“Woman has no consciousness — only that which is given to her by a man. She lives without self-awareness. Only man has consciousness.” — Otto Weininger
Turn of the century Vienna was a unique and troubling place. One of the city’s best-known authors, Karl Kraus, famously described the capital as a “testing station for the end of the world” — a city gripped by polarizing ideologies. This may have been an exaggeration, but at the time, Vienna was certainly experiencing rapid change.
In the decades leading up to 1900, the city saw immigration from all corners of the Austro-Hungarian empire, resulting in an increasingly multicultural population. This diversity was not always welcomed.
In 1897 the city elected a notoriously anti-Semitic Mayor, Karl Lueger, who stoked resentment of the Jewish middle classes and advocated for heavy restrictions on immigration. The University of Vienna, in particular, could be an especially hostile place for Jewish students; another Viennese author, Arthur Schnitzler, later recalled how they ran the risk of being challenged to dangerous duels by anti-Semitic students who did not want to study alongside them.
Social change was also arriving in the city, partly in the form of the emerging feminist movement, with women all across Europe challenging their exclusion from politics and education. At the time, Vienna’s feminists were typically diverse and their ranks ran the gamut from moderate liberals who sought modest reforms to political institutions, to the more radical socialists who believed that women would only be free when capitalism was overthrown.
The actual legal gains secured by the early feminists were modest, but that didn’t stop widespread panic among their opponents. For men used to occupying a position of power, women’s increased presence in public life signaled a troubling breakdown of traditional gender roles. This fear was heightened by emerging scientific disciplines such as sexology and psychology, which questioned whether sex and gender binaries were quite so rigid as had been traditionally supposed. Nobody was more troubled by these developments than Otto Weininger, a young Jewish philosopher registered at the University of Vienna.
Otto was born in 1880, the son of a middle-class Jewish couple. He was accepted to study at the University of Vienna in 1898, where he dipped in and out of an impressive array of subjects. In 1902 Otto successfully completed his Ph.D. thesis, although his examiners warned him to tone down the more blatantly misogynistic passages. Otto did the opposite: he expanded it.
Among other things, he added a new chapter on Jewish inferiority, and published it under the title ‘Sex and Character.’ His examiners were privately dismayed, but the work nevertheless found fans: the Swedish playwright August Strindberg and the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein were particularly impressed.
Initial responses to ‘Sex and Character’ were mixed, and Otto was even accused of plagiarism by the German neurologist Paul Möbius, author of the charmingly-titled ‘On the Psychological Deficiencies of Women.’ On the fourth of October 1903, Otto shot himself at the family home. He died the day after in Vienna’s General Hospital, aged twenty-three.
‘Sex and Character’ is an exhausting read, requiring the reader to pore over hundreds of pages dedicated to proving women’s inferiority: “woman has no identity, she is nothing,” “it is only the man in woman that wants to be emancipated,” “the relationship between man and woman is the relationship between subject and object.” These claims become all the more troubling when we consider that they were written by someone so young.
Today we might speak of radicalization. But while Otto may have been an extreme thinker, he was hardly alone in his beliefs: after all, Paul Möbius had been very keen to claim ownership of the ideas expressed in Otto’s polemic.
Like modern-day male supremacists who often identify valid ways that rigid gender roles hurt men before misdirecting the blame to women, Otto was not wrong about everything. He identified genuine cultural trends — the crumbling of old gender hierarchies, the participation of women in traditionally “masculine” spheres — but instead of lauding progress, he responded with fear and hostility.
Otto’s understanding of gender could also be surprisingly fluid. He notes, for example, that all men and women possess a mixture of “masculine” and “feminine” traits. But again, he argued that this was nothing to celebrate.
