Frame Conditions


Frame Conditions and Women´s Rights in Germany in the 19th Century

In my short presentation of German Women in the 19th century I cannot develop a complete picture of the overall situation. But I will throw some spotlights which shall enlighten the stage for the social background for women’s life.

Generally there existed a big gap between the bourgeoisie and the lower class. The middle-class women were financially secured by their families.

Sometimes extreme poverty was typical for the life of lower class workers. Therefore young girls and women were forced to enter service as housemaids – for a pittance. They were without any help against exploitation. In the beginning of industrialization the woman of the working class were forced to choose any work to maintain her family.

The corsett can be understood as the symbol for the whole restricted life of women in the 19th century.

Women in Public Life

A woman in particular of the upper classes was non-existent without a man by her side. She was suspected to subordinate herself to any male person in her family (father, uncle, brother, husband).

There were strict political rules as e.g.:

  • Women were prohibited to participate in politics (Prussian Law from 1850 until 1908)
  • Women were regarded as not legally mature persons. A man had to represent her in legal cases. The women had no power of disposition over property and inheritance.
  • Women could only join an employment with agreement of her husband (In Germany law till 1953)

The Woman in her Family

Women’s life was reduced to household, kitchen, children – and possibly church. The ideal of the era was the modest housewife.

Arranged marriage was normal – not only in upper class but also in agricultural areas where farms were “married”  and not young people.

Since 1794 divorce was legally allowed, but in reality it meant no alimony for the ex-wife and a bitter social stigmatization.

Homosexual love between women was absolutely taboo.


In education there existed also a two-class society of women.

In bourgeois families usually the father decided upon the future of his daughter(s). These women could not choose a career of their own. Especially the universities denied admission to women. Nevertheless unmarried women of upper/middle class had a bit of scope. They could become a teacher. But when they got married they had to give up her profession.

Lower class women had more laborious jobs. They were left to become (unskilled) factory workers, housemaids, seamstresses, ironers etc.

Women’s Lib. Movement

In 1865 Women’s Association (Allgemeiner Deutscher Frauenverein) was founded. However, this movement was divided in classes as well as in confessions and in political orientation. One example: The women’s club of Cologne excluded female workers and low salaried employees de facto by means of high member fees..

Two representatives of Women’s Lib.

Louise Otto-Peters (1819 – 1895) generally is perceived as a founder of Women’s Liberation Movement. At first she published under the male pseudonym “Otto Stern”. 1849 Otto-Peters founded the journal “Frauen- Zeitung”. But four years later the Saxonian press law had prohibited women from being a newspaper editor. Among other things Otto-Peters  battled for the rights of female factory workers.

Clara Zetkin (1857 – 1933) belonged to the proletarian women’s movement. She made propaganda for women’s participation in public life as well as for education of the children of proletarian families.

Exceptions and Uprise

Despite restrictions by law and tradition some women opposed in their way. They worked as journalists, publishers, authors, scientists…

Hedwig Dohm (1831 – 1919) is counted among the members of the radical sector of women’s lib.. In her books she demands for absolute legal, social and economic equality. She stood for the right of women’s self-determination and she criticized any discrimination of women.

A different development of female fate shows the vita of Kathinka Zitz, born Halein (1801 – 1873). After her husband, a revolutionary, left Europe for America, she tried at first to keep up liberal issues of women’s rights in her publications. But after a short period she was forced by poverty to write according to more common taste.


Liberty, Egality, Fraternity – propagated by the French Revolution (1789) did not exist for German women in the 19th  century.

Nevertheless, influenced by the French Revolution, some groups of women demanded equality, legal protection for expectant and nursing mothers and to get rid of the eleven-hour-labour day in mines.

Author: Christa Grawert-Wagner


Carmen Stadelhofer: Frauen im Aufbruch, veröffentlicht in: Hertramph, Herbert/Stadelhofer, Carmen (Hrsg.): Alternativen. Neue Wege in der Erwachsenenbildung, Vaas Verlag, Langenau 1992

Irene Franken: Frauen in Köln, J.P. Bachem Verlag, Köln 2008

Dr. Mechthilde Vahsen: Wie alles begann – Frauen um 1800, veröffentlicht unter Creative Commons Lizenz (by-nc-nd/2.0/de/) am 8.9.2008

Wikipedia-Beiträge zu Louise Otto-Peters, Clara Zetkin, Hedwid Dohm, Kathinka Zitz-Halein