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Jewish Women in Fin de Siècle Vienna

Jewish Women in Fin de Siècle Vienna

The first broad examination of the role of Jewish women in Viennese society at the turn of the twentieth century, incorporating perspectives from within the Austrian Jewish community of that era.

Series: Jewish History, Life, and Culture Series, Michael Neiditch, series editor

October 2008
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
328 pages | 6 x 9 | 15 b&w photos |

Despite much study of Viennese culture and Judaism between 1890 and 1914, little research has been done to examine the role of Jewish women in this milieu. Rescuing a lost legacy, Jewish Women in Fin de Siècle Vienna explores the myriad ways in which Jewish women contributed to the development of Viennese culture and participated widely in politics and cultural spheres.

Areas of exploration include the education and family lives of Viennese Jewish girls and varying degrees of involvement of Jewish women in philanthropy and prayer, university life, Zionism, psychoanalysis and medicine, literature, and culture. Incorporating general studies of Austrian women during this period, Alison Rose also presents significant findings regarding stereotypes of Jewish gender and sexuality and the politics of anti-Semitism, as well as the impact of German culture, feminist dialogues, and bourgeois self-images.

As members of two minority groups, Viennese Jewish women nonetheless used their involvement in various movements to come to terms with their dual identity during this period of profound social turmoil. Breaking new ground in the study of perceptions and realities within a pivotal segment of the Viennese population, Jewish Women in Fin de Siècle Vienna applies the lens of gender in important new ways.

  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Childhood and Youth of Jewish Girls
  • 2. Community, Spirituality, and Philanthropy
  • 3. University and Political Involvement
  • 4. Women and the Zionist Movement
  • 5. Medicine and Psychoanalysis
  • 6. Literature and Culture
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Alison Rose is Adjunct Assistant Professor of History and History Coordinator at the University of Rhode Island in Providence.


In fin de siècle Vienna, Jewish women figured prominently as heroines and victims in Jewish tales of the ghetto and as subjects of Freud's most famous case studies of hysteria. They attended the University of Vienna when it opened its doors to women, built new and progressive schools, organized more than a dozen charity societies, and joined political movements, contributing many important ideas. They became doctors, teachers, scientists, socialists, psychoanalysts, Zionists, and writers. However, a perusal of the literature on Vienna, both in Jewish and general history, gives the reader a very different impression. In fact, Jewish women are virtually absent from most works on fin de siècle Vienna and Viennese Jewry. What accounts for this discrepancy?

Sexual instincts, human psychology, mass politics, and cultural modernism: these notions bring to mind the Austrian fin de siècle. Because of their enduring relevance, they also account for contemporary interest in the phenomenon which Carl Schorske coined fin de siècle Vienna. The attempt to explain these enduring cultural and political developments occupies many works on fin de siècle Vienna, while works specifically on Viennese Jewry focus on the Jewish contribution to culture, assimilation, identity, and anti-Semitism.

Pierre Loving wrote in 1916, "As long as men and women will continue to be intrigued by the elusive enigma of life, by subtle states of the soul, by problems of the subliminal self, so long, we may venture to predict, will the plays of Arthur Schnitzler compel attention from the truly great audiences of the world." Schnitzler, alongside many of his Jewish contemporaries in Vienna such as Sigmund Freud, Theodor Herzl, Arnold Schoenberg, Karl Kraus, and Otto Weininger, occupies a central role in histories of fin de siècle Vienna, demonstrating on the one hand the importance of the Jewish element in the cultural and political milieu, and on the other hand, that those Jews remembered for their contributions to fin de siècle Vienna were primarily male. Schorske tends to downplay the Jewish role in Viennese culture in general, subsuming it into the bourgeoisie, writing that "the failure to acquire a monopoly of power left the bourgeois always something of an outsider, seeking integration with the aristocracy. The numerous and prosperous Jewish element in Vienna, with its strong assimilationist thrust, only strengthened this trend." As a corrective, many have noted the importance of Jews in Viennese culture; however, usually the focus is on male Jews. For example, Marsha Rozenblit writes that Jews "played a central role in creating modern culture in Austria. Franz Kafka, Stefan Zweig, Arthur Schnitzler, Karl Kraus, Otto Weininger, Richard Beer-Hofmann, Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg are just a few of many outstanding cultural figures of Jewish background in Austria." Reading Schorske's work and many of the subsequent studies inspired by it begs the question: where were Jewish women in all this?

