“The Right to Be Happy”: Feminism and Child-Rearing During the Interwar Years

  • Ann Taylor Allen


In 1911, Ellen Key called the mother-child bond the purest of all human relationships and motherhood “the most perfect human condition, where happiness consists in giving and giving is the greatest happiness.”1 But interwar authors emphasized the darker side of mother-love, often picturing mothers as the enforcers of the repressive norms that arrested their daughters’ development. “Probably no ambitious girl who has lived in a family which regards the subservience of women as part of the natural order of creation ever completely recovers from the bitterness of her early emotions,” wrote the novelist Vera Brittain in 1933. Virginia Woolf was haunted by the ghost of her own perfect mother, whom she called (from the title of a cloying Victorian poem) the “Angel in the House.” “She was intensely sympathetic. She was utterly unselfish … in short, she was so constituted that she never had a mind or wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others.” Woolf imagined herself killing this dark spirit: “I turned upon her and took her by the throat … Had I not killed her, she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing.”2


Child Relationship Nursery School Maternal Role Male Supremacy Paternal Role 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Ellen Key, “Mütterlichkeit,” in Adele Schreiber, ed., Mutterschaft: Ein Sammelwerk fur die Probleme des Weibes als Mutter (Munich: Albert Langen Verlag, 1912), 587–601 (quotation 592).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Vera Brittain, Testament of Tbuth: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900–1925 [1933] (New York and London: Penguin Group, 1994), 59Google Scholar
  3. see also Jean E. Kennard, Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby: A Working Partnership (Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1989), 1–23; Virginia Woolf, “Professions for Women” [1931], in Virginia Woolf, Women and Writing ed. Michèle Barrett (San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Brace, 1979), 57–63 (quotation 59).Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    Dora Russell, The Right to be Happy (New York: Harper Brothers, 1927), 201.Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    Yvonne Knibiehler, L’Histoire des mères du moyen-âge à nos jours (Paris: Éditions Montalba, 1980), 283Google Scholar
  6. 4.
    Renate Bridenthal, Atina Grossmann, and Marion Kaplan, eds., When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984).Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    Dr. G. Variot, Comment sauvegarder les bébés: enseignement de l’hygiène infantile donné a l’institut de puèriculture à la Goutte de Lait de Belleville (Paris: Librarie Octave Dion, 1922), 279.Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    The most famous of these texts was Adolphe Pinard, La Puériculture (Paris: Librairie Armand Colin, 1904), which was re-issued in multiple editions throughout the interwar period.Google Scholar
  9. 7.
    Knibiehler, Histoire des Mères 311–318; Sigrid Stöckel, Säuglingsfürsorge zwischen sozialer Hygiene und Eugenik: Das Beispiel Berlin im Kaiserreich und in der Weimarer Republil (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1996), 327–338CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 7.
    Jane Lewis, The Politics of Motherhood: Child and Maternal Welfare in England, 1900–1939 (London and Montreal: Croom Helm, 1980), 89–133.Google Scholar
  11. 8.
    Linda Clark, Schooling the Daughters of Marianne: Textbooks and the Socialization of Girls in Modern French Primary Schools (Albany, NY: State University New York Press, 1984), 81–99; Lewis, The Politics of Motherhood 92Google Scholar
  12. 8.
    Karen Hagemann, Frauenalltag und Männerpolitik: Alltagsleben und gesellschaftliches Handeln von Arbeiterfrauen in der Weimarer Republik (Bonn: J.W. Dietz, 1990), 118–132.Google Scholar
  13. 9.
    Françoise Thébaud, Quand nos grand-mères donnaient la vie: La Maternité en France entre les deux guerres (Lyons: Presses universitaires de Lyons, 1986), 182Google Scholar
  14. 9.
    John Knodel, The Decline of Fertility in Germany, 1871–1939 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974), 288.Google Scholar
  15. 10.
    Steve Humphries and Pamela Gordon, A Labour of Love: The Experience of Parenthood in Britain, 1900–1950 (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1993), 49–56; Knibiehler, L’Histoire des mères 319–328; Stöckel, Säuglingsfürsorge 293–365; Hagemann, Frauenalltag 332–349.Google Scholar
  16. 11.
    T.H. Van de Velde, Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique, trans. Stella Browne (New York: Random House, 1930), 86.Google Scholar
  17. 12.
    Sigmund Freud, “Femininity,” in Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis [1933], trans. and ed. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1965), 112–135 (quotation 133).Google Scholar
  18. 13.
    Karen Horney, “The Flight from Womanhood,” in Karen Horney, Feminine Psychology, ed. Harold Kehnam (New York: Norton, 1967), 54–83 (quotation 60).Google Scholar
  19. 14.
