Any historical consideration of such a diverse and controversial phenomenon as feminism must begin with a definition. The terms “feminist” and “feminism” were first used in the late nineteenth century by the French suffragist Hubertine Auclert, and by 1900 these terms were in use throughout Europe and in North and Latin America. From that day to this, their meaning has been disputed. As the historian Karen Offen has remarked, many historical works of the 1970s evaluated their subjects according to the authors’ own definitions of feminism, derived from the women’s movements of the late twentieth century. True feminists, these authors insisted, aimed for “equal opportunity for the individual irrespective of sex, familial considerations, or national concerns.”7 But most leaders of the first women’s movement, from its origins in the eighteenth century until 1960, took a positive view of the family, the maternal role, and the complementary male-female couple, and worked from a concept of “equality-in-difference.” Such activists were often dismissed as simply not feminist—a judgment that Offen rightly rejects as unhistorical.
Offen divides feminist arguments into two types: the “individualist,” which stressed individual rights, and the “relational,” which emphasized cooperation, solidarity, and the complementary male-female couple. Encompassing both of these variations, Offen defines a feminist as a
female or male whose ideas and actions. . . show them to meet three criteria: they recognize the value of women’s own interpretations of their lived experience and needs and acknowledge the values women claim publicly as their own… in assessing their status in society relative to men; they exhibit consciousness of, discomfort at, or even anger over institutionalized injustice (or inequity) toward women as a group by men as a group in a given society; and they advocate the elimination of that injustice by challenging, through efforts to alter prevailing ideas and/or social institutions and practices, the coercive power, force, or authority that upholds male prerogatives in that particular culture.8
Many people who will figure in this book put their major efforts into campaigns for the rights of children rather than of women. Others shunned the label “feminist”—religious women because of its secular, and socialists because of its middle-class, connotations. But under Offen’s broad definition most of these people qualify in some sense as “feminist.”
Other historians emphasize the conflict rather than the basic agreement among feminist ideologies. Since their beginning in the eighteenth century, claims the well-known historian and theorist Joan Wallach Scott, feminist movements have been trapped in an intractable paradox, albeit one that is not of their own making. In Scott’s view, feminists usually begin by challenging whatever notions of gender difference are used to justify women’s subordination during a given era, and making a claim to equality with men based on a doctrine of gender-neutral human rights, or rights of citizenship. But such a gender-neutral doctrine always proves elusive, for in practice citizenship is associated with maleness (e. g., military service was commonly regarded during this period as an indispensable qualification for citizenship). And therefore feminists are forced to admit gender difference and to argue that women are entitled to equality on the basis of their distinctively female characteristics, thus creating a new version of female “nature” that eventually becomes so oppressive and limiting that a new generation of feminists challenges it in the name of equality (starting the process again).9
In practice, the distinction between arguments for gender equality and gender difference was often meaningless, for these arguments were often used interchangeably. And yet on issues concerning maternity, we will see that these two approaches dwelt uneasily together. For the mother identified herself both generically as a human individual and specifically as a woman. In the late nineteenth century, feminists demanded full and equal rights of citizenship for women. But a doctrine of rights that had been designed to fit the male citizen, an independent individual, could only with difficulty be adapted to the citizen-mother, who claimed rights to dependence as well as to liberty. And the mother-child relationship, which evolves from symbiosis through intermediate stages of dependence that must inevitably end in separation, had no counterpart in the male life-patterns upon which most normative understandings of human nature and politics were based. Many feminists solved this problem by claiming that motherhood itself was a vital service to the state, which deserved to be recognized by the granting of full rights of citizenship. But this maternalist ideology, which emphasized social solidarity, was often difficult to reconcile with individualist claims to equality and liberty. For feminists, motherhood inevitably involved a conflict between social and individualist aspirations, and this conflict will be a major theme of this book.
The term “feminism” has also been problematized for imposing a false unity on a highly disparate set of people, ideas, and events.10 Female sex and gender do not in themselves confer a political identity, and those who speak for “women” in general always represent some particular group. In what follows, we will be concerned with a numerous and diverse array of individuals, not all of whom were women—for men, though in the minority, have always played a role in feminist movements. These individuals’ ideas and actions were shaped by many aspects of identity—not only sex or gender, but also nationality, class, religion, marital and parental status, and others. At no time does the term “feminism” denote a unified movement or a single orthodox ideology—it always refers to a complex and shifting process of coalition-building.11
Class conflict, which shaped the political life of this era, was often a major obstacle to this process. Both definitions of class and perceptions of class difference varied across national boundaries. In Germany, a hostile relationship between socialist and middle-class women’s groups prevented cooperation over most of our period. In France, Scandinavia, and Britain, cross-class alliances were easier to forge. Moreover, feminists in all the countries included in this study found it easier to work together across class barriers on issues concerning the family, motherhood, and child welfare than on many other issues. However, because of the far greater access of upper – and middle-class women to money, time, and media attention, their viewpoint usually had the greatest visibility—an asymmetry that will be noted at many points in the following chapters. Another difference that is important to feminists at present—difference in sexual orientation—influenced our period’s discourses on motherhood only indirectly. Although in fact many lesbians had their own children or raised the children of others, they were imagined during this era chiefly as unmarried and childless women. The lesbian mother became visible only after 1970.
Although they were very aware of differences among women, feminists of this era did not share the preoccupation of present-day theorists with defining or deconstructing female identity. The identity to which they aspired was not chiefly that of woman, but that of citizen. And the audience that they addressed was not composed exclusively of women or of feminists, but included the general public. They rightly insisted that motherhood, the family, and reproduction were not just “women’s issues,” but vital aspects of national life that concerned both women and men. “Just as we need the human couple to call a new person into life,” wrote Hubertine Auclert, “in order to create an environment where that person can develop fully, both men and women are indispensable.”12 Feminists will be presented here as contributors to public debates that included a wide variety of speakers—politicians, military leaders, physicians, psychologists, creative writers, and many others.