The goal of this book is to reintegrate Jewish women into the history of turn of the century Vienna in order to demonstrate their importance as cultural creators. At the same time, it is the first work to focus on images and perceptions of Jewish women in Viennese Jewish sources. In both respects this reintegration of Jewish women into the study of the culture of fin de siècle Vienna necessitates a revision of the historical narrative. For example, images of Jewish women as well as their personal struggles and activities demonstrate that fin de siècle Vienna can no longer be thought of as a place where "any of the city's cultural leaders could make the acquaintance of any other without difficulty and many of them were in fact close friends despite working in quite distinct fields of art, thought and public affairs." In fact, women in general and Jewish women in particular often were unable to find positions due to their gender, and faced more obstacles to successful careers than did Jewish men. Furthermore, Jewish women in Vienna became actively engaged in politics, calling into question the view of some historians that the culture was dominated by men who retreated into aesthetic culture when faced with the decline of liberalism.

Jews and women of the Habsburg monarchy both underwent somewhat similar processes during the nineteenth century. Both experienced the fight for emancipation, being defined by the dominant culture as the "other," and the emergence (or re-emergence) of a group consciousness. Because of their status as "other," Jews and women in Viennese culture shared many similarities of image. Issues of gender and sexuality occupied a central role in cultural and political life. Responding to the emergence of a "feminist consciousness," the male-dominated society dedicated its efforts to defining the appropriate realms of activity for men and women. In comparison with the status of Jews, emancipated in 1867, similar achievements for women lagged behind. Women lacked civil freedom, facing restrictive codes of dress and conduct, and limited educational opportunities.

Jewish men's representations of Jewish women took place in the context of the gender question, the Jewish question, and their intersection in Viennese culture of the fin de siècle, a time of profound cultural, social, and political innovation and turmoil. As in all times of crisis and change, those invested in the traditional social order feared groups, such as Jews and women, who appeared to threaten the status quo. This widespread anxiety resulted in a dual crisis of masculinity and Jewish identity. The perceived Judaization and feminization of Viennese culture gave rise to hostility toward women and Jews. The demonizing of women and Jews went hand in hand with the linking of these groups to one another. Having roots in earlier stereotypes, such as the medieval notion of the menstruating male Jew, the linking of the Jew and the woman resonated powerfully in turn of the century Vienna. The belief in the femininity of male Jews naturally led to a growing tendency from within the host culture to blame Jews for the so-called feminization of Viennese culture.

The dominant culture often portrayed the Jews as feminine, materialistic, and sexually deviant or aggressive, and questioned their loyalty to the state. These stereotypes in many respects mirror the fin de siècle images of women, which juxtaposed the ideal of the virtuous mother with the dangerous, seductive prostitute. This dual image of the woman rose to prominence in fin de siècle culture in general, while the linking of the Jew with femininity and sexuality arguably found its most fertile breeding ground in Vienna.

This cultural linking of Jews and women in the dominant culture influenced the lives of Jewish men and women as well as the frequency and nature of images of Jewish women created by Jewish men. For Viennese Jews, the woman seemed to embody their own sense of difference. The Viennese preoccupation with sexuality combined with the discourse about Jewish sexuality compelled many Viennese Jewish men and women to confront the question of Jewish women's otherness. As a result, Jewish men displaced anxieties of their own sexual difference onto women. The gender stereotypes created by Jewish men in their representations of women assisted them in negotiating their way through the changes and challenges of modernity. Each segment of the Jewish population created stereotypes of the Jewish woman in order to address its own dilemmas. Discussions and depictions of Jewish women can be found in the works of Viennese Jews of every conceivable political, intellectual, and religious orientation.

