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Dittmar, Louise (1807-1884)

Dittmar, Louise (1807-1884), autodidact philosopher and women's rights advocate especially in the 1840s, had close ties to the dissenting religious movements of German-Catholics and Free Protestants, and to radical democratic and revolutionary circles. She published nine books in the space of five years (1845-1850), and in 1849 she founded and edited Soziale Reform, one of the five feminist journals launched in Germany during the revolutionary years.

Dittmar was born in Darmstadt--the seventh of ten--into the family of a higher treasury official and thus into the comfortable ranks of the German Protestant bourgeoisie. Although Dittmar's father worked at the court of Hessen-Darmstadt's Grand Duke, the family did not have conservative leanings. At least two of Dittmar's brothers had ties to leftist circles. One was a friend of Georg B üchner's, and one married the daughter of C. W. Leske--Karl Marx's Darmstadt publisher--in whose home many radicals gathered. These familial ties must have influenced Dittmar. As the one unmarried daughter, Dittmar was weighed down by many domestic duties and was unable to receive any formal education; furthermore, in the atmosphere of the time, female writers--especially on such "important" subjects as theology and politics--were rarely taken seriously. Consequently lacking in confidence, Dittmar published her f irst four books anonymously. Bekannte Geheimnisse (1845) and Skizzen und Briefe (1845) covered a wide range of political and social issues and also addressed women's disenfranchisement in scathing terms. Der Mensch und sein Gott (1846) and Lessing und Feuerbach (1847) were good examples of the rationalist and humanist religious criticism becoming popular in the 1840s.

Despite her anonymity, Dittmar's reputation spread within the intricate network of religious and political radicals evolving at the time, for in 1847 she was invited to give a public lecture to the Mannheim Monday Club. The Monday Club was a radical dissenting splinter group which had split from the Mannheim German-Catholic congregation locally both because of the leftist reputation of its leaders, and because it deliberately sought to bring together not only Jews and Christians, but also women and men, for mutual discussion and instruction. The applause and encouragement Dittmar received from the club gave her the courage to acknowledge authorship of her previous books, and thus it is this group which has insured her place within historical memory. Vier Zeitfragen (1847) was a reprint of the Monday Club lecture, expanded to include an autobiographical introduction. Another religious work, Zur Charakterisierung der nordischen Mythologie, and two poetry collections celebrating leading revolutionaries and criticizing the Frankfurt Pa rliament--Wühlerische Gedichte and Brutus-Michel--appeared in 1848. Dittmar also delivered further public lectures to audiences in Mainz and Darmstadt in the course of 1848.

In January of 1849 Dittmar founded the journal Soziale Reform, in which she published not only her own essays, but also articles by other leading democrats and women's rights advocates of her day, the majority of which addressed women's issues. Contributors included Ludwig Bamberger, Karl Fröbel, Claire von Glümer, Johanna Küstner, Malwida von Meysenbug, Louise Otto, and Otto Wigand. The journal folded after only four issues, although all but one of the essays in it were reprinted, along with some new ones, in a book entitled Das Wesen der Ehe nebst einigen Aufsätzen über die soziale Reform der Frauen (1849). The essays on marriage in this book, collectively entitled Das Wesen der Ehe, were republished separately in 1850, and this is the last book Dittmar ever managed to publish. Despite repeated efforts to find a publisher in the post-revolutionary years, despite the fact the her theological writings had been favorably reviewed by numerous newspapers (not only in Darmstadt and Mannheim, but also in towns as far away as Halle, Berlin, and Hamburg), and despite the prominent contributors she had attracted to her journal, publishers in the years of reaction probably found the causes Dittmar advocated simply too risky. From 18 50 on, she lived alone, traveling occasionally, also to France and Switzerland, but feeling increasingly discouraged, self-doubting, and withdrawn. In 1880, she moved in with two of her nieces, dying four years later after an extended illness; the obituary mourned the passing of the "good Aunt"--even her family had forgotten who she had once been. Only in the 1970s was Dittmar's work rediscovered and excerpts republished; only in 1980s has she begun to receive the critical scholarly attention she deserves, with Christina Klausmann in particular responsible for recovering much of the biographical data.

Among the approximately two dozen prominent female activists and writers of the 1840s in Germany, what made Dittmar unusual was not only the theoretical and philosophical quality of her writings, but also the incisiveness of her dissection of the reigning liberal conception of gender relations. Like other women's rights advocates of her day, she continually defended women's rights to education, economic self-sufficiency, and participation in government. But most of these other feminists, both male and female, coupled their calls for greater equality for women with concern about maintaining women's femininity and difference from men. Dittmar's writings, by contrast, worked to expose liberal self-contradiction when it came to women and other disempowered groups (indeed, her feminist concerns were always bound up with broader proposals for social justice), and--in a manner unique for her time-- repeatedly and brilliantly questioned the notion of "natural" differences between the sexes. Radical religious criticism, verging at times on an outraged atheism, was also a crucial component of her feminist work--even as she repeatedly drew upon a submerged strand within Christianity, a tradition of prophetic denunciation on injustice and faith in the possibility of a complete transformation and renewal of the world. The influence of Ludwig Feuerbach in particular is evident throughout her writings, and her efforts to revise Feuerbach and to make his insights usable for feminism are highly original. Thus Dittmar offered passionate and acute critiques of the suppression of women's individuality within conventional marriages, and the many subtle ways society robbed women of their self-esteem and capacity for self-determination--a striking forerunner to the quite similar critiques that would again be advanced by European and U.S. feminists more than a century later.

Dagmar Herzog


Herzog, Dagmar. Intimacy and Exclusion: Religious Politics in pre-Revolutionary Baden, 1803-1849 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996)

."Liberalism, Religious Dissent and Women's Rights: Louise Dittmar's Writings from the 1840s." In Konrad Jaraush and Larry Eugene Jones, eds., In Search of a Liberal Germany: Studies in the History of German Liberalism from 1789 to the Present. Oxford: Berg, 1990: 55-85.

Joeres, Ruth-Ellen Boetcher. "Spirit in Struggle: The Radical Vision of Louise Dittmar (1807-1884)." In Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres and Mary Jo Maynes, eds., Out of Line/Ausgefallen: The Paradox of Marginality in the Writings of Nineteenth-Century German Women. Special Issue of Amsterdamer Beiträge zur neueren Germanistik 28 (1989): 279-301.

Klausmann, Christina. "Louise Dittmar (1807-1884): Ergebnisse einer biographischen Spurensuche." In ibid.17-39.

Möhrmann, Renate. ed. Frauenemanzipation im deutschen Vormärz. Texte und Dokumente. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1978.

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