In October 1904, a young woman delivered a history-making speech before an audience at the Hotel Prinz Albrecht in Berlin. Her title was “Homosexuality and the Women’s Movement” — “Homosexualität und Frauenbewegung.”
At a time when the German penal code outlawed male homosexuality, and when European society largely condemned gay relationships, Anna Rüling was the first to advocate for social acceptance and legal protection for gay women — making her the first lesbian feminist activist.
Her speech — which can be found here, on the Speaking While Female Speech Bank — was a powerful affirmation of the rights of lesbian women at a time when speaking publicly about the subject was — literally — unheard of.
In her speech, Rüling called for greater cooperation between gay women and men. And she advocated an alliance between gay women and women’s rights activists, including those women who were so fiercely campaigning for the vote. Rüling insisted that the homosexual and the women’s movements should “mutually help one another achieve rights and recognition.”
“Our ultimate goal will be reached when both movements recognize they have many common interests to fight for when necessary,” she said. “Perhaps not today or tomorrow, but in the not too distant future, the women’s movement and [gays] will raise their banners in victory.”
Perhaps even more significant was her insistence that homosexuality was a “natural historical necessity” — “an innate sexual instinct.” This was a time when people commonly thought of homosexuals as debauched, abnormal, and “inverts.”
By advancing the cause of gay women and men, Rüling helped lay the foundation for our contemporary understanding of sexual identity, gay rights, and the need for collaboration among marginalized groups. In many ways she was radically ahead of her time — it would take decades for mainstream feminists to adopt her view of the natural alliance between feminists and lesbians.
Rüling’s speech is one for the history books — but good luck finding it there.
Sadly, it’s a historical footnote, mostly known by historians of gender and sexuality. But Rüling deserves to be recognized and celebrated as a woman who stepped up, honestly and courageously, and used her voice to advocate for change.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of Rüling’s speech was the matter-of-fact way she introduced herself as a gay person.
“In middle-class circles,” she told the audience, “they believe, oddly enough, that among them homosexuality has no place . . . I would like to give as an example that my father, when by chance he happened to speak about homosexuality, explained with conviction, ‘nothing of the sort can happen in my family.’ The facts prove the opposite.”
“The facts” — as she presented them — were her existence and identity as a lesbian.
Rüling deserves to be celebrated as a woman who stepped up, honestly and courageously, and used her voice to advocate for change.
Anna Sprüngli was her given name. Raised in a conventional, middle-class family in Hamburg, she studied at a school for young ladies, where she learned piano and became an accomplished violinist.
But her calling was journalism. At 17, she started working for the Hamburger Fremdenblatt newspaper. Despite intense pressure from her family to marry, she began a relationship with a woman and moved to Berlin. There she worked for a variety of newspapers, including the anarchist publication The Struggle: Journal for Common Sense (Der Kampf: Zeitschrift für gesunden Menschenverstand).
Her views were known to Berlin’s homosexual community, and she was invited to speak at the annual general assembly of the Scientific-humanitarian Committee (Wissenschaftlich-humanitären Komitee, or WhK).
Founded just seven years earlier by physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, the WhK advocated for legal protection and social acceptance for homosexual, bisexual and transgender men and women. Today it’s recognized as the world’s first LGBT rights organization.
Berlin at the turn of the century had a thriving gay culture, but to the wider world, homosexual love was considered an illness, an illegal act, and a social threat. In England, Oscar Wilde had just been convicted of “gross indecency” and was imprisoned from 1895-1897.
Most people were far more aware of homosexuality in men than in women — Paragraph 175 of the German penal code criminalized same-sex sexuality between men only.
After delivering the speech in early October, Rüling was invited to deliver it again a few weeks later for another group, the League for Human Rights (Bund für Menschenrechte), also in Berlin. The speech was later published under the title, “What Interest Does the Women’s Movement Have in the Homosexual Question?”
