Sisters of Subversion
Histories of Women, Tales of Gender
A Festschrift for Cornelie Usborne
edited by: Willem de Blécourt
AMB Press - Amsterdam 2008
(ISBN 97890 79700 01 1, 255 pp., geïllustreerd / illustrated, paperback, € 25,-)
Liber amicorum for Cornelie Usborne
Introduction: The Cornelie Usborne Factor
Willem de Blecourt
Women in Weimar Germany: Image, Body, History
The Women of Weinsberg — Adalbert von Chamisso
Timothy Ades (translator)
Weighing a Woman’s Worth:How Leentje Willems Challenged the Magistrate of Oudewater
Baudelocque an der Mosel oder: Odysseen zur Geburtshilfe als Beruf
Medical Progress and “Crimes against Life”: Medical Experiments on Human Beings in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Germany
Dutch Neurasthenics Revisited: The Case of Rhijngeest from 1903 until 1914
Marijke Gijswijt Hofstra
When the ywca Entered the City: Space, Place and Modernity in the German ywca
Hilda Romer Christensen
Tabu und Kommunikation: Ansätze einer sprachlich orientierten Studie zur Abtreibung
Willem de Blecourt
“Woman as Husband”: The Amazing Masquerade of Adelaide Dallamore
Surrealism, Male – Female
Helene Stöcker’s “Neue Ethik” and the Contested Realm of Sexuality
Stella Browne and the German Radical Sex Reform Tradition
Lesley A. Hall
The Modern Woman on Trial: Edith Thompson as Deadly Sexual Inciter
The Body’s Resistance: Korperbildung and the Creation of Anti-Nazi Identities
“Die Eigenarts des jetzt zu behandelnden Materials”: nationalsozialistische Politik und gynäkologische Forschung
The Diaries of Luise Solmitz
Richard J. Evans
Women, National Socialism and the American Extreme Right
Unmarried Motherhood in Twentieth Century England
“Zwei wesensverschiedene Tatbestände”: Einbürgerung und Geschlechterdifferenz
Introduction: The Cornelie Usborne Factor
Willem de Blécourt
At the start of this project, one of the prospective contributors remarked cautiously that: “In England it would be extremely unusual for the honorand’s Festschrift to be edited by her partner”. He suggested a colleague from Germany instead, knowing very well that there were no former Ph.D. students available, who would normally have performed this task. If, after ample consideration, I have neglected this well meant advice, it is because I am not completely averse to changing time-worn customs (besides, no one else objected). Moreover, as Cornelie’s intellectual sparring partner I find myself uniquely and favourably positioned for this task because of access to circles of friends and academics that none of the German and English colleagues would possess to the same extent.
The difficulties were primarily practical: how do you work separately when you normally collaborate? And above all: how do you keep it secret? I may also have transgressed another of the academic mores: people beingfeted do not usually feature in their own Festschrift. Yet Cornelie’s recent inaugural lecture is incorporated here. There are several reasons for this. It very neatly presents not just an introduction to Cornelie’s thinking but also to the papers on offer in this book. There is also no sign as yet that it will be published elsewhere; in contrast to certain foreign universities, it seems it is not normal for Roehampton University (London) to issue in print the public acceptance speech of a chair, whether in history or in any other subject. In England inaugurals may present more an overview of the freshly appointed professor’s past work than a programme for future challenges, but they are not necessarily less interesting because of it. Apart from being subject to change, customs also vary. And when the recognition of intellectual prowess coincides with the point in one’s career when one becomes a focus for celebration, the conjunction can surely be expressed materially. In this particular case, even for those invited to Cornelie’s lecture it would be opportune to redigest her words in a quieter environment, as, owing to unfortunate planning, the actual event was intersected with the machinegun-like sounds of fireworks once meant to celebrate the victory of English parliamentary democracy over brute force, but meanwhile degraded to something very similar to the originally intended explosions.
‘Women in Weimar Germany’ certainly deserves a better fate, if not a wider public, as it charts the intricate relationship between historical research and the historian’s own history. Not that there could ever be a neat equation, enabling the researcher simply to distract the personal so as to remain with the impersonal.
The point is primarily that the historian needs to be urgently reinserted in the historical enterprise: history as written text is always authored. It is never a mere representation of “facts”. Sources only reveal anything through the agency of the researcher. The engaged writing of history thus surpasses the dichotomy between subjective and objective; being intersubjective at the most, it presents historical study as a conscious choice of the historian, informed by both present-day political issues and past experiences. That does not imply that a rigorous methodology is to be discarded, or that the “past Other” is not respected, or academic debate neglected. Doing history is very much a balancing act and the safety net is the critique of other experts (and the interested lay person always has to procure at least several different books on the same subject and still might be led astray).
