Detail of The Chocolate Girl (c1744), by Jean-Étienne Liotard. Courtesy the Dresden Gemäldegalerie/Wikipedia


Germany’s Wollstonecraft

Brilliant and fierce, the philosopher and educator Amalia Holst demonstrated how the German Enlightenment failed women

by Andrew Cooper + BIO

Detail of The Chocolate Girl (c1744), by Jean-Étienne Liotard. Courtesy the Dresden Gemäldegalerie/Wikipedia

Something new took place in the German states in 1802. A work of philosophy was published under a woman’s name. In her audacious book On the Vocation of Woman to Higher Intellectual Development (Über die Bestimmung des Weibes zur höhern Geistesbildung), Amalia Holst declared that it was time someone spoke out about the plight of women in Germany ‘from a woman’s standpoint’. While men had written extensively about the duties of the female sex, restricting women to knowledge that is useful for their ‘threefold calling’ as wife, mother and housewife, Holst argued that men ‘are constantly partial to their own’ and ‘rarely allow justice to be done to ours’. Indignant at the unjust claims made by her male interlocutors, and bemused by the ongoing silence of women on a matter so close to their hearts, she lay down a fiery demand:

In the name of our sex I challenge men to justify the right they have presumed for themselves to hold back an entire half of the human race, barring them from the source of science and allowing them at most to skim its surface.
(all translations of Amalia Holst are from my forthcoming edition of her work)

Holst does not emulate the supposedly genderless position adopted in works of philosophy by men. While she acknowledges that the challenge of philosophy is to ‘abstract from the love of [one’s] sex’, and to present arguments before ‘the judgment seat of sound reason’, she nevertheless makes her demand from a position that ‘knows, loves and treasures the gentle, amiable, and often unrewarded female virtues’. She switches seamlessly between a general critique of male prejudice and direct appeals to her female readers (meine Freundinnen) to be a refutation of the self-deceived claims made by men.

The daring position Holst adopts in On the Vocation of Woman has led several historians to claim her as Germany’s Mary Wollstonecraft. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Wollstonecraft lamented the ‘neglected education of [her] fellow creatures’, and dared to ask who ‘made man the exclusive judge, if woman partake with him the gift of reason?’ Both women saw that, as long as access to knowledge resides in the hands of one sex, the Enlightenment would continue to reproduce the coercion it purported to overcome.

Yet there is a striking difference between the two early feminist texts. In comparison with Wollstonecraft’s Vindication, which reached a third edition only four years after its initial publication, Holst’s On the Vocation of Woman was a failure. It received just two reviews, did not exceed its original print run, and was ignored by later anthologies of German feminism.

If the comparison with Wollstonecraft’s Vindication has grounds, why did On the Vocation of Woman fail to gain traction?

Interrogating the obscurity of Holst’s audacious book exposes a dark side to the German Enlightenment that, until recently, has largely been overlooked.

Understanding both the force and failure of Holst’s demand begins with the concept of ‘vocation’ (Bestimmung), which played a decisive role in the German Enlightenment. In 1748, Johann Joachim Spalding’s Consideration of the Vocation of the Human Being (Betrachtung über die Bestimmung des Menschen) sparked a fierce debate concerning the social conditions of human freedom. Spalding claimed that the highest good of the human being – the meaning of life – does not reside in a transcendent sphere of value or future hope. Given that the defining characteristic of human being is perfectibility, the human ‘vocation’ is to cultivate the capacities given to us by nature; a profoundly immanent good. Spalding’s claim was compounded by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s hugely influential Émile; or On Education (1762), in which Rousseau argues that human beings are born with the capacity for freedom and yet everywhere lie in chains of their own making. To realise their vocation, humankind must liberate education from coercive institutions and align it with their natural capacities.

Following Rousseau, the concept of vocation was inextricably tied to education (Erziehung) and development (Bildung). The German philosopher Moses Mendelssohn defined the vocation of human beings as ‘the development of all faculties of the soul’. Immanuel Kant argued that true Enlightenment can be achieved only if social institutions – schools and universities in particular – are aligned with the ‘human vocation for free thought’. In On the Vocation of Man (Die Bestimmung des Menschen, 1800), Johann Gottlieb Fichte claimed that, once we come to grasp our vocation to develop our natural capacities, our lives cease to be empty play, and embody our purposeful dignity as rational agents.

The leading philosophers of the German Enlightenment are celebrated for unearthing the social conditions of human freedom. Freedom is neither a given fact nor a socially defined status, but an unrealised possibility that requires careful cultivation.

