The Eminent Lesbian or the Passionate Spinster? Posthumous Representations of Amelia Edwards’ Love for Women

Travel writer Amelia Ann Blanford Edwards (1831-1892) loved women. This article examines how various generations of writers have represented her same-sex desire, which material and conjectures underpinned their representations, and how we might approach reading and writing about the desires of Victorian-era women-loving women today.

Bianca Walther is a freelance historian and conference interpreter based in Berlin. She produces the podcast Frauen von damals and hopes one day to finish her dissertation on women-loving women in Germany and Sweden around 1900. She is also interested in historical women travellers and has edited the Indian travel diary of German feminist Anna Pappritz. While simultaneously working on a podcast on Amelia Edwards and studying anti-lesbian rhetoric in early 20th-century literature, she stumbled across an obscure reference to an English tribad who married a pastor’s wife. This blog post is the result.
Helen Ferguson is a freelance conference interpreter and translator based in Berlin, specialised in art/architecture, film, and cultural history.

Amelia Edwards was a talented writer, passionate traveller, and self-taught Egyptologist. She was a successful novelist by the time she was in her mid-twenties, but it was a trip to the Dolomites and a subsequent journey up the Nile that were to establish her fame as a travel writer. Her bestsellers Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys (1873) and A Thousand Miles up the Nile (1877) captivated their audience with humorous observations and evocative descriptions of landscapes. 

During her trip to Egypt, Amelia Edwards acquired a lasting fascination with Egyptology. In 1882, she therefore co-founded the Egypt Exploration Fund (today: Egypt Exploration Society) and, during the last ten years of her life, dedicated nearly all her time and energy to it. Her will stipulated that monies from her estate be used to endow the Edwards Chair of Egyptology at University College London, which still survives as the Edwards Professor of Egyptian Archaeology and Philology

Amelia Edwards and Women

While Amelia Edwards’ achievements already made her a well-known public figure during her lifetime, her private life has long remained an enigma – even to her biographers Joan Rees (1998) and Brenda Moon (2006). Amelia Edwards formed emotional attachments almost uniquely with women. As an adult, she lived with Ellen Drew Braysher, a friend 27 years her senior, whose husband and daughter had died not long after Edwards had lost her parents. In early 1864, they moved to Westbury-on-Trym, where they were to live until both women died within the first months of 1892. 

Amelia Edwards in 1890, published: in Edwards, Amelia B. (1891):
Pharaohs, Fellahs and Explorers, New York:
Harper & Brothers (frontispiece).

However, Edwards always had other attachments to women too. Her papers, archived at Somerville College, Oxford, contain a number of letters from painter and world traveller Marianne North (1830-1890), whom she had befriended in 1870. While Edwards’ letters have not survived, Norths’ replies reveal that Edwards had developed quite a crush on her new friend. North, who did not reciprocate these feelings but was obviously relaxed about them, set her boundaries in a gentle and light-spirited tone: “Bless you, what love letters you do write”, she wrote one Friday in May 1871, “what a pity you waste them on a woman!” (SCO ABE 228). A few days later, after Edwards had come up with the suggestion (or should it be ‘proposal’?) of giving North a ring to wear on her next journey, Marianne North writes:

Continue reading “The Eminent Lesbian or the Passionate Spinster? Posthumous Representations of Amelia Edwards’ Love for Women”

The Ambivalence of Feeling Backward:

Lesbian Activists in the German Democratic Republic and their Politics of Memory[I]

Maria Bühner is a PhD candidate at the Department for Cultural Studies, Leipzig University. Her project focuses on the subjectification of lesbians in the GDR and looks at politics of the lesbian rights movement, the psychiatric treatment of female homosexuality, as well as life stories, relationship practices and self-understandings. At Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden she did research on the material culture of sexualities. Her research interests cover gender history, the history of sexualities, affect studies and material culture studies. Contact:

Introduction: Queering Memory

The search for and, sometimes the imagination of, a shared queer history and practices of commemoration have been constitutive practises for lesbian and gay emancipation movements since the 1970s. To feel and look backward helped them to form a collective identity and pushed the politicisation of homosexuality. A well-known, and still very visible, example for this is the transnational use of the pink triangle as a symbol of recognition for queers worldwide.[1] I argue that, besides the Stonewall Riots, the persecution of queers during the Nazi era has been an important point of reference for queer memory cultures.

As a starting point I turn to Heather Love’s reflections on loss and the politics of queer history. In Feeling Backward she states: “Homosexual identity is indelibly marked by the effects of reverse discourse: on the one hand it continues to be understood as a form of damaged or compromised subjectivity; on the other hand, the characteristic forms of gay freedom are produced in response to this history.”[2] Love argues that backward feelings like depression, shame and regret are essential for homosexual identities, that they stay with us even after things changed and that they are an essential part of queer culture and should therefore be included in our analysis.[3] She also points our attention to the deep desire to form connections, analogies and genealogies across time: “The longing for community across time is a crucial feature of queer historical experience, one produced by the historical isolation of individual queers as well as by the damaged quality of the historical archive.”[4]

With regards to Love I want to explore the politics of memory by lesbian activists in East Germany. I focus on the efforts of the East Berlin-based group Lesben in der Kirche (Lesbians in the Church) at the memorial site of the former Ravensbrück concentration camp in the mid-1980s. Founded in 1982 Lesben in der Kirche was the first and very influential separatist lesbian group founded in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). They understood lesbian as a political identity, were very feminist, and critical of the state.[5] They were the first ones to publicly commemorate the lesbian victims of the Nazi persecution. This practice was rooted in their general interest in lesbian herstory and at the same time an attempt to make lesbians, their existence, and experiences in the past and the present (and/or for the future) visible. I am especially interested in the function of these commemorations for forming a shared collective memory as part of their identity politics that went hand in hand with a politicization of homosexuality and womanhood. Nevertheless, I argue that feeling backward and the longing for community across time and space are ambivalent in their practise and outcome. 

