Looking back over the fifteen years that have passed since I began the research for this book, I am truly grateful to a large number of people and institutions for the help and support that they have given me. The National Endowment for the Humanities provided a grant that enabled me to travel to libraries and archives in Germany, France, and the Netherlands. The University of Louisville funded travel to Britain and a sabbatical leave. The Institute for Research on Women and Gender of Stanford University, where I spent a semester, gave me access to Stanford’s excellent libraries and a congenial atmosphere for thought and research. In addition, I thank my parents, Ann U. Allen and Franklin G. Allen, for the many forms of support that they have provided for all my endeavors.

The staffs of many libraries and archives provided me with indispensable assistance. I thank David Doughan of the Fawcett Library of London (now the Women’s Library) for his advice, which was based on a wide and deep knowledge of the library’s materials and of women’s history, and for the sense of humor that enlivened my long days of research. I also received able assistance at the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine. The Galton Society kindly gave me permission to see the records of the Eugenics Society, which are held at the Wellcome Library. Annie Dizier- Metz and the staff of the Bibliotheque Marguerite Durand provided friendly and collegial support for my research in Paris. I also thank the staffs of the Bibliotheque Historique de la Ville de Paris and of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France for their help in tracking down materials. Annette Mevis and her staff received me hospitably at the International Information Centre and Archives of the Women’s Movement in Amsterdam. In Germany, I am obliged to the staffs of the Landesarchiv Berlin, the Bundesarchiv Koblenz, the Bundesarchiv Lichterfelde, and the Deutscher Staatsburgerinnen-Verband. Finally, I thank the staff of the Ekstrom Library at the University of Louisville. Delinda Buie of the Special Collections Department applied for funding to acquire several microform collections, including the excellent Gerritsen Collection, that were crucial to my research. Jim Ryan of Interlibrary Loan helped me to find many important published sources. I thank Marja-Leena Hanninen and Sondra Herman for providing translations of sources, and Gail Chooljian Nall for compiling the bibliography.

Many colleagues suggested or provided research materials, helped me to navigate libraries and archives, commented on portions of this work that were contained in lectures, conference papers, and articles, or read drafts of

chapters or of the manuscript as a whole. A very incomplete list of these colleagues includes Marilyn Boxer, Sondra R. Herman, Tiina Kinnunen, Gisela Bock, Joao Esteves, Anne Cova, Susan Pedersen, David Lindenfeld, Kees Gispen, Gerald R. Kleinfeld, Thomas Trautmann, Michael Grossberg, Michael Schwartz, Francesca de Haan, Hugo Roling, Andrew Lees, Marjatta Hietala, Ulla Manns, Mira Bohm, Jurgen Zinnecker, Imbke Behnken, Lesley A. Hall, Pia Schmid, James C. Albisetti, Nancy Theriot, Julia Dietrich, Mary Ann Stenger, Eileen John, and Dawn Heinecken. Above all I thank Karen Offen, who gave generously of her time to support grant applications, to read man­uscripts, to offer careful, honest, and demanding criticism, to suggest avenues for research, and to encourage me when I felt overwhelmed. I have benefited from her immense knowledge of European women’s history and from her friendship over many years.

This book is dedicated to the memory of Mary K. Bonsteel Tachau. When I came to the University of Louisville as an instructor in 1971, Professor Tachau was the only other woman in the Department of History. In the early years of my career, she was a guide, mentor, and friend. A distinguished scholar of American constitutional history and an activist for the rights of women, Professor Tachau encouraged me to teach and study women’s history—a new and controversial field at that time. Whatever I have achieved in this field, I owe in some measure to her.

Ann Taylor Allen Louisville, Kentucky

Introduction: From Destinyto. D ilemma—Motherhood in the. T wentieth C entury. “A Reasonable Human Being”

When Nora, the heroine of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, walked out the door of her comfortable home, her husband Torvald frantically sought to hold her back. “Before all things, you are a wife and mother,” he protested. “I don’t believe that any longer,” was Nora’s response, “I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being, just as you are—or at any event, that I must try and become one.” Nora, the mother of three, aspired to autonomy for her own sake and for the sake of her children. In her present state of child-like dependence, she reflected sadly, she was “of no use to them.”1 As she slammed the door on her husband and children, Nora raised the question that this book will address: is it possible to be both a mother and an autonomous indi­vidual? This is what I will call the “maternal dilemma.”

In the twentieth century, the maternal dilemma has emerged as one of the most intractable problems facing women in the West. Although the identifi­cation of womanhood with motherhood can be traced back to the beginning of human history, the conception of motherhood as a dilemma is relatively new. For without choice, there can be no dilemma. Only since the turn of the twentieth century has freely chosen motherhood been perceived as a realistic— though still often unattainable—aspiration. But the choice is too often between motherhood and other forms of self-realization. Women still assume the chief responsibility for the family, and do most of the work of reproduction and child-rearing. This “double burden” restricts their participation in economic, social, and cultural life and is now the major source of gender inequality in Western societies. Of course, many women never have children, but the tendency to identify womanhood with motherhood nonetheless shapes the environment in which they live and work.

Motherhood is a central concern not just of women, but of the societies in which they live, which depend for their survival on women’s willingness to bear children. The solution of the maternal dilemma is an essential step toward the full realization of women’s rights of citizenship, which will be defined here to include not only participation in politics, but also equal opportunity in social, economic, and cultural life. Suffrage, said the French feminist Nelly Roussel in 1905, was not an end in itself, but a means to the

higher end of ensuring “the natural right of every human being, to live autonomously and to develop all abilities in freedom.”2

In this book, we will look at the ways in which feminists who lived and worked in several Western European countries between 1890 and 1970 attempted to resolve this dilemma by creating a new role for mothers—one that would not restrict, but enhance, their development as individuals. The maternal dilemma was not, of course, invented by feminists. But it was they who defined it, explored it, stressed its importance as a social, cultural, and political issue, and placed it at the center of their theoretical analyses and political programs.

Despite the central importance of this theme to the history of women and of feminism, it has often been neglected by historians, who are usually most interested in women’s entry into new areas such as politics, the professions, sports, and social life outside the family. Motherhood, many imply, was a “traditional” role, and feminists who emphasized it are often identified as conservatives whose contribution was minor, if not actually harmful. In their study of German women in the interwar era, Atina Grossmann, Renate Bridenthal, and Claudia Koonz emphasize the “dangers implicit in a feminism that celebrates separate spheres and differences between the sexes.”3 And Denise Riley charges feminists of earlier generations with emphasizing the “timelessly frozen properties of maternity” and constructing “a woman – thing, objectified as a distortion.”4 But we shall see that in fact feminist discourses on motherhood were fixed neither on “timeless” and essentialist stereotypes, nor on “separate spheres.” On the contrary, they contributed to a remarkable process of transformation.

At the turn of the twentieth century, many feminists extolled motherhood as the highest of human achievements. Indeed, claimed the influential Swedish author Ellen Key, it was “the most perfect realization of human potential that the species has reached.”5 In the political realm, this view was expressed through an ideology that historians call “maternalism,” which asserted the public importance of motherhood and child-rearing. Some even included life-giving motherhood with death-dealing military service among the rights and obligations of citizenship.

By 1970, we note a conspicuous shift in both the content and the tone of feminist debates. Activists of that era continued to advocate the political and social rights of mothers and to explore the experience of motherhood and its place in each individual life. But most repudiated maternalism and aggressively refused to acknowledge motherhood as a universal female vocation, moral mission, or duty of citizenship. In fact, many regarded this as a stereotype that oppressed and confined women. In 1972, young activists of the French women’s liberation movement called upon women to free themselves from an ancient yoke. “The only rational attitude toward what society has made of motherhood is to refuse it,” stated one of their many manifestoes.6

Why this change in the space of less than a century? Why did the grandmothers’ exalted ideal become the granddaughters’ restrictive stereotype—a development that is all the more noteworthy in a period during which the medical and material conditions surrounding motherhood improved immeasurably? This book will answer this question by looking at the relationship between feminism and motherhood in its historical context— the massive transformation of family structure that occurred during the years from 1890 to 1970. The approach will be international and comparative, and will include the nations of Western Europe, focusing chiefly on Britain, France, Germany, and the Netherlands but including many others. Unlike most existing works on this subject, which are centered on public policy issues, this one will emphasize the connection between public policy and the familial roles of mothers. Of course, no single book could cover all aspects— legal, medical, moral, cultural—of the maternal role, so we will focus here on the questions that figured most prominently in feminist debates. What should be the legal status of mothers, and what changes in the law might be required to promote gender equality in the family? Was the child the respon­sibility of the individual mother, the married or unmarried couple, or the community or state? And if the latter, should the state be empowered to com­pel, to limit, or to prohibit parenthood? Was motherhood in itself an occu­pation deserving of compensation, or should it be combined with paid work outside the home? Were all women “motherly” by nature, or were some unfit for this responsibility and thus morally obligated to decline it? And, finally, how would women’s new aspirations to occupational or personal fulfillment affect the mother-child relationship?

As its title indicates, this study focuses on the history of feminist move­ments, Western Europe, and motherhood. I will begin by briefly addressing these three concepts.


Any historical consideration of such a diverse and controversial phenom­enon as feminism must begin with a definition. The terms “feminist” and “feminism” were first used in the late nineteenth century by the French suf­fragist Hubertine Auclert, and by 1900 these terms were in use throughout Europe and in North and Latin America. From that day to this, their meaning has been disputed. As the historian Karen Offen has remarked, many historical works of the 1970s evaluated their subjects according to the authors’ own definitions of feminism, derived from the women’s movements of the late twentieth century. True feminists, these authors insisted, aimed for “equal opportunity for the individual irrespective of sex, familial considerations, or national concerns.”7 But most leaders of the first women’s movement, from its origins in the eighteenth century until 1960, took a positive view of the family, the maternal role, and the complementary male-female couple, and worked from a concept of “equality-in-difference.” Such activists were often dismissed as simply not feminist—a judgment that Offen rightly rejects as unhistorical.

