Woman is a Rational Animal

Of the many figures who contributed to the formation of feminist sociological ideals, few did so with as much consideration, sensitivity, and effect as Marianne Weber. Often cast in the shadow of her husband’s legacy, Weber is largely responsible for the basis of modern feminism through her many academic works centered around the female experience and women’s relations to the development of society. As an intellectual, public speaker, and leader of prominent German women’s movements during a time of global social change, Marianne Weber stood as a recognized public figure in her own right. Much of her work later in life was devoted to the preservation and dissemination of Max Weber’s ideas and biography, whose profound impact on sociology would not have been possible without her. Her own groundbreaking analyses remain buried, and many have yet to be translated from their original German. In addition to her original work and academic criticisms, Weber demonstrates a thoughtful and balanced approach to the highly nuanced dimension of women’s lives that could be imitated to great success with similarly complex sociological issues today.

Marianne Weber, born Marianne Schnitger in Oerlinghausen, Germany in 1870, was the daughter of a country doctor and was raised by a grandmother after her mother’s death early in her life.[1] In a relatively impoverished family with a mostly absent father, Marianne received primary education at home and at the village school. A wealthy grandfather connected to the Weber family provided funds for Marianne to attend finishing school in Hanover, though her true intellectual life began at age 21 when she was invited to Berlin to stay with distant relatives and her future husband, Max.[2] She developed a deep attachment to Max’s mother, Helene, who had been trapped in an abusive marriage to her husband and whose confidences to Marianne influenced her later work on domestic relations. Marianne and Max married in 1893 and began a life fueled by their similar academic interests.[3] As Max obtained professorships at various prestigious universities throughout Germany, Marianne developed her own intellectual pursuits by sitting in on her husband’s lectures, acquainting herself with his colleagues, and performing her own independent study, which resulted in her personal blend of philosophical and feminist thought.[4] Max was supportive of Marianne’s work and publicly defended her theories against ridicule but maintained that her intellectual life should exist in deference to the domestic work of a wife. When Max suffered a nervous breakdown in 1898 and withdrew from society, Marianne simultaneously cared for him, took his place at public speaking events and political meetings, and produced her first two works. After Max’s recovery, she was able to pursue her own work singularly, publishing five more papers and establishing a successful and long-running salon comprised of her husband’s colleagues and prominent feminist thinkers.[5] She later became the president of the Federation of the German Women’s Organizations and published six more works before Max died suddenly in 1920. Her focus shifted to the completion of ten volumes of her husband’s unfinished work and the publication of his biography, for which she received an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Heidelberg.[6] During the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany and World War II, the Federation of the German Women’s Organizations was forcibly dissolved and feminist thought was banned from public speaking, though Weber quietly continued to publish her work and run her weekly salon. She later expressed her guilt at not having done more during the years of Nazi occupation, but maintained that silence was the only way to survive.[7] After the war, Weber wrote her own memoirs in West Germany and died in 1954.[8]

Heidelberg University Library in 1939. Wikimedia Commons.

During Weber’s adolescence, Otto von Bismarck served as the Chancellor of Germany and left a lasting impression on the population. His dominant, militant, conservative attitudes (in conjunction with his public popularity) provided an ideal for masculinity that reinforced traditional gender roles and prevailed as the model for German men in the societal and domestic spheres.[9] At the same time, his introduction of an industrial economy to the newly unified state led to a rapid growth of employment options that allowed for women to enter the workforce for the first time. Alongside Germany’s prominent academic institutions with more liberal agendas, such changes produced a shift in ideology that fostered movements like socialism and feminism.[10] After her first major work, Marriage, Motherhood, and the Law, in 1907, Weber was considered the preeminent authority in German feminism. Like her husband and his colleagues at the time, Weber considered herself to be a part of the Neo-Idealist tradition, which emphasized the separation of social science from the natural and physical sciences on the basis of its human element but with a simultaneous need for objectivity.[11] Weber recognized that “objectivity” would still be influenced by the male perspective, and she sought to emulate objectivity from the female perspective in her studies. These elements of her environment helped to shape the style, approach, and priorities of her writings.