Some early twentieth century feminists found something to admire in Otto’s willingness to think outside binary categories, whilst still disagreeing vehemently with his conclusions. In 1905, the feminist philosopher Rosa Mayreder, for example, wrote a detailed rebuttal of misogynistic ideologies, ‘To The Critics Of Femininity,’ in which she acknowledges Otto’s willingness to think beyond strict binaries whilst also pointing out his logical flaws and baseless prejudices. But Otto died before Rosa’s book was published, and he would never have been expected to defend his arguments to an educated, intellectual woman.
For those who lived longer, time did sometimes lead to a softening of opinions. Oskar Kokoschka is one example. Oskar was six years younger than Otto, and more inclined towards literature and art than science and philosophy. After university, he became active in the city’s Secessionist art circles before moving towards the rawer qualities of Expressionism.
Although he is most famous as an artist, Oskar was also a playwright who often used misogynist tropes in his work. In ‘Sphinx and Strawman’, first performed in 1909, Oskar depicted “woman” as an unfaithful, lying femme fatale. In 1918 he commissioned a female artist, Hermine Moos, to create a life-size sex doll of his former lover Alma Mahler, who had left him several years earlier. He later beheaded the sex doll at a party. Mahler, unsurprisingly, showed little interest in rekindling the relationship. She later reflected on the incident in her autobiography: “He finally had me where he’d always wanted me — a submissive, obedient object in his hand.”
The best-known of Oskar’s plays, ‘Murder, Hope of Women’, is notable for both its brevity and its violence. The action revolves around two nameless characters, Man and Woman, who fight for supremacy in a barren landscape. Woman originally gains the upper hand, but Man regains his strength and stabs Woman to death. The play’s spectacularly unsubtle message — that masculinity must triumph over femininity — was controversial even at the time. The artist Broncia Koller privately petitioned her male colleagues in Vienna’s Secession to stop exhibiting with Oskar. One performance of the play was allegedly interrupted by a group of soldiers who thought that the action on stage was real and Man had really killed Woman. (It is not clear whether this actually happened, or if Oskar invented the story to increase publicity.) The play’s defenders said that it should be read symbolically rather than literally — Oskar did not hate real women, they said, but was merely using “Woman” as a symbol of wild and uncivilized forces that must be kept in hand. We might wonder if this is much better.
Oskar’s symbolic murder of Woman stands alongside Otto’s ‘Sex and Character’ as one of the more extreme expressions of turn of the century misogyny. Unlike Otto, however, Oskar died in 1980 — long enough to see his youthful ideas challenged. Oskar never explicitly disowned the beliefs expressed in ‘Murder, Hope of Women’, but his extraordinary misogyny was not repeated in his later works.
The misogyny that runs through Otto’s and Oskar’s work is unpleasant, but it was not unique. On the contrary, turn of the century Vienna was gripped by misogyny that was extreme even by historic standards. Fearful of the emerging feminist movement and unsettled by political and social instability, young men lashed out at those they felt were undermining traditional social structures: women, Jews, sexual minorities. The relationship between men and women was framed as a battle for supremacy, accompanied by the fear that men were becoming “feminized” through increased contact with them, as well as of gender and sex differences were becoming blurred. Vienna’s misogynist thinkers glimpsed the possibility of a future outside rigid sex and gender hierarchies, and they didn’t like what they saw.
The extremes of turn of the century Vienna, of course, are not so removed from the present as one might imagine. In Europe, far-right politicians like Italy’s Matteo Salvini and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán are again stoking anti-immigrant sentiments, and the kind of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories once propagated by Karl Lueger are resurgent on both the left and the right.
And, along with a renewed push for women’s rights, there has been an equally reinvigorated misogynist backlash. In the U.S., hard-won abortion rights are being stripped away under Trump’s administration; in Spain, feminist protests against the infamous ‘wolf pack’ rape trial — which saw five men acquitted of rape because they did not use physical violence — sparked an uptick in far-right activism. In Canada and the U.S., male supremacists have committed terrorist acts inspired by an explicitly misogynistic worldview and a profound sense of resentment towards women. How does the new breed of misogynists compare to their turn of the century predecessors?