Offen divides feminist arguments into two types: the “individualist,” which stressed individual rights, and the “relational,” which emphasized cooperation, solidarity, and the complementary male-female couple. Encompassing both of these variations, Offen defines a feminist as a

female or male whose ideas and actions. . . show them to meet three criteria: they recognize the value of women’s own interpretations of their lived experience and needs and acknowledge the values women claim publicly as their own… in assessing their status in society relative to men; they exhibit consciousness of, discomfort at, or even anger over institutionalized injustice (or inequity) toward women as a group by men as a group in a given society; and they advocate the elimination of that injustice by challenging, through efforts to alter prevailing ideas and/or social institutions and practices, the coercive power, force, or authority that upholds male prerogatives in that particular culture.8

Many people who will figure in this book put their major efforts into cam­paigns for the rights of children rather than of women. Others shunned the label “feminist”—religious women because of its secular, and socialists because of its middle-class, connotations. But under Offen’s broad definition most of these people qualify in some sense as “feminist.”

Other historians emphasize the conflict rather than the basic agreement among feminist ideologies. Since their beginning in the eighteenth century, claims the well-known historian and theorist Joan Wallach Scott, feminist movements have been trapped in an intractable paradox, albeit one that is not of their own making. In Scott’s view, feminists usually begin by challenging whatever notions of gender difference are used to justify women’s subordi­nation during a given era, and making a claim to equality with men based on a doctrine of gender-neutral human rights, or rights of citizenship. But such a gender-neutral doctrine always proves elusive, for in practice citizenship is associated with maleness (e. g., military service was commonly regarded during this period as an indispensable qualification for citizenship). And therefore feminists are forced to admit gender difference and to argue that women are entitled to equality on the basis of their distinctively female characteristics, thus creating a new version of female “nature” that eventually becomes so oppressive and limiting that a new generation of feminists challenges it in the name of equality (starting the process again).9

In practice, the distinction between arguments for gender equality and gen­der difference was often meaningless, for these arguments were often used interchangeably. And yet on issues concerning maternity, we will see that these two approaches dwelt uneasily together. For the mother identified herself both generically as a human individual and specifically as a woman. In the late nineteenth century, feminists demanded full and equal rights of citizenship for women. But a doctrine of rights that had been designed to fit the male citizen, an independent individual, could only with difficulty be adapted to the citizen-mother, who claimed rights to dependence as well as to liberty. And the mother-child relationship, which evolves from symbiosis through intermediate stages of dependence that must inevitably end in separation, had no counterpart in the male life-patterns upon which most normative understandings of human nature and politics were based. Many feminists solved this problem by claiming that motherhood itself was a vital service to the state, which deserved to be recognized by the granting of full rights of citizenship. But this maternalist ideology, which emphasized social solidarity, was often difficult to reconcile with individualist claims to equality and liberty. For feminists, motherhood inevitably involved a conflict between social and individualist aspirations, and this conflict will be a major theme of this book.

The term “feminism” has also been problematized for imposing a false unity on a highly disparate set of people, ideas, and events.10 Female sex and gender do not in themselves confer a political identity, and those who speak for “women” in general always represent some particular group. In what fol­lows, we will be concerned with a numerous and diverse array of individuals, not all of whom were women—for men, though in the minority, have always played a role in feminist movements. These individuals’ ideas and actions were shaped by many aspects of identity—not only sex or gender, but also national­ity, class, religion, marital and parental status, and others. At no time does the term “feminism” denote a unified movement or a single orthodox ideology—it always refers to a complex and shifting process of coalition-building.11

Class conflict, which shaped the political life of this era, was often a major obstacle to this process. Both definitions of class and perceptions of class difference varied across national boundaries. In Germany, a hostile relationship between socialist and middle-class women’s groups prevented cooperation over most of our period. In France, Scandinavia, and Britain, cross-class alliances were easier to forge. Moreover, feminists in all the countries included in this study found it easier to work together across class barriers on issues concerning the family, motherhood, and child welfare than on many other issues. However, because of the far greater access of upper – and middle-class women to money, time, and media attention, their viewpoint usually had the greatest visibility—an asymmetry that will be noted at many points in the following chapters. Another difference that is important to feminists at present—difference in sexual orientation—influenced our period’s discourses on motherhood only indirectly. Although in fact many lesbians had their own children or raised the children of others, they were imagined during this era chiefly as unmarried and childless women. The lesbian mother became visible only after 1970.

Although they were very aware of differences among women, feminists of this era did not share the preoccupation of present-day theorists with defining or deconstructing female identity. The identity to which they aspired was not chiefly that of woman, but that of citizen. And the audience that they addressed was not composed exclusively of women or of feminists, but included the general public. They rightly insisted that motherhood, the family, and reproduction were not just “women’s issues,” but vital aspects of national life that concerned both women and men. “Just as we need the human couple to call a new person into life,” wrote Hubertine Auclert, “in order to create an environment where that person can develop fully, both men and women are indispensable.”12 Feminists will be presented here as contributors to public debates that included a wide variety of speakers—politicians, military leaders, physicians, psychologists, creative writers, and many others.

W estern Europe

This will be an international and comparative history that includes all of the national cultures of Western Europe. The focus will be on Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Germany (the Nazi era, during which feminist organizations were prohibited, will be discussed only as it influenced devel­opments in other countries and in postwar West Germany). The Scandinavian nations will also figure prominently. Southern European nations such as Spain, Italy, and Portugal will play a lesser role, partly because for a large portion of the period they were ruled by dictatorships that suppressed feminism, but they will also be included, as will smaller nations such as Switzerland and Ireland.13 The source material will include both original documents and the rich and copious body of secondary literature that has reconstructed the history of women in many nations.

My aim is both to provide a synthesis of existing research and to place its results in an international perspective. The field of women’s and gender history has questioned many conventions of the discipline of history but has retained its focus on the national state. The past thirty years have seen the production of countless excellent works covering many aspects of women’s and gender history in individual countries—works upon which the present study depends. And their perspective is valid and illuminating, for the national state—its political structures, its distinctive geography, language, and culture, its economic and social systems, and not least its military fortunes—did much to shape the environment in which individuals lived and thought.

But the national focus can also limit the explanatory power of history, for most major trends, especially those of the modern era, arise from forces that are international in scope. And we cannot simply assume that nationality was the only, or even the primary, marker of individual identity. Nations, as Benedict Anderson has pointed out, are not timeless and primordial entities— on the contrary, they are “imagined communities,” invented and sustained to fulfill their citizens’ need for a “sense of belonging.”14 These citizens may well have an equal or greater need to belong to entities smaller or larger than the national state. Among the former are families, cities, and provinces; among the latter are regions and other “imagined communities” linked by religion, class, race, gender, or other identities shared across national boundaries.

During our period, the feminist movement was among the largest and the most closely knit of these international communities.15 To be sure, bonds of gender did not transcend those of nationality, and the dense network of feminist organizational life and intellectual exchange was disrupted by war and international rivalry. But international tensions could also stimulate communication, for feminists were loyal defenders of national honor and sought information about other countries in order to compete with them. And international dialogue, though it touched on all issues, was particularly intense on themes related to the family, child welfare, and the theory and practice of motherhood—aspects of life that, though they took distinctive forms in each national culture, were common to all.

The international approach does not obscure or overlook the differences among nations—on the contrary, it illuminates these differences.16 The follow­ing chapters will center on ways in which ideas derived from an international movement—feminism—were received, implemented, modified, or rejected within specific national cultures. As the sociologist Theda Skocpol remarks, such comparisons can demonstrate difference by showing what variable fea­tures of each case affect the “working out of putatively general processes.”17 More than the study of a single nation, a comparative perspective can reveal what is truly distinctive to each culture and what cultures have in common.

Why the focus on Western Europe? Traditional historical narratives treat the European nations as separate entities and stress their cultural differences and their conflicts. Within a historical perspective that centered on Europe or on Western civilization and took little account of other regions of the world, these conflicts loomed large. But with the end of European dominance and the rise of global politics, Europe was displaced from the center of history and reclassified as only one of many regions of the world. “Europe,” writes the historian of India Dipesh Chakrabarty, has been “provincialized by history itself.”18 From this global perspective, the European “province” is at least as notable for its common civilization as for its internal diversity—a perspective that the recent consolidation and growth of the European Union has powerfully reinforced.

Among all the aspects of culture that Western European nations share, patterns of reproduction and family life have always been among the most distinctive. A “European marriage pattern” involving late ages at marriage and small nuclear-family households emerged in the early modern era, and during the period covered here the trend toward reduced birth rates that is known as the “demographic transition” occurred within about thirty years (from 1880 to 1910) in all the Western European nations with the exception of France (where it had begun much earlier, around 1820) and Spain and Ireland (where the process began later, in the 1920s). Throughout Western Europe, these statistical trends were accompanied by highly distinctive political processes, chiefly the building of welfare states, and by social change, especially in the experience of childhood, family life, and the status of women. These patterns diverged from those of Eastern Europe, where the demographic transition and its attendant changes came (on average) somewhat later, and from those of European settler societies such as Australia, the United States, and Canada, which differed from their mother countries in demographic composition, population trends, and political systems.19

Although the turn toward comparative history is recent, the field of women’s and gender history has already produced some outstanding works in this field. Many of these are anthologies that include articles on individual countries but do not explicitly compare them. Synthetic works of comparison include Richard Evans’s early work on international feminism; Susan Pedersen’s pioneering book on family allowance policies in France and Britain; Alisa Klaus’s account of maternity policies in France and the United States; comparative histories of family policies in Germany and Sweden by Teresa Kulawik, Silke Neunsinger, and Wiebke Kolbe; and Karen Offen’s survey of European feminist movements.20 Among these authors, only Evans and Offen deal with more than two national cultures. Following the example set by these authors, this study will include smaller countries such as Holland, Belgium, and Ireland as well as the better-known “great powers.” Mindful of restrictions imposed by publishers’ page limits, the availability of research materials, and not least the patience of readers, I have no intention of providing a complete and systematic survey of events in all the countries that I have included. Instead, I will use selected examples to illustrate major trends.


