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.