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Women’s and Gender History in the Digital Age: The “Helene-Lange-Archiv” and its Potential for Historical Research and Education

Editorial note: Hannah Voß has finished her undergraduate degree in History and English and American Studies at the University of Münster and is currently in the last semester of completing her master’s degree in history. Her bachelor’s thesis focused on the role of “New German Dance” in the period of National Socialism in Germany. Her current research interests include the history of National Socialism and the Holocaust as well as the history of social movements, Gender, and Queer History. In her master’s thesis, Hannah will analyze the women’s and lesbian movement in Germany in the 1970s and 1980s. She has also been a part of the curating team of the 2022 historic exhibition “Queer Münster. Eine andere Geschichte der Stadt / A Different History of the City.”

Born in 1848, Helene Lange became one of the most important representatives of the moderate wing of the German women’s movement in the late 19th and early 20th century. She immersed herself in the fight for women’s rights and education and became known as the author of the Yellow Brochure (1887), in which she sharply criticized the state of girls’ education. In 1890, she founded the General German Association of Women Teachers (ADLV). As a teacher, women’s rights activist, and politician, she made a decisive contribution to enabling German women from the middle classes to study and to opening up career opportunities for them.

Today, the Helene-Lange-Archiv (HLA), which is part of the Landesarchiv Berlin (Berlin State Archives), bears her name. In addition to parts of Helene Lange’s written legacy, the archive brings together the papers of a number of associations and societies advocating on behalf of women’s education, training, and careers.  Large parts of the HLA have been digitized and are integrated into the Digital German Women’s Archive (DDF). The HLA focuses on the moderate wing of the middle-class women’s movement of the late 19th and the early 20th century as well as on two “radical” women’s associations of the movement. Most of the archive’s collections are now openly accessible online.

For the most part a digital archive, the HLA offers new possibilities for research on women’s and gender history and for public engagement with this history. Generally, having online access to sources means that researchers no longer need to travel inside or outside the country to review archival collections, which helps with facilitating historical research. Often, digitized sources are also searchable, either as full texts or based on their metadata. Research, which could take hours of flipping pages, can become a matter of seconds. The HLA is already pre-arranged online and organized by topic with the level of detail varying depending on the size of the collection. For example, anyone wishing to research Helene Lange’s archival legacy can retrieve digitized material under titles such as “Letters by and to Helene Lange”, “Writings by Helene Lange (Brochures, Journal Articles, Typescripts)”, “Journal Articles on the Women’s Movement, the Reform of Girls’ Secondary Schools and the Admission of Women to University Studies”, and more.[1]

However, online access to digitized material is not only about making the lives of established professional historians easier. It also gives those researchers access to sources who don’t have a strong institutional and financial support system. This is especially relevant for women’s and gender historians. In Germany, relevant gender history research is frequently carried out by doctoral and postdoctoral researchers who often work under precarious employment conditions.

The development of the HLA and the DDF also needs to be situated in the context of the development and institutionalization of women’s and gender history at universities in the United States, Western Europe, as well as other countries. In the 1960s in the USA and 1970s in many European countries, including Germany, women’s history emerged as its own field in the time of new social movements, especially the women’s movement. Building on work by women’s history pioneers, such as Mary Ritter Beard, Gerda Lerner created the first graduate program in women’s history in the US at Sarah Lawrence College in 1972. From the 1980s onwards, women’s and gender history gained acceptance and became more widespread at history faculties in the United States.[2] In Germany, the institutionalization of women’s and gender history took longer than in the US. In 1986, Annette Kuhn held the first chair in “Didactics of History, Medieval and Modern History, and Women’s History” in Bonn. In the 1990s, there were only three chairs at West German universities specializing in women’s or gender history. Still today, as women’s and gender history have become established fields of study at many German universities, there is still work to do. The field needs adequate funding for new research programs and could be more firmly anchored at universities.

From the beginning, women’s and gender historians aimed to discover new sources while reading existing sources through a different lens in order to counter the inherent male bias with which many sources had been interpreted before. The vast collection of sources on women’s associations and their politics, discussions, and individual members within the HLA makes this undertaking easier. Based on these collections, researchers can analyze a range of questions, including how women organized themselves during the Kaiserreich (German Empire) and the newly established Weimar Republic; how they formed different interest groups on local and state levels, how these groups interacted with each other and transformed in the wake of the Nazi movement and the NSDAP’s rise to power.

