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Schooling German Girls and Women
Secondary and Higher Education in the Nineteenth Century
By James C. Albisetti
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1988 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
The German Ideal of Womanhood and Education
On 2 January 1824, Goethe commented in one of the conversations faithfully recorded by his friend Johann Eckermann, "We love in a young woman things entirely different from her intelligence." Although he went on to say that men could respect intelligence in a woman and that it even could be valuable as a means "to bind us when we already love," Goethe made clear then as well as in his fictional works that other qualities formed the essence of feminine charm. His most famous German female characters, Lotte in The Sufferings of Young Werther and Gretchen in Faust, certainly did not attract men through displays of clever reasoning or deep learning. The "eternal feminine" as conceived of by Goethe had little to do with a woman's mental powers, especially not with those cultivated through formal education in school.
Goethe's writings, along with those of many contemporaries, helped to propagate what many people in the later nineteenth century would refer to as the German ideal of womanhood. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, numerous German intellectuals, from major philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Johann Gottlieb Fichte to many nearly forgotten pastors and educators, attempted to define woman's "nature" and her proper place in society. The many such works from this era put forward three related but distinct points of view, all of which drew in part on the extremely influential works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Philanthropist educators tended to emphasize woman's duties in the household; the idealist philosophers, woman's "nature" as a complement to that of man; and romantic poets and writers, woman's role as mother. This chapter will examine the elaboration of this German ideal of womanhood and analyze a continuing controversy among historians about the extent to which it represented a new ideology that served to lower the position of middle-class women in the various German states. Then the discussion will focus on the views expressed in this same era about why and how girls' education should be extended and reformed.
Polarization of Sexual Stereotypes About 1800?
Recent research into the history of the family and of women has challenged radically Goethe's belief in an eternal, immutable idea of femininity. Efforts to treat gender as a historical category comparable to class or ethnicity, and to examine changes over time in the sexual division of labor and in perceptions of the "nature" of men and women, have resulted in a new understanding of the alterations in sex roles over the centuries. For Germany, in fact, many scholars have concluded that both the realities of and the ideological justifications for modern notions of separate spheres for men and women emerged in the educated middle class only during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In a recent survey of the history of German women, Ute Frevert discusses this era in a section entitled simply, "New Bourgeoisie and New Femininity."
It is not difficult to find writers of this period who emphasized the differing natures and fates of the two sexes. Many leading representatives of German idealism and romanticism argued that the sexes, despite sharing a common humanity, possessed by nature differing characteristics and talents that made them complementary rather than identical. Kant, for example, stressed the way women's "temperament has characteristic traits that clearly differentiate it from ours." In particular, he thought women were more concerned with and defined by the beautiful, men by the noble or sublime. Kant insisted that women's "worldly wisdom is not specious reasoning, but feeling."
Wilhelm von Humboldt, in an essay written in 1794, also put a strong emphasis on the complementarity of the sexes, which felt "a painful deprivation" that caused them to turn to each other for fulfillment. Humboldt extended traditional notions of male activity and female passivity in sexual intercourse to the creation of intellectual or artistic works, although he admitted that all such works had both masculine and feminine elements. The implications of his views for women's activities in the public sphere were decidedly negative: "Induced by their nature itself more to turn inward than to wander in the wide world, all receptive beings are chained to a steadier, less changeable course."
In 1797, in a discussion of "natural law" as it applied to marriage, Johann Gottlieb Fichte stressed that, not human law or social convention, but nature had decreed women's subordinate position. Although he did not claim that women's mental capacities were less than those of men, Fichte insisted that "the intellect of both has by nature a totally different character." Women possessed "a natural feeling for distinguishing the true, the proper, and the good." Femininity made women "particularly practical, but in no way speculative," and thus destined them for the home. Two decades later, Ernst Moritz Arndt would echo Fichte's insistence that nature, not social convention, was responsible for separate spheres for the sexes.
Members of the romantic movement tended to devote more attention to, and put a higher valuation on, woman's role as mother than the idealist philosophers did. The most enthusiastic celebration of motherhood came from Jean Paul Richter, who spoke of "the first and most important education, that given by the mother, which no after tutors, schools, or paternal praise and blame can ever replace." In his view, "Nature has directly formed woman to be a mother, only indirectly to be a wife." Yet romantics like Jean Paul and Friedrich Schlegel shared the idealist notion of the complementarity of the sexes, and they added to it an assertion that women are more childlike than men. As Schlegel wrote in his novel Lucinde, "Having remained the creatures of nature in the midst of human society, women alone possessed that childlike consciousness with which one has to accept the favors and gifts of the gods." For Jean Paul, all of women's "powers are rather receptive than formative."