At the turn of the twentieth century, when our story begins, feminist rhetoric was pervaded by the exaltation of motherhood as the woman citizen’s most important right and duty. In our own time, historians’ responses to this tendency, which they have called “maternalism,” have covered a broad spec­trum from vehement denunciation to fulsome praise. Some have pictured the maternalists as the misguided allies of militarist politicians whose aim was the production of cannon fodder. Richard Evans and Marie-Louise Janssen-Jurreit linked the history of German feminism to that of nationalism; Claudia Koonz to that of Nazism and the Holocaust.21 Anna Davin included British maternal – ists among the proponents of “imperial motherhood.”22 Karen Offen delivered a more nuanced judgment on French feminists, whose support of population growth, childbearing, and the maternal role she attributed to a pragmatic con­cern for survival in a highly natalist atmosphere—a kind of “raison d’etat.”23 Other historians have condemned all tendencies to identify womanhood with motherhood, whatever their context, as a betrayal of feminism. “When the child becomes the sacred king of the family,” wrote the influential French theorist Elisabeth Badinter, “society, with the father’s full cooperation, will demand that the mother rid herself of her aspirations as a woman.”24

Recent works have called these negative judgments into question by stressing the many positive achievements of maternalist feminism. As such authors as Seth Koven and Sonya Michel have pointed out, maternalists played an important role in this era’s most notable trend in social policy: the invention and development of the welfare state.25 To be sure, the maternalists are sometimes criticized for their authoritarian attitude toward parents who did not meet their standards of proper child-rearing, and children whose behavior did not fulfill middle-class norms.26 However, these historians respect the idealism of women such as Hubertine Auclert, who aspired to transform the warlike “minotaur state” into a “motherly” commonwealth that would “nurture its citizenry, offering security and work to the healthy, assistance to children, old people, the sick and disabled.”27

Though both of these approaches are valid, their explanatory power is reduced by a longer chronological and broader international perspective. For if feminists’ concern for mothers and children was intended to serve militaristic ends, then why was this concern as passionate in neutral states such as Holland, Belgium, and Sweden as in bellicose France and Germany and imperialist Britain? And why was maternalist rhetoric as common among pacifists who opposed war as among nationalists who glorified it? And if maternalist ideology was designed first and foremost to serve a specific political end—the building of the welfare state—then why did the influence of the ideology decline as this end was achieved—in the 1920s and 1930s, when the first reform measures were implemented, and in the post-World War II era, when the growth of the European welfare states reached its highest point? Although it will draw on all the works mentioned earlier, this book will attribute the evolution of feminist attitudes toward motherhood chiefly to more fundamental trends—the demographic transition, declining birthrates and family size, and cultural changes affecting marriage, the status of women, the roles of mothers and fathers, and parent-child relations.

Any discussion of the history of motherhood must start by considering a central question: to what extent is maternal behavior shaped by nature or instinct and to what extent by culture? This question is often obfuscated by a fallacious association of maternal instinct with the unconditional devotion that Western culture defines as “mother-love.” Badinter, the author of a book entitled Mother-Love: Myth and Reality, assumed that the very existence of unloving mothers ruled out any instinctual basis for motherhood, which she defined as a purely cultural phenomenon, a “human feeling. . . uncertain, fragile, and imperfect.”28

But in fact, although mothers of human and many other species bond with their offspring, in no species can maternal instinct be identified with altruistic and unconditional love. As the anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy showed, mothers throughout nature often choose how many offspring they will rear, and their commitment to their progeny is contingent, dictated first and fore­most by the pressure to survive in a given habitat. Among human beings, as among other mammals, “a mother’s emotional commitment to her infant can be contingent on ecologically and historically produced circumstances.”29 The variability of human maternal behavior—from murderous to adoring—is rooted in nature as well as in culture and history.

From the Middle Ages until the beginning of the period under discussion, survival needs drove human parental behavior. Most parents assumed that children would contribute labor and earnings to the household, and thus prove to be an economic asset. High birthrates and large families were accepted though not always welcomed, and laws emphasized the duties of children to support their parents and the rights of parents to their children’s obedience, labor, and service. Recent research has refuted earlier claims— made by such historians as Philippe Aries and Badinter herself—that parents of the early modern era did not love their children, and has presented us with many appealing examples of parental affection.30

However, parental love was not understood as altruistic or unconditional, but was firmly based on reciprocity. To cite only one influential example: the seventeenth-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes assumed that the mother-child relationship, like all other human ties, was based neither on sentiment nor instinct, but rather on the rational pursuit of self-preservation. “Again, seeing the infant is first in the power of the mother, so as she may either nourish it or expose it, if she nourish it, it oweth its life to the mother,” Hobbes wrote, “and is therefore obliged to obey her, rather than any other, and by consequence, the dominion over it is hers. But if she expose it, and another find and nourish it, the dominion is in him that nourisheth it. For it ought to obey him by whom it is preserved, because preservation of life being the end, for which one man becomes subject to another, every man is supposed to promise obedience to him, in whose power it is to save, or destroy him.”31 Hobbes allotted no natural power over the child to the father (presumably because by himself he could not preserve its life), but derived paternal power from the husband’s “dominion” over the wife—a theory that would be contested by feminists of a later era.

The first sign of change in these attitudes emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when a wealthy middle class which could dispense with the labor of its children created a new kind of childhood involving educa­tion, age-appropriate play, and individualized nurture. This fortunate group redefined the care of its unproductive progeny as a work of selfless devotion, rewarded by emotional satisfaction rather than by economic gain. And, as an industrial economy removed fathers from the home, mothers assumed the task of child-rearing and human qualities that it required, which were declared to be natural to the female sex. Although its children were now not an economic asset but a liability, the middle class continued for a while to produce large families, probably because of male supremacy in the marital rela­tionship and religious strictures against the discussion or practice of contracep­tion. A notable exception to this general pattern was found in France, where people of all classes began limiting birthrates in the early nineteenth century— a practice that is often attributed to the partible inheritance laws introduced by the Napoleonic Code and the process of secularization that the French Revolution had initiated. In the families of the urban and rural working class, children remained important contributors to the family economy until the turn of the twentieth century. Only then did laws requiring school attendance and forbidding child labor remove large numbers of working-class children from the labor market and force their parents to support them for an extended period—a process that was not complete until the 1930s.32

Changing parent-child relationships were probably a major factor in the so-called “demographic transition,” or sharp reduction in birthrates that occurred in all Western European countries over a time-span of less than two generations, between 1880 and 1930. To give only a few examples: during these years birthrates in England declined by 52 percent (relative to the 1880 figure); in Germany by 54 percent; in Sweden by 48 percent; in Spain by 28 percent; in France by 25 percent. By 1930, France was no longer exceptional; in fact its birthrate in 1930 exceeded those of Britain and Germany.33 Recent historical research has challenged traditional explanations that identified industrialization, urbanization, or an increase in children’s survival rate as the causes of this trend. Though it first appeared in cities, it spread rapidly to rural areas; and its onset preceded the striking improve­ments in children’s life expectancy that were brought about in the early twentieth century.34

Cultural rather than economic or medical factors seem to have accounted for what the historian Hugh Cunningham calls “the most important transition to have occurred in the history of childhood.”35 The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the spread of middle-class ideals of sheltered, educated, and carefully nurtured childhood to broad segments of the popu – lation.36 Children were revalued as priceless emotional assets. The longer duration and higher cost of child-rearing, which motivated the preference for small families, was due chiefly to parents’ own increased sense of obligation. The French suffragist Hubertine Auclert saw this as a sign of advancing civi­lization. “For the savage, the child is an asset,” she wrote, “but for civilized people, the child is a duty.”37 Other causes of the decline in birthrates were probably the loosening of the hold of religious beliefs and a rise in the status of women in marriage, trends that encouraged a more open discussion and cooperative practice of family planning by married couples.38

And the investment in children was public as well as private, for the state now regarded children as an important resource and child welfare, previously left to parents and private organizations, as its legitimate concern. This new­found official interest in children is often rightly attributed to anxieties about the effect of falling birthrates on military strength, which in this era depended on the number of soldiers that could be put into the field. However, the same public concern for the survival, health, and well-being of children emerged in states on the periphery of the great-power struggle, such as Holland, Norway, and Sweden, as in the major European powers. For a generation whose general tendency to anxiety and pessimism had been exacerbated by the decline in birthrates, the healthy, vigorous, and well-nurtured child promised vitality, regeneration, progress, and the survival of nations and cul­tures. Campaigns to prevent child-abuse, to improve health services, to provide pure milk, and to furnish recreational opportunities now received the support and encouragement of governments.

Starting around 1890, a legal revolution reversed the traditional allotment of rights to parents and duties to children, giving children the right to proper care, health, and education, and parents the duty to provide these benefits. Parenthood was reconstructed as a kind of public function exercised for the benefit and under the scrutiny of the state, which (in the words of the British socialist H. G. Wells) had become “the Over-Parent, the Outer-Parent.”39 Of course, the new laws were often designed to supervise the poor and working-class households which did not meet middle-class moral and hygienic standards and were regarded as sources of disorder and criminality.40 But they also expressed the era’s idealism. “Mankind,” stated the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which was passed by the League of Nations in 1924, “owes to the Child the best that it has to give.”41

Feminists were not slow to point out that the new “century of the child” was also the era of the mother. Their unreserved enthusiasm for the collapse of the boundaries between family and state has often been criticized by historians for its insensitivity to privacy rights.42 However, nineteenth-century feminists associated the home more with confinement than with liberty. The definition of the home as a “private” sphere, separate from the public realm of the state, had been invented in the eighteenth century chiefly in order to exclude women from participation in politics.43 Throughout the nineteenth century, feminists had contested the doctrine of “separate spheres” by insisting that family and state were organica­lly related. The one-sided dominance of men in public life, they claimed, had led to a catastrophic neglect of the values associated with the family— nurture, compassion, concern for the weak and dependent. And only the entry of women into public life could remedy this injustice. “Surely,” claimed an editorial in the British suffrage paper, Votes for Women, “woman by very reason of her oppositeness to man is needed for the right balance of any enterprise, be it domestic, municipal, national, or imperial.”44 If the state now aspired to be a parent, were not mothers its most qualified agents? If the state sought to limit the power of fathers, were not mothers, who were also victims of patriarchy, its natural allies? And if the state now created services for children, were not mothers best fitted to administer and lead such services?

