In 1895, the Swedish author and activist Ellen Key gave a lecture entitled “The Misuse of Women’s Energy” before several women’s groups in Sweden. Key struck a sensitive nerve when she charged women with misusing their newfound emancipation in a futile struggle to imitate men while denying the deepest needs of the female personality. “For the real woman,” she insisted, “the need to fulfill herself in personal relationships reaches its highest inten­sity in the activity which is also the highest aim of her life: motherhood and love.”77 The “truly free” woman of the future would recognize motherhood as the highest fulfillment of her individual potential, and would not “dream of a desire to be ‘liberated’ from the foremost essential quality of her womanhood—motherliness.”78 Key was only one of the many reformers of this era who urged the state to recognize motherhood through financial subsidies and social services that would ensure the health and well-being of both mother and child.79 The solution to the demeaning dependency imposed by “marriage as a trade,” these reformers argued, was not to combine motherhood with paid work, but to remunerate the work done by mothers.

The idea that motherhood in itself could or should become a profession might appear to be traditional, but in fact it was distinctively modern.80 Traditionally, motherhood had been regarded more as a natural destiny or moral duty than as a form of self-realization, and notions of maternal duty centered more on children’s physical survival than on their psychological development. As we have seen, the new view of motherhood arose in part from concerns about declining rates of population growth. A still more important factor was the deeper investment in the individual child that was made possible by the smaller families of the early twentieth century. Psychologists of the era, including Key herself, insisted that children’s needs included not only physical care but also the opportunity to develop as unique individuals. The task of child-rearing was so intense, sensitive, and time­consuming that only a full-time mother, who had (in Key’s words) “a daily opportunity to observe the child’s nature, in order by consistent action to influence it, encouraging certain tendencies and restraining others,” could perform it adequately.81

This view of child-rearing was widely debated in feminist circles—for example, in the British Fabian Women’s Group. “Let the child be as well cared for physically as may be, there is lacking the intangible but all-important element in child life, that emotional atmosphere created by the particular and specialized care of the mother,” remarked a member of the group in 1910. “The baby needs its mother not only when it wants to feed or sleep, but for stimulus and response in its amazing life. No woman I have ever met would, without the push of economic necessity, leave her young children and go to regular daily work, as it is arranged today.”82

Underlying this praise of mother-love was an anxious fear for the survival, not only of infants, but of Western culture itself. To be sure, a minority of feminists had rejoiced in the decline of the family, which according to Madeleine Pelletier brought to all its members only “servitude, rigidity and boredom.”83 But many others valued family life as a refuge from the mecha­nization and impersonality, which they feared had overtaken male-dominated society. Gertrud Baumer, who as president of the League of German Women’s Associations (Bund Deutscher Frauenvereine) and co-editor of its journal Die Frau, set the ideological tone for the mainstream German woman’s movement, was a single, professional woman who was well acquainted with the economic necessities that compelled some women to work outside the home. She rejected Key’s definition of professional work as a “misuse of women’s energy” and defended the freedom of all women to control their working lives. But she nonetheless believed that “the sensitive dedication to personal life that the care of a child demands” was an important ethical commitment.84 For the sake of civilization as well as the individual family, she contended that maternity must be “an absolute obligation that sets limits to the absorption of woman in economic life.”85 In the Netherlands, Baumer influenced a group of feminists who characterized themselves as “moderates” and opposed the tendency of some of their colleagues to identify emancipation will full-time work, insisting that the maternal vocation was fully compatible with gender equality.86

The role proposed by such reformers for the mother was summed up by the French term “mother-educator” (“mere educatrice”) 8 Key emphatically rejected institutional care for children below school age, for no day-care center could “show the concern for a child’s individuality, or furnish the peace and freedom for the development of a talent, that an average mid­dle-class home can.”88 Even activists in the field of public child-care often shared this negative view. For instance Pauline Kergomard, the educator who had done more than anyone else to reform and extend the French system of public early childhood institutions (ecoles maternelles), declared emphatically that “no school, however merry, will ever match the little room where the child receives its mother’s kisses, and the title of teacher will always be less intimate than that of ‘maman’.”89 Likewise Paul Strauss, a great advocate of public “creches” designed to save the lives of infants, nonetheless referred to them as a “pis-aller,” or merely palliative measure.90

But this was not an “essentialist” view of motherhood as an innate instinct or life-long destiny. Though they prescribed a longer period of maternal involvement than the advocates of socialized child-rearing, these reformers too imagined “active motherhood” as a temporary phase in a woman’s life. Considering the reduction in family size, proposed the Austrian socialist Wally Zepler, “we can reasonably anticipate a time of ten to twelve years as the average length of that period of a mother’s life that is occupied primarily or exclusively with motherhood.”91 And however they might extol the “nat­ural” mother-child bond, reformers of the prewar era were not prepared to leave child-rearing to instinct. On the contrary, the institutional education of mothers gained a new popularity and prestige.

