Otto-Peters, Luise (1819–1895)

views updated

Otto-Peters, Luise (1819–1895)

Co-founder of the General German Women's Association and editor of the first German women's political newspaper, the Frauen-Zeitung, who was the most important figure in the early German women's movement. Name variations: Louise Otto; Louise Otto-Peters; Luise Otto; Luise Peters; Louise Peters; Luise Otto Peters; (pseudonym) Otto Stern. Pronunciation: AH-toh PEE-ters. Born Luise Otto on March 26, 1819, in Meissen, Germany; died on March 13, 1895, at Leipzig; fourth daughter of Wilhelm Otto (a court assessor) and Charlotte Matthäi Otto (daughter of a porcelain painter); had three sisters; educated at home; married August Peters (a poet and revolutionary), on July 8, 1858 (died July 4, 1864); no children.

Published first poem (1842); published first book, Songs of a Young German Woman (Lieder eines deutschen Mädchens , 1847); published the social novel Schloss und Fabrik (Castle and Factory , 1845); edited the Women's Newspaper (Frauen-Zeitung , 1849–52); was a co-founder of the General German Women's Association and was elected its first president (1865); coedited the association's journal, New Paths (Neue Bahnen , 1866–95); co-founded the Leipzig Women's Educational Association (1865); co-founded the Leipzig Women's Writers Association (1890).

Selected works:

Ludwig the Waiter (Ludwig der Kellner, 1843); Schloss und Fabrik (Castle and Factory, 1845); Songs of a Young German Woman (Lieder eines deutschen Mädchens, 1847); The Spirit of Nature: The Harmonies of Nature in Contemporary Women's Lives (Der Genius der Natur: Harmonien der Natur zu dem Frauenleben der Gegenwart, 1869); The Right of Women to Employment (Das Recht der Frauen auf Erwerb, 1866); The Life of Women in the German Empire (Frauenleben im deutschen Reich, 1876); Private Stories of World History (Privatgeschichten der Weltgeschichte, 1868–72); The Path of My Life (Mein Lebensgang, 1893).

Among the earliest feminists in Germany, Luise Otto-Peters was the most active and the most significant. Primarily a writer—who produced poems, novels, novellas, short stories, historical works, and even two opera librettos—she spent much of her time working as a journalist, publishing the first newspaper in Germany specifically devoted to women's issues. The cofounder of the first major women's organization in Germany, Otto-Peters came to believe that such organizations, by providing education and vocational training for women, would achieve the equality of men and women in everyday life and thus "emancipate" the German middle class.

Meissen, the city of Otto-Peters' birth in 1819, a quiet town with a population of about 8,000, was far removed from the more bustling, nearby city of Dresden. Otto-Peters' mother Charlotte Matthäi Otto , who tried to imbue her children with an artistic sensibility, was the daughter of a painter for Meissen's famous porcelain industry. Her father Wilhelm Otto, a court assessor, wanted to keep his four daughters acquainted with the most up-to-date political and social issues. Otto-Peters proudly recalled his excitement when the state of Saxony passed legislation which would allow women to be executors over estates; it would, he told his daughters, end some of the helplessness of women.

Otto-Peters' home-based education consisted of reading and discussing the writings of classical German writers such as Wolfgang Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, as well as more popular writers such as the American novelist James Fenimore Cooper and the English novelist Sir Walter Scott. The French novelist George Sand , a woman who assumed a male nom de plum in order to be taken more "seriously" by readers, was a special favorite.

By the time Otto-Peters reached the age of 22, a series of family misfortunes had forced her to make difficult choices. Her oldest sister, Clementine, died in 1832; both of her parents died in the years 1835 and 1836; and her fiancé died in 1841. Although she had a small inheritance, Otto-Peters was placed in a difficult financial situation. In similar circumstances, many middle-class German women chose to eke out a living by working as companions to wealthy older women or as governesses to the children of wealthy families. Instead, Otto-Peters chose to try to make a living as a writer and to maintain a male-free household with her sisters. For the rest of her life, she would essentially support herself through her writings. Her first poem was published in 1842. She wanted to publish a volume of her poetry, but Ernst Keil, a Leipzig publisher with liberal views, suggested that women published too much poetry. He convinced her to write a prose book, which appeared as the two-volume novel Ludwig the Waiter (Ludwig der Kellner) in 1843. Her first volume of poetry appeared in 1847 under the title Songs of a Young German Woman ( Lieder eines deutschen Mädchens).