Some aspects of Rüling’s speech seem quaint and old fashioned today. For example, when referring to single-sex love, Rüling frequently uses the term “uranism” — a word coined by lawyer, author, and gay rights activist Karl Heinrichs Ulrichs.
Also, like many of her contemporaries, Rüling believed homosexuals were a third gender, distinct from males and females. Uranian women were “more objective, more energetic and goal oriented than the feminine woman,” Rüling said. “She thinks and feels like a man.”
At one point, Rüling refers to the potential offspring of a heterosexual-homosexual pairing as “. . . weak-minded, idiotic, epileptic, chest-diseased degenerates of all sorts. . . ” — descriptions we now find offensive. Rüling used them in the context of refuting the notion that all women, especially gay women, must get married and have children. To her that made no sense — she saw marriage as an unhealthy option for a lesbian.
Yet in every other way, Rüling’s ideas are thoroughly modern.
She starts off congratulating the organization for its support of women’s rights and its inclusion of lesbians in the fight for equal rights. But, she notes, homosexual women are too often considered an afterthought to gay male liberation.
She criticizes the women’s movement for failing to address the concerns of homosexual women, especially given that many of its prominent members are themselves lesbian.
Later in the speech, she points out the futility of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation by force — and the inability of parents to know the sexual orientation of their children. She protests the stigmas and stereotypes that dictate which jobs are acceptable, and which unacceptable, for both men and women.
In modern times gay rights advocates and feminists have raised and debated all these points.
Almost nothing was known about Rüling’s personal life until 2003, when sociologist Christiane Leidinger published an article in which she made the link between the speaker Anna Rüling, the journalist Theodora Anna Sprüngli, and the author Theo Sprüngli — confirming they were all one and the same.
As Leidinger explains:
“Anna or Th. Rüling refers to Theo (or also Theodora) Anna Sprüngli, who then further scrambled her name to create several combinations: Anna Th. Sprüngli, Theo A. Sprüngli, and so forth. Although I have not conclusively determined her full birth name, “Anna” and “Sprüngli” are correct. The pseudonym can be read as an anagram of Sprüngli with the “Sp” removed; the result is “Rüling.”
Theodor Rüling was the author of three novellas published in 1906 under the title Which Among You is Without Sin … Books from the Dark Side (Welcher unter Euch Ohne Sünde ist . . . Bücher von der Schattenseite). Two of the stories are about gay men and three about lesbians — one of them features an explicit lesbian happy ending, a novelty in those days.
For the rest of her life, Rüling worked as a freelance journalist, living mostly in Düsseldorf and writing about music and culture.
Leidinger notes yet another controversial aspect to Rüling’s story: her powerful identification with the Germany state. She was a lifelong nationalist and a patriot during the First World War. When the Nazis came to power, she did not join the National Socialist Party. But on November 27, 1933, in a written request for admission to the Reich Association of German Authors (Reichsverband Deutscher Schriftsteller), she emphasized her loyalty to all things German, ending her letter:
“I have always . . . supported the rights of German art and German artists . . . I have always fought in the front lines for German art. With German greetings and Heil Hitler, Theo Anna Sprüngli”
In the application, Rüling avoided mentioning her earlier activities as a political lesbian or a women’s rights advocate.
Rüling continued to be active in journalism until she died of a heart attack in 1953 at the age of 73, making her one of the oldest female journalists in the Federal Republic of Germany.
In her Berlin speech 115 years ago this autumn, Rüling failed to persuade women’s rights campaigners to work for lesbian rights. Nor did she win over many homosexual women, who could not see the rationale for linking their cause with women’s rights. The alliance between them was more than half a century in the future.
Still, her speech marked a significant historical advance. As Leidinger notes, Rüling “broke the silence on female homosexuality.”
Her candor about her sexual identity at a time when few women could admit that — in public no less — was remarkable. Her vision of a more humane world in which all are accepted, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation, was bold and courageous.
She deserves our appreciation for her pioneering advocacy on behalf of gay rights, women’s rights, and human rights.
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