Ellen Key Essay - Critical Essays

Key, Ellen


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Principal Works

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


The New York Times Book Review (essay date 1909)

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, from the necessity of engaging in any work that would injure or interfere with the maternal function, if she is or expects ever to be a mother. In that category Ellen Key puts work outside the home, whether professional or industrial, and any occupation that would tend to make much draft upon her energy. Nevertheless, she believes that it is for the good both of the individual and of society that every able-bodied person, men and women alike, should work, should have some money earning occupation which would afford economical independence.

"I do not believe," she says, "that social development will maintain the old ideal of the father as the one who takes care of the family. I hope, rather, that the new conception of having every individual look after himself will gain more ground." And in recognition of the immense value to society of the mother's business as conservator of the family and trainer of the children, while this occupation lasts "society must guarantee her existence." "It is plain," she goes on, "that nothing is...

(The entire section is 1023 words.)

Caroline L. Hunt (essay date 1909)

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...

(The entire section is 1155 words.)

Havelock Ellis (essay date 1910)

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...

(The entire section is 2403 words.)

The New York Times Book Review (essay date 1911)

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...

(The entire section is 1459 words.)

Current Opinion (essay date 1913)

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...

(The entire section is 1176 words.)

V. Jefferson Watts (essay date 1913)

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...

(The entire section is 3987 words.)

Amalie K. Boguslawsky (essay date 1914)

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...

(The entire section is 1789 words.)

Raymond Bellamy (essay date 1915)

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...

(The entire section is 939 words.)

Nancy M. Schoonmaker (essay date 1926)

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...

(The entire section is 2455 words.)

Charles N. Genno (essay date 1981)

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...

(The entire section is 3530 words.)

Torborg Lundell (essay date 1984)

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...

(The entire section is 6749 words.)

Further Reading


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 entire section is 150 words.)