Collective Motherliness in Europe (1890 - 1939)

The Reception and Reformulation of Ellen Key's Ideas on Motherhood and Female Sexuality

by Ulla Åkerström (Volume editor) Elena Lindholm (Volume editor)
©2020 Edited Collection 168 Pages


Ellen Key (1849–1926) was one of Europe’s most influential thinkers on issues of motherhood and women’s sexuality during the early 1900s. This anthology maps how her ideas were reformulated in Europe’s five major language areas – English, German, French, Italian, and Spanish – and explores how her ideas about social modernity and women’s sexuality were received and how they were communicated in feminist literature and debate during the first decades of the 20th century. The aim of this anthology is to offer new knowledge about Key’s influence on European thinking on issues such as motherhood, sexuality, and love in the early 1900s by offering both a broader and deeper understanding of the international significance of Key’s work.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Titel
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of contributors
  • Introduction: (Ulla Åkerström and Elena Lindholm)
  • 1 A love roundtrip. Female British authors, the secret foundation behind Ellen Key’s reception into the English-speaking world as a philosopher of love: (Claudia Lindén)
  • 2 Controversies about love and marriage. The reception of Ellen Key’s ideas among German-speaking feminists: (Tiina Kinnunen)
  • 3 Elective French affinities? On the French reception of Ellen Key’s De l’Amour et du mariage (1906) and her relationship to French feminist thought, 1890s and 1900s: (Karen Offen)
  • 4 Between tradition and modernity. Ellen Key and the maternal feminists in Italy (1900–1921): (Ulla Åkerström)
  • 5 Collective motherliness and free love. Ellen Key’s motherhood feminism in Spain (1907–1936): (Elena Lindholm)
  • List of illustrations
  • Index

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List of contributors

Ulla Åkerström, PhD, is Associate Professor in Italian at the Department of Languages and Literatures, University of Gothenburg. Her research interests include Italian literature from the 19th and 20th centuries, Italian studies, history of scholarship and translation history.

Tiina Kinnunen, PhD, is Professor of Finnish and Northern European History at the Department of History, University of Oulu. Her scholarly interests range from the history of European feminisms to the history of historiography and the social and cultural history of war from gender perspectives.

Claudia Lindén, PhD, is Professor of Comparative Literature at the Department of Culture and Learning, Sodertorn University. Her research interests are 19th-century literature, gender theory, Gothic fiction, and animal studies.

Elena Lindholm, PhD, is Associate Professor in Spanish at the Department of Language Studies, Umeå University. Her main research interest is Spanish feminist literature from the early 1900s and especially works by women’s rights activist Carmen de Burgos. She has, for instance, led a research project on the author’s depictions of the Nordic countries.

Karen Offen, PhD, is a historian and independent scholar, affiliated as a Senior Scholar with the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Stanford University. She publishes on the history of modern Europe, especially France and its global influence. She is the author of important scholarly works on European women’s history.

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Ulla Åkerström and Elena Lindholm


Love is moral even without legal marriage,
but marriage is immoral without love.

Ellen Key, The Morality of Woman: and Other Essays

Love, sex, marriage and motherhood were burning topics around the turn of the 20th century in Europe. The themes were discussed by feminists, anti-feminists, conservatives and reformers, and in the midst of these disputes stood the Swedish debater Ellen Key (1849–1926). Today she is mainly remembered as a pedagogue, but her contemporaries also knew her as a polemic debater on the political and sexual rights of women. Ellen Key’s ability to create networks, and her idea of collective motherliness as a node for an intellectual development of ideas on the place of women in future society, was significant and attracted feminists from around Europe.

Through works such as Love and Marriage and The Woman Movement, Key’s ideas on collective motherliness reached out to the more radical strands of the women’s movement across Europe, to circles of anarchists, sex reformers, and defenders of divorce rights. However, her ideas of a new view on motherhood also reached out to wider circles, partly through progressive pedagogues and schoolteachers who found their way to Ellen Key’s motherhood feminism through her proposals for a more liberal view of childrearing, as set out in her most famous work, The Century of the Child. Key based her pedagogy on Rousseau’s individualistic view of the child, but with her ideas on gender equality and co-education between boys and girls she took his ideas further and led the pedagogical reform movements of Europe into the 20th century.

Ellen Key was one of Sweden’s internationally most renowned thinkers of the early 20th century. In her lifetime, she was a highly controversial writer and debater, who was not afraid of articulating her views on different aspects of society. She was engaged in many areas of interest and involved in debates on a variety of issues, such as women’s role in society, motherhood, the relation between the sexes, education, literature, religion, architecture, design, nationalism, militarism/pacifism and eugenics. Ellen Key’s centrality in the intellectual discussions all over Europe regarding issues of motherhood and social organization is reflected for instance in Susan Groag Bell’s and Karen Offen’s ←11 | 12→overview of these debates in Women, the Family, and Freedom where there are frequent references to Key (1983). Despite her active role in these debates, little is known about Ellen Key’s influence on the European intellectual life of her own time, that is, how her ideas evolved and were developed further in different national contexts outside of Scandinavia. As Key’s Swedish biographer Ronny Ambjörnsson describes it, the stereotypical image of Ellen Key is that of a solitary prophet who predicted the tendencies in childrearing and pedagogy of the 20th century. As a contrast to this cliché he stresses her large networks and her vast knowledge of the intellectual currents of her time that were summed up in her work (2012, 364–5). In this regard, the contributors represented in this volume concur with Ambjörnsson.

