Women in the Revolution of 1848/49

Daniel Morat | 27 March 2024

The 27th of March 2024 marks the 175th anniversary of the adoption of the first pan-German constitution. What would have happened if Prussian King Wilhelm IV had accepted the imperial crown that was offered to him by the German National Assembly? A section of the exhibition “Roads not Taken” is dedicated to this question. Displayed there, among other things, is an engraving by Paul Bürde (Ill. 1) that shows the parliament of 1848 in session in the Frankfurt Paulskirche, on which altogether 81 delegates are portrayed. Alongside the delegates, several women can be seen in the public galleries. In this blog Prof. Dr Daniel Morat, curator at the Deutsches Historisches Museum for the 19th century in preparation of the new Permanent Exhibition, is occupied with the role of women at the time of the Revolution of 1848/49.

What would have happened if the women in 1848 had not been satisfied with sitting in the visitors’ galleries but instead could have been elected to the Frankfurt Parliament? The question is put the wrong way, because in the 1840s the idea of a passive right to vote for women was a far cry from the imagination of most of the men, and even many women. Nevertheless, the general politicisation of society in the so-called Vormärz – the years between the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and the March Revolution of 1848 – had also been embraced by many women. Although the notion of bourgeois society (formulated by men) provided for a distinct separation between the private sphere of women and the public sphere of men, this separation had, in fact, been pried open in certain areas. Bourgeois women, for example, could participate in the political journalism of the Vormärz and organise political discussions in the semi-public salons. Already before 1848, women had fought to gain access to the visitor galleries in several regional parliaments. This made the access of female spectators to the Paulskirche less controversial. Women were, in fact, perceived there as part of the emerging nation, even though its political representation was entirely in the hands of men. In the so-called ladies gallery women functioned as “participating observers” (Alexa Geisthövel). They informed friends and family by letter about the negotiations and recorded their observations in parliamentary diaries. A case in point is the Frankfurt publicist Clotilde Koch-Gontard, who also maintained an important salon frequented by many delegates and thus promoted the political communication between parliament and urban society.

Ill. 1: The members of the Frankfurt National Assembly, Paul Bürde, 1848 (after) © DHM

Whereas the activity of women in the parliaments and political clubs (the early form of the present political parties) remained limited to observing and commenting from the gallery (Ill. 2), they could fight alongside men on the barricades. Many of the revolutionary women whose names are still known have inscribed themselves in the collective memory through their participation in the armed conflicts.

Ill. 2: Meeting of the Democratic Club in the clubhouse at Leipziger Strasse 48 in Berlin, Robert Kretschmer, Berlin 1848 © DHM

This is the case with Emma Herwegh and Amalie Struve in Baden, and with Lucie Lenz, who took part in the storming of the Zeughaus here in Berlin in June 1848. And with Henriette Zobel, who was found guilty in Frankfurt of having stabbed Prussian General Hans von Auerswald to death with her umbrella during a fight on the barricade. The umbrella is today on display in the Frankfurt Historical Museum. The maidservant Pauline Wunderlich achieved lamentable notoriety when she was sentenced in a sensational trial to life imprisonment for her participation in the May Uprising of 1849 in Dresden. It cannot be verified for sure whether she is the woman who was immortalised on the lower right in this illustrated newspaper from Dresden (Ill. 3). Nonetheless, the picture of the barricade woman wields a certain fascination, precisely because it contradicts the established gender attributions of the 19th century.

Ill. 3: Dresden’s first days of May, 1849, Bilderzeitung, Ludwig Schmidt, Dresden 1849 © DHM

The women on the barricades were, however, an exception. Research has repeatedly pointed out that parliaments and barricades were primarily the prerogative of men and when focusing on these areas of the Revolution of 1848/49 the role of women has been systematically left out or relegated to the back burner. If, however, the more general reform efforts of the time, such as the fields of teaching and education, are taken into account, it becomes evident that there were a great many politically engaged women who felt entitled to the revolutionary claim of the promise of freedom for themselves and their fellow womenfolk. Among the best known of them was Louise Otto (Otto-Peters from 1858 on). A publicist from Meissen, she had already been in close contact with the democratic politician and publicist Robert Blum before 1848 (Ill. 4), in whose newspaper “Sächsische Vaterlandsblätter” she had observed in 1843: “The participation of women in the interests of the state is not only a right, but an obligation.” [1] In 1848/49 she advocated in a number of ways for an improvement of the position of women, particularly in the rights to education and gainful employment.

Ill 4: In November 1847, Robert Blum sent a copy of the Staatszeitung to Louise Otto with a personal greeting. Note from Robert Blum to Louise Otto, 01.11.1847 © DHM

In the course of the Revolution of 1848/49 a growing number of women came to the conclusion that the political promise of freedom is inadequately realised if it benefits only men, because then one half of the human species, as Louise Otto put it, is left in servitude. The disappointment in the fact that there were only very few men who also recognised this situation led Louise Otto and others to take the matter into their own hands and found their own associations and publish their own magazines. Even though many of these gains did not survive or were forbidden after the Revolution in 1849 and even though it wasn’t until 1865 that the first General German Women’s Association was founded, the actual beginning of the organised women’s movement in Germany can be traced back to the Revolution of 1848/49.


Birgit Bublis-Godau/Kerstin Wolff (eds.), „Wohlauf denn, meine Schwestern“! Die 1848/49er Revolution und ihre Geschlechterverhältnisse (Ariadne. Forum für Frauen- und Geschlechtergeschichte, Bd. 79), Kassel 2023.

Alexa Geisthövel, Teilnehmende Beobachtung. Briefe von der Damengalerie der Paulskirche 1848, in: Jürgen Herres/Manfred Neuhaus (eds.), Politische Netzwerke durch Briefkommunikation. Briefkultur der politischen Oppositionsbewegungen und frühen Arbeiterbewegungen im 19. Jahrhundert, Berlin 2002, pp. 303-333.

Stadt Frankfurt – Frauenreferat (ed.), Revolutionär:innen. Ausstellungskatalog, Frankfurt am Main 2023.

Henning Türk, „Ich gehe täglich in die Sitzungen und kann die Politik nicht lassen“. Frauen als Parlamentszuschauerinnen und ihre Wahrnehmung in der politischen Öffentlichkeit der Märzrevolution 1848/49, in: Geschichte und Gesellschaft 43 (2017) 4, pp. 497-525.


[1] Cit. in. https://www.dhm.de/lemo/biografie/louise-peters-otto [14.3.2023].

Prof. Dr Daniel Morat

Prof. Dr Daniel Morat is a research associate in the DHM Collections Department in the team preparing the new Permanent Exhibition. He also teaches modern and recent history at the Free University Berlin.