At the turn of the twentieth century, when our story begins, feminist rhetoric was pervaded by the exaltation of motherhood as the woman citizen’s most important right and duty. In our own time, historians’ responses to this tendency, which they have called “maternalism,” have covered a broad spec­trum from vehement denunciation to fulsome praise. Some have pictured the maternalists as the misguided allies of militarist politicians whose aim was the production of cannon fodder. Richard Evans and Marie-Louise Janssen-Jurreit linked the history of German feminism to that of nationalism; Claudia Koonz to that of Nazism and the Holocaust.21 Anna Davin included British maternal – ists among the proponents of “imperial motherhood.”22 Karen Offen delivered a more nuanced judgment on French feminists, whose support of population growth, childbearing, and the maternal role she attributed to a pragmatic con­cern for survival in a highly natalist atmosphere—a kind of “raison d’etat.”23 Other historians have condemned all tendencies to identify womanhood with motherhood, whatever their context, as a betrayal of feminism. “When the child becomes the sacred king of the family,” wrote the influential French theorist Elisabeth Badinter, “society, with the father’s full cooperation, will demand that the mother rid herself of her aspirations as a woman.”24

Recent works have called these negative judgments into question by stressing the many positive achievements of maternalist feminism. As such authors as Seth Koven and Sonya Michel have pointed out, maternalists played an important role in this era’s most notable trend in social policy: the invention and development of the welfare state.25 To be sure, the maternalists are sometimes criticized for their authoritarian attitude toward parents who did not meet their standards of proper child-rearing, and children whose behavior did not fulfill middle-class norms.26 However, these historians respect the idealism of women such as Hubertine Auclert, who aspired to transform the warlike “minotaur state” into a “motherly” commonwealth that would “nurture its citizenry, offering security and work to the healthy, assistance to children, old people, the sick and disabled.”27

Though both of these approaches are valid, their explanatory power is reduced by a longer chronological and broader international perspective. For if feminists’ concern for mothers and children was intended to serve militaristic ends, then why was this concern as passionate in neutral states such as Holland, Belgium, and Sweden as in bellicose France and Germany and imperialist Britain? And why was maternalist rhetoric as common among pacifists who opposed war as among nationalists who glorified it? And if maternalist ideology was designed first and foremost to serve a specific political end—the building of the welfare state—then why did the influence of the ideology decline as this end was achieved—in the 1920s and 1930s, when the first reform measures were implemented, and in the post-World War II era, when the growth of the European welfare states reached its highest point? Although it will draw on all the works mentioned earlier, this book will attribute the evolution of feminist attitudes toward motherhood chiefly to more fundamental trends—the demographic transition, declining birthrates and family size, and cultural changes affecting marriage, the status of women, the roles of mothers and fathers, and parent-child relations.

Any discussion of the history of motherhood must start by considering a central question: to what extent is maternal behavior shaped by nature or instinct and to what extent by culture? This question is often obfuscated by a fallacious association of maternal instinct with the unconditional devotion that Western culture defines as “mother-love.” Badinter, the author of a book entitled Mother-Love: Myth and Reality, assumed that the very existence of unloving mothers ruled out any instinctual basis for motherhood, which she defined as a purely cultural phenomenon, a “human feeling. . . uncertain, fragile, and imperfect.”28

But in fact, although mothers of human and many other species bond with their offspring, in no species can maternal instinct be identified with altruistic and unconditional love. As the anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy showed, mothers throughout nature often choose how many offspring they will rear, and their commitment to their progeny is contingent, dictated first and fore­most by the pressure to survive in a given habitat. Among human beings, as among other mammals, “a mother’s emotional commitment to her infant can be contingent on ecologically and historically produced circumstances.”29 The variability of human maternal behavior—from murderous to adoring—is rooted in nature as well as in culture and history.

