Review: Cornelie Usborne’s Research Student Seminar

FP07_0215_009Sarah Watkins attended yesterday’s Research Student Seminar by Professor Cornelie Usborne on Women’s Experiences Filtered Through Hostile Sources: this is her review of the evening.

The Research Student Seminar with Professor Cornelie Usborne was a fascinating, stimulating and inspiring affair. During an informal and relaxed couple of hours she shared with us some of her most recent research.

The study of ‘sexuality from below’ is hampered by the lack of sources. There is often plenty available from doctors, sexual reformers, the church and so forth, but much less from ‘ordinary’ people. Professor Usborne utilises judicial files to try to access the experiences of everyday women. These files are a very rich source and include a great deal of detail. Women accused of crimes relating to sexual behaviour were interviewed by a variety of agencies in the course of prosecution, including the police and social workers. Additional evidence was also gathered, such as letters and photographs. The sources that Professor Usborne used for her research that culminated in her recent book Cultures of Abortion in Weimar Germany (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2007) still had so much information in them that she wanted to work some more on them. Her current work is still focused on finding women speaking for themselves about sex, which has led her to an extraordinary source: during the Second World War, under the Third Reich, women were prosecuted for having sexual relations with Prisoners of War.

The judicial reports of these prosecutions are quite difficult sources to access. They have issues of data protection, and as Germany is a federal state each of the states interprets the implementation of these rules differently. Persistence seems to be the key. There are, of course, also methodological problems involved in working with any sources. With judicial sources there are four obvious points: intimidation by the interviewer; use of leading questions and the absence of the questions from the transcripts; the mediation of the scribe; and how truthful the answers are. There is also an ideological component: in Nazi Germany these prosecutions were stimulated by ideas about racial integrity and German honour. Professor Usborne aims to tease out the experiences of women by peeling back the layers of official language and reconstructing the questions asked. The records will then hopefully provide evidence for how women talked and acted, whether their behaviour was traditional or subversive, what impact wartime had on behaviours, and whether foreign men held a particular (forbidden) allure.

The particular records under discussion during the talk were from Bavaria, a very rural and Catholic area. Professor Usborne presented a case study from 1941 concerning a twenty-eight year old married woman, Anna. She was denounced for illicit relations with a PoW. During her interviews she told the authorities that she was the sixteenth child out of seventeen, born to an agricultural labourer. Originally she had wanted to become a nun but the family did not have enough money. So, she had married at twenty, and bore her first and only child the following year. Although she had not worked for a few years after her child was born, her husband’s frequent periods of unemployment meant she entered into blue-collar work herself. Her husband’s conscription coincided with the arrival of some French PoWs into the area. One in particular blew kisses to her and wrote notes, to which she replied. She confided in a young colleague who, although engaged, was also liaising with a PoW. The two women arranged to spend a night with their suitors at their own homes. Anna admitted that she had gone to bed with her man, in their nightshirts, and had kissed and cuddled. After a while they both got naked and had sexual intercourse, after which Anna had urinated to avoid getting pregnant. She prepared a drink and some cake for her lover, and they had had sex twice more during the night. The following day she relayed all this to her friend.

There is so much interesting information in this one case study but, how reliable is the testimony? It was illegal to have any contact at all with the PoWs, and married women were often harshly punished with penal servitude for their illicit sexual relations. The severity with which women’s sexual deviancy has been punished has, in this instance, been likened to the witch-hunts of the early modern period, including fabricated confessions. But, Professor Usborne thinks that the sources can be trusted to reveal actual behaviour and attitudes. The existence of extraneous evidence, including explicit notes between lovers, presents, and photographs support the judicial accounts. The paper-trail itself within the records is extensive, with multiple interviews showing consistent stories. The nature of the women’s statements is often very self-incriminating from the first interview. This was usually taken at the local police station by the local constable, not by the Gestapo in an unfamiliar environment.

The texts show women flouting officialdom. The message against fraternisation and the dangers of racial pollution was everywhere; every factory displayed a poster. But, these women often acted openly and with the collusion of a sympathetic community. Their denunciation was more often linked to some other offence than to moral outrage. Jealousy, slovenliness, laziness – all of these might prompt an accusation. There is evidence of real affection between some of the couples as they made plans to be together after the war. There is also a display of women’s sexuality, and pride in their behaviour. Some PoWs complained they had been hounded by local women, suggesting a possible exploitation of these men due to their inferior status as prisoners. Some women not only showed no remorse for their actions but also expressed that it was no more than their due with their husbands absent. These women rebelled against their allotted role as docile childbearing bodies, risking ‘polluted’ pregnancy and punishment. Professor Usborne’s on-going research seeks to understand these moments of rebellion in their wider social context, including the earlier ‘new woman’ movement, its spirit of independence, and the idea of a counter-culture.

The evening was rounded off by a group discussion of some of the issues raised by the talk, with Professor Usborne fielding lots of questions. I was so glad I was able to attend this seminar, and enjoyed it immensely.

We’re looking to publish reports from seminars and workshops on – please email Emma ( if you’d like to contribute.

Please note that the image is for illustration purposes only: it belongs to Australia’s Justice & Police Museum

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