Ellen Key 1849-1926
Swedish educator and feminist.
Sometimes called the "great-aunt of radical Europe," Key is best known as a pacifist and feminist whose ideas influenced social policies both in her native Sweden and throughout the western world. Key maintained a nearly mystical view of maternity, and her feminist theories elevated motherhood—whether it involved actual childbearing or "mothering" society's ills by agitating for peace—to a place of central importance in the psychological and social realization of women. She also believed that international reconciliation of differences would eventually lead to a recognition of war as barbaric, much as slavery or cannibalism had been recognized as such, and to its abolition. She was a popular lecturer and the recipient of many accolades from her contemporaries, who praised her energy and inspiration.
Born on December 11, 1849 in Vastervik, Sweden, Key was the daughter of a politician and estate-owner. In 1868 her family moved to Stockholm, where Key was trained as a teacher. She began publishing in Swedish periodicals during the 1880s, expressing social and political views, particularly those on women's individualism and property rights, that were criticized by conservatives as tantamount to advocating atheism and free love. Key continued teaching until 1900, then turned to lecturing and writing full-time, producing some thirty books over the course of her life. From 1903 to 1909 she left Sweden to live abroad, where she was welcomed by fellow progressives, particularly in Germany. Key was disappointed by Germany's militarism in World War I and by the refusal of French and German feminist organizations to send delegates to The Hague, Holland, to support a peace movement founded by women. By 1910 she had returned to Sweden. After World War I, Key called for reconciliation between the nations involved in the conflict and appealed to outraged mothers to lead a revolt that would bring about lasting world peace. Key died on April 25, 1926.
In her best-known book, Barnets drhundrade (The Century of the Child), Key took a critical stance toward prevailing educational theories and assailed traditional sex roles in and out of marriage. Her anti-authoritarian approach to education exerted a powerful influence in Scandinavian public schools. In Lifslinjer (Life-Lines), she discussed the vibrant intellectual life available to independent-minded and strong-willed women. The philosophy of morals of that work reflected Key's emphasis on duty, self-discipline, faithfulness, and beauty. She followed this work with Kvinororelsen (The Woman Movement), an exposition of her belief in women's power, and Kriget, freden ochframtiden (War, Peace and the Future), a full accounting of her pacifist views.
Individualism och Socialism (nonfiction) 1895
Missbrukad Kvinnokraft [The Strength of Women Misused] (nonfiction) 1896
Kvinnopsykologi och kvinnlig logik (nonfiction) 1896
Tankebilder [Thought Pictures] (nonfiction) 1898
Mdnniskor (nonfiction) 1899
Barnets drhundrade [The Century of the Child] (nonfiction) 1900
Lifslinjer. 3 vols. [Life-Lines] (nonfiction) 1903-6
Kvinnordrelsen [The Woman Movement] (nonfiction) 1909
Love and Marriage (nonfiction) 1911
Kriget, freden och framtiden [War, Peace and the Future] (nonfiction) 1914
En djupare syn pd kriget (nonfiction) 1916
Allsegraren. 2 vols. (nonfiction) 1918-24
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SOURCE: "When the Child Gets His Rights," in The New York Times Book Review, March 6, 1909, p. 128.
[In the following review, the anonymous author praises The Century of the Child, noting, however, that many of Key's assertions will already be taken for granted by American readers because of the direction of the women's movement in the United States at the time of the work's publication in English.]
Among the books of serious import that have been published in Germany during the last year or two, none has attracted wider attention or caused more general discussion than Ellen Key's The Century of the Child. It has won the consideration of the Kaiser, has gone through more than twenty editions, and has been published in several other European countries. The author was formerly among the foremost champions of the feminist movement in Germany, but she severed her connection with the cause of woman's emancipation because she had come to believe that it was working on a wrong basis, and that the best good of the sex and of the race demanded a different conception of woman's nature and a different attitude toward her mission in the world.
The author declares that she has not renounced her belief in the right of woman to choose her own way in life, to work out her own individual destiny, but she contends that in all this woman must guard herself, and must be protected by society,...
