Louise Otto (1819-1895, often known as Otto-Peters after her marriage to August Peters, writer and revolutionary), was an early and prominent campaigner for women’s rights in nineteenth-century Germany. Although the author of nearly thirty novels, she is probably best known today for her role as a journalist and founder, in 1865, of the Algemeinen deutschen Frauenvereins (United German Women’s Association which, now under the name Deutsche Staatsürgerinnen-Verband, still promotes women’s issues). In 1849, in the wake of the 1848 revolutions which briefly brought liberal governments to power in most German states including her native Saxony, she founded one of the first political papers aimed at women, the Frauen-Zeitung whose motto was ‘I recruit female citizens for the Empire of Liberty!’. Despite constant harassment from the authorities, including new laws banning women from owning or running newspapers in Saxony and Prussia, the journal survived until 1853.
Otto and her sisters grew up in a comfortable middle-class home in Meissen. Her father was a legal official, her mother had been an embroiderer. Her feminism bears the imprint of this class upbringing, as her demands for women’s access to education, to the professions, to governmental decision making, were prompted by a belief in women’s special role as wives and mothers. For Otto, women were possessed of a distinct moral identity, the ‘Eternal-Womanly’, which was needed to correct and guide men’s actions. She was also spurred on by German nationalism and a degree of Protestant chauvinism (at time when the territory of what would become Germany in 1871 was shared between forty different states loosely bound by the German confederation, but very divided in their religious affiliations). Nonetheless, she stands out among other feminists of her class and period in her commitment to women’s right to work, and her interest in the plight of women workers. The ‘Social Question’ – how to integrate the new social classes created by nineteenth-century industrialisation – was as important to her as the ‘Woman Question’. In her lead article for the first edition of Neue Bahnen (New Ways), the journal of the ADF which she edited from 1865 to her death, she wrote: ‘We declare that work, which is the very corner stone of the new society, is a duty and honour of the female sex, and we therefore demand the right to work and hold it as vital that all barriers which stand in the way of female work should be removed.’
Lacemakers were the first group of women workers that had prompted her solicitude. She spent the winter of 1840 visiting her newly married sister at Oederan in the Erzgebirge, a mountainous region of Saxony and one of the main centres of handmade lacemaking in Germany. Her observation of their poverty and misery inspired one of her first literary works, the poem ‘Klöpplerinnen’ (the Lace-Makers). This was originally published in the Oederaner Stadtanzeiger in 1840, and according to Carol Diethe, Otto’s biographer, the poem ‘took on an almost iconic status in the years preceding the 1848 revolution’, for it directly confronted the leisured classes with their responsibility for the wretched and degraded state of the workers who supplied their luxuries. One might think of it as a precursor, but an equivalent to, Thomas Hood’s ‘The Song of the Shirt’ (1843). Otto returned to the theme of lacemakers’ families in another poem, ‘Im Erzgebirge’, as well as in one of her editorials for the Frauen-Zeitung ‘For the Female Workers’. Literature was a campaigning force in the nineteenth century, especially for women who were excluded from political organisations. Poems and novels were attempts to shape public debate and bring about reform. We will see this again in our contribution on another social activist and novelist and Otto’s contemporary, the Flemish writer Johanna Courtmans-Berchmans (1811-1890), who also addressed the plight of lacemakers in a work of literature.
The 1840s were known as the ‘Hungry Forties’, a period in which European artisans and handcraft workers were being confronted for the first time with mass-produced factory competition, while a series of dismal harvests forced up food prices. These years witnessed frequent moments of worker unrest, such as the Silesian Weavers’ Uprising of 1844, the background to Otto’s most famous novel Schloss und Fabrik (Chateau and Factory, 1846) as well as the inspiration of Heinrich Heine’s political poem The Silesian Weavers (1844). But whereas Heine imagined the weavers self-confidently advancing their own cause, Otto’s lacemakers lack any initiative of their own: the appeal is the consumers of lace to act on their behalf.
Below we give the text in German and English, and then a translation of one of Louise Otto’s articles on women’s work.
Seht ihr sie sitzen am Klöppelkissen
Die Wangen bleich und die Augen rot!
Sie mühen sich ab für einen Bissen,
Für einen Bissen schwarzes Brot!
Grossmutter hat sich die Augen erblindet,
Sie wartet bis sie der Tod befreit—
Im stillen Gebet sie die Hände windet:
Gott schütz’ uns in der schweren Zeit.
Die Kinder regen die kleinen Hände,
Die Klöppel fliegen hinab, hinauf,
Der Müh’ und Sorge kein Ende, kein Ende.
Das ist ihr künftger Lebenslauf.