Short stories or articles by Otto-Peters appeared in some of Keil's magazines and journals, such as Unser Planet (Our Planet) and Lighthouse ( Leuchtturm). During the 1840s, she also published articles in a newspaper in Saxony owned by Robert Blum, a German liberal who would be executed by the Austrian government for his activities during the revolutions of 1848. Since many of Otto-Peters' articles during the 1840s contained political comments—Ludwig der Kellner was temporarily banned by the government of Saxony, until she agreed to eliminate some passages—she occasionally published under the pseudonym Otto Stern; all of her other publications appeared under her own name, and generally under her married name, Luise Peters.

Otto-Peters' commitment to German liberalism was apparent in her 1845 Schloss und Fabrik (Castle and Factory), a social novel of the type that was also popular in Britain and France during the first half of the 19th century. Although the novel has been criticized for a reliance on stereotyped characters or plot lines—such as an impoverished but benevolent noble family—it was notable for its presentation of independent, committed women characters who lived fulfilling lives despite a lack of love or marriage. The novel, sections of which had to be omitted because of the demands of a government censor, portrayed the managerial class as the cause of much social conflict in Germany. Schloss und Fabrik also reflected Otto-Peters' belief that middle-class Germans, such as herself, should be greatly concerned over the treatment of both male and female workers in the new factories arising in Germany.

Otto-Peters argued that most women in her time were "puppets of men" and lived their lives through their children, through parenthood, and through their husbands. Her goals were "to build courage and insight into women through education, independence, and integrity." Marriage was not to be a welfare institution; if working conditions for women were improved, women would be able freely to decide if they wanted to marry or not. During the decade of the 1840s, she appealed to a labor commission in Saxony to investigate working conditions for women, and she also sent a letter to a Berlin committee of male workers, demanding that they include the "working rights" of women in their platform.

In 1843, an essay by Otto-Peters argued that women had a responsibility to be involved in "public" areas of life. By the time that she moved to Leipzig in 1848, where she would remain for most of the rest of her life, Otto-Peters had become a women's rights advocate and organizer, an educator, a publicist, and, to some degree, a political writer.

The revolution of 1848 brought Otto-Peters into contact with August Peters, a political agitator and a leading figure in revolutionary circles of Dresden. Peters was from a working-class family, with ties to the political figure and eventual German Marxist leader August Bebel, who called him the "foremost of the men fighting for women's rights" in Germany. Not long after they met in 1849, August Peters was imprisoned for his revolutionary activity, in May 1850. When they were married in 1858 after his release from prison, Otto-Peters was 39 years old. In the six years they had together before his death, the couple published the People's Newspaper for Central Germany (Mitteldeutsche Volkszeitung).

In 1849, Otto-Peters founded the Frauen-Zeitung, which published its first issue in April of that year. The appearance of a newspaper specifically devoted to women's concerns was an event of special significance, because although German newspapers of the time sometimes touched on women's issues, the newspapers themselves were circulated in clubs which had male-only policies. The Frauen-Zeitung's stated purpose was to disseminate information of a political and social nature that was related to women, on the theory that discussions "among sisters" would "bind women together" and make them stronger. It was to be a forum for discussions, opinion pieces, and debates related to the duties and rights of women in German society. Its masthead bore the proclamation, "I am recruiting women citizens for the realm of Liberty."

Participation by women in the workings of the state is not just a right, but also a duty.

—Luise Otto-Peters

Although it often reflected the liberal ideas and spirit of the revolutions of 1848 in Germany, the Frauen-Zeitung sometimes focused on the new social questions raised by the Industrial Revolution, publishing articles about the working hours, wages, and health problems of women factory workers, lace-makers, knitters, and seamstresses. When a new umbrella organization of male workers (entitled the German Workingmen's Brotherhood) was created in 1848, Otto-Peters contributed to the journal of the Brotherhood, reminding its male founders not to forget women workers.