From the Middle Ages until the beginning of the period under discussion, survival needs drove human parental behavior. Most parents assumed that children would contribute labor and earnings to the household, and thus prove to be an economic asset. High birthrates and large families were accepted though not always welcomed, and laws emphasized the duties of children to support their parents and the rights of parents to their children’s obedience, labor, and service. Recent research has refuted earlier claims— made by such historians as Philippe Aries and Badinter herself—that parents of the early modern era did not love their children, and has presented us with many appealing examples of parental affection.30

However, parental love was not understood as altruistic or unconditional, but was firmly based on reciprocity. To cite only one influential example: the seventeenth-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes assumed that the mother-child relationship, like all other human ties, was based neither on sentiment nor instinct, but rather on the rational pursuit of self-preservation. “Again, seeing the infant is first in the power of the mother, so as she may either nourish it or expose it, if she nourish it, it oweth its life to the mother,” Hobbes wrote, “and is therefore obliged to obey her, rather than any other, and by consequence, the dominion over it is hers. But if she expose it, and another find and nourish it, the dominion is in him that nourisheth it. For it ought to obey him by whom it is preserved, because preservation of life being the end, for which one man becomes subject to another, every man is supposed to promise obedience to him, in whose power it is to save, or destroy him.”31 Hobbes allotted no natural power over the child to the father (presumably because by himself he could not preserve its life), but derived paternal power from the husband’s “dominion” over the wife—a theory that would be contested by feminists of a later era.

The first sign of change in these attitudes emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when a wealthy middle class which could dispense with the labor of its children created a new kind of childhood involving educa­tion, age-appropriate play, and individualized nurture. This fortunate group redefined the care of its unproductive progeny as a work of selfless devotion, rewarded by emotional satisfaction rather than by economic gain. And, as an industrial economy removed fathers from the home, mothers assumed the task of child-rearing and human qualities that it required, which were declared to be natural to the female sex. Although its children were now not an economic asset but a liability, the middle class continued for a while to produce large families, probably because of male supremacy in the marital rela­tionship and religious strictures against the discussion or practice of contracep­tion. A notable exception to this general pattern was found in France, where people of all classes began limiting birthrates in the early nineteenth century— a practice that is often attributed to the partible inheritance laws introduced by the Napoleonic Code and the process of secularization that the French Revolution had initiated. In the families of the urban and rural working class, children remained important contributors to the family economy until the turn of the twentieth century. Only then did laws requiring school attendance and forbidding child labor remove large numbers of working-class children from the labor market and force their parents to support them for an extended period—a process that was not complete until the 1930s.32

Changing parent-child relationships were probably a major factor in the so-called “demographic transition,” or sharp reduction in birthrates that occurred in all Western European countries over a time-span of less than two generations, between 1880 and 1930. To give only a few examples: during these years birthrates in England declined by 52 percent (relative to the 1880 figure); in Germany by 54 percent; in Sweden by 48 percent; in Spain by 28 percent; in France by 25 percent. By 1930, France was no longer exceptional; in fact its birthrate in 1930 exceeded those of Britain and Germany.33 Recent historical research has challenged traditional explanations that identified industrialization, urbanization, or an increase in children’s survival rate as the causes of this trend. Though it first appeared in cities, it spread rapidly to rural areas; and its onset preceded the striking improve­ments in children’s life expectancy that were brought about in the early twentieth century.34

Cultural rather than economic or medical factors seem to have accounted for what the historian Hugh Cunningham calls “the most important transition to have occurred in the history of childhood.”35 The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the spread of middle-class ideals of sheltered, educated, and carefully nurtured childhood to broad segments of the popu – lation.36 Children were revalued as priceless emotional assets. The longer duration and higher cost of child-rearing, which motivated the preference for small families, was due chiefly to parents’ own increased sense of obligation. The French suffragist Hubertine Auclert saw this as a sign of advancing civi­lization. “For the savage, the child is an asset,” she wrote, “but for civilized people, the child is a duty.”37 Other causes of the decline in birthrates were probably the loosening of the hold of religious beliefs and a rise in the status of women in marriage, trends that encouraged a more open discussion and cooperative practice of family planning by married couples.38

And the investment in children was public as well as private, for the state now regarded children as an important resource and child welfare, previously left to parents and private organizations, as its legitimate concern. This new­found official interest in children is often rightly attributed to anxieties about the effect of falling birthrates on military strength, which in this era depended on the number of soldiers that could be put into the field. However, the same public concern for the survival, health, and well-being of children emerged in states on the periphery of the great-power struggle, such as Holland, Norway, and Sweden, as in the major European powers. For a generation whose general tendency to anxiety and pessimism had been exacerbated by the decline in birthrates, the healthy, vigorous, and well-nurtured child promised vitality, regeneration, progress, and the survival of nations and cul­tures. Campaigns to prevent child-abuse, to improve health services, to provide pure milk, and to furnish recreational opportunities now received the support and encouragement of governments.

