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Intellectual Foremothers

Reflections from The New School

From 2015 through 2017 we traced the intellectual journey of Frieda Wunderlich, the only female professor to join a cohort of European scholars rescued from Nazi Germany by The New School for Social Research in 1933. Frieda Wunderlich: Gender, Knowledge and Exile Social Research, Vol. 84, No. 4 (Winter 2017) reviews a distinctive career rarely considered in the context of New School history. We follow the arc of Frieda Wunderlich’s education and intellectual interests forged at the turn of century, shaped by the German women’s movement, and directed towards cultivating social research to improve the lives of vulnerable workers. Wunderlich deployed her skills as an economist during World War I and adopted public leadership roles in Germany’s Weimar Republic. Once in exile in the United States, she translated her experience with labor politics and policies into a new context. Our research fills in historical accounts about The New School’s early graduate faculty where Wunderlich’s profile receives limited attention. We also suggest that, on the eve of the school’s centennial celebration, women who founded and continually shaped programs throughout the New School deserve much greater attention. Moreover, Wunderlich’s story reminds us how quickly even well-known figures may become imperiled when political regimes demand religious and political uniformity. By implication, the work urges universities to consider more proactive roles in identifying and supporting endangered scholars around the globe.

Remembering Wunderlich

“…trained only for war through an excellent technique of drill and command, ready to fight where democracy tries to persuade, this great steamroller of collectivism threatens the western democracies with the concentrated power of a highly gifted nation. It is a terrific danger which nations still enjoying their liberty are not prepared to meet. Eternal vigilance is not vigilant enough. Exiled scholars scattered throughout the world will fight to prevent the spread of the disaster. In silent community with those who could not leave the countries of dictatorship, in open community with those who gave them hospitality, they will continue to work to maintain mankind’s eternal right to freedom.

–Frieda Wunderlich, “Education in Nazi Germany,” 1937

Frieda Wunderlich wrote this cris de coeur as a German professor in exile at The New School for Social Research and just prior to the outbreak of World War II. Her conclusions emerged as she reviewed youth training practices initiated after National Socialists took control of Germany in the early 1930s. A year later she continued publishing on the “woman question” in Germany, outlining and warning of the growing damage brought to women’s public opportunities under Nazi rule: “The development in Germany is a blow to the general women’s movement which cannot but affect women in all countries of the World.” Several writings from this era warned about brutal practices and saw war in the making. Wunderlich simultaneously spent considerable time during her first decades at The New School engaging U.S. New Deal policies on unemployment, health, and disability insurance, making clear that her experience from Europe translated into evolving debates within her new home country. After her death in 1965, fellow faculty member and close associate, Julie Meyer, published a memorial describing her colleague as a passionate advocate for humanitarian social policies who characterized herself as a “Cassandra.”

Born in 1884 to Jewish parents in Berlin, Wunderlich spent her formative years pushing beyond conventional boundaries that restricted German women’s options for education. She pursued professional advancement in collaboration with notable male and female public civil servants, academics and social scientists. Many, such as Franz Oppenheimer and Alice Salomon, wrote on her behalf as she later searched for work abroad. She entered the University of Berlin two years after women gained access to formal degrees in 1908, completed the PhD in Economics in 1919 as women won the vote after World War I, and focused her social research on improving conditions for German laborers during economic disarray. In the early 1930s, at the height of her public recognition as both an academic and politician from the German Democratic Party, she was dismissed from a teaching post as a Jew with left-leaning (though not socialist) political affiliations. Wunderlich reached out to contacts in London and the U.S. to re-create her career. In 1933 she received and accepted an invitation from The New School’s president Alvin Johnson to join European scholars forming a University in Exile. As our research illustrates in more detail, Wunderlich maintained active teaching, research, and administrative positions at The New School until retirement in 1954, publishing her longest book on German farm labor in 1961, four years before her death.

