Interview with Helga Kraft

Title

Interview with Helga Kraft

Subject

Congresses; Germanists; Feminism

Description

Interview between Barbara Kosta and Helga Kraft

Source

Teams digital recording

Publisher

Barbara Kosta

Date

June 6, 2022

Contributor

Kosta; Kraft

Rights

Release sign formed summer 2024

Format

Mp3

Language

English; German

Coverage

Oral history of experience in Women in German

Transcription

Helga Kraft Interview
Final - Edited by Morgan Hunter - 2022

Kosta: Okay, so here we go. Here we are in Berlin and we are participating in the WiG Herstory project, and as part of the project, I'm going to interview you and ask you questions about your involvement in WiG. You know, what WIG meant for you, and go through the prepared questions.

Kraft: Very good, let's do this.

Kosta: Ok, so first of all, if you could please introduce yourself with your name, your affiliation, country of residence and origin, what year you joined WiG, and how you first heard about it.

Kraft: Yes. I'm Helga Kraft, I was born in Germany in Berlin, I emigrated to the United States in 1958, and studied in Berkeley…

Kosta: And your affiliation? University of…?

Kraft: My last affiliation? At the present is University of Illinois at Chicago

Kosta: And then your country of residence?

Kraft: My country of residence is now Berlin, Germany.

Kosta: And then maybe you could say what, what year you joined WiG.

Kraft: I joined WiG—I believe it was 1980 at the, well, at the beginning.

Kosta: And you know how you first heard about WiG?

Kraft: I heard about WiG, I would say, by visiting some of the associations. It might have been GSA and I met there, for instance Ruth [Ingress?] whom I knew from Berkeley, where I studied.

Kosta: Okay, so Helga, I mean, we can do this interview in German, or we can do it in English, whichever you prefer, but I'm going to ask you some questions in English.

Kraft: Okay. Ich wollte eigentlich auf Deutsch sprechen. Ist das in Ordnung?

Kosta: Sehr schön. Das ist perfekt. Okay. When and how did WiG begin for you?

Kraft: Ich würde sagen, auch 1978. Da hörte ich davon von Studenten auch, sehr interessant. Und ich bin dann auch nach Racine, zu dem Treffen in dem Jahr gefahren und zwar bei meiner graduate Studentin Barbara Kosta, die ja bekannt ist, wir sind da zusammen hingefahren und dann später mit auch weiteren anderen Studenten oder alleine.

Kosta: Und so it began in Racine for you. Tell—tell us about your career before WiG?

Kraft: Ja, gut. Also ich war, wie gesagt, ausgewandert, und habe dann in Berkeley studiert und mein PhD gemacht 1970; dann bin ich verzogen nach Florida und bekam meine erste Stelle erst 1973 - ich musste meine Familie verlassen um diesen Job zu kriegen, das war in Pennsylvania, Westminster College, und dort war ich ein Jahr, hatte schon eine Tenure-Stelle, ich war sehr stolz; und dann wurde ich nach Kansas gerufen, auch als tenure-track Assistant Professor und lebte da auch ein Jahr, ich machte auch zugleich ein Studentenaustausch nach Deutschland, und ein Jahr darauf konnte ich wieder in der Nähe meiner Familie in Florida [sein], ich bekam eine Stelle in Gainesville, und es war deswegen interessant, denn ich bekam die Stelle deshalb, weil eine frühere Frau, die dort unterrichtete, Gisela Brinker-Gabler war, und sie hatte damals schon 1976 einen Kurs eingereicht über Frauen in der deutschen Literatur und man fragte mich am Telefon, kann ich so einen Kurs unterrichten und ich sagte “selbstverständlich” – ich habe ja in Berkeley deutsche Frauen gelernt, und zwar ein Gedicht von Ingeborg Bachmann und Die Judenbuche von Droste-Hülshoff - also ich war bereit und bekam die Stelle.




