Reform movements around 1900: Education, the human body, housing, and women’s right to vote

Hedwig Richter
Professor of Modern and Contemporary History / Universität der Bundeswehr München

The turn of the 20th century was a time of tremendous awakening. Cities were growing, sprouting huge apartment blocks and prestigious city halls, and in Berlin the Reichstag building was taking shape. Industrialization made vast resources available. Some took to their cars and put their faith in the mechanization of the world, while others cried “Back to nature!”, danced naked, moved from place to place, and connected continents. Everything was emerging anew, everything was changing. It was during this time that the Brücke group of artists was founded; in their art we see a different German Reich, a modern, liberated society with a focus on representations of people and nature – marked by an unconventional style. Crafts also found their way into this art – in the form of needlework, wood carving, home furnishings, embroidery and carpet-weaving. Throughout society, women were gaining new freedoms, which they put to the test in their daily lives: They took to bicycles and donned more comfortable bathing costumes, while ever more of them started earning their own money as workers or domestic maids, but also as teachers and typists. They started attending universities in their thousands. Before the First World War, they made up eight percent of students in Prussia alone. Women’s rights campaigner Helene Stöcker remembered how, during these years, “there was new strength, innovation and hope in so many things”. “During those years we were able to believe in a continuous rise to ever higher levels.”1 During this time, for the first time the emancipation of women gained acceptance among a broader swath of society, while reformers in different areas made sure of its realization – and paved the way for further changes.

In concise accounts of German history, the reforms are barely given a mention. The grand historiographical stage of Germany at this time is populated with spiked helmets and a fatuous Kaiser, the domination of the Junker aristocracy, the sand of the Brandenburg Marches and reform blockades. Whilst the same old stories are told time and again, other accounts are left out, even though they are in some cases typical of this period and indeed had a much more profound impact on people’s lives. And ultimately, these reforms are frequently referred to as non-political.2

In the USA, the situation is very different. The reform movements are considered an important part of history overall. The period is known as the Reform Era or the “Progressive Era”, and historians of both sexes by no means side-line the problematic elements, such as the excessive corruption that threatened to smother American democracy or the murderous racism. The idea that the reforms were non-political never occurs to them. Countless other Western countries also saw reforms emerging around 1900, and everywhere there was a desire to change the world. The reforms were similar, and the reformers were frequently in contact with one another, exchanging ideas at numerous international conferences. I am therefore assuming that the period around 1900 can be considered an era of international reform.

Such an interpretation offers a description of high Modernism for Germany, which avoids the less convincing approach of a purely national historical narrative and shows that apparently typically German phenomena can be considered part of international processes. The approach via an international and transnational narrative also facilitates a theoretical framework that makes the findings about the period around 1900 easier to connect up and more understandable on a macro level. Thus, the greatest upheaval of this time – namely the changes in the gender order – can also come into focus. To what extent, therefore, did the reforms around 1900 contribute to women gaining the right to vote? To find an answer, we must examine individual areas of reform: educational reforms, body culture, housing reform and democratic breakthroughs.

Educational reforms

It was during this time that Italian educational reformer Maria Montessori began her work with children – and she did so in a poor district of Rome. Her efforts frequently focussed on the individuality of the child: The child’s education was meant to be based around its needs and capabilities; learning by rote was considered outdated and harmful. Reformers around 1900 generally considered children and young people to be particularly worthy of protection. Hence an initial category for the interpretation of the Reform Era becomes clear: individualization, whereby the focus is on the dignity of individuals, and also their protection and freedom. With notable frequency, reformist discourse revolved around the body – which was considered something to be protected, and people were continually urged to exercise and get fresh air. The focus on the protection of children and young people (as classic victims of physical violence) is manifested particularly in the way the growing respect for the individual was connected to that person’s body. Time and again here, the new movement and the new so-called ‘science’ of racism found its way into the considerations that were connected to the reforms in various ways. Many of the representatives of such racism saw the protection of the individual body as part of the efforts to defend the “racial corpus” against that which was “alien” or “diseased”. Ellen Key, for example, was one of the pioneering campaigners for euthanasia. She called for the application of eugenics, for “better breeding” among humans, and in connection with this also the right to abortion, similarly to the women’s rights activists Helene Stöcker or Margarete Sanger in the USA. 3

Yet where did the interest in the body come from around 1900? An essential part of this was growing prosperity, which now benefitted the lower classes too. The most abject poverty that had led to famines even in the mid-19th century was now kept at bay, and since the 1850s real wages had been rising almost continuously even among those on lower levels of income. This in turn affected new practices in everyday life: Hence, for example, people more frequently slept in separate rooms and no longer under one roof with their animals. An increasing number of people were able to afford a bed, which led to an individualized awareness of the body and a stronger sense of shame about the body, amongst others.