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SOURCE: A review of The Century of the Child, in The Dial, Chicago, Vol. XLVI, No. 550, May 16, 1909, pp. 325-27.
[In the following review of The Century of the Child, Hunt offers a favorable opinion, but laments what she considers Key's "bitterness of spirit" apparent in the work]
Abundant food for thought and unlimited material for discussion are to be found in Ellen Key's The Century of the Child, which has just been translated from the Swedish—or, more correctly, has just come to English readers through the German by double translation. The original was published in 1900, and took its title from a saying of one of the characters in The Lion's Whelp: "The next century will be the century of the child, just as this century has been the woman's century."
It is unfortunate that the author's most radical views, and those that are likely to be thought subversive of morality, are set forth in the opening chapter, which concerns marriage and parenthood; for many readers will be turned aside at this point and miss the chapters on Education which are the most valuable part of the book. Those who have patience with the matrimonial heresies of this chapter, and will read further, are likely to discover that they were at the beginning introduced to the writer's greatest weakness as well as to her greatest strength. Her strength lies in her abstract ideals for the...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Love and Marriage by Ellen Key, translated by Arthur G. Chater, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1911, pp. vii-xvi.
[Ellis was a pioneering sex psychologist and a respected English literary figure. His most famous work is The Psychology of Sex (1897-1928), a seven-volume study containing case histories of sex-related psychological abnormalities, which was greatly responsible for changing British and American attitudes toward sexuality. In addition to his writings on psychology, Ellis edited a series of English dramas and retained an active interest in literature throughout his life. In the following essay, originally published in 1910, and later published as an introduction to the 1911 English translation of Key's Love and Marriage, Ellis provides a critical biography of Key.]
Ellen Key, whose most important book [Love and Marriage] is here for the first time presented in English, is no stranger in the English-speaking world. Her Century of the Child has already found many appreciative readers in America as well as in England. Ellen Key is descended from a Scotch Highlander, Colonel M'Key (probably of the famous MacKay clan) who fought under Gustavus Adolphus, and she attaches no little significance to this ancestry. She has always interested herself in English matters, and is well acquainted with the life and literature of Great Britain; but she...
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SOURCE: A review of Love and Marriage, in The New York Times Book Review, March 26, 1911, pp. 165, 171.
[In the following review, the anonymous author admires Key's straightforward approach to human emotion and sexuality in Love and Marriage.]
A Swede who had his own part in the period of "storm and stress" in his native land, and has since in the course of cosmopolitan wanderings acquired an almost Stevensonian aptness in the use of English, declared of Ellen Key, the pioneer of the insurrection of women in Sweden, that she dealt in "winged words," and as a lecturer fairly flung well-aimed facts at her hearers. Something of the quality of style so described remains even in the translation of a part of Miss Key's notable work Lifslinjer, which is now, after a lapse of eight years since the appearance of the original, published here with the title Love and Marriage. Those eight years represent, perhaps, the interval between the stage of progress of the so-called women's movement in America and that in the nations of northern Europe. There, in the nature of things, the problems of readjustment arising out of the present "industrial" phase of civilization have earlier become acute, partly owing to the greater complexity of the social fabric which was suddenly exposed to the strain of these new conditions, and partly because the northern European populations had already reached—and...
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SOURCE: "Charlotte Gilman's Reply to Ellen Key," in Current Opinion, Vol. LIV, No. 3, March 1913, pp. 220-21.
[In the following essay, the anonymous author contrasts the feminist views of Key with those of the noted American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, most widely known today for her early-twentieth century feminist short story "The Yellow Wallpaper. "]
In her recent powerful attack on "amaternal" feminism, Ellen Key, the great Swedish thinker, singles out the words of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, our American feminist philosopher, as presenting the strongest antithesis to her own, and expounding a theory of life which she opposes as dangerous and destructive; the most vital point of difference being their conception of motherliness. Mrs. Gilman's ideal is social motherhood, Ellen Key's a more intensely individual mother. Each writer expresses her thought with unrivalled poetic fervor. Moreover, they represent the two deepest contending forces in the woman movement to-day. "If Ellen Key is right," says Mrs. Gilman, in the February number of her magazine, The Forerunner, "then I am absolutely and utterly, foolishly and mischievously, wrong."
