Wider research context / theoretical framework
The project’s context are historiographies on the first women’s movement. It focuses on German-, Hungarian-, English- and French-speaking areas. It concerns a specific part of the public, consisting of those women who felt addressed by the first women’s movement. Who belonged to this group? How did these women see their situation? Which topics and debates moved them? The project will explore these questions based on the analysis of letters written by ‘unknown’ women to prominent protagonists of the women’s movement. The personal papers of Käthe Schirmacher (1865-1930), an activist of the radical women’s movement and völkisch agitator, contains a large number of such letters and thus is the starting point of the project’s source research. The project will establish whether personal papers of other women’s movement activists also include such letters.
Hypotheses / research questions / objectives
This project assumes that women who wrote letters to women’s movement activists already belonged to the women’s movement’s ‘public of discourse’ (Warner 2002), before they started to communicate with them. Other concepts of ‘public’, such as the women’s movement public (Wischermann 2003) and the personal public sphere (O’Neill 2017), will be put to the test in order to shed light on the relationship between the activists of the women’s movement and its core audience. The concept of ‘persona’ (Daston/Sibum 2003; Bosch 2013) as well as concepts of celebrity culture (O’Neill 2017; Morgan 2011) will help understand what makes a person an addressee of such letters. The project aims at establishing the characteristics of this epistolary genre, distinguishing it from similar letter cultures and supportive practices within and outside of the women’s movement.
Approach / methods
A transnational and comparative approach is the basis for the analysis of these letters. The project adopts practice-oriented theories and will employ a narrative theory and methodology informed by social and cultural history to investigate this hitherto unexplored epistolary genre. This specific form of letter writing will be compared with other epistolary and supportive practices during this period, in particular with “citizen letters” (Fenske 2013), readers’ letters to editorial boards of the women’s movement press, as well as women’s legal aid offices and counselling agencies.
As the collaborator of the project, I am researching the documentation of the Hungarian Feminists’ Association [Feministák Egyesülete] (1904-1949, Budapest) in the National Archives of Hungary in Budapest and the correspondence of the internationally known women’s movement activist Rosika Schwimmer (1877, Budapest-1948, New York) in the New York Public Library.
The Rosika Schwimmer Collection contains several letters from Hungarian women who were unknown in the women’s movement. A distinctive feature of this collection is that Schwimmer archived not only incoming mail, but also her reply letters. In addition, a women’s counseling center was established within the Feminists’ Association to help women with their everyday problems. These women were also unknown in the feminist movement, and they approached Schwimmer or other board members of the association with various issues related to labour and family rights, or to (vocational) education questions (among others).
Furthermore, I examine letters from readers that were sent to the editors of the official journals of the Feminists’ Association.