Online archives like the HLA also open up new possibilities for transnational research and comparative studies. What did women’s engagement look like under different circumstances in different countries in the early 20th century? How did women’s interest groups evolve in a newly established democracy? Questions like these can rarely be investigated based on source material from one’s own country of residence alone. And while driving or even flying to another country for archival visits might be possible for some researchers, it is easier (and cheaper) to visit an archive in a foreign country from the comfort of one’s own workplace. This can, in turn, spark the interests of more historians in transnational or comparative projects on women and gender, which makes the field even more diverse and thought-provoking.

Nevertheless, the HLA and other archives alike do not only benefit the academic historical profession. They are a great, accessible resource for teachers and other educators trying to incorporate women’s and gender history into common – often male-centered – historical narratives found in textbooks and curriculums. In Cornelsen’s Forum Geschichte for German high school students in North Rhine Westphalia, for example, there are 40 pages on the Weimar Republic, out of which two focus specifically on women’s rights.[3] In Westermann’s Zeiten und Menschen, there are none.[4] The HLA’s collection on the ADLV could, for example, provide first-hand accounts of women’s engagement in associations and politics on an individual as well as structural level in the Weimar Republic which can be connected to a variety of topics concerning the development of the first democratic German state.

Making archival material on women’s and gender history accessible online thus enables many small-scale developments: Historical research on the topic becomes more inclusive within and outside of the profession; historians can broaden the horizon of their research topics; women’s and gender history may receive more recognition in textbooks and education in general. What might appear as small-scale then has an impact on the bigger picture. In times where the legitimacy of women’s and gender history is still being questioned by some in- and outside of university campuses, archives like the HLA enable researchers and educators to anchor the field more equally in the historical canon. This acknowledges that women have always played a role in history no matter the time, place, or situation and that looking at the role of gender as a fundamental organizational category of society can give us new insights about past and present.  

1 It would be desirable for the digitized collections of the HLA to be searchable in full text in the future.

2 In 1986, Joan W. Scott published her essay “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis”, now often considered a “classic”.

3 Forum Geschichte 3: Nordrhein-Westfalen Gymnasium G9. Berlin: Cornelsen, 2021, pp. 130-132.

4 Bethlehem, Siegfried et al. (eds.). Zeiten und Menschen: Geschichte: Qualifikationsphase Oberstufe Nordrhein-Westfalen. Braunschweig: Westermann, 2015.

Image References

1) Helene-Lange-Archiv. Verschiedenes Material über Helene Lange, in: B Rep. 235-11 – Nachlass Helene Lange. D=BRep235116MFNr36003601VerschiedenesMathla#?#tree-BRep235116MFNr36003601VerschiedenesMathla &showDigitalObject=&c=&m=&s=&cv=&xywh=&r=.

2) Helene-Lange-Archiv. Glückwünsche, Würdigungen, Programme und Ansprachen von Feiern zu Helene Lange’s 80. Geburtstag (9. April 1928), in: B Rep. 235-11 – Nachlass Helene Lange 1928.

3) Lange, Helene. “Steht die Frauenbewegung am Ziel oder am Anfang?” Die Frau. Sonderabdruck (1921): 1-14. Helene-Lange-Archiv. Schriften von Helene Lange (Broschüren, Zeitschriftenaufsätze, Typoskripte), in: B Rep. 235-11 – Nachlass Helene Lange. BRep235113MFNr35973599SchriftenvonHelehla/HierarchyTree?recordID=BRep235113MFNr35973599SchriftenvonHelehla#?#tree-BRep235113MFNr35973599SchriftenvonHelehla&showDigitalObject=&c=&m=&s=&cv=&xywh=&r =.

4) Beckmann, Emmy. “Abbau und weibliche Beamte.“ Deutsche Lehrerinnenzeitung: Organ des Allgemeinen Deutschen Lehrerinnenvereins 41, no. 17 (15 September 1924): 129-130. Helene-Lange-Archiv. Zeitschriftenartikel u.a. zu den Volksschulen, zum Personalabbau und Mädchenschulwesen, in: B Rep. 235-03 Allgemeiner Deutscher Lehrerinnen-Verein (ADLV) 1924–1925. Zeitschriftenarthla/HierarchyTree?recordID=BRep2350341Zeitschriftenarthla#?#tree-BRep2350341Zeitschriftenart hla&showDigitalObject=&c=&m=&s=&cv=&xywh=&r=.

5) Beckmann, Emmy. “Kampf gegen die Doppelverdiener und der Abbau der verheirateten Lehrerin.“ Allgemeiner Deutscher Lehrerinnenverein (A.D.L.V.). Helene-Lange-Archiv. Schriftwechsel mit weiblichen Abgeordneten und Eingaben, in: B Rep. 235-03 Allgemeiner Deutscher Lehrerinnen-Verein (ADLV) 1922-1933.


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