The Patron Saint of Suffragettes: Edith Stein

Carolyn Beard is a Master of Divinity Candidate at Harvard Divinity School, where she specializes in biblical reception and Holocaust theology. A graduate of Princeton University, Beard studied the life and legacy of St. Edith Stein in Cologne, Germany in the 2018-2019 academic year with a Fulbright research grant. Beard is an aspirant to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church of the USA.

In the winter of 2018-2019, previously unknown documents from the period emerged to shed light on the young political life of St. Edith Stein, best known as a philosopher, mystic, and “Holocaust martyr.”

Cambridge, U.S. | June 14, 2020 | Analysis Article

As Germany celebrated the centennial of women’s suffrage in the winter of 2018 to 2019, I marked the occasion hunched over a microfilm reader. Following a tip I received the summer prior, I found myself at the Wroclaw University Library, where I searched for evidence of St. Edith Stein’s activities during that period, the beginning of her “lost year.”

Born into a Jewish family in Prussia in 1891, Stein was a fervent support of women’s rights from a young age, so much so that her classmates teased her, calling her a young “suffragette.”  As a young woman, Stein studied philosophy under Edmund Husserl before she converted to Catholicism, took holy orders, and was ultimately killed at Auschwitz in 1942. Beatified as a martyr in 1987 and canonized as a saint in 1998, St. Edith Stein is best remembered as philosopher and mystic, “Holocaust martyr” and co-patroness of Europe.

Stein is survived by a significant corpus of writing – the complete collection of her personal correspondence, philosophy, theology, and poetry now fills 28 volumes. However, there is a significant gap in documentation of her life and subsequent biographical scholarship between November 1918 and the summer of 1919, a period best described as her “lost year.”

For both Stein and the young German nation, this was a season of major transition: within a short year, the country saw defeat in the first world war (November 11, 1918), endured the November Revolution, experienced a transitory government, and transformed with the establishment of the Weimar Republic (August 11, 1919).

Stein felt the reverberations of these events in the life of the country. By the fall of 1918, Stein had completed her assistantship with her advisor Edmund Husserl, the founder of modern phenomenology, and turned her attention towards advancing her own research and academic career. In November 1918, with the war coming to a close and fearing an impending revolution, Stein left the university town of Freiburg-im-Breisgau and returned to her hometown of Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) to stay with family.

As Stein returned home, her paper trail became sparse: only a few personal letters and a single philosophical essay (published years later) survive from her “lost year.” In one of those personal letters, Stein makes an allusion to taking an interest in the political life of the new country. But the topic was dropped as quickly as it was taken up. What did Stein, once teased as a young “suffragette,” do during this period of national turmoil? What did she think about the major changes happening in the country?

St Edith Stein’s Lost Writings

The tip I received to explore the collections at the Wroclaw University Library proved fruitful. After days of reviewing microfilm of local newspapers and ephemera from November 1918 through the summer of 1919, I found about 120 previously unknown documents relevant to the political life of a young St. Edith Stein.

These documents demonstrate that Stein was a founding member of the local chapter of the German Democratic Party in Breslau in November 1918 and quickly took on leadership roles in the political party. One of Stein’s largest projects was political propaganda, especially literature empowering women in politics and educating women on the right to vote. Because most of the advertisements, posters, and pamphlets were not signed, it is difficult to attribute specific pieces to Stein. However, it is clear that she was involved in the organization, creation, and dissemination of political propaganda. There is also evidence that Stein delivered lectures and speeches on the topic of women in politics and facilitated education events for young party members.

St Stein’s Work on Women Empowerment

But perhaps the most interesting discovery was a two-part essay Stein wrote in the party newspaper in February and March 1919. In the essay “The Politicization of Women,” she advocated for the role of women and young adults in politics and the public sphere. Stein saw the first world war as the culmination of male-lead government and wrote that women were imperative for the implementation and transformation of democracy in the nation.

Though Stein gave up her interest in direct political work as quickly as she picked it up, the legacy of her political participation during her “lost year” is evident: Stein went on to become an educator, a prolific public speaker, and an advocate for women in the public sphere. Stein would even return to political commentary – albeit, in forms far removed from party propaganda – with the rise of Nazism.

Even as Germany widely celebrated the centennial of women’s universal suffrage, the discovery of these previously unknown documents demonstrates that there is still work to be done, both on the history of women’s suffrage and on the early political life of St. Edith Stein.

These documents might also encourage us to consider the legacy of St. Edith Stein, remembering her not only for how she died, but also how she lived – ever an advocate for women, the patron saint of suffragettes.

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One thought on “The Patron Saint of Suffragettes: Edith Stein

  1. soniabeard says:

    Enjoyed reading your article. I am still amazed that information (previously unknown) could come to light after a hundred years!


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