Ellen Key Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.