Ottilie Assing

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Ottilie Davida Assing (11 February 1819 – 21 August 1884) was a 19th-century German feminist, freethinker, and abolitionist. Born in Hamburg, she was the eldest daughter of a prominent Jewish physician, David Assur, who converted to Christianity upon marriage to her Lutheran-raised mother, and changed his name to Assing.[1] Her mother was the poet Rosa Maria Varnhagen Assing, who was friendly with other literary women, including Clara Mundt and Fanny Lewald, and prominent in liberal circles that supported (but failed to achieve) social revolution in 1848.

After the great fire of Hamburg in 1850, Assing and her sister Ludmilla went to live with their uncle, the prominent literary figure and revolutionary activist, Karl August Varnhagen von Ense. His wife, the noted Jewish writer and saloniste Rahel Varnhagen, was long dead. Ottilie and Ludmilla soon came to blows in that household, and Ottilie left, never to return. In 1852, she emigrated to the United States, settling in New York and eventually in Hoboken, New Jersey. She supported herself by writing articles for the Morgenblatt für gebildete Leser and often wrote under a male pseudonym.

Assing read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and was impressed. In 1856, she went to Rochester to interview Douglass. They struck up an immediate friendship. Over the next 26 years, they attended some meetings and conventions together. At first, she wrote general interest pieces about culture, but soon her writing focused on the abolitionist movement. While Assing was in Europe, trying to establish her claim to her sister's estate (including her mother's, and the Varnhagens' papers) she read in a newspaper that Douglass was to marry his 20-years-younger white secretary, Helen Pitts. She had already been diagnosed with incurable breast cancer. In 1884, Assing committed suicide in Paris in a public park. As per the will left in her hotel, her correspondence with Douglass was burned and Douglass received her meager estate (the bulk of the family fortune having been given away on a whim by her sister).

Further reading[edit]

  • Her letters to Douglass and her articles on the United States are published in Radical Passion which is edited, translated, and introduced by Christopher Lohmann
  • "From German Cultural Criticism to Abolitionism: Ottilie Assing: "Zealous to give vent to her gall"" (2002) by Britta Behmer
  • "Love Across The Color Lines" by Maria Diedrich (Hill and Wang, 1999), biography of Assing that speculates on her relationship with Douglass.

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