be the Christian legacy of disdain for the body and its claims and pleasures. This was a prevalent theme among Dittmar's progressive male contemporaries as well, but most of them tended to veil (however flimsily) their defense of their own sensual enjoyment in odes to domesticity. Dittmar, by contrast, was disgusted with women's repression within the domestic realm and outraged by her contemporaries' assumption that marriage necessarily brought women emotional or sexual happiness. In the context of her time, however, to refer to women's sexuality in any way without assuming its purpose was reproductive would have been quite scandalous; Dittmar's near-obsessive critiques of the Christian devaluation of the body in her theological writings (including a recurrent rage at Christianity's demand for "voluntary renunciation of earthly satisfaction" and a repeated defense of "misunderstood sensuality" and "the guiltless body") were one way to approach the unmentionable without mentioning it outright. In her final book, however, Dittmar ventured some even bolder remarks. She expressed fury that the love of women, "which springs out of the most heated yearning for satisfaction," was being squelched within "the prisonhouse of civil marriage," and she argued that within marriages as they were currently arranged—in marriages, that is, in which women were economically and legally dependent on their husbands—women were "physically and spiritually lacerating themselves, wearing themselves away." Dittmar repeatedly argued that women's capacity for sexual love was systematically distorted by her society's socialization of women ("especially in the case of women this desire is suppressed, weakened and clouded through an unnatural upbringing, through moral thumbscrews and through the most clever principle of deadening"), and she contended that "the disrespect for woman, her social repression, is most closely linked with the disrespect for and repression of the bodily senses."

Finally, however, despite all her rage at Christianity for its legacy of psychological and physiological oppression, and for providing one of human history's most successful excuses for earthly inequality, Dittmar also found a submerged strand within the Christian tradition that she could and did draw on: a belief in the equal dignity and worth of every individual, a tradition of prophetic denunciation of injustice, and a faith that a complete transformation and renewal of the world—the creation of justice on earth—was possible. This explains why, interspersed with all her near-atheism, Dittmar also relied heavily on Biblical imagery. No other language but religious language could communicate the urgency with which she felt a total revolution in social relations was both necessary and legitimate, and no other language could properly convey her sense of the sacredness of each individual's right to self-determination. Thus, for example, to underscore the legitimacy of her demand for justice for women, Dittmar concluded an essay on women's rights in her newspaper Soziale Reform with a passage which, for readers schooled in the New Testament, created clear echoes between women and the early Christian disciples:

Poor and without rights, oppressed legally and in principle, physically unsuited for battle, intellectually deprived,…limited in her means, scorned, ridiculed, repressed and persecuted with the full weight of a life-ethic that is hostile to her—where should she gather strength, where should she plow and sow without land?…And yet, she will plow and sow and reap a thousand times over, like no other worker in the vineyard of the Lord!

Yet despite the widespread popularity of both religious and political radicalism in 1840's Germany, Dittmar found little support for her views. In particular, her frequent rejection of the notion that there were natural differences between the sexes was not well-received. Other activist women accused her of pursuing a path "hostile to female nature" and of promoting teachings that "strip a woman of all femininity, that make her into a man-woman, a hermaphrodite." Indeed, even in Dittmar's own journal, other feminists (both male and female) obsessively reiterated their beliefs in natural gender differences. With a few (equally embattled) exceptions, it would take more than another 100 years before feminists in the United States and Europe would finally, unabashedly raise a great many of the same issues that Dittmar had already wrestled with in the 1840s.


Herzog, Dagmar. "The Feminist Conundrum," in Intimacy and Exclusion: Religious Politics in Pre-RevolutionaryBaden. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Joeres, Ruth-Ellen Boetcher. "Spirit in Struggle: The Radical Vision of Louise Dittmar (1807–1884)," in Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres and Mary Jo Maynes, eds., Out of Line/ Ausgefallen: The Paradox of Marginality in the Writings of Nineteenth-Century German Women. Special Issue of Amsterdamer Beiträge zur neueren Germanistik. Vol. 28, 1989, pp. 279–301.

Klausmann, Christina. "Louise Dittmar (1807–1884): Ergebnisse einer biographischen Spurensuche," in Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres and Mary Jo Maynes, eds., Out of Line, p. 17–39.

Paletschek, Sylvia. Women and Dissent. Ann Arbor, MI: Univ. of Michigan Press.

Zucker, Stanley. Kathinka Zitz-Halein and Female Civic Activism in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Germany. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991

suggested reading:

Goodman, Katherine. Dis/Closures: Women's Autobiography in Germany between 1790 and 1914. NY: Peter Lang, 1986.

Herzog, Dagmar. "Liberalism, Religious Dissent and Women's Rights: Louise Dittmar's Writings from the 1840s," in Konrad Jarausch and Larry Eugene Jones, eds. In Search of a Liberal Germany: Studies in the History of German Liberalism from 1789 to the Present. Oxford: Berg, 1990: 55–85.

Prelinger, Catherine M. Charity, Challenge and Change: Religious Dimensions of the Mid-Nineteenth-Century Women's Movement in Germany. NY: Greenwood, 1987.


Letters by Dittmar to the writer Lorenz Diefenbach, located in the Diefenbach Papers at the University of Giessen, Germany.

Dagmar Herzog , Assistant Professor of History, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan

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Dittmar, Louise (1807–1884)

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