Starting around 1890, a legal revolution reversed the traditional allotment of rights to parents and duties to children, giving children the right to proper care, health, and education, and parents the duty to provide these benefits. Parenthood was reconstructed as a kind of public function exercised for the benefit and under the scrutiny of the state, which (in the words of the British socialist H. G. Wells) had become “the Over-Parent, the Outer-Parent.”39 Of course, the new laws were often designed to supervise the poor and working-class households which did not meet middle-class moral and hygienic standards and were regarded as sources of disorder and criminality.40 But they also expressed the era’s idealism. “Mankind,” stated the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which was passed by the League of Nations in 1924, “owes to the Child the best that it has to give.”41

Feminists were not slow to point out that the new “century of the child” was also the era of the mother. Their unreserved enthusiasm for the collapse of the boundaries between family and state has often been criticized by historians for its insensitivity to privacy rights.42 However, nineteenth-century feminists associated the home more with confinement than with liberty. The definition of the home as a “private” sphere, separate from the public realm of the state, had been invented in the eighteenth century chiefly in order to exclude women from participation in politics.43 Throughout the nineteenth century, feminists had contested the doctrine of “separate spheres” by insisting that family and state were organica­lly related. The one-sided dominance of men in public life, they claimed, had led to a catastrophic neglect of the values associated with the family— nurture, compassion, concern for the weak and dependent. And only the entry of women into public life could remedy this injustice. “Surely,” claimed an editorial in the British suffrage paper, Votes for Women, “woman by very reason of her oppositeness to man is needed for the right balance of any enterprise, be it domestic, municipal, national, or imperial.”44 If the state now aspired to be a parent, were not mothers its most qualified agents? If the state sought to limit the power of fathers, were not mothers, who were also victims of patriarchy, its natural allies? And if the state now created services for children, were not mothers best fitted to administer and lead such services?

But mothers could do none of these things while they were deprived of rights in both state and family, including even the right to make decisions about their own children! The production and management of the state’s most important resource depended on the enfranchisement of women. Among the most honored of all citizens of the state, wrote the British Fabian socialist Mabel Atkinson, must be “the women who are rendering to it the greatest possible service, that namely, of ushering into the world its future citizens. . . Not least among the duties of that citizenship should be what Plato long ago demanded of his women guardians—that they should bear children for the service of the state.”45 The comparison of this contribution to its male equivalent, military service, became a cliche of feminist rhetoric. The mother, said the British activist Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, “risks her life for the perpetuation and progress of the race. It is because women are resolved to be mothers in the highest, and no longer in the ignoblest sense of that term, that they now demand for themselves, and for each other, the fullest opportunity of self development.”46

However, feminists who extolled motherhood as woman’s distinctive contribution to society—and they were many during the period from 1890 to 1914—had no intention of confining mothers to their conventional roles of dependent wife, domestic drudge, and sexual slave. Indeed, along with Ibsen’s Nora, they aspired to be both mothers and human beings. Their aspi­rations included not only political rights and legal equality, but economic self­sufficiency that would enable them to live free of male control, freedom to develop their talents, and above all control over their reproductive lives, which almost all feminists, even if they did not support birth-control movements, claimed in some fashion. Maternalist ideology and practice involved no return to traditional roles, but rather utopian visions of a world where motherhood would enhance rather than limit women’s freedom. No longer burdened with “the purely physical motherhood of the underdeveloped woman” of the past, wrote the German philosopher Helene Stocker, the new woman will “be a fully-developed personality” who will choose motherhood “in the knowledge that she is using her powers in the most rewarding, the most individual way.”47

