“The Right of the Child to Choose. its Parents”: Motherhood and. R eproductive R esponsibility. in the P rewar E ra
Legal equality, economic independence—these were indispensable bases for the reconstruction of motherhood on the basis of gender equality. But even the achievement of these ends could not relieve a still more basic form of servitude. “For what is poverty, what is all the misery of industrial exploitation,” asked the leader of the League of German Women’s Associations, Marie Stritt, in 1910, “compared to the cruel sexual exploitation in which the great mass of women live today?”1 “Dependence, in short, is the curse of our marriages,” wrote the British Mona Caird, “of our homes and of our children, who are born of women who are not free—not free even to refuse to bear them.”2 The claim to a right to refuse might at first glance seem to contradict the prevalent definition of motherhood as a contribution to the public welfare. But in fact it reinforced that definition, for mothers had power as well as responsibility—they could make or break the state, and thus wielded a formidable political weapon. “What they forget, in all this talk about population, is that in order to produce children, you have to have mothers,” wrote the French journalist Maria Martin, editor of the Journal des Femmes. “Children will become the pride of every household when mothers are respected by the law. Until that day, we fear that women will not be sufficiently patriotic to make children for the fatherland, which rewards them so meagerly.”3
Here again was the familiar rhetorical strategy, which claimed women’s rights as an appropriate “reward” for the performance of patriotic duties, and especially for the production of new citizens. Karen Offen and others have praised the efficacy of this strategy, and it worked well as an approach to the issues discussed in chapters 2 and 3.4 Clearly, mothers who were legally empowered and economically secure would be better able to care for their children: in these cases individual and social interests could be presented as identical. But when applied to issues concerning reproductive rights, the
ideology of the patriotic mother-citizen was fraught with problems and inconsistencies. For here, individual and social interests seemed to conflict. The state needed more citizens, but falling birthrates indicated that individual parents—including mothers—were unwilling to produce them in the numbers required. “Meanwhile all facts point to the conclusion that VOLITIONAL LIMITATION OF THE FAMILY is the chief and vastly predominant cause of the decline in birth-rates which is taking place in so many countries,” wrote the British physician Arthur Newsholme in 1911, and his opinion was shared by commentators across the political spectrum.5
In this context, the claim made by so many feminist activists that motherhood was, or should be, a “social function” raised intractable difficulties. For if motherhood was indeed a service to the state, did the state have the right to regulate it by dictating who must become a mother and how many children she must have? And if so, then how could this claim to public recognition be reconciled with the mother’s right to individual liberty? This, of course, was no abstract question—government leaders all over Europe responded to falling birthrates with new measures designed not only to save the lives of children already born but to raise birthrates by limiting access to birth control and abortion. In this as in other areas, feminist ideologies of this era stressed the need to reconcile the freedom of the individual with the needs of the community. But was this possible? Or were the conceptions of motherhood as public duty and private right inherently contradictory? After sketching in the historical context, this chapter will trace this discussion as it focused on four issues: sexual education, the reproductive rights of women, eugenic policies, and the so-called birth strike through which some activists proposed to demonstrate the political power of mothers.
Feminists formulated their positions on reproductive issues in a political environment that sent them very mixed messages. In all the Western European nations, population and birthrates became dominant political issues. To be sure, the emphasis differed from country to country: in France the chief concern was for population numbers regardless of social class; in Britain, more for the class composition than for the numbers of the new generation; in Germany and Scandinavia, for both.6 But all these nations initiated new policies focused on the welfare of mothers and children. And all saw what Karen Offen has called a “surge of anti-feminism,” which pilloried women—and especially middle-class women, who were considered particularly susceptible to the dangerous doctrines of feminism—for their neglect of their maternal responsibilities.7 The challenge facing feminists was not to advocate the restriction of births, but to create a more positive “spin” on a trend that was now well established. Women’s opposition, they argued, was not to motherhood itself, but to motherhood as a coerced service to a patriarchal family and state, and when free to control their own reproductive decisions (a freedom that was defined in many different ways), women would willingly become mothers.
