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Woman's College

Woman's College (Hamburger Hochschule für das weibliche Geschlecht (1849-1852), or women's college, was the most ambitious institutional venture undertaken by German women during the revolutionary era. The college purported to offer higher education to women of all classes under the non-confessional secular auspices. The institution had no real antecedents -- and actually no successors until the end of the century. Other contemporary schools were intentionally restricted by class, religious orientation or purpose. Virtually none carried the systematic education of girls beyond their fourteenth year. Even the efforts of other women during the revolution seem amateurish by comparison. The college addressed a glaring deficiency in the realm of women's education but as an institution serving what in the end proved to be a limited constituency, it attracted more controversy than other segments of revolutionary ecumenical activity.

The Hochschule expressed a need long recognized among progressive women in Hamburg. In this regard they were not unique. Amalie Sieveking, spokesperson for organized women traditionalists, frequently articulated her concern about the absence of advanced women's education. Doris Luetkens, who conducted a school for girls in Hamburg and edited a pedagogical periodical, also promoted the cause of higher education for women. But for these women, a confessional context was essential. Hamburg's progressive women, Christian and Jewish alike, concurred in the conviction that the monopoly of education by confessional institutions held the training of women to the contemporary level of mediocrity. The Hochschule was a product of the collaboration of two societies: the Frauenverein zur Bekämpfung und Ausgleichung religiöser Vorurteile or Women's Association to Combat and Reduce Religious Prejudice, known as the Social Club. The latter society organized in 1849 as a by-product of revolutionary legislation enacting the emancipation of the Jews, was designed not simply to surmount religious difference but also to identify the common concerns of gender and to address these concerns with an agenda for action. Many of its members had previous organizational experience in the women's auxiliary to support German-catholicism. That auxiliary from its very inception boasted a larger and more committed membership than the congregation itself, an association, in fact, of extraordinary women (cf. article German-catholic Women). The brochure Hochschule für Mädchen und Kindergärten als Glieder einer vollständigen Bildungsanstalt welche Erziehung für Familie und Untericht der Schule verbindet (Universities for Girls, and Kindergartens as Segments of a Comprehensive Educational Institution which Unites Education for Family and School Instruction) by Karl Fröbel and his wife Johanna Küstner Froebel came to the early attention of the Social Club. Küstner had distinguished herself as an advocate for women at the Rudolstadt Congress in 1848, convened by Friedrich Fröbel in the hope of influencing delegates to the Frankfurt National Parliament. Karl and Johanna Fröbel derived their pedagogy from a theory of innate sexual difference. The highest goal of women was transforming the ideal, or the intellectual, into the concrete, whereas man's goal was the reverse: the intellectualization of the concrete. Woman was by nature committed to the individual, the specific; man, to the general, the abstract. However, the Fröbels denied any intrinsic difference in the rational capacities of the sexes. As Karl Fröbel declared: "If women lag behind men in knowledge, artistic achievement and accomplishment, the reason lies partly in the fact that they are offered fewer opportunities to demonstrate their achievements, but much more, in their disadvantageous training." Emilie Wustenfeld and Bertha Traun were the two members of the Social Club delegated to interview the Fröbels in Zurich. Both belonged to the commercial class in Hamburg; Traun was a daughter of Heinrich Christian Meyer, Stock-Meyer as he was known, Hamburg's model of the self-made manufacturer. Both Wüstenfeld and Traun participated in the distinctive women's culture of the period (Cf. article Luise Aston) by their articulate opposition to the prevailing custom of arranged marriage. Both succeeded in winning divorces from their husbands. Their views on marriage were interwoven with their commitment to women's education, for, as Wuestenfeld wrote in the promotional literature for the college: "More than ever the last few years have once again made apparent the uncertainty of material property and external relationships, and have confirmed the premise that thorough, basic education is the only certain dowry for life."

Karl Fröbel was engaged as rector of the women's college; Johanna, as administrator of the Pension. Doors opened to students in January 1850. They were promised a training that "comprised everything that practical, social and intellectual life could demand of an educated woman." The program was strenuous. Admission, by examination, was restricted to girls who had reached the age of sixteen. Emphasis in the curriculum during the first semester was on philosophy and educational theory. The Froebels established a kindergarten within the college based on a particularly radical understanding of their uncle's principles, where college pupils were required to observe and practice-teach. These disciplines were supplemented by instruction in French, English, literature, history and geography. The second semester added three hours a week of mathematics, two of chemistry and one each of botany and astronomy. The faculty came from the boys' Gymnasia and from the churches of Hamburg. Anton Rée of the Jewish school taught language, poetry and physics; Georg Weigelt of the German-Catholic congregation taught astronomy and geography. Their ranks swelled from the increasingly large population of refugees who appeared in the city: radical intellectuals forced to flee the states where they had participated in the revolution. Adolf Diesterweg, the pedagogue, was a ubiquitous figure at the college; in the spring of 1850 he published an article on women's education for the periodical Rheinische Blätter für Erziehung und Unterricht, based on his Hamburg experience. The classes were not conducted according to contemporary Germany university practice; lectures were interrupted by discussion and time set aside for questions. The pupils seem to have numbered about one hundred and their evident commitment was a source on constant comment in the contemporary press. Malwida von Meysenburg (1816-1903), the writer, became the most distinguished of the alumnae, and her memoirs provide the best published description of life at the college.

Beyond the resources afforded by tuition, the college succeeded in winning financial support and publicity from most of the auxiliaries of German-catholicism, was an ardent advocate of women's education and promoted the institute with his characteristic charisma. Women's friendship and kinship networks proved to be invaluable to the recruitment of both students and donations. But even within feminist circles the college generated opposition. Louise Otto, (Cf. article on Louise Otto) for instance, was ambivalent about the enterprise because she thought that women's efforts should be dedicated to the relief of revolutionary prisoners and their families. Ultimately conservative forces in Hamburg undermined support for the college. A pietist campaign suggested that the college instilled demagoguery in the name of science; Amalie Sieveking propagandized against the program which trained women in a belief system utterly opposed to her own. With the advance of the reaction in Hamburg the founders of the college decided to terminate their experiment rather than compromise their principles. Many of them, most notably Bertha Traun and Malwida von Meysenbug, sought refuge in England as political exiles.
Catherine M. Prelinger


Kayser, Rudolf. "Malwida von Meysenbugs Hamburger Lehrjahre." Zeitschrift des Vereins für Hamburgische Geschichte XXVIII (1927): 116-28.

Kortmann, Marie. "Aus den Anfängen sozialer Frauenarbeit." Frau Monatschrift für das gesammte Frauenleben unserer Zeit 20 (1913): 425-34, 467-72.

Emilie Wuestenfeld: Eine Hamburger Bürgerin. Hamburg: Georg Westermann, 1927.

Otto, Louise. Frauen-Zeitung 1 (1849), 2 (1850); continued as Frauen-Zeitung für die höheren weiblichen Interessen 3 (1851), 4 (1852).

Prelinger, Catherine M. Charity, Challenge, and Change: Religious Dimensions of the Mid-Nineteenth Century Women's Movement in Germany. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1987.

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