Education for motherhood was not a new idea—in fact, the petition composed by German feminist leader Helene Lange for the expansion of girls’ secondary education in 1888 had suggested that training in child-care, which could be useful to the future wife or to the future teacher, be provided in a kindergarten attached to each girls’ school. But though general pedagogical training might be acceptable, training in infant care had been anxiously avoided for fear it might lead girls to ask embarrassing questions about where babies came from.92 Among the pioneers in the area of maternal education was the French educator Augusta Moll-Weiss, who founded the first French School for Mothers (Ecole des Meres) in Bordeaux in 1897 and moved it to Paris in 1903. Moll-Weiss scorned the “atavistic prejudice that considered instruction in baby care unsuitable for young girls.” Her school taught maternal skills, including infant care, to a student body that she claimed came from a wide class spectrum and aspired to professional careers in child-care as well as domestic work.93

The well-known French gynecologist Adolphe Pinard believed that “a little institute of child-care (puericulture)” should be attached to all girls’ primary schools. Pinard gave his first demonstration class in 1903, and by 1909 the textbook that he designed for such classes appeared on the approved reading lists of about 30 percent of French school districts.94 The influential text emphasized first the desirability of breast-feeding, and second the obligation of mothers to follow scientific principles rather than traditional practices. “If all mothers did their duty,” Pinard concluded, “the mortality of babies would be reduced greatly.”95 Meanwhile the Pestalozzi – Froebel House in Berlin, which since its founding in 1882 had specialized in kindergarten training, added courses on infant care and hygiene. And in Britain, too, feminist activists founded new institutions dedicated to the education of future mothers and of mothers themselves. For instance, the Babies’ Welcome and School for Mothers was opened in London in 1907. Supported by a committee including the physician Mary Scharlieb, the reformer Alys Russell, and the temperance activist Lady Henry Somerset, the school offered educational, medical, and nutritional services to new mothers. British child-welfare activists petitioned the London school board to incorporate baby-care into school curricula.96

But motherhood could hardly be professionalized as long as it was unpaid. Nothing angered most feminist reformers more than the forced economic dependence of the mother on the father of her children, which exposed her in the best case to a humiliating subservience and in the worst to abandonment and destitution. In order to be a viable career, they insisted that motherhood must be remunerated. But how and by whom? Some believed by the hus­band: for example, the German Kathe Schirmacher and the Austrian Marianne Hainisch, both prominent figures in their countries’ mainstream women’s movements, argued that wives should be entitled to a share of their husbands’ income.97

To many other feminists the idea of direct payment for wifely “services” (as opposed to shared management of the household) was distasteful.98 But those who portrayed service to husbands as demeaning often exalted service to the state as a proud distinction. “The woman who shrinks from feeling that her wifehood is a means of livelihood,” said the British Fabian Maude Pember-Reeves, “will proudly acknowledge that her motherhood is a service to the state.”99 Motherhood as a “social function” was often compared to military service. “The mother who assures the perpetuation of the species,” wrote the French suffrage leader Hubertine Auclert, “should be treated like the soldier who assures the security of the territory: that is, she should be lodged and nourished during the period of her maternal service.”100 A direct state subsidy for childbearing avoided what many considered the problems of maternity insurance, for theoretically it would cover all mothers rather than only the minority that were employed outside the home.

Among French feminists, support for state-funded maternal salary was all but unanimous and transcended political dividing lines. As Karen Offen has explained, the political environment of the Third Republic was highly favorable to the notion of “maternity as the patriotism of women”—a conviction that was shared by feminists with their progressive male allies.101 Male population activists such as Jacques Bertillon, founder of the influential National Alliance for Population Increase (Alliance nationale pour l’accroissement de la population frangaise) had already defined the production of children as a service to the state that should be rewarded by tax deductions and other benefits. He and other male activists designated fathers as the recipients of these subsidies— a proposal that had already been put into practice by some patriotic French corporations, which began in the 1890s to pay family benefits to their employees (the majority of whom were men).102 The main challenge facing advocates of women’s rights was therefore to designate the state’s largesse as a “maternity budget” (Caisse de la maternite) that should subsidize mothers directly rather than through benefits to male breadwinners. This demand went back at least to the International Feminist Conference of 1896, and it was repeated at many national and international conferences and taken up into the programs of a diverse spectrum of organizations.103

As Marilyn Boxer has noted, the “maternity budget” found even more enthusiastic support among French socialists who claimed to speak for work­ing-class constituencies than among the leaders of middle-class groups.104 Leonie Rouzade, who in 1880 had founded the first socialist women’s organization in France, affirmed that “the first law of the collectivity and of all intelligent governments is that children should be raised at the expense of society. . . There is the greatest public interest in sparing no resources on the development of future citizens.”105 Rouzade affirmed that citizens of both genders must engage in useful work, but motherhood should be included in that category.106 Nelly Roussel advocated financial allowances to mothers for two reasons: “first, to treat all mothers, married and unmarried, equally, and then because it seems just and logical that this reward for fertility should go to the producer of children.”107 Liberal reformers concerned with children’s welfare often agreed that the state must support motherhood. In 1913, a subsidy to poor families with numerous children (usually paid to the father) was a first step toward the recognition of the state’s obligation to support its offspring.108

