Journal of the History of Sexuality 13.4 (2004) 477-499
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A Problematic Foremother of Lesbian Herstory
The name "Anna Rüling" brings to mind one of the first lesbian activist political speeches to address the relationship between the women's movement and homosexuality.1 Rüling delivered her speech, "Homosexualität und Frauenbewegung" (Homosexuality and the women's movement), at the annual assembly of the Wissenschaftlich-humanitären Komitee (Scientific-Humanitarian Committee), or Whk, on 9 October 1904 at the Hotel Prinz Albrecht in Berlin. Around three hundred people usually [End Page 477] attended the annual general assembly.2 The address, which was published under the title "Welche Interesse hat die Frauenbewegung an der Lösung des homosexuellen Problems" (What interest does the women's movement have in the homosexual question), has been translated into English and Italian; Michael Lombardi-Nash has organized a celebration to mark its one hundredth anniversary.3 It is not an exaggeration to say that more has been written about Anna Rüling than about any other woman who openly described herself as a homosexual woman at the beginning of the twentieth century.4
The speech was a strong affirmation of the rights of homosexuals and of women. Rüling bravely insisted that the women's movement was a "cultural historical necessity" [kulturgeschichtliche Notwendigkeit] and that homosexuality was a "natural historical necessity" [naturgeschichtliche Notwendigkeit].5 Public knowledge about homosexuality in women [End Page 478] was comparatively less developed than that of male homosexuality; a case in point was the fact that Paragraph 175 criminalized same-sex sexuality between men only. However, the "spiritual pressure" [seelische Druck] that homosexual women faced from social discrimination was extremely high, according to Rüling, particularly since lesbians lived alone and depended upon a single income. Rüling insisted that the homosexual and women's movements should "mutually help one another to achieve rights and recognition" [gegenseitig zu Recht und Anerkennung verhelfen] as well as to rid the world of "injustice" [Ungerechtigkeit]. In particular, the women's movement should understand homosexuality, the "inborn sexual drive" [angeborenen sexuellen Trieb], within the context of women's engagement with questions concerning youth and childrearing. She urged that this should be one of the "smaller tasks" [kleineren Aufgaben] of the women's movement. As she concretely put it, the women's movement should not "raise the homosexual question to a particular level of importance" [homosexuelle Frage nicht zu einer besonderen Wichtigkeit erheben] but, rather, give it its "due space" [gebührenden Platz]. She noted that the women's movement included homosexual women, adding provocatively: "The position and participation of homosexual women in the women's movement on one of its most important problems (the legal equality of partners within marriage) is of greatest and most far-reaching meaning and earns the most general and furthest reaching consideration" [Die Stellung und Anteilnahme der homosexuellen Frauen in der Frauenbewegung zu und an einem ihrer wichtigsten Probleme ist von größter und einschneidenster Bedeutung und verdient die allgemeinste und weitgehenste Beachtung].6
She very clearly linked the women's rights struggle with that of homosexuals' rights campaigners. As she put it, it was the "duty" [Pflicht] of the women's movement to stand by homosexuals in their struggle because the women's rights activists fought "for the right of free personality and self-determination" [für das Recht der freien Persönlichkeit und der Selbstbestimmung]. In her remarks she explicitly turned against the sexual-pathological image of a homosexual "species" or distinct personality.7 For Anna Rüling, homosexuals were characterized by their individual personalities and only after that by their "sexual disposition" [sexuelle Veranlagung]. She also distinguished sexual desires from gender attributes, claiming that homosexual women possessed [End Page 479] "attributes, predilections and abilities" [Eigenschaften, Neigungen, und Fähigkeiten] that "we usually feel to belong rightly to the man" [wir gewöhnlich als rechtsgültigen Besitz des Mannes betrachten], such as "clear-seeing reason" [klar blickender Verstand] and goal...