Even if women are capable of higher education, a learned woman is a contradiction

However, it is seldom noted that none of these philosophers extended the freedoms associated with the human vocation to women. In fact, the German Enlightenment saw a reduction in the freedoms available to women. In response to the dissolution of family bonds associated with the French Revolution, there was an explosion of texts on ‘the vocation of woman’ (die Bestimmung des Weibes) that aimed to restrict female perfectibility to her calling as wife, mother and housewife. For instance, in Fatherly Advice for my Daughter (1789), Joachim Heinrich Campe explains to the young women of Germany that they are bearers of a twofold vocation:

You are a human being – thus destined for everything that the general calling of humanity entails. You are a woman – thus destined and called to everything that woman is to be to man, to humanity, and to civil society. So you have a twofold vocation, one general and one particular, one as human being and one as woman.

Campe echoes Rousseau’s claim that female dependence is determined physiologically. A woman’s ‘sickly constitution’, ‘intellectually and physically weaker state’ and ‘predilection to childbirth’ attest to an unequal complementarity between in the sexes. In Book V of Émile, Rousseau argued that the education of women must be restricted to the duties determined by her reproductive capacity, for, unlike the male, who ‘is male only at certain moments’ (he ceases to be male once he steps into the public sphere), the ‘female is female her whole life’. Her domestic duties are unceasing, forming her very ‘own vocation’.

Building on Rousseau, Campe argues that perfectibility and dependence combine to form a distinctly female vocation: ‘to become happy wives, educating mothers, and wise household administrators’. The key is that, even if women are capable of higher education, a learned woman is a contradiction. In a widely circulated letter ‘On Learned Women’ (1794), Christian Friedrich Sintenis warned the Prussian literati that ‘a so-called learned woman is … not right as a woman.’ ‘It is just as absurd to imagine a female philosopher,’ he quips, ‘as it is to imagine a woman standing in rank as a soldier.’

While women were barred from the public debate concerning the human vocation, for it was staged in scholarly books by men, the expansion of journals in the late 18th century provided a forum in which women could expose the fragility of men’s arguments. A powerful example can be found in an anonymous essay published in the Teutscher Merkur in 1791, entitled ‘Some Characteristics and Principles Necessary for Happiness in Marriage’. The author of the essay (later revealed to be Emilie von Berlepsch) condemns the recent texts on the female vocation as a form of ‘misogyny’. These texts contaminate the minds of men and make it impossible for women to take personal satisfaction in their duties. To resist the growing constraints on female happiness, Berlepsch redeploys the prevailing Enlightenment discourse by calling for women’s ‘independence’ (Selbstständigkeit). She argues that, if the spread of Enlightenment occurs through education, then its success resides in the hands of woman, who is not simply a mother but ‘also an educator’, responsible for shaping the future generation of citizens.

Berlepsch’s critique of misogyny rehearsed an argument that Holst would shortly refine and present to the general reading public. But who was Amalia Holst?

The little we know about Holst’s life is found in several obituaries and biographical entries that appeared after her death in 1829. Born in 1758, she was the daughter of the influential economist Johann Heinrich von Justi, an infamous ‘state adventurer’ who advocated for the establishment of courts administered by women and female academies. Amalia clearly imbibed her father’s tenacious drive for reform. After moving to Hamburg in 1791, where she married Johann Ludolf Holst, a lawyer, and had three children, she established several schools for girls in which she developed a unique pedagogical method that acknowledged the particular needs of each student.

Drawing from her extensive experience as a teacher, Holst wrote several reactionary texts concerning the failures of modern education. In her first book, published anonymously as Observations on the Errors of Our Modern Education from a Practical Educator (1791), she attacks the leading pedagogues of the Enlightenment for failing to apply their own principles in practice. Her attack focuses on the pioneering work of Johann Bernhard Basedow, who established a pilot school in Dessau (the ‘Philanthropinum’) with the aim of replacing the coercive legacy of scholasticism with an environment aligned to the student’s natural capacities. While Holst praises the orientation of Basedow’s reform, she claims that his generalised curriculum ignored the individual needs of each student. Moreover, she argues that his proposal to furnish every Prussian classroom with gendered elementary books falls far short of the deep learning celebrated by Enlighteners. In the case of female education, Basedow argued that the task of cultivating the student’s natural capacities must be constrained to woman’s specific vocation as wife, mother and housewife. The female sex is ‘under the dominion’ of men, Basedow declared; her education must teach her ‘to know how to bear this’.

