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Malwida Rivalier von Meysenbug

MALWIDA RIVALIER VON MEYSENBUG(1816-1903) German liberal democrat, born into a family burghers in Kassel. Her father, Carl Rivalier, the principal minister for two archdukes of Hesse-Kassel, subsequently granted the vacant Meysenbug title and was later raised into the Habsburg aristocracy. She was an avowed democrat and supported demands for constitutionalism in the German states. During 1845-1847, Meysenbug sharpened her democratic beliefs in concert with Theodor Althaus, the radical theologian and later editor of the Bremer Zeitung. Meysenbug's theoretical framework outstripped that of many of the male forty-eighters in that she advocated equal opportunity for women in the new German state. She firmly believed that women should have access to education in order to be self-supporting and that they should participate in shaping society.

Meyesenbug maintained significant friendships and corresponded with such forty-eighters as Robert Blum, Carl Schurz, Julius Fröbel and Carl Volkhausen. While she did not fight on any barricades during the 1848-1849 uprisings, she demonstrated her partisanship for a new society by joining the German Catholic Free Congregation of Frankfurt in 1848. This oppositional religious group was increasingly politicized, espousing social and political equality for all its members, regardless of sex; these ideal most closely mirrored Meysenbug's.

Although women were not allowed to observe the Frankfurt Pre- parliament, Meysenbug arranged to be smuggled into the St. Pauls church and secreted herself in a flag-draped balcony. When the revolution was threatened, Meysenbug's pamphlet, Die Schwur einer Frau (The Oath of a Woman), was published by Volkhausen to hearten and encourage liberals and radicals to continue their struggle.

In Berlin, she attended sessions of the Prussian national assembly, witnessing its subsequent dispersal by Prussian troops. Robert Blum's execution in Vienna, the fall of Hungary, and the failure of the revolution in Baden disheartened her, particularly since her brother Wilhelm was one of the ministers instrumental in quashing the rebellion.

The role of the family radical pitted Meysenbug against her siblings and mother; this deterioration of her home life led her to part from them in 1850. Determined to participate in one of the few remaining liberal outposts in Germany, she enrolled in the Hamburger Hochschule für Weibliche Geschlecht established by German Catholic women. This institution's goal was to educate women to prepare them for self-support and for assumtion of the full duties of citizenship in an egalitarian society. In addition to her studies, Meysenbug soon joined the staff. As director of the women's residence and member of the search committee for faculty for all of the congregational schools, she was instrumental in implementing elementary coeducation, sliding scale tuition, and hiring liberal and radical faculty. In addition, she worked in expanding the Hamburg workers' circle as Prussian pressure forced the disbanding of artisans' groups and free congregations throughout Germany.

In 1852, the Hamburg Free Catholic Congregation disbanded its educational facilities one step ahead of the city fathers' intervention. Meysenbug moved to Berlin where she was placed under police surveillance for trafficking with revolutionaries. Forewarned in May of her impending arrest, she fled by way of Hamburg to London, where she became a prominent member of the emigre community.

In London, Meysenbug supported herself by giving German lessons. She frequented the circles of Graf Reichenbach, Baronin Brüning, and Gottfried and Johanna Kinkel, with whom she had corresponded since Kinkel's arrest. The Kinkels introduced her to Alexander Herzen, whose daughter she undertook to raise as an equal in the Herzen household. Her circle of friends widened to include the revolutionaries, Garibaldi, Louis Blanc, Mazzini, Pulsky and Kossuth.

After leaving Herzen, Meysenbug was instrumental in Mazzini's workers' circle movement; she was the catalyst for the formation of the German emigre group while Mazzini sought to institute his brotherhood of man among Italian emigres.

Meysenbug supported herself by translating literary works and writing articles for the radical press such as Herzen's Kolokol.

Meysenbug's active involvement with revolutionary and democratic movements effectively ended when she legally adopted Alexander Herzen's youngest daughter and moved to Italy where she devoted herself to rearing Olga Herzen.

Meysenbug never abandoned her conviction that women must be educated to independence; in 1876-1877, together with Friedrich Nietzche and Richard Wagner, she planned to establish a school for young women in Rome. After the failure of this project, Meysenbug supported herself by writing, including her memoirs, romantic novels, and short stories with underlying themes of egalitarian utopian societies.

Meysenbug nurtured her extensive friendship network all her life. Perhaps her most illustrious later connections was with the poet Romain Rolland, whom she mentored until her death in 1903.
M. Tomaschewsky


Althaus, Friedrich. Theodore Althaus: Ein Lebensbild. Bonn: Verlag von Emil Straub, 1888.

Graf, Friedrich Wilhelm. Die Politisierung des religiösen Bewusstseins. Stuttgart: Friedrich Frommann Verlag, 1978.

Joeres, Ruth-Ellen B. and Mary Jo Maynes, eds. German Women in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries: A Social and Literary History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Meysenbug, Malwida von. Memoiren einer Idealistin, 4th ed. 3 vols. Berlin and Leipzig: Schuster & Loeffler, 1899.

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