These circumstances contributed to the difficult, at times hostile, environment which confronted Viennese Jewish women. Jewish women's scope of involvement in society, culture, and politics remained circumscribed by the resulting stereotypes of them, but at the same time their activities allowed them an avenue by which to negotiate their way through the conflicting ideologies of their environment. Jewish women used their involvement in various movements in coming to terms with their dual identity as Jews and women. In social and political activism and creative output, Jewish women found ways to reconcile multiple loyalties and competing ideologies, such as femininity, feminism, traditional Judaism, religious reform, and assimilation. The experiences of Jewish women in fin de siècle Vienna represent an early attempt to forge a positive Jewish female identity amid a male-dominated non-Jewish host culture.

This study focuses primarily on two aspects of Viennese Jewish women's identity, as Jews and as women, but the context in which they negotiated these identities, in the capital of the multinational Habsburg monarchy, is important as well. Recently, Marsha Rozenblit put forward the tripartite identity thesis as a way of understanding Austrian Jewish identities, which she explains as follows:

The very structure of the Habsburg Monarchy allowed Jews a great deal of latitude to adumbrate a Jewish ethnic identity, even as they adopted the culture of one or another group in whose midst they lived and articulated a staunch Austrian political loyalty. Jews in Habsburg Austria developed a tripartite identity in which they were Austrian by political loyalty, German (or Czech or Polish) by cultural affiliation, and Jewish in an ethnic sense.

With this analysis, Rozenblit provides a useful tool for the understanding of the complex nature of Jewish identity in Austria. It was an identity with many interwoven strands and one which allowed Habsburg Jewry more room for their Jewishness, according to Rozenblit. For the Jewish women explored in this book, gender also played an important role in their identity. Perhaps by taking gender into account, Austrian Jewish women can be understood as having a quadripartite identity—Austrian loyalty, German (or other) culture, Jewish ethnicity, and female gender, which in itself could be manifested in feminism or in femininity or in some combination of the two. The female aspect of their identity affected and was affected by the other aspects of their identity. For example, it shaped how they saw themselves as Jews.

The following chapters aim to reinsert the Jewish woman into her proper place as a pivotal figure both in the fin de siècle imagination and in the everyday reality of Viennese society, politics, and culture. I will examine the history and images of Viennese Jewish women, their activities, affiliations, and writings, in light of the dilemmas and limitations they faced due to gender-based and anti-Semitic stereotypes. Sources such as memoirs, letters, diaries, organizational pamphlets, newspaper articles, and speeches chronicle the lives of Jewish women in fin de siècle Vienna. At the same time, writings by Jewish men in all segments of society about Jewish women document the development of stereotypes which accompanied Jewish women at each stage of their lives and every avenue of their involvement and activity. Jewish women's accomplishments in this period of time will be understood in their integral relationship to the historical and cultural context.

It seems logical to begin with the earliest stages of the lives of Jewish women, by focusing on their girlhood years. Therefore, Chapter 1 explores the feelings of Viennese Jewish girls about their Jewish and gender identity by examining the accounts of childhood in memoirs. The home life and the school environment encountered by Jewish girls are reflected in their recollections and in the writings of leaders in the organized Jewish community about religious lessons and anti-Semitism in schools and the upbringing of Jewish girls in the home.

Continuing the focus on the Jewish community, in Chapter 2 I examine the adult lives of Jewish women in the context of the organized community and the role of prayer and philanthropy. Jewish prayer books for women and the proliferation of Jewish women's charitable organizations are contrasted with the writings of the major rabbinic leaders of Vienna, Adolf Jellinek, Moritz Güdemann, and Joseph Samuel Bloch, as well as other communal leaders on Jewish women. While the former indicate an attachment to Jewish tradition among Jewish women, Viennese rabbis and communal leaders tended to idealize Jewish women of the past, suggesting the need to improve Jewish women of the present. They also demonstrate their conflicting desire to make Judaism relevant in the modern world while retaining Jewish distinctiveness. Their need to clarify the Jewish position on women and the role of women in Judaism resulted from their confrontation with modernity, the women's movement, anti-Semitism, and religious reform. Their writings demonstrate the centrality of the "woman question" for Viennese Jews, and the ambivalent relationship of the religious Jewish leadership to the cultural context in which it endured.

