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Passing and Covering: How Jewish Women Assimilated into German Feminism

Mon, December 18, 1:15 to 2:45pm, Marriott Marquis Washington, DC, Catholic University Room


In June of 1912, an article in the antisemitic journal DEUTSCH-SOZIALE BLÄTTER pointedly attacked the dominance of Jewish women in the contemporary German women’s movement. This angry critic was not just complaining about the number and prominence of Jewish women in contemporary women’s politics, but suggesting that the “Jewesses” were intrinsically antagonistic to “German ideals.” This paper explores the lives of two leaders of German feminism in the early twentieth century, Alice Salomon and Lida Gustava Heymann. Salomon was active in the Jewish women’s organization (Jüdischer Frauenbund), converted to become a Protestant in 1919, and was a founder of the profession of social work. Salomon was a protégé of the idiosyncratic Jewish feminist Bertha Pappenheim. Even after her conversion, she suffered significant discrimination inside of the feminist movement. Lida Gustava Heymann’s causes were much more radical than Salomon’s, as she campaigned for the abolition of state control over prostitution, for women’s suffrage, and was opposed to all forms of nationalism. She was born to wealth and privilege, and devoted her fortune to educational and refuge facilities in Hamburg in the last years of the nineteenth century. She lived for decades in a committed relationship with the lawyer Anita Augsburg. The irony was that Heymann was a sort of hidden Jew, whereas Augsburg, who was definitely not Jewish, was frequently attacked as Jew.

In the paper, I highlight the contradictions and paradoxes of these lives, placing the two women in the context of a broader landscape of Jewish women activists of their era. The aim is to discover which skills, friendships, family origins, and personal goals helped them achieve significant assimilation within the German women’s movement. Historians have long pursued the question of whether or not nationalism and antisemitism were subliminally present in this movement in the Weimar era. Here I try to answer this troubling question by exploring how two leading feminists experienced and displayed religious diversity, and how their fellow activists shaped and reacted to their immensely complex Jewish identities.


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