The Enlightenment will be achieved when men ‘kindly offer us a hand to climb the ladder with them’

While Holst was committed to the ideals of the Enlightenment, she emphasised common human capacities before matters of sex or social circumstance. Rejecting Basedow’s gendered curriculum, she was one of the first writers to call for a coeducational classroom tailored to the specific needs of each student. One of Holst’s eulogists offers a captivating glimpse of her teaching practice:

she did not educate her female students merely for domestic service, or for society, or for the so-called refined side of life. Rather, she educated them for life as a whole, and opened the wellspring in spirit and mind for a loving and intelligent fulfilment of everything that the female vocation demands of woman in religious and cosmopolitan respects.

By the time she began to write On the Vocation of Woman, Holst’s frustration with the barriers obstructing women’s education had reached its limit. Throwing decorum aside, she daringly places her argument before the reading public in a scholarly book published under her own name (perhaps it was her maiden name, and the success of her first book, that gave her publisher sufficient confidence to back such a controversial project). She opens with a provocative claim that the aims of the Enlightenment will never be achieved until men cease to ‘put obstacles in our way but kindly offer us a hand to climb the ladder with them’. If the human vocation is to perfect the capacities given by nature,

Ought we not concern ourselves with the most important objects of human knowledge? Should we accept everything on pure faith, not investigate for ourselves, not think for ourselves, not abstract the principles of our own thought, and form sure maxims by which to stand firm in times of danger? Who could deny this with any reason? Should these writers succeed in robbing us of this beautiful privilege? Would humanity be any better for it?

Holst fashions herself as an Enlightener who is more faithful to the movement than her illustrious peers. While she reports that she is ‘indignant due to the injustices of several men’, she has no time to spare blaming them for their failures. What is striking about the text is that, having diagnosed the barriers that stifle the Enlightenment project, Holst identifies a cure that that will not, in the short term at least, require a radical disruption to state institutions.

Holst’s diagnosis begins with a critique of Rousseau’s pernicious influence on the German Enlightenment. By declaring the state of nature as the foundation of right (‘man is born free, but is everywhere in chains’), Rousseau enticed Holst’s male peers to justify their authoritative position in marriage and the state by appealing to men’s strength as the marker of a preordained right. Holst agrees with Rousseau that women, who generally possess a lesser degree of physical strength, must yield under the state of nature. Yet she then poses the daring question: ‘Should it remain that way?’ Once humanity ‘steps up to the level of a rational, thinking being … should those highly cultured men still assert these rights [of the stronger] against us?’ Holst’s contention is that any position of authority justified by strength is mere ‘despotism’. Pity the one who rules by force, she declares, for he receives mere ‘external displays’ of subservience that ‘remain alien to the heart and mind’. As soon as a higher level of culture arrives, violent rule is thrown aside as reason becomes the sole arbiter of right.

Holst’s critique of Rousseau identifies philosophy as the means by which men have justified to themselves the legitimacy of their privileged position. Once the veneer of rationality is stripped away, their arguments are nothing but violence by other means:

What is the cause of the error that occurs when intelligent men philosophise about human rights and civil relations? Only the human inclination that makes one unwilling to share rights that have been enjoyed exclusively for so long.

Holst’s stunning diagnosis of reason’s capacity for self-deception anticipates the critical insights soon to be made by G W F Hegel, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche (and later by Sigmund Freud and Simone de Beauvoir), who unearthed the ideological structure of Enlightenment self-fashioning. The error committed by her male peers, Holst contends, stems from the ‘failure to acknowledge the possibility of the same constitution of thinking in the female sex’. By inferring the inferiority of the female intellect from the present state of things, men veil the injustice of their superior position and thus cannot, on pain of contradiction, acknowledge the rational constitution of the female sex.

When the impasse is so deeply intrenched, how is the cycle of coercion to be broken? The problem is no simpler when considered from the standpoint of women:

Surrounded by trivialities from youth onwards, tied up with trinkets, chastened by coercion, and held back by an idleness that feels like comfort, how can, how should, a woman’s mind penetrate through this fourfold fog and find the light?

This is no rhetorical question. Given that true progress cannot be made while one half of the human race lies in chains, Holst’s answer is that the fate of the human vocation lies in the ‘higher intellectual development’ of woman.

Her text lays down two fundamental principles of woman’s higher development. First, higher development does not stem from an impure source, such as the vain desire to shine (the only motive that her male interlocutors seem to be able to imagine for a woman’s desire for higher learning). It stems ‘from the only true source: humankind’s duty to develop all its powers and to contribute to the wellbeing of the whole as an active member.’ Second, higher intellectual development is ‘entirely free’. A woman must not be confined to gendered elementary books but allowed to follow her genius wherever it leads.