The Marginalization of Lesbians in the GDR and their Activism

After suffering persecution and the destruction of their subculture during National Socialism, queers and their desires continued to remain socially marginalized in the GDR until the 1980s. There was hardly any representation, either positive or negative, of (female) homosexuality in the public sphere. Marginalisation and discrimination created an affective state that was characterised by isolation, fear, shame, confusion, depression, and sometimes even self-hate. Some did not even have a word to name their own desires and experienced great difficulties to find other like-minded queers.[6]The formation of political groups can be understood as a reaction to this complicated affective state. Given the challenges that unofficial political movements faced in the GDR (such as being unable to freely assemble, publish literature, and form associations), the protection offered by the Protestant Church starting at the beginn of the 1980s was crucial for their activism because it offered the only semipublic and nongovernmental space where political activists in the GDR could gather. 

During the 1980s more than 20 homosexual activist groups were founded. In most of the groups people of different genders worked together, but some exclusively lesbian and gay groups also emerged. Their regular meetings provided a space for meeting other queers, discussing one’s experiences and feelings. Supported by exchanges with activists from other countries, these groups sought to make sense of the negative emotions that many experienced. Consciousness-raising meetings became an important political practise. Talking and writing about their experiences and feelings helped participants to see their lives in a broader perspective and to transform their emotions, not at least because groups offered support and ideas of a positive self-understanding.[7] Another important practise of the groups were regular visits to the memorial sites of the former concentration camps Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, and Ravensbrück. 

Queering Ravensbrück

For the lesbian activists Ravensbrück was especially interesting since mainly women had been imprisoned in the concentration camp: about 123.000 of which around 25.000 were murdered there.[8] After the foundation of the GDR in 1949 Ravensbrück quickly became an important national memorial site. In the official political understanding the GDR was an anti-fascist state founded by the communists that had been persecuted by the Nazis. Therefore, the sites of the former concentration camps were transformed into national memorial sites to remember the communist resistance fighters as the victims of fascism and to stage the power of the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany on a regular basis. Ravensbrück was the place to commemorate especially the female communists that had fought against fascism. Other groups like the jewish inmates, the so called asocial and criminal prisoners, romani people, homosexual men and lesbian women were not included in the official memory culture that became permanently manifested in the architecture of the memorial site and the huge memorials that took place every year.[9]

Since Ravensbrück was a place of such great political significance to visit and commemorate the lesbian victims of the Nazi persecution meant nothing less than to make the existence of lesbians in the past and the present highly visible and to seek for public attention. This was one reason for the Lesben in der Kirche to visit Ravensbrück several times in the mid-1980s. Before they visited Ravensbrück in 1984 for the first time, they wrote to the archive and asked to see files of prisoners. In their letter they wrote: “You will wonder, why do we collect all this information? We are women, and we have a past, a history that should be reviewed, and especially processed to develop our emancipation and our self-understanding further.”[10]

At their regular meetings lesbian herstory was a recurring topic throughout the decade. Their main sources of information were two books: The exhibition catalogue “Eldorado. Homosexuelle Frauen und Männer in Berlin 1850-1950. Geschichte, Alltag und Kultur” on gays and lesbians in Germany covering the period 1850-1950 and “Berlins lesbische Frauen” by Ruth Margarete Roellig — a description of lesbian bars in Berlin from the 1920s.[11] Their collective memory was focused on the 1920s as a golden era and the destruction of this subculture by the Nazis. The Stonewall Riots were not part of their shared narrative. Their knowledge on the actual situation of lesbians during the Nazi era remained very limited since back then there was hardly any state of research to back up their assumptions. A situation that changed in the meantime.[12]

10th of March 1984, Lesben in der Kirche visited the memorial site Ravensbrück and followed the traditional protocol of a group visit: They had a guided tour, laid down their wreath,[13] and wrote in the visitor’s book: “Our remembrance is for all those women who lost their lives in the concentration camp Ravensbrück and suffered, especially our lesbian sisters. We also commemorate all those women who are still suffering from fascism and oppression today. Working Group Homosexual Self-Help — Lesbians in the Church.”[14]

The ribbon of the wreath and their entry were both signed with their group name — despite the fact that given the restrictive laws their group was illegal. During the tour they noticed a sign that listed the different categories of prisoners but missed the pink triangle.[15]

Also in the years to come the group used the phrase “lesbian sisters” to refer to the persecuted lesbians. This sisterhood was and remained an imagined one since at this time not a single lesbian prisoner was known by name. Their idea of a lesbian sisterhood expressed their deep wish to form a connection across time and embraces a different, in this case lesbian, idea of kinship that was not bound to blood. The people who were active in the lesbian movement were mainly younger women. There are no contacts documented between them and older women who might have been persecuted by the Nazis.