For starters, they are certainly more violent. Unlike Oskar and Otto, whose misogyny was of the purely intellectual variety, today’s male supremacists have put their beliefs into action with devastating effect. In 2014, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people in Isla Vista, southern California, before shooting himself. News reports indicated that Elliot was a frequenter of misogynistic online forums where members gathered to discuss their anger at women who refused to have sex with them, bemoaning their status as “involuntary celibates,” or “incels,” as they are no colloquially known. Before killing himself, Elliot sent a “manifesto” to his parents, therapist, and friends in which he described his desire to see a “War on Women” and fantasized about imprisoning women in giant concentration camps where he could sit in an enormous tower and watch them starve.
There is an enormous gulf between Otto’s and Oskar’s philosophical and literary musings and Elliot’s killing spree. Elliot’s “manifesto” is cruder and infinitely less interesting than Otto’s, which did at least question traditional binaries, and which provided a useful stimulus for feminist thinkers. But there are undeniable points of similarity. Both Otto and Oskar perceived women as hollow, hyper-sexual creatures lacking men’s’ capacity for reason and intellect. Elliot, in turn, described women exclusively in sexual terms, as tricksters and temptresses motivated by lust whilst denying sex to “gentlemen” such as himself.
Oskar depicted the relationship between men and women as a violent battle for supremacy, a perception that is echoed in Elliot’s use of the phrase “War on Women.” Elliot, who was himself multiracial, also accused men from Asian ethnic backgrounds of being “disgustingly ugly” and effeminate, leading him to be described as a “self-hating Asian” in much the same way as Otto was labeled as a “self-hating Jew” after his death. This intersection of racism and misogyny runs through Otto’s and Elliot’s writing, a warning that prejudices tend to overlap.
Elliot has become something of a hero among members of the incel community, but online forums also reveal historic sources of inspiration. Reading through incel message boards, it is clear that some find much to admire in turn of the century Vienna. In a discussion on one online forum, about Elliot’s “manifesto,” one user writes “if you think that’s bad read Otto Weininger.” Another 4chan commenter goes further: “Elliot Rodger was the 2014 Otto Weininger.” In a discussion of incel literature, one user recommends ‘Sex and Character’ as proposing a solution to “man’s foremost quandary, the Cunt Question.” Referencing Otto’s suicide, the same user concludes that he “probably just saw things as they are a bit too lucidly.”
Today’s Incels might see Otto as a visionary, but the past also provides lessons for their opponents. One of the most important is that men like Otto and Oskar do not develop their ideas in isolation, but draw on ideas that are already prevalent in society. In the aftermath of the Isla Vista killings, there was considerable debate regarding whether Elliot Rodger was a disturbed individual driven by personal prejudices, or whether he was influenced by pervasive cultural misogyny.
Chris Ferguson, a psychologist writing for Time magazine, argued the former, maintaining that misogyny alone did not turn Elliot into a killer. This is plainly true: most men with misogynistic views do not commit murder. But the list of other men linked with male supremacist movements who have gone on killing sprees — Alek Minassian, Chris Harper-Mercer, Nikolas Cruz, Scott Beierle — suggests that misogynistic ideologies do drive violence, even if the perpetrators were already displaying disturbing behaviors. Elliot’s beliefs were particularly vicious, but his choice of women as targets was legitimized by the resurgence of the anti-feminist far-right and, perhaps, at a lower-level, by a pervasive sense of entitlement to women’s affections — an entitlement which the MeToo movement has since thrust into the spotlight.
Placing misogynists like Otto and Oskar in a broader cultural context, rather than treating them as exceptions, forces us to examine the root causes of misogyny rather than just the symptoms. This is the reason that turn of the century feminists took aim at institutions — educational, legal, political — rather than merely targeting individual misogynists. But if we do choose to engage with male supremacists, turn of the century feminists also provide valuable tactical lessons.