Die Jungfrauen all, dass Gott sich erbarme,
Sie ahnen nimmer der Jugend Lust,
Das Elend schliesst in seine Arme,
Der Mangel schmiegt sich an ihre Brust.
Seht ihr sie sitzen am Klöppelkissen,
Sehr ihr die Spitzen, die sie gewebt:
Ihr Reichen, Grossen—hat das Gewissen
Euch nie in der innersten Seele gebebt?
Ihr schwelgt und prasset, wo sie verderben,
Geniesst das Leben in Saus und Braus,
Indessen sie vor Hunger sterben,
Gott dankend, dass die Qual nun aus!
Seht ihr sie sitzen am Klöppelkissen
Und redet noch schön von Gottvertraun?
Ihr habt es aus unserer Seele gerissen:
Weil wir euch selber gottlos schaun!
Seht ihr sie sitzen am Klöppelkissen
Und fühlt kein Erbarmen in solcher Zeit:
Dann werde euer Sterbekissen
Der Armut Fluch und all ihr Leid!
The Lace-Makers (1840)
See the women making lace
Pallid cheeks and eyes so red!
Tired out, and all for nothing,
Nothing but the coarsest bread!
Grandma’s eyes are blinded now,
Only death will set her free,
Wringing hands, she quietly prays:
God help us in extremity.
The children move their little hands,
Up and down the bobbins fling.
Toil and trouble without end
Is what their future life will bring.
God protect each little Miss
Who nothing knows of youthful zest –
For poverty embraces all;
Want snuggles into every breast.
See the women making lace,
Pillow lace, a work of art;
Rich and famous – do not scruples
Linger in your inner heart?
While they decline, you feast and spend,
And savour life in luxury,
Meanwhile these women starve and die,
Released, at last from misery!
See the women making lace
Is not your faith hypocrisy?
All their belief extinguished now,
They call your faith apostasy!
See the woman making lace,
Have you no mercy for her plight?
For else your final waking hour
Will reap her curse from pain and blight!
Translation by Carol Diethe. In Carol Diethe, The life and Work of Germany’s Founding Feminist: Louise-Otto-Peters (1819-1895) (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002), pp. 159-161.
A different translation, by Melanie Archangeli and Patricia A. Herminghouse, based on a slightly different text of the poem can be found in Patricia A. Hemminghouse and Magda Mueller (eds) German Feminist Writings (Bloomsbury, 2001), pp. 61-63.
Louise Otto-Peters. ‘For the Female Workers’ (1849).
…What should I say then about the lace-makers in the Erzgebirge [a mountainous region in Saxony]? Here the going wage per day is three to five pfennig! Once I came across a lace-maker working onan extremely arduous lace of black silk, and she told me that her eyes can hardly endure winding the thin, dark threads around the shiny needles. In the evening she is in no state to work on it, but she considers herself lucky to have this work, because the black lace is better paid: she can make a half a yard per day and thus earn one neugroschen without having to continue in the evening, when she can do coarser work. For her one neugroschen per day was a good wage! Thus, the buyer paid her two neugroschen per yard, the satin thread to make it cost about as much, and on th market one pays for a yard of similar black satin lace twenty neugroschen. Just draw your own conclusion!
The quill trembles in my hand whenever I think of the entire abominable system of commerce, manufacturing and its victims! If only you had seen the girls and women of the upper Erzgebirge! The children who grew up in gloomy rooms, looking ghostly and pale, with arms and legs wasted away and bodies distended from the only nourishment that they have, the potato. The father has got himself an early death at the dye works or peddles tubs of nuts or wooden kitchen utensils across the countryside — at home woman and child must work since he cannot provide for them. The little girls must make lace as soon as they can control their little hands. Then they waste away at the pillow for making lace, where their mother, who could only give birth to feeble children, has already atrophied, at the pillow for making lace where their grandmother went blind! For the constant staring at the fine threads and pins soon steals the ability to see, and the easy movement of the small bobbins makes their fingers delicate and their arms weak and thin, incapable of any other work. And now the clever people come and say that the women could do something other than make lace — it is crazy that they insist on doing it! No, they cannot do something else, because they were never able to build up their strength and have grown weak and completely incapable of performing any heavy work ― even if you could procure it for them. You can assume responsibility for the children so they can learn something else ― but you cannot take them away from their mother, for no one has that right.
No, you will reply to me: in the mountains the misery is twice as bad ― but in the other cities, large and small, everyone who wants to work, including women and girls, finds sufficient and rewarding employment; indeed they find it, but often only ― in the brothels.
Translated by Melanie Archangeli with Patricia A. Herminghouse. In Patricia A. Herminghouse and Magda Mueller (eds) German Feminist Writings (Bloomsbury, 2001), pp. 64-66. [section only]