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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)
Edited Collection 168 Pages

Table Of Content


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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

Introduction

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

Ellen Key, The Morality of Woman: and Other Essays
(1911b)

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).

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Key not only found herself under attack from male intellectuals. On the contrary, despite her feminist aims, her relationship with the women’s movement in Scandinavia has always been strained, even after her death. Because of this, our labelling of Ellen Key as a feminist thinker is not a self-evident choice. The term “feminism” can be difficult to define when studying different aspects of the European women’s movement at the turn of the 20th century, not least because of the great ideological variety within feminism, then as well as now. Nor are the connotations of the term for women activists a hundred years ago necessarily easy to grasp for the present-day reader. Feminists of both the early 20th century and current times tend to find Key’s focus on motherhood and gender differences at odds with her focus on gender equality, to such an extent that some have called her an anti-feminist. Claudia Lindén provides an example to follow in her labelling of Ellen Key as a feminist thinker in the broad sense, as an intellectual who explored issues concerning the gendered existence of people in the world, and as driven by an idea of a future where men and women would be equals in terms of civil rights and social status (2002, 26–7).

In her own time, Ellen Key was perpetually in conflict with both the socialist and the more conservative or bourgeois strands of the women’s movement. The left wing criticised her emphasis on the woman’s role in the home, while the conservatives disliked her ideas on sexuality and her attacks on the Church. In 1896, when Key published her lectures Misused Female Power and Natural Working Areas for Women a storm broke out in the Swedish women’s movement (Key 1896).3 In her lectures Ellen Key argued, not for the first time, against what she considered feminist exaggerations of the “special female qualities” and emphasised the areas where women were most suited to contribute to society (Ambjörnsson 2012, 307–9). Misused Female Power is still the text that most often gets cited in the feminist debate about Key, and it has greatly influenced how she is perceived in her home country today, regardless of the vast ideological range of her work (Lindén 2002, 245–57). Another Scandinavian storm around Key broke out in 1898, when she gave a speech in honour of Henrik Ibsen’s 70th birthday. The speech was published, and several members of the women’s movement reacted against Key having presented herself as a representative of Swedish women, which according to her opponents she was not (Ambjörnsson 2012, 312–13).

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A European intellectual of the new century

With the advent of the new century, Ellen Key’s cosmopolitan period started. It lasted for almost a decade and involved lengthy journeys around Europe. In 1898, an annuity for life presented to her by friends for her 49th birthday enabled her to leave her job as a teacher in Stockholm and concentrate entirely on her activities as a writer, lecturer and debater (Hackzell 1994, 12; Ambjörnsson 2012, 196). During the 1890s she had already travelled to Germany, Great Britain, Switzerland and Italy, staying with friends, but the journeys in the 1900s assumed a new aspect. Thanks to the annuity and the proceeds from her books, she could plan her time more freely, and during this period she enjoyed three long sojourns in Europe, most notably in Germany and Italy, where she gave lectures and met with members of the European intelligentsia. Ellen Key had a rich network of friends and acquaintances all over Europe. Her correspondence with people in the German-speaking countries involved over 700 people, while those in Anglosaxon and Romance countries numbered around 200 (Holm 1992, 6–7). Her most famous correspondents and friends included Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Rainer Maria Rilke, Lou Andreas-Salomé, Malwida von Meysenbug, Stefan Zweig, Auguste Rodin, Isadora Duncan, Maurice Maeterlinck, Pjotr Kropotkin, Maksim Gorkij, Georg Brandes, Henrik Ibsen, Martin Buber and Havelock Ellis among others (Lindén 2002, 17–18).

The first decade of the 20th century was prolific for Key, and she published some of her most important works during that period. Her first and greatest success was with The Century of the Child, published in 1900, a book of ideas that would subsequently be translated into 26 different languages.4 It was a polemical pamphlet, meant as a contribution to the debate about the protection of motherhood and children’s rights. Ellen Key believed that improvements in the conditions of women were of vital importance for achieving a better world for children, a view she shared with many contemporary feminists. In The Century of the Child, Key argued against child labour and in favour of the family as the nucleus of society. In her view, the father was meant to be employed outside the home, whereas the mother’s place was in the home and she should receive a wage guaranteed by society. The children might be at home or at school. Key also wanted special protections for women and children, whom she saw as victims of the new industrial society. In this new world, the old patriarchal order must yield to a new form of society, and women’s right to vote was ←16 | 17→therefore seen by Key as crucial. In the second part of the book, Key focuses on her pedagogical vision for children and their education. Topics addressed in these essays include education, the school of the future, religious instruction, the dysfunctional school system and homelessness among children.

Ellen Key’s second international success was with Love and Marriage, first published in Swedish in 1903 in the series of Lifelines.5 It was the first part of the series, and was followed by Man and God (1905)6 and Happiness and Beauty (1906).7 In Love and Marriage Ellen Key discusses the relationship between men and women, difficulties in their life together and the concept of love. For Key it was especially important that women were acknowledged as sexual beings. She argued for the right of men and women to unite freely. However, this freedom would require a transformation of humanity, whereby men and women of the future would overcome the current sexual morality and be able to love each other completely, both physically and spiritually (Ambjörnsson 2012, 338–9).

Ellen Key’s Nietzsche-inspired view of the heterosexual couple of the future tapped into the idea of the New Woman in Europe at the turn of the 20th century. The New Woman was a complex character in popular culture and appeared in many shapes as a representative of modern women. The novel as a genre provided ample room for the development of such a figure, and offered an arena where women could maintain an exchange of ideas on the character of the New Woman (Ardis 1990; Pykett 1992; Heilmann 2000; Johnson 2003; Kirkpatrick 2003; Åkerström 2007). Rita Felski describes the idea of the New Woman as a central element of modern progress, fundamentally a concept built on the notions of modernity developed by male intellectuals such as Nietzsche and Spencer (Felski 1995, 145–9). These philosophers were of central importance also to Ellen Key in her feminist thinking. However, Key challenged many of the patriarchal perceptions of femininity in her conceptualization of the New Woman. She merged the iconic asexual mother figure with the sexually active woman that is traditionally perceived as the mother’s counterpart and conceptualized as the fallen woman, or the femme fatale. It is important to note that Key was not alone in her delineation of the New Woman as an amalgamation of these two figures that have been separated by the patriarchy. Other important thinkers with connections to Key included Lou Andreas-Salomé, Helene Stöcker, Hedwig Dohm and Laura Marholm, all of whom contributed to this ←17 | 18→line of feminist thought, promising that the New Woman would be a complete sexual being, both as a mother and as a sexually active, loving individual.

Another central issue in Love and Marriage was individualism. As Ann Taylor Allen puts it in her work on European motherhood feminism, Ellen Key’s work contributed to the formulation of one major concern of the women’s movements of the turn of the last century: how to be a mother and an autonomous individual at the same time (Allen 2005, 1–3). Key considered individualism problematic, arguing that it is an obstacle to love at the same time as it helps to deepen it. In a long chapter, she argues in favour of legalizing divorce in a form that would give couples the right to split up if there is no longer love between them. The aim of the reform would be to create new, more loving, relationships. In another chapter Key sets out a proposal for a new marriage law, in which both parents have equal rights to provide for their children and to have the same authority regarding their upbringing. There should be special training for women in housework and childcare to make that kind of work more professional, and mothers should be paid a wage by society for the education of their children.

