PhD Thesis of the Month! Birgit Mikus, University of Oxford

See below for Birgit’s exceedingly interesting take on British vs German academia’s take on women writers….and just what is it like to have finished writing up and be looking for what comes next??

Do get in touch with me if you would like to contribute to the series ‘Thesis of the Month’.


The first set of questions that would develop into my DPhil thesis came out of my German M.A. dissertation, which I wrote in Bonn in the (subjectively, of course) agonizingly long winter of 2007/8. My subject then was proto-feminist language critique in the novels of two German authors of the nineteenth century, Gabriele Reuter and Hedwig Dohm. The latter in particular, I noticed, portrayed women who could be labelled as political activists for the “women’s question” in a surprisingly mocking, almost acerbic way. Dohm herself was an author who penned brilliant polemics and essays in favour of women’s political rights, against social double standards, and the stifling bourgeois gender roles of her time, taking both male and female representatives of the “old order” to task. How could it be that she, of all authors, depicted an active, politically engaged woman as a caricature, as the laughing stock of exactly that housewife-and-salon-society Dohm dissected so compellingly? Was this a question of genre, novel vs. essay? Was she the only author to depict politically involved women, and if there were others, how did they do it? Since Dohm frequently referred to the British women’s rights campaigners in her essays, such as Josephine Butler and John Stuart Mill, were there similar traces and influences in the perception and depiction of political women in literature by her and by other authors? I identified five more authors: Louise Aston, Malwida von Meysenbug, Mathilde Franziska Anneke, Fanny Lewald, and Louise Otto-Peters. All had written political essays or pamphlets about women’s rights and depicted in their literature various variations of politically active women, or female characters which, by refusing to comply with social expectations of gender roles or by simply searching for an alternative to a woman’s “natural fate”, had become political.

I was fortunate to find a supervisor at Oxford willing to let me work on this topic and even more fortunate to receive faculty funding, without which I would not have been able to take up the offered place. Enquiries into doctoral research in Germany were met with incomprehension as soon as I explained my proposed project: “Who wants to read anything about women writers?” “Why don’t you write on some other political literature from that time, you know, something more mainstream?” And as one (female) professor put it: “Why do you want to waste your time on third-class authors?” (To the list of things to be grateful for since taking up my studies in the UK, I can add the finding of an academic culture that is genuinely interested in the things female authors have to say and in the way they say it. This is not a given.)

I have finished my degree very, very recently (as in, the last fortnight), and find myself now in the position of thinking about what comes next. The academic job market is a scary place to be in right now and dealing with its requirements as well as with my own plans, wishes, and not least my idea of who I want to be when I grow up, is an exhausting process with rather unpredictable ups and downs. Taking one step at a time and seeing what comes up seems the best option at present and fortunately I am able to concentrate on preparing my thesis for publication as well as getting some more teaching and project co-ordination experience.

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