Whatever its value as a political strategy—and this will be explored in the following chapters—the pursuit of citizenship through motherhood was an intensely problematic undertaking. Only in some utopian world—perhaps the “mother-state” of Auclert’s dreams—was the aspiration to individual autonomy compatible with the duty of bearing children for the state. In the real world, governments regarded mothers chiefly as the instruments of policies designed to increase numbers or to meet other population goals. The notion of motherhood as a social function raised countless questions, most of which concerned the relationship between the social and individual dimensions of reproduction. If motherhood was indeed a service to the state, some asked, then should the state give financial support to mothers and children? In that case, did the state have the right to require parenthood, to regulate the num­ber of children in each family, or to forbid certain people to reproduce? Should reproduction be a direct contract between the state and mothers—an arrangement that would encourage mother-headed families—or should the state encourage marriage? If the state supported children financially, then to whom did they belong? If the economic independence of mothers was the goal, then how should it be achieved—through the remuneration of mother­hood as a paid profession, or through the provision of child care and other services that would enable mothers to remain on the labor market? And what should be the role of fathers—should they be distanced from their partners and offspring, or more intimately bound into the household?

Still more controversial was the basic assumption that women wished to be mothers and that only the lack of proper support and assistance limited their will to bear children. To be sure, the twentieth century was marked by a trend toward the popularization of motherhood. Marriage rates tended to rise— more rapidly after 1930—and although family size shrank, the number of couples having children increased. Thus motherhood could appear, even to feminists, as the vocation of all or most women. “Women will always be wives and mothers, primarily and for choice,” stated a writer for the British suffrage newspaper, The Vote, in 1912. “No matter what profession or occupation a woman may take up, no matter how wide her scope may extend, she will always be a wife and a mother first—by nature, by choice, and by inclina­tion.”48 In fact, feminists and others often assumed that the reform of the family to give mothers equal rights, and of the labor market to enable them to combine career and motherhood, would make childbearing attractive to able and emancipated women.

However, other conditions undermined this belief in motherhood as women’s central mission. For as conspicuous a trend as the decline in family size was the drastically shortened period occupied by pregnancy, lactation, and the care of small children. A task that in the nineteenth century had consumed much of a woman’s adult life was now compressed into a much shorter period: the number of children born to the average British woman had decreased from six in the mid-nineteenth century to about two a century later, and time spent in pregnancy and lactation fell from fifteen to four years. Along with a greatly increased life expectancy, this trend left women many years of life after a the conclusion of their period of “active motherhood.”49

And were all women motherly? “Nature,” wrote the editorialist for The Vote in 1912, “designed us and fitted us to fulfill these duties, and what Nature makes, man or woman cannot counteract or change.”50 Indeed, many trends of our period reinforced this view of maternal duty, for both smaller families and increased investment in the individual child increased demands on mothers. But with increased pressure came increased anxiety— was maternal “nature,” unenlightened by science, a sufficient guide to proper child-rearing? Or could mothers actually be dangerous to their children? And was the small family, with its narrow environment and intense, jealous relationships, the optimum environment for children’s development?

A still more basic issue was raised by the reappraisal of the value of children in emotional rather than economic terms—a cultural change that drove the demographic transition. For if the child was there only to make its parents happy, then childbearing was redefined from a religious obligation or an economic necessity to a choice, to be weighed against other pleasures and desires. Among these were the ambitions of women for economic independ­ence and self-realization. Moreover, the higher value placed on children did not always encourage childbearing. In fact, it could be a deterrent. In 1906, H. G. Wells ironically remarked that one of the reasons that many families were discontent was “the enhanced sense of the child in middle-class life. . . There has come an intensified respect for children, an immense increase in the trouble, attention, and expenditure devoted to them—and a very natural and human accompaniment is the huge fall in the middle-class birthrate. It is felt that to bear and rear children is the most noble and splendid and responsible thing in life, and an increasing number of people modestly avoid it.”51

Thus the prophecy, so confidently advanced by Ellen Key in 1914, that the twentieth century would see a “renaissance of motherhood” was not ful­filled. Striking improvements in the health and living conditions of mothers and children did not give motherhood a more important place in women’s lives or increase its social prestige. Instead, the significance of motherhood was reduced from a central aspect of identity to one of “women’s two roles.”52 After World War II, a rise in birthrates and a return to domesticity seemed for a while to reverse this trend. But by the mid-1960s, declining birthrates and an influx of mothers into the labor force signaled the redefini­tion of motherhood, from a life-long status to a role—a flexible and optional activity that could be chosen, combined with other identities, or refused. And the task of negotiating this complex life-plan was allotted to the individual woman. Having ceased to be a destiny, motherhood was redefined as a dilemma.