Charlotte Wolff: Studying the love between women
As a Jew and a lesbian, Charlotte Wolff knew what it mean to live as a quintessential outsider in Nazi-ruled Germany.
But she managed to survive this period and went on to apply her efforts on researching about the love between women and why names like lesbianism and homosexuality don’t give full justice to what they signify.
Charlotte Wolff: Not being born a boy
Wolff was born on 30 September 1897 in Riesenburg, West Prussia, which is Prabuty in Poland today. However, she was schooled in nearby Danzig, or Gdansk.
As a Jew, she learned how to read Hebrew in Sunday school, but she chafed at having to sit in the women’s gallery in synagogue on the High Holidays and not being able to participate in services or prayers.
Thus, at a young age, she had the wish to have been born a boy and a preference to wear male attire. When she grew up to a teenager, she was later attracted to other girls and women.
Fortunately, her family and her social circle were open about her preference.
Though she wanted to go into literature and philosophy at the University of Freiburg in 1920, she decided to takeup medicine because she wanted to support herself.
Later on, she completed her doctorate in medicine in Berlin in 1926 and did her internship at the Virchow Hospital.
Charlotte Wolff: Facing persecution from Nazis
Though she had her career and her private practice in 1931, the rise of the Nazis in Germany completely turned over her world.
Her volunteer work in pre-natal car and family planning marked her as suspect and in 1932, her “Aryan” lesbian partner left her because she was a Jew.
When the Nazis took control of government in 1933, Wolff and most of the Jewish physicians lost their jobs as well as the right to treat patients covered by workers’ insurance.
She was even arrested by the Gestapo once and accused of being “a woman dressed as a man and a spy.” Meanwhile, her apartment unit was ransacked for incriminating communist material.
Finally, she fled to France where she lived with friends in Paris and a artists’ colony in Sanary. But because she was a German refugee, she couldn’t practice medicine there.
Charlotte Wolff: Creating her best work
From France, she moved to England in 1936, where she became a permanent resident in 1937 and taking British citizenship in 1947.
There, she began to rebuild her life and her career as she got permission to practice psychotherapy. She was only officially reinstated as a physician in 1952.
While writing her autobiography in the 1960s, she decided to focus on sexology with homosexuality as her field of research.
In 1971, she wrote her landmark study, Love Between Women, based on interviews of more than a hundred lesbians.
She also wrote a book on bisexuality and a biography of German-Jewish sexologist pioneer, Magnus Hirschfeld. In 1964, she was invited back to Germany for the first time to speak about her research.
Charlotte Wolff: Her opinion about the ‘lesbian’
In an interview with James D. Steakley in June 1981 in West Berlin, she once said the term ‘lesbian’ was idiotic.
She clarified that “to relate women of our time to six hundred years before the birth of Christ, and then give them the name ‘lesbian,’ seems to me ridiculous.”
“I tried in my book, Love Between Women, to coin a new term. I said, the essential thing is emotion. Then let’s call it “homoemotionality between women”– a female homoemotionality,” she explained.
She pointed out: “Any sex which is not a product of the erotic imagination– which in itself can only come from emotion– can make no sense, can be no inspiration for the human being at all.’
“That’s what Magnus Hirschfeld said so wonderfully: homosexual love is life-giving for both body and soul,” she said.
On 12 September 1986, she died in London, the city that granted her refuge and home after the Second World War.