What religion was ahead of its time

Ahead of your time

From Alexia Weiss

Therese Schlesinger was among the first eight women to win a seat in parliament in 1919. Before that, she had long campaigned for women's suffrage and education for women and girls. About a woman who grew up well-to-do in a liberal Jewish family and who later stood at the side of female workers. One whose life was marked by strokes of fate, but who did not let her fighting spirit be deterred.

“There are still a lot of men and women who think that it is something inherent in nature that women have to do all the housework. But it is not given by nature, you can convince yourself of that very easily. All the jobs that are considered to be natural jobs for women can become jobs for men once they are paid for. There are male cooks, there are male boot cleaners, window cleaners, home cleaners, hairdressers, and so on. Any of these jobs, which are said to be natural for women, are done very well by men when they are paid for it. However, they do not do it without payment. "

If you replace the professions mentioned here by Therese Schlesinger with caregivers, kindergarten teachers or cleaning staff, she mentioned a hundred years ago, which is still partly true today. Even these days, supply work is being done by many women - in addition to gainful employment - free of charge, while men are making a career out of it. The Social Democrat was in some cases way ahead of her time with her findings: however, she was still able to experience some things for herself. For many years she had fought for women's suffrage, active and passive. In 1919 she was allowed to move into parliament together with seven other female MPs (see box).

Some of her motivation to get involved in politics came from the frustration of inhibitions that she herself was exposed to. While her brothers could complete a higher education, for them it was over after the middle school. She should therefore campaign for education for women throughout her life. In addition, she recognized that workers could only emancipate themselves and fight for their rights through education.

But she also drew part of her motivation from growing up in a liberal Jewish family, as Birgit Jaindl outlines in her diploma thesis (University of Vienna) on Schlesinger. The father, Albert Eckstein, a chemist and inventor, ran the first parchment factory in Europe. He tried to improve the generally prevailing bad work situation of the immigrant workers in his company. He relied on a reduction in working hours and health insurance for employees.

But Schlesinger was not only shaped by the social democratic attitude of his father. Born in Vienna in 1863 and her siblings grew up together with the children of the workers - a good relationship between the operating family and the employees was maintained in the company. “This familiarity encouraged the children of Amalie and Albert Eckstein to show a great deal of sympathy for the lot of the workers and a deep understanding of their situation. The desire to collaborate to improve her living conditions became a life's work, especially for Therese, ”says Jaindl.

Therese Eckstein married the bank clerk Victor Schlesinger in 1888. Daughter Anna was born in 1890. For the next two and a half years, however, the mother struggled with a serious illness: she was infected with puerperal fever and rot and could only move around in a wheelchair or on crutches. Her husband contracted tuberculosis again - and did not survive. So she raised Anna, who was also very sickly (she had weak lungs), on her own. However, the daughter committed suicide in 1920 as an adult.

However, all of these tragedies also contributed to the fact that she began to become politically active. Biographer Jaindl stated that Schlesinger only found out about an organized workers' party during her long hospital stay after the birth of her daughter. As a result, she became interested in the labor movement. Here it was less her political awareness than her personal regret that she could not have studied at a university. At first she didn't really know how to get involved in the labor movement. She sensed what one would later hold against her as a member of the National Council - her bourgeois background seemed to stand in her way.

However, through her friend Marie Lang, she finally joined the General Austrian Women's Association. There she learned about the reality of the workers' lives and politically approached socialism. She wanted to fight for their rights side by side with ordinary women. She therefore left the bourgeois women's association and joined the social democratic party in 1897. In 1898 she took an active part in the bookbinder's strike. She held courses, published in the “Arbeiterzeitung” and immersed herself in trade union work. She formulated the improvement of the living situation of the workforce and the education of girls and women as goals. “She recognized that only adequate education and the associated enlightenment could lead the proletariat out of bondage. Schlesinger repeatedly advocated this political awareness-raising in her writings and features, ”said Jaindl.

Against women fighters

As early as 1900 she submitted a motion to introduce women's suffrage at the party congress of the Social Democratic Party in Graz. It was rejected because there was resistance against women fighters like Schlesinger within the Social Democrats as well. One year later she co-founded the Association of Social Democratic Women and Girls - in 1906 the application for women's suffrage was finally accepted. During the First World War, she worked for peace together with Viktor Adler and Otto Bauer. Even as a parliamentarian, she wrote the women's policy parts of the Linz party program from 1926. She was a member of the National Council until 1923, after which she was a member of the Federal Council until 1930. In 1933, now at the age of seventy, she withdrew into private life. In 1939 she had to emigrate to France, where she died in 1940.

In Vienna's Josefstadt district today, Schlesingerplatz is a reminder of the combative social democrat. Long named after the Christian-social politician Josef Schlesinger (1831–1901), who as a supporter of Karl Lueger was also known for his own anti-Semitism, the square was dedicated to Therese Schlesinger in February 2006 under what was then a green district director and thus commemorates her work for the betterment of girls and women.

