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Anna Rüling: the First Lesbian Feminist?

A Brief Biography of Anna Rüling

Anna Rüling (1880-1953), born Theodora Anna Sprüngli, is often regarded as one of the first women to publicly ‘come out’ as homosexual. While some consider that her ‘coming out’ was predated by German feminist Johanna Elberskirchen, Rüling is nonetheless a stand-out figure of queer history.

Rüling was born in Germany to Swiss parents and received a typically appropriate education for a middle-class woman of her time. She talented in music, but had to give up her favoured instrument – the violin – due to an injury. For a time, prior to her career as an activist, Rüling supported herself by providing music lessons and writing articles on the arts. Unaware of her homosexuality, her parents attempted to force Rüling to marry, but she repeatedly refused, claiming that a marriage to a man would be ‘incapable of creating happiness’ for her.

Following a relationship with a woman in 1904, Rüling began work in activism. In these activist days, Rüling strongly rallied for the support of the women’s movement in LGBTQ+ issues. She spoke passionately about the issues faced uniquely by lesbians and demanded support from the women’s movement, and in 1904 was invited by the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee to speak to their members. In this speech, she boldly claimed that ‘if people would just observe, they would come to the conclusion that homosexuality and the women’s movement do not stand opposed to each other, but rather they aid each other reciprocally to gain rights and recognition, and to eliminate the injustice which condemns them on this earth’ (Rüling 13-14). Christiane Leidinger remarks that this speech ‘was significant because it took place at a time when the women’s movement was gaining momentum while ignoring the lesbian women’s involvement within its ranks’ (Leidinger, 481). Many such lesbians – those who participated in the women’s rights movement – and heterosexual women alike did not support Rüling’s ideology, and for the most part lesbian involvement in the women’s movement continued to remain underground and unacknowledged.

Despite this passionate rhetoric, Rüling gave no further speeches after 1904 and this seems to stand alone against her journalistic works. In 1906, however, she did publish a collection of short stories titled Who Among You is Without Sin: Books from the Dark Side. This collection contained sexually explicit stories featuring queer men and women as their protagonists, some of which boasted the earliest happy endings to be written for this kind of story. When she registered with the Reich Association of German Authors in 1933, she wisely omitted this collection from her corpus. Fortunately, the authorities did not connect the penname Anna Rüling – responsible for both this collection of stories, and the 1904 speech, with the Theodora Sprüngli who published in the right-wing New German Women’s Newspaper. While she did not join the Nazi Party, she was a fervent patriot and espoused views with anti-Semitic connotations.

All throughout her life, Rüling continued to publish articles and worked constantly in journalism. By the time she died in 1953, she was one of the longest-serving female journalists in Germany. Further details of her activism and relationships into the 20th century are unknown. While it is certain Rüling never married, there has been no further record of homosexual relationships or LGBTQ+ activism. Leidinger argues that ‘a complete lesbian-feminist identification with her seems impossible because of her glowing nationalism and patriotism, […] and her membership in right-wing organizations’ (Leidinger, 498-99). Nonetheless, her status as one of the first ‘out’ lesbian activists marks her as, at the very least, a figure in queer history worth remembering.

Works Cited:

Leidinger, Christiane, ‘“Anna Rüling”: A Problematic Foremother of Lesbian Herstory’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 13 (2004) pp. 477-499.

Rüling, Anna, ‘What Interest Does the Women’s Movement Have in Solving the Homosexual Problem? (1904)’ (Urania Manuscripts, 2020).

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