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Fanny von Arnstein (left), and her biographer Hilde Spiel (right), painted by Liesel Salzer in 1934 (©Jüdisches Museum Wien. Photo of Hilde Spiel portrait: Sebastian Gansrigler)

Women became visible at coffee houses in the interwar years, as they began to enter the workforce. Previously, when coffee houses were still the “WeWork” spaces of their day, women weren’t welcome. It is no wonder that the salonnières of that time focused on educating women so that they could participate in public life. The exhibition presented Eugenie Schwarzwald and Yella Hertzka, who founded schools for the education of young women in addition to running their salons. Others used their salons to pioneer environmentalism, modern music, schooling for children that did not involve disciplinary beatings, even bikinis — all novel and revolutionary ideas at the time.

Salon culture in Vienna ended with the Second World War, when those Jews who managed to escape the Holocaust took their culture with them. The Third Reich brought the death of the Enlightenment ideals from which the early Jewish salonnières like Fanny von Arnstein had drawn their inspiration. In 1938, Berta Zuckerkandl was forced to flee Vienna, first to Paris with the help of her brother-in-law Paul Clemenceau, and then to Algiers. There, she continued to run her salon into old age. Many did not manage to escape, including Freud’s sisters and Zuckerkandl’s sister-in-law Amalie, who was murdered by the Nazis in a concentration camp.

The salonnière Adele Bloch-Bauer’s portrait by Klimt was famously depicted in the film Woman in Gold.  It tells the story of how her portrait (like many works of art that are still exhibited at Vienna’s Belvedere Museum) was looted by the Nazis and eventually won back by her descendants.

The political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote a biography of Rahel Levin Varnhagen, the early salonnière from Berlin. When Arendt was fleeing Europe to save her life, she almost lost the unpublished manuscript. In the exhibition a video showed an interview with Arendt. The interviewer asks if her profession as a philosopher isn’t quite “special” for a woman. Arendt, unfazed, says she’s not a philosopher. “My job — if you can describe it as such — is in political theory.” And besides, she adds: “It doesn’t have to be a male profession. Why wouldn’t a woman be a philosopher?” The interviewer says: “I consider you a philosopher,” to which Arendt quips: “Well, there’s nothing I can do about that.”

In reality, women have always been involved. It’s just that the discourse has not always reflected it. Ancient philosophy had Hypatia and Hipparchia, for example. Even in the male-dominated world of investment, half of Britain’s government bond investors in the 19th century were women. Now the discourse is slowly beginning to reflect reality. A graphic novel illustrates Hannah Arendt’s escapes. A new book tells the History of Women in 100 Objects. The lives of the Brontë sisters have been beautifully portrayed in the musical Wasted at London’s Southwark Playhouse.

In the 20th century, salons received renewed attention when Jürgen Habermas based his concept of the “public sphere” on them. Salons became fabled spaces in our imagination. They also show us how women have shaped the culture of Europe by creating havens where liberal political conversation could thrive and the arts could flourish.
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