The missing wreath,  picture by Bettina Dziggel

Their actions in Ravensbrück did cause a reaction by the state authorities. The director of the memorial site informed the Secret State Security Police beforehand which lead to an observation of the visit.[16] Later the wreath and the entry in the visitor’s book were taken away. Two members of group returned a few days later and noticed that. They took a picture of the empty spot were they had laid down their wreath. This photography is very interesting because it documents absence, loss, and invisibility. By doing so it captures a common experience of queer historical experience. The group decided to write a petition to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and informed the general superintendent of the Protestant Church. Both actions had no satisfying outcome for the group.[17]

That is why they decided to participate in the official ceremony that took place at the fortieth anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp in 1985. That was a memorial of great political significance. But when the group arrived at the train station in Fürstenberg they were extracted from the crowd by the police, confined in a lorry, verbally and physically abused by the policemen, then held in custody, and questioned. They were eventually released when the memorial was over.[18] Afterwards the group protested against this treatment: Again they wrote petitions, this time to the Ministry of the Interior, and they also met up with Emmy Handke, the head of the GDR Ravensbrück Committee, and Anni Sindermann, the head of the international Ravensbrück Committee. Both women had been imprisoned in Ravensbrück and reacted rather defensive concerning a lesbian commemoration at Ravensbrück.[19]

Lesben in der Kirche in Ravensbrück 1986, picture by Bettina Dziggel

Nevertheless, the protest of the group turned out to be successful in the end: They received a verbal apology from the Ministry of the Interior,[20] and in September 1985 around 80 people from peace, environmental, feminist, and other homosexual activist groups joined Lesben in der Kirche  for a commemoration in Sachsenhausen. The Secret State Police continued to observe the groups and the commemorations, but there were no more violent interventions.[21] In 1986 Lesben in der Kirche returned again to Ravensbrück, and this time they had a guided tour by the new director[1]  and could see that the meaning of the pink triangle was now explained.[22] Once again the signed the guest book.

Entry in the guest book 1986, source: Mahn- und Gedenkstätte Ravensbrück/Stiftung Brandenburgische Gedenkstätten, 7-86 A 2012/95, guest book November 1985-April 1986

The precarious status of lesbian subjects within memory cultures

The precarious status of lesbian subjects within memory cultures[23] turned out to be rather productive in the case of Lesben in der Kirche when it came to identity politics and networking. The commemorations were less acts of grieving but rather rooted in identity politics. Commemorating was a political practise that marked Ravensbrück a place of lesbian herstory. Their politics of memory helped them to create a shared lesbian memory that stabilised their collective lesbian identity because as Stuart Hall puts it: “Identities are formed at the unstable point where the ‚unspeakable‘ stories of subjectivity meet the narrative of history, of a culture.”[24] Looking backward helped them to get a better understanding of the reasons for their discrimination. Their underlying conception of lesbian herstory focused on lesbians as victims. The activists stressed parallels between past and present forms of discrimination, hence ignoring to a certain extend the differences between those who they were remembering and themselves. This is what I call the ambivalence of feeling backward — to forget the differences while drawing analogies in the desire to form connections across time and space. 

Without question lesbians in the GDR faced discrimination, sometimes surveillance, and persecution, but not in the same way as queers did during the Nazi era. Besides. They did not think about the possible existence of lesbian perpetrators during the Nazi era. The historian Claudia Schoppmann asks whether this perceived collective status as victims is supposed to strengthen one’s own identity. She critically questions the illusion that lesbians (and the same can be said for other queers) have always been on the right side of history.[25]

Nevertheless, it is important to point out that Lesben in der Kirche were important forerunners in terms of highlighting the persecution of lesbians during the NS — which up until then had been invisible and mostly untold. Until today the questions of whether and how to remember this in Ravensbrück remain contested. The debates in the last years were centred around a memorial sign for the lesbian victims which is still not erected.[26]

[I] This article was first presented at the conference “Stonewall 50 Years On!”, Manchester Metropolitan University, 6th of November 2019. An in-depth discussion of the commemorations in Ravensbrück can be found in my article “Die Kontinuität des Schweigens. Das Gedenken der Ost-Berliner Gruppe Lesben in der Kirche in Ravensbrück”. I would like to thank Bettina Dziggel for the permission to use her photographies and for the conversations we shared. 

Cite this article: Maria Bühner, “The Ambivalence of Feeling Backward: Lesbian Activists in the German Democratic Republic and their Politics of Memory”, in: History | Sexuality | Law, 31/03/2021,, (abgerufen am: Datum).


  • FFBIZ. Das feministische Archiv & Spinnboden Lesbenarchiv
  • “Die Verständigung war einfach schwierig.” Kontakte zu Frauen im Westen, 1980er Jahre, interview with Marinka Körzendörfer as part of the project Berlin in Bewegung, URL:
  • “Wir sollen die Opfer des Faschismus nicht beleidigen.” Aktionen in der KZ-Gedenkstätte Ravensbrück, 1984-1985, interview with Marinka Körzendörfer as part of the project Berlin in Bewegung, URL:
  • Robert-Havemann-Gesellschaft Sammlung GrauZone 
  • Kenawi, Samirah (2003) Zeigen wir uns, damit man uns nicht verleugnen kann. Die Lesben in der Kirche Berlin, unpublished manuscript.
  • RHG/GZ/A1/39, Lesben in der Kirche, petition to the Ministry of the Interior, 3rd of March 1985.
  • RHG/GZ/A1/1444, Lesben in der Kirche (1985), description of the experiences at the attempted commemoration.
  • RHG/GZ/A1/1444, Lesben in der Kirche, memory minutes and partly transcript from 31st of May 1985, 1 until 2.30 pm of a discussions concerning our petition from 3rd of May 1985. RHG/GZ/A1/1444, Lesben in der Kirche (1984) letter to the head of the archive in Ravensbrück.
  • Sammlungen Mahn- und Gedenkstätte Ravensbrück der Stiftung Brandenburgische Gedenkstätten
  • MGR/StGB, RAV-VA_7, letter from Bienert to the department of museums and cultural heritage preservation, 12th of March 1984.
  • MGR/StGB, 7-86 A 2012/95, guest book November 1985-April 1986.