Mrs. Gilman states briefly the position defined by Ellen Key as follows: "The object of our life is the improvement of human beings; the improvement of human beings is best attained by the right birth and rearing of children. To this end we...
(The entire section is 1176 words.)
SOURCE: "Knowledge and Morals," in Scientific American Supplement, Vol. LXXV, No. 1946, April 19, 1913, pp. 246-47.
[In the following essay, Watts excoriates Key for what he considers her unscientific approach.]
Ellen Key, the famous Swedish writer, in her masterpieces Love and Ethics and Love and Marriage, claims that to the loveless marriages, to the narrow, medieval conventionalism of society that condones such marriages and places the ban of social ostracism upon the unfortunate woman who through love has become a mother out of wedlock, and at the same time gives social recognition to the man, the fellow participator in the crime, and to those individuals who console themselves with the baser substitutes for love, to all of these are due the distorted social conditions and evils of the present day.
She furthermore claims that, inasmuch as sex instinct is the primal force in life about which all other forces revolve and on which all issues depend, all forces, such as will, judgment, reason, as well as all issues, even society, should subserve to the sex instinct. Then there will be no more unhappy marriages, no more divorces, no more social evil; then will it be possible to create a more highly developed race of human beings. In other words, when soul mate finds soul mate, mutual recognition taking place by reason of the sex instinct, then must society and the Almighty...
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SOURCE: "Ellen Key—Idealist," in The Dial, Chicago, Vol. XVI, No. 662, June 16, 1914, pp. 47-8.
[In the following essay, Boguslawsky asserts that although many of Key's contentions are idealistic, her ideas regarding parenthood and child care are rooted in practicality.]
Always since the Galilean lived his revolutionary message—to reform man and not methods—every step in the world's ethical and moral progress has been inspired by the standard-bearer of a new idealism. With the wane of each century, the idealism which demanded the ascetic renunciation of earthly joys has been more sternly challenged, until a higher conception of true life-values is leading us back to the Greek ideal of beauty and happiness as the basis of a life-giving harmony.
Ellen Key's credo, "the enhancement of life through love, joy, and beauty in things small and great," implies much more than the joy of living. To her, happiness means "to love, work, think, suffer, and enjoy on an ever higher plane." She expounds her gospel in a glowingly picturesque and even startling way, and those who read coming events in to-day's idealistic tendencies believe that she has established the three truths on which our moral future will be based: 1, The futility of legislation and economic readjustments for bringing about the regeneration of the race; 2, The wisdom of courageous truthtelling as regards vital issues; 3, A...
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SOURCE: A review of The Renaissance of Motherhood, in The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. XX, No. 4, January, 1915, pp. 541-43.
[In the following review, Bellamy provides a short summary and a favorable review of The Renaissance of Motherhood.]
The author condenses the thoughts of [The Renaissance of Motherhood] into the following words which appear in the preface:
In this book I have spoken of the social means possible for calling forth a renaissance of motherhood. I have proposed the study of eugenics; a year of social service as preparation for motherhood; state pensions for mothers.… But the real renaissance must come through an education of the feelings.… No renaissance is possible before mothers and teachers… prepare the girls' hearts for love and motherhood.… And then will come indeed the new religion of the new century, the century of the child, now only a hope in the soul of some dreamers.
Part I: Women and Morals.—In this section the author takes the stand without question that women have stronger intuitions and weaker powers of reason than men. Women as a rule have advanced the ethical evolution, but have occasionally had a retarding effect, as, for example, when the Icelandic women urged their men to avenge manslaughter by death rather than to accept fines. Woman's ethical conservatism...
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SOURCE: "Ellen Key's Ideals of Love and Marriage," in Current History, Vol. 24, No. 4, July, 1926, pp. 529-32.
[In the following essay, Schoonmaker eulogizes Key and provides an overview of her views.]
