1863 – 1940
Therese Schlesinger’s life was characterized by her desire for lifelong learning and her endeavors to alter the plight of working class women. She was a dedicated feminist who was inspired by the ideals of socialism, struggling to combine both of her political passions within the Social Democratic party. The widowed mother of a daughter, she devoted herself ardently to the socialist cause despite her physical ailments. In March 1919 she was elected one of the first female Social Democrats to the Austrian parliament and had a lasting impact on aspiring new female socialists such as Käthe Leichter (1895–1942) and Stella Klein-Löw (1904–1986). In her autobiographic writings, Schlesinger-Eckstein hardly ever comments on her Jewish identity. However, given the context of an increasingly acculturated Jewish community in turn-of-the century Vienna, this fact does not strike one as uncommon. Nevertheless, it still remains a subject of speculation whether the ambivalence of the Social Democrats towards its many Jewish supporters contributed to her not undisputed position within the party.
Therese Schlesinger-Eckstein was born in Vienna, Austria, on June 6, 1863, as the third of ten children in a liberal Jewish family. Her father, Albert Eckstein (1825–1881), a graduate of the Prague Technical University, was a pioneer in the development of parchment paper. He was an acquaintance of the philosophers Ernst Mach (1838–1916) and Joseph Popper-Lynkeus (1838–1921). Her mother, Amalie Wehle (1836–1921), was born in Prague and was unusually educated for a woman of her time. Together with her husband she regularly attended seminars at Vienna University. Given the progressive atmosphere at home, it should come as no surprise that four out of the eight surviving siblings (two brothers died during infancy) are known as influential figures in turn-of-the century Vienna. Schlesinger’s older brother Friedrich Eckstein (1861–1939), the legendary Mac Eck, was a dazzling character on the Viennese intellectual scene. An expert in various academic fields, ranging from science, astronomy, linguistics and theology to mathematics and musicology, he was closely acquainted with famous Viennese characters such as Sigmund Freud, Arthur Schnitzler, Karl Kraus (1874–1936) and the Social Democrat Victor Adler (1852–1918). Schlesinger’s younger sister, Emma Eckstein (1865–1924), active in the rising women’s movement, was one of the first patients of Sigmund Freud and subsequently became one of his students. The youngest of the siblings, Gustav Eckstein (1875–1916), was a renowned Social Democrat and close friend of Karl Kautsky (1854–1938).
Unlike her brothers, Schlesinger was denied a higher education. In Habsburg-Austria, schools preparing girls for university were established only in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Throughout her life she constantly strove to overcome the limitations of her education and took great pains to achieve this goal. In the summer of 1888 she married Victor Schlesinger, a bank clerk fifteen years her senior. In the following year she gave birth to her daughter Anna. The delivery turned into a traumatic experience: The midwife who assisted her during labor infected Schlesinger with a disease which crippled her for life. Shortly thereafter her husband died of tuberculosis. During this fateful time her friend Marie Lang (1858–1934) introduced her to the radical feminist organization, Allgemeiner Österreichischer Frauenbund, and in 1894 Schlesinger became a member. She soon belonged to the close circle of activists around Auguste Fickert (1855–1910), who became her mentor and encouraged her to publish her first articles. In 1896 Schlesinger participated in a conference on the conditions of Viennese female workers, which introduced her to the plight of the female proletariat and aroused her interest in socialism. Deeply moved, she accepted an invitation to attend a meeting of female workers. Subsequently she was caught in an inner struggle between her feminist and socialist loyalties. During this time she started to attend the lectures of Emil Reich (1864–1940) on social ethics at Vienna University. In the fall of 1897 Therese Schlesinger officially joined the Social Democrats, but this step could not ultimately solve the conflict between her diverging political interests. Within the Social Democratic party she was now confronted with ambiguous strategies regarding feminist questions.