An important chapter of Love and Marriage is indeed the one where Key explains her famous concept of collective motherliness, which she made use of to argue in favour of women’s right to vote and to take a more active part in politics and society. This focus on the mother-child bond characterized both Key herself and the disparate voices that advocated a new ethics for sexuality, marriage and parenting. These voices appeared at a time in history when the women’s movement began to gain momentum throughout Europe. This was also the time of an ongoing change through which Europeans were becoming urbanized and production was being detached from the home. The mothers and children of the bourgeoisie had been freed from the yoke of production at the same time as the industrial revolution detached the father from the home (Allen 2005, 10). Key held the somewhat utopian view that women’s participation would be central to the creation of a different and better society, since they would bring their maternal attitudes and priorities into politics. At the same time, her visionary ideas on women’s social function were seen by many as highly immoral. Some of her many opponents regarded her as a danger to society, as her ideas were interpreted as threats to women’s morality and to marriage as an institution (Lindén 2002, 130–5).

In the midst of all the controversies that surrounded her, Key was one of the leading voices in the international debate between women activists, novelists, teachers, and politicians throughout Europe on issues regarding the motherhood of the future. She was personally befriended by many of the ←18 | 19→leading female intellectuals who took part in the European debate on motherhood and love relations, for instance Lou Andreas-Salomé, Helene Stöcker, Hedwig Dohm and Grete Meisel-Hess. Apart from her many direct contacts and conversations with other women, she found a vast source of inspiration in reading female authors. Unlike other existential problems at the core of the past century’s intellectual debates, issues regarding motherhood and marriage were seen as women’s concerns, and therefore these themes were generally not addressed in academic works. Instead it was creative literature that was often the channel for these concerns. One genre, the novel, seemed to be particularly appropriate for portraying the complexities that women faced at the turn of the last century. Women – excluded from the academic intellectual environments where male philosophers pondered their existence as men in the world – found in poetry and fiction a space for the exchange of thoughts on the conditions for women, in works that portrayed existential problems such as emancipation, marriage and maternity. Ellen Key scholars agree on the importance of the novels and poetry of the 19th century for her intellectual development, notably those by female authors such as Elisabeth Barrett Browning, Fredrika Bremer, George Sand, Dinah Maria Mulock or Camilla Collett (Kinnunen 2000, 4; Lindén 2002, 43–9; Ambjörnsson 2012, 232–3). In his ambitious biography of Key, Ronny Ambjörnsson particularly stresses the importance of the writer and difference feminist Laura Marholm for Key’s positions on female sexuality and the arguments in favour of social recognition of women’s bodily advantages both biologically and spiritually, due to their role as child bearers (Ambjörnsson 2012, 313–19).

During the last decades of her life, Ellen Key was a central figure in Scandinavian intellectual life, active in both the pacifist and the suffrage movements. It was a period of intense intellectual development, within which she initiated collaborations all over Europe and her work gained international fame. Apart from The Century of the Child and Love and Marriage, she published other important works, such as her book about the German writer and intellectual and political figure Rahel Varnhagen (1908), followed by The Woman Movement (1909),8 commissioned by Martin Buber and first published in German. In her private life, she finally settled down in the permanent home she had built for herself: the villa Strand by Lake Vättern in southern Sweden, designed by her brother-in-law Yngve Rasmussen according to Key’s own directions. She moved there in 1910, remaining until her death in 1926.

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The collaborations that Ellen Key initiated with feminist activists in Germany and Italy at the beginning of the new century were particularly important, both for herself and for the European networks of women’s activists she was in touch with. For instance, Ellen Key’s work became a turning point for the faction of the liberal German feminist movement that gathered around the League for the Protection of Mothers (Bund für Mutterschutz), founded in 1904 (Melander 2001, 112–16; Allen 2005, 32). This influence was in no way one-directional. On the contrary, the German women’s movement became of crucial importance for Key’s intellectual development during these years. For example, Ellinor Melander demonstrates in her dissertation on Grete Meisel-Hess, one of the Bund’s founders, how Ellen Key found a source of inspiration for Lifelines in one of Meisel-Hess’ early novels (1990, 8).

The term New Ethics probably most accurately pinpoints the feminist line of thought developed through this collaboration between Key and the German mother feminists. It was a label used by the members of the League to describe their activism in support of a healthy, more accepting view of women’s reproductive functions and against old Christian sexual morality (Wickert, Hamburger, and Lienau 1982). For the members of the League, Ellen Key was a kind of ideological mother. The League shared Ellen Key’s complicated relationship with both bourgeois and left-wing feminism, mainly because of their focus on women’s sexuality and individual rights (Dickinson 2001, 191–9; Allen 2005, 32–4). Their ideas were indeed radical for their time. At first glance, their focus on the mother-child relationship as the nucleus of social development might seem to blend well with a conservative view of motherhood and marriage, but like Ellen Key they defended any maternity as socially valuable, even when it occurred out of wedlock.

In her contacts with Italian feminists such as Sibilla Aleramo and Ersilia Majno, Key found a similarity of thought, as her view on the importance of motherhood closely coincided with the Italian feminists’ appreciation of the force of motherhood. In Italy, the mother cult had ancient roots, with Mary, mother of Jesus, as a central figure, presumably inspired by even older matriarchal goddesses in pre-Christian societies (Amoia 2000, 27–35). The importance of motherhood was also a dominant feature in the Italian women’s movement from the 1890s to the 1920s. After that, fascism glorified the role of the mother in the nation’s name, reproducing the 19th century ideal of her as the angel of the hearth (angelo del focolare). The Italian feminists were most certainly in favour of legal and social equality between men and women, but at the same time many of them considered that there were fundamental differences between the two sexes and that women had special qualities that ←20 | 21→were embedded in female experiences, a point of view that is often identified today as difference feminism. Motherhood was seen as the most important among these differences. It was this kind of feminism that developed into social feminism, also called practical feminism, which aimed to create female citizens, not only citizens who happened to be women (Buttafuoco 1991, 179). Ersilia Majno, founder of the Female Union (Unione Femminile) in Milan in 1899, was one of its leaders and it is significant that she and Key became great friends. In their private correspondence, the suffering motherhood of Majno (who had lost two daughters) is a recurring subject, and this shows how deeply both of them felt personally, as well as politically, about motherhood (Åkerström 2020).

The mother cult and the mystification of motherhood recur often in Ellen Key’s thinking. In a speech given in Milan and Turin in 1907 (and later published in Vita Femminile Italiana), Key talked about the value of motherhood in Western civilisation from the mothers of Spartans and Romans onwards, brought forward to modern times via the Catholic Church and its cult of Mary, including poets such as Ada Negri and Giovanni Cena (Key 1907). Key had been interested in the cult of Mary for many years, and she constantly returned to it in her writings, because in her view it represented women’s vital tasks in the family, as well as in the education of all humanity. She had developed these thoughts since 1875, when her article “The Cult of Mary of Protestantism”, a review of Urban von Feilitzen’s book with the same title, was published.9 According to Key the family is a unit with deep foundations. It represents God’s thought in the Creation, and it is this essence that Protestantism has manifested. This meant that every woman who in “chastity and piety fosters the purpose of the family”10 is a holy virgin, and it is in this context that one must understand the expression “the cult of Mary of Protestantism” (Key 1875). In Love and Marriage, Ellen Key returns to the cult of Mary, saying that the Latin nations render homage to woman and “expressed through the cult of Mary its reverence for what is deepest in woman, motherhood” (Key 1911a, 58). The cult of Mary became in some ways the expression of the female ideal for Ellen Key, an ideal that coincided with the idealized mother cult that feminists in Italy nurtured.

