From time to time in women’s rights protests you see signs saying something along the lines of “Didn’t my Grandmother fight for these rights?” It’s true, the battles aren’t new, or confined to any particular country. One of the earliest champions for women’s rights, including control over their own bodies, was Helene Stöcker of Germany.
Born November 13, 1869 in Elberfeld, Germany, Helene grew up in a strict Calvinist household. She was the oldest of eight children born to Peter Heinrich Ludwig Stöcker and Hulda Bergmann Stöcker. Her father had wanted to be a missionary, but had to take over the family business, still Bible reading and daily prayer were part of the family routine. Helene eventually rejected her father’s religion, but acknowledged his influence on her values, including personal integrity, charity, and a sense of justice.
Her mother also influenced her future concerns. Like Margaret Sanger, Helene saw the toll that eight births had taken on her mother. Only five of Hulda’s children survived to adulthood, and when there were complications at the birth of her only son, Helene had to take on the responsibilities of the household. This (along with Gretchen’s situation in Goethe’s Faust, as she later said) led her to consider the consequences related to reproduction for women in traditional relationships.
Helene was a voracious reader and an independent thinker. She attended a girls’ school and in 1890 a teacher’s seminary, preparing to be a teacher. But, instead of following this path, she moved to Berlin and began to attend classes at the university in literature, philosophy and economics. At the time, the university didn’t allow women to obtain degrees, so she moved on to Glasgow and finally to the University at Bern where she received her doctorate in Literature in 1902, becoming one of the first women in Germany to do so.
In 1905, Helene became the head of the League for the Protection of Mothers (Bund für Mutterschutz) which had been founded in Berlin in 1904 by Ruth Bré. The change in leadership was due to a conflict over the direction of the organization. Bré was primarily concerned with the situation of single mothers and their children. In addition to promoting equality of illegitimate children under the law and establishing homes for unwed mothers, Helene also promoted sex education, access to contraceptives, and the legalization of abortion. In 1908 the League was renamed the League for the Protection of Mothers and Sexual Reform (Bund für Mutterschutz und Sexualreform).
The League was engaged in practical solutions, but also political activism and debate. It included many well-known intellectuals both men and women, including Lily Braun, Marie Stritt, Adele Schreiber, Max Weber, and Friedrich Naumann. Their activities and theoretical debate were publicized through two journals, edited by Helene, called Mutterschutz and Die Neue Generation. According to Allen, Stöcker was the intellectual leader of the group. One of her colleagues, Grete Meisel-Hess said that “Her personality expresses a calm self-confidence; no attack can intimidate her or deter her from her chosen course of action.”
One attack common to many feminist groups of the time was the accusation that they promoted “free love.” While the focus of the group was traditional heterosexual relationships, they insisted on the need for equality between men and women in marriage, but also legal recognition of what they called “free relationships,” which included not only support for single mothers, but homosexuality, and the right to divorce.
Beginning during WWI, Helene shifted much of her energy to the Peace movement. She had long been a pacifist having joined the Deutsche Friedensgesellschaft (German Peace Society, DFG) in 1892 while in Berlin. And in 1921, she was involved in the founding of the organization named Paco which later was known as the War Resisters’ International and is still in existence.
Helene never married. In 1899, she spent one semester in school at Glasgow. There she met and fell in love with a German lecturer named Alexander Tilly. Tilly was married with children, but when his wife died in 1902, Helene briefly returned to care for him and his children. She found, however, that maintaining her professional life while being a wife and step-mother was too difficult and she returned to Berlin. In 1905, she met Bruno Springer, a lawyer with whom she had a relationship until his death in 1931. They never married, but kept separate apartments on the same floor to be near each other.
Helene’s written works were extensive, as was her political support for her ideas, including her anti-war efforts. For this reason, life in Germany became difficult during the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazi party. In 1937, she was stripped of her German citizenship and her doctorate degree. Her bank account was seized, her writings blacklisted, and her manuscripts burned. She first fled to Switzerland and then England. Attending a conference in Sweden when the war broke out, she decided to stay, but when Norway was invaded, she left Europe and eventually ended up in the United States where she died of cancer on February 24, 1943.
Note: Most of Helene Stöcker’s works don’t seem to have been translated into English, but the journal article in Signs by Ann Taylor Allen gives an excellent analysis of her ideas and how they contrasted with other men and women both in and outside of the League. If you’re interested in her ideas I highly recommend it.
Helene Stöcker (1869-1943) (link to pdf file)
Allen, Ann Taylor. “Mothers of the New Generation: Adele Schreiber, Helene Stöcker, and the Evolution of a German Idea of Motherhood, 1900-1914”. Signs 10.3 (1985): 418–438.(Behind a subscription wall at Jstor, but you can read three articles free every 14 days.)
Braker, Regina, “Helene Stocker’s Pacifism in the Weimar Republic: Between Ideal and Reality“, at Project Muse. (The full text is available only through institution subscription, but the summary has good information.)
Women in Law: A Bio-bibliographical Sourcebook by Rebecca Mae Salkar and Mary Volcansek (excerpt from Google Books)
Helene Stöcker, “The Modern Woman” (1893, at German History Docs