Louise Wilhelmine Holborn (1898-1975) was an educator, political scientist, and internationally recognized author on refugee issues. She was born in Berlin-Charlottenburg, Germany and grew up in a close-knit family of educators. Her personal papers provide insights into her struggle to obtain a graduate degree, document the erosion of German women’s rights during World War II, and detail her activities on behalf of international refugees.
Holborn was a graduate student at the University of Heidelberg and German Academy for the Advanced Study of Political Science and Policy when Hitler’s Nationalist Social Party (NSP) rose to power in 1933. In a 1938 speech entitled The Position of Women in Germany under the Nazi Government, given at Wheaton College, Holborn recalled NSP ideology that declared “institutions of higher learning belong to the men…the activity of women in men’s occupations because of the still existing social and economic need [may have] a justification in industry and trade, but no longer in intellectual professions.”
Her speech also described how economic and political gains made by German women were rescinded as men took over government and administrative jobs. Rather than retreat to the kitchen as Hitler advised, Holborn, with the support of family and friends, emigrated to London. Her decision was based on a belief that “women [are] given the power to set understanding against the [threat] of war, to set life against death, and to set love against a world of hate. But to use their gifts and to fulfill their duties, women have to be educated and have to know what really is going on in political and public life…”
She briefly attended the London School of Economics, but in 1934 immigrated to the United States where she enrolled in Radcliffe College. She eventually earned an M.A (1936) a Ph.D. (1938) and became a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Holborn’s teaching credits included Wellesley College (1939-1942), Pine Manor Junior College for Women (1942-1946), and Smith College (1946-1947). In 1947 she became a tenured professor at Connecticut College for Women in New London and taught there until her retirement in 1970.
Membership records, notes, and interviews confirm that Holborn drew critical parallels between her experience and the issues faced by international refugees. Her activities with the U.S. Committee for Refugees, the International Refugee Organization and related organizations are well documented. She also traveled and wrote extensively for the United Nations describing the plight of refugees in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Of special interest is her work as a consultant for the Cuban Refugee Program (ca. 1963-1969) sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. The resulting study, The Cuban Refugee Program, its Development and Implementation, provided insights into program’s objectives and the challenges of resettlement faced by Cuban immigrants.
Recognition for Holborn’s exceptional work on behalf of refugees includes Norway’s Golden Fridtjof Nansen Ring awarded in 1971. In 1975 she received the Order of Merit First Class from the Federal Republic of Germany, considered the country’s highest civilian honor. Additional accomplishments are described in Who’s Who in America, the Dictionary of Women Worldwide, and the International Who’s Who of Women. Her papers are housed at the Schlesinger Library.