Kosta: Ich muss—was interessant ist, dass ich diesen Kurs in Gainesville mit Gisela Brinker-Gabler belegt hatte –

Kraft: Ehrlich?!

Kost: Ja!

Kraft: Das wusste ich nicht. Und dann später mit mir noch mal!

Kosta: Und dann mit dir noch mal! Genau!

Kraft: Ich weiss noch, wir haben Sachen auswendig gelernt noch, weißt du?

Kosta: Yeah. Okay. Describe the first WiG event you attended.

Kraft: Ja, das war, wie gesagt, in Racine, und ich war sofort unglaublich angetan. Nummer eins, es waren alles Frauen da und war, glaube ich, einen sehr netten Mann dabei, zu der Zeit. Und wir trafen uns alle - es waren fast 100 oder zu der Zeit gleich am Anfang so 78 oder so, und alles in einem Raum, es gab keine Sections, wir waren alle zusammen, alle hörten alle Vorträge - und zum ersten Mal hörte ich Vorträge über Mittelalterliteratur und nicht nur meine Sektion, es war einfach wunderbar - und auch irgendwie fühlte ich mich eigentlich sehr wohl da und wollte dabei bleiben - Und habe das gemacht.

Kosta: Toll. Ja, Ich kann mir auch vorstellen, dass es sehr außergewöhnlich war, irgendwie eine Tagung mit nur Frauen zu erfahren.

Kraft: Genau. Und da waren nur Frauen. Und irgendwie waren wir dann irgendwie aus der Isolierung heraus, die ich bei mir zu Hause bei meiner Universität hatte. Die Abteilung hatte 10 Männer und ich war die einzige Frau, und immer so ein bisschen belächelt, ich wurde vorgestellt, hier ist unsere Feministin, ha, ha, ha, und war das irgendwie, wurde ich ernst aufgenommen und hatte Vertrauen, dass meine Arbeit auch ernst war. Und es waren dort auch Frauen mit denen ich dann Kontakt hatte, die waren schon erfahrener waren und länger im Beruf, sie haben uns Ratschläge gegeben und das hat mir sehr geholfen, um Selbstvertrauen zu stärken und irgendwie, an meine eigene Arbeit zu glauben, mein eigenes Schreiben und Veröffentlichungen.


Kosta: Toll. So that—that describes your role that you played from WiG, now tell us an anecdote that embodies WiG for you.

Kraft: Yes, well, I organized, three years, the conference, the WiG conference, and on one of the conference, I believe it was ‘96, it happened to be on Halloween. And so a lot of us dressed up as witches!

Kosta: How appropriate!

Kraft: Yeah, and my name is of course Kraft, and instead of having my tag saying “Kraft,” it says “Witchkraft.” And we had a lot of fun and had a marvelous conference. Future Nobel Prize winner was there.

Kosta: Herta Müller.

Kraft: It's a very memorable conference at that time. Also, Monika {?} was there who died a year later and I still have a beautiful picture where some doves fly up from her, and I've never forget that conference. It was wonderful.

Kosta: That was also the conference that you organized.

Kraft: I organized. Yeah.

Kosta: So I mean, that leads to the question, what role did you play in WiG?

Kraft: So, for instance, that was one. I—I organized the conference, typically for three years, and for the first time in Florida, beautiful and by the beach, on St. Augustine, Florida, you know, we've rented gorgeous places. And for the first time anyone in WiG got some money from the universities, because I had stepped on their toes and said, “This is a very important association, you have to give us money for it.” And we got some money for it. And it was—it was beautiful. And everybody loved it, and everybody was very wonderful. Writers came to all the conferences from Germany, and that is also a great extra. And not just MLA, GSA at that time, you didn't see women invited, or one in 10 years or so.

Kosta : You know, I think if I may interject, I think that's the first that was—you launched our WiG conferences into more luxurious settings.

Kraft: That's true. Bad hotel rooms!

