But many feminists found the mythical mother-age unappealing—their ideal was not female supremacy, but gender equality. And they, too, cited

Bachofen, who (along with many later researchers) had clearly designated the period of mother-right as a primitive stage in human development. In most countries, the majority of feminists insisted that the evolution of the family should not lead backward toward matriarchy, but lead forward toward equality.

The earliest example of a full-fledged debate on this subject occurred in the Netherlands, where (as we shall see in chapter 2) the rights of unmarried mothers and their children became a heated topic of discussion in the 1890s. Nellie van Kol, who had spent much of her life in the East Indies and was thus familiar with the diversity of marriage customs among human cultures, wrote in a review of Bebel’s Woman in Past, Present, and Future that the time of mother-right had been “a good time.” She held up the autonomy of the prehistoric mother as an inspiration to her modern counterpart: “independ­ence must be the watchword of women, for herself and for her child.”64

But Wilhelmine Drucker, leader of the major Dutch feminist organization, the Free Women’s Association (Vrije Vrouwenveriniging) and editor of the periodical Evolutie, decisively rejected all such fantasies. A review of Frances Swiney’s The Awakening ofWoman, probably by Drucker herself, poured the icy water of common sense on Swiney’s overheated rhetoric. “The basis of Swiney’s theory is motherhood,” stated the reviewer, “and the fact that women have always been mothers, and have not gained the slightest advan­tage from this seems to make no difference to her at all.”65 Though she believed that all human societies had passed through a matriarchal stage, Drucker idealized neither the era itself nor its female rulers. Deploring the misuse of history by certain “exalted, womanly feminists,” Drucker objected that by nature mothers were no better parents than fathers—after all, in many places and times (including, of course, the present) some mothers killed their children. For both sexes, good parenting was an art, not an innate instinct.66

Moreover all systems—whether headed by women or by men—that placed children under the absolute power of their parents were for Drucker the expressions of a “raw egotism” that must be superseded by a more enlight­ened approach to child-rearing. “The law. . . must place the welfare of the child, and of the new generation, above that of fathers and mothers, and must break with the old conception of parental rights and replace it with new standards of parental duty, which oblige parents to provide for the needs of their children and grant powers of guardianship only to those who are thought competent to exercise them.”67 Drucker allotted parental responsi­bility equally to both mothers and fathers, who she believed should act as par­ents whether or not they were married to the mothers of their children. “An individual without a father,” she asserted, is “not imaginable. . . and where nature, wild as it is. . . has neglected to identify the parental couple, it is the holiest task of the human race, which. . . has the responsibility and the will to make laws, to come to its rescue and to fill this gap.”68 Parents performed their duty under the vigilant eye of the state: “the state should act as the watchful guardian of youth and not only. . . of children born outside wedlock, but of all children.”69

In Belgium, Louis Frank, a lawyer who was also a leader of the national feminist organization, likewise used historical arguments to advocate gender equality. “Marital authority is not a natural institution that originated in a process of free consent and mature reflection,” he declared, “it is the product of a brutal reaction. It resulted from events that are unknown to our historical traditions.”70 Frank hoped that the abolition of this atavistic regime would result in a more egalitarian form of marriage, which might also serve that important policy objective, population growth. In the Anglo-Saxon nations, where women had made greater progress toward emancipation than on the European continent, family life flourished. “It is there,” Frank claimed, “that marriages are most numerous, that men marry at the earliest age, and that fam­ilies produce the greatest number of children.”71

A more radical vision of gender equality and cooperation was developed by the influential author and lecturer Ellen Key. Key was born in Sundsholm, Sweden in 1849 and began her career in that country, but by the 1890s had become an international figure who found a far more sympathetic reception in the English – and German-speaking countries than at home. Key asserted that most prehistoric women had not been matriarchs, but had been “on a par with domestic animals, well or ill treated as they.”72 But the prehistoric mother had nonetheless been an agent of progress. Like Bachofen, Key defined “the first ‘social order,’ ” as “the mother with her offspring. . . . The child became more and more the centre of her thoughts and her deeds.”73

