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The Surplus Woman

The Surplus Woman: Unmarried in Imperial Germany, 1871-1918

Catherine L. Dollard
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: NED - New edition, 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    The Surplus Woman
    Book Description:

    The first German women's movement embraced the belief in a demographic surplus of unwed women, known as theFrauenuberschuß, as a central leitmotif in the campaign for reform. Proponents of the female surplus held that the advances of industry and urbanization had upset traditional marriage patterns and left too many bourgeois women without a husband. This book explores the ways in which the realms of literature, sexology, demography, socialism, and female activism addressed the perceived plight of unwed women. Case studies of reformers, including Lily Braun, Ruth Bre, Elisabeth Gnauck-Kuhne, Helene Lange, Alice Salomon, Helene Stocker, and Clara Zetkin, demonstrate the expansive influence of the discourse surrounding a female surfeit. By combining the approaches of cultural, social, and gender history, The Surplus Woman provides the first sustained analysis of the ways in which imperial Germans conceptualized anxiety about female marital status as both a product and a reflection of changing times.

    eISBN: 978-1-84545-952-9
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Introduction: Single Women in Imperial Germany
    (pp. 1-20)

    The first issue of the magazineDie Frau(The Woman) announced its purpose in October 1893 with an ambitious subtitle: “A monthly journal for the complete life of women in our time.”¹ The lead article by editor Helene Lange described the term ‘woman’ as bringing forth “an abundance of pictures and thoughts … the poetry of the domestic hearth, the creative and protective mother, the faithful nurse and educator … pictures of completely carefree grace.”² Only women of privileged classes had ever been so carefree. But Lange declared that in the past few decades, such cozy images had been so...

  2. PART I Der Frauenüberschuß—The Female Surplus

    • Chapter 1 The Alte Jungfer
      (pp. 23-42)

      In mid-nineteenth century Prussia, an etiquette book for young ladies promised its readers that it would guide them toward acquiring the proper disposition necessary for a successful marriage. The author, Henriette Davidis, was a prolific writer of cookbooks and other forms of female prescriptive literature. Davidis offered an extraordinary range of counsel, instructing her readership on the importance of prayer and moral character, advocating a strict schedule (no more than twenty minutes spent on dressing in the morning; every Monday as laundry day), and detailing the steps toward keeping home and body clean and healthy. Davidis maintained that because of...

    • Chapter 2 Sexology and The Single Woman
      (pp. 43-65)

      Old maids have a long history. Prior to the late nineteenth century, condemnations of single women were based upon a simple premise: unwed women threatened the prevailing economic and social order. Indeed, fear of the unattached woman as a destabilizing force had contributed to the condemnation of widows during the witch craze of early modern Europe. By the turn of the twentieth century, as educational and professional opportunities became more accessible for middle-class single women, one might have been able to hope for the eradication of discrimination against the unwed. Yet a 1911 essay asserted otherwise: “The old maid, that...

    • Chapter 3 Imagined Demography
      (pp. 66-92)

      Anxiety about changing gender roles can be expressed in multiple ways. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the discourse surrounding the woman question featured varying emphases in different national contexts. The French evinced significant handwringing over the stagnation in birth rates that characterized the Third Republic.¹ In Victorian and Edwardian Britain, conjecture about the “odd woman” emerged in literary works by George Gissing and E.M. Forster,² but debates about both unmarried and married women’s roles were primarily focused on the themes of suffrage, empire, and emigration.³ Certainly, the women’s movement of Imperial Germany grappled with issues surrounding fertility,...

    • Chapter 4 The Maternal Spirit
      (pp. 93-116)

      The most powerful women’s organization in Imperial Germany, theBund Deutscher Frauenvereine(BDF; Federation of German Women’s Associations), embraced the female surplus as a central element of its program of social reform. The moderate activists who led the BDF not only employed the female surplus as a means of strategy, they also linked the concept to a maternalist vision that permeated all aspects of their reformist agenda.¹ Through an assertion of the primacy of the family, an interpretation of capitalism that emphasized the impact of economic change on middle-class households, and the advocacy of professional opportunities, moderates articulated a belief...

  3. PART II Alleinstehende Frauen—Women Standing Alone

    • Chapter 5 Moderate Activism: Helene Lange and Alice Salomon
      (pp. 119-142)

      Alleinstehende Frauen—literally, women standing alone—led the moderate German women’s movement.¹ The leadership of the largest women’s associations of theKaiserreich(Imperial Germany) advocated the belief that women lived in an era of pervasive and sometimes pernicious change. That change, spurred by industrial and technological innovation, had forced women from the protective environs ofKinder, Küche, und Kirche(children, kitchen, and church). Made redundant in their childhood household by the advances of technology, thousands of women would not be able to count on the likelihood of establishing their own homes in marriage. This understanding of the female surplus served...

    • Chapter 6 Radical Reform: Helene Stöcker, Ruth Bré, and Lily Braun
      (pp. 143-163)

      The female surplus had radical potential. If spouses were scarce, might marriage itself be diminished? If unwed women atrophied, might it mean that they should pursue a sexual life outside of marriage? Moderate activists did not ask such questions. But other figures in the reformist milieu of Imperial Germany seized onto theFrauenüberschuß(female surplus) as an issue that supported radical, sometimes even subversive, calls for a different society. In critiques of the social and economic structure, the female surfeit was utilized as one of a series of indicators of much broader decrepitude. This chapter explores the ways in which...

    • Chapter 7 Socialism and Singleness: Clara Zetkin
      (pp. 164-175)

      TheFrauenüberschuß(female surplus) is a concept that simultaneously describes a predicament and calls for a response. Advocates of women’s rights used the notion of the female surplus to demonstrate the impact of the economic and social changes that they believed had left many women with no choice but to take on new roles. Capitalism’s advance explained and defended the rise of female activism and gave moderate reformers a mechanism by which to eschew polemics in favor of maternalist advocacy. The mainstream women’s movement led by Helene Lange, Gertrud Bäumer, and Alice Salomon demonstrated the displacement of bourgeois women from...

    • Chapter 8 Spiritual Salvation: Elisabeth Gnauck-Kühne
      (pp. 176-198)

      In June 1995, the Third Ecumenical Congress of Christian Women of Germany celebrated the life of Elisabeth Gnauck-Kühne (1850–1917). Afterward, the leadership of both theDeutsch-Evangelischer Frauenbund(DEF; German Protestant Women’s Association) and theKatholischer Deutscher Frauenbund(KDF; Catholic German Women’s Association) called for scholars to elevate Gnauck-Kühne “to her deserved place in German historiography.”¹ Gnauck-Kühne has been called the “Catholic Zetkin,”² and Clara Zetkin herself asserted that “I have read her [work] with greater pleasure than any other writing by a bourgeois advocate of women’s rights.”³ No other individual played a greater role in the discussion of the...

    • Conclusion: The Surplus Woman
      (pp. 199-218)

      The surplus woman stands as an important cultural icon of theKaiserreich(Imperial Germany). TheFrauenüberschuß(female surplus) offered a presumed demographic event that provided urgency to calls for change and served as a platform for the reform of education, the professions, the institution of marriage, and sexuality. It also elicited sympathy for a cohort of middle-class women who, through no fault of their own, had been left outside of home, motherhood, and marriage. In the course of the twentieth century, demographic circumstances altered dramatically to create a brutally real female surplus. In light of two world wars, discussion about...

  4. Appendix: Statistical Tables and Figures
    (pp. 219-246)