In this volume, the authors set out to chart how Ellen Key’s motherhood feminism – fused in her concept of collective motherliness – was perceived and integrated in different European intellectual settings of her time.1 This anthology will focus on five national and linguistic settings in Western Europe as nuclei for the reception of Ellen Key’s ideas: Germany/Austria, Italy, France, Great Britain and Spain. The first two areas belong to Ellen Key’s preferred travel destinations, and therefore the influences of thought connected to the intellectual networks in these areas were far from unidirectional. She also visited France and Great Britain, but among the nations represented as receiving countries in this volume, Spain stands out as the only one that Ellen Key never visited. This lack of biographical connections may be an explanation of why so little research has been done so far on Ellen Key’s influence on Spanish feminism in the early 20th century, despite the popularity she gained there among progressive pedagogues and intellectuals of this period.

The materials that have been used here are documents that treat what the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno would have termed intra-history: the historical undercurrents of everyday life that normally pass by unnoticed alongside the main currents of general historiography (Unamuno 1986). These undercurrents of history are at the very core of Ellen Key’s intellectual legacy. She set the agenda for the debates regarding issues of women’s ←12 | 13→everyday lives, such as love, marriage, sex and motherhood at a time in history when the conditions of women’s lives changed rapidly all over Europe. Ellen Key’s formulation of collective motherliness as the ideal for the formation of a future society was compelling for many strands of the progressive movements in Europe at the turn of the 20th century, since many of the most distinctive contemporary lines of thought could meet in Key’s concept of motherliness.

In Key’s writings, collective motherliness implies something more than biological motherhood; it is the result of a process through which a woman completes herself according to her true essence, turning natural motherliness into collective motherliness, a cultural and political force with the power to improve society. For Key, biological motherhood was not a requisite for becoming a collective mother. Rather, collective motherliness was an argument for women’s right to vote and to participate actively in politics. Women’s maternal force was expected to change society in a positive direction, bringing new approaches and new priorities. Key’s emphasis on the cultural aspects of women’s particular capacities is evident in the very name of the concept – motherliness, rather than motherhood which would bring to mind the physical condition of women who bear children.

Through her concept of collective motherliness, Ellen Key put the emphasis on the female body as the ethical axis for the building of modern society. This permitted an unholy alliance between traditionally Christian notions of motherhood, on the one hand, and, on the other, women’s highly controversial advances as both political and sexual subjects during the early 20th century. In this sense, the concept epitomised women’s demands for the right to their own bodies and desires that developed internationally alongside the women’s movement (see Cook 2004; Simmons 2009).

The aim of the studies included in this anthology is to deepen the understanding of European feminist thinking from this period by placing it in relation to Ellen Key’s works on collective motherliness and gender relations. By contributing new knowledge about how Key’s ideas were formed and furthered, we wish to help create a contextual frame for the interpretation of European feminist works of the early 20th century. A broader aim is to contribute new knowledge to the general charting of European feminist thinking of the same period: how feminists interacted and how their ideas were received and adapted to different contexts. Women’s own ideas about their role as political actors building modern society during this period is a highly significant field of investigation for achieving an understanding of European modernity.

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A liberal intellectual is born

Critics and academics have tended to look for the roots of Ellen Key’s liberal ideas on both marriage and childrearing in her own upbringing. She grew up in southeast Sweden, in a wealthy home where she was the eldest of six children. Ellen Key’s mother, Sophie Posse, was a member of the aristocracy and educated her children with a mixture of Spartan and aristocratic ideals in a rustic agricultural setting, with governesses and private tutors from Germany and France. Posse and Ellen’s father, Emil Key, seem to have been a loving couple and their evidently happy marriage later served as a model for Key in her description of a harmonious relationship between man and woman. Sophie Posse Key taught her eldest daughter English and provided her with interesting books, many by female authors, thus supporting her process of intellectual formation (Lindén 2002, 35–60). The only school education that Ellen Key received took place during some winter semesters in a school for girls in Stockholm, where she also taught for a period in 1874. Otherwise her education was, as Lengborn puts it, “acquired haphazardly”, a fact that might have influenced The Century of the Child, where freedom in education is considered an important component of children’s development as free individuals (Lengborn 1993, 826).

Emil Key, a liberal parliamentarian, had great faith in his daughter’s abilities, and she worked for a period as his assistant in Stockholm, where she lived during the last decades of the 19th century. Later, she earned her living as a teacher at a school based on modern pedagogical ideas, founded by her friend Anna Whitlock. During this time Key also began publishing articles and giving lectures on a variety of subjects. Initially, she lectured at The Worker’s Institute of Stockholm,2 which was founded in 1880 as an adult education institution. Eventually, several of the lectures she gave at different political associations, temperance societies and educational organizations were published. Ellen Key was capable of generating enthusiasm as a lecturer, but her activities as an opinion former were also often met with resistance from Swedish intellectuals, both conservative and radical. Among her critics and opponents were Carl David af Wirsén, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, as well as writers August Strindberg and Vitalis Norström, all of whom were anti-feminists with a masculinist vision of society (Lindén 2002, 118–27, 141–5).


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (December)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 168 pp., 1 fig. col, 3 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Ulla Åkerström (Volume editor) Elena Lindholm (Volume editor)

Ulla Åkerström, PhD, is Associate Professor in Italian at the Department of Languages and Literatures, University of Gothenburg. Her research interests include Italian literature from the 19th and 20th centuries, Italian studies, history of scholarship and translation history. Elena Lindholm, PhD, is Associate Professor in Spanish at the Department of Language Studies, Umeå University. Her main research interest is Spanish feminist literature from the early 1900s and especially works by women’s rights activist Carmen de Burgos. She has, for instance, led a research project on the author’s depictions of the Nordic countries.


Title: Collective Motherliness in Europe (1890 - 1939)
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170 pages