Despite its disadvantages for women, Key believed that the evolution of the patriarchal family had conferred many benefits, for it had created fatherhood: “a great forward step in his [the father’s] ethical development, in that it awoke in him a desire to protect those dependent on him.”74 And out of this protective impulse, the bond between the parental couple had arisen. “Thus love began.”75 Heterosexual love was the basis of family life. Because existing marriage customs did not always recognize the importance of love, Key demanded their replacement by a new system that would give full freedom of sexual choice to both sexes. Though she defended the right of single mothers to bear and raise children, Key’s ideal was always the two-parent household, with or without legal marriage. In the future, she confidently predicted, “we will call a child who has received its life from healthy and loving parents and is raised with wisdom and love ‘legitimate,’ even if its parents live in a totally free union.”76

Key influenced the ideology and practice of an organization known as the League for the Protection of Mothers (Bund fur Mutterschutz or BfM) which, although based in Germany, soon acquired an international visibility. The group originated in two separate initiatives: one by a group of prominent feminist intellectuals that included Helene Stocker, and the other by a former schoolteacher who called herself Ruth Bre (her real name was Elizabeth Bonness). Stocker, born in 1869 in Elberfeld, was among the first women to receive the doctoral degree from a German university. She combined a career in secondary-school teaching with membership in scientific and sexual reform associations, and traced her awareness of the sexual victimization of women to a childhood reading of Goethe’s Faust: “it is no coincidence,” she wrote, “that the entire tragedy of human existence is revealed to

Faust at Gretchen’s prison.”77 Dissatisfied with the reluctance of even the forward-looking leaders of the League of Progressive Women’s Organizations (Verband fortschrittlicher Frauenvereine) to confront the problems of repro­duction, motherhood, and sexual morality, Stocker planned in 1903 to found a new organization dedicated to sexual reform.

These plans were pre-empted by Bre, who founded the League for the Protection of Mothers (BfM) in 1904. Herself of illegitimate birth, Bre called for the resettlement of unmarried mothers and their children on the land in matriarchal communities supported both by their members’ own labor and by the state.78 Only through total emancipation from the patriarchal family, Bre declared, could the ancient “right to motherhood” be guaranteed.79 Though she joined Bre’s group, Stocker considered its founder a “totally undisciplined person” who was “a little crazy.”80 Disagreements among the leadership soon led Bre to withdraw from the organization, which Stocker and her colleagues re-founded in 1905.81

Under Stocker’s leadership, the group rejected Bre’s matriarchal utopianism. Stocker explained that the transition from the matriarchal to the patriarchal age had brought mixed results: “it gave men the right and duty to support his legitimate children, but condemned woman, who until then had enjoyed an equal status, to the most absolute subordination to men’s will.”82 In order to remedy this millennial injustice, the group called for a “new ethic” which would promote the equal rights of women, the welfare of mothers, and the dignity of female-headed families. But, as Stocker stated in the introductory editorial to the first issue of the group’s journal, “the holy trinity of father, mother, and child” would always “be the highest ideal.” The League rejected the ethic of chastity that still predominated in the women’s movement and unabashedly affirmed heterosexuality, both in and outside of marriage. And par­enthood was the highest fulfillment of sexual love: “People will always look beyond physical pleasure and reproduction for a spiritual intimacy, a growing togetherness, a common responsibility for children.”83

Further support for this “new ethic” came from some leaders of the German socialist women’s movement, many of whom were also members of the League for the Protection of Mothers. Among the most internationally influential of all German feminist authors was Lily Braun, an aristocrat who shocked her family by joining the Social Democratic Party in 1895. Braun’s book, The Woman Question: Its Historical Development and its Economic Aspects, which was first published in 1901, was translated into several languages and discussed by feminist groups, both middle-class and socialist, in many Western countries. Braun’s historical narrative, like that of Key, started with the matrilineal family of prehistory but described this as a dark and primitive period. The introduction of monogamous marriage and patriliny represented only “a station on the way to the cross” for the woman, who became prop­erty along with her children.84 This subordinate position was no longer acceptable to the modern woman. “Once the female has turned into a human being, that is, an individual personality, with views, judgments, and life goals of her own, then she has been spoiled for the average marriage.”85

