Modern Women? On Practices and Experiences of ‘Modernity’ in the Everyday Lives of Female White-Collar Employees in the Weimar Republic
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My thesis examines practices and experiences of ‘modernity’ in the everyday lives of urban female white-collar employees in the Weimar Republic. While these women have been treated by their contemporaries as the quintessential ‘modern woman’, historical scholarship has long painted them as rather traditional. Many of the findings of both sides were based either on sociological literature or on representations, while the perspectives of these women themselves have been taken less into account. Drawing on ego-documents, such as a diary and essays of apprentices, my thesis aims at filling this gap. Using the approach of ‘Alltagsgeschichte’, it investigates female employees’ everyday lives under three aspects of modernity, as identified by Weimar scholar Detlev Peukert, Max Weber, and Michel Foucault: rationalisation, bureaucratisation, and social disciplining. The main body of the thesis consists of three chapters, each treating one of these characteristics. Every chapter is divided into a part that focuses on the work environment of female employees, and one that looks at life outside of work. Three interdependent conclusions can be drawn: first, in some areas of female employees’ everyday lives, modernity was clearly articulated, in others it was less evident. Female employees’ experience of modernity was thus characterised by strong tensions and contrasts. Second, within these tensions, female employees knew how to reconcile their own demands with the requirements and challenges of modernity. They shaped their own lives, thus exhibiting agency. Third, female employees were neither the quintessential ‘modern woman’ invoked by their contemporaries, nor the backward-looking, naïve women they appeared to be in some scholarly literature. Being modern and being traditional were not mutually exclusive. Female employees showed characteristics of both extremes, thus appearing as ambivalent figures. With its orientation towards Weber’s and Foucault’s diagnosis of modernity, this thesis is based on a rather constraining conception of modernity that leaves categories, such as ‘cultural modernity’, aside. An expanded conception of modernity would prove valuable as a further avenue of research in this field.