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Imaginations of Female Sovereignty in German Women Writers' Literature (1789-1848)

Book - Dissertation

This dissertation investigates the representation of female sovereignty in German literature written by women between 1789 and 1848. It starts from the observation that women became political outsiders after the French Revolution. For a long time, female sovereignty had been a historical reality in Europe: although it never went without controversy, the dynastic power structures of the Ancien Régime made it possible for women to attain political authority, either as sovereigns in their own right or as temporary regents for minor, absent, or ill male leaders. In the course of the 'long nineteenth century', however, processes of political modernization coincided with a new and polarized understanding of gender. As a result, women were politically excluded. This thesis investigates whether and how German women writers absorbed the 'eclipse' of female sovereignty after 1789 in their fiction. By focusing on the decades before 1848, it wants to understand how these authors explored the question of gender and sovereignty before the dawn of political feminism in the German states.For most of the nineteenth century, women's exclusion from political decision-making was hardly questioned in the German-speaking world, neither by political thinkers nor by the majority of women's rights activists. However, this thesis argues that women's literature creates an alternative and more complex understanding of the relationship between gender and political power. Through close readings of a selection of texts, both prose and drama, the study shows that women's fiction nuances stereotypes and casts doubt on the perceived incompatibility between femininity and political leadership. In an era when women's political absence was widely believed to be 'natural', literature can keep the idea of female sovereignty "sayable" and "thinkable", to quote Jacques Rancière. In this way, this dissertation reveals the political potential of a body of writing that has hardly received scholarly attention and that has long been considered an apolitical genre.
Publication year:2020