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Amalie Sieverking

Amalie Sieverking(1794-1859) Member of the Hamburg patriciate, was a major Protestant philanthropic pioneer. Traditionally coupled with such male orthodox philanthropists as Theodor Fliedner (1800-1864), founder of the female diaconate at Kaiserswerth, and Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808-1881), creator of the Inner Mission. Sieveking's importance to women's philanthropy and to a distinctively female style of organization has only recently been recognized. It is in this capacity that she emerged as a central figure to the revolutionary epoch; she was both a social innovator and a political reactionary.

Because of the strongly pedagogical emphasis of Protestant charity in Germany, situated as it was in the Pietist tradition, women played no role in the German philanthropic enterprise until well into the nineteenth century. Consequently for German women access to the public sphere was even more limited than for women elsewhere in the west. The introduction of German women into organized charity coincided with the erosion of the traditional family structure. The women first caught up in the development of modern Protestant philanthropy came from two polarities of familial change: displaced single rural women of peasant background who found work and support in the diaconate, and women of the upper class made idle by the removal of production from the household.

Sieveking first gained public recognition as a "Christian heroine" when she took over the supervision of female cholera patients in the infirmary of St. Ericus, Hamburg, during the epidemic of 1831, an unprecedented commitment for a woman of her station. Early in her life, Sieveking had been introduced to the inequities of sexual discrimination. The daughter and grand-daughter of Hamburg senators, niece of a syndic and cousin of one of the city republic's principal diplomats, Amalie was orphaned at the age of fifteen, and, while her brothers were permitted to continue their education and prepare for appropriate occupations, she was delegated to care for an invalid aunt in exchange for a home. She took advantage of her situation to inaugurate a program of instruction for other daughters of the patriciate and ultimately placed many of her pupils as tutors in the homes of prominent families. Her students became a major source of her subsequent influence. It was during this period of her life that Sieveking took a private vow of singlehood. Hamburg was deeply stirred by the religious awakening of the post-war era. The revivalist preacher Johannes Gossner exercised a powerful influence in ruling circles and Sieveking herself, moved by Gossner and by the burgeoning of revivalist institutions, pledged herself to the foundation of a Protestant order of charitable sisters, a plan she pursued in correspondence with a number of contemporary dignitaries. Ultimately she relinquished this goal for one more innovative and more dynamic, a lay benevolent society rather than one staffed by religious women.

On May 23, 1832 Sieveking was joined by twelve other women to found the Female Association for the Care of the Poor and Sick (Weiblicher Verein für Armen-und Krankenpflege), a charitable visiting society. The aim of the association was to visit the households of impoverished invalids and their families on the basis of referrals from the public administration for poor relief, and to provide practical and material help as well as spiritual guidance. Visits were the means the society used to identify more extended commitments to its clientele: the distribution of clothing, of food donated by local provision ers, of coupons for the city's soup kitchen, and, most important, the assignment of work. The association itself functioned as an employer: it organized work among its own clientele such as repairs and maintenance, and it consigned put-out work, particularly work for home-bound women: sewing, knitting, rag picking and menial chores. Sieveking operated within what was for Hamburg an increasingly obsolete household economy and she wanted to save rather than to change it. Her program provided no training component, no day care or infant schools to permit mothers to give up household handwork for manufacturing in the city. A voluntary effort in this direction awaited the organization of non-confessional women during the revolution (Cf. Woman's College Hamburger Hochschule für das weibliche Geschlecht). No woman was to consider membership in the Sieveking association unless she could expect to devote herself to two house calls a week and to at least one meeting each week with other members of the association to review the results of their visits. Socially as well as spiritually and morally, Sieveking conceived of the charitable function as one of amelioration and integration, not one of change. Poverty as she represented it was one dimension of an educative plan ordained by God to improve the souls of the poor and instruct the rich in the virtues of mercy. Benevolent visiting took both dimensions of this plan into account. As Sieveking indicated when she founded her society, at least as important as assistance to the poor "were the benefits which it seemed to promise my sisters who would join me in such work of charity." Initially Sieveking looked to her society as an expedient until such a time as she could found a Protestant order. In 1837, Theodor Fliedner offered Sieveking the superintendency of his diaconate in Kaiserswerth, an institution which functioned very much as a Protestant order. Fliedner's offer provoked in Sieveking a conscious recognition of what she had in fact already initiated and accomplished: a new form of society under lay female leadership which made charitable work accessible to lay women; an innovative institutional presence that departed decisively from Catholic antecedents, vestiges of which were still apparent in Fliedner's diaconate. Sieveking declined Fliedner's offer.

