Conference Report: “Let Us Solace Ourselves with Love:” Women, Religion, and Emotions in Modern Germany

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 27, Number 4 (December 2021)

Conference Report: “Let Us Solace Ourselves with Love:” Women, Religion, and Emotions in Modern Germany, German Studies Association Annual Conference, Indianapolis, IN and Virtual, September 30-October 3, 2021

By Martina Cucchiara, Bluffton University

Presenters of the virtual panel “’Let Us Solace Ourselves with Love:’ Women, Religion, and Emotions in Modern Germany” at this year’s German Studies Association used the lens of emotions to reconsider Jewish and Christian women’s increased participation in organized religion in nineteenth and twentieth-century Germany.  Questions about women’s progress and oppression in patriarchal religious institutions long have been at the fore of this scholarship, and pioneering historians like Gail Malmgreen posited early on that “what is clear is that the dealings of organized religion with women have been richly laced with ironies and contradictions.” The tension of women’s religious engagement as liberating or oppressive also was palpable in this panel but panelist explored this topic in new ways. Scholars traditionally have analyzed the intersections of women’s religious engagement and progress in modern Europe through the lenses of labor and education, which at times has failed to highlight the increasing importance of women’s religiosity in the modern nation state.  Addressing this lacuna in the scholarship is vital because women’s religious engagement in fact increased in the modern era. Drawing on methodologies from the history of emotions, the presenters illuminated this heretofore neglected aspects of women’s religiosity and practice in the modern era.

In her talk titled “Desperate Desires: Religious Feelings as Discipline and Exaltation in Notburga, a Nineteenth-Century Magazine for Catholic Maidservants,” Martina Cucchiara (Bluffton University) used the concept of “emotionology” developed by Peter Stearns and Carol Stearns in her analysis of this magazine, to highlight the strict religious-emotional standards set for these mostly poor and unmarried women whose purportedly wild emotions were seen as a threat to the stability and prosperity of the modernizing state. Much of Notburga indeed was devoted to the social control of poor women through the fostering the proper religious feelings in its female readership. At the same time, the magazine also succeeded in fostering positive feelings of piety, pride, hope, and belonging in a group of poor women whose already dire situation only worsened in modern Germany.  Thus, Notburga’s emotional script was not always oppressive, a point all panelists stressed in their presentations. In her talk “Love and Unity, Love and Opportunity: Rhetorical Uses of Love in Calls for Change by Catholic Women Leaders 1900-1914,” Lisa Fetheringill Zwicker (Indiana University South Bend) illuminated the important free spaces two Catholic women leaders, Isabella Baroness von Carnap and Barbara Klara Renz, carved out for themselves in the early twentieth-century Church in particular how they used love “as a way to make diverse claims for change within German society.” In particular, she highlighted the utilization of various approaches from the history of emotions in her work.

Doctoral student Nisrine Rahal from the University of Toronto explored how women within the dissenting Deutschkatholiken and the kindergarten movement in the nineteenth century “mobilized the ideal of love and feminine emotions as an act of protest and opposition to the patriarchal state and church.” Her talk was titled “The Deutschkatholiken and Love: A New Type of Womanly Emotion.”  The last presentation, “Between the ‘feminization of Judaism’ and the “New Woman:” German Jewish Women’s Religious Experiences, 1918-1968 by Christian Bailey (Purchase College/Suny) directed the audience’s attention to Jewish women intellectuals in twentieth-century Germany, asking “how these intellectuals’ new ways of living out their Judaism,” for instance by asserting their right to discuss Jewish scholarship in print, rather than merely expressing piety within private spaces, “affected the emotional scripts that applied to a new generation of Jewish women.” Due to time constraints, the speaker focused mainly on the Nazi era. He argued convincingly that whereas Jewish women were forced to once more practice their faith in private under Nazism, their continued exploration of their faith emboldened some survivors to take on prominent roles in postwar Germany.  Rebecca Bennette (Middlebury College) offered thoughtful commentary on the presentations, and the panel concluded with a brief but lively discussion.