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A Radical Women's Rights and Peace Activist: Margarethe Lenore Selenka, Initiator of the First Worldwide Women's Peace Demonstration in 1899

From: Journal of Women's History
Volume 13, Number 3, Autumn 2001
pp. 46-69 | 10.1353/jowh.2001.0067

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Journal of Women's History 13.3 (2001) 46-69

Margarethe Lenore Selenka belongs to the pantheon of women's rights activists who, by the end of the nineteenth century, had already recognized the political connections between the repression of women and the dominance of violence. At the center of her pacifist theory was the conviction that war could only be overcome through international law and court of arbitration. The women's movement and the peace movement pursued the same goal of "law against the practice of violence." Women should thus reject their passive roles and become involved in politics, particularly the politics the peace. Selenka's belief in the power of culture and her faith in international women's solidarity ran contrary to the actual fact that the majority of women at this time were skeptical of pacifist activity and prepared to sacrifice international ideals for national interests. Such women as Selenka, in their seemingly "unfeminine" behavior as pacifists and thus as politically active women, contributed to shifting gender roles, although perhaps in a less dramatic sense than they hoped for at the time.

Selenka was forty years old when she first appeared on the pacifist scene in Germany. She received instant recognition for her initial activity and made numerous international contacts. Her first initiative -- an international women's peace demonstration -- took place in 1899 and was well-received in many states. She also devoted the last twenty years of her life to pacifism, though she was no longer able to achieve the same results that she had with her initial activity. This "first worldwide Women's Peace Demonstration" of 1899, as she called it, forms the center point of what is to be discussed here as it was the greatest achievement of her political career. In addition to discussing her life as a pacifist, I analyze her pacifism in light of explicit and implicit gender roles that can be deduced from it. The comments of her opponents help to form a picture of the intellectual and ideological landscape in which the pacifist activity of women during the German monarchy (1871-1918) took place. In the literature on the subject, Selenka's activism has been treated marginally. Nonetheless she remains one of very few women who is taken seriously in the male-dominated domain of peace research in Germany.

Margarethe Lenore Selenka's Biography

Selenka was born Margarette Lenore Heinemann in Hamburg on 7 October 1860 as the daughter of a merchant. Her first marriage to writer Ferdinand Neubürger ended unhappily. After their 1893 divorce, she married her sister's widower, zoologist Emil Selenka, who was eighteen years her elder and a professor at Erlangen University. In 1895, the couple moved to Munich, Germany, which became the base for Selenka's political activity. Neither marriage resulted in children. After her husband's death in 1902, Selenka remained in Munich until her death.

Presumably stimulated by her husband's research, she acquired comprehensive knowledge of anthropology and palaeontology. She accompanied him on his research trips to Borneo, Java, India, China, and Japan, and coauthored a book on their travels entitled Sonnige Welten (Sunny Worlds), which was first published in 1896. During these trips, she researched and published ethnological studies of her own. She worked increasingly in her husband's area of research (anthropoid apes) and, after his death, conducted her first independent archaeological dig on the island of Java from 1906 to 1908. By this point, she was recognized as a notable researcher and her project was financed by prominent research bodies. She later established with other scholars a research station on the Spanish island of Teneriffa.

For many years, Selenka was good friends with peace activists Anita Augspurg and Lida Gustava Heymann, both of whom she presumably met shortly after moving to Munich in 1895. In 1897, she began working with Augspurg, who had just completed her dissertation in Switzerland. Their communal project was to incorporate the notion of women's equality in German civil code the Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch (BGB), which dated from 1900. But they were not successful. Augsburg and, to a lesser degree, Heymann, supported Selenka in her preparations for the worldwide Women's Peace...



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