Many writers more directly concerned with female education adopted this concept of separate spheres for men and women. According to the Philanthropist J. H. Campe, whose Fatherly Advice for My Daughter (1789) would become the most widely read book on girls' education during the next decades, it was "the common will of nature and of human society that the man should be the protector and master of the woman, the woman in contrast ... the loyal, thankful, and obedient companion and helpmate of his life." The pastor Johann Philipp Trefurt, in advertising a girls' school he had opened in Göttingen, commented in 1806, "The sphere in which the female sex is destined to work is certainly narrower than that which is assigned to the man, and only seldom can that sphere be enlarged beyond its natural limits without the loss of precious femininity." Putting forward guidelines for girls' education in 1836, the theologian F.H.C. Schwarz asserted, "The woman must not involve herself in the domain of the man; not the least interest in his occupation can be approved of."
In an essay that has become by far the most influential exploration of German ideas about women in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Karin Hausen argued that the polarization of sex roles in this era was definitely a new phenomenon. "From the end of the eighteenth century," she wrote, "character definitions took the place of status definitions." This was true especially for the educated middle class, where the separation of home and male work was most advanced at this time: "In contrast to previous generations, it was only the woman, and no longer the man, who was defined by the family; and also in contrast to earlier times it was the laws of nature, history, and morality that set the boundaries." For Hausen, there is no doubt that the ideology about the "natural" spheres and characters of the sexes served "to reinforce patriarchal authority" and to impose new restrictions on women.
Many other scholars have supported Hausen's interpretation. Peter Petschauer, for example, traced the shift in this era from the use of the term Haustnutter, which referred to a woman who managed an extended household that produced goods, to that of the term Hausfrau, which had a connotation similar to "housewife" in modern American usage. Susan Cocalis and Kay Goodman pointed out that "at the end of the eighteenth century, the literature of German Classicism began to codify the images of women ... into 'universally valid' models for female behavior that have remained normative until this day." Gerda Tornieporth echoed Hausen by saying that "the differentiation of 'masculine' and 'feminine' spheres of work according to productive and reproductive sectors did not exist before industrialization." Barbara Duden argued, "Only the achievement of bourgeois society brought with it an oppression of women that reached even into the psyche." The new ideal of woman as spouse, mother, and housewife, she emphasized, resulted in a "degradation" of women by making them more complaisant in the face of oppression. As Dagmar Grenz said of the effects of this process, "The ideal turned into shackles for the real woman."
Responding to these and similar statements about the fate of women in nineteenth-century Europe, the French historian Olwen Hufton has lamented how "feminist writing on the nineteenth century has tended to force upon historians of the early modern period one unenviable task, that of locating a bon vieux temps when women enjoyed a harmonious, if hard working, domestic role and social responsibility before they were downgraded into social parasites or factory fodder." Students of the history of German women are not unaware of the implications of this observation. Duden, for example, found it necessary to say that her critique of the oppression of women in bourgeois society "in no way glorifies preindustrial conditions." In a similar fashion, Tornieporth admitted that, although generations preceding the polarization of sexual characteristics may have valued women's work in the household more highly, they also witnessed more frequent expressions of contempt for women. The historian of education Ulrich Herrmann has even pointed out that in the writings of the later eighteenth century woman's role as mother underwent a "decisive upward valuation."
Annette Kuhn has gone the farthest in arguing not only that there was no golden age for women in the period before 1770 but also that Hausen and others have exaggerated the degree of change that occurred in the late eighteenth century. Willing to admit that the ideological foundations for woman's role may have changed, Kuhn found continuity to be more important than discontinuity in this era with regard to both the economic realities of the division of labor and the assumptions about woman's place in the home. In her view, "The sexual stereotypes of the late eighteenth century were only the latest formulation of the previously prescribed roles for women." Influenced by this critique of Hausen's views, Ute Frevert has chosen to refrain from attempting to measure the half-known against the unknown in her most recent work, commenting, "As long as we know so much less about relations of the sexes in the 16th, 17th, or 18th centuries than about male-female relationships in the 19th and 20th centuries, the attempt to depict earlier social structures as friendlier to women lacks any scholarly basis."