With the passing of Ellen Key, who died at her home in the south of Sweden on April 25, 1926, there is brought vividly to mind again the contribution which this woman was privileged to make to the thought of her age. The seventy-seven years of her life fell in a time when great currents of progress and change were sweeping over the world. Born in an age and country in which the reactionary forces were altogether dominant, before such forces had even been made fully articulate by resisting such opposition as later massed against them for their eventual overthrow, she lived to see laws and customs and the thought of the world liberalized to an almost incredible extent.
In her young girlhood, if she had cared to look into the matter—as perhaps she did—she would have discovered, for instance, that the laws governing marriage were so entirely one-sided and unjust to woman that at least one illustrious Swedish gentleman of her acquaintance chose a common-law marriage rather than ask his life companion to subject herself to the humiliating conditions of the legal ceremony. She lived to see her country so modify its laws governing this institution, marriage, divorce, property rights,...
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SOURCE: "The Importance of Ellen Key's 'Die Entfaltung der Seele durch Lebenskunst' for Musil's Concept of the Soul," in Orbis Litterarum, Vol. 36, No. 4, 1981, pp. 323-31.
[In the following essay, Genno discusses the influence of Key's works on the writings of the early-twentieth century Austrian novelist Robert Musil.]
Robert Musil's preoccupation with the state of modern man's soul, which once prompted the noted critic Ernst Blass to dub him, in a rather feeble pun, "ein Entdecker von Neu-Seelland," is evident throughout the entire corpus of his writings. A major recurrent theme in his novels, short stories, essays and plays is the superficiality of twentieth-century man, attributable paradoxically to "zu wenig Verstand in den Fragen der Seele." For centuries, according to Musil, men of science have been envisioning a new humanity, which never materializes because, in their ceaseless effort to create it, they have somehow lost contact with the soul.
Critics have been quick in pointing out the indisputable importance of men like Plato, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Friedrich Nietzche, and Ernst Mach for Musil's concept of the soul. But one major influence on his earliest attempts to theorize about it has been sadly neglected: the famous Swedish feminist Ellen Key.
In his introduction to the English edition of Ellen Key's best known book Love and Marriage (1911),...
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SOURCE: "Ellen Key and Swedish Feminist Views on Motherhood," in Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 56, No. 4, Autumn, 1984, pp. 351-69.
[In the following essay, Lundell explores the role of mothers in Swedish feminism and in Key's writings.]
During the nineteenth century the concept of family and the role of woman as mother changed in Sweden as in most other countries in Europe. As the century progressed, more and more literature and public discussions dealt with the joys of motherhood and means of promoting motherhood and motherliness. A "cult of motherhood" aimed primarily at middle class women flourished together with a "cult of true womanhood." Motherhood was regarded as woman's most natural, highest, and noblest state. Failure to succeed in motherhood meant failure as a woman. But as Eleanor Riemer and John C. Fout point out in European Women: A Documentary History 1789-1945, proponents of the motherhood cult who claimed to uphold tradition actually defined what woman's behavior and attitudes should be, rather than describing what they actually were (or had been). Feminists too embraced the cult of motherhood, though they did not necessarily see it as woman's only role. Primarily they wanted motherhood to be appreciated by society—not denigrated, but seen as an important social contribution.
With this exaltation of the mother role there came the view that the mother...
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Clareus, Ingrid. "Ellen Key and Her Strand." Scandinavian Review 71, No. I (March 1983): 38-45.
Strand, Key's final residence, is described as a perfect reflection of her aesthetic and a refuge for women graduate students and scholars.
Nyström-Hamilton, Louise. Ellen Key: Her Life and Her Work. New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1913, 177 p.
An attempt to "give a true picture of the woman, not a study of her literary works." This work also includes discussion of Key's work as it relates to her personal life.
Mudgett, Bruce. Review of The Woman Movement. The Annals of the American Academy 48, No. 137 (July 1913): 278.
Praises Key for recognizing that women's rights involve more than suffrage.
"Ellen Key." The Nation 122, No. 3174 (5 May 1926): 493-94.
Obituary notice that criticizes Key for presenting "futile and subtle resistance" to other feminist views, while observing that her death "obliterates a great figure among the women of today."
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