A New Dilemma
Both proposed routes to economic independence—employment and endowment—rested on some of the same highly untraditional assumptions. Mothers were to be independent of male breadwinners and the state was assigned some functions that were traditionally performed by the family. And advocates of employment and endowment alike insisted that motherhood was now a phase in the life of the modern woman, who after a limited period of full-time mother-work could also aspire to other activities, including paid employment. According to the British socialist Mabel Atkinson, the family of the future “would probably not consist of more than three or four children, and even if one made the assumption that the woman should devote herself entirely to the care of her children until the youngest reached school age, there would still remain many years of her life during which she would be strong and fit for work.”126 In the prewar period we see the first step toward the redefinition of maternity from a lifetime identity to a role.
This new definition of the maternal role had many implications, both liberating and confining. Feminist movements contributed to an important trend in twentieth-century culture—the popularization of motherhood, which was now held out as an option for all women, even those who aspired to economic independence and professional success. In fact, emancipation was increasingly defined as a combination of career success and familial, specifically maternal and heterosexual, fulfillment. Like every other political ideology, this one created invidious distinctions. It often justified a negative view of the woman who, for whatever reason, chose a single or childless life— an option that was once respected, but now carried the stigma of abnormality. The spinster, wrote a contributor to The Freewoman, was a “barren sister, a withered tree, the acidulous vestal under whose pale shadow we chill and whiten.”127 Some single career women responded that they felt no regrets. “All this talk about how the single and celibate life is harmful to women is total nonsense,” wrote the German teacher Elisabeth Schneider, “and I am the proof of that—I’m healthy.”128
Although they defined a new ideal, feminists of this era could chart no clear path to its fulfillment. To be sure, they produced many inspiring visions of new forms of family and household, new ways of organizing professional work and child-care, and a new respect for motherhood. But ultimately the mother was placed before several unpalatable alternatives: home as domestic prison or impersonal commune, child-care as maternal smother-love or institutional regimentation, parenthood as service to the patriarchal family or to the bureaucratic state, work as domestic slave or exhausted superwoman. In their search for fulfillment, remarked Ellen Key, modern women were haunted by a “dualism that is based in nature and difficult to resolve.”129 “In most professions,” wrote the German socialists Adele
Gerhard and Helene Simon, “the conflict between intellectual and artistic work and the fulfilled life of a woman is unavoidable.”130 In their search for a new female life-plan, feminists succeeded chiefly in defining a new dilemma. And its resolution was left to the individual woman: the “free woman” of the future, prophesied the German Hedwig Dohm, would realize that “each woman has to decide the question—job or no job—for herself.”131