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“Why should a woman not be allowed to pronounce the word I?”

Theodor Gottlieb von Hippel (1741-1796) was a German author and poet at the core of Enlightenment society. His writings, especially regarding the status of women, are still remarkably relevant today. His most famous work was his treatise on marriage, Über die Ehe, published in 1774, in which he stated that marriage should be separated from religion and men and women should be treated equally within the institution. Furthermore, in another of his famous works, Über die bürgerliche Verbesserung der Weiber (Civil Emancipation of Women, 1793) Hippel presented the then controversial argument that women should be granted the same rights as men because of their sameness as rational creatures. Hippel therefore deviated from the dominant contemporary narrative of separate spheres that regarded women as inherently more domestic beings than men and, in turn, excluded them from the public realms of politics and higher education. Hippel’s work is often studied alongside that of famous British writer Mary Wollstonecraft, another persistent advocate of women’s rights.

Hippel was born in January 1741 in the East Prussian town of Gerdauen. His father was a school principle and had noble heritage. Both Hippel’s parents were very religious and so both he and his brother entered the Christian ministry. Hippel began his studies of theology at the University of Königsberg in 1756. However, he never finished his studies. Instead, he agreed to accompany a Russian lieutenant on a mission trip to Russia, an example of his fervent religious conviction and dedication. He found this trip incredibly illuminating as it introduced him to not only men of learning but also of great wealth . He returned to Prussia a changed man and was unable to apply himself to his studies. He therefore became the tutor of a wealthy family in Königsberg.

Hippel subsequently fell in love with the daughter of his employer. However, the difference in their social status meant he had to leave her and his job. Vowing to one day become her social equal, he returned to university to study law. After graduating in 1765 he started working at the Königsberg court of justice. He worked his way up in government, specializing in criminal justice. At age thirty-nine, he was appointed mayor of Königsberg, the largest and most important city in East Prussia.

Hippel’s first work, Rhapsodie, was published in 1763. It was a poem expressing his feelings about his failed love affair with his employer’s daughter. This was followed by comedies, texts on Freemasonry and a selection of Christian hymns. Later in his career he also published a selection of novels that are known for their intimidating length and wit.

His most famous text, however, was anonymously published in 1774, entitled Über die Ehe (On Marriage). This text advocated for equal rights and equal treatment of women in marriage. Due not only to its wisdom but also its humor, it was very successful and three more editions were published, each one calling for increasingly fairer treatment of women in marriage. It was the most liberal text on this topic of its day—many of its arguments can still be applied today. Surprisingly, given Hippel’s religious convictions, it separated the institution of marriage from religion, arguing that religion obscured the true human meaning of marriage. While this was in keeping with the Enlightenment movement of increased secularization, it was still a radical statement for the time. Hippel conceptualized marriage as a more fundamental emotional union between two people.

It should be noted that advocating for equality between the sexes emerged in the third and fourth editions of this text (1792, 1793). Hippel’s change in attitudes has been attributed to multiple factors. Firstly, his work as a lawyer exposed him to cases of injustice on a regular basis. Secondly, the emergence of more literature regarding the position of women in society, most notably from Jean Jacques Rousseau, stimulated his thoughts regarding this matter. Finally, the French Revolution failed to meet the hopes of liberty and equality for women as well as men, despite its lofty rhetoric. Hippel subsequently concluded that marriage could only be perfected once equality between the sexes was achieved.

His next foray into addressing social injustice came in 1792 with the publication of Über die bürgerliche Verbesserung der Weiber (On Improving the Status of Women). Often compared to the famous work of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), A Vindication of the Rights of Women, published the same year, both texts are cited as some of the first crucial writings on feminism. While Wollstonecraft addresses women in her writing, Hippel calls for men to change their own behavior in order to help women, making his work particularly radical.

Hippel’s political career developed alongside his literary achievements. As a result, his social position changed dramatically in 1786 with the accession of Frederick William II to the throne of Prussia. Hippel was decorated for his services to the state and later that year he was promoted to the titular office of city president, which he held until his death. In 1790 he also reinstated his families noble title through secret negotiations with the Holy Roman Emperor. However, after significant pressure was placed upon his shoulders in 1793 when he was asked to oversee the incorporation of Danzig into Prussia, his health significantly deteriorated. He died in 1796 from dropsy of the chest leaving behind an estate of immense value.

Hippel’s writing still holds great significance today. He was very direct in his accusations against men and their conscious subjugation of women. His call for equality did not just rely on the actions of women and their rejection of gender roles and access to higher education, for example. As such, he called for a restructuring of gender relations themselves—a very radical, yet convincing, argument. Hippel highlights the importance of laws and structural inequalities—created by men—in order to allow women to achieve equality. This could be applied to the issue of the Equal Rights Amendment, the failure of which denied women official recognition of their rights in America. Therefore, it is not only the fundamental arguments regarding the rightful status of women Hippel raises in his texts that remain relevant today, but the social problems he addresses as well.

Katherine Trott, History Major, 2019


Literature and Websites


Portrait of Theodor von Hippel. He was an author, writer and poet during the late eighteenth century
Mary Wollstonecraft, 1759-1797, by John Opie, 1797. She was a philosopher, activist, journalist and Woman’s Rights activist. At the time of this portrait Mary was pregnant with her daughter, whose birth was to cost Mary her life