In Chapter 3, I turn to the lives of Jewish university women and Jewish women in feminist, socialist, and communist politics, as well as in professional careers, looking at the way they used their political involvement to negotiate the tensions of their identity as Jews and women as well as the reactions and negative stereotypes of them that emerged as a result of their activities. The theme of politics continues in the next chapter on Jewish women's involvement in Viennese Zionism in light of the Zionist conception of them. While some Zionist women focused on finding feminine ways to contribute, others incorporated feminist ideas and subtly strove for equality or more political roles, and a third group concentrated on defining the role of women in the Yishuv (pre-State Israel). Zionist men stressed women's importance to the future of their people, while criticizing their lack of Jewish feeling, pursuit of assimilation, and love of luxury. They professed that the traditional relationship between the sexes in the East European ghetto would be transformed if the Jews had their own nation. In keeping with the ideas of the German volkish youth movement, they argued that Jewish men would become more manly by working the land, consequently causing Jewish women to become more feminine. Feeling the need to assert themselves as masculine in contrast to the image of the feminized Jewish male, Viennese Zionists in the end relegated Jewish women to a more passive role.

Chapter 5 examines how the climate of rising anti-Semitism, with its heavy sexual emphasis, shaped the way Viennese Jews in the fields of medicine, psychology, and psychoanalysis dealt with the Jewish question and the woman question. In their response to anti-Semitic stereotypes and the myth of the effeminate Jewish male, Jews in these fields challenged negative stereotypes of the Jew, while embracing negative images of women. Jewish women also pursued careers in medicine and psychoanalysis. Stereotypes of women and Jews circumscribed Jewish women's contributions to psychoanalysis and medicine, while their involvement in these fields allowed them an avenue by which to address notions of femininity and feminism persisting in their culture.

Continuing to explore images of Jewish women together with Jewish women's contributions, I turn in the final chapter to Jewish women's creative output and the representations of them in works of art, literature, theater, and journalism. Jewish literary works suggested various solutions to the question of Jewish women's role in the modern world. In ghetto literature, Jewish women often led the way to enlightenment, but sometimes suffered the pain of rejection by the traditional world. Later writers of ghetto stories portrayed Jewish women as the link to tradition. Jewish writers in the Jung Wien (Young Vienna literary movement) circle rarely pursued Jewish themes and even less frequently included female Jewish characters. In the instances where they appeared, female Jewish characters conformed to the general stereotypes of women in Viennese culture—as sexual victims, masculine intellectuals, or useless materialists. Jewish women in literature and creative culture faced competing and sometimes conflicting conceptions of womanhood found in the feminist movement and the bourgeois and Jewish notions of femininity. They used their writing and art as a means to negotiate the tensions of life as Jewish women in fin de siècle Vienna.

The purpose of these chapters and this book as a whole is to give a broad picture of the importance of the Jewish woman to the culture of fin de siècle Vienna as both subject and object. These two areas are explored simultaneously in each chapter as much as possible in order to highlight the interaction between image and identity and present a unified view of gender and Jewish culture by focusing on Jewish women's lives and images of Jewish women. Previous works have dealt either with images and stereotypes of Jewish women or "Jewish women's history," addressing the position and status, historical roles, cultural contributions, and/or questions of identity of Jewish women. An underlying conviction—that in order to understand either area, images of Jewish women or "Jewish women's history," they must be examined together—informs my analysis. By examining the specific case of Viennese Jewish women with this dual lens, this book aims to revisit the question of fin de siècle Viennese culture.


“A superb book containing first-class research. Rose uncovers aspects of the history of Jewish women that have been neglected by historians [and] demonstrates an extraordinary range of erudition.”
Susannah Heschel, Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies, Dartmouth College