Guillaume-Schack, Gertrud (1845-1903)

Gertrud Guillaume-Schack
Gertrud Guillaume-Schack

A short biography of the "Anarchist Countess" Gertrud Guillaume-Schack, active in the Socialist League.

Submitted by Battlescarred on January 13, 2013

Gertrud Guillaume-Schack was born on 9th November 1845 in Uschütz, Silesia, modern-day Poland. In this period the village counted 1.365 people and was the most populous in the Rosenberg district. Gertrud’s father was the Graf (Count) Alexander Schack von Wittenau who owned a 1787 hectare estate. Her mother was Elizabeth Countess of Königsdorf.

She was sent by her family to live on a manor in Nieder-Poppschütz in Kreis Freystadt. Apart from that very little else is known about her younger years. In 1877 she met and married the Swiss painter Edouard Guillaume at Les Verrières in the canton of Neuchatel in Switzerland. He was the brother of the anarchist James Guillaume, one of Bakunin’s closest associates, and hence the error committed in some references that she was married to James!

Gertrud moved with Edouard to Paris soon after but they divorced after two years. She then returned to Germany at the age of 34. Whilst in Paris Gertrud had become involved in the abolitionist movement against prostitution, initiated by the Englishwoman Josephine Butler. In England Butler and her Ladies National Organisation had campaigned against the Contagious Diseases Act, which reinforced the sexual double standard, and where women were targeted and penalised as spreaders of venereal disease, whilst the clients of prostitutes were ignored. The Contagious Diseases Act had been passed in Britain in the 1860s. As Dr William Acton, voicing the established opinion of the time wrote: “Who are those fair creatures, neither chaperones nor chaperoned: those “somebodies whom nobody knows”, who elbow our wives and daughters in the parts and promenades and rendez-vous of fashion? Who are those painted, dressy women flaunting along the streets and boldly accosting the passer-by? Who are those miserable creatures, ill-fed, ill-clothed, uncared-for, from whose misery the eye recoils, cowering under dark arches and among bye-lanes?” In other words, he included as prostitutes all women who engaged in unfettered sex before marriage, who refused to be chaperoned. All of these must be arrested and made to undergo a regular medical examination.

In 1880 she was the first to speak out in Germany about the regulation of prostitution and in the same year on 7th March she founded the Deutscher Kulturbund (German Cultural Association) as a branch of the International Abolitionist Federation. “According to one source, in 1890 a total of 4,039 Berlin prostitutes were under police supervision. Many of these were confined to designated areas of a city [Sperrbezirke]. But another estimate puts the total number of prostitutes in Berlin closer to 30,000 in the 1890s, between 100,000 and 200,000 in all of Germany, and as high as 330,000 nation-wide on the eve of the First World War.”1

The Cultural Association put on many events and meetings and Gertrud was one of the first women to speak publicly in front of large audiences, many of them women workers. The moral police often forbade their events because of "public nuisance". The Cultural Association increasingly emphasised the link between poverty and prostitution. In addition the morality police began to persecute the Association and to forbid their events on the grounds of “public nuisance”. Whilst in Berlin she came in contact with another woman activist hailing from East Silesia, Lina Morgenstern. She was active in setting up the Berliner Soup Kitchens. A main railway station had just opened in Berlin and together the two women founded a hostel facing this station which offered shelter and accommodation to the thousands of young women who travelled to Berlin every year to find work. Gertrud also engaged a sharp polemic with the Reichstag and with elements in the SPD who wanted to restrict or ban woman’s work. Her persecution by the police and their accusations that the Cultural Association exhibited socialistic tendencies and her linkage of prostitution with poverty had moved her in a socialist direction and in 1885 she joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

In 1885 Gertrud founded the newspaper Die Staatsburgerin (The Woman Citizen) in Offenbach am Main but after six months it was banned for “class incitement” under the Socialist Laws. Following this a further ban on leaflets and circulars was imposed. The newspaper had published statistics on the situation of women workers, questionnaires and survey results, as well as novels.

In that year she founded the Association representing the Verein zur Vertretung der Interessen der Arbeiterinnen (Association for the Interests of Women Workers) for women in the service sector- maids, laundresses, janitors, domestic workers etc. In Offenbach she created a Central Ambulance Fund for women and Girls in Germany, which by the end of 1885 had more than 15,000 members in 166 branches and which after the banning of all the socialist organisations became the only remaining women’s organisation in Germany.

The Socialist Laws were now being used against her, the Cultural Association was banned, and she was exiled from several German cities and eventually deported from the country. In 18867 and 1887 she set up branches of the Verein in the Swiss cities of St Gallen, Winterthur, Zurich, Bern and Basel. She moved to England in 1886, where she joined the Socialist League and became active in several London radical clubs.

According to the German Social Democrat Eduard Bernstein in his My Years of Exile, Gertrud was “a warm-hearted, convinced, socialist”, who was also “good-humoured and unassuming”. She was a frequent and welcome visitor at Friedrich Engels’ house (although he had the habit of referring to her condescendingly as Mother Schack, just as he used this suffix with other feminists). All was well until June 1887 she refused to visit the house because of the presence of Edward Aveling, the partner of Eleanor Marx and the ultimate “cad and bounder” (Aveling repeatedly importuned other socialists, even the most poverty-stricken, for loans which he never repaid, he carried on a number of affairs behind Eleanor’s back, and it is rumoured that he callously supplied the poison with which Eleanor killed herself after so much mental cruelty from this man). Gertrud told Engels that Aveling had committed “unmentionable acts”. Other disagreements with Engels were over her insistence on campaigning for women’s causes within the socialist movement as divisive, especially at a time when socialism was banned in Germany. He believed that women were unable to maintain party discipline and that as soon as they fell out with each other they would tattle about party activities and even denounce their own comrades to the police”2 .

