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Seidel, Amalie (1876–1952)

Seidel, Amalie (1876–1952)

Austrian Social Democratic leader who served as a parliamentary delegate (1919–34) and was imprisoned for her beliefs by three different regimes (in 1893, 1934, and 1944). Name variations: Amalie Rausnitz; known as Ly, short for the "Lysistrata of the women workers." Born Amalie Ryba in Vienna, Austria, on February 21, 1876; died in Vienna on May 11, 1952; daughter of Jakob Ryba and Anna (Stach) Ryba; married Richard Seidel, in 1895 (divorced); married Sigmund Rausnitz, in 1934 (died 1942); children: daughters Emma and Olga; one son.

Amalie Seidel, one of the most effective orators and organizers among the leadership of the Austrian Social Democratic Workers Party (Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei Österreichs, or SDAP), was born in Vienna in 1876, the daughter of Jakob and Anna Stach Ryba . At the time of her birth, the laissez-faire credo of industrial capitalism that prevailed in Austria had created inhumane working and living conditions for millions. The plight of women workers was particularly brutal, given the fact that they found themselves subjected to countless incidents of sexual harassment. For men, too, the situation in factories, mills, and workshops was one of unceasing toil in often dangerous and unhealthy conditions for pathetic wages. Seidel was born into an impoverished working-class family; her father, a locksmith and mechanic, was unable to earn a living wage despite long hours of labor. Furthermore, her mother gave birth to such a large number of children—17—that it proved impossible to feed, clothe, or properly care for them. Suffering from malnutrition and living in substandard housing, only Amalie and three other Ryba infants would survive to adulthood.

From her earliest years, Seidel sewed at home to earn a few kreuzer to help support the family. By the time she entered her teens, after eight years of primary education, her schooling ended, and she had no choice but to begin work in a local textile factory, earning a pittance for long hours. Determined to improve her circumstances, in 1892 Seidel became a member of the workers' educational organization (Arbeitebildungsverein) in the Gumpendorf district of Vienna. Although the repressive laws of Austria forbade women from being involved in any form of political organization or engaging in any form of political activity, the appearance of many local Arbeiterbildungsvereine throughout the Habsburg monarchy during these years gave workers, both men and women, the opportunity to expand their educational horizons as well as to develop a political and class consciousness.

At an October 1893 meeting of working women at which Anna Boschek and Adelheid Dworschak (later Adelheid Popp ) addressed the assembled audience, Seidel made one of her first appearances as an orator. She not only condemned the harsh nature of industrial capitalism, but also demanded for women their full rights as citizens, namely the right to vote:

Starting at age fourteen we have to work in factories, and our labor creates the wealth of our exploiters. If we are mature enough to be exploited at age fourteen, we should certainly be ready and able at the age of twenty to defend our own interests. In any case, we should be able to defend them better than they have been upheld to date by the gentlemen who are currently sitting in our Parliament.

Because of this and other speeches in which she criticized the social order and demanded full political rights for women, she was arrested and placed on trial. By this time, the Vienna police regarded her as a dangerous agitator and social radical due to her leadership of the May 1893 strike of 700 female factory workers, the first successful strike of organized women workers in the nation's history. Among the women's achievements were a significant raise in wages and a lowering of the daily hours of labor to ten. A particularly sweet victory in the strike was that the women would henceforth be able to celebrate their Tag der Arbeit (Day of Labor), annually on May 1, as a holiday with full pay. Found guilty on several charges by a biased court, Seidel was sentenced to three weeks in jail. To humiliate her and break her spirit, she had to serve her time in a cell with 12 other women who were common criminals. Not surprisingly, this repressive measure backfired, serving to only strengthen Seidel's will to continue her efforts on behalf of fellow workers, who began to refer to her simply as the "Lysistrata of women workers," or even as their "Ly."

Seidel's enthusiasm and courage brought her to the attention of the SDAP founder and leader, Victor Adler. He praised her for her oratorical skills, but cautioned her to become better acquainted with history, philosophy, and the writings of Karl Marx. During her imprisonment in February 1894, she used much of her time to read books borrowed from Adler's extensive personal library.

In 1895, Amalie married Richard Seidel, an engineer. The birth of three children over the next few years changed her priorities significantly, and she concentrated on being a wife and mother. By 1900, however, she had reentered the hectic world of Social Democratic politics. Particularly in her Viennese neighborhood of Margareten, she invested hours in party work, including organizing meetings for women who were seeking additional education as well as organizing women for strikes and collective bargaining. In 1903, she was elected to the important post of chair of the SDAP national women's conference (Frauenreichskonferenz), a position she would hold until 1932. At this time, she also became chair of the important Social Democratic consumers' cooperative (Konsumgenossenschaft).