There is never only one history and even the sometimes prevalent notion that sees agreement among historians as a substitute for “historical truth” cannot be accepted unconditionally. It does not make history vague; just exciting.
The eighteen other contributions to this book echo Cornelie’s academic interests on several levels. The authors also add their own authoritative voices, thereby constituting an arena of academic debate centred on the intersection of women’s history, German history, medical history, cultural history and the history of sexualities. Here mostly presented in chronological order, they engage with these different aspects of Cornelie’s work as it has developed over the last two decades. Above all, they show the spirit of subversion, especially in women, even if this may be only a matter of perspective. As subjects of the following chapters women may not always speak with a single voice; sometimes there is strife between them and more often than not they cannot be heard or read directly. As is the case with the criminal abortion files Cornelie has uncovered for historical consideration, women’s concerns, actions and opinions are often mediated both through the writers of the historical documents and the present-day historians.
Letters written by women are rare finds (although depending on class); diaries are to be treasured. While a centuries-spanning oral “women’s’ culture” has to be recognized as a romantic fairy tale, the assumption of the suppressed female voice, always in the context of some form of patriarchal power, is primarily a refreshing perspective. Although past people, women as well as men, may have searched for Neverwhere, it was never a part of the past. This volume thus offers fragments of women’s history, which in the context of mainstream history is itself, unfortunately, still an act of subversion.
Women’s history has been instrumental in opening up a number of related fields, most notably histories of the body and gender histories. By addressing issues such as sexuality, and by introducing concepts such as femininity and masculinity as tools of historical investigation, it has moved beyond a simple history of women. Woman’s history has brought historical awareness of, among other things, cultural constructions of “the body”, the agency of the senses, and the tensions between society’s expectations and individual desires. Yet women’s history has also remained important as mere portrayal of people of female persuasion who have not so much been “hidden in history” as rather been neglected by historians, even though most humanities departments now possess their token women’s historian. This is, of course, the cynical view, but justified as long as women are not automatically part of the historian’s mindset and as long as historians consider masculinity as something that men do, or “being a man”, and femininity as solely belonging to women. Each single one of these issues deserves much more than just a wry remark; here, however, they contribute to a frame for the following essays.
This book’s special character as a token of appreciation of Cornelie’s work means that it is not composed as a catalogue of female subversiveness. If I introduce the chapters here by looking for the “subversive” elements (from the view of dominant society), or for a particular woman’s own sense of value and meaning, I am primarily following one of Cornelie’s own persistent approaches as a discussant to academic papers, whether it concerns nineteenth-century Dutch somnambules or the eleventh-century anonymous weavers of the Bayeux tapestry.
Here, one can start with Leentje Willems, the only “witch” in this book and, not entirely coincidental given Cornelie’s chronological focus, the only earlymodern story presented here. Since for Leentje the label “witch” did not denote any rebellion (at the most a crossing of boundaries perceived by her opponents), but rather an impugnment of her honour, she tried very hard to have it removed.
If she thereby, if not precisely subverted, at least changed the peculiar policies of the one town in the Netherlands that provided certificates which for the informed contemporary reader showed that its bearer was not a “witch”, she left a lasting legacy. Her case, based on a serious scrutinizing of a long-known account, also illustrates the necessity of historical debate, among witchcraft historians as well as amateur historians. The call for critical reflection also applies, though in a completely different sense, to the matter of the possible influence of feminist view points among members of right-wing organizations, as raised in one of the last chapters. If the male “racist right” is not univocal about the other half of humanity (or what they see as such), then it remains the question whether and, if so, to what extent this injection of feminism contributes to the undermining of their ideology. How should the voice of a single woman in a male environment be appraised?
Female sexuality is addressed in a number of ways. Both the chapters on unmarried motherhood in twentieth-century England and on midwives in the German-French border area around 1800 deal with circumstances of childbirth. The first chooses to confront Cornelie’s studies on abortion with an overview of the other side of the coin and argues that single mothers would be able to survive reasonably well if only given the proper opportunities. Men are not really needed, yet are continuously present in a number of positions. None of Cornelie’s colleagues offered to write an article on those women who gave birth continuously within marriage, from their first sexual encounter until the onset of their menopause (I did not ask). It would have made the overall picture even more rounded, as this was also an important group to practice termination. The chapter on midwifery (presented much earlier in the book because of the early date of its historical occurrence) ostensibly shows how one of the first independent career opportunities for young women, in this case to train and work as midwives, was frustrated by the opposition of the already fully functioning village midwives, usually elderly, post-menopausal women who had experienced childbirth themselves. Since the success of officially educated midwives depended largely on the density of male physicians (roughly: the more doctors, the less room for midwives), the problems between the new and the old midwives likewise appear to have been orchestrated by men who first approved of the traditional midwives and then tried to have them replaced. Confronting seemingly divergent contributions with each other may result in not immediately obvious approaches.