According to the parliamentary website, her most important demands included equal wages for equal work, equal political rights for women and men, a reduction in working hours for mothers, state maternity insurance, general child insurance and the impunity of abortion. She campaigned against corporal punishment and for outpatient care for the mentally ill. She also came up with the idea of ​​setting up central kitchens and laundries in the workers' homes. It was her hope that women would have more time for family relationships and further training.

Until the end, it was not easy for her in her own party either. In the volume published by Saskia Stachowitsch and Eva Kreisky, “Jewish Identities and Anti-Semitic Politics in the Austrian Parliament 1861–1933”, it says about Schlesinger: “Therese Schlesinger combined various characteristics that offered a target - but not only for political opponents, but also for resentment from within their own ranks. As a woman who fought for equality, she had to fight resistance from comrades, including in the trade union, and as a bourgeois woman, social democratic comrades initially met her with skepticism. The fact that Schlesinger was Jewish was also used by social democratic proponents such as the German nationalist Engelbert Pernerstorfer to drive wedges into the party with anti-Semitic slogans. When Schlesinger belonged to the Karl Marx association, a pacifist inner-party left opposition under Friedrich Adler, during the First World War, Pernerstorfer complained: 'This little bunch consists not only of academics, but also exclusively of Jews'; . "

According to Stachowitsch and Kreisky, there were a total of 14 Jewish MPs in the First Republic, including twelve Social Democrats, one Christian Social (Burjan, who came from a Jewish family but converted to Catholicism, is counted here) and a Zionist. "This group had a decisive influence on the politics of the First Republic and shaped it nationally and regionally in parliament through legislative initiatives in the areas of electoral law expansion, worker and employee protection, social security, tenant protection, freedom of the press and women's policy."

Eight pioneers with very different backgrounds

In 1919 eight women entered the Austrian parliament for the first time. The majority of them were social democratic. Only Hildegard Burjan (1883–1933) belonged to the Christian Socialists. Like Therese Schlesinger (1863-1940) she came from a liberal Jewish family - but converted to Catholicism in 1909. Burjan was only a brief member of the House and was best known for the founding of the religious sister community Caritas Socialis. In 2012 she was beatified in St. Stephen's Cathedral.

In addition to Schlesinger, Anna Boschek, Emmy Freundlich, Adelheid Popp, Gabriele Proft, Amalie Seidel and Marie Tusch also belonged to the Social Democratic parliamentary group. Anna Boschek (1874–1957) had to drop out of school early to contribute to the family income and worked in the chemical and textile industries. The later pioneer of the trade union movement was mainly involved in social and labor issues. According to the parliamentary website, the law on the eight-hour day bore her signature, as did drafts on work rest, the night work ban for women or the domestic maids law.

Emmy Freundlich (1878–1948) came from a wealthy Bohemian family and only came into contact with politics and social democratic ideas through her husband, Leo Freundlich. She divorced him, but continued to be involved in the labor movement and the cooperative movement. In the National Council she spoke primarily on economic issues, but also on nutrition and consumer issues. In 1939 she fled to England with her two daughters (whose father was Jewish), and in 1947 she moved to New York.

Adelheid Popp (1869–1939) came from a weaving family and was the youngest of 15 children. At the age of eight she had to earn money as a homeworker, from the age of ten her parents stopped enrolling her in school. But she loved reading and educated herself. She was the first woman to be employed by a party and, together with Schlesinger, founded the Association of Social Democratic Women and Girls. Her political demands included a waiting period for mothers, the establishment of maternity homes and equality for women in marriage and work.

Gabriele Proft (1879–1971) came from Moravia and was the daughter of a shoemaker. At the age of 17 she came to Vienna, where she joined the Apollo educational association and was involved in the social democratic women's movement and the trade union. She belonged to the left wing of the party and advocated a policy of peace. She was the only one of the first women in parliament to be a member of the National Council during the Second Republic - she was arrested by the Dollfuss regime in 1934 and was interned in a concentration camp during the Nazi era. After 1945 she became chairwoman of the SPÖ women and deputy chairwoman of the SPÖ.

Amalie Seidel (1876–1952) came from a working class family. At 17, she enforced May 1 as a day off at her office - and was dismissed for it the next day. Then she organized a women's strike, and Viktor Adler noticed her. She was involved in women's education and was a co-founder of a consumer cooperative.

Maria Tusch (1868–1939) was born to an unmarried maid in Klagenfurt. She too had to work early - from the age of twelve she was in the k. u. k. Tobacco factory in Klagenfurt works as a worker. There she became a shop steward, later a works councilor and finally head of the Provincial Women’s Committee of the Carinthian Social Democrats. As a member of parliament, she campaigned primarily for women's rights, for the impunity of abortions and for war invalids in the First World War. She often ended her lectures with the words “Women, you have to become self-confident!”.

Photo Alexia Weiss © Stanislav Jenis