In November 1918, after more than four years of the terrible privations of World War I, the Habsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary dissolved and the small, impoverished German-speaking remnant was proclaimed the Republic of Austria. One of the first reforms that came after the shattering political changes of 1918 was the achievement of women's suffrage. Highly respected both by her colleagues in her Viennese neighborhood and by the (male) SDAP party leadership, in 1918–19 Seidel was chosen to run for several important posts, namely that of membership in the Vienna City Council (Gemeinderat) and delegate to the constituent National Assembly. In both instances, she won the seat. Seidel would serve on the council until 1920. She would also serve as a Social Democratic delegate throughout the history of the increasingly troubled Austrian republic, without an interruption, being reelected many times from March 1919 through February 1934.

The immense demands placed on Seidel took their toll on her private life. Her marriage eroded over the years, and she had little time to spend with her three children, who increasingly felt ignored by their mother. As her family life crumbled, Seidel invested even more time into her party activities. These difficulties paled before the political and economic upheavals of the early 1930s, when the world Depression hit Austria. Austrian Social Democracy was at a loss when Nazism appeared in the streets, demanding that the old order make way for a Third Reich based on blood and "healthy" national instincts. A domestic form of fascism arose in Austria, somewhat less violent than Hitler's but every bit as anti-Socialist. In February 1934, Austria's Social Democratic movement was bloodily suppressed and a "Christian-Social" dictatorship proclaimed. For the second time in her life, Seidel was imprisoned because of her political beliefs. After serving six weeks, she was freed on March 30, 1934, when the police could not make a case of active subversion on her part. But despite her age and poor health, she was made to pay a fine of 500 Austrian schillings at the time of her release.

In 1934, having divorced her husband Richard, Seidel married Sigmund Rausnitz, a friend of many years. Both Sigmund and Richard were imprisoned that year in Wöllersdorf, an Austrian concentration camp for political prisoners. Rausnitz was particularly at risk because he was of Jewish ancestry, and this was one of the reasons Seidel married him, believing that his being married to an "Aryan" might help protect him from further persecutions. This idea proved to be illusory once Nazi Germany annexed Austria in March 1938. Facing deportation to the death camps of the east, Sigmund Rausnitz and his sister committed suicide on April 22, 1942. Seidel was devastated. In August 1944, she was arrested by Vienna's Gestapo as part of a general roundup of anti-Nazis in the aftermath of the failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944. Fortunately, Seidel's state of health convinced her captors at the jail of Vienna's Municipal Court (Landesgericht) that she was not a significant enemy of the regime, and she was released after ten days' imprisonment.

Seidel survived these terrors to witness the liberation of her beloved city of Vienna from Nazism in the spring of 1945. Although her health was shattered and would never be restored, she retained her faith in socialism. She died in Vienna on May 11, 1952.

sources:

Arbeitsgemeinschaft "Biografisches Lexikon der österreichischen Frau," Institut für Wissenschaft und Kunst, Vienna, biographical file: Seidel, Amalie, geb. Ryba.

Pawlik, Gabriele. "Amalie Seidel: Die Lysistrate der Arbeiterinnen," in Edith Prost, ed., "Die Partei hat mich nie enttäuscht …": Österreichische Sozialdemokratinnen. Vienna: Verlag für Gesellschaftskritik, 1989, pp. 223–252.

Seidel, Amalie. "Die ersten Arbeiterinnenstreiks," in Käthe Leichter , ed., Handbuch der Frauenarbeit in Österreich. Vienna: Kammer für Arbeiter und Angestellte für Wien, 1930.

Seitz, Emma. "Amalie Seidel," in Norbert Leser, ed., Werk und Widerhall: Grosse Gestalten des österreichischen Sozialismus. Vienna: Verlag der Wiener Volksbuchhandlung, 1964, pp. 374–380.

Sporrer, Maria, and Herbert Steiner, eds. Rosa Jochmann : Zeitzeugin. 3rd ed. Vienna: Europaverlag, 1987.

Weinzierl, Erika. Emanzipation?: Österreichische Frauen im 20. Jahrhundert. Vienna: Verlag Jugend & Volk, 1975.

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

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