Kosta: After that, I think there was no return after that. Especially, being able to walk on the beach, right. And that was also when we started, we'd have to look back at the conference agendas, but I think that was also the time where we decided that we have to have an afternoon free in order to explore the area because, you know, everybody just wanted to go to the beach at that conference.

Kraft: And I remember we always had this problem at other conferences. We had no time, but just sit in rooms. And I've been in many places United States where I just know the hotel by the airport.

Kosta: Yeah, yeah. No, I think that we got very spoiled at that conference. And that—and that changed the whole, you know, expectation of accommodations.

Kraft: But this was just one aspect with Women in German. It was not just the intellectual part; it was the whole body that was part of it. The combination of both and the combination of both I also learned and through the feminism that came to me through WiG that body and mind belong together and I started teaching it in German beginning classes we taught differently then from what I learned in feminism and through the WiG people.

Kosta: Yeah, so yeah, we took—we took the lessons from WiG and we brought them back to our institutions.

Kraft: Right, and to other, not only feminist and women’s literature, but other curriculum too. Language studies…

Kosta: Right, exactly, yeah. Yeah. No, I very, I remember that conference very well.

Kraft: And Barabara and I wrote this book auf Deutsch, which is still the best one! And that came without WiG, we couldn't have written this.

Kosta: I mean, we collaborated very early on in our career, right? Yeah. I mean, we wrote and article together…

Kraft: Very few people collaborate. We use graduate students and give them credit while the men usually took the credit, right? When I was—I was leading Women's Studies in Gainesville for a long time, because of the inspiration, I, you know, should mention that too. I remember, oftentimes, women from other departments and other disciplines came to me and said, “I, as a graduate student did this research and my professor took credit for it.” And, you know, I started protesting around.

Kosta: Actually, so probably, you know, kind of your career and your experiences with WiG also lead you into women's studies.

Kraft: Only. Only because of WiG.

Kosta: And you chaired Women’s Studies, right?

Kraft: Yeah, for many years, and changed it from a small place. I think we had $3,800, in after three years, we had $100,000. And the BA on—in women's studies, without connection with others. So, it would have not happened. Because of that, right.

Kosta: Yeah. So WIG becomes like the fertile ground for all these other career moves.

Kraft: All these ideas, just popped to my mind.

Kosta: Incredible. Yeah, then. So like, I guess, you know, what role did WiG play for you is very clear. And—but maybe we can go back to what role? You know, what did you also say? You said that you organized the conference, but you did more for WiG.

Kraft: I did more. I was—when I started doing the conference. I was part of the steering committee. And then later again, of the editorial committee, I think it was ‘94, 5, and 6, three years. I was editor, of course, co-editor, but I think it was all done at my office. I even got a secretary, whether it helper or assistant from paid by my university for it. So we both did those three yearbooks at that time, and I love doing this yearbooks, and getting those—those articles and we sent them out for review. And I still wonder how we did all that; lots of work, and it was fun. Yeah, yeah.

Kosta: Yeah, actually very fulfilling too.

Kraft: Absolutely. I think—I think I was mistaken. What have I had not mentioned? And it was it was 2003, 2004, and 2005.

Kosta: That you were yearbook co-editor, yeah. Right. Yeah, let's talk about an anecdote that embodies WiG for you.

Kraft: Well, yes, I—there's, of course, several, but one that just pops to my mind without thinking it was at this conference in ‘95… ‘96. And we, of course, did every year, the cabaret. And we love the Caberet. Again, it showed the human element of the intellectual that it has to be part of it. And we had a colleague who was just hilarious! It was Martha Wallach.. Dear good friend, who we loved dearly, she would roll on the floor. They will always make fun of the present politics and play those stuffy politicians. And she came with a Schnurrbart [mustache] it was just wonderful. This is the one funny anecdote that comes to mind right now.

Kosta: Yeah, yeah. So there had to do a lot with the cabaret. It's a cabaret moment.

