Dohm, Hedwig (1831–1919)

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Dohm, Hedwig (1831–1919)

German author and influential feminist publicist. Born Hedwig Schleh in Berlin, Germany, on September 20, 1831; died in Berlin on June 1, 1919; married (Wilhelm) Ernst Dohm (1819–1883, a journalist); children: four daughters and one son.

Selected writings:

Die Antifeministen: Ein Buch der Verteidigung (1902); Die wissenschaftliche Emancipation der Frau (1873); Erinnerungen; Der Frauen Natur und Recht: Zur Frauenfrage: Zwei Abhandlungen über Eigenschaften und Stimmrecht der Frauen (1876); Was die Pastoren von den Frauen denken (1872); Wie die Frauen werden—Werde, die du bist (1896).

Born the 11th of 18 children, Hedwig Schleh grew up in an assimilated Jewish family in Berlin. Her father, who worked in the sales division of his family's tobacco factory and would eventually inherit the firm, only had time for his family on Sundays. Her overworked mother, quite overwhelmed by the never-ending physical and emotional demands of raising 18 children (two of whom died), often dealt with her frustrations by being verbally abusive. Fearing physical punishment and convinced that her mother had no understanding of her needs, young Hedwig often retreated for solace into her own comforting world of books and daydreams. Probably because her parents wanted to keep Hedwig at home longer in order to have her care for her younger siblings, her date of birth was given as 1833 instead of the correct year, 1831. She soon became aware of the subordinate position that she, as a young woman, had been born into when it was announced that whereas her brothers would be able to continue their educations by enrolling in Gymnasium, this path was closed to her. A major event in Hedwig Schleh's life took place in 1848 when, despite having been forbidden by her parents to walk about in a Berlin torn by revolutionary tumults, she witnessed a bloody clash between government forces and poorly armed revolutionaries. Seeing a young student die before her eyes, Hedwig was transformed by the emotionally searing event into a "foe of all armed authority and a partisan of all struggles for liberation," writes her granddaughter Hedda Korsch .

Hedwig Schleh escaped from the tense and stifling atmosphere of the parental home in 1853 when she married the journalist Ernst Dohm (1819–1883). Like herself from an assimilated Jewish family—his name at birth was Elias Levy—Ernst was a talented journalist and political liberal who, unlike many enemies of autocracy, decided to remain in Germany after the suppression of the revolutionary upheavals of 1848. Starting in 1848, Ernst Dohm worked on the staff of a lively humor magazine named Kladderadatsch. Within a year, he became editor-in-chief of this journal, quickly turning it into a rapier-like literary force that provided satirical commentary not only on social mores but on Germany's repressive political environment as well. As the mother of five children (her only son would die young), Hedwig Dohm was at first unable to be more than a passive observer of the larger stage of German public life. At home, however, she was encouraged in her literary ambitions by her husband, who recognized his wife's intellectual gifts and with whom Hedwig had countless hours of lively discussions covering the landscape of politics and the arts. Dohm's first published work, a historical study of Spanish literature, was a substantial scholarly achievement and gave her the confidence to continue writing.

By the early 1870s, the Dohm children were growing up to adulthood and their mother could now begin the literary career she had long yearned for. In 1872, she published her first political work, Was die Pastoren von den Frauen denken (What the Clergy Thinks About Women), as a response to two pamphlets by the now-forgotten authors, Philipp von Nathusius and Hermann Jacobi, conservatives who argued that access to higher education would harm women both physically and psychologically. They had also attacked contemporary advocates of women's emancipation like John Stuart Mill and Germany's Fanny Lewald . In her spirited response, Dohm asserted that the so-called "natural laws" that restricted women to roles as Hausfrauen and mothers were in fact constructs devised by males to suppress female potential and serve their own selfish interests. The spheres closed to women were those that bestowed influence, status, and power to the males fortunate enough to have careers within them. Asking why an average bourgeois woman should not be allowed to earn her own living if she desired such a life, Dohm argued that along with other basic human rights, women now had a right to demand full access to advanced education and careers.

The debate and controversy touched off by Dohm's skewering of the clergy was followed two years later by an even more confident and detailed polemic discussing the same problems: Die wissenschaftliche Emancipation der Frau (The Scientific Emancipation of Women). In this book, she refuted the arguments of the renowned Munich anatomist and physiologist Theodor L.W. von Bischof who argued vociferously that women should be excluded from the study and practice of medicine. Drawing on an extensive bibliography of historical and sociological source materials, Dohm again saw the underlying arguments advanced by, in this case, a noted scholar as being little more than an attempt by powerful males to maintain lucrative and prestigious professional monopolies. Excluding women made it easier for some males to amass great wealth and power that did not have to be defended against a newly emerging cadre of talented and ambitious females. Among the reforms she advocated in this book were sex education for girls and a national system of co-educational schools. In yet another book on the same themes, Der Frauen Natur und Recht (The Nature and Rights of Women, 1876), Hedwig Dohm continued her well-researched debate with feminism's foes, arguing eloquently that in the final analysis "Human rights have no gender" ("Die Menschenrechte haben kein Geschlecht"). During these same years (in 1873 and again in 1876), she was one of the few German feminists to advocate the vote for women—at a time when the leadership of the German women's movement looked upon this demand as being essentially "premature." Although personally shy and intensely private, in 1888 Dohm founded the "Deutsche Frauenverein Reform" and from 1888 through 1901 also served on the governing board of the Verein "Frauenwohl."

