Shifting Understandings of Lesbianism in Imperial and Weimar Germany

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Abstract

This paper seeks to understand how, and why, understandings of lesbianism shifted in Germany over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Through close readings of both popular cultural productions and medical and psychological texts produced within the context of Imperial and Weimar Germany, this paper explores the changing nature of understandings of homosexuality in women, arguing that over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the dominant conceptualization of lesbianism transformed from an understanding of lesbians that was rooted in biology and viewed lesbians as physically masculine “gender inverts”, to one that was grounded in psychology, and understood lesbians as inherently traumatized, mother-fixated, and suicidal. This paper suggests that this shift was facilitated by the increasing influence of psychologists like Sigmund Freud, and greater German preoccupation with trauma and suicide following WWI, and highlights the importance of historical context in shaping self-understanding.

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Meghan Paradis

Meghan Paradis

Meghan Paradis is a junior History and German major at Clark University, currently studying abroad in Berlin. Her specialization is in European history, particularly German and Jewish women’s history. She is particularly interested in women’s literary and artistic history, gendered identity formation, and especially the history of women and emotion. She will be continuing research on German lesbian history this summer in Berlin with the Steinbrecher Fellowship. She is involved with feminist and LGBT work on campus.