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Nietzscheism and monism

Friedrich Nietzsche provided a great deal of inspiration, both to Ellen Key and to many of the women’s rights activists from around Europe with whom she collaborated. He was well known as a misogynist and provided philosophical material for very diverse radical movements at the turn of the last century, at all extremes of the political world. It might seem contradictory, but Nietzsche’s misogynist statements also provided a productive philosophical framework for the view of femininity as a cultural construct that started to develop within feminism during Ellen Key’s lifetime. According to Ronny Ambjörnsson, Key’s interest in Nietzsche’s texts goes back to the late 19th century, when she was developing the thoughts on individualism and education that she elaborated in The Century of the Child (Ambjörnsson 2012, 191–6). Moreover, Claudia Lindén argues that Nietzsche is central to Ellen Key’s notions of collective motherliness as a cultural and political force, which permits a conception of femininity that transcends its traditional link to bodily reproduction (Lindén 2002, 153–88).

Despite their agreement on Nietzsche as an important influence for Ellen Key, Claudia Lindén and Ronny Ambjörnsson present slightly different ideas on how we can understand Key’s Nietzscheism. Lindén stresses that Nietzsche’s anti-metaphysical stance is fundamental to Key’s view on femininity and maternity as grounded in bodily sexuality as well as in the spiritual and cultural dispositions inherent in femininity. Lindén argues that Key’s concept of motherliness lifted maternity beyond the notion of mere instinct, even denying it as an impulse of nature. Rather, motherliness for Key was a cultural force rooted in nature, but with the power to reform the humanity of the future, a take on motherliness that has an obvious Nietzschean slant (Lindén 2002, 156–93).

Ambjörnsson, for his part, stresses the critique of Christian morality that informs Ellen Key’s understanding of the New Woman or the New Ethics as the core of Nietzsche’s influence on her (2012, 498–507). For Key’s anti-metaphysical understanding of the unity of body and spirit in her motherliness concept, Ambjörnsson (2012, 184–7, 508–16) refers to a wider monist tradition in European philosophy, rather than particularly to Nietzsche. He tracks Key’s monist thinking to her readings of Spinoza and Montaigne, as well as of the German romanticists Goethe and Heine.

Whatever difference there might be in their impact on Ellen Key’s intellectual development, monism was fruitfully combined with Nietzscheism and Darwinism in her notion of collective motherliness as a force that transcends the traditional boundaries of femininity. Monism and Nietzscheism were also on the rise within Key’s German feminist networks at the turn of the last ←22 | 23→century, as can be seen in the works of the debaters in the German League for Mother Protection. There, Ellen Key’s monist views on love and motherhood were being further developed by Helene Stöcker and Grete Meisel-Hess, both prominent names within the League (Melander 1990, 18–24; Dickinson 2001, 206–12). Their monist-inspired feminism was linked to a larger movement centred on Ernst Haeckel, a defender of Darwinism who also disputed traditional Christian morality and its dualistic distinction between physical sinfulness and the purity of the spirit. Rather, Haeckel and his followers insisted on the unity of the living, claiming spirituality to be an intrinsic part of material life.

Eugenics

Apart from the German sexual reform movement, the British sexologist Havelock Ellis was an important promoter of Ellen Key’s ideas throughout Europe. In his The Task of Social Hygiene from 1912, Ellis gives ample space to Key’s views on sexuality and ethics, underlining her importance for the formation of the German sexual reform movement (1912, 100–12). Both the sexual reform and the motherhood movements within German feminism coincided with the ascendance of eugenics as a leading explanatory model within academia as well as politics. Here, Key’s views were shared by Ellis and numerous other advocates of sexual reform prior to the Second World War. Many of them traced their views on maternity to Herbert Spencer’s social eugenics or Malthus’ theories on population growth. However, there was a crucial difference between feminist sex reformers such as Ellen Key and the more mainstream race biologists. The former saw population improvement positively, as an opportunity for future humanity, to be achieved by setting love free and letting it direct natural selection (Kinnunen 2000, 8). The eugenicists of racial biology, however, focused on destruction and the struggle for survival as the main driving forces of natural selection (Dickinson 2001, 223). Ellen Key’s future-oriented view of population improvement was largely due to Herbert Spencer’s social eugenics, where education and social measures were key components. She was also a fervent defender of world peace, arguing that women would be able to prevent war due to the caring and peaceful motherliness inherent in their sex (Ambjörnsson 2012, 352–9).

Despite her more peaceful eugenics favouring social and cultural hygienic measures for improving the human species, Ellen Key advocated birth control for people with hereditary diseases or other functional variations or disabilities that were thought to weaken the species (Key 1909, 13–14). Before the ←23 | 24→Second World War, such views on eugenics and population improvement were not limited to the extreme right in Europe. On the contrary, they were common across the political spectrum. As an example, in Sweden thousands of citizens were sterilized between 1935 and 1975 on eugenic grounds, under successive constitutionally elected Social Democratic governments. However, there are no indications that these sterilizations were carried out on purely ethnic grounds, in contrast to the race ideology of Nazi Germany (Lynöe 2007).

Eugenics and natural sciences in general were certainly on the agenda in the decades preceding the Second World War, also among the anti-feminists who resisted the women’s movement and their aims. At a time when women moved forward, gaining both economic and political influence around Europe, it was the writings of misogynists that dominated the debates on the position of women in society. In spite of a shared interest in eugenics, these debaters at the time represented the most obvious and influential opposition in Europe to Ellen Key’s intellectual positions. During the late 19th century, positivist scientists who set out to chart human characteristics focused on describing the sexual difference of humans and, in many cases, on proving the female’s natural inferiority to the male. Two of the most influential such scientists were P.J. Möbius and Cesare Lombroso, who both supplied Europe with scientific arguments against women’s emancipation. They aimed to demonstrate women’s lack of intelligence and their inability to take the responsibility that would justify the same civil rights as men. Of the two, the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso was the most widely known: his writings on the physiology of criminals were published all over Europe. In addition to stating women’s natural inferiority to men in general, he attempted to prove a biological predestination in women prostitutes (Gibson 2002, 53–95).

Lombroso was one of the major influences on the man who should be considered Ellen Key’s principal antagonist among European intellectuals, Otto Weininger, whose work Sex and Character from 1903 was probably just as successful as – and contemporary with – Key’s most translated works. Weininger was an Austrian of Jewish ancestry, who eclectically combined psychoanalysis with a diverse set of theories from medicine and the natural sciences in order to try to prove the inferiority of women and Jews compared with Aryan men. In Lombroso’s work, he found support for his idea that certain women would be biologically destined for prostitution and also for his denigration of the mother figure. To Weininger, the mother was basically just another kind of prostitute: instead of using men for her own pleasure, mothers used men for having children. Consequently, motherhood was yet another symptom of women’s endless sexual selfishness, and since women were nothing else but ←24 | 25→sexual beings, they lacked individuality (Sengoopta 2000, 117–36). Weininger agreed with Ellen Key on one point though: in contrast to traditional and very widespread views on motherhood as a sacred and asexual form of love, both considered it to be rooted in the functioning of the female body. The difference between them is that Weininger claimed that women were no more than their selfish sexuality, while Key raised motherhood to something of an art, albeit not disconnected from the female body.