But mothers could do none of these things while they were deprived of rights in both state and family, including even the right to make decisions about their own children! The production and management of the state’s most important resource depended on the enfranchisement of women. Among the most honored of all citizens of the state, wrote the British Fabian socialist Mabel Atkinson, must be “the women who are rendering to it the greatest possible service, that namely, of ushering into the world its future citizens. . . Not least among the duties of that citizenship should be what Plato long ago demanded of his women guardians—that they should bear children for the service of the state.”45 The comparison of this contribution to its male equivalent, military service, became a cliche of feminist rhetoric. The mother, said the British activist Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, “risks her life for the perpetuation and progress of the race. It is because women are resolved to be mothers in the highest, and no longer in the ignoblest sense of that term, that they now demand for themselves, and for each other, the fullest opportunity of self development.”46

However, feminists who extolled motherhood as woman’s distinctive contribution to society—and they were many during the period from 1890 to 1914—had no intention of confining mothers to their conventional roles of dependent wife, domestic drudge, and sexual slave. Indeed, along with Ibsen’s Nora, they aspired to be both mothers and human beings. Their aspi­rations included not only political rights and legal equality, but economic self­sufficiency that would enable them to live free of male control, freedom to develop their talents, and above all control over their reproductive lives, which almost all feminists, even if they did not support birth-control movements, claimed in some fashion. Maternalist ideology and practice involved no return to traditional roles, but rather utopian visions of a world where motherhood would enhance rather than limit women’s freedom. No longer burdened with “the purely physical motherhood of the underdeveloped woman” of the past, wrote the German philosopher Helene Stocker, the new woman will “be a fully-developed personality” who will choose motherhood “in the knowledge that she is using her powers in the most rewarding, the most individual way.”47

Whatever its value as a political strategy—and this will be explored in the following chapters—the pursuit of citizenship through motherhood was an intensely problematic undertaking. Only in some utopian world—perhaps the “mother-state” of Auclert’s dreams—was the aspiration to individual autonomy compatible with the duty of bearing children for the state. In the real world, governments regarded mothers chiefly as the instruments of policies designed to increase numbers or to meet other population goals. The notion of motherhood as a social function raised countless questions, most of which concerned the relationship between the social and individual dimensions of reproduction. If motherhood was indeed a service to the state, some asked, then should the state give financial support to mothers and children? In that case, did the state have the right to require parenthood, to regulate the num­ber of children in each family, or to forbid certain people to reproduce? Should reproduction be a direct contract between the state and mothers—an arrangement that would encourage mother-headed families—or should the state encourage marriage? If the state supported children financially, then to whom did they belong? If the economic independence of mothers was the goal, then how should it be achieved—through the remuneration of mother­hood as a paid profession, or through the provision of child care and other services that would enable mothers to remain on the labor market? And what should be the role of fathers—should they be distanced from their partners and offspring, or more intimately bound into the household?

Still more controversial was the basic assumption that women wished to be mothers and that only the lack of proper support and assistance limited their will to bear children. To be sure, the twentieth century was marked by a trend toward the popularization of motherhood. Marriage rates tended to rise— more rapidly after 1930—and although family size shrank, the number of couples having children increased. Thus motherhood could appear, even to feminists, as the vocation of all or most women. “Women will always be wives and mothers, primarily and for choice,” stated a writer for the British suffrage newspaper, The Vote, in 1912. “No matter what profession or occupation a woman may take up, no matter how wide her scope may extend, she will always be a wife and a mother first—by nature, by choice, and by inclina­tion.”48 In fact, feminists and others often assumed that the reform of the family to give mothers equal rights, and of the labor market to enable them to combine career and motherhood, would make childbearing attractive to able and emancipated women.

However, other conditions undermined this belief in motherhood as women’s central mission. For as conspicuous a trend as the decline in family size was the drastically shortened period occupied by pregnancy, lactation, and the care of small children. A task that in the nineteenth century had consumed much of a woman’s adult life was now compressed into a much shorter period: the number of children born to the average British woman had decreased from six in the mid-nineteenth century to about two a century later, and time spent in pregnancy and lactation fell from fifteen to four years. Along with a greatly increased life expectancy, this trend left women many years of life after a the conclusion of their period of “active motherhood.”49

And were all women motherly? “Nature,” wrote the editorialist for The Vote in 1912, “designed us and fitted us to fulfill these duties, and what Nature makes, man or woman cannot counteract or change.”50 Indeed, many trends of our period reinforced this view of maternal duty, for both smaller families and increased investment in the individual child increased demands on mothers. But with increased pressure came increased anxiety— was maternal “nature,” unenlightened by science, a sufficient guide to proper child-rearing? Or could mothers actually be dangerous to their children? And was the small family, with its narrow environment and intense, jealous relationships, the optimum environment for children’s development?

A still more basic issue was raised by the reappraisal of the value of children in emotional rather than economic terms—a cultural change that drove the demographic transition. For if the child was there only to make its parents happy, then childbearing was redefined from a religious obligation or an economic necessity to a choice, to be weighed against other pleasures and desires. Among these were the ambitions of women for economic independ­ence and self-realization. Moreover, the higher value placed on children did not always encourage childbearing. In fact, it could be a deterrent. In 1906, H. G. Wells ironically remarked that one of the reasons that many families were discontent was “the enhanced sense of the child in middle-class life. . . There has come an intensified respect for children, an immense increase in the trouble, attention, and expenditure devoted to them—and a very natural and human accompaniment is the huge fall in the middle-class birthrate. It is felt that to bear and rear children is the most noble and splendid and responsible thing in life, and an increasing number of people modestly avoid it.”51

Thus the prophecy, so confidently advanced by Ellen Key in 1914, that the twentieth century would see a “renaissance of motherhood” was not ful­filled. Striking improvements in the health and living conditions of mothers and children did not give motherhood a more important place in women’s lives or increase its social prestige. Instead, the significance of motherhood was reduced from a central aspect of identity to one of “women’s two roles.”52 After World War II, a rise in birthrates and a return to domesticity seemed for a while to reverse this trend. But by the mid-1960s, declining birthrates and an influx of mothers into the labor force signaled the redefini­tion of motherhood, from a life-long status to a role—a flexible and optional activity that could be chosen, combined with other identities, or refused. And the task of negotiating this complex life-plan was allotted to the individual woman. Having ceased to be a destiny, motherhood was redefined as a dilemma.


The following chapters will trace the stages of this process during the period from 1890 to 1970. The time period will be divided into four segments: the prewar era (1890-1914); the period of World War I (1914-18); the interwar era (1918-39); and the era of World War II and the postwar era (1945-70). The distribution of space reflects the amount and diversity of feminist activity in each of these eras.

We begin our story around 1890, when the declining birthrates that marked the demographic transition brought motherhood and childrearing into the center of public debates that involved not only feminists but other leaders of public opinion. Chapter 1 will center on the historical analysis of the maternal role that was created by feminist scholars and activists around the turn of the century. Basing their research on new findings in the fields of anthropology and ancient history, these authors denied that patriarchal power and female subordination were universal and God-given patterns, and claimed on the contrary that in prehistoric times motherhood, regarded as the highest of human achievements, had justified a powerful position for women in family and state. But they disagreed on the implications of this prehistory for the present and the future. Was the ideal form of the family headed by a mother, or by an egalitarian male-female couple? Chapter 2 will trace the efforts of feminists during the period 1890-1914 to raise the legal status of mothers, both married and unmarried. Here again, the issue of family structure was important: should the family consist of mother and child, or of a parental couple and their children?

Chapter 3 will examine the controversies that surrounded the economic status of mothers during the prewar era. Most feminists believed that the major source of women’s disadvantage was their economic dependence within the marriage relationship, and thus demanded some form of economic inde­pendence for wives and mothers. But how could economic self-sufficiency be reconciled with the burdens of pregnancy and child-rearing? Some recommended that motherhood, itself a useful job, should be financially supported by the state; others that mothers should work for a living, sup­ported by state-funded child-care facilities and other services. Both of these solutions removed motherhood from the private sphere and reclassified it as a “social function.” Chapter 4 looks at the implications of this new definition of motherhood for the reproductive rights of women—if child­bearing was a public duty, should mothers have the freedom to choose or refuse it? Did the state have the right to regulate reproduction, or to pro­hibit it in some cases? Discussions of birth control in the prewar era also concerned the allocation of power within the family: should reproduc­tive decisions be made chiefly by mothers themselves, or by the married couple?

In chapter 5, we will look at the trauma of World War I as it affected feminist movements and their approaches to the private and public implications of reproduction. The war’s effects were paradoxical. Catastrophic loss of life raised the value placed on the individual child and thus resulted in important new measures designed to safeguard the lives and the health of mothers and children. The employment of mothers in traditionally male-identified occu­pation permitted a new independence. But the disruptions of wartime produced a powerful longing for the restoration of the male-headed household, the nuclear family, and the return of mothers to the home.

Chapter 6 deals with the new domestic ideal, centering on companionate marriage and full-time motherhood, that developed during the interwar era. During these years, feminists went against the trend of public opinion by proposing an alternative version of the maternal role that combined commit­ments to child care and to a job or career—a position that was particularly controversial when the depression of the 1930s prompted new attacks on married women’s employment. Chapter 7 covers the birth-control movements of the interwar era, and the new ideal of marital bliss and parent-child intimacy that birth-control activists created. A new emphasis on the private joys of marriage and parenthood undermined the maternalist view of repro­duction as a form of public service. Faced with new population policies, feminists debated the role of the state in encouraging, controlling, or pro­hibiting motherhood. Chapter 8 looks at the implications of smaller family size for the mother-child relationship. Was the intense commitment of mothers to their children’s well-being beneficial or harmful to the individual child? Psychologists, endowed with a new authority, took the lead in criticizing tra­ditional maternal practices, and feminists used these new theories to justify a new approach to parenthood that permitted greater freedom to both moth­ers and children. Because of a decline in the influence of feminism and the occupation of many European countries by the Axis powers, the period of World War II saw little feminist activity. Chapter 9 will discuss the results of the war for the postwar era, when an official ideology that stressed domesticity and full-time motherhood was soon discredited by an influx of mothers into the labor market, the popularization of birth control and small families, and a new emphasis on individual happiness that challenged the traditional primacy of motherhood in the lives of women. And the conclusion will point out that the maternal dilemma still persists as a problem for women, men, and nations in the present.


Bust of Nelly Roussel and her daughter, Mireille Godet, by Roussel’s husband, Henri Godet, 1911. The original is in the Bibliotheque Marguerite Durand, Paris.