There is no disagreement, however, about the rapid growth during the last third of the eighteenth century in the number of treatises devoted to the education of girls and the role of women in German society. To a certain extent, the sharp increase in works on these topics may merely reflect the expansion of the reading public. Yet the many reprintings of works such as Campe's Fatherly Advice also suggest a strong demand for guidance on proper behavior from some segments of the German population. Whether such works tended more to describe an existing state of affairs or to prescribe alterations in typical behavior is difficult to determine. Admitting that most such treatises "at the very least do not contradict the accepted model for the sexual division of labor," Hausen remarked that "the polarization of the sexes only coincided with real social phenomena in the educated bourgeoisie."
Seldom acknowledged by scholars interested in this polarization of sex roles is the almost total absence of tracts by Catholic writers among the works being studied. Whereas the frequent appeals in this literature to nature or history for justification of woman's place in society suggest that for educated Protestants older religious prescriptions were losing their effectiveness, Catholic Germans in this era do not appear to have felt the need to redefine or reinforce their views of women. As will be discussed in Chapter Two, the formal education of Catholic girls in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries underwent fewer significant changes than did that of Protestant girls.
For the educated Protestant middle class these years did see a rapid growth in the number of "higher girls' schools." The development of schools specifically for girls certainly is an example of the existence of "separate spheres" for the sexes, but for this social group — primarily the families of pastors and civil servants — such separation was not new: earlier generations of middle-class Protestant girls had not attended schools and universities with their brothers. According to Hausen, the new "educational policies had the effect of widening the gap between the sexes," because "when it was decided that girls too should have a planned education, the judgment on the 'nature' of women had already been fixed." In her view, the schools served to inculcate young girls more thoroughly than had been possible before with beliefs and behavior patterns corresponding to the ideology of separate spheres for men and women. Yet scholars more directly interested in the girls' schools than Hausen have also stressed the positive potential in having a planned education where there had been none before. Only after the need for some form of secondary schooling for girls had been recognized could demands arise that it should become equal to that given their brothers.
The Fear of Miseducation
Two major themes dominate much of the prescriptive literature about female education published in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: a deep fear about the possibility of the mis-education (Verbildung) of girls and a conviction that women required formal preparation for their "natural" calling to be wives, mothers, and housekeepers. The frequency with which these themes recur reveals that male writers in this era did not have complete confidence in the ability of "nature" or "natural law" to steer women toward their proper place in society. Assistance from human institutions was often seen as necessary to ensure the desired result. Much of the confusion surrounding this issue stemmed from the wonderfully ambiguous German word usually used to describe woman's role, her Bestimmung. Given that this word means, among other things, definition, destiny, and vocation, to say that the Bestimmung of woman was to be a spouse, mother, and housewife could imply that this was what she was, what her inevitable fate was, or what she chose to be. Even writers who did not employ the term Bestimmung could become enmeshed in similar ambiguities about determinism and free will. The pedagogue J. L. Ewald, for example, equated a woman's occupation (Beruf) with her essence (Wesen).
Around the turn of the century, few writers about girls' education accepted the sensationalist psychology that would later lead John Stuart Mill to argue that there were no innate mental differences between men and women. J. H. Campe came closest to attributing all such differences to nurture, suggesting to girls that "if you practice masculine physical and mental exercises, ... you will never reach your Bestimmung." Much more common was the belief that improper education would deflect girls from their Bestimmung by cultivating undesirable innate characteristics or by failing to develop necessary ones. The conservatively minded Ernst Brandes, for example, asserted that girls could be "led away" from their destiny. Johann Daniel Hensel, more interested in improving the education available to girls, nonetheless emphasized that "great care is required from childhood on, if a woman is to become what she can become." Writing in 1826, the influential Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher suggested that the problem was to avoid wasteful, rather than harmful, education. "How is female education to be arranged," he asked, "so that on the one hand nothing happens that will be rendered useless by woman's natural Bestimmung, and on the other the female sex will be aided to the degree necessary for the improvement of its position and for its influence on the future generation?"
Excerpted from Schooling German Girls and Women by James C. Albisetti. Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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