From the original twelve members, Sieveking's society expanded to include fifty-three during its first decade, seventy on the eve of the revolution, and eighty-five at the time of Sieveking's death in 1859. As membership grew the case load expanded from an original eighty-five families to two hundred fifty six. Funded by voluntary contributions, the expendable income of the association increased from 1,332 marks the first year to 47,000 in 1859. At the time of the revolution the number of self-proclaimed affiliates in cities other than Hamburg was fifty-five, forty-five of them in Germany. What was interesting about these affiliates was their almost spontaneous appearance. Women who had been pupils of Sieveking often organized affiliates; other women made inquiries through correspondence. The appropriation of women's kinship and friendship networks to this end was distinctive. These were women with no formal organizational experience whatever, women who did not try to adopt prevailing male methods of organization-building but rather turned their existing, often familial networks to new purposes. However conservative their religious and political views, their techniques were innovative and populist. To assist women organizing affiliates, Sieveking promoted a book written by two of her friends entitled Work of Women in Associations for the Care of the Poor and Sick: An Exchange of Letters between Two Friends (Arbeit der Frauen in Vereinen für Armen- und Krankenpflege: Ein Briefwechsel zweier Freundinnen). Although Sieveking urged the affiliates to avoid slavish imitation of the Hamburg society, she nevertheless pressed on them the value of punctuality, order and subordination. Self-government and the democratic process were procedures Sieveking held in low esteem. To legitimate women'scharity Sieveking invoked the analogue of the court whose moral example penetrated the entire residence. Sieveking and her association acted as a productive catalyst in circles that profoundly disagreed with her religious and political views. The emancipatory legislation of the revolution enabled women of dissident religious views, women who were rejected by or rejected Sieveking's association to establish lay charitable societies of their own. Some adhered to Sieveking's practices but adopted "woman's nature" rather than Lutheran orthodoxy as their motivating principle. "Woman's nature" embraced women of Jewish as well as Christian origin. Most important, while radical lay women's public philanthropy preserved Sieveking's principle of female leadership, her despotic model was discarded for one of cooperation and collaborative leadership.

Sieveking actively opposed the philanthropic associations organized in the spirit of inter-confessionalism. She feared that they would reflect badly upon her own work. Because many of the women engaged in inter-confessional philanthropy in Hamburg were also involved in the Hamburger Hochschule, she became an inveterate opponent of the college. In an address in 1849 arranged by the court preacher in Berlin, Sieveking carefully circumscribed the meaning of female emancipation to embrace only the kind of activity her own association afforded. Sieveking herself was, however, also ultimately a victim of the reaction. As German philanthropy became increasingly centralized and bureaucratized within the Inner Mission under the aegis of Hinrich Wichern, the distinctions between church and independent philanthropy narrowed and the opportunity for female leadership vanished altogether.
Catherine M. Prelinger


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Kortmann, Marie. "Aus den Anfängen sozialer Frauenarbeit." Frau Monatschrift für das gesammte Frauenleben unserer Zeit XX (1913): 425-34, 467-72.

Otto, Louise. Frauen-Zeitung 1 (1849), 2 (1850); continued as Frauen-Zeitung für die höheren weiblichen Interessen 3 (1851), 4 (1852).

[Poel, Emma, and Wattenbach, Sophie]. Arbeit der Frauen in Vereinen für Armen- und Krankenpflege: Ein Briefwechsel zweier Freundinnen. Berlin: Hertz, 1854.

[Poel, Emma]. Denkwürdigkeiten aus dem Leben von Amalie Sieveking in deren Aufträge von einer Freundin derselben verfasst. Hamburg: Agentur des Rauhen Hauses, 1860.

Prelinger, Catherine M. Charity, Challenge, and Change: Religious Dimensions of the Mid-Nineteenth-Century Women's Movement in Germany. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1987.

_______. "Religious Dissent, Women's Rights, and the Hamburger Hochschule für das weibliche Geschlecht in Mid-Nineteenth Germany." Church History XLV (1976): 42-55.

Emilie Wuestenfeld: Eine Hamburger Bürgerin. Hamburg: Georg Westermann, 1927.

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