[1] See Jensen, The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness, pp. 319-349. 
[2] Love, Feeling Backward, p. 2.
[3] See ibid., pp. 7–9
[4] Ibid, p. 37.
[5] See Bühner, „[W]ir haben einen Zustand zu analysieren, der uns zu Außenseitern macht“, pp. 111-131.
[6] See Bühner, How to remember Invisibility. Documentary Projects on Lesbians in the German Democratic Republic as Archives of Feelings, pp. 241-265. 
[7] See Bühner, The Rise of a New Consciousness, pp. 151-173.
[8] See Eschebach, Die Frauen von Ravensbrück, pp. 149, 152; Beßmann/Eschebach, Das Frauen-Konzentrationslager Ravensbrück, pp. 11. 239.  
[9] See Eschebach, Öffentliches Gedenken, pp. 135-162; Eschebach, Queere Gedächtnisräume, p. 52. 
[10] Robert-Havemann-Gesellschaft (RHG)/GrauZone (GZ)/A1/1444, Lesben in der Kirche (1984) letter to the head of the archive in Ravensbrück. The translation is mine. 
[11] See „Die Verständigung war einfach schwierig.“ Kontakte zu Frauen im Westen, 1980er Jahre, interview with Marinka Körzendörfer as part of the project Berlin in Bewegung,
[12] See the Bibliography on lesbian and trans women in Nazi Germany by Anna Hájková for the state of the art.
[13] See Schmidt, Lesben und Schwule in der Kirche, p. 216.
[14] RHG/GZ/A1/1444, Lesben in der Kirche, petition to the culture secretary Hans-Joachim Hoffmann, 20th of March 1984, cited by Kristine Schmidt, Lesben und Schwule in der Kirche, p. 216.
[15] See Karstädt/Zitzewitz, …viel zuviel verschwiegen, p. 168, emphasis in the original.
[16] See Mahn- und Gedenkstätte Ravensbrück/Stiftung Brandenburgische Gedenkstätten, RAV-VA_7, letter from Bienert to the department of museums and cultural heritage preservation from 12th of March 1984.
[17] See Schmidt, Lesben und Schwule in der Kirche, p. 218.
[18] See RHG/GZ/A1/39, Lesben in der Kirche, petition to the Ministry of the Interior, 3rd of March 1985.
[19] See Karstädt/Zitzewitz, …viel zuviel verschwiegen, p. 170. 
[20] See RHG/GZ/A1/1444, Lesben in der Kirche, memory minutes and partly transcript from 31st of May 1985, 1 until 2.30 pm of a discussions concerning our petition from 3rd of May 1985.
[21] See Kenawi, Zeigen wir uns, damit man uns nicht verleugnen kann, p. 87.
[22] See RHG/GZ/A1/1444, Lesben in der Kirche (1985), description of the experiences at the attempted commemoration.
[23] See Hark, Vom prekären Status lesbischer* Identitäten im Feld der Erinnerungspolitiken. 
[24] Hall, The Minimal Selves, p. 44. 
[25] See Schoppmann, Spärliche Spuren, p. 106.
[26] See Warnecke, Gedenkkugel für KZ Ravensbrück.

“Catharina Schlegelin had hidden her pregnancy viciously from everybody”: extramarital pregnancies in three different sources on infanticide from the 18th century

Eva Marie Lehner is a historian and Early Modernist. She specializes in the history of the body, gender, and sexuality, historical anthropology, identity, and ecclesiastical record-keeping processes. Her most recent publications and presentations related to her Ph.D. project on south German parish registers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. eva.lehner[@]

During the early modern period (1500–1800) infanticide was a criminal act and punished by death.[i] In German-speaking territories, the term used for infanticide was KindsmordKindsmord meant a woman killing her illegitimate newborn. In contemporary German legislative texts, unmarried women were the only ones who could commit this crime. Court judgments saw hiding an extramarital pregnancy and illegitimate childbirth as evidence in a trial on infanticide. 

Early modern judicial treaties describe the crime as “unchristian” and “inhuman”.[ii] Simultaneously, executions of Kindsmörderinnen (women who had committed infanticide) were difficult to enforce and carry out by local authorities.[iii] Reactions to these executions by the audience were complex, ambivalent, and often unforeseeable.[iv] During the 18th century, the attitude towards infanticide changed fundamentally. A reform of the penal law at this time evoked debates in which infanticide played a crucial role.[v] The discussion centered around the question if one should abolish the death penalty for infanticide. The social, moral, and emotional situations of unmarried women, which could socially degrade when she got pregnant, played a remarkable role in this debate. Extramarital intercourse was not only severely frowned upon but could also be incriminating for the participants. The stigma which was associated with illegitimate children applied primarily to women. In the following, I will present three different sources from the 18th century discussing infanticide and showing different perspectives on extramarital sexuality, gender, and law.