But reproductive self-determination was a revolutionary concept that had little basis in any existing ethical, legal, or political system. It could not be defended by any existing doctrine of individual rights, for in the realm of sexuality and reproduction no such rights were accorded to women. Rights in this area belonged only to men, who according to the laws of marriage controlled their wives’ bodies and their fertility. Neither could it be buttressed by appeals to individual privacy and liberty, for there too the law unambiguously favored men by protecting the household against state interference. Privacy laws did not protect women and children, but made them vulnerable to abuse. Moreover, the prudish secrecy surrounding sexual life deprived women of the information that they needed to control their own fertility and to protect themselves against disease. The Italian physician Maria Montessori, who made her mark not only as an educator but as an advocate of maternal and child health, referred to the “terror” which “goes by the name of shame and modesty.”8 The partial lifting of this taboo in the late nineteenth century was a crucial factor in the spread of knowledge about birth control that enabled couples to limit their families.9 Far from invoking the right of privacy, therefore, many feminists of this era were willing (as we see in retrospect, too willing) to open the private realm of the household to public scrutiny. In the words of the British Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, “only those who are called in to help and advise suffering wives,” could know “what unspeakable infamies are sometimes hidden by the veil of legal marriage.”10
Lacking in credibility as a moral norm, reproductive self-determination had to be defended through instrumental arguments as a means to some other end—most frequently, the survival and well-being of children. Though more novel, the doctrine of the rights of the child was more popular and much less controversial than that of the rights of women—and the child’s most important rights were to life and health. Rates of infant mortality were still high: around 1900, fourteen of every hundred infants in Britain, thirteen in France, and eighteen in Germany died before the age of one year.11 These frightening statistics could be used to show the dangers of excessive and unplanned childbearing under conditions of poverty and disadvantage. In Britain, an editorial in Common Cause, organ of the moderate National Union of Woman Suffrage Societies, charged that a recently compiled Report on Infant Mortality was “a dry record of the most tragic things in life— outraged, desecrated, unwilling motherhood, maimed, diseased, unwanted babies. . . Could there be a more inconceivable desecration of all that is divine in us than reluctant motherhood?”12 The Dutch feminist periodical Evolutie likewise presented infant mortality as a consequence of bearing children “too young, too often, and in too rapid succession.”13
It was easy enough to argue that mothers who were empowered to plan their pregnancies would be more likely to bear and raise healthy children, and would thus cut back rates of infant mortality and morbidity. But opponents always objected that this gain in population numbers would be more than offset by the tendency of such women to bear fewer children—a choice that would further exacerbate the population crisis. Feminists responded by distinguishing between the sheer numbers and the “quality” of offspring—a concept that was often invoked but never defined. A contributor to the suffrage paper The Vote declared that “the awakened woman is learning that quality is at least as important as quantity.”14 Influential theorists in many other countries insisted that parents who limited their families could provide (in the words of Ellen Key) both “better living conditions and better care. These children do more to raise the quality of the population than a mass of badly developed children.”15
These rhetorical strategies facilitated alliances between feminists and powerful political and medical elites. In 1899, British military authorities noted with alarm that one-third of all volunteers for military service in the Boer War had been rejected for health reasons. Their disabilities were attributed not just to the social conditions of a wealthy country where one-fourth of the population were living in poverty, but also to the consequences of widespread moral depravity.16 Public health authorities identified alcoholism and venereal disease, both associated with congenital defects, as the two “racial poisons” that produced widespread illness and death among children.
In this context, feminists formulated another argument for reproductive self-determination, this time as a principle of social morality. They never tired of pointing out that the “social scourges” of drunkenness and disease resulted chiefly from male behavior and victimized women as well as children. And they cultivated links to the very broad spectrum of organizations—male and female, socialist and conservative, religious and secular—that headed campaigns against the evils of drink and regulated prostitution. Declining birthrates were often attributed not only to female but to male behavior. “People say that the women of the wealthy classes avoid the duties of motherhood,” admitted Marianne Hainisch, leader of the League of Austrian Women’s Organizations, “and far be it from me to defend them; these indeed are signs of degeneration, but I am concerned not only about the degeneracy of women but that of men.”17
The search for ways of reconciling women’s interest in reproductive selfdetermination with society’s interest in a healthy and flourishing population led some feminists to one of this era’s most popular intellectual fashions, eugenics. This movement, which was loosely based on Darwinian biology and given its name by the British scientist Francis Galton, had as its aim the improvement of the quality of the human race by the application of science to reproduction. The most basic principle of the eugenics movement was that the transformation of parenthood from an accident to a conscious commitment would benefit society by improving the quality of the new generation—a prospect that could seem attractive to those who wished to improve the status and the material conditions of mothers.