Kraft: My Cabaret moment. Yeah, we will not miss that.

Kosta: Do you have any other anecdotes that you can think of in terms of WiG? I think it's the only conference where everybody hugs each other at the beginning, right?

Kraft: Right! Right. For instance. Yes, yes.

Kosta: How wonderful that is!

Kraft: Yes. Right. And I still like—I also like that sometimes some members brought their children and I remember one woman from, I think she from the New York area. She brought her little child and she was sitting in front of us just quiet, listening. You know, that's unusual that children were—then we had babysitting. Where did you have that? I don't know if that's an anecdote, but it's a good memory.

Kosta: A good memory, yeah.

Kraft: Yeah. I like that. It was just enjoyable.

Kosta: Do you remember any of the hardest discussions or debates that came up at WiG in your memory?

Kraft: Nobody's perfect. Some like it hot. Remember the final words? And of course, I'm not perfect. Of course you are. But WiG had a few things that made it hard for me. And that was, it was not from the beginning, but soon thereafter, there started to be some factions. And somehow, it seemed the factions hardened. And they didn't get into the free conversation to say, what is it? They're—like me understand or I think this way and—and are you sure? And that then was very hard and I kind of stopped then participating. I kind of was afraid to say something wrong. No?

Kosta: You had to self-censor yourself.

Kraft: I had to self-censor myself, of course, we don't want what I was always afraid of was political correctness, you know, and I was this whole thing disturbed everything. It still does, of course, you know, we're still not over this. And it's very difficult and the world is difficult. And I've been living in Berlin now for quite some time in my retirement, now for almost 10 years. And I'm not sure where you are in WiG right now. I have unfortunately not been able to come especially with Corona now. I don't know if this kind of thing has—was in WiG dissolved. No, now Barbara, you were last time?

Kosta: I think we're still having some very hard discussions. But I have a feeling that they're more open. I think the time—I mean, if I may interpret this—I think the time that you're talking about - it was part of the women's movement and people were really trying to define themselves in WiG and creating their own camps.

Kraft: And I didn't know enough about this fact to even argue; I had to learn first. Yeah. And obviously, this is life, you know, and if we were all only friedevolle Eierkuchen - That would be wrong too.

Kosta: There has to be some debate.

Kraft: Right, there has to be some way to be some debate, but it must not stop. It shouldn't stop. People should invite people to stay in conversation and I'm glad that you're trying this.

Kosta: And not intimidated at all.

Kraft: I hope I can come next year.

Kosta: That would be fabulous, because it's Portland!

Kraft: Because I'm still so young.

Kosta: Exactly!

Kraft: See, how old would I be next year?

Kosta: I don't think you have to reveal that here. I'm gonna take the Marlene Dietrich plea!

Kraft: I do this, by the way, in Wikipedia. No age is mentioned of mine.

Kosta: So tell us, as you talked about your cabaret moment, now, if you—thinking about WiG. What are the three words that come to mind when you think about WiG?

Kraft: Three words… That is hard! Let's see. One, I can only think of English and that—that would be empowerment. The other ones… Let's see. The next one is the… Yeah, Zugehörigkeit And the last one? Definitely. Freude. Joy. So these are my three words.

Kosta: Very nice.

Kraft: Okay. So this is my—my WiG experience.

Kosta: The WiG experience.

Kraft: It was very nice to think back, bring it back. Thank you for asking.

Kosta: Yeah, these—through these questions, I mean, so many images started coming back, you know in terms of what we’ve experienced over the years in WiG and what an important organization it’s been and it continues to be right. I mean, that's what the cutting-edge literature seems to be.

Kraft: So I really hope to, you know, I always wanted to come over the last years, and COVID brought us so back down and I hope next year is better. Much wonderful future for WiG - continue!

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Citation

“Interview with Helga Kraft,” Women in German Herstory Project, accessed July 15, 2024, http://wig-herstory.com/items/show/215.