Legal norms

The judicial debate on infanticide in the 18th century was deeply interlinked with the judgment of extramarital intercourse. This connection was also part of legal norms decreed by the authorities. The instructions which Count Palatine Karl Theodor legislated for Palatinate and Bavaria in 1726 and 1744 are two examples. The government in Palatinate Sulzbach referred to his instructions when it released a local regulation in 1766. According to this law, women were obliged to report an extramarital pregnancy. Hiding a pregnancy, covering it up, or sheltering a pregnant woman was defined as a criminal act. In an instruction published in 1789, unmarried women were suspicious when they had hidden their pregnancy and no one could testify for the childbirth.[vi]

In the 18th century, the authorities in Bavaria and Palatinate Sulzbach tightened the edicts against infanticide. These legal norms criminalized women hiding an extramarital pregnancy to prevent infanticides. 

Court records

What impact did these measures have on legal practices and judgments concerning infanticide? During the first half of the 18th century, the court in Sulzbach convicted six women of this crime.[vii] On October 3, 1739, one of these women, Catharina Schlegelin, was sentenced to death by the judge and executed in public. The court records cover the circumstances of the pregnancy, birth, and homicide. The files also document the physical and mental condition of Catharina, how she treated her dead child, buried it, and prayed for it. The records focus on the hidden pregnancy as part of the crime or as its starting point:  

“Because the convict Catharina Schleglin had hidden her pregnancy viciously from everybody: she repeatedly felt labour-pains, and she went home alone from work on the field. Because she gave birth to her child separated from other people and in secret. Because she did not stanch the umbilical cord of the newborn, but mainly squeezed its head, and pressed its throat, put it in water until it drowned.”[viii]

Court records: One page from the court records on Catharina Schlegelin, Sulzbach 1739.[1] 

Parish records

Two protestant clergymen supervised Catharina Schlegelin during her trial and after her conviction. Both ministers wrote her burial entry in the local parish register after her execution.[ix] They documented the ambivalent attitude towards infanticide and convicted women in the 18th century: 

“Once again – God be merciful! – we both supervised and stood by a woman who killed her infant [kinder-Mörderin] and therefore was happily brought from life to death with a sword.

Catharina Schlegelin is the daughter of Johan Schlegel who is still living and a wealthy peasant in Schellersdorf, part of the parish Edelsfeld. She is his only daughter with his first wife. He and his second wife are childless. She [C.S.] was on duty as a maid when she got impregnated by the male servant, Jobst Pferber from Fronberg. She hid her pregnancy from her parents and the boy because she was afraid of her parents. They did not like the Pferber, because he was not wealthy, and she could get another man. Finally, she was so desperate that she killed the infant when her parents and everyone else were out on the field. She buried it in the barn. She did confess to her doing when the midwife questioned her during her first arrest in Königstein, she realized the extent of her sin and finally regretted it tearfully. She prepared herself honestly and freely for her death and many people were astonished by her youth of 23 years […].”[x]

In this entry, the clergymen tried to show that Catharina understood the bearing of her actions and regretted her doings. Therefore, her soul could be saved. In contrast to the court records the burial entry explains Catharina’s environment in detail. The young woman received a short biography in the parish records. The authors described her actions as brutal and sinful. However, the priests also mentioned her personal life. In their reading, the circumstances caused her a great deal of desperation and led to her actions. Part of her conflicted situation was the social or class distinction between her and her child’s father. She was the daughter of a wealthy peasant, and he was a poor servant. So, her parents did not accept him as her husband. Hence, she could not marry him even after the pregnancy which led to her desperate situation. Also, the two clergymen described that Catharina responded positively to them, emphasizing her regrets and catharsis. She confessed to her crime immediately and accepted her punishment. According to the burial entry, her behaviour amazed the priests and many people who attended her execution. The entry shows that the execution of women, convicted of infanticide, was reviewed in different ways. The church record offers a contra narrative to the legal norms and the judgment the court made. These three different perspectives on extramarital sexuality, gender, and law were part of the reevaluation of infanticide as a criminal act in the 18th century. 

Cite this article: Eva Marie Lehner, “Catharina Schlegelin had hidden her pregnancy viciously from everybody”: extramarital pregnancies in three different sources on infanticide from the 18th century, in: History | Sexuality | Law, 25/03/2021,, (abgerufen am: Datum).

[1] Image Copyright: In puncto Infanticidy. VII. Allgemeine Landespolizei. 1. Sicherheits- und Sittenpolizei. Schöffenurteile, signature A 69: 4. Katharina Schlegl, 1739, fol. 49 v.

