EMPLOYMENT OR ENDOWMENT?. THE DILEMMA OF MOTHERHOOD,. I89O-1914
Love and Work
Legal equality was an important goal, but it meant little without economic independence. Mothers who depended on their male partners for their own subsistence and that of their children could hardly develop into autonomous individuals or responsible parents. Though women’s dependence and domestic servitude were age-old problems, the new century brought the hope of new solutions. In the mid-nineteenth century, when families were large, births were spaced throughout the woman’s reproductive period, and average female life expectancy was less than fifty years, motherhood might well be a lifetime task that excluded any other occupation. But at the turn of the twentieth century, changes in women’s lives called this traditional pattern into question. Must motherhood consume an entire life? Or was it a limited commitment that could coexist with other forms of work, including paid employment? For some, this latter possibility seemed to point the way to a more fully human existence, in which work might confer not only economic independence but also self-esteem. “What women who have fully thought out the position want, is not this forced alternative between activity in the human world, and control of their own economic position on the one hand, and marriage and children on the other, but both,” wrote the British socialist Mabel Atkinson in 1914. “Women do not want either love or work, but both, and the full meaning of the feminist movement will not develop until this demand becomes conscious and articulate among the rank and file of the movement.”1 This ideal of emancipation through a combination of family life and paid work would engage successive generations of feminists throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.
This innovative, indeed radical redefinition of the maternal role is overlooked by many recent historical accounts. For example, the prominent historian Ute Gerhard associates “first-wave” German feminist movements with a traditional ideal of motherhood that “left the prevailing gendered division of labor intact, adapted itself to the patriarchal order, and could on
many occasions be used against women.”2 On the contrary, prominent figures of this era challenged both the conventional division of labor and the patriarchal order that lent its moral sanction to domestic slavery. They proposed two new ways of combining motherhood with economic independence. The first, which I shall call “employment,” was to enable women to combine paid work and child-rearing. Isolde, heroine of Helene Bohlau’s novel, Halbtier (A Lower Form of Life), dreamed of “a child and work,” and claimed that all women needed “work to broaden their minds, and a child to make their hearts rejoice” in order to realize their full potential.3 Proponents of maternal employment called upon the state to assume many tasks traditionally performed by mothers, including child-care and some forms of household work. The second solution—which I will call “endowment”—was to regard motherhood itself as a kind of profession, to be remunerated by the state for the substantial but limited period when children were young. The eponymous heroine of H. G. Wells’s widely read novel Ann Veronica, looked forward to a period when motherhood itself would be recognized as a valuable form of work. “Across that world was written in letters of light: ‘Endowment of motherhood’. Suppose in some complex yet conceivable way women were endowed, were no longer financially and socially dependent on men.”4
These debates on the economic status of mothers laid the foundation for the welfare state, which made the well-being of mothers and children a public concern. Much recent historical research has examined the issues raised by maternal employment in relation to public policy.5 This chapter, though it draws heavily on these works, will focus less on the state than on the maternal role itself. For whatever their utopian hopes, feminists acknowledged that progress toward public policies designed to solve the problems of the working mother was slow indeed. Meanwhile, the individual woman who strove to combine love and work faced practical difficulties, painful choices, and emotional conflicts—in fact, the maternal dilemma.
The combination of paid work and motherhood was old—it had shaped the experience of women for centuries—but it had not usually been perceived as a dilemma. Traditionally, mothers had worked in agriculture and in family workshops, but such work was not generally distinguished from maternal duties. The removal of some industrial work from the family economy in the nineteenth century brought some mothers into workplaces outside the home. In the opinion of most nineteenth-century commentators, this was not a dilemma to be solved but an evil to be eliminated. These moralists were concerned less for the actual welfare of mothers or children than for the integrity of the family, which according to conventional moral notions depended for its stability on the father’s control of his household.6 The hardships suffered by the working woman, and especially by the working mother, were attributed not to material factors such as low wages and unhealthy surroundings but to the moral disorder caused by the removal of women from the “natural” authority of father or husband. With female independence were associated a host of other evils. In a famously extreme version of the argument, the French socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon reduced women’s career options to two: housewife or harlot.7
These moral claims served the material interests of employers and workers alike. By deploring married women’s work as an evil, employers resisted pressure to improve such workers’ pay and conditions or to provide benefits such as child-care. Similarly, labor unions, most of which were male-dominated, became zealous opponents of married women’s work and partisans of domesticity. Underlying this ideology was the fear that the availability of women workers, whose willingness to accept low wages was notorious, would undercut men’s claim to a “family wage” sufficient to support a wife and children.8 Even nineteenth-century women’s movements, which were disproportionately supported by unmarried professional women, regarded paid work as a survival necessity for single but not for married women. John Stuart Mill, a hero of nineteenth-century feminism, approved of the “common arrangement” which defined men as breadwinners and women as full-time domestic workers and mothers—a division of labor which he believed gave the mother “not only her fair share, but usually the larger share, of the bodily and mental exertion required by their joint existence.”9
While ostensibly idealizing mothers, this discourse in fact made their work invisible. The contrast so often invoked by moralists between the employed mother torn from her children by the factory bell and the serene mistress of hearth and home was misleading on both sides. Few married women, and thus few mothers were engaged in full-time work. In 1907 in Germany only 26 percent of married women were classified as employed, and only 21 percent of female industrial workers were married.10 In 1901 only 10 percent of British married women were classified as full-time employees. The figure was much higher in France, where in 1911 48 percent of married women were described as “occupied,” but because of the much lower birthrate of French families many of these were not responsible for dependent children. But although most mothers did not work full time, they did not enjoy a purely domestic existence that was free of paid labor. For many mothers were forced to work for pay, and when excluded from factory work they turned to still more exploitative and underpaid forms of employment such as domestic industry, which because it was done in the home was invisible to policymakers.