The Frauen-Zeitung insisted that the liberation of males had to be accompanied, in any revolution, by the liberation of women. Otto-Peters noted that of all of humanity, "we are half." She argued that freedom cannot be divided, meaning that political freedom had to accompany freedom of conscience, and that Germany could not have a true republic without concern for workers. Women had the right to become responsible and self-determining citizens of the state. But Otto-Peters insisted that women should not try to be men, and she did not want to be seen as a "liberated woman," which she regarded as being a grotesque copy of men.

Believing that education was particularly important for unmarried women, Otto-Peters argued that they could live independent lives only if they had educational and vocational qualifications, so that they were not a burden on their families and did not feel forced to "sell" themselves to men. Women were under a "double exploitation"; paid less than men, they also labored in working conditions that led them to prostitution. If more women were allowed into teaching and commercial jobs, marriage could regain its "natural rights" and would no longer be a "welfare institution." The Frauen-Zeitung suggested at one point that women should buy only goods that had been made and sold by women, at least until women had been given a wider variety of jobs than handwork or domestic help.

During the period of reaction that followed the unsuccessful revolutions of 1848, the newspaper generally avoided political commentary. Otto-Peters' reluctance to challenge government censors, plus her belief that it was "too early" to campaign for the right to vote for German women, has led some writers to view her as too compliant—as, in one writer's words, too easily accepting "the roles which the official ideology had assigned to women." Otto-Peters' tactics, however, kept the Frauen-Zeitung publishing for four years—much longer than other "revolutionary" publications—until 1852, when it succumbed to government bans on political activity by women. For a time, the newspaper was saved by transferring "control" to a male publisher. But although the newspaper had published articles by men, Otto-Peters chose to close the newspaper rather than accept a male editor.

In 1865, Otto-Peters, together with Auguste Schmidt, Henriette Goldschmidt , and Ottilie von Steyber , founded the General German Women's Association. The Leipzig meeting that established the organization was the first general meeting in Germany presided over by a woman. Otto-Peters was elected the association's president. While most German women's groups of the time functioned basically as philanthropic organizations, Otto-Peters intended that the association embrace social and political issues which affected women. At its founding, the association had 32 members, most of them living in the metropolitan areas of Hamburg, Zwickau, Lissa, and Krems. Within a decade, it grew to encompass some 20 regional clubs, and its membership grew to some 10,000, including a scattering of men. The journal of the new association, entitled New Paths (Neue Bahnen), was coedited by Otto-Peters.

The same year that the association was founded, Otto-Peters was a co-founder of a women's club in Leipzig that was directed at helping women workers reach their highest level of "intellectual perfection." The major goal of the Leipzig Women's Education Association was to win paid work for women and to raise their intellectual qualifications. Since a particular concern was the "unfortunate sisters" in the working class, the association sponsored evening activities for working women which combined entertainment with cultural and educational talks, as well as child care.

What the two associations had in common was the conviction that education was the path through which women might help themselves and overcome social and political barriers to equality with men. The General German Women's Association petitioned the government to allow women to work in the post office and telegraph offices, and petitioned local and national governments asking that education for women be improved. Believing that it could help proletarian women move "up the ladder" through education, the association described itself as "working to remove all obstacles against the expansion of female labor."

The next year, Otto-Peters provided a platform for both associations with her book The Right of Women to Employment (Das Recht der Frauen auf Erwerb), which argued that while women might continue as wives and mothers, they should have access to occupational training and the professions. "It is an absolute necessity," she wrote, "to free women's work from the bounds of prejudices…. We can do this through agitation in women's organizations and through the press, through productivity associations … and through the creation of schools and shelters for women." Otto-Peters insisted that women could continue to work as wives and mothers but must also be able to support themselves, a goal that might be reached only when they had access to working in "teaching and the professions."

Throughout her career, Otto-Peters acknowledged that the right to vote was a logical goal of the women's movement: "Women demand the right to vote, because any group, which is not allowed to participate in the political process, is oppressed; the principle of equality before the law must lead, inevitability, to women's participation in our political life." Still, Otto-Peters rejected the idea that the new journal, New Paths, should pursue political discussions, citing German laws which forbade women's participation in politics. She reinforced that view in 1876, when she resisted placing demands for the right to vote in the association's platform, arguing that it was too soon to press for such a change.

