Wanted: A Mother of Cultural Studies

As a cultural anthropologist with a historical perspective, I really wonder: where are all the women in the history of our critical, self-reflective discipline?

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes


In the meetings of our Transformations network, I often feel like an Englishwoman in New York: while the others tell stories about meeting people and talking to them, about interesting observations, while they leave their desks behind and explore the world outside, I’m stuck with old journals and dusty books, that cause allergies (true story). I’m the only one doing a historical research, but… I love it!

Despite all the differences, there are many similarities, caused by the perspective of cultural anthropology. For example, both approaches – contemporary and historical – look at people often ignored by politics, society, media – or even their own disciplinary history.

Where have all the women gone?

If you studied sociology (or even if you didn’t) you may have heard about August Comte and Karl Marx, but do you know Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) and Flora Tristan (1803-1844)? If you studied Folklore/European Ethnology in German speaking countries you may have heard of Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl, but do you know Ottilie Assing (1819-1884)? Harriet Martineau could be seen as one of the first female sociologists. She was an activist against slavery and for women rights and she wrote an introduction on sociological methodology in her book “How to Observe Morals and Manners” in 1838. Later on, August Comte coined the term sociology. He is well known as co-founder of sociology. Flora Tristan wrote about the misery of the working class in London in 1840, before Karl Marx published “The Capital” in 1867. Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl ranks as founder of the academic folklore (1857) but, before that, there where men – and women – who wrote about society and folk whom we don’t even remember. Like Ottilie Assing.

The disciplinary history is always a construction of further generations. The patriarchal structures within the university as part of a patriarchal society did not allow women to be part of it for a long time – never mind recognising them to be the founders of a discipline. Can you come up with a woman, if you think about history of sciences and studies? Can you come up with a mother of any scholarship? No? It is time to change that!

Meet Ottilie Assing

Ottilie Assing was a German writer and political activist for women’s rights and abolitionism in the US. She was born in 1819 in Hamburg in Germany. Like her mother and her younger sister, Ottilie became a writer. Her father was a doctor – the only information I could find about him so far. I found it impressive, that she left Europe in 1852 to live in the US, that this was even possible in mid-19th-century, especially for a single woman – and that she moved back to Europe later. In the US she was not just an activist, but also a correspondent for the German journal “Morgenblatt für gebildete Leser” (“morningpaper for educated readers”). For the journal, she described everyday life in the USA for German readers. In 1856, for example, she wrote about the American type: The American, so she claimed, is mostly tall and thin, with a regularly cut face, with big, but stabbing eyes, small lips, in which you can see energy and acumen, but also sobriety. Most of them have brown hair, are pale and thin – compared to the powerful shape and the vivid faces of Germans.

The question is not whether this information was true or not. The point is Ottilie Assing rather produced sociographic knowledge about the American society, which was read in Germany, and shaped the Germans’ view on society – not just on the American society, but as she compared it with the Germans, also their own society. Moreover, she did not just produce knowledge about society, but she produced society as such.

A mother of cultural studies?

Women are often forgotten, nowadays as well as historically. As social and cultural anthropologists, it is one of our missions to uncover marginalised people. As a cultural anthropologist with historical perspective, I have the chance to uncover women, whose work and knowledge production was neglected for many years. We don’t have to have a mother of cultural studies, but if we are looking for a founder, why not include women?


The reason why we could know Ottilie Assing today, the reason why she had the opportunity to write and publish, depends also on her privileges as a middleclass, white woman. But that is another story (not less important) and shall be told another time.




Collage by Alexandra Rabensteiner

(cutouts by digipress: Gesellschaftsleben in Newyork [Social life in New York]; Sitten und Gebräuche [Customs and traditions]; Newyork (März) (Fortsetzung) Die Amerikanerinnen. – Die Irländer. – Die F[…]. – Die Chinesen [New York (March) (continuation) The American. – The Irish. – Person of Color [I chose not to use the offensive term used by Assing and therefore made it unrecognizable]. – The Chinese]; Strenger Winter. – Der amerikanische Typus. [Hard winter. – The american Type]; Background by cocoparisienne@pixabay.com; Portrait from commons.wikimedia.org)


Did you enjoy reading this? Share it with your social network.