This ambivalence made itself felt as early as spring 1898 in the course of the first Social Democratic Women’s Conference, when party officials feared a weakening of its power by female separatism. The convention eventually took place with the party’s blessings. At about the same time, Therese started her eclectic publishing activities for various socialist papers. Her first publication, in 1897, was an article in the German paper Neue Zeit, edited by the socialist Karl Kautsky, who became her lifelong mentor and friend. Her correspondence with Kautsky and Auguste Fickert in the following years indicates that her position within the party was not undisputed. Besides encountering accusations of female separatism, she was also met with reservation because of her Jewish origins and her bourgeois background, which was heightened by her political history in the feminist movement. Nevertheless, she dedicated herself fervently to the Social Democratic cause and worked ceaselessly for the party despite her physical ailments. One of her main agendas was the implementation of women’s suffrage. At the Party Congress in Graz in 1900 she criticized the party’s attitude towards this issue, stating that most officials conceive the question of voting rights as an issue related solely to the male proletariat. Her pamphlet, “What Women Want in Politics” (Vienna 1909), emphasized this subject and stressed the importance of educating women to political maturity. At the same time she fought for the protection of working mothers and suggested the adoption of a national maternity insurance. Her publications in the social democratic paper Der Kampf include several articles on this topic.
During World War I Therese was among the members of the leftist opposition under the leadership of Friedrich Adler (1879–1960), who were fighting for the ideals of internationalism and peace in a time dominated by avid war patriotism. In 1919 Therese Schlesinger, representing the Social Democrats, was elected one of the first female members of parliament in the newly founded Austrian Republic. In the year that followed she attracted the attention of a circle of young female socialists, including Käthe Leichter and Stella Klein-Löw, whose adored mentor and role model she became.
Therese Schlesinger remained politically active until 1933, when she retired from the party leadership. In 1934 the Austrian Social Democrats were forced into illegality. After the Nazi takeover in 1938 she emigrated to France, where she died on June 5, 1940.
Die Frau im sozialdemokratischen Parteiprogramm. Vienna: 1928; Die geistige Arbeiterin und der Sozialismus. Vienna: 1919; Erinnerungen an Mary Wollstonecraft. Translation of the book by William Godwin. Halle: 1912; “Geburtenbeschränkung und Justiz.” Der Kampf 6 (1926): 253–256; “Mein Weg zur Sozialdemokratie.” In Gedenkbuch. 20 Jahre österreichische Arbeiterinnenbewegung, edited by Adelheid Popp, Vienna: 1912; Was wollen die Frauen in der Politik? Vienna: 1910; Wie will und soll das Proletariat seine Kinder erziehen? Vienna: 1921; “Zum Problem der Mutterschaft.” Der Kampf 10 (1927): 475–479.
Bock, Eva. “Therese Schlesinger (1863–1940): Eine Untersuchung über ihr politisches und publizistisches Wirken in der sozialdemokratischen Frauenbewegung.” Ph.D. diss., University of Vienna, 1987.
Jaindl, Birgit. “Therese Schlesinger (1863–1940): Ihr publizistischer Beitrag zur Gleichberechtigung der Frau insbesondere zur Förderung der Frauenbildung in der Ersten Republik.” Master’s thesis, University of Vienna, 1994.
Lafleur, Ingrun. “Five socialist women: Traditionalist conflicts and socialist visions in Austria 1893–1934.” In Socialist Women: European Socialist Feminism in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries, edited by Marilyn J. Boxer and Jean H. Quataert. New York: 1978.
Tichy, Marina. “Therese Schlesinger: Bürgerin und Sozialistin.” In “Die Partei hat mich nie enttäuscht” … Österreichische Sozialdemokratinnen, edited by Edith Prost. Vienna: 1989.
Tichy, Marina: “Feminismus und Sozialismus um 1900: Ein empfindliches Gleichgewicht. Zur Biographie von Therese Schlesinger.” In Die Frauen der Wiener Moderne, edited by Lisa Fischer and Emil Brix. Vienna: 1997.