Perhaps one of these studies will inspire a cultural inquiry into the history of miscarriages and still-born children. Abortion itself, Cornelie’s major special topic, is addressed in the Dutch example. While also paying attention to the discongruity between the abortifacients as reported in folklore accounts and those featuring in court records (where it appears that herbal remedies were not very efficient), it focusses on the problem of how to talk about abortion when it is actually a taboo subject. In the illustrating case-history the problem is solved by circumlocution. In relation to the remark above on the kinds of aborting women, it may be illuminating to reveal that it concerns both a woman who already had too many children and one of her daughters who had a (pre-marital) sexual encounter and had become pregnant. Although not prosecuted (as would have been the case in Germany) the women involved still undermined the (in this case) Catholic ideals of a woman’s body.
Sexuality of a different kind is present in the papers on Helene Stöcker and StellaBrown. In sublimated form, or so it can be interpreted, it can be detected in the essay on Dore Jacobs. Here it concerns strong personal convictions paired with political action. Stöcker wanted to transform “conventional views about sexuality and love” and substitute her own strict sense of morality for the one current in Germany at the time, among other reasons, “to live equally without fear of authority”.
She “directly linked transformations of the self with a radical potential to transform the policy”, at a time when “corporeal experiments (…) were frequently understood as symbols of or rehearsals for a far-reaching societal and political renaissance.” She also exerted a strong influence on Brown, whose application of Stöckers radical ideas in Britain brought her into conflict with mainstream feminists. Brown, in her turn and on a different level, provided one of the ideological justifications of single motherhood. As individual actions without immediate contemporary political implications sexuality comes to the fore in the contributions on Adelaide Dallamore and Edith Thompson, even though the bigotry of Edith’s state-sanctioned murder secured her immortality and a place in the discussion on the sustainability of the death sentence in Britain. Edith Thompson’s life history shows that she had merely been one of the paragons of the New Woman, suffering the misfortune of havinga boyfriend who deemed it necessary to put a knife into her husband. Adelaide, on the other hand, was only punished in the sense that (as far as can be ascertained) her common-law marriage with another woman came to an early Academia suspended, or: the persistent gardener, c. 2000.end. Blurred gender boundaries sketch the mainstream opinions very clearly.
Moreover, Dallamore’s cross-dressing subverted masculinity by showing that itwas independent from biological sex. But as the author concludes: “At the very same moment that [ female to male] cross-dressing reinforced ideal masculinity it also undermined its authority as ‘natural’ and exposed its fragility”. Edith Thompson mainly questioned marital norms, an integral part of femininity, by entertaining a lover.
The linguistic turn puts the emphasis on the epistemological insight that past experiences can mainly be known through language; re-enactments and empathy have never been a substitute for serious historical research. But language canbe tricky and especially sexual issues often need deciphering of euphemisms and metaphors. The somatic turn, far from regressing into biology, has in its turn prompted a sensitivity towards varieties in comprehending the body and one could consider a woman’s body, not just as a “site of experience, memory or subjectivity”, but also as a “site of subversion”. Dancing and gymnastics, or even nudity and sexual intercourse could, in the right circumstances, embody protest.
Another turn, recently examined during a conference Cornelie organized at Roehampton, embraced pictures not just as illustration of historical events, but as “documents” in their own right. Here it is represented by an essay on surrealism and gender, which, as so many other products of historical research, corrects prevalent views and shows the ambivalence of male sexuality (at least in this version).
Surrealism is subversion incarnate. As it contested gender boundaries too, it presents a neat contrast to the Dallamore case, among other things because of the difference between staged art and daily life. One of the other potential focuses of the visual turn concerns visualization in medical research, noticed in another chapter in passing as a male attempt to look inside a living woman’s body, in the process grossly intruding on her rights and bodily integrity. And there is also the spatial turn. All these recent “turns” seems to denote both an openness to interdisciplinary exchange and an insecurity as to the historian’s own discipline.
