In her international best seller, The Century of the Child, Ellen Key pro­claimed the “right of the child to choose its parents.”97 Key and others claimed that traditional religious morality had sacrificed the health and well­being of children as well as women to the Moloch of patriarchal marriage. The “new morality,” she said, “must deem no common living of men and women immoral, except that which gives occasion to a weak offspring and produces bad conditions for the development of that offspring.”98 This argument, which was widely used by feminists of the prewar era, shifted the basis of sexual morality from religious conceptions of sin to scientific norms of prudent reproduction and sound nurture.

The new vocabulary of science reframed an older issue—the moral and legal basis of marriage—and was used to justify a wide variety of positions. Some highly visible figures criticized prevailing customs that encouraged young people and their parents to value the financial and social status over the health and fitness of the prospective spouse—a custom that often promoted dysgenic unions. And they added that the fit, among them many independent professional women, were often deterred from matrimony. Some drew the conclusion that maternity should be separated from marriage. The declining birthrates of the Western countries, speculated the Austrian theorist Grete Meisel-Hess, signaled a “sexual crisis” which would initiate a new moral order that condoned temporary sexual relationships and child­bearing by unmarried women.99 George Bernard Shaw’s play Getting Married featured the suggestively named Lesbia, an independent spinster who (for unspecified reasons) disdained heterosexual love. “I ought to have children,” she declared. “I should be a good mother to children. . . . But the country tells me that I cant have a child without a man in the house, so I tell the country that it will have to do without my children.”100

But most feminists, though willing to countenance the single-parent family under some circumstances, were unwilling to accept it as an ideal. To use a man as a mere means to the end of reproduction, said Ellen Key, was an exploitative and vindictive action that would unfairly deprive the child of a father.101 The mother and her well-born child, said Helene Stocker, could develop optimally only amid the “full, warm, rich life” of the well-matched couple.102

While accepting and even glorifying marriage, however, large groups of activist women argued for significant changes in its ethical and legal basis— changes that would protect the health of mothers and children against the consequences of male vices. This agenda was dramatized in one of the era’s most popular plays, Les Avaries (The Syphilitics) by the French playwright Eugene Brieux.103 Censored in Paris while still in rehearsal in 1901, the play was later a hit not only in France but in several other countries, including Britain, where it was given the English title Damaged Goods. The protago­nist, George, was informed by his physician on the eve of his marriage that he had contracted syphilis and was therefore morally obliged to call off his wedding at least temporarily. “I will tell you this,” said the physician, “if you marry before three or four years have elapsed, you will be a criminal.”104 When George, unwilling to violate social convention, went ahead with the marriage and infected his wife, his child, and the child’s hired wet-nurse, his father-in-law expostulated that “the law provides no arms against the man who takes an innocent, confiding young girl in sound health, knowingly befouls her with the heritage of his debauchery, and makes her the mother of a wretched mite whose future is such that those who love it most do not know whether they had better pray for its life or for its immediate deliverance!”105

This play was received enthusiastically by some feminists, including the British suffragette leader Christabel Pankhurst. She acclaimed Brieux for supporting the central assertion of her pamphlet, The Great Scourge and How to End It, that marriage often put women in danger, but added that “a woman’s play would be stronger still.”106 Many women activists presented men as villains and women as their innocent victims. Maria Montessori lamented the plight of the woman who had “neither the knowledge nor the power to avoid being made the instrument for the birth of weakly diseased or degenerate children,” and charged that the subordination of women in marriage was an “enormous crime against the species and against humanity.”107 Birth controllers justified women’s use of contraception as a means of resist­ing abusive or diseased husbands. Women, said Roussel, had the right to decide “if and when they will become mothers, and any time that they are not able, without undue suffering, to bring into the world children who are physically and morally sound. . . they have the right, I would almost say the duty, not to bear children.”108

But the emphasis shifted from the victimization of the mother to the joint responsibility of the couple. If the production of sick or defective offspring was no longer simply a misfortune but the predictable outcome of imprudent sexual behavior, then the mother too must be held accountable. The Portuguese League of Republican Women (Liga Republicans das Mulheres Portuguesas) mixed condemnation with pity: women who “had children by alcoholics do not deserve the name of mothers; they are ignorant or criminal, unless deceived.”109 And some legal reformers advocated laws penalizing sexual irresponsibility in men and women alike. For example, in countries with police-regulated prostitution, they often recommended that police action against prostitutes should be replaced with gender-neutral laws against the spread of venereal disease by anyone, male or female. The Scandinavian countries—Norway in 1906 and Denmark in 1912—were the first to pass laws that criminalized the knowing transmission of venereal diseases.110

