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The Foundation of women’s liberation in Weimar, 1770s-1806 By Dr. Marystella Ramirez Guerra

There was a moment of legal reform and social change in the final decades of the eighteenth century in the small Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. Known at the time as the home of Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, and many of the other German authors who would become famous during the Romantic movement, Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach is also famous for a lesser known reason.  Amongst these men was a whole cohort of women authors and editors who carved out an existence in the duchy’s main city of Weimar. These women paved the way those who followed them in the fields of education and authorship that has gone unnoticed for too long. This fascinating period was the curious result of the unique German Enlightenment that unlike the French was not anti-clerical. The ideals of the German enlightenment led to the birth of a movement for the education of middle- and upper-class girls at an equal level as boys. To begin with, it was a fairly niche movement found in pockets of Pietism in Prussia and under the patronage of the Empress Marie-Theresa in Vienna. Pietism was a reform movement in Lutheranism whose second wave put forth the idea of women receiving the same education as men. The ideological basis for this was the idea that God’s salvation had been equally revealed to both men and women, thus demonstrating that both had the same rational capacity. This strand of Pietism was the basis of the school system for the entire kingdom. Educated in this system, the pietist Thomas von Hippel wrote the most progressive document in defence of the  equal education of women that would later travel to the court at Weimar through the author Henriette von Egolfstein. It was under her influence – as a close friend of the regent Anna Amalia – that Weimar would later adopt legal reforms that would allow women a semblance of legal autonomy.  The pietist movement would briefly gain ground later in the century and spread other parts of the Holy Roman Empire.  It led to a generation of educated women some of whom would move to Weimar and work there as authors and editors alongside the better-known German romantic writers such as Friedrich Schiller and Wolfgang Goethe. The most famous authors and editors in Weimar at the time were Caroline Schelgel-Schelling, Sophie Mereau Brentano, Dorotea Veit,  and Johanna Schopenhaeur.   Writing for these women was the path towards independent thought and a financially viable life outside of marriage, as education allowed them to subvert traditional gender roles. Their lives were in direct contrast to what was expected and desired of women especially in the new professional classes.

Weimar-Jena at the turn of the century: the environment

For the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, his mother Duchess Anna Amalia, and the Weimar intellectuals, issues of culture could not be separated from politics. Their intentions were to modernise their territory through the implementation of intellectual guided reforms. The project – born from enlightenment – brought to Weimar and the University in Jena (from 1774 onwards) a series of intellectuals. It was, however, the moment of the birth of romanticism rather than the consolidation of an enlightenment project. This created a particular environment where people felt encouraged to realise the ideals discussed in the Weimar -Jena salons; the ideals of the romantic movement. This was aided by a legal structure that was neutral in regards to women, allowing them a sense of autonomy under the law . For this reason the author-editor Sophie Mereau was able to engage in paid work during her marriage; she was invited by Schiller to contribute to the journal Horen. This continued after her divorce, which was the first for the Duchy, and to continue afterwards without any change in her social life. It was a relaxation of these conventional gender roles that  created this environment. Despite this relative freedom, it is important to remember that the women who enjoyed these freedoms were members of the upper classes; working class women were not as fortunate. Yet Sophie Mereau – enjoyed some of the freedoms that  this period brought educated women. Divorced in 1800, she later became pregnant by Clemens Brentano .At no point did this affect her work or social standing – yet Mereau did marry Brentano, seemingly against her earlier wishes to remain single in order to retain independence. This contradictory behaviour within the coterie of Weimar Romantic women is found throughout this period. Legally they were free to live as they choose, socially they were unlikely to suffer much, and yet their own understanding of what was socially expected of them led to contradictory actions and statements.[1] As seen in Friedrich Schlegels Lucinde the ideal woman was a friend-lover, an individual with own thoughts, educated, developed, and unafraid to express emotions. To characterise a woman as a friend-lover was revolutionary in this period as it implied an equal companion. Its expression reveals to us the type of environment that surrounded the production of experimental works such as Lucinde and the ideals that inspired the Weimar women who were both the models for these experimental works and influenced by them. This meant in terms of male-female relationships what began to prevail in the literary production present at the Weimar salons was the concept of love relationships between equals.

Marystella Ramirez Guerra was born in El Salvador but because of her father’s job, grew up in several Latin American and European countries. She was educated at the Universities of Navarra, Oxford, and Aachen. Marystella holds a doctorate in medical history but her work on pietist medical education has moved her research into more general history looking at women’s education and role in society as it was understood in Prussia in the 18th Century. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Notre Dame.

[1] Briefe Caroline Schlegel Schelling an ihre Geschwister, Tochter, und Freunde, digitalised by Bodleian Libraries; Ute. They, Caroline Schlegel, Sophie Mereau, Henriette von Egloffstein all divorced because they wanted to live out the friend-lover ideal that they had not found in their bourgeois marriages Frevert, Women in German History: from Bourgeois Emancipation to Sexual Liberation, Berg Publishers limited, 1988