A prominent socialist feminist in “Red Vienna” during the interwar years, Käthe Leichter rejected her parents’ Jewish middle-class values when she became a socialist at age seventeen, going on to obtain a doctorate in political economy. Serving as a party functionary on the Viennese workers’ council and as the director of women’s affairs for the Viennese Chamber of Workers, Leichter advocated for legislation protecting working-class women. She spread her ideas through publications, lectures, courses, and radio broadcasts, and participated in SDP conferences. Leichter played an active role in the socialist underground in Austria after 1934; while her family escaped to Switzerland, she was arrested in 1938 and murdered four years later. In Leichter’s memory, the Austrian government awards an annual state prize to an outstanding Austrian woman historian.
Käthe Leichter was undoubtedly the foremost socialist feminist in “Red Vienna” during the interwar years. A Social Democratic politician, labor organizer, and author, with a doctorate in political economy, she directed women’s affairs for the Viennese Chamber of Workers (Arbeiterkammer). In May 1938, before she had a chance to escape from Austria, Käthe Leichter was arrested by the Gestapo for illegal socialist activities; she was never released from imprisonment.
Early Life & Education
Marianne Katharina Pick was the younger daughter of Josef Pick, a lawyer from a wealthy family of Jewish textile manufacturers from Bohemia, and his beautiful and cultured wife, the former Lotte Rubinstein, who came from an affluent Jewish banking family in Romania. Käthe, as she was always known, was born in Vienna on August 20, 1895, less than a year after her sister Vally. As children, the two girls were treated like twins; they were the same size and were always dressed alike. Käthe resented her pretty and talented sister, who took after their mother and became a musician, and chose to emulate their intellectual father instead. Josef Pick was a liberal freethinker, unlike his father, who was an observant Jew, kept kosher, led a traditional family seder, and encouraged his granddaughters to fast on Yom Kippur. Although Käthe was attracted to religious observance briefly while in her mid-teens, she rebelled against Judaism and liberal middle-class values when, at the age of seventeen, she joined the Viennese youth movement led by Siegfried Bernfeld and subsequently became a socialist. She opted out of the Jewish community by becoming konfessionslos, or without religious affiliation.
Käthe Pick decided at a young age that she wanted to devote her life to helping the less fortunate, especially members of the working class. After the outbreak of World War I, she did volunteer work on behalf of the war effort and worked in a day nursery for workers’ children; she soon became an ardent socialist and pacifist. In 1914, she began studying political economy at the University of Vienna. She would have preferred enrolling in law school, but women were excluded from studying law in Austria at that time. In 1917, she transferred to the University of Heidelberg, but in December she was expelled from Germany for the duration of the war; she needed special permission to complete her doctorate in 1918 in Heidelberg. Her dissertation on foreign trade relations between Austria-Hungary and Italy won her highest honors, however.
In 1921, Käthe Pick married another left-wing activist, Otto Leichter, whom she had met in the student socialist movement during the war. They had two sons, Heinz, born in 1924, and Franz, born in 1930. While Otto Leichter became editor of the major Austrian socialist newspaper, Die Arbeiter-Zeitung, Käthe Leichter served as a party functionary on the Viennese workers’ council and the Commission on Socialization.
Activity in the Social Democratic Party
As an official of the Social Democratic-controlled municipal government, Leichter systematically gathered material on women’s work in Austria, compiled statistical data, and published articles and reports. She worked on behalf of legislation to protect workingwomen, including household servants, home workers, and agricultural workers, who were often excluded from health and unemployment insurance and other benefits. She was also concerned about the exclusion of university-educated women from professional opportunities and tried to get more women hired at all levels of social administration, demanding equal pay for equal work. Leichter spread her ideas not only through her publications, but also through lectures, courses in schools and trade unions, and radio broadcasts. She participated actively in Social Democratic Party conferences and interacted with other Austrian socialist women. The overall significance of her contribution is difficult to evaluate, however, since her work was interrupted by the Austrian Civil War of February 1934 before it could reach fruition.
