Who was Anna Ruhling?

Liz Highleyman | October 03, 2007

Anna Ruhling
Anna Ruhling, one of the first feminists to speak in favor of homosexual rights, was also among the earliest activists to come out as a lesbian. Yet for a century after her famous 1904 speech, little was known about her life, until she was identified as Theo Anna Sprungli.

Ruhling was born August 15, 1880, in Hamburg, Germany, to middle-class Swiss parents. She attended a school for young ladies and studied music. At age 17, she embarked on a career in journalism.

The late 19th century saw the dawn of the homosexual emancipation movement in Germany, including the founding of Magnus Hirschfeld's Scientific Humanitarian Committee (SHC) in 1897. On October 9, 1904, Ruhling gave a talk before the SHC entitled, "What Interest Does the Women's Movement Have in Solving the Homosexual Problem?"

Addressing the issue in public was bold enough, but Ruhling subtly alluded to her own proclivities. Regarding middle-class attitudes toward homosexuality, she noted that her father had once explained that nothing of the sort could happen in his family. "The facts prove the opposite," she said.

Ruhling praised the SHC for including lesbians, but criticized the women's movement for failing to address the concerns of "Uranian" (homosexual) women, given that many of its prominent members were lesbians. Some feminist activists were outraged that Ruhling broached the topic, perhaps fearing they would be tarred with the lesbian brush.

Little is known about Ruhling's personal relationships, including whether she ever married or had any long-term female partners. But she spoke knowingly about the misery of lesbians pressured to marry for social or economic reasons, arguing that masculine homosexual women were unfit for marriage.

Ruhling embraced Hirschfeld's theory of homosexuals as an intermediate "third sex." She held stereotypical views about heterosexual women, arguing that most of them were "organically by nature determined above all to become a wife and a mother." The Uranian woman, in contrast, was "more objective, more energetic and goal oriented than the feminine woman; she thinks and feels like a man."

In 1906, Ruhling published a book of short stories that included two lesbian love stories with happy endings – highly unusual for the time. After that, however, there is no further record of her speaking or writing in favor of homosexual rights.

Around 1908, Ruhling moved to Dusseldorf, where she continued working as a journalist, mainly writing about music, theater, and cinema. She belonged to moderate and conservative women's groups such as the Reich Association of German Housewives and the German Women's Navy League, and wrote for patriotic publications.

There is no indication that Ruhling participated in gay culture or activism during the liberal Weimar era of 1918-1933. After the Nazis came to power, she was affiliated with various state organizations including the Reich Association of German Authors. After working as a theater administrator and script editor, she made a comeback in 1949 as one of the oldest female journalists in Germany. She died of a heart attack at the age of 73.

Though contemporary lesbian-feminists have struggled over how to interpret Ruhling's legacy, her call for unity between the women's movement and the gay movement has proven prophetic.

"Our ultimate goal will be reached when both movements recognize that they have many common interests for which to fight when it becomes necessary," she said in 1904. "Perhaps not today or tomorrow, but in the not too distant future, the women's movement and Uranians will raise their banners in victory!"

For further reading:

  • Leidinger, Christiane. 2004. "Anna Ruling: A Problematic Foremother of Lesbian Herstory." Journal of the History of Sexuality (Vol. 13, No. 4).

  • Lombardi-Nash, Michael. 2004. "1904: The First Lesbian Feminist Speaks." The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide (May-June).

  • Ruhling, Anna. 2004. "What Interest Does the Women's Movement Have in Solving the Homosexual Problem?" In Speaking for Our Lives: Historic Speeches and Rhetoric for Gay and Lesbian Rights, 1892-2000, ed. Robert Ridinger (Haworth Press).

    Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

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