[i] Besides the topic of infanticide being present during the early modern period, deadly violations against newborns were infrequent: Garthine Walker, Child-Killing and Emotion in Early Modern England and Wales, in Katie Barclay/Kimberley Reynolds/Ciara Rawnsley (ed.), Death, Emotion, and Childhood in Premodern Europe, London, New York 2016, pp. 151-171, p. 154.
[ii] Art. 131: Straff der weiber so jre kinder tödten, in: O.A., Constitutio Criminalis Carolina. Peinliche Gerichtsordnung Kaiser Karl V. Faksimiliedruck der ausgabe Augsburg 1533, Osnabrück 1973, S. XXVIII; Art. 35 und 36: Vom heimlichen kinder haben/ und tödten durch jre mütter genugsam anzeygung, pp. VIII, IX. 
[iii] Jutta Nowosadtko, Hinrichtungsrituale. Funktion und Logik öffentlicher Exekutionen in der Frühen Neuzeit, in: Sigrid Hirbodian/Michael Matheus (ed.), Kriminalität und Gesellschaft in Spätmittelalter und Neuzeit (Mainzer Vorträge 8), Stuttgart 2005, pp. 71-94, see p. 89.
[iv] Walker, Child-Killing, p. 152. Regarding the different emotions on infanticide in France during the 16th century: Susan Broomhall, Beholding Suffering and Providing Care: Emotional Performances on the Death of Poor Children in Sixteenth-Century French Institutions, in Barclay/Reynolds/Rawnsley (ed.), Death, Emotion and Childhood, pp. 65-86, see pp. 70-72.
[v] Otto Ulbricht considers infanticide as a key crime for the legal reforms in the 18th century. The death penalty should be replaced by preventative measures. Otto Ulbricht, Kindsmord und Aufklärung in Deutschland, München 1990; Otto Ulbricht, Kindsmord in der Frühen Neuzeit, in: Ute Gerhard (ed.): Frauen in der Geschichte des Rechts. Von der Frühen Neuzeit bis zur Gegenwart, München 1997, pp. 235-247.
[vi] Staatsarchiv Amberg, Pfalz Sulzbacher Regierung, Sulzbacher Akten, signature: 42 279.
[vii] Stadtarchiv Sulzbach-Rosenberg, infanticides 1734-1752. In puncto Infanticidy. VII. Allgemeine Landespolizei. 1. Sicherheits- und Sittenpolizei. Schöffenurteile, signature A 69: 1. Katharina Heringloher, 1734; 2. Margaretha Beer, 1735; 3. Magdalena Ebenhöher, 1739; 4. Katharina Schlegl, 1739; 5. Katharina Grünthaler, 1743; 6. Jüdin Hanna, nachgehend getaufte Maria Franziska Eleonora, 1751.
[viii] All English translations of quotes from German sources are my own. „Inquisitin Catharina Schläglin wegen daß sie ihre schwangeschafft vor jedmann boshafft versch verborgen gehalten: ohnmalst der etlichmahl empfunden wehen vom feldt allein nach haus gegangen, und das nicht nur dem da vor alle leuthen abgeßondert, heimlich gebohrenen kind die nabelschnur unverbunden gelaßßen sondern so hauptsächlich demselben daß köpfle zerquetschet heirnach auch noch den halß zugedrukt, und das kind ins waßßer, bis es ganz ertrunken, geleget.“ Stadtarchiv Sulzbach-Rosenberg, infanticides 1734-1752. In puncto Infanticidy. VII. Allgemeine Landespolizei. 1. Sicherheits- und Sittenpolizei. Schöffenurteile, signature A 69: 4. Katharina Schlegl, 1739, fol. 49 v. 
[ix] Eva Lehner: „einschreiben und vleißßig auffbehalten, auff daß man sich inn mancherlei fällen zeugnuß zu gebrauchen habe“. Dokumentieren als Praxisform in frühneuzeitlichen Kirchenbüchern, in: Jan-Hendryk de Boer (Hg.): Praxisformen. Zur kulturellen Logik von Zukunftshandeln, Frankfurt/New York 2019, S. 147–163.
[x] „Wurde bey der Gotterbarme es ! eine abermahlige kinder-Mörderin bey unser beiden zubereitung u begleitung durchs Schwerd vom Leben zum todt glückl. Gebracht Catharina Schlegelin, des nochim Leben sich befindenden Johan Schlegels, wohlhabenden Bauers-Tochter zu Schnellersdorf Edelfelder Pfarreien zwar eintziges kind vom 1ten Weib, mit der 2ten aber ohne kinder lebend weliche von Jobst Pferber von Fronberg gebürtig; aber dermahlen zu M[?] im dienst stehenden knecht impregnirt worden. Sie hat ihr schwanger=schafft aber denen Eltern u dem kerl beständig geläugnet, aus furcht vor den Eltern, welche diesen Pferber, weil er nicht reich war, und sie einend andern hätte haben können, endlich aus desperation das kind umgebracht, da die Eltern und alles auf dem felde war, und es in den stall vergraben. Sie habe aber ihre grausame that bey der ersten arrestirung in königstein w. visitierung durch die amm gleich umständlich bekannt, die größe ihrer sünde erkant letzlich mit viel Thränen bereuet u sich zum todt rechtschaffen und sehr frei bereitet, mit vieler leute verwunderung bey ihrer Jugend im 23te Jahr ihres[?].“ Evangelisch-lutherisches Pfarrarchiv der Christuskirche Sulzbach-Rosenberg, church register 8: baptisms, marriages, burials 1702-1769; since 2015 the register is stored im Landesarchiv der Lutherisch-Evangelischen Kirche in Bayern, 505/8, burial entry 3th October 1739, pp. 115 and 116, n. 27.

