TWO FEMALE AUTHORS,
TWO FEMALE VOICES
Austrian author Theodora Bauer and American writer and journalist Sarah Wildman have published books about Austrian-American border crossings and the impact on family histories, told from female perspectives. They will read from and discuss their works at the event Family, Generations & Migration: The Austrian-American Experience, which will take place at the ACF Washington on November 19.
In the following texts both writers reflect on womanhood and women’s roles in society. Theodora argues that women were not only deprived of economic and personal independence, but were also not taken seriously as artists. Inspired by Virginia Woolf she points out that women need a Room of Their Own, a space without restrictions and the possibility for artistic creation and social change. Sarah’s text focuses on forgotten female voices. She tells the story of one particular woman and highlights the importance of telling female histories.
A Room of One’s Own in Washington
I am very happy to hear that the ACF Washington is planning to focus on representing female artists of all disciplines in the coming years. The effort the Cultural Forum is undertaking is unfortunately still deeply needed – even though it shouldn’t be; even though it shouldn’t be anything but absolutely natural for women to be represented accordingly to the role that they play and have been playing for a long time in all stages of the artistic process.
There is one book – or maybe it would be better to say: one essay, one speech, one call to action, one streitschrift – that I am thinking of when it comes to women, especially female writers, and their role in the literary canon. Virginia Woolf thought extensively about canon, about official, represented knowledge – for example in Orlando, which is a parody of historical biographies and thereby criticizes the construction of history itself. Woolf gets even more explicit in “A Room of One’s Own“. She speaks to female students at Cambridge University and reflects with them on what it needs for a woman to become a writer. She uses lucid, clear language that is undeniably beautiful, but she doesn’t talk about the “beautiful” things in life. She doesn’t so much talk about ability and talent; rather than that she speaks of the gritty, down to earth, economical considerations that have to be taken when becoming an artist. And they have, they absolutely have to be taken because they are what makes the difference; they ultimately decide on whether a person will be successful in becoming an artist, simply because they will be able to sustain themselves economically in what they are doing, or whether they will have to quit.
Woolf concludes that women need to be economically independent in order to write, and not only that, they also need to be left alone; they need to not have to worry about everyone else in the family, they need to not have to be responsible for everything. They need to be able to devote all of their attention to writing, in short: they need a Room of Their Own.
I am, as I already mentioned, very happy that the ACF Washington is ready to give women a Room of Their Own, a room in the spotlight – at least temporarily, at least for the time being, at least for rent. I am hoping that with time, that Room – and all it entails – will become a permanent installment in women’s lives, in the public mind and in institutions considerations alike.
Throughout history, women were relegated to the margins of history. Their voices were seen as less important to preserve, their daily lives less interesting to observe. It is a loss. It means we, so often, have been presented with half-histories. We are charged, now, to read between the lines, to read around the testimonies of men, or to dig deeper, look harder.
When a story comes to us, then, it is a sort of treasure, a window, an opportunity. One such story came to me. She was my grandfather’s lover, and he had preserved her words, tucked away, for decades. And in so doing he saved a voice.
Dr. Valerie—Valy—Scheftel was a student in medicine at the University of Vienna throughout the 1930s. She wasn’t well off, but she was brilliant, adventurous, daring, modern. She cared little for marriage and cared a great deal about her education, her intellect, her lover, her relationship to science. She was raised by a single mother, a shopkeeper, in the small city then known as Troppau, Czechoslovakia (now Opava, Cz). At the time of her birth it was an outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with a grand opera house, and architecture befitting the era. It became Czech after World War I, but Valy’s lingua franca was German, not Czech. She came alone to Vienna to study medicine, among the second wave of women to do so in the early twentieth century; a vanguard generation. And she was a Jew.
In the year following Valy’s medical school graduation—just before Anschluss—everything about Valy’s identity was reduced to two elements: her gender and her religion.
Women like Valy, throughout history, have rarely been the focal point of attention. How would you know of her, after all? She didn’t run the community, she wasn’t a rabbi, a mayor, a landowner, an art owner. She had little money. Her contributions were local, internal, communal. Perhaps they would have expanded beyond that, had she not been crushed in the maw of racist legislation. Perhaps she would have expanded our understanding of science. She wasn’t given that chance.
That I know of her at all is because, in Vienna, Valy fell in love with my grandfather, Karl Wildman. She wrote to him for years after he fled the city in the fall of 1938. She wrote from Troppau, and then she wrote from Berlin. I found her letters, her photos, her clues to a wartime tragedy.
In finding Valy I began to investigate what it would have meant to be a young, modern, intellectual woman, when the entire world was taken away.
Theodora Bauer is a playwright and novelist. Her last novel “Chikago” was awarded and nominated for several awards in Austria: “Chikago” was also selected by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung as one of the 10 Best Books of 2017 and won the Recognition Award of the Theodor Kery Foundation.
Sarah Wildman is a deputy editor and host of the First Person podcast at Foreign Policy. Wildman is the author of the book Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind (Riverhead) and has been a regular contributor to the New York Times, Slate, The Forward, Washingtonian and the New Yorker online.