In her 50-year career, Otto-Peters produced a wide variety of writings. Reflecting her mother's influence, she produced books insisting that there were close connections between art and politics, such as her The Spirit of Nature: The Harmonies of Nature in Women's Lives (Der Genius der Natur: Harmonien der Natur zu dem Frauenleben, 1871). Also among the more than 50 books she published were historical novels, such as Rome in Germany (Rom in Deutschland, 1873), as well as the librettos for two operas (Niebelungen, 1852 and Theodor Körner, 1872).

Two works stood out. Her Private Stories of World History (Privatgeschichten der Weltgeschichte, 1868–72) was a series of 12 historical sketches of women which underlined the general neglect of women in world history, at a time when women's names were missing from biographical books or reference works. For Otto-Peters, it was important not only to recount the lives of notable women, but also for women to be the storytellers. Even in her novels, many of her women characters thought it important to influence the environment around them, rather than be controlled by it.

Her A Woman's Life in the German Empire (Frauenleben im deutschen Reich, 1876), a semi-autobiographical book, documented everyday life for women in her time, particularly for preindustrial families, and included comments about their reading habits. It said that when women were preparing food, it was not unusual to hear someone reciting from Walter Scott or Ernst Wagner (a German novelist). Similar recitations occurred when women sewed together, and they "lost none of their dignity" in the process. It observed that earlier women who were considered "cultured" generally could not read or write; a woman who wrote under her own name was considered daring. Yet technology, the book argued, would transform the labor process in ways that would benefit women. Technology would "free much of the work of women in the house," taking care of "menial work" so that women would have more time for "creative achievement." "The more that hand-work is replaced by the machine," she wrote, "the more time that women will have to solve their problems."

In 1890, Otto-Peters and another writer, Mathilde Clasen-Schmid , founded a writers' club in Leipzig, which they intended as a cultural and artistic club for women. Otto-Peters and Clasen-Schmid expressed the hope that such clubs would help women "accomplish extraordinary things in areas of life, intellectual or otherwise, entirely on their own." They also hoped that women writers would provide more accurate prose writings about women, since they believed that when men wrote about women, they were often incorrect in the motivations that they attributed to women.

One of Otto-Peters' last books, The Course of My Life (Mein Lebensgang, 1893), was especially revealing. Despite its title, it was not a true autobiography but a collection of her writings, particularly unpublished poems. Although Otto-Peters began her career as a poet, and although she often avoided political topics in her writings after the failed revolutions of 1848, The Course of My Life revealed that she had continued to write poetry on political topics. Fittingly, when she died in 1895, she was buried in Leipzig, next to the grave of her revolutionary-minded husband, who had shared her hopes that the revolutions of 1848 would "emancipate" both men and women.


Boetcher, Joerges, Ruth-Ellen. "1848 from a Distance: German Women Writers on the Revolution," in Modern Language Notes. Vol. 97, no. 1, 1982, pp. 590–614.

Evans, Robert J. The Feminist Movement in Germany, 1894–1933. London and Beverly Hills: SAGE, 1976.

Frevert, Ute. Women in German History. Trans. by Stuart McKinnon-Evans. Hamburg: Berg, 1989.

Koepcke, Cordula. Louise Otto-Peters: Die rote Demokratin. Freiburg: Herderbücherei, 1981.

Ludwig, Johanna, and Rita Jorek, eds. Luise Otto-Peters: Ihr Literarisches und publizistisches Werk. Leipzig: Leizpig University Press, 1995.

suggested reading:

Fout, John C., ed. German Women in the Nineteenth Century: A Social History. London: Holmes & Meier, 1984.

Riemer, Eleanor, and John Fout. European Women: A Documentary History. NY: Schocken: 1980.


Materials on the General German Women's Association are housed in the Staatsarchiv Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany.

Otto-Peters' published works have been cataloged by the Luise Otto-Peters Society in Leipzig.

Some papers of Otto-Peters' are held in the Deutscher Staatsbürgerinnen-Verband (the Union of German Women Citizens) in Berlin, Germany; some materials are held in the University Library of the University of Leipzig, Germany.

Some sources for this early period of the German women's movement are published in Margrit Twellmann, Die deutsche Frauenbewegung im Spiegel repräsentativer Frauenzeitschriften: Ihre Anfänge und erste Entwicklung, 1843–1889 (Meisenheim am Glan: Kronberg, 1976).

Niles R. R. , Professor of History, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois

About this article

Otto-Peters, Luise (1819–1895)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article