Though she shared the aspirations of Stocker and Key to an egalitarian form of marriage—“the union of two equal, intellectually and morally mature people”—Braun doubted that this ideal could be realized in practice. For, even if such a happy couple found each other, who could guarantee that their relationship would last? “Given the heightened possibilities for friction in modern marriages,” Braun presciently feared that “their long duration would become more and more exceptional.”86 Hundreds of questions arose, Braun concluded, “foremost, what happens to the children?”87

The German moderate feminist movement, consisting chiefly of the middle – class groups associated in the League of German Women’s Associations (Bund Deutscher Frauenvereine, or BDF), regarded this critique of marriage with suspicion. Not only did it offend the religious sensibilities of many members, but it also threatened the security of the great majority of women who depended on marriage for their economic survival. An alternative femi­nist history of the family was developed by Marianne Weber, a leader of the BDF whose scholarly volume, Wife and Mother in Legal History, was pub­lished in 1907. Both Marianne Weber and her famous husband, the sociolo­gist Max Weber, repudiated the League for the Protection of Mothers for the “crass hedonism” of its sexual ethic.88 Concerned that nostalgia for a matri­archal “lost paradise” might undermine marriage, Marianne Weber devoted an entire chapter to a refutation of Bachofen and Engels.89 Matrilineal family structures, she argued, had not been universal at any stage of civilization, and where they had existed they had by no means ensured a high status or inde­pendent existence for women—on the contrary, matrilineal families were usually headed by the woman’s male relatives. And marriage had not enslaved but, on the contrary, advanced women by guaranteeing their own security as spouses and the legitimacy of their children as their fathers’ heirs. But Marianne Weber nonetheless shared the assumption that patriarchy did not represent a God-given order, but an arrangement that had served its purpose and was now outmoded. She advocated a new, egalitarian form of the family that guaranteed the equal rights of both partners to control of children and property and could be dissolved through divorce by mutual consent.90

In Austria, the debate took a similar course.91 The sexual reformer Grete Meisel-Hess, who before her move to Berlin was among the founders of the Austrian branch of the League for the Protection of Mothers, looked back to the age of the Amazons, when “women had a kind of psychological inde­pendence of men that seems to us really fabulous,” but added that contem­porary Amazons aspired to cooperate with men rather than to conquer them.92 Marianne Hainisch, a leading member of the League of Austrian Women’s Associations (Bund Osterreichischer Frauenvereine), acknowledged that patriarchy had brought the “most cruel sexual slavery,” but warned against the “siren-song of free love” and advocated “a fair marriage law that respects the welfare of a child who has two parents.”93

A complex synthesis of these two positions was created by Rosa Mayreder, also a prominent member of the League of Austrian Women’s Organizations and of the League for the Protection of Mothers. In Vienna, then a center of psychology and psychoanalysis, it was fashionable to see gender relations as the expression of subconscious and instinctual drives. According to Mayreder, the deep-seated drive of men to dominate females arose from their uncertainty about paternity—an anxiety that the claims of modern women to self­determination could only exacerbate. The result, Mayreder feared, could well be a renewal in the present of the conflict described by Bachofen: “the long suppressed struggle between fatherhood and motherhood, that ended with the defeat of the female sex.”94 The only solution that she could offer was the transformation of the patriarchal family into a union of equals, in which the controlling patriarch would become a nurturing father. Mayreder concluded that love would always be “the surest, the most valuable, the most reliable guarantee of paternity.”95

Thus whereas most feminists of this era agreed that the family had been shaped by history, they disagreed on the course that its evolution should take. While some advocated a return to the female-headed households that they associated with the matriarchal stage of development, most looked forward to further development toward a new, egalitarian form of the two parent household. This can by no means be dismissed as a conservative defense of existing marriage customs, but on the contrary was often linked to a thor­oughly modern defense of the right to true love and sexual fulfillment, even outside the limits set by church and state. Certainly, the struggle against the still formidable and pervasive manifestations of patriarchy would be long. But its utopian goal was reconciliation, not victory: “we will then reach the apex of human potential,” said Stocker, “where the silly, trivial quarrel of the sexes will be silent.”96