"Lesbian-like Women in the Late 1800s to World War II: The Lives of the Suffragists" was the title of a lecture by German historian Ingeborg Boxhammer Aug. 28 at the Center on Halsted, presented with Windy City Times newspaper.
For the past 20 years, Boxhammer has researched the history of lesbians and lesbian movies. She is also the co-administrator of a web portal on lesbian history.
Boxhammer's lecture focused on the lives of feminist suffragists Margarete Herz and Helene Wolff who lived and worked together as activists and dentists in the early 1900s. Her presentation included archival images of the women, their families, newspaper clippings and maps indicating where they lived and worked.
"As far as I was able to reconstruct, the life designs of Margarete Herz and Helene Wolff were orientated to economic and financial autonomy, democratic franchise [women's suffrage] and a healthy lifestyle and diet," said Boxhammer.
"As a well-known activist in the German Empire the militant feminist Johanna Elberskirchen indirectly pointed me in this [discovery of Herz and Wolff] direction," said Boxhammer. Boxhammer noted that Elberskirchen had a life partner Anna Eysoldt and was known as a political activist, speaker and writer who spoke out on a variety of issues including women's suffrage.
Boxhammer shared the evolution of women's involvement in German political life including the radical wing of the women's suffrage movement of which Herz, Wolff and Elberskirchen were members. On Oct. 13, 1909 Bonner Zeitung, a local women's suffrage group in Bonn, was founded by Herz, Wolff and others, said Boxhammer. Boxhammer explained that Herz became the organization's first president, Wolff was the organization's treasurer and Elberskirchen was the organization's secretary.
Herz and Wolff's families were of Jewish origin and Boxhammer noted that Herz was expropriated by the Nazi's ( Wolff died in 1917 ) in 1938. Boxhammer explained that Herz moved to Chicago to be with her brother Arthur and his family ( she died in 1947 in Chicago ).
Boxhammer noted that Herz and Wolff were first cousins and both families shared a close bond while they were growing up. In an 1890 photo of both families, Herz and Wolff can be seen standing next to each and were said to be inseparable, said Boxhammer. "Just a friendship among girls? We'll see," said Boxhammer.
"Both women registered on the same day, Jan. 19, 1909, in Bonn at the address Weberstr 47. ... They decided to occupy a flat jointly, rent a joint clinic as dentists and jointly fought for women's suffrage together," said Boxhammer.
Boxhammer shared a picture of Herz and Wolff circa 1913 or 1914. "The picture shows them in white light dresses which facilitate free and unrestrained movement," said Boxhammer. "These garments are deemed typical for the supporters of the reform movement which formed around the turn of the century" in an effort to free women from industrial constraints including corsets.
"Margarete Herz and Helene Wolff shared a very close friendship. Can this relationship be described as homosexual or even lesbian? What makes a woman historically homosexual? What makes a heterosexual woman? Can sexual contact ... be a criteria for this classification because it is known that the history researchers were not present?" said Boxhammer. "They remained unmarried and had no children. They were not associated with any men in any of the letters and documents handed down. They did not orientate themselves to the traditional image of women and went their own way. This included economic independence, political actions and self determined lives which they spent together."
"Lesbian-like fits very well with their [Herz and Wolff] relationship," said Boxhammer.
Diane Herz and Judy Chrismandirect descendents of Herz through her brother, Arthurattended the lecture and provided additional insight into the lives of both Herz and Wolff including photos, letters and confirmation of their lesbian-like relationship.
A Q&A session followed Boxhammer's presentation.
The online version of this article includes a video of the lecture.