The M other-Age

Ibsen’s heroine, Nora, aspired to emerge from her sheltered “doll’s house” and to become an autonomous human being as well as a wife and mother. But was such a thing possible? Scholars looked to the past for answers to this question—often with dismal results, for history and prehistory seemed to show that woman’s subordination was universal throughout time and space. “Aeons of wrong, ere history was born,” wrote the British reformer Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy,

With added ages passed in slight and scorn,

Maintained the chains of primal womanhood,

And clogged in turn man’s power of greater good.1

Other feminist authors often painted the same depressing picture. In the opinion of John Stuart Mill, in “the very earliest twilight of human society. . . every woman. . . was found in a state of bondage to some man.2 And motherhood had cemented woman’s domestic servitude, for male con­trol of reproduction was widely assumed to be a universal feature of human social organization. The French historian Ernest Legouve remarked that woman had often been deprived of her “honor as creator of life,” the creative role in reproduction having been ascribed to fathers.3 Evolutionary theory, which purported to discover the origins of human society among present-day “primitive” peoples, yielded still more discouraging results. The human male in the “savage state,” wrote the great Darwin, kept his female “in a far more abject state of bondage than does the male of any other animal.”4 Indeed, lamented Odette Laguerre in the French feminist paper La Fronde, the most convenient argument against gender equality was that “during all of histo­ry and among all peoples the man was the natural chief of the familial group. We must therefore believe that he is made to command and the woman to obey.”5

The greatest obstacle to any change in the economic, political, or familial position of the mother was the belief that her subordination in the patriarchal family was dictated by nature and therefore necessary and inevitable. In the

latter decades of the nineteenth century, however, new interpretations of human prehistory and history challenged this widely accepted idea. Patriarchy was not a universal aspect of human civilization, declared some scholars, and mothers had not always lived a life of abject dependence—they had once been independent, self-supporting, and even powerful. Feminists found this an exhilarating message, for if the father-headed family was not a God-given and universal order, but merely a political arrangement that had risen in response to historical circumstances, then it might also come to an end. Far from an arcane and cloistered pursuit, the new research was widely discussed in and outside academic circles, and often provided the indispensa­ble theoretical basis for political campaigns for the rights of mothers. But like any body of theoretical knowledge, the history of the family had complex and ambiguous implications. If patriarchy was an evanescent family structure, then what should replace it: a family headed by a mother, or an egalitarian male-female couple? And what would be the consequences of patriarchy’s demise? This question aroused enough anxiety to set off an anti-feminist backlash. This chapter will first look at the intellectual context in which this new knowledge was produced and then at these feminist and anti-feminist interpretations.

The debate on the origins of the human family went back at least to the seventeenth century, when the exploration of the New World brought Europeans into contact with cultures that seemed to them to represent an earlier stage in human development, perhaps even a “state of nature.”6 For example, the seventeenth-century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes doubted that patriarchy was the primordial form of the family, for “in the condition of mere nature, where there are no matrimonial laws, it cannot be known who is the father, unless it be declared by the mother, and there­fore the right of dominion over the child… is consequently hers.”7 And the Enlightenment philosopher Theodor Gottlieb von Hippel attributed the subordination of women to male aggression rather than to any law of nature.8 Some feminists of the early nineteenth century insisted that the primacy of the mother-child bond, already ordained by nature, must also be recognized by law. In the 1830s, French Utopian Socialist women pro­claimed that “woman is the family, and the child should bear her name!”9

But with the defeat of the Revolutions of 1848, a massive counterrevolution arose to discredit such dangerous notions. This conservative movement enlisted some of the era’s most prominent scholars in the defense of patriarchy and other traditional forms of authority.10 In 1861, the British jurist Sir Henry Maine declared on the basis of a massive study of Western legal traditions that the human family had always and everywhere been ruled by fathers. The Roman legal tradition, which Maine considered the origin of all Western law, divided society into the private realm of the household, ruled by the father’s authority (or patriapotestas) and the public realm of the state, in which his role as head of household entitled the father to citizenship. Maine did not consider this form of the family immune to historical change—on the contrary, he noted that the marriage relation in his own time had evolved “from status to contract.”11

It can be counted among the ironies of history that the first important challenge to Maine’s theory emerged from the same mid-century conservative movement. The Swiss legal historian Johann Jakob Bachofen ascribed all pro­gressive movements, feminism presumably included, to the impious disre­spect for tradition that pervaded contemporary society. Born in 1815 into the mercantile patriciate of Basel, Bachofen studied law in several European countries. Among his teachers was German legal scholar Friedrich Karl von Savigny, a romantic theorist who presented law as the expression of the his­tory and spirit of a people. Much of Bachofen’s research was conducted in the British Museum, home of the Elgin Marbles that showed the mythical struggle of the Amazons, as well as in many Italian cities. When the demo­cratic movements of the 1840s in Basel threatened the position of his class, Bachofen withdrew from his public offices into the comfortable life of a wealthy independent scholar.12 In search of the cultural roots from which his own generation had been (in his opinion, disastrously) torn, he returned to the classical world, and particularly to the archaic period of Greek civilization, which preceded the classical civilization of Athens by a century or more.

When Bachofen began his work in the 1850s the modern fields of arche­ology, anthropology, and ethnology hardly existed. Troy, Mycenae, Knossos, and the cities of Mesopotamia were as yet un-excavated, and a pre-Darwinian conception of human prehistory (which according to the Bible dated back only to 4004 bc) placed ancient Greek civilization among the earliest of human cultures. By comparison to what later became available, Bachofen’s source material was extremely limited, and this was one of the reasons that later generations of scholars rejected his methods as outdated and unscien­tific. So have today’s feminist scholars, who are particularly critical of his use of mythology as a historical source—an approach that is discredited today.13 But despite the limitations of his chronological and scholarly scope, Bachofen was in some ways ahead of his time. A product of nineteenth-century roman­ticism, he also anticipated the much later insights of psychoanalysis and the social sciences. certainly he regarded myth as a historical source, but not for a factual history of events—in fact, he regarded the positivist methods that were fashionable in his day with the utmost contempt. Rather, he used mythology as a guide to the deep structures of consciousness which, much more than political or economic developments, he considered to be the true “lever of history.” Such meanings, encoded in symbolic language, could not be grasped by the pedantic labors of philologists and historians but only by intuition: “the shorter path of the imagination, traversed with the force and swiftness of electricity.”14 Bachofen’s interpretive method in fact resembled present-day deconstruction; it attended not only to the content of classical texts but even more to the gaps, silences, and inconsistencies that had resulted from an editing process by which (or so he believed) a later genera­tion had expunged the traces of an earlier narrative.

Bachofen’s method would later commend his work to feminist scholars who found his picture of a historical record riddled with omissions, distor­tions, and silences all too credible. But they were even more fascinated by his results, published in 1861 in an erudite and hefty volume which contained many quotations in the original Greek.15 The earliest forms of human society, he announced confidently, had been based on what he called mother-right (Mutterrecht), a legal system that was based on matrilineal inheritance and a female-headed family structure. An elaborate evolutionary narrative explained this system’s rise and fall. In its earliest stage of development, Bachofen spec­ulated that the human race had lived, not as had previously been thought in patriarchal families, but in a state of sexual promiscuity under the auspices of the goddess of lust, Aphrodite. As the physical fact of paternity was not understood, households were headed by women, and children legally belonged to their mothers alone. Bachofen depicted the mother-child bond poetically as the first social tie and thus as the basis of all moral sensibility: in that dark time, he reflected, woman must have been “the repository of all cul­ture, of all benevolence, of all devotion, of all concern for the living and grief for the dead.”16 Bachofen pictured this first era as one of male dominance, in which men sexually exploited women.

But he speculated that under these Hobbesian conditions women found their lives altogether too nasty, brutish, and short, and used their moral ascendancy to force men into marital and familial ties, thus initiating a second period in which women dominated politics as well as the family. This was a period of genuine “matriarchy,” in which a matronly elite presided over a settled agricultural culture marked by reverence for the earth, nature, and female deities: “an air of tender humanity,” Bachofen wrote wistfully, “permeates the culture of the matriarchal world.”17

However, in a thinly disguised reference to his own revolutionary period, Bachofen recounted how this peaceful culture was shaken by a revolt of its male subjects. Amazon warriors, who took up arms to defend female rule, were soon converted to the new cult of the fertility god Dionysus—a divine rock star who drove his female votaries into wild ecstasies of drunkenness and lust. “How hard it is at all times,” Bachofen primly reflected, “for women to observe moderation.”18 The forces of patriarchy were victorious and ushered in a higher stage of civilization, which replaced the ancient cult of mother- goddesses with the worship of gods—particularly of Apollo, who symbolized the “heavenly light” of rationality. Rational too was the dominance of father­hood, defined as a legal relationship, over the fleshly and material mother-child bond. “The triumph of patriarchy,” Bachofen concluded, “brings with it the liberation of the spirit from the manifestations of nature, a sublimation of human existence over the laws of material life.”19

Bachofen’s text can be and (as we shall see) often was read as a classically Victorian narrative of progress that justified both patriarchy and conventional notions of male and female nature. “Bachofen’s matriarch,” complains the anthropologist Joan Bamberger, is “a far cry from today’s liberated woman.”20 But like the classical texts on which his work was based, Bachofen’s own book contained a subtext that subverted its ostensible mes­sage. In fact, Bachofen lent scholarly authority to the highly disruptive idea that the dominance of man over woman was not a God-given order but a political arrangement, contingent like others upon time, place, and culture. And this system of domination could never be entirely secure, for a female insurgency always churned beneath the surface of patriarchal society. Moreover, Bachofen’s account of the fall of the matriarchy was tragic rather than triumphal: a conservative dislike for modern times spoke through his poetic elegy for the pious, peaceful, and rural matriarchal world. And Bachofen was in fact no proper Victorian, for as a romantic he reveled in all that was grotesque, marvelous, and fantastic, and portrayed women in the unconventional roles of bloodthirsty Amazons, wise rulers, Dionysian revel­ers, even poetic Lesbians. Feminists would later find much inspiration here.

Bachofen’s weighty tome was decisively rejected by the classical scholars of his era, but before his death in 1882 he lived to see some of his basic ideas confirmed by the new field of anthropology. In the 1860s, as the historian Thomas Trautmann has observed, a “time revolution” that replaced the Biblical chronology with an immensely lengthened estimate of the age of the human race undermined the conception of the classical world as the earliest of human societies. Anthropologists now shifted their attention from the Greek and Latin classics to existing non-Western societies, and took those that they designated as “primitive” as models of the early stages of human evolution.

