Monday, 5 March 2007

A Feminist's First Outline

A 2000 word outline of the basics of the first chapter of my thesis on Helene Stoecker, German radical feminist, sexual reformer, eugenicist. Voila.

In the October/November 1926 issue of Die Neue Generation, its editor, Helene Stöcker published a posthumous article by Dr. Paul Kammerer, a well-known biologist who attempted to prove the validity of Lamarckian inheritance through his study of amphibians. Lamarckism, which argued for the heredity of acquired traits, was one of the earliest attempts to explain the transmutation of species, but had been rejected in the late nineteenth century by most of the German scientific community following Weismann’s germ-plasm theory and the rediscovery of Mendelian laws of inheritance in 1900 (Proctor 93-4). A month earlier Kammerer had committed suicide after an American scientist accused him of injecting ink into the foot of a Midwife Toad to demonstrate the inheritance of an acquired characteristic.

In a tribute to Kammerer, which appeared following his article arguing for the inclusion of biology in female students’ education, Stöcker praised Kammerer’s “epoch-making research” and argued that Weismann’s theories were the underlying rationale behind modern, conservative race theories. “According to Weismann’s theories,” she wrote, “the only way to eradicate those of inferior quality in the ‘Struggle for Existence’ would be through their elimination.” (Oct/Nov 1926). In opposition to this “egotistical fatalism” Stöcker praised Kammerer for scientifically demonstrating that the provision of healthy physical and intellectual conditions would ensure the health and ability of future generations.

Stöcker’s main biographer, Christl Wickert, has dismissed Stöcker’s use of a Social Darwinist language as merely “part of the discourse of the day” (Wickert 68). In doing so, Wickert is intent on discounting a linkage between Stöcker’s philosophy and the National Socialist fallout. However, in protesting too much, Wickert ignores the significance of Social Darwinism for the formation of Stöcker’s own social theory, and its development from the Wilhelmine era to the Weimar era when eugenics was increasing in popular legitimacy and Stöcker had become an iconoclast of the feminist movement.

To claim that Stöcker merely participated in the discourse is to overlook that she actively contributed to this discourse: for one, from 1904 she was a member, and later chair, of the Bund für Mutterschutz (BfM), an organization which used Social Darwinist language to argue for the support of unwed mothers and their children. The eugenics discourse would only become popular within the mainstream of society with the outbreak of World War I and the fear of population decline and degeneration. Further, Stöcker’s Social Darwinism was not a mere accident of historical place but has traceable roots in an intricate web of intellectual and personal influences which culminated in her use of Social Darwinism to advocate for the advance of women and the development of a new society. The incident described above reveals that Stöcker didn’t only use a eugenics discourse when handy, but that she thought deeply about the meaning of various forms of Social Darwinism for her philosophy. In this paper I will outline the web of intellectual influences, and this will eventually constitute the first chapter of my dissertation. I will then go over an outline of what I plan to do in the second and third chapters. Any and all feedback is welcome.

After Helene Stöcker first encountered Nietzsche in 1891, he became central to her philosophy of society and selfhood and to her promotion of a New Morality. Despite his sometimes negative comments on women, Stöcker used Nietzsche to energize a feminism focused on self-realization (Thomas, 91). She thus developed an optimism that society could form its own future, and she differentiated a radical feminism from one that argued only for legal equality by focusing on development instead of on the extension of the status quo to the other half of society. Women were to become aware of their potential identities through education, a freer sexuality, and finally, as Stöcker asserts throughout articles in the Neue Generation and in her description of a failed love affair in her 1921 novel, Liebe, in a deep, monogamous relationship with a man. Because sexuality played such a large role in this development, Stöcker’s Nietzschean philosophy promoted “an image of woman based essentially on her biological role” and thus became tied to Social Darwinism (Thomas, 91). Self-realization stopped being an end in itself, and instead became a tool toward the improvement of the next generation, which shifted the emphasis from the individual to the human race as a whole. However, Nietzsche’s fundamental emphasis on the individual helps explain why Stöcker never endorsed non-voluntary means. Nietzsche lay out the overarching framework for Stöcker’s social theories and gave her work a higher goal, and in fact a higher population, toward which to strive.

Alexander Tille, an extreme, negative Social Darwinist, who preached a German morality based on the teachings of Nietzsche, Darwin, and the monist Ernst Haeckel, and who saw the high mortality rates in London’s East End as a social curative, was Stöcker’s lover at the end of the nineteenth century (Weindling 192). Stöcker first knew of Tille as the author of “Von Darwin bis Nietzsche” and they came together over a shared passion for the philosopher. Tille’s emphasis on a combination of Nietzsche, Darwin and Haeckel’s monism must have made an important impact on the younger Stöcker. Stöcker particularly seems to have absorbed Tille’s emphasis on work as the backbone of a revolutionized society and the means by which one should judge a person’s worth. A person’s ability to do work is a theme that reoccurs in Stöcker’s writings, and provides a strong link to the importance of fitness and health. However, Tille was much more conservative than Stöcker (generational?) and didn’t understand her ethical attachment to the biblical Sermon on the Mount, though she had rejected all other church doctrine. Stöcker’s continued respect for the Sermon on the Mount reveals the importance of brotherly love to Stöcker and, along with Nietzschean individualism, helps to explain why she refused to endorse violent, non-voluntary measures.

