1829 – 1902
No lucky star reigned over Jenny Hirsch’s youth. Born in Zerbst, Anhalt on November 25, 1829, she was the daughter of a poor Jewish peddler. Her mother died when Jenny was only eight years old. Together with her two siblings she grew up in her father’s household, whose basic needs were cared for by her aged grandmother. At the ducal girls’ school in her home town she received an excellent education from the ages of seven to fifteen. This served as the basis for continued self-education in later years. But as a Jew she had to endure antisemitic hostility. In time she overcame these difficulties, only to encounter family opposition to her love of books and her early literary efforts, which they rejected as an inappropriate luxury. As a result, the fifteen-year-old had to help by working as a salesgirl in her father’s haberdashery shop—a task she performed most reluctantly, since it revealed her family’s poverty. After the death of her grandmother, her father’s business closed down, her younger siblings left home and Hirsch had to provide a livelihood for her father and herself by sewing and embroidery. She declined an offer of assistance arranged by one of her relatives. After her father’s death in 1856, Hirsch began to take care of her own life and created a bourgeois existence by founding a private interreligious school, with the permission of the Church Council of the Duchy of Anhalt. In 1860 a woman friend of hers facilitated a contact with Louis Schäfer, the publisher of Bazar, a Berlin fashion journal, who appointed her as editor of the literary section of the journal. For several years she tried to resign herself to this position, but finally gave it up in 1864. Her work eventually led her to take an active interest in all movements for the advancement of women. In 1865 she made contact with the budding German women’s movement, attending the first women’s congress (Frauentag) in Leipzig, from which sprang the Allgemeiner Deutscher Frauenverein. In 1866, after an interim period as editor of the Leipzig Allgemeiner Frauen Zeitung, the organ of the General Association of German Women, she joined the Society for the Promotion of the Gainful Employment of the Female Sex, which had been established by people of rank who were close to Wilhelm Adolf Lette. The primary goal of this society was to promote the industrial employment of women, partly by founding the Victoria Bazaar, partly by obtaining their admission to careers hitherto closed to them, and training them for these in technical schools. These technical or trade schools were very successful, and as applied to women constituted perhaps the most novel and valuable part of the work of this society. It at once started on a very practical field of operation, but some of its warmest supporters soon began to feel that other kinds of education besides technical training were needed, and women of the richer classes also wanted help; while many of the local associations connected with the Leipzig society began to admit men to their committees and to found trade and technical schools. This approximation in practice led naturally to the idea that a fusion of the central societies might be possible, and in 1869 a congress of all the associations concerned with women’s work was held in Berlin under the patronage of the Crown Princess. It resulted in the formation of the Lette-Verband, an alliance of many different societies scattered throughout Germany, of which Professor Von Holtrendorff was chosen president, while Jenny Hirsch was made editor of its organ, the Women’s Advocate (Frauenanwalt), a journal published monthly in Berlin. The parent Leipzig Society, however, declined to join the alliance, partly from personal causes, partly from a real divergence in principle, partly from jealousy of Prussia and a dislike of seeing all important action gravitate towards Berlin.
As secretary of the new organization, Jenny Hirsch was the only woman on the board. The Lette Verein (Lette Society) was her major concern until 1883 and she also devoted some of her literary efforts to it, publishing its 25-year history in 1891. From 1870 on, she edited the Frauen-Anwalt (Women’s Advocate), published by the like-minded Union of German Societies for Women’s Education and Professions. When this periodical, which was from the first underfunded, went bankrupt in 1881, Hirsch lost her major source of income. Apparently the board of the Lette Society was reluctant to turn its honorary secretary into a paid employee. Discouraged, she broke with the Society in 1883, determined to have nothing more to do with any kind of voluntary association. Henceforth she was dependent on her own literary endeavors. Almost annually a new work of light fiction or crime novel appeared, published by the Goldschmidt Library for Home and Travel and usually under the pseudonym Fritz Arnefeldt. From 1887 to 1892 she assisted Lina Morgenstern on the editorial board of the German Housewife’s Paper. Active in literature to the very end, she spent her old age quietly at her sister-in-law’s home. In her own light fiction, which endowed her with an income, she portrayed women fulfilling their natural roles of wife and mother; but as a translator and feminist activist she provided the German women’s movement with important stimuli, such as her translation of John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women (1869) and the petition to the Reichstag which she composed on behalf of the Lette Society, demanding admission of women to the country’s rail, postal and telegraph services (1872).
Jenny Hirsch died in Berlin on March 9, 1902.
Anna Pelzer, 1890; Geschichte der fünfundzwanzigjähren Wirksamkeit des Lette-Vereins. Berlin: 1891; Der Frauen-Anwalt. Organ des Verbandes deutscher Frauenbildungs- und Erwerbvereine. 12 vols. Berlin: 1881; John Stuart Mill: Die Hörigkeit der Frau. Berlin: 1869; Nebst einem Vorbericht enthaltend eine kurze Übersicht über den gegenwärtigen Stand der Frauenfrage. Berlin: 1872.
Fassmann, Maya. Jüdinnen in der deutschen Frauenbewegung 1865–1919. Hildesheim: 1994.
Lexikon Jüdische Frauen. Edited by Jutta Dick and Marina Sassenberg.