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Louise Aston: the Vormärz feminist

I claim the right to feel joy in my own way, to communicate with the universe in my own way, a right that women deserve just as much as men,” wrote German author and poet Louise Aston, a statement neatly complementing her bold – and, in nineteenth century Prussia, scandalous – appearance, marked by male attire and cigars. The rebellious woman who loudly championed democracy and free love unfortunately remains in the margins of German feminist history, and is not given much attention in the wider world. On the 150th death anniversary of her death, it’s time to recognise Aston’s life and the ideas she risked her comfort and security to defend.

Louise Aston by Johann Baptist Reiter. Photo: Oberösterreichisches Landesmuseum via Wikimedia Commons

Early life

Born Louise Franziska Hoche in 1814 in Gröningen, Louise was the daughter of Protestant theologian Johann Hoche and Louise Charlotte. At the age of 17, Louise was forced into an arranged marriage with Samuel Aston, an English factory man twenty-three years her senior; their relationship, which heavily influenced Aston’s novel Aus dem Leben einer Frau (‘From a Woman’s Life’), ultimately resulted in two divorces.

With the only surviving one of her three children, Aston lived in Sulechów and, later, Berlin, where she began actively pursuing a literary career and established herself within the Junghegelianer (Young Hegelians) circle, a group of intellectuals engaging with Hegel’s legacy and critiquing the Prussian political system.

It was during this time that the activist cemented her beliefs as a democrat; later, she would enthusiastically take part in the German Revolutions of 1848-49, serving as a volunteer nurse in the Freikorps and participating in the Schleswig-Holstein campaign.

Portrait of Louise Aston by Auguste Hüssener. Photo: Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin via Wikimedia Commons

Surveillance and expulsion

Aston – an atheist, feminist and passionate advocate for political reform – was viewed as a threat to Prussian society’s values, and was treated accordingly by the authorities. Anonymous complaints prompted police surveillance that would follow her all of her life: Aston’s private letters were read without her knowledge, and in 1846 she was even expelled from Berlin, having been deemed a “staatsgefährliche Person” (an individual dangerous to the nation) due to her non-conformist activities, including publishing erotic poetry, practicing free love, wearing men’s clothes and smoking in public places. “I smoke cigars and don’t believe in God”, admitted Aston brazenly to the law enforcement officers at the questioning.

Aiding the women’s movement

Following the failed revolutions, Aston returned to the city with a fake passport, but her second expulsion was triggered by her work on Der Freischärler ('The Franc-Tireur'), a publication seeking to emancipate women and workers, which nowadays is recognised as the first newspaper of Germany’s women’s movement.

After traveling from city to city, the writer and her second husband Eduard Meier were finally granted permission to settle down in Bremen, where both were still viewed as dangerous and were constantly harassed. Later moving to Russia and finally to Wangen im Allgäu, Aston lived there, poor and politically resigned, until her death.

A radical legacy

Louise Aston’s novels, combining fiction with autobiographical elements and promoting social equality, emancipation and sexual liberation, were compounded by her poetry, which called for a continuation of the fight for women’s rights and democracy. Her most important work remains the 1848 piece Meine Emancipation, Verweisung und Rechtfertigung (‘My Emancipation, Reference and Justification’), in which she outlines the development of her beliefs and formulates radical demands for gender equality, focusing especially on the right to a “free personality”.

Because of Aston’s expression of more radical ideas through her activism, she was ostracized by both conservative Prussian society and more mainstream feminist circles. In fact, even Louise Otto-Peters, who is considered the founder of the women’s rights movement in Germany, criticized works such as Revolution und Contrerevolution as being too extreme and progressive.

Others, too, have pointed out the hypocrisy of Aston being anti-marriage only in theory, but not in practice. Despite such criticism, modern perspectives on the feminist are much more optimistic, with many admiring Aston’s emphasis on sexual liberation and her bravery in transcending the boundaries of what was deemed acceptable of female authors at the time. Certainly, Louise Aston’s poetry and prose are well worth the read, and she remains one of the most fascinating and radical Vormärz feminists in German history.



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