Introduction: From Destinyto. D ilemma—Motherhood in the. T wentieth C entury. “A Reasonable Human Being”
When Nora, the heroine of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, walked out the door of her comfortable home, her husband Torvald frantically sought to hold her back. “Before all things, you are a wife and mother,” he protested. “I don’t believe that any longer,” was Nora’s response, “I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being, just as you are—or at any event, that I must try and become one.” Nora, the mother of three, aspired to autonomy for her own sake and for the sake of her children. In her present state of child-like dependence, she reflected sadly, she was “of no use to them.”1 As she slammed the door on her husband and children, Nora raised the question that this book will address: is it possible to be both a mother and an autonomous individual? This is what I will call the “maternal dilemma.”
In the twentieth century, the maternal dilemma has emerged as one of the most intractable problems facing women in the West. Although the identification of womanhood with motherhood can be traced back to the beginning of human history, the conception of motherhood as a dilemma is relatively new. For without choice, there can be no dilemma. Only since the turn of the twentieth century has freely chosen motherhood been perceived as a realistic— though still often unattainable—aspiration. But the choice is too often between motherhood and other forms of self-realization. Women still assume the chief responsibility for the family, and do most of the work of reproduction and child-rearing. This “double burden” restricts their participation in economic, social, and cultural life and is now the major source of gender inequality in Western societies. Of course, many women never have children, but the tendency to identify womanhood with motherhood nonetheless shapes the environment in which they live and work.
Motherhood is a central concern not just of women, but of the societies in which they live, which depend for their survival on women’s willingness to bear children. The solution of the maternal dilemma is an essential step toward the full realization of women’s rights of citizenship, which will be defined here to include not only participation in politics, but also equal opportunity in social, economic, and cultural life. Suffrage, said the French feminist Nelly Roussel in 1905, was not an end in itself, but a means to the
higher end of ensuring “the natural right of every human being, to live autonomously and to develop all abilities in freedom.”2
In this book, we will look at the ways in which feminists who lived and worked in several Western European countries between 1890 and 1970 attempted to resolve this dilemma by creating a new role for mothers—one that would not restrict, but enhance, their development as individuals. The maternal dilemma was not, of course, invented by feminists. But it was they who defined it, explored it, stressed its importance as a social, cultural, and political issue, and placed it at the center of their theoretical analyses and political programs.
Despite the central importance of this theme to the history of women and of feminism, it has often been neglected by historians, who are usually most interested in women’s entry into new areas such as politics, the professions, sports, and social life outside the family. Motherhood, many imply, was a “traditional” role, and feminists who emphasized it are often identified as conservatives whose contribution was minor, if not actually harmful. In their study of German women in the interwar era, Atina Grossmann, Renate Bridenthal, and Claudia Koonz emphasize the “dangers implicit in a feminism that celebrates separate spheres and differences between the sexes.”3 And Denise Riley charges feminists of earlier generations with emphasizing the “timelessly frozen properties of maternity” and constructing “a woman – thing, objectified as a distortion.”4 But we shall see that in fact feminist discourses on motherhood were fixed neither on “timeless” and essentialist stereotypes, nor on “separate spheres.” On the contrary, they contributed to a remarkable process of transformation.
At the turn of the twentieth century, many feminists extolled motherhood as the highest of human achievements. Indeed, claimed the influential Swedish author Ellen Key, it was “the most perfect realization of human potential that the species has reached.”5 In the political realm, this view was expressed through an ideology that historians call “maternalism,” which asserted the public importance of motherhood and child-rearing. Some even included life-giving motherhood with death-dealing military service among the rights and obligations of citizenship.
By 1970, we note a conspicuous shift in both the content and the tone of feminist debates. Activists of that era continued to advocate the political and social rights of mothers and to explore the experience of motherhood and its place in each individual life. But most repudiated maternalism and aggressively refused to acknowledge motherhood as a universal female vocation, moral mission, or duty of citizenship. In fact, many regarded this as a stereotype that oppressed and confined women. In 1972, young activists of the French women’s liberation movement called upon women to free themselves from an ancient yoke. “The only rational attitude toward what society has made of motherhood is to refuse it,” stated one of their many manifestoes.6
Why this change in the space of less than a century? Why did the grandmothers’ exalted ideal become the granddaughters’ restrictive stereotype—a development that is all the more noteworthy in a period during which the medical and material conditions surrounding motherhood improved immeasurably? This book will answer this question by looking at the relationship between feminism and motherhood in its historical context— the massive transformation of family structure that occurred during the years from 1890 to 1970. The approach will be international and comparative, and will include the nations of Western Europe, focusing chiefly on Britain, France, Germany, and the Netherlands but including many others. Unlike most existing works on this subject, which are centered on public policy issues, this one will emphasize the connection between public policy and the familial roles of mothers. Of course, no single book could cover all aspects— legal, medical, moral, cultural—of the maternal role, so we will focus here on the questions that figured most prominently in feminist debates. What should be the legal status of mothers, and what changes in the law might be required to promote gender equality in the family? Was the child the responsibility of the individual mother, the married or unmarried couple, or the community or state? And if the latter, should the state be empowered to compel, to limit, or to prohibit parenthood? Was motherhood in itself an occupation deserving of compensation, or should it be combined with paid work outside the home? Were all women “motherly” by nature, or were some unfit for this responsibility and thus morally obligated to decline it? And, finally, how would women’s new aspirations to occupational or personal fulfillment affect the mother-child relationship?
As its title indicates, this study focuses on the history of feminist movements, Western Europe, and motherhood. I will begin by briefly addressing these three concepts.