Recht, Sexualität und Rasse – Der Transfer der nationalsozialistischen Strafverfolgung von Homosexualität in Europa

Frédéric Stroh gehört dem Geschichtsforschungszentrum ARCHE der Université de Strasbourg (Frankreich). Er hat 2018 mit einer Dissertation über die NS-Strafverfolgung der Homosexualität in Baden und im annektierten Elsass promoviert. Nach einem Forschungsaufenthalt am Deutschen Historischen Institut Warschau und in Slowenien führt er zurzeit ein Forschungsprojekt für das Saarland über die Verfolgung der männlichen Homosexualität (1933-1994) durch. Kontakt:

Im Zuge der Eroberung Europas durch den nationalsozialistischen Staat ab 1939, wunderten sich die deutschen Behörden in den besetzten Gebieten über die Ausbreitung der männlichen Homosexualität. In Posen mahnte im April 1941 ein Amtsrichter an, dass „der gleichgeschlechtliche Verkehr zwischen Polen hier im Wartheland ein Ausmass angenommen hat, dass er die öffentliche Sittlichkeit gefährdet“.[1] Im Elsass teilte die deutsche Kriminalpolizei dem deutschen Oberstaatsanwalt im November 1940 mit: „in Kolmar ist nach den bisherigen Feststellungen die Unzucht unter Männern sehr verbreitet“[2]. Dies schien die deutschen Verfolgungsakteure gerade deswegen zu überraschen, weil der NS-Staat in den 1930er Jahren eine harte – vor allem gerichtliche – Verfolgung der männlichen Homosexuellen durchgeführt hat.

Eine direkte Umsetzung des NS-Strafverfolgungsmodells der Homosexualität außerhalb des Reichs fand aber nicht statt. Das lag erstens daran, dass die Rechtsrahmen in vielen Ländern eine solche Strafverfolgung am Anfang unmöglich gemacht haben. Zweitens aber wurde die Strafverfolgung der Homosexualität zum Teil durch die NS-Rassenpolitik bedingt. Das möchte ich im Folgenden ausführen.

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The Conservative Roots of Reproductive Rights

Roman Birke is a Research and Teaching Associate in Contemporary History at Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena. His research focuses on the history of human rights, reproductive policies, and gender. In 2020, he published ‘Geburtenkontrolle als Menschenrecht. Die globale Diskussion über Überbevölkerung seit den 1940ern‘ (Wallstein). The book investigates the linkage between overpopulation discourse and human rights since the 1940s. It argues that in the 1950s and 1960s, claims that ‘overpopulation’ threatened to endanger human rights proved to be a key factor in the success of population control programs in the global south. 

In the 1960s, traditional norms about sexuality were challenged by what became known as the ‘sexual revolution’. In 1968, the United Nations adopted a resolution which, for the first time in the UN’s history, declared the use of contraceptives to be a human right. But, as this contribution argues, the new human right to contraception was not part of a discourse of sexual freedom but reinforced traditional family norms. 

‘Sexual revolution’

Historiographical accounts have convincingly questioned the term ‘sexual revolution’ as the transformation of sexual norms was less an event but rather a process. But, without a doubt, studies on sexuality in the 1950s and 1960s changed the public debates about sexual practices long considered taboo, including extra-marital sex and homosexuality. At the same time, feminist activists campaigned for the acknowledgment of female sexual desires and demanded a separation of sex and reproduction. At least in the ‘Western’ world, the development of new contraceptive technologies like the ‘pill’ and the IUD (Intrauterine device) have been key for advancing this agenda, despite the uneven access to contraceptives and women’s critique of bearing the sole responsibility for contraceptive choices and risks.

Contraception as a Human Right

During the contentious debates about sexual norms in the 1960s, the United Nations claimed that the use of contraceptives was a human right and urged governments to provide couples with the ‘means necessary to enable them to exercise their right to determine freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children’.[1] Many contemporary contributions like the Oxford Handbook of Reproductive Ethics claim that these UN documents were the cornerstone of what we understand as reproductive and sexual rights today which include the right to decide whether or not to have children, the right to sexual and reproductive health and being able to have a ‘satisfying and safe sex life’, independent of sexual preferences.[2] But, surprisingly, the UN-resolutions of the 1960s were not part of a discourse of sexual freedom. Rather, they understood contraception as a potential remedy to the anxieties of global overpopulation and emphasized traditional family norms.

The couple as rights-holder

Contrary to many human rights documents at the time, the resolutions declared the couple instead of the individual to be the bearer of a right to contraception. But, who, within the couple, had the power to decide on whether or not to use contraception? Many domestic legal and constitutional norms in the 1960s and beyond declared men to be the head of the family which made the individual exercise of rights dependent on the gendered power imbalances within the couple. This was not only a matter of legal theory. When, in 1984, a large number of activists gathered for the International Women’s Health Conference, speakers emphasized that many women in their respective countries cannot make contraceptive choices without the agreement of their male spouses. 

