In my recently published book Grete Meisel-Hess: The New Woman and the Sexual Crisis, I assert that cultural modernism in Germany and Austria was deeply embedded in racist and ableist understandings that not only justified but also actively pursued colonialist expansion, white supremacy, and the politicization of sexuality, birth, and public health. Discussions of prostitution, sexually transmitted infections, racial hygiene, and population politics that set out to support some births while preventing others, emerged in both political discourses as well as within modernist cultural theories and literature. Many early twentieth-century feminist writers who were involved in the Bund Für Mutterschutz (League for the Protection of Mothers), such as Grete Meisel-Hess (1879–1922), espoused their racist and ableist views in their sexology and in their fiction as solutions to the problems associated with the modern era.
Within the book, I draw on Fatima El-Tayeb’s assertion in Schwarze Deutsche: Der Diskurs um “Rasse” und nationale Identität 1890–1933 that, while the position of some groups was being actively negotiated in the early twentieth century in Germany, the belief that White and Black people were diametrically opposed to one another was never challenged (El-Tayeb 37). I argue that in both her fictional and non-fictional writing, Meisel-Hess sought to introduce discussions of feminism and Jewishness into modernist discourses while simultaneously promoting a white supremacist understanding of the world. Similarly, I draw on Maren Tova Linett’s discussions of disability in modernist literature, especially her notion that disability was a central topos of literary modernism that manifests itself in a “paradoxical combination of othering and selving” (Linett 204), in order to argue that racism and ableism, and the processes of othering and selving that they foster, can be viewed as one of the defining features of modernism. To quote from my book:
The ways in which difference and inclusion are actively navigated and negotiated in terms of race, gender, class, ability, and other systems of oppression, as well as the means by which certain hierarchical systems remain unquestioned (such as the black-white dichotomy, as suggested by Fatima El-Tayeb), modernism in Austria-Hungary and Germany was firmly based within systems of privilege and oppression. While sometimes these negotiations of the self and the other can be seen as liberating and revealing, most often they were dangerously oppressive, thereby justifying a system of colonialism, sterilization, violence, and persecution. (17)
Serving as both a biography and a critical analysis of Grete Meisel-Hess’s works, Grete Meisel-Hess: The New Woman and the Sexual Crisis examines the intersections of feminism, Jewishness, and modernism in the early twentieth century in Vienna and Berlin. As a writer and sexologist, Meisel-Hess provided a strong feminist and Jewish voice to the discourses on gender and sexuality in the early twentieth century. While Meisel-Hess sought to shape the construction of the New Woman in the early twentieth century to include educated white Jewish women of the creative class, thereby simultaneously increasing the awareness of Jewish women’s contributions to modernism, she did so in a way that promoted the white supremacist and ableist structures of her society.
In the introduction of the 1984 edition of Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin wrote “I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also, much more than that. So are we all” (xii). Even though each one of us is embedded in a certain time and place—surrounded by the discourses and mores of our era and location—we can still resist systems of oppression in our midst as we work to eradicate injustice. Meisel-Hess attempted to do just that over one hundred years ago. Yet, while fighting against antisemitism, gender bias, and sexual violence against women, her theories also served to justify and strengthen prevailing views of racism, colonialism, white supremacy, and ableism. By gaining an understanding of the complexities of modernist theories and modernist literary representations, such as those articulated by writers such as Meisel-Hess over a century ago, scholars today can hopefully become more attentive to the ways in which our own writing is entrenched in the oppressive structures of our time, even in our courageous attempts to dismantle oppression.
Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984.
El-Tayeb, Fatima.Schwarze Deutsche. Der Diskurs um “Rasse” und nationale Identität 1890–1933. Frankfurt: Campus Verlag, 2001.
Linett, Maren Tova. Bodies of Modernism: Physical Disability in Transatlantic Modernist Literature. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017.
Thorson, Helga. Grete Meisel-Hess: The New Woman and the Sexual Crisis. Women and Gender in German Studies 9. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2022.
This guest post was written by HELGA THORSON, Associate Professor in the Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies at the University of Victoria, Canada.