From this, we can get an initial answer to my question of the extent to which the reforms contributed to women gaining the right to vote around the turn of the century: They fostered a new regime of the body. Matters of the body were inextricably linked to issues of equality and human dignity and by extension to democratic developments. It is likely that the link between democracy and prosperity, which has been empirically proven time and again, is also relevant to this. As early as around 1800, many reforms put human rights into action in various regards, such as the ending of serfdom or the abolition of corporal punishment. Around 1900, however, prosperity had risen to such a degree that the progressive ideal of equality could become ever more concrete and was demanded ever more fervently from the bottom up, essentially through social democracy. Industrial society provided ever more things that made it possible for the physical body to be treated with dignity. Blatant poverty was considered an injustice, and the physical abuse of dependent workers or children became – in discursive terms – a scandal. Scandalization did not eliminate poverty, but the change in perspective on such things and the condemnatory discourse helped to repress it.

Housing reforms

In the USA, Danish-American photojournalist Jacob Riis captured the nation’s attention when he published “How the Other Half Lives”, which depicted the poor districts of New York in the 1880s. With the help of a new technology that made it possible to take photos in dark spaces, the pictures brought to light what had previously remained hidden from the middle-class eye. What the technology revealed was not a new phenomenon, but rather it elevated old circumstances to the level of a scandal. Similarly, in his study “Poverty. A Study of Town Life” published in 1901, the reformer Seebohm Rowntree exposed the poverty in Great Britain and called for state intervention. Rowntree’s demands were likewise backed up by the new photographic technology, and there were similar reports, photos and scientific studies in countless other countries, too. Children growing up in filth and without sunshine was now considered a circumstance that had to be eliminated. More than almost any other reform project, the reforms in housing provided the things that appeared necessary for the protection of the new human being, their need for privacy and for the modern aspirations of justice. Social hygiene specialists, educationalists, psychologists and architects – who in many ways represented new kinds of experts –were all involved in the discussions and reforms concerning housing. Housing, privacy, family life, child-rearing and education – these topics were not originally considered part of politics on a grander scale, but rather that of a woman’s domain.

Now, however, there was a rise in what historian Paula Baker calls the “domestication of politics”: In the 19th and 20th centuries, women made sure that domestic matters were dragged onto the political stage. They emphasized their particular expertise in raising children, in the issue of housing, and in the broad field of “social issues”, and they called for reforms – in which they were to be involved. Since social policies were initially considered an issue for local authorities, women frequently gained the right to vote in local elections first, as was the case the Great Britain, for example. With the “domestication of politics” in the decades before the First World War, women contributed to the continual growth of state intervention and the development of the social state, one of the founding principles of modern democracies.4

Electoral reforms

The new regime of the body also included aspects of discipline, which is linked to the third topic of reform: electoral reforms. In the USA, the German Reich and numerous other European countries, there was an intensive reform of electoral practices. The aim everywhere was to promote the democratic idea of elections: The vote of the individual was to be protected so that every vote was free and equal. Correspondingly, the reforms everywhere took a similar course: The reformers standardized, for example, polling booths and ballot boxes and harmonized the ballot papers or anonymized them with an envelope – previously it was the parties that had printed the ballot papers and ensured they were easily identifiable. Now, therefore, if the party could no longer recognize itself on the folded ballot paper, if the walls of the polling booths were high enough to protect the voter from the glances of others, and if the ballot boxes were big enough that the papers did not lie cleanly one on top of the other so that it was easy to find out how individuals had voted when they were counted out: Then and only then could the voting be secret. Only then was the vote of the individual and his or her dignity as an autonomous, participating individual protected. The polling stations were supposed to reflect the ideal of the “sober citizen”: clean, calm and sober with electric lighting. And unlike before, the elections no longer had to take place in pubs, taverns and dark drinking holes, but rather, wherever possible, in respectable places of public life, such as court buildings or schools. In the ideal images of polling stations disseminated by reformers primarily, the predomination of the body is striking. Every step within the polling station was determined. In fact, the reformers gave meticulous instructions as to how the person was to walk through the polling station, where they received the ballot paper, where they had to hand it in, and how many minutes they were permitted to spend in the polling booth in between.5

In numerous legislative acts and decrees issued at that time, the body of rules was compiled for standardized electoral practices, and thereby an electoral practice established that remains valid for democracies to this day. Here, many reforms were aimed at discipline. Elections as a wild rite of men with alcohol, fighting and violent racism – as had been the case in the USA in particular in the past – were publicly denounced. Here, once again, the body comes into play: The changed electoral practices ensured that women’s right to vote gradually became conceivable – and not only for certain intellectuals and activists, but for broad swathes of society. In a disciplined electoral process and in a polling station where masculinity was tamed, the presence of women became possible.


