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Helene Stöcker, "The Modern Woman" (1893)

Although women faced many legal and social barriers in Wilhelmine Germany, Helene Stöcker’s (1869-1943) “modern woman” is unencumbered by prevailing social prescriptions. Independent, educated, and forward-looking, she looks to the future for the freedom she wishes to obtain. Indebted to the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), this essay captures the progressive vision of women in modern society.

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Say what you will, I know it for a fact: The modern woman does not as yet belong in this century. She is someone for whom there is still no name – nor man or place in society – for she belongs in all her being to the future. In short, she is premature.

I am speaking of a special kind of species which Frau Marholm* (and Frau Marholm is just about the only modern individual who knows anything about it) has also failed to identify. She is neither “la détraquée” nor entirely “la grande amoureuse” – although she probably comes closest to the latter. And with the “cérébrale” she has only intelligence in common. She is also not the “unspoiled girl from the working classes” about whom one raves nowadays. She is – and indeed a proper term is hard to find – the modern woman, usually unmarried, who in addition to Stuart Mill and Bebel also reads Nietzsche and Frau Marholm, who shares John Henry Mackay’s individualism after being for a time in danger of joining the Socialist Party. She is someone who leaves the sheltering paternal household – much like another “Magda,”** but with greater sobriety and depth – in order to gain her financial independence, which is the necessary precondition for every kind of freedom. What further distinguishes her from Frau Marholm’s carefully crafted typologies is her pronounced sense of individualism and the conflict-free nature of her spirit, which insists equally upon her right to freedom and her right to love – something that both Stuart Mill, on the one hand, and Frau Marholm, on the other, concede.

She does not think of becoming exactly like a man, but she does want to become a happier – and for her that means a freer – human being, forever advancing in her uniquely feminine way. She has long ceased bemoaning the fact, as she perhaps did as a child, that she is not a man. On the contrary, she has come to an appreciation of her feminine strengths as well as her uniqueness, of being something rare, apart, beyond traditional categorization, someone who has still to experience the full joy of personal independence. And finally that profound confidence opposite the man: she does not stand contemptuously and vengefully before him, but rather, with open eyes and heart. She is actually born to love with all the fires of her nature – with all her soul, heart, and senses – [and] as Mantegazza says, [is] more in need of intimacy than the man. But since the man she could accept has not

* Frau Marholm: Laura M. (pseudonym for Laura Mohr, 1854-1905), writer, married to Ola Hansson; “la détraquée,” “la grande amoureuse,” and “cérébrale” are three of L. M.’s female typologies as described in her essay “On the Psychology of Woman” (Freie Bühne, vol. 1, pages 1094-1105, 1202-1214, 1304-1313). Information provided in footnote in Helene Stöcker, “Die moderne Frau,” reprinted in Jürgen Schutte and Peter Sprengel, Berliner Moderne 1885-1914. Stuttgart, 1987, p. 152.
** Magda: heroine of the play Heimat (1893) by Hermann Sudermann. In Schutte and Sprengel (see above note), Berliner Moderne, p. 154.

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