The most well-known historical accounts of The New School’s University in Exile (later the Graduate Faculty for Political and Social Science) only offer limited information about Wunderlich’s career context. Claus-Dieter Krohn’s well-regarded book, Intellectuals in Exile, identifies Wunderlich in contemporaneous photographs but recovers stories only about the earliest male figures at the University in Exile and their shared experiences in Weimar and later the United States. Krohn’s story ignores Wunderlich’s life and offers no details about her research or contributions to the institution she joined. As we retraced Wunderlich’s career, we took cues from a range of feminist thinkers, including Gerda Lerner’s well-documented efforts to show that the “historical invisibility of women is often due to the fact that we look for them in exactly the same activities […] pursued by men, and thus we cannot find them” (Lerner, The Majority Finds Its Past, xxix).

Our work also raises questions about New School history broadly imagined. The University in Exile joined a larger institution founded in 1919 for the education of “men and women.” The original board showed remarkable gender balance. Several female luminaries who were closely associated with the board, including Dorothy Payne Whitney (listed on founding school documents as Mrs. Willard Straight), were identified during our research as more than simply wealthy donors. Few, if any, women are recognized today as originating or sustaining intellectual voices of importance when the New School founding story is told. Yet along with the board, women’s shifting roles in public life are acknowledged in the original mission statement of 1919, and women students have been a significant proportion of the student body from the start. Wunderlich’s own transition from Weimar to the U.S. was supported by a distinctive male president as well as by Clara Meyer, a long-serving female vice president who joined the school’s board in the 1920s and assumed leadership roles for decades.

In 1940 The New York Times announced Wunderlich’s appointment as dean of the Graduate Faculty. She served as vice dean the following year. In her June 1940 graduation speech, she pointedly warned her audience about the extreme dangers of totalitarianism: “I have been speaking to you of questions which have filled our minds since we started out as scholars, while an abyss has opened before us, ready to devour everything the makes life worth living, everything that distinguishes men from beasts.” Vital as these concerns remained to her own research, Wunderlich focused her core remarks on tensions, even paradoxes, shaping the social sciences and philosophy as they aimed to enlarge judgement and critical thinking. The “scientific method” so crucial to the Graduate Faculty required devotion to objective reflection and resistance to making “science” solely “technique and opportunism” Truths should enter “the social life stream, helping to find the way to human welfare,” she noted. Economists must forge “an economic world where forces combined full utilization of productive output and just distribution” and political fairness should be sustained while minimizing conflicts that destroy a republic. With doors open between disciplines, students could develop comprehensive insights. But burning passions should never take certitude to a “radical, bitter end”: “Our discovery of trends, whether they concern the growth of financial power or restricted possibilities for investment, have to be conditioned by ifs. This recognition is not only resignation but consolation too,” she wrote “because the absolutist easily reaches the end of the road .” While evoking “dark times,” these comments asked graduates to see their training in engaged, critical social research as vital to sustaining a healthy republic.

Frieda Wunderlich joined numerous women scholars who left Europe for the United States because of religious and political persecution. We recover her “case” because like so many women intellectuals from the past, her fuller story has been neglected and because such recovery allows for more than memorializing. It raises critical questions about our community’s intellectual landscape and opens up the possibility of rethinking “legacy” conversations in the present.

Ellen Freeberg is Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Affiliated Faculty in the Politics Department at the New School for Social Research. Her research and teaching have focused on contemporary theories of justice, public law, and feminist theory. She and Gina Luria Walker have recently taught a course on “Women’s Legacy at The New School.” They continue to collaborate on projects about the role of earlier female faculty at their institution and have started new work on Hannah Arendt.

Gina Luria Walker is Professor of Women’s Studies at the New School’s School for Public Engagement and director of The New Historia, a global initiative promoting recovery of earlier women. Her recent publications include The Invention of Female Biography (editor, 2017). She teaches Women’s Intellectual History in the BPATs program and in the New School for Social Research.

Lara-Zuzan Golesorkhi is Adjunct Professor at Queens College, CUNY, and a PhD candidate in Politics at the New School for Social Research. She is the founder and executive director of a UN-awarded non-profit NGO (WoW e.V.) that addresses employment rights of Muslim immigrants and refugees in Germany.

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