    Winifred Holtby, Women and a Changing Civilization [1935] (Chicago, IL: Cassandra Editions, 1978), 125Google Scholar
  20. 14.
    see also Sheila Jeffreys, The Spinster and her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality, 1880–1930 (London: Pandora Press, 1985), 165–185.Google Scholar
  21. 15.
    General accounts of child-rearing in this era are: John Somerville, The Rise and Fall of Childhood (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1982), 209–217Google Scholar
  22. 15.
    Christina Hardyment, Dream Babies: Child Care from Locke to Spock (London: Jonathan Cape, 1983), 89–155.Google Scholar
  23. 16.
    Ann Hulbert, Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice about Children (New York: Knopf, 2003), 154–187.Google Scholar
  24. 17.
    John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner Watson, Psychological Care of Infant and Child (New York: Norton, 1928), 15; see also Somerville, The Rise and Fall of Childhood 209–217.Google Scholar
  25. 18.
    F. Truby King, Feeding and Care of Baby (London and Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1937), 181, 222.Google Scholar
  26. 19.
    See e.g., Erich Stern, “Die Störungen des Seelenlebens,” in Adele Schreiber, ed., Das Reich des Kindes (Berlin: Deutsche Buchgemeinschaft, 1930), 272–315.Google Scholar
  27. 20.
    Hildegard Hetzer, Seelische Hygiene—Lebenstüchtige Kinder: Richtlinien für die Erziehung im Kleinkindalter (Lindau: Verlag Kleine Kinder, 1940), 42.Google Scholar
  28. 21.
    Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. Jean Riviere (New York: J. Cape and H. Smith, 1930). On the impact of psychoanalysis in France, seeGoogle Scholar
  29. 21.
    Jacques Donzelot, The Policing of Families, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979), 169–198.Google Scholar
  30. 22.
    Deborah Thom, “Wishes and Anxieties, Play, and Gestures: Child Guidance in Inter-war England,” in Roger Cooter, ed., In the Name of the Child: Health and Welfare, 1880–1940 (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), 200–219Google Scholar
  31. 22.
    Denise Riley, War in the Nursery: Theories of the Child and Mother (London: Virago, 1983), 42–79.Google Scholar
  32. 23.
    Alfred Adler, The Education of Children (New York: Greenburg Publisher, 1930), 239–250Google Scholar
  33. 23.
    Nelleke Bakker, “Health and the Medicalisation of Advice to Parents in the Netherlands, 1890–1950,” in Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra and Hilary Marland, eds., Cultures of Child Health in Britain and the Netherlands in the Twentieth Century (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2003), 127–148; Cathy Urwin and Elaine Sharland, “From Bodies to Minds in Childcare Literature: Advice to Parents in inter-war Britain,” in Cooter, ed., In the Name of the Child 174–199; Thom, “Wishes and Anxieties.”Google Scholar
  34. 24.
    Adele Schreiber, “Wie ich wurde,” Fürs Haus, January 1927; more autobiographical statements are contained in BAK, Nachlass Adele Schreiber, Vol. 1.Google Scholar
  35. 25.
    “Vernet, Madeleine,” in Jean Maitron, ed., Dictionnaire biographique du mouvement ouvrier français, Vol. 15 (Paris: Editions Ouvrières, 1977); Madeleine Vernet, “Mère et Citoyenne,” La Mère Éducatrice, August, 1918.Google Scholar
  36. 26.
    Dora Russell, The Tamarisk Tree: My Questfor Liberty and Love, Vol. 1 (New York: Putnam, 1975), 13.Google Scholar
  37. 27.
    Madeleine Vernet, L’Avenir social (Paris: l’Émancipatrice, 1906).Google Scholar
  38. 33.
    Interview with Dora Russell, in Dale Spender, There’s Always Been a Women’s Movement this Century (London and Boston: Pandora, 1983), 94, 102.Google Scholar
  39. 34.
    Héra Mirtel, De la patrie a la matrie, ou du bagne à l’Éden (Paris: Édition de la Matrie, 1920), 45, 39.Google Scholar
  40. 35.
    Mathilde and Mathias Vaerting, The Dominant Sex: A Study in the Sociology of Sex Differentiation, trans. Eden and Cedar Paul (New York: George H. Doran, 1923), xiii, 268.Google Scholar
  41. 35.
    Original edition: Mathilde and Matthias Vaerting, Die weibliche Eigenart im Männerstaat und die mcinnliche Eigenart im Frauenstaat (Karlsruhe: G. Braunsche Hofbuchdruckerei, 1921).Google Scholar
  42. 36.
    Theresa Wobbe, “Mathilde Vaerting (1884–1977),” in Barbara Hahn, ed., Frauen in den Kulturveissenschaften: von Lou Andreas Salomé bis Hannah Arendt (Munich: Beck, 1994), 125–135 (quotation 128).Google Scholar
  43. 37.