In other European countries, the state-funded “maternal salary”—which the British called the “endowment of motherhood”—was supported chiefly by socialist groups, who insisted that working-class women had no desire to add employment to their already crushing household responsibilities. Such a mother, argued the British socialist Mabel Atkinson, often demanded “not independence and the right to work, but rather protection against the unending burden of toil which has been laid upon her.”109 A state subsidy to mothers with children under five was advocated by the Fabian Society, a British group that favored the gradual introduction of socialism by the state. “It follows that motherhood,” wrote H. G. Wells, a flamboyant Fabian spokesman, “is regarded by Socialists as a benefit to society, a public duty done.”110 Women of the British Labour Party debated the issue in 1909, but reached no definite conclusion.111

In Scandinavia some female activists supported Ellen Key’s demand for state support for all mothers for the first four years of their children’s lives. The Norwegian Katti Anker Moller, who like Pinard also wrote textbooks for school courses on child care, believed that motherhood should be made a profession and should be subsidized on the condition that the mother refrained from work outside the home.112 In Germany, the remuneration of women for their services to what Kathe Schirmacher, who had spent time in France, called “the great national population industry” had a few advocates. For example, the suffragist Anita Augspurg called for a maternity pension for every mother which would last eighteen months, well beyond the period covered by maternity insurance.113 However the leadership of the mainstream German women’s movement, which consisted almost entirely of unmarried professional women, showed no such overwhelming enthusiasm for the concept of “motherhood as a social function” as did their French counter – parts.114 German socialists, too, tended to favor the socially supported employment rather than direct remuneration of mothers.

And indeed, the model of motherhood as a profession or paid service posed many problems. For like most social reformers, the proponents of the “endowment of motherhood” had little respect for the objects of their benevolence, in this case mothers themselves. They always made it clear that the award of benefits must be contingent on the rigorous observance of reg­ulations concerning work, breast-feeding, child-care, and medical supervi­sion. Ellen Key insisted that the recipients of her proposed subsidy to mothers meet high standards: she required them to be of appropriate age, to present a health certificate to local authorities, to have completed a year of training in child-care (designated as “female military service”), and to care for their children at home.115 The French physicians Paul Strauss and Just Sicard de Plauzoles insisted that breast-feeding must be made compulsory— Sicard even asserted that a mother who refused to breast-feed should be prosecuted as a criminal.116

And governmental assistance also involved surveillance. As the historian Yvonne Knibiehler has observed, a new era of state-regulated motherhood was at hand.117 The French Loi Strauss that provided a subsidy for maternity leaves also required “lady visitors” (“dames visiteuses”) to supervise the child-rearing practices of the recipients. Such services, which were provided by private and public agencies in many countries, were supported by the middle- class women to whom they provided employment but often resented by their low-income clients.118 And some proponents of endowed motherhood more or less explicitly discouraged women’s newfound educational and economic ambitions. The reorganization of maternity as a “national service,” predicted Sicard de Plauzoles, would not only give France a future but provide “a solu­tion to a great portion of the Woman question.”119 Some male French social­ists reveled in utopian fantasies of a state that removed women from the labor force and returned them to their “natural” profession of motherhood.120 H. G. Wells hoped that the “monstrous absurdity of women discharging their supreme social function. . . while they ‘earn their living’ by contribu­ting some half mechanical element to some trivial industrial product, will disappear.”121

Therefore the notion of state-subsidized motherhood was highly contro­versial among feminists of this era, and many rejected it. At the Paris conference of 1908, the French activist Camille Bellilon suggested that the “maternity budget” should be re-named the “children’s budget” because otherwise men, assuming that women were provided for by the state, would feel justi­fied in denying them professional opportunities.122 In Britain, a group of contributors to the radical periodical, The Freewoman, engaged in a spirited polemic against H. G. Wells’ proposal for the “endowment of motherhood.” Did the idea that motherhood was a service to the state imply that the government could determine how many children each woman must bear? And if so, on what criteria would this allotment be based? Who would be considered qualified to perform this important public service? And if mothers were to be selected, then why not fathers too? Should marriage be a condition for child-bearing, or would eugenic fitness be sufficient? What, exactly, was the difference between such a “service” and the sexual relations traded for money by prostitutes? To whom would the resulting child belong—the parents or the state?123

Many commentators objected that the “endowment” scheme left out fathers and might discourage responsible paternal behavior. Perturbed by the socialist overtones of “endowment,” German liberal feminists presciently warned of the dangers of opening the private sphere of the family to control by the state. “Motherhood and fatherhood are not only social functions,” wrote Alice Salomon, “but they are familial functions in the most exact sense of that word.” And what if the state took the notion of motherhood as national service to its logical extreme and “laid on women only the duty, or the right, to bear children for the society and the state, without giving them any power over the child’s upbringing. Then mothers might well go on strike.” The rights of mothers, she concluded, must depend on “the drawing of a careful boundary between parental and state responsibilities.”124 In Italy, the veteran feminist Anna Maria Mozzoni warned her socialist sisters that the utopian visions of state-endowed motherhood invoked by male socialist

leaders could reverse educational and professional gains and turn marriage into the “greatest and best employment opportunity for women.”125