Sieveking, Amalie (1794–1859)

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Sieveking, Amalie (1794–1859)

German humanitarian, charity worker, and educator who played an important role in making philanthropic activities more available to German Lutheran women. Born Amalie Wilhelmine Sieveking in Hamburg, Germany, on July 25, 1794; died in Hamburg on April 1, 1859; had three brothers; never married.

Born a patrician's daughter in 1794 in Hamburg, Amalie Sieveking was orphaned at an early age, her mother dying when she was four and her father when she was fifteen, in 1809. Because her father's fortune had been eroded by the French occupation and the end of a once-prosperous trade with Great Britain, Amalie and her three brothers were separated and sent to board in the homes of relatives and friends. Her own school lessons—but not her brothers'—were discontinued. Later, in her adult years, when she had become a proselytizer for women's entrance into public charity, she made much of the disparity in educational opportunities for women and men. Sieveking discovered her own talent as a teacher in the household where she lived, and instituted a series of six-year instructional programs for girls which she continued throughout her life. In 1813, she opened her first school with six pupils. Her graduates would serve as a major source of her public influence, because her former pupils were dedicated disciples and ardent correspondents.

In the "moral diary" (Sonntagsunterhaltungen or Sunday Conversations) Amalie Sieveking kept during her early 20s, she wrote of the personal turmoil and self-examination of this period of her life. In one passage, she wrote defiantly, "If not a happy wife and mother, then founder of an order of Sisters of Charity!" The desire to do charitable work found little support in the Lutheran culture Sieveking grew up in. Martin Luther had left little room for the development of women's service in his new church, except for wives of the clergy. Although for a time intrigued by the Roman Catholic Sisters of Charity, Sieveking became skeptical when she scrutinized the statutes of the Bavarian order: "The yoke is too slavish, the chains too restrictive. The free spirit would be struck dead by the multiplicity of little legalisms."

Two events in Hamburg propelled Sieveking from speculation to action. The first was a campaign launched by the local press in 1830 to identify and publicize the failures of municipal poor relief in the city. The second was the devastating cholera epidemic of 1831. During the outbreak, Sieveking volunteered as a nurse at the plague hospital, but no one followed her example.

On May 23, 1832, joined by 12 other women, she founded the Weiblicher Verein für Armen- und Krankenpflege (Female Association for the Care of the Poor and Sick). This society was not meant to be comprised of full-time professional workers, but of women who gave their talents and their spare time to Christian charity and social welfare work. The aim of her group as envisioned by Sieveking was to visit the households of impoverished invalids and their families in accordance with recommendations from the public administration, and to provide practical and material help as well as spiritual guidance.

The statutes of the association recognized that the numbers of clients the group could expect to serve and the nature of its commitment would necessarily depend both on the number of members recruited and the financial resources at its disposal. No woman was to consider membership unless she could expect to devote herself to at least one and preferably two house calls each week, and to at least one meeting each week with other members of the association to assess the results of their visits. Sieveking's idea lit a flame that grew slowly but steadily over the next decades. From its original 12 members in 1832, the society expanded to include 53 during its first decade, 70 by the late 1840s, and 85 by the time of Sieveking's death in 1859. As the membership grew, the caseload expanded from an original 85 families to 256. Funded by voluntary contributions, the expendable income of the association increased from 1,332 banco marks the first year to 47,000 in 1859.

In 1841, during a visit to Bremen, Sieveking carried her message outside of Hamburg. Over the next years, organizations similar to hers were founded in many other German cities. Primarily conservative, Sieveking espoused an idea of the "emancipation of women" that looked back to a simpler, essentially rural and patriarchal social order. In her public speeches, she cajoled fathers and husbands to allow the women of their households to engage in charitable activities; she never questioned their authority to do so. She also accepted the oppression of the poor as an unalterable condition of society. Although her concepts of female emancipation would differ radically from those of a later generation, Sieveking displayed a high degree of idealism, energy, and practical organizational talent. In many ways, she was a prophet of Christian stewardship long before the term was invented. Amalie Sieveking died in Hamburg on April 1, 1859. A postage stamp of the Federal Republic of Germany was issued in her honor on November 15, 1955.


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——. "Prelude to Consciousness: Amalie Sieveking and the Female Association for the Care of the Poor and the Sick," in John C. Fout, ed., German Women in the Nineteenth Century: A Social History. NY: Holmes & Meier, 1984, pp. 118–132.

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