Hedwig Dohm campaigned with great intellectual vigor not only as an often feared polemicist but as a novelist as well. In her 1894 Novelle, Werde, die Du bist (Become Who You Are), she showed how a woman, while having led a seemingly exemplary life as a housewife and mother, can succumb to madness because the social role chosen for her denied her love, self-fulfillment, and a positive place in the larger society outside of hearth and home. The central figure, Agnes Schmidt, only finds her way out of a mental breakdown after her husband's death and a painfully achieved level of self-awareness.

In Sibilla Dalmar, Schicksale einer Seele, and Christa Roland, an important trilogy of novels published between 1896 and 1902, Hedwig Dohm continued to explore the triumphs and tragedies of women who in her own day were struggling against ancient and powerful patriarchal regimes. Schicksale einer Seele (Fates of a Soul, 1899) shows how a woman who refuses to conform to society's expectations can expect to have any sense of self-worth within her soul crushed and destroyed. In excruciating detail, Dohm shows how the main character, Marlene, is drained of a positive identity at the level of ordinary daily life within the bosom of her own family. Marlene is rescued from her state of demoralization by an older woman, Charlotte von Krüger, who teaches her to view herself from a radically different (and positive) perspective. The remaining novels in Dohm's trilogy, Sibilla Dalmar (1896) and Christa Roland (1902), explore similar themes of feminine liberation and self-realization. The pressure to marry for financial considerations is examined from a critical perspective, and in the case of Sibilla her new thinking on this issue brings her to the conclusion that her own loveless marriage had essentially been little better than a thinly disguised form of prostitution. As for the character of Christa Roland, she enters into her marriage with doubts about her role, but wonders whether in fact she should not accept the traditional place of subordination. Once she is married, however, her spirits revive, she refuses to accept the old roles, and she works to develop a new conception of marriage based on a retention of individuality for each partner in the union.

Believing that she had made her points in her works of fiction, at the start of the 20th century Hedwig Dohm returned to the genre of polemical writing. Although she had now attained the age of 70, she refused to slow down. In her 1902 book Die Antifeministen (The Antifeminists), she provided her readers with a convenient anatomy of the types of male opponents to women's rights. All of these individuals, she noted, were unqualified to pass judgment on what constituted the "true nature" of women. At the same time, Dohm was not afraid to step on some female toes as well, arguing in the chapter "Woman against Woman" that some successful women collude with men to become "social males," uncritically defending and advancing a male value system that in the final analysis is destructive to all of humanity. Dohm expressed her thoughts on this issue strongly, noting that "absolutely the last thing I ever wanted to be was—a man."

In her 1903 book Die Mütter (The Mothers), an aging but still vital Hedwig Dohm addressed her fellow seniors:

Listen, old woman, what another old woman tells you: make an effort. Have the courage to live. Don't think for a moment about your age. Age is an enemy—fight it. Do what gives you pleasure.… If you like it and it is comfortable, have your white hair floating free. Join the learners.… There are no herbs against death but there are many herbs against the early death of woman. The most effective is unconditional emancipation for women and with it the salvation from that brutal myth that her right of existence is based on her sexuality only.

During the final decades of her long life, Hedwig Dohm remained intellectually active and enjoyed travel and visits to her daughters, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Her apartment in Berlin's Tiergartenstrasse was a salon frequented by many of the German capital's most influential intellectuals and politicians, including Helene Lange, Adele Schreiber, Lou Andreas-Salomé, Else Lasker-Schüler , and Gabriele Reuter . She remained sensitive to the needs of the weak and oppressed, arguing in an article published shortly before the outbreak of World War I that a child at birth possessed basic rights. These rights were social, and included the right of every child—and its mother—to a life that was decent, humane, and materially secure.

An essential optimist, Hedwig Dohm was profoundly shaken by the start of World War I in the summer of 1914. As the war destroyed millions of lives and incalculable material and spiritual wealth, she ignored the infirmities of old age and put pen to paper. In her fiery essay "The Misuse of Death," written in 1915 but not published until 1917 in the avant-garde journal Die Aktion, Dohm indicted the apparatus of the modern state for ignoring the lives and hopes of the countless individuals comprising it, thus making all but inevitable the moral catastrophe that is modern total war. In late May 1919, seriously ill with influenza, Dohm penned her last literary piece. In this article, entitled "On the Deathbed," she looked back at the catastrophic war that had been recently concluded, describing it sarcastically as the "will to self-destruction." She informed her readers that the war was now making her suffocate by bringing on a "laughing fit unto death." A fighter to the end, Hedwig Dohm died of influenza in Berlin on June 1, 1919.


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Braatz, Ilse. "Dohm, Hedwig" in Edmund Jacoby, ed. Lexikon Linker Leitfiguren. Frankfurt am Main: Büchergilde Gutenberg, 1988, pp. 93–94.

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Dohm, Hedwig. Die Antifeministen: Ein Buch der Verteidigung. Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Arndstrasse, 1976 (reprint of the 1902 edition published by Dümmler Verlag, Berlin).

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——. Erinnerungen. Edited by Berta Rahm. Zurich: ALA Verlag, 1980.

——. Der Frauen Natur und Recht: Zur Frauenfrage. Zwei Abhandlungen über Eigenschaften und Stimmrecht der Frauen. Neunkirch: ALA Verlag, 1986 (reprint of Berlin edition of 1876).

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——. Wie die Frauen werden—Werde, die du bist. Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Arndstrasse, 1977 (reprint of the 1896 edition published by Schottländer Verlag, Breslau).

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

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Dohm, Hedwig (1831–1919)

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