Protecting the family

The UN’s view on reproductive rights was strongly linked to how human rights documents conceptualized the family. The 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 16) and the 1966 Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 23) both defined the family as ‘the natural and fundamental group unit of society’ and argued that it was ‘entitled to protection by society and the State.’ Many UN member countries emphasized that contraception should not question traditional roles of men and women within the family. In a series of meetings of the UN’s Third Committee in 1966 and 1967, the French and Iranian delegates argued that questioning these roles would introduce ‘elements of conflict into the marriage’ and threaten the ‘unity and harmony of the family’. The British delegate reasoned that equal opportunities should not be ‘divorced from a woman’s primary duty to her family’. Only the US-delegate argued that the responsibilities for family affairs including family planning ‘should be shared by both spouses’ and that calls to protect the harmony of the family were just ‘pretext for discriminatory practices against women’.[3]

Despite such a critique, traditional family norms remained at the forefront of global UN-programs that distributed contraceptives to men and women. While many organizations and activists involved in these efforts privately believed in the emancipatory potential of contraception, they focused on providing only married couples with contraceptives and emphasized traditional gender roles. Instead of showcasing alternative roles beyond traditional family norms, advertisements for contraception like the 1968 Disney film ‘Family Planning’ argued that using contraceptives to reduce the number of children would allow women to be more efficient in carrying out their domestic duties.  


Despite their focus on maintaining traditional family norms, early reproductive rights declarations already contained an acknowledgement of individual desires to limit the number of children. Paradoxically, this position was not per se related to the discourses of the ‘sexual revolution’. Also, it was not primarily concerned with envisioning new roles for women beyond motherhood and duties to the family. Rather, limiting the number of children was part of a wider discourse of overpopulation and attempts to reduce population growth in the global south. But despite the original intentions, the human right to contraception became a slogan that was reappropriated by the women’s movement and activist-minded international lawyers who intended to change global gender relations. Already in 1975, the UN Mexico City Women’s conference formulated a strong rebuke to previous UN resolutions on contraception. Instead of declaring contraception a couple’s right, their resolution claimed that all individuals had such a right. They also emphasized that individuals did not only have a right to limit the number of their children. They also claimed a right of not having children at all. 

While UN human rights doctrine started to understand women’s rights as independent of their roles within the family, many contemporary debates about contraception and the family are reminiscent of the conservative origins of reproductive rights in the 1960s. Based on what Ivan Krastev described as ‘demographic anxiety’, many authoritarian governments envision a national awakening by the means of an increased birth rate of heterosexual couples, turning back decades of developments in the legal understanding of reproductive rights.[4]

Cite this article: Roman Birke, „The Conservative Roots of Reproductive Rights“, in: History | Sexuality | Law, 19/01/2021,, (abgerufen am: Datum).

[1] United Nations: Declaration on Social Progress and Development, Proclaimed by General Assembly resolution 2542 (XXIV) of 11 December 1969.
[2] Leslie Francis, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Reproductive Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
[3] United Nations Official Records: Minutes of the Third Committee in 1966 and 1967 (Meetings 1444, 1445, 1469, 1475).
[4] Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, ‘Populisms in Eastern Europe: A Demographic Anxiety’, Le Débat No 204, no. 2 (2019): 161–69.

Theodor Sternberg and the Closet of Conceptualism

Katharina Isabel Schmidt is a PhD candidate in history at Princeton University and a JSD candidate in law at the Yale Law School. She is currently writing a history of German legal modernism from the left-wing, German-Jewish free law movement before WWI to Nazi jurists like Carl Schmitt. She looks forward to receiving your questions and comments at

Sometime in the mid-1930s, German jurist Theodor Sternberg (1878-1950) concluded that law and love were incompatible.[1] In one of his “erotosophical” fragments, he claimed that affective bonds thrived under anarchy. Love, for Sternberg had to be free from egoism and compulsion, eschew both duty and obligation. “Coitus,” especially, was divine in origin—God’s love for the world incarnate—and just like God’s love was limitless, sexuality knew no law.

Sternberg wrote his fragment in Japan, where he lived as an independent scholar for almost forty years.[2] As a Jewish socialist yearning for femininity in all its forms, he had struggled to make a living in the German Empire. He had moved to Tokyo before WWI where he turned his attention to the human sciences. In 1935, he was invited to give a series of sexological lectures at Keio University. Around the same time, he started developing a program for humanity’s transition from an order of law to an order of love.[3]

A look at Sternberg helps us see that modernism in sex and in law overlapped. Historians have shown that, by the turn of the century, law had become the language in which sexual rights activists articulated their demands. Simultaneously, sex emerged as a site for critiquing law itself—a process less frequently noted. Legal modernists looked beyond formal rules to alternative sources of order. And Sternberg’s preferred alternatives were desire and intimacy.

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A Gay Turning Point that Failed to Turn? The Beethoven hall Podium Discussion of 1980

Samuel Clowes Huneke is assistant professor of history in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University. His research, which focuses on gender and sexuality in Nazi and Cold War Germany, has appeared in scholarly publications including Journal of Contemporary History and New German Critique. His first book, tentatively titled States of Liberation: Gay Men between Dictatorship and Democracy in Cold War Germany, is under contract with University of Toronto Press. He is a frequent contributor to Boston ReviewLos Angeles Review of Books, and The Point magazine.  

On July 12, 1980, thousands of gay West Germans descended on Bonn. A federal election was imminent and West Germany’s gay activists had organized a so-called podium discussion at the Beethovenhalle, the large performance hall that had twice hosted the Bundesversammlung, which elects the Federal Republic’s President. Inviting representatives of the major parties to speak to a queer audience, the instigators hoped the event would pressure politicians—in particular those of the governing Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Free Democratic Party (FDP)—to concede to their policy demands. These included reparations for gay victims of the Holocaust and repeal of §175 of the penal code, which after the law’s 1969 reform set a higher age of consent for sex acts between men. 

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