Realities and Fantasies of German Female Leadership: From Maria Antonia of Saxony to Angela Merkel

By Stone, Katherine | German Quarterly, Summer 2020 | Go to article overview

Realities and Fantasies of German Female Leadership: From Maria Antonia of Saxony to Angela Merkel


Stone, Katherine, German Quarterly


Krimmer, Elisabeth, and Patricia Anne Simpson, editors. Realities and Fantasies of German Female Leadership: From Maria Antonia of Saxony to Angela Merkel. Camden House, 2019. 409 pp. $99 (hardcover).

This timely volume contributes to an expanding interdisciplinary literature on women and leadership by historicizing the prejudicial attitudes about women and power that pervade western culture. Krimmer and Simpson bring together literary, historical, political, and media analyses to chart the shifting parameters for women's societal contribution and leadership since the eighteenth century. This interdisciplinary breadth allows the editors to argue in their introduction that gendered standards for assessing performances of power and leadership stem from narratives deeply embedded in the cultural imaginary, from the femme forte to the spiritual mother.

The volume consists of sixteen further chapters, divided into three parts. Cultural studies of women as leaders often take sovereigns as a starting point; section I adds to this body of work. Seth Berk's compelling reading of Maria Antonia Walpurgis von Sachsen's Talestris. Königin der Amazonen as a form of auctorial autopoiesis provides insights into the author's political ambitions and her intervention in Enlightenment debates about good leadership. Anke Gilleir and Aude Defurne also analyze this opera alongside Charlotte von Stein's Dido in order to redress a blind spot in dominant theorizations of biopolitical sovereignty: If the female body is constructed as always already abject, what happens when it is invested with a symbolic office? Through a reading of Elfriede Jelinek's Ulrike Maria Stuart as a response to Schiller's Maria Stuart, Inge Stephan further demystifies the symbolic narratives that stick to gendered discussions of political agency. Traditions linking women's societal contributions to their maternity are examined in many of the chapters. Sarah Vandegrift Eldridge engages with the contradictions at the heart ofTherese Huber's Die Familie Seldorf, which juxtaposes conservative gender ideology with a radical plot that sees the protagonist usurp male political spaces. For Eldridge, reading novels in this era through the lens of female leadership is not simply about finding unambiguously progressive role models; instead, it is about understanding how writers could edify their readers by engaging them in thought experiments about what it means to be a woman, experiments that unlock possibilities beyond the worlds imagined by conventional writing for women. Leadership through sentimental education is also the focus of Margaretmary Daley's chapter on Sophie von La Roche's developing ideas about the writer as role model. Along similar lines, Almut Spalding presents Elise Reimarus as an intellectual leader who transgressed discursive boundaries by educating young girls in civic matters and introducing them to broader debates about good government.

Part II moves towards the fin-de-siecle, examining figures who reimagined the boundaries of citizenship. In Lauren Nossett's chapter on E. Marlitt and Hedwig Dohm, "surplus women" embody these new possibilities, serving as positive models of agency and wouldbe citizenship beyond maternity. Both authors engage with notions of "spiritual motherhood" as they weigh up women's potential societal contribution and their possibilities for self-realization. Lisa Fetheringill Zwicker presents the ideology of spiritual motherhood as a precursor to discourses surrounding "soft skills" and "emotional leadership." She argues that an exemplary performance of spiritual motherhood enabled Jeannette Schwerin to gain broad social recognition and respect for her advocacy of women's rights and contributions to the new field of social work. That the discourse of "spiritual motherhood" nonetheless limited women leaders by emphasizing their difference from men also becomes clear. Delving deeper into such restrictions, Elisabeth Krimmer's wide-ranging chapter assesses the successes and failings of Nobel-Prize-winning activist Bertha von Suttner. …

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