While invalidating Bachofen’s temporal perspective, this change buttressed his central conclusion. Though they observed no examples of true “matriarchy,” anthropologists often encountered female-headed family structures and gen­der roles that differed from those of Europeans. They concluded that female dominance and matrilineal family structure were characteristic of the low stages of human development, and patriliny and male supremacy of the higher stages. Dismissing Bachofen’s improbable account of a war between men and women, the anthropologists struggled to come up with an explana­tion for this transition. The American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan attributed it to the accumulation of property in the hands of men; and the Scottish John Ferguson McLennan to the custom of bride capture, which by removing women from their own kinship groups and isolating them amid their captors’ families made them subject to patriarchal control.21 Whatever its cause, this transition was widely accepted in the 1880s as a stage in a uni­versal evolutionary process which had culminated in the apogee of human history—the emergence of modern Western civilization.

But in fact, the extension of the temporal perspective ultimately under­mined this confident narrative of progress. For who could fathom the depths of prehistory, in which so many cultures had vanished without a trace? The German-born socialists Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx were enthusiastic readers of anthropology, particularly of the works of Morgan. In his treatise, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels started from Morgan’s theory that the age of primitive matriarchy had been marked by gender equality and communal ownership of property, and that patriarchy had resulted from men’s forcible assertion of private ownership in land and slaves. Engels insisted that this “world-historical defeat of the female sex” had opened a dark age of exploitation and inequality.22 Engels and his disciples, including the German August Bebel and the French Paul Lafargue, used this version of prehistory to justify their polemic against what they termed “bourgeois marriage.” Arguing that the first people had lived in promiscuity, the socialist theorists contended that marriage was no God-given order but merely a self-serving arrangement whereby male property-owners ensured orderly inheritance by establishing control over women and children. Certainly, the socialists did not advocate a return to mother-right, which they regarded as a primitive stage in social development. Nonetheless, Engels’ theory inspired several generations of feminists, both socialist and liberal, to affirm that patriarchy was not a permanent and universal, but on the contrary an evanescent and culture-bound phenomenon which would give way to more egalitarian forms of marriage and the family.23

As the war of ideas continued, conservative scholars mobilized anthropo­logical and historical evidence to defend traditional values—including marriage, religious sexual morality, and male supremacy—against this socialist menace. A potent weapon in the conservative arsenal was Darwinian theory, which in the later years of the nineteenth century was applied to the analysis of human culture. The widely read British sociologist Herbert Spencer denied that the mother-headed family could have ensured the survival of its offspring. He argued that only fathers could adequately protect women and children, and therefore that patriarchal monogamy was “the natural form of sexual relation for the human race.”24 Another prominent authority was the Finnish anthro­pologist Edward Westermarck, who in a well-received book on the origins of the family published in 1891 (and later in many revised editions) asserted that the innate tendencies of all male animals, especially of those of the human species, would always have dictated some form of marriage: “from what we know of the jealousy or all male quadrupeds, promiscuous inter­course is utterly unlikely to prevail in a state of nature.”25

At the turn of the twentieth century, progressive anthropologists retreated from some of their more controversial claims but not from their feminist and socialist sympathies. They dismissed the possibility of true matriarchy—that is, the political dominance of women—but insisted that the women of the past had often played a powerful and productive role in their households and communities. In a book that was widely cited in both Europe and North America, the American anthropologist Otis Tufton Mason asserted in 1899 that prehistoric women had been the chief creators of human culture. Mason argued against his Darwinist opponents that not only competition, but also cooperation had furthered the survival of human groups. Maternal tender­ness was the first civilized value. “All the social fabrics of the world are built around women,” Mason concluded. “The first stable society was a mother and her helpless infant, and this little group is the grandest phenomenon in society still.”26

By 1900, ethnological data was so profuse as to undermine any attempt to identify fixed and universal patterns, whether in sexuality, family life, gender roles, or any other aspect of culture. “All history proves,” declared the British novelist Mona Caird, “that there is, perhaps, no set of ideas so fundamental that human beings have not somewhere, at some period of the world, lived in direct contradiction to them.”27 The resulting turn to cultural relativism would shape the intellectual life of the twentieth century. Because many thinkers at the turn of the century were devastated by this erosion of cher­ished beliefs, customs, and ideas, the characterization of this period as an “age of anxiety” has become a cliche of history textbooks. But, like other dominant paradigms of intellectual history, this characterization of the fin de siecle is centered on male literary, artistic, and academic elites. Feminists did not share this foreboding—rather, many rejoiced that they lived in an era when even such a formidable institution as patriarchy was open to question. As a character in a pageant by the British suffragette Cicely Hamilton declared in 1910, “ ’tis good to be alive when morning dawns.”28

“Queen of the Family”: The Mother as Matriarch

Like every rich and complex work, Das Mutterrecht could support a wide variety of interpretations. One of these was offered by Bachofen’s account of the age of classical matriarchy, when women dominated both state and fam­ily. This model found minority support among feminists of every country but was most fully elaborated in France and Britain. However, French and British theorists pursued different political agendas: the French emphasized social solidarity and the creation of a motherly state, the British the empowerment of the individual woman through the winning of suffrage and other political rights.

In France, many socialist theorists of both genders aspired to return to what Engels had portrayed as the original family structure—a unit consisting of a mother and her dependent children. Aline Valette, one of the earliest female socialist authors, started from a critique of Marxism. Marx had emphasized productive labor, the paid work performed chiefly by men, but had made no mention of the reproductive labor that was performed by women. Had the majority of women whose labor consisted wholly or chiefly of reproduction (housework and child care) no role to play in the class strug­gle? Valette argued on the contrary that both workers and mothers were victims of the same injustice: just as men had been cheated of the true value of their productive labor by capitalism, women’s “product,” children, had been appropriated by men. Alongside the class struggle she placed the struggle against sex oppression, and insisted that woman “the producer of humanity” must be restored to the “role that she deserves.” 29 Valette called on the state to recognize and support a family structure in which mother and children lived independently of male control.30 An advocate of gender equality in politics, education and the workforce, Valette also exalted gender difference and hoped that women, when fully enfranchised, would infuse the nurturing spirit of motherhood into public life.31

French feminists of the middle and upper classes, who had far more time for research and discussion than their working-class contemporaries, showed an even greater enthusiasm for the history of the family. The central role in publicizing and developing the new knowledge was undoubtedly played by the eccentric and single-minded Celine Renooz. Born in 1840 to a wealthy family in Liege, Renooz had only the usual conventual education and was married in 1859. The marriage, which produced four children (all of whom died early of tuberculosis), was miserable, and Renooz eventually set up an independent though economically precarious household in Paris.

Meanwhile she pursued her intellectual interests, which centered on the fashionable subject of the origin and evolution of life. In 1878, while reading at the Bibliotheque Nationale, she developed the novel theory that the true evolutionary origin of the human race was in plant life, the head correspon­ding to the root ball, and the body to the trunk and branches of trees (in fact, she showed that a human being resembled a tree turned upside down).32 Like other theorists of her era, Renooz argued against Darwin that true nature of human beings was not competitive, like that of many animals, but coopera­tive, like that of the plants which (or so she seemed to believe) lived in peace and harmony.33 We should hardly be surprised that Renooz’ theories were rejected and ridiculed by the male scientific establishment. Her intense, even paranoid anger at her critics seems to have triggered another theoretical insight, this time into the pervasively masculine bias of all existing knowl­edge. Although by no means the first or only critic of what Charlotte Perkins Gilman called “our androcentric world,” Renooz stood out among her con­temporaries as the advocate of an alternative feminist science designed to liberate woman “from all the infamous historical lies and to rehabilitate her glory.”34

In a series of voluminous works, Renooz laid out a history and psychology of gender relations. She drew on many of the era’s popular theories, particu­larly those of the British biologists Patrick Geddes and J. Arthur Thompson, who argued from Darwin’s theory of sexual selection that the reproductive biology of males, human and animal, was “katabolic”—wasteful of energy— whereas that of females exhibited the “anabolic” tendency to conserve and create energy. The psychological consequences were impatience and instabil­ity in males, patience, stability, and “integrating intelligence” in females.35 Considering that these traits entitled women to the supreme role in religion, culture, and society, Renooz affirmed Bachofen’s glowing picture of a long prehistory when woman was “queen of the family” and “in charge of every­thing that requires patience, prudence, logic, perseverance.”36 She concluded that the only advantage possessed by the inferior sex, physical strength, had enabled men to overcome this peaceable and glorious regime and to establish an order that still bore all the marks of the destructive male psyche.

Following Bachofen, Renooz charged that males had consolidated their hegemony by rewriting history to obliterate all traces of women’s former greatness. “In order to justify his power,” she declared, “he (man) claimed that it had always existed.”37 In 1897 she founded the Neosophical Society (Societe Neosophique), which was dedicated to the recovery of women’s his­tory, and created a complete two-semester course in the subject. Some of the topics included the “golden age” of matriarchy, women in ancient societies and in world religions, witchcraft and the persecution of witches, the renais­sance debate on women’s status (querelle des femmes), and women in the modern world. A prospectus for this course, which she taught in her home in the Rue du Bac, stated that only serious students were welcome and that the tuition was twelve francs per semester.38

The development of this new science and its application to various con­temporary issues became the central aim of a new group founded in 1898, the French Group for Feminist Studies (Groupe Frangais d’ Etudes Feministes, or GFEF). Its leader was Jeanne Oddo-Deflou, a self-educated intellectual who, when her family had refused to allow her a classical education, had taught herself Latin and Greek. The group created a scholarly field devoted to the study of women—in fact, what we know now as “women’s studies.” Among its first decisions was to commission a translation into French of the substantial introductory chapter of Bachofen’s Das Mutterrecht—certainly one of the first translations of any portion of the work—which appeared in 1903. They translated only this portion, explained Oddo-Deflou in her preface, because the entire work would have been too long and expensive to be accessible to most women. Oddo-Deflou did not affirm all of Bachofen’s ideas: she took issue with his assertion that the victory of patriarchy had brought the reign of enlightenment, and objected that on the contrary it had opened a new era of oppression, marked by “atrocities from which the world has suffered too long, the most cruel wars, the most violent hatred.”39

The translation, which was sent to women’s organizations in several other European countries, caused a considerable stir in the French feminist com­munity.40 A series of front-page articles in the most widely read feminist newspaper, La Fronde, edited by the prominent leader Marguerite Durand, indicated that the new science of women’s history was of interest to a wide feminist public.41

