The Sad Truth – Sometimes Fish Need Bicycles

By Oliver Otte

It was the American lawyer, feminist and civil rights advocate Florynce Kennedy who said,“A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”. In other words, women do not depend on men. Anything but! What this funny quotation conveys is that women are independent and that they should feel this independence in their hearts.

            I was amused when I quite accidentally saw this quotation, as I am just working on a presentation about the role of female authors in German literature during the last centuries. The focus of this presentation is on the value of literature written by female authors, which was often treated as inferior to literature written by male authors. Therefore, it is not surprising that my first thought regarding this quotation was: in the former centuries, even open-minded people might have called this a desirable but utopian remark. For instance, even during the enlightenment, a time in which the idea of self-responsibility, thinking for oneself as well as the autonomy of the individual was advanced, women were not allowed to publish literature on their own. Not to mention that there was no way for them to do so. Hence, the first German female author of a novel, Sophie von La Roche, gave her enormous successful novel “Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim” (1771) to the well-known author Christoph Martin Wieland who published it for her but initially without revealing her name.

            Although La Roche’s novel was so successful that society was no longer able to ignore German women’s literary ambitions, literature written by women was for a long time judged as deficient and dilettantish and became characterized as “women’s writing” or “women’s literature”. The dependence of educated women on the good will of men during the 18thand even 19thcentury was so extensive that in literary lounges, places in which people met to read and talk about literature, women were often not allowed. Instead women were told to stay home, maintain the household, look after the children and meet with as well as cater to their men’s wishes. This at that time common point of view regarding the gender relation becomes extremely obvious when the famous German classical author Johann Gottfried Herder cites the Arabian saying, “Eine Henne, die krähet, und eine Frau, die gelehrt ist, sind böse Omen. Man schneide beiden den Hals ab.” (A crowing hen and an educated women are bad omens. One should cut their throats.). By using this saying in a letter to his fiancee, he claims that educated women are as unnatural as a crowing hen. Obviously, Herder is afraid that something bad will occur if women’s education progresses. For sure, he does not want to threaten his fiancee with violence when using this quotation. This would be overstated. Nonetheless, I am quite sure that he is not joking when using this words. Instead, he employs this saying in order to deduce that women should avoid (high) literature.

            To end the trip to the past for now, I would like to focus on the role of female authors nowadays. The necessary question at this place seems to be: Has the approach to writings of German female authors changed during the last centuries? The simple answer is that an imbalance between male and female authors remains. However, especially German pupils might at this point object that this cannot be true, as they have to read poems of German poetesses like Annette von Droste-Hülshoff or Ulla Hahn during their way to pass the A level. That cannot be denied. Nonetheless, there is a difference between contents simply discussed in school and those which are obligatory to pass the A level. In other words, neither writings of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff nor of Ulla Hahn are treated as mandatory writings to pass the A level. Instead one still has to read the male authors Goethe, Schiller, Kleist, Fontane, Hoffmann and so on. 

            Here is just a simple impression for everyone who is willing to get an idea of the subject: the list of obligatory literature needed to pass the A level in 2019/2020 in the German federal state Hessen for the languages German, English, French and Spain this year consists of a total of 21 books (provided by the ministry of education); only three of them are written by female authors. Moreover, all but one of the mandatory German books, ten in number, are written by male authors. For NRW, the ministry of education reveals a similar picture. In this federal state only male authors are obligatory for the teaching subject German. I suppose that these figures speak for themselves.   Nonetheless, I want to use this numbers to finally take a stand. So, what can be deduced from this numbers? The answer to this question is as simple as it could be: an imbalance between male and female authors remains. Accordingly, although times change, specific atavistic mental heritages seem to be resistant and withstand the ravages of time. Now, what does this mean for us as recipients of literature? Should we aim at establishing something similar to the female quota as it is employed in the economic sector? In my assessment, this would be no solution, as this way to handle the lack of balance would inevitably go hand in hand with other negative aspects, which could be approached elsewhere. Instead, we have to be conscious of the fact that a process that endures for centuries cannot be stopped or changed in the blink of an eye.

            To conclude, I am convinced that the solution could simply be to reflect about what you are confronted with, to remain open and first and foremost never dread to ask questions that might bring the norm into question. If we keep this in mind, I am sure that this will not only affect our life but also our surrounding. And in the end there might come a time when fish no longer need bicycles.