Also invisible was the arduous labor of child-rearing. Economists differentiated between reproduction and production and asserted that only the latter counted as economically valuable work. But mothers often regarded this distinction as artificial, and ascribed economic as well as emotional value to their occupation. British working-class mothers of the early twentieth century were proud of their accomplishments, writes Ellen Ross, and “saw themselves as workers for their husbands and children: productive rather than emotional functions were at the center of female identity.”11
At the turn of the twentieth century the discourse on motherhood, work, and the work of mothers was transformed by a new view of health, and child welfare as concerns of the state and not simply of the family. Maternity, though still regarded as a moral duty, was also re-conceptualized as a productive activity that manufactured the most important commodity of all, citizens. “Men make tools, but women bring new people into the world; men forge weapons, but soldiers grow up in the arms of their mothers,” declared the progressive German politician Friedrich Naumann.12 As Kathleen Canning observes, the focus of the discussion shifted from moral to medical issues— how did various forms of labor affect the female body and its all-important reproductive functions?13
This change in the climate of opinion presented both new possibilities and new problems to feminist speakers, who at the turn of the century assumed an ever more prominent role in the discussion. Although demands for the exclusion of mothers from industrial workplaces continued, maternal employment was now presented less as a moral evil to be forbidden than as a medical problem to be managed.14 Moreover, another development—the increased number of educated women who aspired to professional advancement— brought the issue of maternal work into the center of feminist agendas. In the nineteenth century, most professional women remained unmarried and this celibate way of life was regarded, both by the women themselves and by the surrounding culture, as an acceptable alternative to marriage and motherhood. But during our period, natalist propagandists attacked both the celibate professional woman herself and the sinister forces that had estranged her from her maternal duties. “The human race and our culture need the most numerous possible offspring, and from the most capable and intelligent women,” wrote the Dutch sociologist S. R. Steinmetz, “thus feminism, which opposes this goal, must be condemned.”15
As Karen Offen points out, feminists in all Western countries protested that the emancipation of women would not undermine but encourage their commitment to motherhood.16 Some—especially sexual reformers—agreed that the celibate life of the professional woman was indeed unsatisfactory. “Only in the relationship between man and woman can the complete person emerge,” argued the German teacher Maria Lichnewska, and motherhood was the “strongest instinct” of the healthy woman.17 But Lichnewska and others insisted that even this deprived existence was preferable to that of the dependent and powerless wife and mother. The “new woman” would consent to become a mother only if she could escape domestic servitude and preserve her economic independence. Some feminists created a new female role model: the tired but happy superwoman who combined career success and familial bliss. But others, including the prominent Ellen Key, objected that this overvaluation of work outside the home implicitly degraded the value of woman’s most important task, motherhood.
Only a glimpse into their life stories can reveal the full complexity of the issues confronted by these women, whose conflicting commitments to maternity and professional or political engagement plunged them into insoluble dilemmas. Whereas their rhetoric emphasized patriotism and the needs of the state, their own decisions, whether painful or joyful, resulted from highly personal considerations. Some, who had accepted the traditional choice between motherhood and career, felt disappointed and deprived: “for years I could never look at children without being painfully reminded of my lost hopes,” wrote Alice Salomon, a founder of the profession of social work in Germany.18 Others had the opportunity for marriage and motherhood, and reluctantly refused it. Helene Stocker turned down a proposal from her lover, Alexander Tille, who was a widower with two young sons. “I had grown up in a large family,” she wrote later, “and I had always thought it natural to include love, marriage, and children among my most important goals. But not yet, I pleaded inwardly. For my drive toward intellectual development, toward the development of my personality, was just as innate and natural.”19
Some well-known leaders who did marry, such as the Dutch physician Aletta Jacobs and the British author Olive Schreiner, were devastated by the early deaths of their children. “But, looking back, despite all the sorrow,” wrote Jacobs, “I still count myself lucky that I know how it feels to be a mother, that I have held my child in my arms, even though it was for but one day.”20 Some, such as the German socialist Lily Braun, were happy to be mothers and struggled to reconcile activism with child-rearing. “Since the birth of my child,” reflected the heroine of Braun’s autobiographical novel, “the problems of women’s emancipation were no longer just theories. They cut into my own flesh—and I was not a factory worker, I did not have to work from morning to evening in the factory, far from my darling. I shuddered to think that anything like that should be possible, let alone necessary.”21
French feminists often proudly portrayed themselves as devoted mothers. For example, the autobiography of the French socialist Nelly Roussel presented her as a “loving and loved spouse” and the “happy mother of two charming children.” But according to her biographer, Elinor Accampo, Roussel’s frequent speaking tours prevented her from playing much of a role in her children’s upbringing.22 These dilemmas were, of course, not limited to these elite circles; for example, Kathleen Canning describes how female factory workers invoked “the simultaneity of work and family in shaping women’s identity” to differentiate their own lives from those of the men of their class.23 Feminists asserted the liberty of all mothers to make the choices that were most appropriate for them.