Many feminists used historical arguments to support legal reforms that would ensure the right of mothers to equal rights with fathers, or even to supreme authority, or puissance maternelle. The suffrage leader Hubertine Auclert defended the mother’s right to give the child her name. She further suggested that a humane republic that cared for all its citizens might more appropriately be called matrie (motherland) than patrie (fatherland).42 And she envisaged a nurturing society that was not unlike Bachofen’s organic and peaceable matriarchy. “When she becomes a citizen,” Auclert argued, “the French woman will fulfill her duties even better, because her role as an edu­cator will create unity within the human collective, and her maternal solicitude will embrace the entire nation.”43 The socialist Nelly Roussel cited the research of the GFEF to argue that “at a certain time, woman enjoyed much more extensive rights that she has today.”44

The new history inspired high-flown claims. The scholarly evidence accu­mulated over the past forty years, wrote Jeanne Oddo-Deflou, “establishes that periods where women were predominant really existed, and that they were very different from our own. . . . According to certain authors, the

Matriarchate was a veritable golden age. The fortunate lives of a people who practiced pure and tender virtues were marked by peace, unity, and fertility. In physical health and spiritual serenity, they enjoyed the favor of the benign regime to which they had voluntarily submitted.” When free of the political and intellectual domination of the more brutal sex, women would not simply imitate their oppressors. “Men will never persuade them,” she predicted con­fidently, “that they must throw off their sex in order to end their servitude. They will hate men’s blind egotism too much to imitate it.”45

But not all French feminists shared this nostalgic longing for the lost golden age—indeed, commented the journalist J. Helle, the arguments between the “Bachofistes” and the “anti-Bachofistes” often became heated.46 Renooz, whose own overbearing personality refuted her theories about innate female humility and selflessness, arrogantly complained that many prominent feminists did not greet her messianic message with the proper reverence.47 Among them was the brilliant and acerbic Madeleine Pelletier, one of very few who developed a principled critique of the ideology of gen­der difference. To Pelletier, the Bachofen fad was all too typical of French feminists—a group led by women who were afraid to endanger their privi­leged position as the wives of rich men by advocating radical causes such as woman suffrage. What safer fantasy for such respectable ladies than the return of the matriarchy, when women had sought no higher honor than motherhood? Of course, this caustic critique hardly took into account the very substantial interest in matriarchal theories among socialist women, most of whom were hardly leisured socialites. Drawing on a wide knowledge of archeology and anthropology, Pelletier bitterly denounced the fashionable infatuation with mother-goddesses—such cults, she pointed out, had flour­ished in societies in which actual women had a very low status. “Future soci­eties may build temples to motherhood,” she concluded, “but only to lock women into them.”48

In Britain, as Carol Dyhouse has observed, the history of the family was also a prominent theme of discussion in such avant-garde circles as the Men’s and Women’s Club, a mixed society of free-thinkers founded in the 1880s, and the Fabian Women’s Group. Socialist writers such as Karl Pearson and Edward and Eleanor Marx Aveling publicized Engels’ picture of a matri­archal prehistory.49 Mona Caird, a member of the Men’s and Women’s Club who was widely read in anthropology, took the discussion in a militantly fem­inist direction. She speculated that the mother-headed family had developed when “agriculture was women’s industry, while men went out hunting.” Accepting Bachofen’s idealized view of the matriarchy as a “golden age” of peace and harmony, she rejoiced that “at the very outset. . . something other than mere force was the director of the earliest human relations.”50 Caird claimed that the mother-child bond was the only familial bond that had been and still was recognized by all human cultures and that paternity was a much more recent concept. “For many centuries after the father had become head of the family… he rested his claims upon the children solely on the fact that the mother was his property, not upon the fact of his fatherhood.”51 In an era when such forms of patriarchal power were on their way to extinction, Caird demanded for the mother “a moral right to final authority over her children.”52 But Olive Schreiner, another member of the Men’s and Women’s Club who had grown up in South Africa, responded to these claims with skepticism, for her observation of male supremacy among African peoples had convinced her of the universality of the patriarchal family.53

Another British milieu in which matriarchal theory flourished was the Theosophy movement, which gained many female devotees during this era. Theosophy, pioneered in Britain by the colorful Russian immigrant Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and her disciple Annie Besant, promoted the cults of ancient and modern mother-goddesses as an empowering alternative to patriarchal Christianity. Inspired by an idealized version of Hinduism and Buddhism, theosophists exalted the spiritual over the material aspects of experience, and some believed that the bygone era of matriarchy had been guided by an ethic that rated chastity and spiritual communion above carnal sexuality.54

The suffragist leader Frances Swiney, president of the Cheltenham branch of the National League of Woman Suffrage Societies, became a Theosophist in 1900 and in 1907 founded a society, which she called “The League of Isis.”55 For Swiney, who was a reader of Bachofen as well as more recent anthropological and ethnographic literature, the Egyptian goddess embodied the glories of a blessed age when the conditions surrounding marriage, sexu­ality, and childbirth had been infinitely superior to those of the modern era. Swiney’s best-known treatise, The Bar of Isis, invoked the authority of the great goddess, who had allegedly forbidden sexual intercourse during preg­nancy and lactation, to justify an ethical code that placed the welfare of mothers and children above the sexual needs of men. In ancient Egypt, which Swiney imagined as a matriarchal culture, the mother had chosen “her mate, the time of childbearing, and regulated under the strictest tabu the number of her offspring.”56 The victory of patriarchy had brought with it the primacy of the “abnormal and fostered sexuality of the human male,” which had undermined the health of women, children, and the population as a whole by making women’s bodies into the “refuse-heap of male sexual pathology.”57

Swiney, whose works were widely reviewed and translated, refuted the popular argument that women who gained the rights of citizenship would be incompetent or unwilling mothers. “Poor biology, what illogical hypotheses are put forth in they name!” she exclaimed. Prehistoric mothers, she insisted, had been the best of citizens, whose wise rule had enabled the first people to “progress from the sub-human to the human.”58

Unlike their French contemporaries, who associated the matriarchal age chiefly with maternal nurture and social solidarity, British suffragists empha­sized the political and economic power that ancient women supposedly had exercised. Another theorist who was widely cited in British suffrage periodi­cals was the American Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In an address entitled “The Primal Power,” published in the suffrage journal The Suffragette, Gilman painted a vivid picture of the free, skilled, and benevolent woman of the prehistoric age. “In those first, rude beginnings of humanity, it was the woman who invented industry, the woman who began needle-work, basket- work, work in clay, the cradle of all industry as well as the cradle of the child was in the hands of the woman. … In those days, she was a head.” Only “the overturning of the order of nature” had precipitated “an artificial order in which, for the first time, the male ruled over the female.” Woman suffrage, Gilman explained, would restore women’s control over motherhood: “in honor of her motherhood, she must be mistress of herself… By what law, by what right have the mothers of the world been made the servants?” The mothers of the future would “choose the best for the father of our children,” and create “a nobler motherhood than the world has ever seen.”59

Images of the matriarchal age raised the dread specter of female hegemony. A popular British novel of the 1880s, H. Rider Haggard’s She, featured an ancient goddess, known by the formidable title of “She-who-must-be – obeyed,” who threatened to come to England and depose that rival matriarch, Queen Victoria—a horror that was averted by the valiant exploits of the novel’s two British heroes.60 Another, Walter Besant’s The Revolt ofMan, por­trayed a matriarchal dystopia of the future in which women subjected men to a reactionary and oppressively religious regime.61 The violent suffrage mili­tancy that broke out in Britain between 1909 and 1914—a terrorist strategy that called for damage to property, though not to people—could not but exac­erbate these fears. In his novel, Ann Veronica, published in 1909, the novelist H. G. Wells attacked the suffrage movement through the hysterical figure of Miss Miniver, who incited orgies of vandalism with epic tales of warrior queens and Amazons. “The primitive government was the Matriarchate. The Matriarchate!” she told her stone-throwing, window-smashing cohorts. “The Lords of Creation just ran about and did what they were told.”62

The debate on the origins of patriarchy gave hope to women even in Spain, where no organized feminist movement as yet existed. The Countess Emilia Pardo Bazan was a Spanish novelist, poet, and feminist who had trans­lated the works of John Stuart Mill and August Bebel. Many scholars, she wrote in 1892, now considered that the subordination of women was not ordained by God, but was only a “sad episode in the history of progress, in which each step forward is taken in blood and tears. . . . In the dark caves of prehistory, the bestial force of the male subjugated his female companion. . . And the old tales and fables of the Amazons, Valkyries, and warrior women. . . indicate that women did not always submit, and were sometimes ready to repay force with force.” She hoped that this liberating knowledge would discredit the “somber and fearful pessimism” that excluded one half of the human race from the progress made by the other half and denied to women “every kind of dignity and happiness, except as the adjunct of her husband and children.”63

“ Thus love began”: The Mother as Parent

But many feminists found the mythical mother-age unappealing—their ideal was not female supremacy, but gender equality. And they, too, cited

Bachofen, who (along with many later researchers) had clearly designated the period of mother-right as a primitive stage in human development. In most countries, the majority of feminists insisted that the evolution of the family should not lead backward toward matriarchy, but lead forward toward equality.