Naturally, it is almost impossible to identify clear causalities, but in two regards the reforms forced through wide-reaching cultural change that contributed to the acceptance of emancipative movements. First, many reforms targeted a new regime of the body. Alongside the afore-mentioned fields of education, housing and democratic reforms, the entire area of worker protection, as well as child, maternity and youth protection, was also part of them. Analysis of the regime of the body also clarifies why the battle against alcohol and prostitution became a focus of the reform movements at that time. All of these were topics that typically motivated women, yet now they were writ large on the agendas of parliamentary debates. This points to the second complex that contributed to the profound changes in people lives that meant women’s right to vote became conceivable: the “domestication of politics”. Domestication can indeed be understood in two ways: in reference not only to the impact on politics of domestic themes generally attributed to women, but also to discipline.

Many of the cited reforms were aimed at men, or perhaps even against them. They aimed specifically to domesticize masculinity. Hence, men’s sexuality was addressed and many of their practices of everyday violence exposed as problematic: domestic violence, rape within marriage, prostitution and alcohol. The whole anti-alcohol movement cited the repression of male aggression as one of its arguments. In fact, around 1900 masculinity became precarious and problematic, while physical strength was proving to be ever less relevant. Electricity, machinery, the introduction of the telephone, cars, bicycles – all these inventions transformed everyday life and contributed to a change in the gender order. This repression created space for women: in discursive terms, but also specifically and physically. Both were necessary to open up mental horizons for women’s right to vote, so that it could eventually become a reality.

Hedwig Richter is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at the University of the German Armed Forces Munich. She previously worked as a historian at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research. In 2016, she qualified as a professor of modern and contemporary history at the University of Greifswald with a thesis on “Moderne Wahlen im 19. Jahrhundert. Eine Geschichte der Demokratie in Preußen und den USA” (“Modern Elections in the 19th Century. A History of Democracy in Prussia and the USA”).

The text is an abridged version of “Demokratische Ursprünge. Politische Wahlen in der ersten Hälfte des 19. Jahrhunderts.” (“Democratic Origins. Political Elections in the First Half of the 19th Century.”) In: Detlef Lehnert (ed.), Wahl- und Stimmrechtskonflikte in Europa. Ursprünge – Neugestaltungen – Problemfelder, (Berlin, 2018), pp. 35–68.

  • 1
    Helene Stöcker, Lebenserinnerungen, ed. Reinhold Lütgemeier-Davin & Kerstin Wolff, Cologne et al., 2015, pages 57 and 76.
  • 2
    Diethart Kerbs & Jürgen Reulecke, foreword, in: their (ed.), Handbuch der deutschen Reformbewegungen, Wuppertal, 1998, pp. 7–18, here p. 11; Thomas Nipperdey, Nachdenken über die deutsche Geschichte. Essays, Munich, 1986, p. 218. This is a position that is not shared in women’s research: Iris Schröder, Arbeiten für eine bessere Welt. Frauenbewegung und Sozialreform 1890–1914, Frankfurt, 2001, p. 17 f.
  • 3
    On eugenics, sterilization and health, see: Walter Nugent, Progressivism. A Very Short Introduction, Oxford & New York, 2010, p. 55; for the USA most recently David Oshinsky, “‘Imbeciles’ and ‘Illiberal Reformers’,” in: New York Times, March 14, 2016.
  • 4
    Iris Schröder, Arbeiten für eine bessere Welt. Frauenbewegung und Sozialreform 1890–1914, Frankfurt/Main, 2001; Bettina Hitzer: Im Netz der Liebe. Die protestantische Kirche und ihre Zuwanderer in der Metropole Berlin (1849–1914),[Cologne, et al., 2006; Hans-Peter Ullmann, Der deutsche Steuerstaat. Geschichte der öffentlichen Finanzen, Munich, 2005, pp. 39–42.
  • 5
    Hedwig Richter, “Die Konstruktion des modernen Wählers um 1900. Angleichung der Wahltechniken in Europa und Nordamerika,” in eds. Tim B. Müller & Adam Tooze, Normalität und Fragilität. Demokratie nach dem Ersten Weltkrieg. Hamburg, 2015, pp. 70–90.