At the time, many different social movements arose in response to the new industrial economy and Bismarck’s particular brand of leadership, and Weber’s writings address and navigate the influences that produced various brands of feminism. Socialist feminists asserted that capitalism and the patriarchy depended on one another and had to be dismantled together in order for women to gain equal footing in society.[12] While Weber recognized the economic policies responsible for class tensions between women, she also believed that capitalism and the patriarchy were inherently separate; harmful practices of patriarchy could be extinguished, and capitalism would continue to function without them. Another feminist movement unique to Germany was erotic feminism, which produced thought of a more radical and sexual nature. Created as a reaction to male-centric philosophies of sex and marriage encouraged by figures like Freud and Bismarck, erotic feminism proposed a more liberal standard of sex for women called “free love.”[13] Weber also dealt with the importance of intimacy in marriage and the double standard imposed on wives and women but felt that “free love” would degrade the relationship of equals she sought to encourage between a husband and wife. “Free love,” similar to the acceptability of husbands to pursue prostitutes or mistresses, endangered the equality women could find in a singular relationship with a like-minded partner.

Much of Weber’s work focuses on rediscovering the social world and its construction through the perspective of women. She emphasizes her awareness of the influence of men on the structure of marriage and the workplace, the record of history, and even the practices of sociology; she knew she could not rectify millennia of masculine culture and instead chose to fortify her work with academic criticism of male sociology, including her husband’s work and that of Georg Simmel, a colleague and similarly regarded sociologist.[14] For example, Weber rejects the traditional idea of a fundamental difference between men and women and argues against Simmel’s claims that men and women are better suited for different kinds of work. She instead acknowledges the barriers preventing women from participating in the creation of visible culture or preventing their contributions to culture developed in the home and invisible society from being recorded, including “producing daily existence.”[15]

Portrait of Marianne Weber at 26, 1896. Painted by Marie David. Wikimedia Commons.

From her knowledge of Helene’s unhappy relationship with her husband, Weber wrote about tension between sexes within marriage based on competition of ideas and expression. Due to traditional marriage structures enforced by values from Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian law, women, unlike men, lacked the efficacy and social environment with which they could project their ideas.[16] They were instead relegated to the home and sought to express themselves there, though in cases like Helene’s marriage, an overbearing husband could attempt to stifle that as well. From her evaluation of Max’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism came the idea of introducing Protestant beliefs of religious autonomy into marriage; like the relationship cultivated between an individual and God, each person within the marriage would maintain their own self-determination. Weber attests in Authority and Autonomy in Marriage, “Within the religious communities of the New World that were sustained by the Puritan spirit, the idea of the religious equality of woman first came to be taken seriously.”[17] This view of husband and wife as equals was an attempt to rectify what Weber saw from her historical perspective as the imbalance of marriage. She describes the basic necessities of men and women (within marriage: intimacy, expression, resources, etc.) as the same for both with the only difference being that over the course of history, women have been designated to the role of provider, while men have expected to have these needs fulfilled by wives.[18] The societal pressure for “an external appearance of unanimity”[19] allows for the struggle for authority in marriage to usurp any possibility of true intimacy.

Weber also diligently addressed the potential for a disparity based on finances. With no secure way of attaining their own funds until the industrial revolution, women were further degraded within the marriage because they had to bargain for money to care for themselves, the house, and the family.[20] For economic independence for women, she advocated for legislation requiring a budget for household expenses that received contributions from husband and wife depending on their wages. This she proposed with a consciousness of lower class women and how the minimal wages they earned were often the product of difficult, necessary labor.

