At a time when women were banned from universities, Henriette Benas Goldschmidt championed women’s education as a crucial building block of a healthy society. She co-founded the General Association of German Women in 1865 and served on the association’s board until 1906, advocating women’s education for the betterment of society. She believed that women, as either mothers or teachers, needed education themselves so they could guide young children. In 1871 she became the founding president of the Association for Family and Popular Education, and over the next fifty years she created rigorous guidelines for educating women from kindergarten through high school and established several public girls’ schools. In 1911 she created her crowning achievement, the Leipzig College for Women, Germany’s first women’s college.
Early Life and Family
Born on November 23, 1825, Henriette Goldschmidt grew up as the sixth child of a well-to-do, enlightened family in the small German-Polish town of Krotoschin. She attended the local high school for girls but profited more from her own independent reading of German classics and her father’s admiration for the revolutionary movements of 1848, which he allowed her to share, than she did from school. He early on aroused her interest in politics by reading aloud from the Breslauer Zeitung at breakfast every morning. She suffered at the hands of an illiterate stepmother, whom her father, a businessman by the name of Levin Benas, married in order to provide a “caring mother for his children, whose intellects should not be distracted by superfluous reading.”
On this experience Henriette Goldschmidt based her later involvement in educating young women for motherhood. In 1853 she married her widowed cousin, Abraham Meir Goldschmidt, rabbi of the German-Jewish congregation in Warsaw, whose three sons she lovingly raised. In 1858, when her husband was invited to succeed Adolf Jellinek (1820/21–1893) as rabbi in Leipzig (a position he held until 1889), she compared the move to this city—for her a symbol of freedom and humanitarianism—with the entry into the Promised Land. She considered it a good omen to be beginning a new life precisely in the centenary year of Friedrich Schiller’s birth. This university city, with its variety of German-Jewish communal life, became a true home town for her.
Organizing for Women and Education
In Leipzig, in 1865, together with Auguste Schmidt (1833–1902) and Louise Otto Peters (1819–1895), Goldschmidt organized the First Conference of German Women, at which they established the General Association of German Women (Allgemeiner Deutscher Frauenverein), whose major goal was the emancipation of women. Since according to the statutes governing voluntary organizations only men had the right to a consultatory vote, Henriette Goldschmidt at first hesitated to become a member, joining it only after her husband, who saw this proviso as a necessary step towards emancipation, persuaded her to do so. From 1867 to 1906 she was a member of its board and a beloved lecturer on behalf of the organization. In the early years of her organizational activity and lecturing she was impressed by the pedagogical writings of Friedrich Fröbel (1782–1852) and based her ensuing life’s work on his teaching.
Goldschmidt’s practical goal was to prepare young women for their “natural occupation” of motherhood, on the one hand, and to train them for the new female occupation of kindergarten (nursery school) teachers, should they fail to become mothers themselves. In this she saw her contribution to solving the “woman question.” Like Fröbel, she opined that women’s social and pedagogical inclinations and talents were equal in value to male capacity for cultural creativity. The development of a humane society, free of racial or class barriers, was possible only if educated, sensitive women participated in cultural activities. In 1867 she proposed that “city mothers,” as well as “city fathers,” be included in communal tasks; and the following year she demanded the introduction of a year of social service for women.
Later Life and Career
On December 10, 1871, supported by numerous Leipzig worthies, Goldschmidt founded the Association for Family and Popular Education (Verein für Familien- und Volkserziehung), over which she presided. In the fifty years of activity in the Association she succeeded in establishing educational frameworks ranging from kindergarten to high school for girls and women. These included a public kindergarten, a seminary for nursery-school teachers (1872) and a Lyzeum für Damen (high school for ladies, 1878), at which professors from the University of Leipzig served as guest lecturers. Hundreds of women attended the lectures, whose popularity stemmed in part from the fact that women were still excluded from openly attending colleges. Until this point in time, there existed various private—and hence expensive or inferior—educational institutions; the Lyceum, however, offered not only a first-rate education but also the possibility of later occupation as a nursery-school teacher.
The apogee of Goldschmidt’s communal work was the establishment in 1911 of the Leipzig College for Women, which was not perceived as competing with the universities, which had recently been opened to women, but as inculcating an education specifically for women. Those entering the college encountered two quotations: Froebel’s “Come—let us let our children live!” and Goldschmidt’s “The teaching profession is woman’s cultural vocation.” Combining the two was Henriette Goldschmidt’s lifelong goal.
Since 1991 the former College for Women has borne the name Henriette Goldschmidt School for Social Pedagogy and is located on a street named after her.
After her death on January 30, 1920, the city of Leipzig took over the Association’s possessions; the various educational institutions were transferred to a Women’s Seminary for Social Pedagogy, with up-to-date educational standards.
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