Marx and Engels had a well-documented antipathy to others who they saw as rivals to their own perceived leadership of the workers’ movement. This was particularly pronounced in relation to women. So Engels was to write that “This person is determined, cost what it may, to play a big role”.

Guillaume-Schack has received dismissive treatment from some Marxists. Hal Draper was to sneeringly and condescendingly say that:” She had been a leader of the bourgeois women’s movement in Germany then was active in the socialist women’s movement for a while (a blow from which it recovered), went to England where she moved on to anarchism and was active in blighting William Morris’s Socialist League”. This totally ignores the fact that Guillaume-Schack was instrumental in laying the foundation of a socialist women’s movement, which was not again taken up until 1892 with Clara Zetkin as some creditable histories of the German movement acknowledge. Yvonne Kapp in her biography of Eleanor Marx was to be equally dismissive at greater length.

However as E. P. Thompson noted in his article Eleanor Marx (1976):

Kapp nudges us towards a hilarious and satirical view of this officious lady: ‘She was strongly opposed to the introduction of State licensed and supervised brothels and very keen on what Engels designated “Free Trade in whores”.’ Are we to suppose from this that State licensed brothels are a correct Marxist demand, objected to only by ‘pious bourgeois Women’? Perhaps we are not: we are only supposed to see Mrs Schack as hysterical and ridiculous. This is an example of Kapp’s common game of playing both ends against the middle. One end is the absolute priority of political over personal criteria and the absolute political authority of Engels and of ‘Tussy’; while Kapp acknowledges Avelng’s sexual and financial offences, these are seen as something quite distinct from his political soundness – Aveling ‘was always to be found on the correct side of the political fence.’ The other end is the assumption that almost all the personal attacks on Aveling were caused by anti-Marxist political motivation, and a readiness to use any kind of personal gossip to devalue Aveling’s critics. If the gifted socialist agitator J.L. Mahon also refused to work with Aveling (and it is clear that Engels made this a condition of his support for Mahon’s propaganda) then we are allowed by Kapp to suppose that this was only because he was a self-respecting worker with a ‘puritanical streak’ who was shocked by the Avelings’ common-law marriage.

When I first wrote my study of William Morris over twenty years ago I inclined to Kapp’s judgement, and gave both Eleanor and Engels the benefit of the doubt. But since that time the Engels-Lafargue correspondence has become available, and I have consequently sharpened my own judgement in revision. Engels’s lofty dismissal, in l887, of the existing socialist movement in Britain as ‘a number of small cliques held together by personal motives’, comes uneasily from a man who was at the centre of the smallest and most personally-motivated clique of all. The Avelings, having hurried on the split in the SDF, failed then to give a full commitment to the Socialist League, formed a faction within it, and forced on a further split which destroyed their own creation. Engels, who indignantly rebutted each and every attack on Aveling as the malicious slander of political enemies, was both the captive of Aveling and his political mentor. His personal motives (loyalty to ‘Tussy’) were admirable. But in the result he contributed in a small way to the confusions of the early movement and to the repute into which ‘British Marxism’ fell.


Guillaume-Schack was elected to the Council of the Socialist League in 1887. By now she identified herself with the anarchist current within the League. She was a good friend of Jane and Sam Mainwaring. She spoke in support of strikers in Regent’s Park and participated in the League meeting on the Paris Commune in Clerkenwell the following year. However she had to absence herself from the Council because she had to return to Germany because of the death of her mother, saying later that she would like to return to the Council on her return. Returning in June, she, together with Annie Besant4 , protested against interference by the Board of Works at the right to collect funds in places like Victoria Park.

She began to attend discussions of the group around the anarchist paper Freedom. She was one of the delegates of the Socialist League at the Socialist Congress in Paris on July 14th 1889 and she and James Tochatti protested vigorously about the expulsion of the anarchist Merlino. She and Max Nettlau seconded a resolution at the anti-sweating meeting on 25th July 1888, strongly protesting against the system which they said was caused by production based on private ownership and that it had to be replaced by production based on the sharing of common property. They both emphasised their strong criticism of trade unionism and that the only way to real change would be through the combined action of the international working class. In August she addressed meetings in Norwich alongside William Morris and Sam Mainwaring and in Wymondham. In September she became secretary of the London Fields branch of the League (she lived in south Hackney - Crawley Road, on the north side of Victoria Park). This branch counted Sam and Jane Mainwaring and Nettlau among its dozen members. In February 1889 she addressed a meeting on how women could help the socialist movement and addressed the East London Working Women’s Association. In March 1890 she spoke at the first meeting of the Women’s Union. She left the Socialist League in 1890 at a time when Morris and others also made their exit.

Around the turn of the century she became involved in the Theosophical movement, probably under the influence of her friend Annie Besant. At the age of 58 years Guillaume-Schack died on 20th May 1903 in Surbiton.

Nick Heath

Entry on Gertrud Guillaume-Schack by Christian Weidel :
Oliver, Hermia. The International Anarchist Movement in Late Victorian London.

  • 1 In:
  • 2 Marxism and the Women’s Movement. Alfred G. Meyer in Women in Russia eds Atkinson et al.
  • 3
  • 4 libcom note: famous for her journalistic expose of the conditions of “matchgirls”