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Louise Otto-Peters, Women’s Right to Earn a Living (1866)

Louise Otto-Peters (1819-1895) was one of the most famous advocates of women’s rights in the nineteenth century. She came from a middle-class family in the Saxon city of Meissen. In 1848/49, under the male pseudonym “Otto Stern,” she championed the organization of women’s work and advocated better working conditions for women: her aim was to give them an alternative to prostitution. Starting in April 1849, she served as editor of the Women’s Newspaper [Die Frauenzeitung], but when the Kingdom of Saxony made it impossible for a woman to edit such a publication, the newspaper was moved to Thuringia. Louise Otto married August Peters in 1858. In 1865, together with Auguste Schmidt (1833-1902), Otto-Peters was one of the founders of the Leipzig Women’s Education Association [Leipziger Frauenbildungsverein], from which the General German Women’s Association [Allgemeiner Deutscher Frauenverein] grew later that year. The association’s aims were to improve family law and allow women greater access to professions – the latter being a central theme of the following excerpt from Otto-Peters’s 1866 book.

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Among proletarians, anyone who doesn’t want to die of hunger must work. Certainly, it’s said always and everywhere that the man is the breadwinner of the family, the earner, that the woman has only to tend to the household, but wherever it’s common for a man to barely be able to support himself, as it is in the lower classes, a woman has to provide for herself, and the children – boys and girls alike – have to do the same once they’re old enough to earn something. Those women do the meanest work for a daily wage, and they receive less income for it than the men who work as day laborers. People deem that appropriate, arguing that in many cases women’s performance is lower since they are inherently weaker and that the male body requires greater nourishment than the female. One can’t really argue, however, that splitting wood, carrying water and scrubbing, washing laundry and sweeping, or even ironing, which requires more skill, are light activities, since they are all known to be very strenuous – but the term “weaker sex” is not applied to such women; rather, it comes into play whenever one wants to scare women away from a particular craft or prove the impossibility of their being able to do something requiring power and stamina. But the women who are doing the heaviest labor are not the most lamentable ones by a long shot. At the moment, their wages have even seen a substantial increase, in most cases they are adequately fed, and though their work is strenuous, it is not really unhealthy, provided that it does not exceed a certain limit; and the daily wage usually suffices for a meager living. But those who have not learned to perform the roughest of tasks or whose powers are not equal to them, or those who are tied to home because of children or parents in need of care and who are thus prevented from hiring themselves out, must carry out those tasks that are everywhere denoted as specifically feminine: knitting, sewing, and embroidering. What tremendous competition there is in this area, what a high supply of labor relative to demand, and thus what low wages!

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