In their debates on these controversial measures, feminists struggled to find the proper balance between the welfare of society and the liberty of the individual. In Gemany, the BDF included a law that criminalized the knowing transmission of venereal disease in its proposals for the reform of the German criminal code in 1909. But this proposal met with criticism from the organization’s leading legal expert, Camilla Jellinek, who objected that it would actually work to the disadvantage of women. She pointed out that women would be more hesitant than men to bring lawsuits for fear of dam­aging publicity, and that prostitutes were less likely to sue their customers than to be sued by them. “Naturally, women have a keen interest in measures to promote public welfare and public health,” she concluded, “but when these come into conflict with. . . the preservation of women’s dignity, then we are not called upon to sacrifice the latter for the former.”111 Katharina Scheven, a conservative social-purity activist, acknowledged that the laws would be difficult to enforce but defended them nonetheless because of their deterrent effect on unscrupulous men. The proposed law was turned down by the governmental committee charged with the reform of the legal code in 1909 because, the members objected, it would encourage blackmail and false


Among feminists in several countries, the most popular eugenic measure was the requirement of a health certificate for marriage. On this issue some French feminists were far in advance of their country’s Eugenics Society, which did not lobby for a premarital health certificate until 1926.113 In 1896, the International Feminist Conference held in Paris passed a resolution, intro­duced by the French participant Marya Cheliga, that “in order to protect the family against the horrible scourge of hereditary and contagious diseases, future spouses should be required to present a health certificate at the city hall.”114 In 1908, the Stavanger branch of the Norwegian Women’s National Council sent a petition to the Storthing (Parliament) requesting a debate on the issue.115 As in other areas of marriage and family law, the Scandinavian countries led the way. The draft of a new uniform marriage law, to which women’s organizations made an important contribution, required health certificates for male and female candidates for marriage and prohibited marriage to those afflicted with a few diseases.116

Contrary to the picture of eugenics given by many historians, who emphasize its coercive aspects, most feminist legislative proposals avoided compulsion and emphasized voluntarism and individual responsibility. In 1906, Ellen Key urged prospective spouses to obtain a certificate because “in the interest of the individual and of the human race we can demand that no one be forced to make an uninformed choice.”117 But she recommended that the certificate be shared by the physician only with the couple themselves, and that the decision to marry be left to them. The International Women’s Congress in 1913, held in Paris, recommended against making the certificate public because the revelation of private health data might lead to many forms of discrimination.118 Others, including the members of the League for the Protection of Mothers, strongly encouraged the certificate on a voluntary basis but opposed any prohibition against marriage, which might only encourage the more promiscuous reproduction of the “unfit.”119

But some feminists also supported coercive measures. The British “Mental Deficiency Act” was passed by Parliament in 1913. The Act, which was formulated and supported by the Eugenics Education Society and several civic organizations, provided that any person defined by two physicians as “feeble-minded” or as “mentally deficient” might, with the consent of parents or guardians, be confined in an institution for as long as its directors considered necessary. As Matthew Thomson points out, this measure had many female supporters, who combined philanthropic concern for a vulnera­ble population with eugenically based opposition to the transmission of traits that were assumed to be hereditary.120 Its chief impact was on the poor— whose behavior was more likely to come to the attention of the police and social agencies—and specifically on the female poor. Single mothers who had borne children while on public assistance were classified as “feeble-minded.”

Some feminists opposed the law because it was damaging to women. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, editor of the suffrage periodical Votes for Women, objected that the powers conferred by the Bill “will be used with greater ruthlessness and responsibility toward women. . . than toward men.” Some also pointed out the law’s class bias: Dora Marsden, editor of The Freewoman, called the Eugenics Education Society “a danger to the community” and the Bill “a rascally conspiracy against the poor.”121 But because the objects of the Bill were more often stereotyped as dangerous males—criminals, alcoholics, and sex offenders—other organs of feminist opinion supported it. The suffrage periodical The Vote called for the segrega­tion of “all confirmed drunkards and lunatics.”122 Such a measure was also proposed to the League of German Women’s Organizations in 1908 by the socialist Adele Schreiber, but was not incorporated into the organization’s legislative program until the postwar years.123

Let us return to the question raised in the introduction to this chapter: could the liberty of the individual mother be reconciled with the interest of society in a healthy and flourishing population? The use of eugenic theory to solve this problem was ultimately unsuccessful. Rather than a right, eugenics constituted reproductive liberty as a privilege from which an under-class of “unqualified” individuals—women as well as men—was excluded. And these judgments, though backed by the authority of science, were in fact based on criteria—such as dubious theories of heredity or measures of intelligence— that we know now to be arbitrary. But in the prewar era, when eugenic legislation existed more at the level of rhetoric than of reality, its dangers were difficult to foresee. They would become apparent in the interwar years.