Monist theories never explicitly promoted eugenics, though the Monist League did campaign for sex education and voluntary euthanasia, however the theory that both mind and body are one held significance for the application of Darwinist theories, suggesting that biology could be applied to diffuse areas of society, and helped propagate a theory of the social organism that was popular in Wilhelmine Germany. Thus, social behavior, psychology and art were to be explained along natural guidelines (Weindling 46-47). Early on, Stöcker rejected Church taught dualism and turned to monism, which further helps to explain why the spiritual and intellectual transformation necessitated a biological revolution to support it.

Neo-Malthusianism, a prevalent movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, provided a doctrine on how to achieve this biological transformation: social planning. Initially, Stöcker sought positive measures, such as better housing and motherhood insurance, to improve social conditions. However Neo-Malthusianism advocated the use of birth control to prevent overpopulation, which corresponded with Stöcker’s own focus on sexuality and the body. As a result, Stöcker advocated for the legalization of contraception, abortion, and in the BfM’s sexual advice clinics in the Weimar Republic, sterilization was used as a means to prevent children who were unwanted and who could not be cared for properly. In the early 1900s, Stöcker would begin to seriously study psychology and Freud’s theories, which led her endorse the idea that one’s education and upbringing left an indelible mark on one’s adult life (“Gewalt oder Verständigung, 233m). It was therefore essential that children receive proper care and nutrition. If parents were unable to make such provisions, Stöcker argued that children must be prevented, a stance that especially targeted the working class.

While much of the race hygiene movement during this time, and particularly during and after World War I, focused on the improvement and increased birth rate of the German race in competition with other European countries, Stöcker instead promoted a milder form of German cultural nationalism. Stöcker may have particularly been influenced by Maria Lischnewska, who worked in the BfM with Stöcker from 1904 to 1914, and who was a militant and racial nationalist. Indeed, according to Stöcker, Lischnewska was one of the few who supported Stöcker’s proposal to create a special commission to study the problems of love, marriage and parenthood in the Verbande Fortschrittlicher Frauenvereine in 1904, and she followed Stöcker to the BfM when the proposal was rejected (NG Oct/Nov 1924, 10/11, p321). Lischnewska was also a steady ally of Stöcker throughout the troubled period from 1909 to 1910 when many in the BfM’s regional groups, as well as primary member Adele Schreiber, attempted to oust Stöcker from her position of power. Such loyalty may have played a moderate role in Stöcker’s attempts to incorporate German nationalism into her ideology, although Stöcker never supported a militarist form and the two parted ways at the beginning of World War I, seemingly over Stöcker’s increased pacifist activities in the BfM.

These various influences, all of which would have impacted Stöcker from the last decade of the nineteenth century through the first decade of the twentieth, culminated in a form of Social Darwinism with three key characteristics, which I will briefly outline. First Stöcker’s Social Darwinism emphasized the interconnection of mind and body. For Stöcker, self-realization was primary and biological fitness only a necessary step toward its achievement. However, in Stöcker’s novel, Liebe, the significance of the union of mind and body, and the effect of a sick body on the activity of mental development and scholarship become clear. Those who are sick cannot work, and those who cannot work cannot achieve. This interconnection also leads to a view of Motherhood, which posits that while many women may be biologically fit for motherhood, not all are mentally and spiritually suited to raise a child. Thus, Stöcker’s Social Darwinism focused not on quantity but on quality. She did not attempt to enter a population race with other nations, as she abhorred war, but instead wanted to create a German race which would produce high culture, ensure non-violence, and guarantee that all members of its society achieved to their fullest.

Secondly, Stöcker’s Social Darwinism advocated gradual development toward a universal utopia. While some Social Darwinists may have seen German culture as at the apex of evolutionary development, Stöcker believed Germans, and in fact the human race, still had much work to do. However, as seen in her discouragement following World War I, as well as in her insistence on Larmarckian heredity, which would allow reforms made in this generation to transfer to the next, her utopian future was not thousands of years off but could potentially be reached in a few generations. Thus she called for planned population politics, asserting that the ‘struggle for existence’ had been misunderstood; it was not a violent fight, but instead required cooperation and the education of the populace through propaganda. Stöcker’s use of propaganda, however, raises questions regarding the extent to which she was willing to excise all non-coercive means. Who was to be led to understand that it was better for them not to procreate, and in what manner? (discuss Wickert)

The question of propaganda and coercion then leads to the problematics of scientific uncertainty and ideological absolutism. While this is still a theme I need to explore, first findings would lead to the conclusion that in Wilhelmine Germany Stöcker emphasized individual responsibility and voluntarism, but following the war, with the expansion of statistical analysis, the assumption of objectivity, and the human devastation of the war, her insistence on an absolute ideology increased. Such absolute idealism, if one were to follow the rationale to its natural conclusion, would require absolutist measures. I am not suggesting that Stöcker ever advocated forced sterilization or contemplated ‘euthanasia’, but what has been missing from her biographies has been not only a study of the complex strands leading to the formation of her Social Darwinist ideology, but also a conception of how it developed and changed from Wilhelmine to Weimar Germany, and how it then interacted with the issues of the post-war and post-suffrage women’s movement.

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