Previous research on Ellen Key

Previous research on Ellen Key’s work points in several directions, often with a strong focus on her personal biography. She is regularly mentioned in studies of women’s history, women’s literature and the emancipation movement. Often, she has been treated as a “co-creator of the time spirit” (Lindén 2002, 32). In a way this diversity resembles the variety of Key’s own fields of interests and the range of her thinking, as can be seen from references to her work in areas as different as history of art, political science, interior decoration, science of religion, history of ideas and pedagogy.

Critics began analysing Ellen Key’s work already during her lifetime. One example is the first biography, Ellen Key: A life image,11 written by her friend Louise Nyström Hamilton and published in 1904. With the permission of Key herself, Nyström Hamilton wrote about her friend’s life on the basis of testimonials as well as personal observation. She points out that Key had been seen as controversial in her public as well as her private life for a long time, and emphasises that she was extremely well known in other countries and the subject of a vast quantity of published articles (1904, 6–8). An English translation of Hamilton’s biography, Ellen Key: Her life and her work, was published in 1913 with an introduction by Havelock Ellis.

Another contemporary publication, entitled Ellen Key, written by John Landquist and published by Key’s editor at Bonniers in 1909 in the series Swedes,12 takes as its point of departure the common Swedish image of Key as some kind of “mythological monster”, whose mere name was a threat to people’s daughters and sons (Landquist 1909, 5). Landquist asks why it is that a person who is so well known, widely read and thoroughly discussed in Europe, is so poorly analysed in her own country. While the book contains a ←25 | 26→biographical introduction, its main approach is to discuss Key’s writings and ideas, and also to serve as a response to various pamphlets published by Key’s opponents, for example Carl David af Wirsén (1900) and Vitalis Norström (1902) (Ambjörnsson 2012, 206–7).

Finally, we should mention one further contemporary publication about Ellen Key’s work: a Festschrift that some of her friends published on the occasion of her 70th birthday in 1919, which contains a short preface with a statement about her “rich and significant life-work” (En bok om Ellen Key 1919, [5];). Among the contributors were Georg Brandes, Selma Lagerlöf, Romain Rolland and Havelock Ellis. Some of the articles contain memories of or tributes to Key, while others discuss her ideas. Since the book is a homage to Key, the critical content of the essays is necessarily restricted, something that is also true of many of the other books about Key published during her lifetime.

The number of articles and essays about Ellen Key, her life and work, is immense, and in the following pages we will concentrate on a selection of significant scholarly texts. The first study published after Key’s death was Mia Leche-Löfgren’s biography from 1930. Leche-Löfgren belonged to Key’s intellectual milieu and had been her pupil at the Whitlockska school. This biography is based on testimonials and memories and focuses, as a biography should, on Ellen Key’s life. The first academic study of Key was Ulf Wittrock’s doctoral thesis Ellen Key’s Path from Christianity to Life Faith from 1953.13 As the title indicates, it is a study of Key’s religious development, which Wittrock analyses with regard to her important relationship with Urban von Feilitzen (Wittrock 1953). Wittrock has later returned to Key in several literary essays, exploring her relations with other contemporary cultural personalities (Wittrock 1983; 1994; 1995).

In 1974, Ronny Ambjörnsson submitted his doctoral thesis The Collective Mother: Ellen Key’s Understanding of Woman until 1896.14 He investigated Key in the context of history of ideas, paying special attention to the differences between Key’s ideas and those of the women’s movement. He identifies three ideological traditions concerning the role of women in family and society: “the family principle” (which sees the family as the smallest social unit), “the personality principle” (the individual is seen as the smallest social unit) and the third concept “an ideological tradition which can be described as a combination of the two” which Ambjörnsson calls “the natural eminence of the female ←26 | 27→sex” (1974, 259). According to him, Key was part of the latter tradition, where her concept of collective motherliness had its base. Ambjörnsson shows how Key’s ideas about love, marriage and emancipation were intertwined in her thought and that love, freedom and individuality were mutually dependent factors (1974, 273). He argues that her two essays from 1896, Misused Female Power and Female Psychology and Female Logic: A Study and a Defence, summarize Key’s ideas up until that year, and that she would return to and develop them further in The Century of the Child, as well as in Love and Marriage (Ambjörnsson 1974, 279). Furthermore, Ambjörnsson claims that even though the 1896 essays are often mentioned as having marked Key’s break with the women’s movement, this is an unfounded criticism.

According to Ambjörnsson, the difference between Key and the women’s movement is rooted in their opposing views of women’s function in society. The political aim of the greater part of the women’s movement was to create a vision of women that suited their double role as both working professionals and possible housewives. These conditions were also valid for Key, but she shaped her own vision based on the concept of “the natural eminence of the female sex” (Ambjörnsson 1974, 255–6). Whereas the emancipation movement was more pragmatic in its theories and based them on traditional individualism, Key insisted on the existence of a consistent difference deeply rooted in evolutionary biology. She stressed the dilemma that women who worked both within and outside the home had to face, something to which the bourgeois emancipation movement did not pay much attention. Key extended the scope of the ideal concerning the role of bourgeois women in working life and in the family to include the working class. Her solution was that women must choose between the two options and that in this choice women’s maternal function was decisive.

In 2012 Ambjörnsson returned to Ellen Key in his comprehensive biographical study Ellen Key. A European Intellectual,15 with the aim of placing Key in a broader European intellectual context. Ambjörnsson states in his introduction that he has constantly returned to Key in the decades following his dissertation about her feminist positions. He mentions that he was not particularly satisfied with the dissertation, and therefore never had it printed. Instead, his wish has been to study Key from several other aspects: her pedagogical ideas, her views on the aesthetics of everyday life and the beauty of utilitarian items, and her philosophical and religious thoughts. His initial aim was to write an intellectual biography, but at a certain point he concluded that a strict chronology ←27 | 28→would fail to show the dynamic inner logic of her thoughts. As a compromise, the book is initially a biographical account, but later turns into a thematic study. (2012, 10–14). In this extensive study, Ambjörnsson provides a thorough analysis of Key’s ideas, placing them in their ideological and biographical context, but he does not deal with her impact in other European countries.

One scholar who has taken an interest in Ellen Key from a pedagogical point of view is Thorbjörn Lengborn. In 1977 he published his thesis A Study of Ellen Key’s Pedagogical Thinking. Mostly on the Basis of the Century of the Child.16 In addition to his analysis of the various chapters in Key’s best known book, Lengborn provides a study of its reception. In a chapter about the historical background to Key’s ideas, Lengborn mentions, among others, Rousseau, Montaigne, Spencer, Comenius, Goethe and Almqvist (1977, 63–83). It was certainly surveys like Lengborn’s that prompted Claudia Lindén to react in her thesis On Love: Literature, Sexuality and Politics in Ellen Key from 2002.17 Lindén argues that previous research has placed Key in a broad ideological and historical perspective with male thinkers seen as significant for her intellectual development. This has contributed to an unbalanced image of Key as isolated from the women’s movement. Instead, Lindén shows that Key to a large extent formed part of a female literary and philosophical universe of thought. She claims that Key, with her focus on love and sexuality, must be understood as belonging to the emancipatory literary tradition of the 18th and 19th centuries. With this as a starting point, her aim is to place Key in a feminist intellectual and political context and within the ideological tensions and antagonisms that existed between the women who fought for emancipation. Lindén states that her intention in emphasising these tensions about issues such as difference versus equality or feminism versus antifeminism, is not to stress polarization but rather to acknowledge that the women’s movement was a complex environment where different ideas on religion, sexuality and politics met and mixed (2002, 27). Lindén’s focus on Key in relation to love, sexuality and the women’s movement is particularly relevant to the present study, since it provides a feminist background that is fruitful for an understanding of how Ellen Key’s ideas were received and reformulated outside Sweden.