In addition to life within marriage, women’s lives before, particularly in pursuit of an education, became another important aspect of Weber’s philosophy. She studies the generation-based differences between women’s attitudes towards education as it became more accessible and normalized in their lives. At first, women had to relinquish feminine traits to fit in at universities and be taken seriously, and more often than not they had abandoned ideas of marriage.[21] The next generation was less inclined to make these sacrifices and did not have to; however, they were also treated as second-rate students and were subjected to menial work. The third generation and one Weber witnessed during her lifetime, could afford to dismiss their place in universities and were often just as concerned with their prospects for marriage as they were with their education. Weber recognizes that this mindset is the product of the long-held belief “that woman understands herself and is understood by men and by the society as a being destined for marriage.”[22]

A defining characteristic of Weber’s work is her open-minded consideration of women’s struggles from many different situations. She demonstrates an acute understanding of the effects that class, education, and location can have on women’s lives and livelihoods. One example of this is her focus on the ways a rural or urban setting can shape the possibility for financial independence and autonomy from a husband; she looks even further into the type of work available for women of a rural life, considering landholders, seasonal workers, and day laborers.[23] Weber balances her study of women’s lifestyles with an awareness of her own exceptional circumstances as the wife of a liberal husband allowed to pursue her own academic interests. Her thoughtful style applied to women’s movements urged feminist leaders to rethink their ideas of wage labor as a general means of women’s liberation. She argues that most women engaged in wage labor do so out of necessity because they do not enjoy the same financial stability that women’s movement leaders do.[24] Weber’s sensitive approach to the varying challenges women face remains one of the most admirable and effective qualities of her work.

Marianne Weber provided one of the first comprehensive, in-depth perspectives on the previously hidden world of domestic womanhood. Her work embodies all the academic rigor and detail of other recognized sociologists of her time along with her careful appreciation for the subtle differences in situation and difficulties specific to women. Though much of her work went overlooked during and after her life, modern theories of feminism and women’s movements would not have existed without Weber’s ideas on the financial, domestic, intellectual, and intimate equality of women.


About the Author:

Elizabeth Ugan is a first year undergraduate from Orlando, Florida and is currently studying at the University of Chicago. Her academic interests include law, cinema, and psychology, and she is involved in her House Council. Outside of school, she enjoys watching films, hiking, playing the piano, and obsessively reading.



Featured Image: Max and Marianne Weber 1894, Public Domain.

[1] Lengermann, Patricia M., and Jill Niebrugge-Brantley. “Marianne Weber (1870-1954): A Woman-Centered Sociology.” Essay. In The Women Founders: Sociology and Social Theory, 1830-1930: a Text/Reader, 193–214. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc., 2007.

[2] Lengermann, The Women Founders, 195.

[3] Lengermann, The Women Founders, 196.

[4] Lengermann, The Women Founders, 197.

[5] Lengermann, The Women Founders, 198.

[6] Lengermann, The Women Founders, 199.

[7] Britton, Anne Camden, “The Life and Thought of Marianne Weber,” Master’s thesis, San Francisco State University, 1979, 154-156.

[8] Lengermann, The Women Founders, 200.

[9] Lengermann, The Women Founders, 200.

[10] Lengermann, The Women Founders, 201.

[11] Lengermann, The Women Founders, 202.

[12] Lengermann, The Women Founders, 201.

[13] Lengermann, The Women Founders, 201.

[14] Lengermann, The Women Founders, 204.

[15] Lengermann, The Women Founders, 207.

[16] Lengermann, The Women Founders, 205.

[17] Marianne Weber, “Selections from Marianne Weber’s Reflections on Women and Women’s Issues,” trans. Elizabeth Kirchen (Unpublished manuscript, 1997), 31.

[18] Lengermann, The Women Founders, 204.

[19] Marianne Weber, “Selections from Marianne Weber’s Reflections on Women and Women’s Issues,” trans. Elizabeth Kirchen (Unpublished manuscript, 1997), 36.

[20] Lengermann, The Women Founders, 206.

[21] Lengermann, The Women Founders, 210.

[22] Lengermann, The Women Founders, 204.

[23] Lengermann, The Women Founders, 209.

[24] Lengermann, The Women Founders, 210.

Scroll to Top