The attraction of feminists of this era to eugenics is often mentioned but seldom explored by historians. Admirers of the women who will figure in this chapter usually do their best to dissociate them from eugenics. Detractors include them in a general condemnation of eugenics and all its alleged results: the horrors of imperialism, National Socialism, the Holocaust, and the two world wars.18 Only a few historians, chiefly of the English-speaking world, present a more complex and differentiated view. Among these is Daniel Kevles, who distinguishes between two large groups of eugenicists: the “mainline” group, which emphasized the differences among the human races, and the “social-radicals,” many of whom belonged to progressive and left-wing parties, who disavowed racism and focused on improvement of the human race as a whole. Most of the women and men to be discussed here belonged to this latter group, and though some shared the racial attitudes that were typical of their time and place, racial difference was not among their chief concerns.19 Feminists often played an assertive and independent role in the movement by disputing the misogynist ideas of male leaders and appropriating the fashionable new vocabulary in the service of feminist goals.20 Though the eugenics movement was international, its organizational structure and the participation of women differed across national boundaries.
The new science was promoted by two organizations founded in Germany in the year 1905: the Racial Hygiene Society (Gesellschaft fur Rassehygiene) under the leadership of the biologist Alfred Ploetz, and the League for the Protection of Mothers (Bund fur Mutterschutz, or BfM), led by a collection of sexual reformers of both genders. Politically these organizations were far apart. Whereas Ploetz, despite his socialist background, had by 1905 moved so far to the right of his movement that he refused to admit most feminists to his organization, the BfM developed a highly original synthesis of feminism and eugenics, which it exported to several Germanic-language countries. The International League for the Protection of Mothers and Sexual Reform (Internationale Vereinigung fur Mutterschutz und Sexualreform), founded under the leadership of the German group in 1911, included branches in Sweden and Austria as well as in Germany.21
Unlike its German counterpart, the British eugenics movement integrated women from the outset. When the Eugenics Education Society was founded in 1907, women constituted one-half of the first board of directors and about one-third of the membership.22 Although the male leadership was generally unsympathetic to feminism, the group often sent speakers to lecture to female audiences of varying political persuasions on topics such as “Women and Economics in Relation to Eugenics,” and “Eugenics and Women’s Social Work.”23
The French Eugenics Society (Societe Eugenique), which was founded in 1913, included very few women, in part because one of its leaders, the prominent physician Adolphe Pinard, considered that reproduction up to and including conception was a male, and only after conception a female, concern.24 However despite such discouraging advice French women had taken an interest in issues concerning hereditary disease and reproduction since the 1890s, and the lectures sponsored by the Eugenics Society attracted a considerable female audience. Women who had brought children into the world with so much pain, claimed an article in the Society’s periodical, “would never consent to the degeneration of this precious product . . . Eugenics will always have women on its side, and it will appreciate the honor.”25
Because of its later role in National Socialist ideology, eugenics is often associated with the political right and with hostility to the working class. And feminist eugenicists did indeed often condemn the poor for sexual and reproductive behavior that they found irresponsible. However (as Daniel Kevles has pointed out) eugenic theory was also popular on the political left, and often attacked the mores of the upper classes. After all, upper-class men were more likely than workers to be the patrons of prostitutes and to spread disease to their trusting and ignorant wives and innocent children.
The health of the next generation was often pictured as a female concern that transcended class. “A coerced maternity,” declared the reformer Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, “is a crime against the child, whose first right it is to be well-born. . . The offspring of uncontrolled and selfish lust on the one side and abject subservience on the other is ill-born, no matter upon what external prosperity it may be ushered.”26 Socialist women, too, openly condemned husbands who exercised their “marital rights” without considering the consequences. “No amount of State help can help the suffering of mothers,” wrote an anonymous working-class woman to the British Women’s Cooperative Guild, “until men are taught many things in regard to the right use of the organs of reproduction, and until he realises that the wife’s body belongs to herself, and until the marriage relation takes a higher sense of morality and bare justice.”27 Anna Bergmann has documented the same attitude among German, and Ida Blom among Norwegian working-class women. And the historian Wally Secombe points out that despite their limited education these women often used both a feminist and a medical vocabulary, which enabled them to think of uncontrolled childbearing as “a preventable malady.”28
Did this scientific discourse achieve its purpose—to legitimize women’s claims to reproductive self-determination? The following chapter will show that its effects were problematic. Feminists assumed that scientific knowledge would reinforce a moral claim—the right of mothers to respect, dignity, and empowerment in heterosexual relationships. This claim rested on a maternalist stereotype that pictured women as models of sexual prudence and selfrestraint—in short, as the morally superior sex. In fact, the new scientific approaches undermined this stereotype by removing sexuality and reproduction from the domain of morality and placing it firmly in that of nature, where both male and female participated in the same natural processes and were motivated by instinctual drives that they shared with other animals. We shall see how this transition affected feminist views of sex education, birth control and abortion, and eugenic legislation.