About 150 years after Ellen Key’s birth, two collections focusing on her were published. Both Key 1849–1999: A Book of Remembrance (1999)18 and A New ←28 | 29→View of Ellen Key: 32 Texts by 23 Authors (2000)19 aimed to cover the different interests that Key nurtured in her vast body of work. Subsequently, scholarly interest in Key’s work has increased in northern Europe. At the same time the focus of the research has tended to change, from the previous concentration in both scholarly and more popular works on biographical and pedagogical themes to a new interest in her ideas on gender relations. As we have seen, one of Key’s modern advocates is Claudia Lindén, who defends her feminism, while, in a study of desire between women in the 19th century, another recent contributor, Eva Borgström, instead emphasises the ambiguities in Key’s thinking about love and relationships, as well as her heteronormative focus (2008, 241–77). Tiina Kinnunen’s thesis from 2000, “One of us” and “Queen in the new women’s reign”: the reception of Ellen Key in the women’s movement in imperial Germany,20 is to date the only thorough study of the reception of Key and her work outside of Scandinavia. Italy was Key’s favourite foreign country, and she made several long visits there. These visits have been the subject of several studies – all rather limited and in a popularizing form, for example, works by Siv Hackzell (1994), Anders Fahlbeck (1998) and Angelo Tajani (Key and Tajani 2012). These studies mostly concentrate on where she stayed and place less emphasis on her contacts with Italian intellectuals. Articles by Tiziana Pironi (2010; 2013) examine the reactions in Italy to Key’s pedagogic ideas, while Ulla Åkerström has studied and published the correspondence between Key and the Italian feminist writer Sibilla Aleramo (2012) and also written several articles about the reception of Key’s work in Italy. Unlike Italy, Spain has to date not been included in research on Key, since she never visited the country, and there has been no substantial study of the reception of Key’s ideas in Spain, nor of her contacts with Spanish intellectuals. An exception is Elena Lindholm (2014), who has demonstrated the occurrence of inter-textual references to Ellen Key’s Love and Marriage in the novel Quiero vivir mi vida (1931) by the Spanish feminist writer Carmen de Burgos.

Precepts and disposition

In this volume, the authors set out to chart the reception of Ellen Key’s motherhood feminism in Europe. In the process, we have become acutely aware of the complexity inherent in the type of ideological transference that lies behind ←29 | 30→the formation of ideological currents and tendencies. We are therefore not seeking to confirm any unidirectional influence by Ellen Key on receptors around Europe, but rather to chart a network of thought in which her work was one of the main nodes. The project’s point of departure for its tracing of the meanderings of Key’s motherliness concept will primarily be reception theory as developed within the field of cultural studies (Machor and Goldstein 2001). A very practical source of methodological inspiration from within this field is Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993), which goes beyond national borders and looks at the Atlantic as one single transnational unit for exploring expressions of black culture and modernity. Within the field of women’s studies, Margaret McFadden explicitly started from Gilroy’s transnational approach to the Black Atlantic in her Golden Cables of Sympathy (1999), where she made the telegraph cables across the Atlantic into a metaphoric network representing the transatlantic women’s movement during the second half of the 19th century. In the present volume, the European continent is the transnational geographical point of departure, and collective motherliness is the travelling concept at the heart of our efforts to chart the winding path of Ellen Key’s motherhood feminism during the early 20th century.

The understanding of the concept of literary reception within the field of cultural studies entails a view of the text, not as a ready-made final product, but as something that is mediated again and again in the socially and historically specific context where it is received and interpreted. We thus hope to offer a view of Key’s collective motherliness as a mutable concept, adaptable to the different contexts where it was received and reformulated. Stanley Fish’s concept of interpretative communities (1982, 13–17) therefore becomes relevant, in that it permits a focus on the collective production of meaning on behalf of reader communities, rather than on the reception of texts by individual readers. Fish also identifies the interpretative community as a set of shared reading strategies, which explain the shared understanding of certain texts. In the present volume, the notion of interpretative communities serves as a point of departure for the investigation of different European interpretations and reformulations of Ellen Key’s ideas, and as a means of understanding shared interpretations of them, between both individuals and communities across national borders.

This volume offers an overview of the dissemination of Ellen Key’s ideas in Europe, organized according to five major language areas: English, German, French, Italian and Spanish, together with insights into the reception of her work by different interpretative communities within these areas. The first contribution, by Claudia Lindén, is devised as the roundtrip mentioned in the title, with the influence of British women’s literature on Key’s thought returning ←30 | 31→through translations of her work back to the British and Anglo-American intellectuals, who received and promoted Key’s texts and ideas on both sides of the Atlantic.

The second contribution, by Tiina Kinnunen, gives an insight into the German feminist circles where Key was indeed present, both in body and spirit. Kinnunen offers an overview of the debates that surrounded Ellen Key’s proposals for reformation of marriage and intimate relations, as well as her views on women’s connection to the home. Karen Offen’s chapter on France provides an understanding of Key’s impact on the debates on love and marriage in another large language area in Europe. She also sheds light on those French intellectuals who were contemporary with Ellen Key and propagated similar thoughts on marriage conventions, what Offen terms Key’s French affinities.

The last two contributions to this volume offer an outline of Ellen Key’s reception in southern Europe, where Ulla Åkerström’s chapter on Italy – one of Key’s favourite destinations – goes beyond the biographical aspects of Ellen Key’s relation to the country and instead demonstrates the impact her ideas had on feminist intellectuals there. Finally, Elena Lindholm dedicates her contribution to Spain, previously largely ignored in the research on Ellen Key. Even though there is no evidence of Ellen Key ever visiting Spain in person, Lindholm demonstrates the impact her most famous contributions to the debate had on different generations of progressive intellectuals in Spain.

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Åkerström, Ulla, Ellen Key, and Sibilla Aleramo. 2012. Cara grande amica: Il carteggio Ellen Key-Sibilla Aleramo. Rome: Aracne.

Åkerström, Ulla. 2020. Maternità sociale tra la Svezia e l’Italia. Il carteggio Ellen Key-Ersilia Majno. Rome: Viella.

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Ambjörnsson, Ronny. 2012. Ellen Key: En europeisk intellektuell. Stockholm: Bonnier.

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Hackzell, Siv. 1994. Ellen Key i Europa: Färdvägar och vistelser 1873–1909. Linköping: Ellen Key-sällskapet.

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Wittrock, Ulf. 1983. “Ellen Key och kvinnomedvetenheten.” Samlaren: Tidskrift för svensk litteraturvetenskaplig forskning 104: 21–48.

