a word for the ladies

Almost a year ago – wait, no, I have to go back further in time. Two years ago, the Humboldt University created an award for women junior researchers. The award was to carry the name of the wife of Wilhelm von Humboldt, Caroline. The first year the award was offered was the last possible application year for me: first, because of the age limit (35 seems to be one of those symbolical numbers for which the whole institution wants you to change categories, whether you want it or not), and second, because the application requirements changed completely the year after. When I applied, the award was opened to all disciplines. As a comparison, you can find the actual application conditions here.

So I was awarded the Caroline von Humboldt prize in October 2010, right in the middle of the jubilee celebrations. I had received my project donation 3 months earlier, I had just hired my team and it was , considering my expenses back then, a lot of money (boy, did that change when I started setting up a digital edition…), the sun was shining, and thank you Caroline.

The only thing I knew about her was that she had raised her children herself (not so common a habit amongst 18th-19th century nobility) and that she was at some point friends with Rahel Levin. The symbolical connection between that kind of life path and encouraging young women in their scientific or, for that matter, academic career, did not strike me, but I did not care at first.

And then came the ceremony itself. It was only then that I realized how controversial the name was. Caroline von Humboldt was anything but an example for young, intelligent women on the way to intellectual emancipation. She was clever, she was talented, but she was certainly not emancipated. And to make things worse, she repeatedly came so close to antisemitic declarations that you could even think she might really have had ideas that are not compatible with Germany’s mentality today. But the name Humboldt was supposed to wash away all doubts and scruples. Caroline von Humboldt does not need more than her name to shine over young women researchers and give them the necessary aura!

As you can imagine, I considered it my mission to set things straight (wisdom does not come at age 35, but clearly much later…). Together with (women) colleagues from the university (colleagues involved, either theoretically or pragmatically, in questions of gender equality and women recognition), I organized a one-day symposion on Caroline von Humboldt. The idea was to scrutinize different aspects of her life (her activity as a salonière, as a translator, as a letter writer, as a patron to artists – and not least, her position towards Judaism). For the first time in my life, I gave a paper in front of a room that was so full you could almost not breath. And the press was there: there was a long paper in the Tagesspiegel a few weeks later (see here).

I also initiated the Caroline von Humboldt forum, a blog dedicated to a better understanding of Caroline von Humboldt’s life path, especially in the context of her time, e.g. with a focus on lettered women in Prussia around 1800 (the whole work behind the blog is due to my master’s student Janin Afken – thank you, Janin!). The plan was to publish the papers held at the symposion on this blog, but, as I already mentioned at the Weblog Conference in Munich, I did not count on the reluctance of some authors to see their papers published online (some papers were printed somewhere else). So I present you tonight the papers we could get so far, hoping this will convince the other authors it is worth adding their stone. You can find them here. Writing on women writers is such a delicate issue, whatever the point of view you choose: for this paper, I have been weighing each and every word of each and every sentence sentence. Read it, you’ll see!


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