The earliest example of a full-fledged debate on this subject occurred in the Netherlands, where (as we shall see in chapter 2) the rights of unmarried mothers and their children became a heated topic of discussion in the 1890s. Nellie van Kol, who had spent much of her life in the East Indies and was thus familiar with the diversity of marriage customs among human cultures, wrote in a review of Bebel’s Woman in Past, Present, and Future that the time of mother-right had been “a good time.” She held up the autonomy of the prehistoric mother as an inspiration to her modern counterpart: “independ­ence must be the watchword of women, for herself and for her child.”64

But Wilhelmine Drucker, leader of the major Dutch feminist organization, the Free Women’s Association (Vrije Vrouwenveriniging) and editor of the periodical Evolutie, decisively rejected all such fantasies. A review of Frances Swiney’s The Awakening ofWoman, probably by Drucker herself, poured the icy water of common sense on Swiney’s overheated rhetoric. “The basis of Swiney’s theory is motherhood,” stated the reviewer, “and the fact that women have always been mothers, and have not gained the slightest advan­tage from this seems to make no difference to her at all.”65 Though she believed that all human societies had passed through a matriarchal stage, Drucker idealized neither the era itself nor its female rulers. Deploring the misuse of history by certain “exalted, womanly feminists,” Drucker objected that by nature mothers were no better parents than fathers—after all, in many places and times (including, of course, the present) some mothers killed their children. For both sexes, good parenting was an art, not an innate instinct.66

Moreover all systems—whether headed by women or by men—that placed children under the absolute power of their parents were for Drucker the expressions of a “raw egotism” that must be superseded by a more enlight­ened approach to child-rearing. “The law. . . must place the welfare of the child, and of the new generation, above that of fathers and mothers, and must break with the old conception of parental rights and replace it with new standards of parental duty, which oblige parents to provide for the needs of their children and grant powers of guardianship only to those who are thought competent to exercise them.”67 Drucker allotted parental responsi­bility equally to both mothers and fathers, who she believed should act as par­ents whether or not they were married to the mothers of their children. “An individual without a father,” she asserted, is “not imaginable. . . and where nature, wild as it is. . . has neglected to identify the parental couple, it is the holiest task of the human race, which. . . has the responsibility and the will to make laws, to come to its rescue and to fill this gap.”68 Parents performed their duty under the vigilant eye of the state: “the state should act as the watchful guardian of youth and not only. . . of children born outside wedlock, but of all children.”69

In Belgium, Louis Frank, a lawyer who was also a leader of the national feminist organization, likewise used historical arguments to advocate gender equality. “Marital authority is not a natural institution that originated in a process of free consent and mature reflection,” he declared, “it is the product of a brutal reaction. It resulted from events that are unknown to our historical traditions.”70 Frank hoped that the abolition of this atavistic regime would result in a more egalitarian form of marriage, which might also serve that important policy objective, population growth. In the Anglo-Saxon nations, where women had made greater progress toward emancipation than on the European continent, family life flourished. “It is there,” Frank claimed, “that marriages are most numerous, that men marry at the earliest age, and that fam­ilies produce the greatest number of children.”71

A more radical vision of gender equality and cooperation was developed by the influential author and lecturer Ellen Key. Key was born in Sundsholm, Sweden in 1849 and began her career in that country, but by the 1890s had become an international figure who found a far more sympathetic reception in the English – and German-speaking countries than at home. Key asserted that most prehistoric women had not been matriarchs, but had been “on a par with domestic animals, well or ill treated as they.”72 But the prehistoric mother had nonetheless been an agent of progress. Like Bachofen, Key defined “the first ‘social order,’ ” as “the mother with her offspring. . . . The child became more and more the centre of her thoughts and her deeds.”73

Despite its disadvantages for women, Key believed that the evolution of the patriarchal family had conferred many benefits, for it had created fatherhood: “a great forward step in his [the father’s] ethical development, in that it awoke in him a desire to protect those dependent on him.”74 And out of this protective impulse, the bond between the parental couple had arisen. “Thus love began.”75 Heterosexual love was the basis of family life. Because existing marriage customs did not always recognize the importance of love, Key demanded their replacement by a new system that would give full freedom of sexual choice to both sexes. Though she defended the right of single mothers to bear and raise children, Key’s ideal was always the two-parent household, with or without legal marriage. In the future, she confidently predicted, “we will call a child who has received its life from healthy and loving parents and is raised with wisdom and love ‘legitimate,’ even if its parents live in a totally free union.”76

Key influenced the ideology and practice of an organization known as the League for the Protection of Mothers (Bund fur Mutterschutz or BfM) which, although based in Germany, soon acquired an international visibility. The group originated in two separate initiatives: one by a group of prominent feminist intellectuals that included Helene Stocker, and the other by a former schoolteacher who called herself Ruth Bre (her real name was Elizabeth Bonness). Stocker, born in 1869 in Elberfeld, was among the first women to receive the doctoral degree from a German university. She combined a career in secondary-school teaching with membership in scientific and sexual reform associations, and traced her awareness of the sexual victimization of women to a childhood reading of Goethe’s Faust: “it is no coincidence,” she wrote, “that the entire tragedy of human existence is revealed to

Faust at Gretchen’s prison.”77 Dissatisfied with the reluctance of even the forward-looking leaders of the League of Progressive Women’s Organizations (Verband fortschrittlicher Frauenvereine) to confront the problems of repro­duction, motherhood, and sexual morality, Stocker planned in 1903 to found a new organization dedicated to sexual reform.

These plans were pre-empted by Bre, who founded the League for the Protection of Mothers (BfM) in 1904. Herself of illegitimate birth, Bre called for the resettlement of unmarried mothers and their children on the land in matriarchal communities supported both by their members’ own labor and by the state.78 Only through total emancipation from the patriarchal family, Bre declared, could the ancient “right to motherhood” be guaranteed.79 Though she joined Bre’s group, Stocker considered its founder a “totally undisciplined person” who was “a little crazy.”80 Disagreements among the leadership soon led Bre to withdraw from the organization, which Stocker and her colleagues re-founded in 1905.81

Under Stocker’s leadership, the group rejected Bre’s matriarchal utopianism. Stocker explained that the transition from the matriarchal to the patriarchal age had brought mixed results: “it gave men the right and duty to support his legitimate children, but condemned woman, who until then had enjoyed an equal status, to the most absolute subordination to men’s will.”82 In order to remedy this millennial injustice, the group called for a “new ethic” which would promote the equal rights of women, the welfare of mothers, and the dignity of female-headed families. But, as Stocker stated in the introductory editorial to the first issue of the group’s journal, “the holy trinity of father, mother, and child” would always “be the highest ideal.” The League rejected the ethic of chastity that still predominated in the women’s movement and unabashedly affirmed heterosexuality, both in and outside of marriage. And par­enthood was the highest fulfillment of sexual love: “People will always look beyond physical pleasure and reproduction for a spiritual intimacy, a growing togetherness, a common responsibility for children.”83

Further support for this “new ethic” came from some leaders of the German socialist women’s movement, many of whom were also members of the League for the Protection of Mothers. Among the most internationally influential of all German feminist authors was Lily Braun, an aristocrat who shocked her family by joining the Social Democratic Party in 1895. Braun’s book, The Woman Question: Its Historical Development and its Economic Aspects, which was first published in 1901, was translated into several languages and discussed by feminist groups, both middle-class and socialist, in many Western countries. Braun’s historical narrative, like that of Key, started with the matrilineal family of prehistory but described this as a dark and primitive period. The introduction of monogamous marriage and patriliny represented only “a station on the way to the cross” for the woman, who became prop­erty along with her children.84 This subordinate position was no longer acceptable to the modern woman. “Once the female has turned into a human being, that is, an individual personality, with views, judgments, and life goals of her own, then she has been spoiled for the average marriage.”85

Though she shared the aspirations of Stocker and Key to an egalitarian form of marriage—“the union of two equal, intellectually and morally mature people”—Braun doubted that this ideal could be realized in practice. For, even if such a happy couple found each other, who could guarantee that their relationship would last? “Given the heightened possibilities for friction in modern marriages,” Braun presciently feared that “their long duration would become more and more exceptional.”86 Hundreds of questions arose, Braun concluded, “foremost, what happens to the children?”87

The German moderate feminist movement, consisting chiefly of the middle – class groups associated in the League of German Women’s Associations (Bund Deutscher Frauenvereine, or BDF), regarded this critique of marriage with suspicion. Not only did it offend the religious sensibilities of many members, but it also threatened the security of the great majority of women who depended on marriage for their economic survival. An alternative femi­nist history of the family was developed by Marianne Weber, a leader of the BDF whose scholarly volume, Wife and Mother in Legal History, was pub­lished in 1907. Both Marianne Weber and her famous husband, the sociolo­gist Max Weber, repudiated the League for the Protection of Mothers for the “crass hedonism” of its sexual ethic.88 Concerned that nostalgia for a matri­archal “lost paradise” might undermine marriage, Marianne Weber devoted an entire chapter to a refutation of Bachofen and Engels.89 Matrilineal family structures, she argued, had not been universal at any stage of civilization, and where they had existed they had by no means ensured a high status or inde­pendent existence for women—on the contrary, matrilineal families were usually headed by the woman’s male relatives. And marriage had not enslaved but, on the contrary, advanced women by guaranteeing their own security as spouses and the legitimacy of their children as their fathers’ heirs. But Marianne Weber nonetheless shared the assumption that patriarchy did not represent a God-given order, but an arrangement that had served its purpose and was now outmoded. She advocated a new, egalitarian form of the family that guaranteed the equal rights of both partners to control of children and property and could be dissolved through divorce by mutual consent.90

In Austria, the debate took a similar course.91 The sexual reformer Grete Meisel-Hess, who before her move to Berlin was among the founders of the Austrian branch of the League for the Protection of Mothers, looked back to the age of the Amazons, when “women had a kind of psychological inde­pendence of men that seems to us really fabulous,” but added that contem­porary Amazons aspired to cooperate with men rather than to conquer them.92 Marianne Hainisch, a leading member of the League of Austrian Women’s Associations (Bund Osterreichischer Frauenvereine), acknowledged that patriarchy had brought the “most cruel sexual slavery,” but warned against the “siren-song of free love” and advocated “a fair marriage law that respects the welfare of a child who has two parents.”93

A complex synthesis of these two positions was created by Rosa Mayreder, also a prominent member of the League of Austrian Women’s Organizations and of the League for the Protection of Mothers. In Vienna, then a center of psychology and psychoanalysis, it was fashionable to see gender relations as the expression of subconscious and instinctual drives. According to Mayreder, the deep-seated drive of men to dominate females arose from their uncertainty about paternity—an anxiety that the claims of modern women to self­determination could only exacerbate. The result, Mayreder feared, could well be a renewal in the present of the conflict described by Bachofen: “the long suppressed struggle between fatherhood and motherhood, that ended with the defeat of the female sex.”94 The only solution that she could offer was the transformation of the patriarchal family into a union of equals, in which the controlling patriarch would become a nurturing father. Mayreder concluded that love would always be “the surest, the most valuable, the most reliable guarantee of paternity.”95

Thus whereas most feminists of this era agreed that the family had been shaped by history, they disagreed on the course that its evolution should take. While some advocated a return to the female-headed households that they associated with the matriarchal stage of development, most looked forward to further development toward a new, egalitarian form of the two parent household. This can by no means be dismissed as a conservative defense of existing marriage customs, but on the contrary was often linked to a thor­oughly modern defense of the right to true love and sexual fulfillment, even outside the limits set by church and state. Certainly, the struggle against the still formidable and pervasive manifestations of patriarchy would be long. But its utopian goal was reconciliation, not victory: “we will then reach the apex of human potential,” said Stocker, “where the silly, trivial quarrel of the sexes will be silent.”96