Wittrock, Ulf. 1994. “Från förra sekelskiftets kulturella arena: 1. Selma Lagerlöf, Ellen Key och sedligheten – en kvinnodebatt : 2. Selma Lagerlöf och Heidenstam.” Samlaren: Tidskrift för svensk litteraturvetenskaplig forskning 115: 22–41.

Wittrock, Ulf. 1995. “Kvinnor på den offentliga scenen: Ellen Key och Marika Stiernstedt.” Samlaren: Tidskrift för svensk litteraturvetenskaplig forskning 116: 95–106.

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1 Collective motherliness is the English translation of the Swedish samhällsmoderlighet, as it appeared in the English edition of Ellen Key’s Love and Marriage, from 1911. The Swedish original text was part of the work Lifslinjer, published in 1903. Some critics prefer to translate the original Swedish term as social motherliness (Couture 1996, 256; Forsås-Scott 1997, 76; Rappaport 2001, 363; Register 1982, 605).

2 Swedish name: Stockholms arbetareinstitut.

3 Original titles: Missbrukad kvinnokraft and Naturenliga arbetsområden för kvinnan.

4 The Century of the Child appeared in German in 1902, in Italian in 1906, in Spanish in 1907, in English in 1909 and in French in 1910.

5 Original title: Lifslinjer.

6 Original title: Människan och Gud.

7 Original title: Lyckan och skönheten.

8 Original title: Die Frauenbewegung.

9 Original title: Protestantismens Maria-Kult.

10 kyskhet och pietet befordrar familjens ändamål.

11 Original title: Ellen Key. En lifsbild.

12 Original title: Svenskar.

13 Original title: Ellen Keys väg från kristendom till livstro.

14 Original title: Samhällsmodern. Ellen Keys kvinnouppfattning till och med 1896.

15 Original title: Ellen Key. En europeisk intellektuell.

16 Original title: En studie i Ellen Keys pedagogiska tänkande främst med utgångspunkt från “Barnets århundrade”.

17 Original title: Om kärlek. Litteratur, sexualitet och politik hos Ellen Key.

18 Original title: Key 1849–1999. En minnesbok.

19 Original title: Ny syn på Ellen Key. 32 texter av 23 författare.

20 Original title: “Eine der unseren” und “Königin im neuen Reiche der Frau”: die Rezeption Ellen Keys in der Frauenbewegung des deutschen Kaiserreichs.

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Claudia Lindén

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

Abstract: “We need your gospel very badly in England,” Havelock Ellis wrote to Ellen Key 1907. A few years later Key’s The Century of the Child (1909) was translated into English, and this was followed by translations of several of Key’s other central works. Through her personal contacts with people like Ellis, Key was deeply rooted in the international intelligentsia, and her thoughts on love, childcare, marriage, and sexuality influenced subsequent generations. One of her followers was Mamah Cheney Borthwick, Frank Lloyd Wright’s partner after he left his wife in 1909. Borthwick found strength in Key’s vision of free love and learned Swedish in order to be able to translate Love and Marriage. But when Ellis approached Key and claimed to be able to make a better translation, she chose the more famous Ellis as her champion in the English-speaking world. Perhaps it was because of Ellis and his work on sexology that Key was primarily perceived as a feminist thinker of sexual mores. Florence Dell wrote already in 1913 that Key’s work had a “peculiar career in America. […] to thousands of middle-class women, who have heard vaguely of these new ideas, and who have secretly and strongly desired to know more of them, her ‘Love and Marriage’ has come as a revolutionary document, the first outspoken word of scorn for conventional morality, the first call to them to take their part in the breaking of new paths.” Because of this, it appears that the reception of Key in the English-speaking world was more as a moral philosopher on love and marriage than as a socialist/feminist promoting women’s suffrage. In a sense, this is logical because Key’s own education on love and morality largely emanated from her reading of British literature, and in particular of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning and George Eliot. In this chapter, I will trace this connection between Key’s own reading of British literature as theories of modern love and affirmation of women’s sexuality and her choice of the sexologist Ellis as the one who would promote her work and her reception in the English-speaking world as a philosopher of free love.

Keywords: Ellen Key, Havelock Ellis, Mamah Borthwick, women’s movement, love, Women’s literature

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About a hundred years ago, Ellen Key uttered a transformational formula for the dawning century. What the 20th-century people require, she wrote, is more love – not less (Key 1911, 9).1 It was love, not asceticism that would transform the world. In one of her typically bold and blunt statements Key wrote: “Those ascetics who recommend only self-control as a remedy for the mastery of the sexual instinct, even when such control becomes merely obstructive to life, are like the physician who tried only to drive the fever out of his patient: it was nothing to him that the sick man died of the cure” (Key 1911, 33).2 In a polemic against, on the one hand, those who regarded love as a threat to morality, and on the other hand those who regarded it as just an easy pastime, Key argued that love should instead be liberated. When the forces of love were set in motion, the world would be transformed.

Ellen Key had broad interests and wrote on religion, socialist politics, the woman question and pedagogy as well as on interior design. But in the English-speaking world, she is above all known as a philosopher of love. For English and American readers, Ellen Key was a radical promise of a new culture of mutual love and respect between men and women. What made Ellen Key, the eldest child of a rural upper-class family who herself remained unmarried, form such a strong conviction of the power of love? The answer is literature, especially 19th-century British literature by women. The English-speaking audience in 1911 did not see what we can see more clearly now from the vantage point of her own reading and educational trajectory, that hers was a philosophical voice thoroughly trained in the literature of 19th-century women writers.

Ellen Key was a voracious reader. She said that, in her youth, books meant “nutrition and air to breathe, bliss and suffering, temptation and danger”.3 It is the reading of some French and British 19th-century women writers, such as George Sand, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot, that forms Ellen Key’s notions of equality and mutual love in relationships.4 In a historical and ←38 | 39→literary feminist context, the relationship between Key’s thinking and literature emerges. In his preface to Love and Marriage Havelock Ellis describes Key as someone who builds on the tradition of Mary Wollstonecraft and for whom love “is at the core of the woman question” (Ellis 1911, xv). He thus introduces Key to a British audience as one in a succession of female writers – authors that in our time have been coded as feminist writers – in fact, the same writers that inspired her in the first place. It is a feminist philosophy of love that goes roundtrip.

This chapter explores the link between Key and those authors she considered most important as thinkers on gender issues and love, and also looks at how she later came to be known in Britain and the United States as a spokeswoman for women’s erotic freedom. The aim of this chapter is to shed light on how Key identifies with and links her own writing to a literary feminist tradition and then herself becomes part of such a tradition, through her reception in Britain and the United States as an advocate for women’s right to follow their feelings of love.

The social reformer and sexologist Havelock Ellis wrote all the prefaces to the English translations of Key’s work, which accentuated her image as someone committed primarily to questions of love and sexuality. The first US editions of Key’s texts were moreover associated with the scandal and tragic death of her translator Martha Bouton Borthwick, who lived in an extramarital love relationship with the architect Frank Lloyd Wright between 1909 and 1914. This all contributed to Key’s reputation and, as Nina Miller writes in Making Love Modern, “earned her a status as a spokeswoman for women’s sexual freedom, and fulfilment” (Miller 1998, 49).