There has been considerable debate in recent years regarding the best way to engage with extremists: do we deny them a media platform so as to avoid lending them a veneer of respectability, or do we challenge them to rigorous debate in the hope that their views will be easily discredited? Both approaches have their strengths and flaws, and both were utilized to varying degrees by turn of the century feminists.
When ‘Murder, Hope of Women’ was first performed, the artist Broncia Koller maintained that her fellow artists should disassociate from Oskar and refuse to exhibit alongside him — an early form of no-platforming that ultimately proved unsuccessful. Broncia’s stance is entirely justifiable, but it does highlight the practical difficulties of boycotting prominent individuals: Oskar was a well-regarded artist, and from a financial and marketing perspective it is unsurprising that Broncia’s colleagues were unwilling to drop him as an associate. It is likely, too, that any public declaration of a boycott would have been gleefully embraced by Oskar, who deliberately courted controversy. Nonetheless, Broncia’s refusal to let Oskar off the hook is a reminder of the importance of going on the record, of explicitly condemning dehumanizing ideologies — especially when others are willing to let things slide for convenience’s sake.
A contrasting, but equally principled example is Rosa Mayreder’s willingness to engage in open debate with misogynists. Her argument, laid out in ‘To the Critics of Femininity,’ meticulously dismantles anti-feminist arguments, including Otto’s, and provides a much-needed voice of dissent. But, of course, there is a danger in thinking that reasoned debate will always overcome prejudice, largely because minority rights can easily become hypotheticals, and the most persuasive speaker is not necessarily right. That said, Rosa managed to critically engage without indulging or legitimizing misogynist views; she does not accept the premises of her male opponents, and manages to avoid becoming mired in their logical contortions even whilst highlighting them for the reader. It is unlikely that Rosa would have convinced a hardened misogynist, but her work provided a stimulus for other feminist thinkers and showed that it was not only men who were capable of expressing opinions about women.
Rosa’s critique also highlights the tactical importance of acknowledging the opponent’s motivations, even while vigorously rejecting their conclusions. Whilst Rosa is by no means forgiving, she accepts some of Otto’s assertions and concerns — that women are displaying “masculine” traits, and playing an increased role in public life — whilst pointing out his flawed interpretations.
Although there is little point debating with online trolls, some members of male supremacists raise valid concerns — about men’s mental health, for instance, or the pressure to provide for a family — but at the same time fundamentally misdiagnose the cause.
In these instances, Rosa’s ability to engage with her opponents’ fears even whilst denouncing their conclusions may provide a route to de-radicalization, offering an alternative explanation of the facts all the while not entirely dismissing their concerns. It also strips away some of the power of extreme ideologies, acknowledging a grain of truth whilst constructing a compelling counter-narrative.
Despite the misogyny of turn of the century Vienna, women did eventually win increased freedom in both the private and the public sphere. In 1897, Gabriele Possaner von Ehrenthal became the first woman to earn a Ph.D. at the University of Vienna. Only two years after Otto’s death, Elise Richter became the first female Associate Professor at the University.
And in this century, too, there are welcome signs that the pendulum has not entirely swung the other way. In 2016 Germany overturned a long-standing rape law which required women to prove that they had attempted to physically fight off their attacker. And while some US states are clamping down on abortion rights, Ireland — once one of the most conservative countries in Europe — held a 2018 referendum in which the population voted overwhelmingly to overturn the eighth amendment, which heavily restricted abortion. And in 2019, the UK criminalized “upskirting” despite the attempts of Conservative MP Christopher Chope to filibuster the bill in parliament.
Despite troubling challenges to women’s rights, it seems unlikely that modern-day male supremacists will be able to fully roll back the clock. Compared to turn of the century Vienna, women now occupy far greater positions of legal, political, and cultural power. But still, the turbulent context of Vienna — in which educated, articulate men espoused hate-filled ideologies — warns against complacency.
Francesca Roe is a researcher and writer with a particular interest in gender and cultural history. She’s previously written for CityMetric and The Conversation, and also writes about the culture and history of Northern England on her personal blog.
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