Subversion may not always have been addressed explicitly as a topic in a particular paper; it can also be present as a characteristic of a paper. Investigation into medical experiments on humans, for instance, makes a controversial, disquieting subject matter. These experiments have a rich history, beyond the Third Reich and they promoted the concept of “killable life”, applicable to people who had fallen through the cracks in society. Those could thus be redefined as “nonpeople”; the example of prostitutes in late-nineteenth-century Breslau shows that experiments on them were justified “with the ideology of bourgeois, patriarchal society, in which a prostitute was socially ostracized as a deadly carrier of epidemic and thus regulated accordingly”. In the discussion of the Austrian practice of medical experiments on women, protests are likewise merely hinted at, for instance when the medical strategies are described which aimed to break women’s opposition to forced sterilization. Resistance existed (although it was futile), also when it was not transmitted directly by documents or singled out by historians. On an individual (non-medical) level nationalist feelings interfered with personal experiences and led to reconsideration of political alliances, as illuminated by the case of Luise Solmitz.
Even if the individual woman’s voice is not immediately heard, it is still present in the abstraction, either in the discussion of the persisting policies concerning English single mothers, or of those concerning German married women. In this context “neurasthenia” figures as a counter point. It was a medically defined diagnosis, as all illnesses culturally constructed and described as: “a disorder of modernity, caused by the fast pace of urban life”. Neurasthenia may be seen as a potential subversion subverted, to which not surprisingly, men and women reacted in slightly different ways. Its cure needed neither imprisonment nor a death sentence, but merely a few months in a quiet environment under professional care. The dialectics of subversion are such that it is defined by the social frame that it opposes and then readjusts.
At first glance it may be hard to discern any sign of rebellion in the ywca, the Young Women’s Christian Association. While joining in the trend for travelling among adolescents, it mostly aimed to counter the development that had brought the New Woman to life. By providing a special house, it turned the city (in this instance suburbia because of lack of funds) into a home, “a home away from home” offering a place of belonging wherever young maidens went. As such, it was nevertheless part of Weimar culture and there are even conceptual links to the organizations on the Left who also created their own houses to receive the like-minded, or indeed with the movement that practised “eurhythmics” as a form of political self-identification and protest. Part of the spatial turn, it invites one to think in terms of space, less as a neutral “background” or “place” but as infused with meaning, through the practice of performance. A mere house can play a decisive role in the “creation of an imagined common identity”. As such it can incorporate protest, although it took the onslaught of fascism to make even the members of the ywca start to doubt, when the “home” became a “refuge for women with professional ambitions that were otherwise restricted or tainted by the Nazi regime”.
All these papers together stress the necessity of the internationalization of cultural history, not as a mere comparison of single issues, but as a recognition of the communication between past and present people of different nationalities.
Like Stella Brown, the historian has to become a “committed internationalist”. At the least an “international turn” provides sharper contour and an enhancement of local peculiarities. (Sometimes I muse that one of the reasons I became involved with Cornelie was that as a Dutchman, although preferring the label “European”, I bridge England and Germany). In any case, patriarchy was not just local and the New Women of the nineteen-twenties was not just a German or an English or French phenomenon; both were unthinkable without the influence of the First World War. Sexual knowledge, which because of its biblical connotations always meant more than just a certain recognition of biological “facts”, was scant not just in the Netherlands, in Britain “for women to be ‘knowing’ about sex and, worse still, to take the sexual initiative, was unacceptable”. It would certainly be worthwhile to draw out more of these lines on a European scale, especially in the light of national or regional variation. Subversion knows no boundaries.
This introduction may have enticed the reader to wander freely from one chapter to another without following a particular order. Different directions through the articles and different combinations of them may result in a different sense of understanding and lead to other forms of lateral reading. To round off: the streak of the subversive is, of course, a personal idiosyncrasy of the honorand, who, when a teenager confronted with Germany’s recent past, took her cue from American movies and rebelled; she now confesses to have found refuge in the study of literature. A couple of years later her rebellion consisted, as for so many other contemporary German women, of marrying a foreigner and moving to another country. Again later, when merely expected to fulfil her role as wife and mother and to organize functions for her then husband’s relations and relatives, studying in itself became an act of resistance and the fulfilment of one of her own potentials. At that point literature was, significantly, relegated to the leisure zone, if such a category had not increasingly become blurred in intellectual pursuits.
When, together with films, literature reappears again in her latest book Cultures of Abortion, it signals a reappraisal of both change and continuity. May the essays in this volume inspire her to yet another readjustment and, above all, to new additions to historical awareness.
Thanks to the contributors who together made this Festschrift possible. And special
thanks to Bram de Blecourt, Eva Labouvie, Machteld Lowensteyn, Krisztina Roberts,
Karen Schonwalder, and Jenny Willis for discussing the project and helping to bring
the book into the world.