The matriarchal theories of this era have often been attributed to a mere sentimental nostalgia for an era of female rule.106 But on the contrary, their impact was energizing. To be sure, the debate on the origins of the family reached no definitive conclusions—it produced a multiplicity of discourses, both feminist and anti-feminist. However, the significance of the debate did not lie in the answers, but in the very act of questioning. If the patriarchal family was not the permanent creation of God or nature, but the transitory product of historical development, then it was open to revision like any other political arrangement. And if motherhood had not always entailed subordi – nation—if it had once even qualified women for leadership—then it would once again be possible to combine the role of mother with that of worker, citizen, and autonomous individual. The hope that the maternal dilemma could be resolved provided a new stimulus to feminist thought and intellectual life. “It is the intellectual,” proclaimed an editorial in the French paper L’Entente, “who will free the Mother… It will be the intellectual who will open her eyes to her abjection and servitude. It will be the intellectual who will free her and make her into a citizen.”107
The new theoretical insights provided the basis for a more confident, innovative, and assertive political practice. “Our knowledge of historical development,” wrote Helene Stocker, “helps us to understand what we must demand today.”108 But the implications of this historical knowledge were complex and controversial. Should the family of the future be based on the mother-child bond or on the married couple? Was the goal of legal and economic reform to make the mother independent, or to bind her more closely into the marital relationship? If the mother was to be independent, then who should support her family? She herself—in which case, who would care for her children? Or the state, which by assuming the guardianship of its children had become what Wilhelmine Drucker called “a great family, which now includes all previously autonomous families and reckons among its members all who live on its soil?”109 And psychologists—including Freud and Jung— raised further disturbing questions about the maternal role and the mother-child relationship. Was mother-love the basis of civilization, as some feminists contended? Or was it, on the contrary, a primitive and irrational force that might actually threaten civilized values? All of these questions will be addressed in the chapters that follow.
This German cartoon, entitled “Population Increase” (1913) uses figures of children to illustrate the population growth rates of Germany and England from 1871 to 1914. Berlin: Hofdruckerei, 1913 (?): Poster Archive, Hoover Institution.