At the beginning of the 20th century, Ellen Key was a highly controversial figure in Sweden, with a radical view on literature as well as on education and pedagogy, socialist leanings, a Nietzsche-inspired critique of the Church and Christian morals, and most of all a gospel of love and affirmation of women as sexual beings. But it is above all in this last respect that she is known in the English-speaking world.

Key’s criticism of Christian religious dogma and the dichotomy between soul and body made her interested in the evolutionary theorists, especially Spencer. But Key read and wrote extensively on many topics and many authors such as Spinoza, Comte, Ruskin, Morris, Nietzsche and Goethe, as well as the ←39 | 40→Swedish Carl August Ehrenswärd.5 Not least important to her was Carl Jonas Love Almqvist, also for his promotion of women’s independence. But in matters of gender, love and sexuality she always and explicitly drew on female authors. Key started her career writing reviews and articles about female authors, and she would continue to reference female writers throughout her working life. In the 1890s she even claimed that literature by and about women was the most defining characteristic of 19th-century literature:

[…] the most important new “leading movement” within literature is the appearance of the female element, women’s confessions about themselves, men’s new views on, and conflicts with the modern woman’s nature, in a word all this rich material, which through the writing by and about women became one of the major characteristics of the century’s literary singularities. (Key 1893, 109)6

For Key and many of her contemporaries, who wanted to change the situation for women, pointing to influential female predecessors and the links between them made it clear that the feminist voice was not a solitary and isolated contemporary phenomenon.

Literature and feminist tradition

Anna Hierta Retzius and later also her husband Gustav Retzius were once friends of Key’s, but over time the friendship became more and more strained, when the Retzius couple turned increasingly conservative. In 1889 Key broke with the couple for political reasons and her former friend Anna became a bitter enemy.7 But in 1879, when Key was thirty years old, they were still friends and made a ←40 | 41→trip to London together. The London trip coincided with the period when Key’s family was about to lose their estate and Key had to start to earn a living by herself. She writes to her mother that she had been to a “tea-party” with Miss Swanwick, a young woman who lives by herself together with another woman. This is exactly what Key wants to do, and also does a few months later when she moves in with Anna Whitlock and they start a school together (Lindén 2002, 58–9, Ambjörnsson 2012, 121–3). Life in London provides an example of a modern and more emancipated lifestyle for women.

As a result of the family’s financial crisis, Ellen Key had to earn a living and, in addition to teaching, she started to write more professionally during the 1870s. During this time, she wrote a series of essays in Tidskrift för hemmet on female authors: Camilla Collett (Norwegian 1813–1895), George Eliot, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.8 Key was particularly drawn to George Eliot for her literature, her critique of Christianity, and her interest in Jewish culture as well as for her close friendship with Spencer. Key wrote two texts on Eliot, one on Middlemarch in 1876, and one in 1879 when Eliot died. The essay on Barrett Browning is much longer and was published in three instalments from 1879 to 1880. These early essays are interesting for two reasons, first because they show how Key read the texts of these female writers as ideological statements in the debate on women’s liberation, and secondly, because the essays make it clear that Key imparts her own theoretical and political thinking to the literary works of female writers. During this time “she became part of a movement. She felt in sync with her time […] the female writers became her confidants whom she criticised and was criticised by and with whom she felt herself fight the same struggle”9, as Ronny Ambjörnsson has pointed out (Ambjörnsson 1974, 42). What Key explains, and draws on in Collett’s, Eliot’s and Barrett Browning’s texts, is not a style or a form, but a theoretical discourse on women’s emancipation.

Havelock Ellis saw the connection to British feminist tradition when, in his “Introduction” to the British translation of Love and Marriage (1911), he pointed out that Key’s work was a development of Mary Wollstonecraft’s thinking:

Love, as Ellen Key regards it, is at the core of the woman question, and these opening volumes of Lifslinjer are, above all, a contribution to the woman question, a modern ←41 | 42→and more mature version of that Vindication of the Rights of Woman which Mary Wollstonecraft had set forth a century earlier. (Ellis 1911, xv)

Interestingly, several of the authors that Key was interested in, like Mary Wollstonecraft (who, around 1900, was still a controversial predecessor for moral reasons), are those same writers that have in our time come to be identified as important figures in a feminist intellectual tradition. Key was well aware of this tradition. In Love and Marriage, she wrote:

During the Revolution, Olympe de Gouges writes her “declaration of the rights of woman”, as a counterpart to that of the rights of man, and Condorcet speaks in support of woman’s claims. The same spirit of a new age confronts us in Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) […] Each in its way was a remarkable sign of the time which already included the whole “emancipation” programme of equality of position: the same rights for woman as for man as regards education, labour, a share in legislation, and an equality of position under the law and in marriage. (Key 1911, 61)

Key did not discriminate between genres: Olympe de Gouges’ manifesto, Wollstonecraft’s philosophical writing, George Sand’s and George Eliot’s novels – she regarded them all as theoretically significant texts on the woman question, love, and sexuality. Key and others returned to older texts, re-read, and inaugurated a contemporary stance towards them. It is from these texts and their variations and differences that what we today call feminist theory emerges. Female writers used the power of language to expose “their society’s exclusionary practices and oppressive political systems”, Sharon Harris writes (Harris 1995, xv). Literature was one of the important places where resistance could take place through displacements and parodies. In fiction patriarchal culture and its double standards could be revealed and ridiculed, gender differences analysed and reconstructed, and new ways of life imagined.10

The marriage question

The codes of love had been undergoing a transformation since the middle of the 18th century. The German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, who has examined the history of love in modern times, believes that there is a transformation of the view of love after 1760, which slowly changes the idea of marriage from something arranged to something based on love. In particular, there seems to ←42 | 43→be a connection between the reading of literature and the new code of love (Luhmann 1986).11

This new code of love is generated mainly by female writers and becomes intimately connected with emancipatory ideals, with girls’ education, with the development of individuality and with independence. Discussing the conditions for love also implied discussing the laws governing marriage, rules of inheritance, divorce, etc. As Jane Tompkins writes: “the great subject of sentimental fiction is pre-eminently a social issue” (Tompkins 1985, 160). Submerged in stories of love, marriage, virtue and falsehood, one finds criticism of hierarchal gender roles and dreams of freer women and truer men. A novel may end with wedding bells, but before that the relationship between the female and male protagonists may have changed and done so considerably. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mr Darcy cannot marry Elizabeth until she has found herself and he has really learnt to respect her as an equal. In Jane Eyre, equality is crucial for love to flourish and in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Dorothea Brooke wins love only when she breaks free of the conventions and renounces her dead husband’s fortune, while Doctor Lydgate becomes increasingly unhappy in his marriage to the beautiful but conventional and selfish Rosamund.

Through these stories runs the thread of criticism of marriage as a source of income for women. Advocates of the woman question demanded that women should be able to preserve their financially adult status even after marriage, that women should have access to the funds they brought into the marriage, and have the right to divorce while retaining custody of their children. In short, they demanded a radical shift in power. Marriage was the battlefield on which this power struggle took place.

It is through new forms of pre-existing images that new meanings of the gender difference can be elicited. As mentioned before, the renegotiation of the love relationship has significance for laws regarding property and inheritance, but the talk of love also has significance for how desire is structured, and thus for what may or may not be included in the concept of femininity. The marriage novel thus becomes the ideal place to achieve what Judith Butler in Gender trouble calls a performative shift of the regulatory ideals (Butler 1990).

