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German Catholic Women

Women of the German Catholic Movement German Catholicism was among the most revolutionary movements of the Vormärz. When the Silesian priest Johannes Ronge initiated the battle in 1844 to purge Catholic worship in the German states of superstitious practices, non-Catholic Germans were swept up in the movement as well. Even before Ronge's excommunication, the first von Rom Freie Christliche Gemeinde (Christian Congregation Free of Rome) was formed in October 1844. As the number of Ronge's supporters grew, so did the number of free congregations. A spring congress of elected congregational representatives met in 1845 to arrive at the uniform practices and credo. This body assumed the identity of German Catholicism (Deutschkatholizismus) to embrace the spirit of national and cultural unity of its followers.

Also during 1845, Ronge made a tour of the German states. The Prussian police were assigned to prevent his public appearances but Ronge's reputation preceded him. His charismatic personality drew large crowds, and German Catholic membership mushroomed, attracting women in large numbers as Prussian efforts to curtail the movement backfired. In effect, Ronge's audiences had a practice run of what was to follow in 1848. These men and women did not allow themselves to be quietly dispersed, but developed tactics of barricade fighting which would be utilized in the later revolutions.

Ronge's evangelism was for a society which called for "full recognition of human dignity, full equality of rights, and for the people, complete sovereignty of the people, which shall give rise to their state institutions." As the German Catholics grew increasingly politicized and concerned in shaping this new society, they were faced with their own version of the nineteenth-century "woman question."

Ronge urged German Catholic women to raise themselves to a level of parity with their bretheren in order to be able to participate fully in the new order. The platform that emerged reflected the growing awareness of the need for women's education which was spreading throughout Europe. What set German Catholicism apart was that the means for realizing the goal of education was taken over by the women themselves. From the first, Ronge had urged German Catholic women to form their own groups. Adopting the motto of their fellow believer, the revolutionary Luise Otto, "Participation in the interest of the state is not only a right but a duty for women," German Catholic women began forging their plans.

The hub of their activities eventually centered in Hamburg. In 1845, Emilie Capelle-Wüstenfeld established a German Catholic charitable organization. The Frauenverein zur Forderung Humaner Zwecke (FFHZ - Women's Association for the Advancement of Humane Goals) seemed innocuous enough on the surface. Aimed at alleviating the suffering of the Hansiatic city's poor, it masked a subversive core. Membership was open to all women regardless of creed. In a world where charitable intervention was performed only by gentile "ladies," the FFHZ welcomed Jewesses, who had been barred from such groups. Shortly thereafter, Wüstenfeld went further, establishing the Social Union, which had as its goal achieving equality for women of the city of Hamburg regardless of religious affiliation.

Even before the eruptions of 1848, a Frauenverein zur Unterstützung der Armepflege (FVUA - Women's Association for the Support of Charity) network grew and spread among the free congregations. In contrast to other alms-giving groups, the FVUA women sought to engage poor women actively in the dispensing of relief. Integrating the concept of charity into the life of the congregation, rather than purchasing ready-made goods for its members, the Hamburg FVUA distributed the materials for clothing production among needy widows, enabling them to earn their livelihoods.

As the deputies of the Frankfurt parliament compromised in their efforts to unite the German states under a constitutional monarchy, German Catholics took a hard line. Monarchical rule was incompatible with the egalitarian community they espoused and so those supporters, whose primary self-identification was with the movement, withdrew their support from the Frankfurt proceedings. German Catholic women, especially in the northern cities, continued their revolutionary involvement as Prussian and Austrian retaliation began. They aided those hunted for their revolutionary activity and persons displaced by the turmoil of 1848-49, spiriting political refugee s out of the German states.

In 1849, the Hamburg FVUA undertook its first educational project: to support, house, clothe and train young working class women so they could support themselves. In addition to vocational training, students received at least an elementary education. Although the primary focus was to earn a livelihood, students were encouraged to develop their particular talents. Thus, one young woman with an aptitude for languages was trained and eventually placed as a governess, a position traditionally the bastion of "ladies," not working class women.

