Embodied Histories: New Womanhood in Vienna, 1894–1934

Image of Embodied Histories: New Womanhood in Vienna, 1894–1934
Release Date: 
April 28, 2024
University of Chicago Press
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Here is a book for anyone hoping to learn more about the emergence of female liberation; for any historian anxious to take in another facet of life in one of Europe’s most dazzling cities; and for anyone striving to understand the interactions between our bodies and everything else.

In 1925, a Viennese magazine observed that “a new gender is emerging that wants to be understood in the context of its time.” New womanhood, author Katya Motyl argues, was that new gender expression. Although the practices of new womanhood were not viewed as unified at the time, Motyl tries to understand them, retrospectively and analytically, as part of the same new womanhood phenomenon.

Professor Motyl begins her story in the mid-1890s just before the Secession movement emerged in fin de siècle Vienna. She continues through the Great War and afterward until the outbreak of civil war in 1934—four years before Hitler’s annexation (Anschluss) of the entire country. Closely related to Art Nouveau, the Secession movement was formed in 1897 by a group of Austrian painters, graphic artists, sculptors and architects, including Josef Hoffman, Koloman Moser, Otto Wagner and Gustav Klimt. Like female liberation, these artists saw no reason to observe traditional norms.

The Vienna Secession's work is often referred to as the Austrian version of Jugendstil, the German term for Art Nouveau. The Secessionists' work provided the visual representations of the new intellectual and cultural flowering of Vienna around 1900, in fields so diverse as medicine, music, and philosophy. Before long, however, internal divisions and difficulties arising from the commercial side of the Secessionists' work ultimately fractured the group's monopoly on contemporary and decorative arts,

The new womanhood was probably strengthened by the Secession movement but began a few years earlier and lasted a few years longer. Both welcomed innovation and ignoring tradition.

Even how one stood or walked on a sidewalk could go against the prevailing customs. Streetwalking had traditionally signified prostitution. Having researched archives of many kinds, Motyl found a police file reporting how a policeman in 1916 took two women to the police station overnight because they were walking slowly and looking in shop windows.

His confusion was understandable because, with the onset of the First World War, more women began walking the street. Of course, working-class women had been walking on the streets well before the war. What changed was that the demand for unskilled labor grew and, as more men were enlisted to fight, the state came to rely on youth, prisoners of war, and women to continue the war effort. In this way, the war sped up a transformation that was already underway. By 1918, 53.4 percent of the Viennese labor force was female. Women from all walks of life were forced to go out on the street and walk to their jobs as metalworkers, carpenters, blacksmiths, cobblers, uniform cutters, laboratory assistants, clerical workers, technicians, and telephone/telegraph operators.

Walking like a Parisian flâneur—flânerie—was like showing off one’s body, clothes, and demeanor. Flânerie came to be a spectator sport for urban Viennese.

Clothing also spoke. The first uncorseted or looser dresses—known as reform dresses—were viewed as primarily functional clothing that was meant to be worn to the spa, during travel, or when engaging in physical activity or labor. Reform dresses did not become fashionable art dresses (Kunstlerkleider) until members of the Wiener Werkstatte and the Vienna Secession started designing garments meant to reflect modernity—though here too the goal was for form to follow function. Gustav Klimt, for example, had been involved in the production of a variety of reform dresses, modeled by the fashion designer Emilie Floge, which were documented in a series of photographs taken in summer 1906 in Litzlberg, on the fashionable Attersee near Salzburg.

Motyl finds evidence of the new womanhood in many spheres of life—from coffee houses to the dance floor and the opera to medical hygiene. But one must wonder how widespread this way of life was. Even though some Viennese were increasingly affluent, at least before August 1914—how many even then could dress appropriately and sip coffee with whipped cream? How many, after a day’s work, could go to a wine cellar or even stand nearby and listen to zither music? My skepticisms arise from the fact that I first encountered Vienna in 1952–1953 when Austria was still occupied by four victors in war, and life was difficult, even for an American equipped with some dollars. Life may have been more comfortable before the Great War when Adolf Hitler, Stalin, Trotsky, the future Marshal Tito, as well as Dr. Sigmund Freud overlapped for a time with Kaiser Franz Joseph and his Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Later, in 1965, a Viennese professor told me that his son came home from school with this writing assignment: “What did Hitler do for Austria?”

Questions also arise about antisemitism and pro-Nazi sentiments that grew ever stronger in the 1930s. How did they interact with women seeking to do their own thing in the decades before and after Vienna lost its empire?

Of course, Motyl need not address every facet of Austrian life. Her book is a highly original work of serious scholarship with more than one thousand reference notes. Still, one must wonder how Austria’s renowned Gemütlichkeit (cheerfulness) harmonizes with the rise to power of far-right nationalists.