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Emancipation

May 15, 2012

I’m currently reading a historical novel I borrowed from my stepmother-in-law: “Sag mir Auf Wiedersehen” (Tell me we’ll meet again) by Alexandra Cordes, first published in 1975. According to the back cover text, it’s about a woman who “doesn’t need any emancipation to independently go her own way through life”. Nonsense. Let me tell you why.

The main character is called Christine Welsch, born 1879 in Alsace (then a part of Germany, now a part of France). Christines father is a doctor and a missionary, and as he considers it “good for modern women to learn an independent profession”, she studies to become a teacher. When she comes of age in 1900, she marries Ernst Schwarzenburg and moves with him to Berlin, where he takes up the position as private secretary to a rich banker. Christine wants to keep on teaching, but her husband tells her that’s unfortunately impossible: people will think that his employer isn’t paying him enough. So she idles away a few years, before a trip to St Petersburg convinces her husband to orient both their lives more towards charity, as she wants it. He quits his position (a job he really liked) and joins the civil service in Hamborn-Marxloh, a poor town in the Ruhr mining area. Christine takes up a teaching position at a school for miner’s children, runs a charity daycare for fatherless preschoolers, and is generally happy. Ernst’s new job with the vice crime unit puts him in daily contact with people driven to crime by poverty. He feels powerless, works too much, and is at the breaking point.

And that’s how far I’ve gotten in my readings.

Now, it’s true that Christine has largely gotten her way in life without emancipation. But she didn’t get it independently. Her father let her study. Her husband allowed her to work outside home (that wives needed their husbands to agree that they could take a job was abolished surprisingly late in Germany; late 1950s I think). Her husband even consented to move and change jobs for her sake. She was simply extremely lucky to happen to be dependent on men who allowed her to go her own way through life. But dependent she was. Even if her life had been a true story rather than fiction, it wouldn’t have proven that women like her don’t need emancipation, only that even back in the bad old days it was possible to get lucky.

Hmpf.

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