Charlotte Paulsen, a prominent member of the Hamburg FVUA, was instrumental in shaping the educational framework which would prepare all women to be self- supporting. Still hopeful that German society would liberalize, German Catholic women formulated their system accordingly. It provided for education from pre-school through adulthood. The vehicle for realizing the educational system was the Bildungsverein für Frauen (BV - The Educational Association for German Women), established in 1849 after having been under discussion for years. It was to be a unifying, non-discriminatory body to further the education of the women of Hamburg, German Catholic congregations, and the German states. The women hoped that, if the Hamburg experiment proved successful, it would spread throughout congregational Germany. At the network's core was to be an institution of women's higher education.

The first step taken by Paulsen and Wüstenfeld was inducing Friedrich Fröbel to come to Hamburg. There, he was offered the facilities to train women in the new kindergarten methodology he had developed. The FVUA groups of Hanau, Breslau and other German congregations matched funds raised by the Hamburg group which enabled the search for director and faculty of the Hamburger Hochschule fürs weibliche Geschlecht (HHWG - The Hamburg School of Higher Education for the Female Sex). Karl Fröbel, nephew of Friedrich but estranged from his uncle, and his wife Johanna were ultimately hired -- he to direct the new facility, she to supervise the student residential program. As part of German Catholic outreach philosophy, the new institution welcomed not only non-German Catholic women but also non-residents of the Hansiatic city.

Despite difficulties posed by the senate of Hamburg in granting work permits to the radicals and liberals chosen as faculty members by the BV and congregation collective, the HHWG opened on schedule in January of 1850. Friedrich Fröbel's educational system had already been initiated before the official opening. The BV's day care facilities benefitted the children of Hamburg's poor, the first enrollees in a Fröbelian Kindergarten.

The system quickly expanded to include more congregational children. Elementary education was coeducational, but at the secondary level women's biological role was acknowledged. In parallel curricula, the sole distinctions were needlework and calligraphy as subjects for girls. However, these were offset by the introduction of then-controversial physical education for girls. German Catholic education aimed to shape the whole organism: mind and body.

Fröbel's lectures and the Kindergarten internship program continued. Many of the classes offered by the HHWG were radical simply because the subject matter was being made available to females. The goal of the school was not to turn out radicals; the focus was on a well-rounded education and instilling sound child-rearing practices. Although German Catholicism theorized shared parenting for men and women, the women realized that the bulk of practice would be -- as it had been for millennia -- left in female hands. Thus, subject matter which would have no practical use in a woman's life had no place in the curriculum. For example, mathematics and geometry were central, but advanced algebra was not taught.

The BV educational system was considered suspect by traditionally Protestant Hamburg, but what set the German Catholic women thoroughly at odds with the city fathers was the regular, open lectures and meetings where students, teachers, congregation members and visitors engaged in far-ranging, uncensored discussion. Their encouragement of and ties to the working class made them further suspect. As artisan groups and free congregations throughout German lands were being dissolved, the Hamburg women embraced the political role which had been thrust upon them by the failure of the 1848 revolutions. They welcomed journeymen at the open lectures, offered them material support to continue their travels, and maintained a center and library for their use.

These multifaceted endeavors were all geared to educating members and friends of the congregation to realize their personal liberties. Central to the values of the new society was a humanistic religion which rejected the divinity of Christ, focusing instead on his revolutionary, proto-socialist behavior, which formed the model for their congregational life.

Because of these dangerous ideas, which were being implanted in the young from pre-school on, the Hamburg experiment was an obvious target for reactionary forces. Harassment of the congregation, BV and HHWG members escalated in 1852. By spring, it became clear that the city was about to quash the viper in its bosom. Rather than bow to dissolution by external authority, the women decided to close their schools themselves.

Although the fully-functional system lasted only a year and a half, it had lasting repercussions. The Fröbelian Kindergarten model developed there was exported to Britain and the U.S. as women of the BV and HHWG were forced into exile, themselves utilizing the underground escape network they had developed to aid others. The Paulsenstift, established to fund the continuing educations of economically disadvantaged young women, survived and continues to the present day. And finally, the recognition that not all women would marry and the efforts to educate them to economic self-sufficiency and preparation for assuming the responsibilities of citizenship in a democratic society were perhaps the most radical endeavor of the women of the German revolutions of 1848-49.
M. Tomachewsky


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