Holst contends that the crown of a woman’s higher intellectual development is ‘the philosophy of history’. The philosophy of history is neither a collection of facts nor a matter of a priori speculation. It consists in ‘tracing the course that human inclinations and passions have taken at all times’ and investigating ‘the course of the gradual development of the predispositions and capacities of the human mind from the first stage of culture to its zenith.’ The philosopher of history considers the conditions and institutions in which Enlightenment is advanced and frustrated, and thereby comes ‘to feel their value from a philosophical perspective’.

Holst’s goal is not to reject existing institutions but to redefine the normative definition of woman within them

Higher intellectual development thus enlivens women to their position as full participants in the human vocation, and thereby empowers them to understand why they presently take a subordinate social role. By grasping their historical standpoint at the zenith of culture, women discover that departing from the state of nature was always nature’s intention. Nature determined that human beings should not remain locked in violent contagion but ‘develop all of their powers’:

We only want to be free to fulfil the first duty of humankind, which is to train all of one’s powers in the most beautiful harmony to the highest perfection. We share this duty equally, and it is as much our responsibility as it is that of men. Before we are man or woman, male or female citizen, husband or wife, we are human.

The absolute priority Holst grants to humanity before all other determinations transforms the traditional female duties of wife, mother and housewife. A wife is no longer a mere helper but an equal member of a union by which two parties set their own ends together. Motherhood is not simply the instinct for maternal care but the noble duty of a ‘first educator’. The housewife is no mere domestic servant but an advocate of enlightened values throughout her home and community. The transformation of the ‘vocation of woman’ thus occurs through her higher intellectual development. In fact, a woman’s irrevocable role in the most formative years of education entails that ‘true and genuine Enlightenment, which is still too concentrated in the minds of a few great men, can be spread and made useful to the public by women alone.’

Holst’s primary goal is not to reject existing institutions but to redefine the normative definition of woman within them. Yet her critique of male prejudice, and her appeal for the reform of women’s education, cannot leave the public status of women unaltered. Consider just one of her many claims about the equality of the sexes:

As human beings, both are in completely equal relationship to humanity, even if as a consequence of our civic relations, as citizens of the state [Staatsbürger], the same cannot be said of both sexes.

Does Holst accept civic inequality and yet affirm equality qua human beings? Or does she implicitly critique the inequality of men and women as Staatsbürger, revealing such inequality to be unjustified when placed before the judgment seat of reason? Given her insistence that higher education empowers women to become conscious of their subordinate status, Holst’s underlying position seems to fall closer to the latter. At the very least, the contemporary reader wants her position to fall this way. Yet it is telling that despite dedicating an entire chapter to historical evidence that displays women’s civic abilities, and despite expressing her critique in a public work of philosophy under her own name, Holst does not identify a legitimate place for women in the public sphere. The full implications of her critique – whether she was alive to them or not – remain incomplete.

Holst’s disarming critique of male power clearly merits a comparison with Wollstonecraft’s argument in Vindication. Why, then, did On the Vocation of Woman fail to gain traction?

The two reviews of Holst’s book provide a sober insight into the obstacles facing female philosophers in Germany at the turn of the 19th century. One reviewer brushes her powerful critique of male prejudice aside as an attempt ‘to charm gallant men by showing off her immature intellect, from seeking flattery at the expense of pure truth.’ The other argues that a woman can write learned books only if she ‘renounces the name of wife and mother, and even more of housewife’ – that is, if she ceases to be a woman. Neither reviewer takes the arguments presented in On the Vocation of Woman seriously. They simply reassert the prevailing idea that there is no legitimate standpoint from which Holst can, as a woman, make her demand. Power, as Holst saw with striking clarity, is reinforced by performative repetition.

Yet every critique of power stands as a sign. As scholars become increasingly aware of the deliberate exclusion of women in the historiography of German philosophy, it is vital to acknowledge that several female voices within that history began to dismantle the arguments made by their male peers, long before the celebrated critics of the Enlightenment (Hegel, Marx, Freud, etc) called the entire project into question.

Holst’s work reminds us that social inequality is often perpetuated in the name of freedom. While she was deeply aware that philosophy can function as a form of self-deception, Holst nevertheless unearthed the liberating capacity of philosophy as a form of critique. The philosophy of history, she contends, bears witness to a profound loss incurred by the failure of those in power to acknowledge the possibility of the same constitution of thinking in those who are subordinate to them. It empowers those denied a voice to feel their value from a philosophical perspective, such that they can name oppression for what it is. The challenge facing her readers today is to fill in the gaps in philosophy’s history where we can, and to expand the range of voices participating in philosophy understood as a shared, critical and unfinished project.