In her older years, Madame Anneke was described as tall, rigid and erect, with a “white silk cloth at her wrist where her right hand had been amputated.” She presided gently, but firmly, over her students at the girl’s school she founded in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But in spite of her gentle demeanor, her fighting spirit could be seen in her opposition to slavery and her fight for women’s rights. This spirit and her considerable skills had been developed at the printing press and on the battlefield of her native land.
Mathilde Franziska Giesler was born April 3, 1817, to a wealthy, noble family in Lerchenhausen, Westphalia, in the Ruhr Valley of present day Germany. Her father owned coal and iron mines and extensive lands where she was raised in luxury. Mathilde was educated by private tutors and showed an interest and ability in writing as a girl as well as a love for nature.
Mathilde’s happy life ended when she married Alfred von Tabouillot at the age of nineteen.The marriage ended in divorce one year later and was followed by a bitter custody battle over their daughter. This experience gave her first hand knowledge of the injustice of laws related to the rights of married women and she became a staunch advocate of women’s rights.
After the divorce, Mathilde turned to her writing skills to support herself. She did well, writing and editing, publishing a volume of poems and short biographies. She even wrote a play, Oithono oder die Tempelweihe, “The Inauguration of the Temple”, which was successfully performed in both Germany and later in the United States.
In 1847, Mathilde married Fritz Anneke, a Prussian artillery officer. They shared common political ideas and together began publishing a daily paper for working class people in Cologne. This was during a time of increased desire for freedom among the people of the German Confederation, and eventually, Fritz was imprisoned for his political activities, but Mathilde continued publishing their paper until it was banned. Unwilling to have her voice silenced, the next year she started the first German feminist newspaper, Frauen-Zeitung.
When Fritz was released from prison, he joined the revolutionaries fighting against the Prussian invasion of the Palatinate. Mathilde cut off her long hair, donned trousers and went with him to serve as his adjutant. She was nearly six feet tall, courageous, and an excellent horsewoman. She also handled a gun well as one stranger found when he tried to sneak into camp late at night. Coming face-to-face with Mathilde’s pistol he said “My God, a woman!” Fortunately for him, he was able to explain his presence in the camp.
When the revolutionaries were defeated, Mathilde and Fritz were force to flee and joined many Germans who fled to the United States. In the US, Mathilde was faced with many of the same social conditions for women and she was also appalled at the conditions of African Americans. In 1852, she started the first feminist journal published by a woman in the US, Deutsche Frauen-Zeitung, and spoke out against slavery. She was an eloquent speaker and spoke and wrote in support of the Union cause. She and Fritz were in accord on this matter and he served in the Union Army as colonel and commanding officer of the 34th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
While other publishers conspired against her in Milwaukee, possibly out of professional jealousy, Mathilde went on a speaking tour to raise funds for her own printing shop. The tour was very successful and the next month she began publication in New York, Jersey City and Newark, New Jersey. She traveled abroad to report on international events as well as news within the United States. Mathilde worked hard and was successful for three years until ill health forced her to stop the paper.
After the Civil War, separation from her husband, and his death in 1872, Mathilde Anneke continued to speak out for women’s rights, the vote, and economic opportunities. She had also continued to bob her hair since the war in Germany. In spite of her strong opinions and commanding presence, she was known for her tact and the ability to win others to her way of thinking. This skill was very useful to her when she began her career as a teacher.
In her final years, Mathilde, now usually called Madame Anneke, chose to pass on her knowledge and ideals to young girls. She opened a school where she instructed about 40 girls at a time (and over the years a few boys.) Her style was unusual and surprisingly modern. Instead of standing to recite, the girls sat around a long table with their teacher at the head. In a newspaper article from the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1930, one of her former students, Miss Ida Fernekes had this to say: “It was not her idea to pour knowledge into a child. She drew out, removed obstacles, gently led the way. She allow a child to grow, standing by only to give the growth guidance and purpose.”
For roughly 18 years, Mathilde Anneke imparted wisdom, bolstered confidence, and encouraged talents. I’m sure she was greatly missed when she died November 25, 1884.Madame Anneke was buried beside her husband and wrote the words which adorn the headstone. A loose translation says the following:
“We have never bent the knee
before false gods,
We have never cowered in
Be we have always had faith
in a divinity
That ever consecrates a
shrine to love.”
– From “Ruins and Ivy”
National Honor Sought for Madame Anneke: Older Residents Recall Fight for Women’s Rights, Milwaukee Sentinel, April 27, 1930, retrieved from Wisconsin Historical Society website
Anneke, Mathilde Franziska (Giesler) 1817 – 1884 (Wisconsin Historical Society)
Madame Mathilda Franziska Anneke: An Early Wisconsin Journalist, The Wisconsin magazine of history: Volume 21, number 2, December 1937