As emphasised above, the works by Collett, Eliot and Barrett Browning that Key discussed in her early essays are literary and fictional, which puts these ←43 | 44→texts in a unique position of not just arguing a particular view but actually staging a transformation of the codes that govern love and desire. Key read the literary works by these female authors as primarily political texts where issues of love and marriage were “at the core of the woman question”, as Ellis would later define Key’s feminist thinking.

The demand for a new love – George Eliot

Over time, it was George Eliot’s religious criticism that Key found most interesting, and she regarded Eliot’s thinking on love as less important, especially compared to that of George Sand.12 But Eliot’s critique of gender differences was of vital importance for the young Ellen Key. In 1876 she read Middlemarch as a book that criticises the contemporary assumptions of femininity and marriage:

The intention, in our opinion, would be to show that society does not give unusually gifted women the means to reach or get opportunities to use the full development of their spirit, since marriage, which is the lot of the majority, does not promote but rather hinders both one and the other. (Key, Tfh 1876 4th booklet, 254)13

Key highlights the story of Dorothea Brooke as the book’s most important element. Dorothea is a young and intelligent but idealistic woman who seeks a husband to be her intellectual superior and thus able to guide her, while she could be his admiring helper. Dorothea does not dream of an ordinary romantic marriage, but she is convinced that the truly ideal marriage must be one “where your husband was a sort of father, and could teach you even Hebrew, if you wished it” (Eliot Middlemarch Ch. 1). When Dorothea meets Mr Casaubon, twenty-seven years her senior, she believes him to be a mixture of Pascal, Locke and Augustine in the same person.

It soon becomes clear to her that she has made a serious mistake and that the “key to all mythologies” that Casaubon has worked on throughout his life is a completely meaningless endeavour and that he never intended to share his thoughts with her or make use of her intellect. Casaubon was only interested ←44 | 45→in a secretary and writing assistant and is increasingly disturbed by Dorothea’s scrutiny. Dorothea is freed from the failed marriage through the sudden death of Casaubon. However, he has devised posthumous revenge and made his young wife his single heir, provided she does not marry his young relative, Will Ladislaw, who has become Dorothea’s confidant.

This harshly unjust suspicion of her virtue, the pity of Will, his devotion, and her pervasive feelings, all help accomplish exactly the one thing she, in the eyes of the world, should not do, namely marry Will. Dorothea thus disregards both economic (lost wealth) and social conventions in order to marry Will, which to Key appears a true revolutionary action. It is interesting – as a comparison with modern adaptations of Middlemarch, which typically culminate in a happy ending when Dorothea and Will are united – that Key regards the marriage to Will as another reduction of Dorothea’s abilities and opportunities.

Key wonders if Eliot meant that Dorothea’s two marriages were both detrimental only to her intellectual personality, or if marriage as such is wrong for a talented woman? Key rejects such a thought, and here her understanding of love as a central experience in human life emerges. It is not marriage at all costs that Key advocates, but she is critical of the view that a woman has to choose between living out her talent and marriage.

Already here, in 1876, Key is clearly striving to “have it both ways”, both individual development and love, as she objects to an either or. This approach came to be a distinctive feature of Key’s thinking, something that Havelock Ellis underscores in his introduction to Love and Marriage: “She is many-sided and is quite able to see and to accept both halves of a truth. In one of her earliest essays she showed how individualism and socialism, which some people suppose to be incompatible, are really woven together” (Ellis 1911, xvi).

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In this early essay on George Eliot, Key refuses to accept a situation where female talent and love would be at odds with one another. Although she suspects Eliot of believing just that, she uses Eliot’s own life as support for the view that marriage should be able to allow the woman to practise her talents.

There is no contradiction between women’s intellectual development and the experience of love, marriage, and children. On the contrary, the human experience that marriage and possible children entail deepens women’s spiritual and intellectual abilities, says Key. Given that this discussion of the woman’s ability to work and mature intellectually and emotionally within the framework of a love relationship would be continued for at least a hundred years after Key wrote these lines, it is thought-provoking that Key, in 1876, thinks of herself as living at a time when marriage seldom requires a woman to “sacrifice” her intellectual or artistic ambitions. It is not women who should sacrifice something, but it is the notion of marriage that needs to change, according to Key’s credo.

Key, Barrett Browning and the woman question

If, in the case of Eliot, Ellen Key was unsure of the actual ideology of the text, she did not have to hesitate about Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who openly affirms and discusses the woman question. For Key, it is a consequence of Barrett Browning’s combined life as a wife, a mother and a writer: “As a woman and, moreover, a woman, who was not only involved in woman’s most immediate life task – the home, but also the writer’s, it was natural that the woman question should occupy her” (Key 1879–1880, 260).16 It seems natural for a woman who does not fit into the pattern of traditional femininity to engage in the woman question. This short sentence reveals several basic assumptions in Key’s thinking on the woman question: it is mainly of interest to women and ←46 | 47→for a woman it is natural to take an interest in women’s legal and moral rights. But the “woman question” is above all about a transformation of the perception of femininity. It is women’s traditional gender role that is the obstacle to their development as human beings.

Aurora Leigh, which is the main subject of Key’s essay, is a now half-forgotten verse epic about the poet Aurora’s fate and her later marriage to her cousin Romney. However, it had great significance in the 19th century as a story of female creative ability and the pursuit of independence. Aurora Leigh is a defence of the intellectual and artistic woman’s insistence on being intellectually active and yet able to live as a loving creature. In Aurora Leigh artistry and love do not contradict each other, especially because the man finally realizes that he can only marry the woman Aurora if he is ready to marry the poet Aurora.

The orphan Aurora is drawn to literature and begins writing poetry early on, while her cousin Romney is mostly drawn to social issues and wants to devote his life to fighting social injustice. However, he wants Aurora to be his wife, but on condition that she gives up her authorship to help him in his work for, he says, women are emotional. They are mothers and wives but not poets. Romney expresses the 19th century’s typical idea of femininity and the role of women. Barrett Browning lets her Aurora answer him that she does not want to marry him on those terms because “I too have my vocation – work to do” (Barrett Browning 1890, Aurora Leigh, 2nd book). It is a strong protest against the ideas of femininity and womanhood that Romney has just expressed.

Aurora rejects Romney because she loves her art and wants to try her luck as a writer, which means separating their paths. Several hundred verses later, when his large-scale social experimentation has failed, Romney has not only become humbler, but is also blind after a fire (like Jane Eyre’s Rochester). He is weakened and thus more equal to Aurora. She, on the other hand, has become a successful writer but also realized the importance of social issues and the mistakes of her own heart. After a few more romantic conflicts and misunderstandings, Aurora and Romney meet again. This time, wiser and more willing to compromise, they can finally be united in love. Aurora still identifies herself as a writer, although love may become an important aspect of the personality, also needed by the poet. Now Aurora Leigh utters the famous words that no perfect poet can develop from an imperfect woman and that art alone cannot create a whole life – love is not art’s opposite but rather its origin:

Details

Pages
168
ISBN (PDF)
9783631838877
ISBN (ePUB)
9783631838884
ISBN (MOBI)
9783631838891
ISBN (Book)
9783631819432
Language
English
Publication date
2020 (December)
Published
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.

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