Imprisonment, Death, & Legacy
Käthe and Otto Leichter both played active roles in the socialist underground in Austria after 1934. After the Anschluss in 1938, her husband and sons succeeded in escaping to Switzerland and subsequently found refuge in the United States, but Käthe Leichter was arrested while paying a final visit to her mother before attempting to flee to Czechoslovakia. While in prison, she wrote memoirs of her early years and kept in touch with her family. Even in the women’s concentration camp of Ravensbrück, she continued to exercise her leadership skills. In January 1942, together with other Jewish prisoners, she was sent on a transport to an unknown destination, where she was murdered soon thereafter. An urn with her ashes was sent back to Vienna, along with her last letter to her children.
In memory of Käthe Leichter, the Austrian government established an annual state prize awarded to an outstanding Austrian woman historian. The recipient of this award in 1988, the distinguished Viennese-born American women’s historian Gerda Lerner, paid the following tribute to Leichter, which aptly sums up her life and her accomplishments:
Käthe Leichter personifies the highest ideals of feminism—lifelong activity on behalf of all women, but especially working-class women; conviction that social reforms are only just if they serve the interests of women as well as men; uncompromising struggle against fascism and National Socialism, which cost her life. In Käthe Leichter’s life there was no divide between theory and praxis; she combined her work as a journalist and organizer with her duties as mother and wife, her political leadership role with her research work as a social scientist. Käthe Leichter was heroic in her achievements, for she dared in a time of terror and oppression to organize resistance and to oppose the horrors of Nazi state power with the brave words of humanism on thin leaflets. It was for this she was jailed and finally gassed. (Lerner, Why History Matters, 50–51.)
Selected Works by Käthe Leichter
Dokumentationsarchiv des Österreichischen Widerstands, Vienna; Verein für Geschichte der Österreichischen Arbeiterbewegung, Vienna.
“Erfahrungen des österreichischen Sozialisierungsversuchs.” In Der lebendige Marxismus. Festgabe zum 70. Geburtstag Karl Kautskys. Jena: N.p., 1924.
“Die Entwicklung der Frauenarbeit nach dem Krieg.” In Handbuch der Frauenarbeit in Österreich. Vienna: Osterreichische Nationalbibliothetk, 1930.
“Vom revolutionären Syndikalismus zur Verstaatlichung der Gewerkschaften.” In Festschrift für Carl Grünberg zur 70. Geburtstag. Leipzig: C.L. Hirschfeld, 1932.
“Lebenserinnerungen” in Herbert Steiner, ed. Käthe Leichter: Leben und Werk. Vienna: 1973, 235–386. (This volume also includes a complete bibliography of Leichter’s writings, 229–231.)
Steiner, Herbert, ed. Käthe Leichter: Leben und Werk. Vienna: Europa, 1973.
Steiner, Herbert. “Käthe Leichter.” Österreich in Geschichte und Literatur, 18 (1974), 273–279.
Leichter, Otto. “Käthe Leichter.” In Werk und Widerhall: Grosse Gestalten des österreichischen Sozialismus, edited by Norbert Leser, 234–244. Vienna: der Wiener Volksbuchhandlung, 1964.
“An Austrian Social Democrat Women’s Leader Died in a German Concentration Camp.” Austrian Labor News. New York, May 5, 1942.
Pollak, Marianne. “Käthe Leichter. Zum 20. Gedenktag ihrer Ermordung.” Zukunft, March 1962.
Lerner, Gerda. Why History Matters: Life and Thought, 50-55. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Lafleur, Ingrun. “Five Socialist Women: Traditionalist Conflicts and Socialist Visions in Austria, 1893–1934.” In Socialist Women: European Socialist Feminism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, edited by Marilyn J. Boxer and Jean H. Quataert, 215-248. New York: Elsevier, 1978.
Freidenreich, Harriet Pass. Female, Jewish, and Educated: The Lives of Central European University Women. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.
Beller, Steven. Vienna and the Jews 1867–1938. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.