    Robert Briffault, The Mothers [1927], abridged and with an introduction by Gordon Rattray Taylor (New York: Atheneum, 1977), 42; see also Huntington Cairns, “Robert Briffault and the Rehabilitation of the Matriarchal Theory,” in Harry Elmer Barnes, ed., An Introduction to the History of Sociology (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1948), 668–676. I thank Karen Offen for directing me to this article.Google Scholar
  44. 38.
    Bronislaw Malinowski, The Father in Primitive Psychology (New York: Norton, 1927), 57–85. See also Ann Taylor Allen, “Patriarchy and its Discontents: The Debate on the Origins of the Family in the German-Speaking World, 1860–1930,” in David Lindenfeld and Suzanne Marchand, eds., German Culture at the Fin-deSiècle (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana University Press, 2004), 81–101.Google Scholar
  45. 40.
    Robert Briffault and Bronislaw Malinowski, Marriage, Past and Present: A Debate between Robert Briffault and Bronislaw Malinowski, ed. M.F. Ashley Montagu (Boston, MA: Porter Sargent, 1956), 51.Google Scholar
  46. 42.
    Donald Meyer, Sex and Power, The Rise of Women in America, Russia, Sweden and Italy (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1987), 194–197Google Scholar
  47. 42.
    Sondra R. Herman, “Feminists, Socialists, and the Genesis of the Swedish Welfare State,” in Frances Richardson Keller, ed., Views of Women’s Lives in Western Tradition: Frontiers of the Past and the Future (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990), 472–510Google Scholar
  48. 42.
    Helena Forsas-Scott, “The Revolution That Never Was: The Example of Elin Wagner,” The European Legacy 1 (1996): 914–919CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. 42.
    Elin Wagner, Väckarklocka, Stockholm (Bonniers), 1941. I am obliged to Sondra Herman for providing a translation of this book.Google Scholar
  50. 44.
    Wilma Meikle, Towards a Sane Feminism (New York: Robert M. McBride and Co, 1917), 139.Google Scholar
  51. 45.
    Vera Brittain, Honourable Estate (New York: Macmillan, 1936), 45; Kennard, Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby 181–182.Google Scholar
  52. 47.
    Ghenia Avril de Sainte-Croix, L’Éducation sexuelle, préface de M. le Professeur Pinard (Paris: Librairie Felix Alcan, 1918), 31.Google Scholar
  53. 49.
    Rebecca West, The judge (New York: Doran Company, 1922), 324–325; excerpted inGoogle Scholar
  54. 49.
    Susan Groag Bell and Karen M. Offen, eds., Women the Family, and Freedom: The Debate in Documents, Vol. 2 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1983), 343–355.Google Scholar
  55. 50.
    Horney, “The Flight from Womanhood,” 70; see also Edith Kurzweil, The Freudians: A Comparative Perspective (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 152–172.Google Scholar
  56. 51.
    Madeleine Pelletier, “Haines familiales,” La Voix des Femmes, December 23, 1926.Google Scholar
  57. 54.
    Alva Myrdal, “Barnet i kollektivhuset” [1932], quoted in Sondra R. Herman, “Dialogue: Children, Feminism, and Power: Alva Myrdal and Swedish Reform, 1929–1956,” journal of Women’s History 4 (Fall 1992): 82–112 (quotation 86).Google Scholar
  58. 55.
    Sissela Bok, Alva Myrdal: A Daughter’s Memoir (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1991), 177.Google Scholar
  59. 56.
    Laure Lallemand, “La Suggestion des enfants,” La Mère Éducatrice (July 1921).Google Scholar
  60. 57.
    Dora Russell, In Defence of Children (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1932), 138.Google Scholar
  61. 62.
    Elise Ottesen-Jensen, Människor i Mid [1932], quoted in Doris H. Linder, Crusader for Sex Education: Elise Ottesen Jensen (1886–1973) in Scandinavia and on the International Scene (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1996), 96.Google Scholar
  62. 64.
    Marie Stopes, Mother, How was I Born? (London: Putnam, 1922), 16, 22.Google Scholar
  63. 66.
    Jan Myrdal, Childhood, trans. Christine Swanson (Chicago, IL: Lake View Press, 1991), 57.Google Scholar
  64. 67.
    Sissela Bok, Alva Myrdal: A Daughter’s Memoir (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1991), 173–189; see also the discussion of these memoirs in Herman, “Dialogue: Children, Feminism, and Power”Google Scholar
  65. 67.
    and Ann-Sofie Ohlander, “Comment: Alva Myrdal: A Life of Duty,” journal of Women’s History 4 (Fall 1992): 120–124.Google Scholar
  66. 69.
    Anne Cova, Au service de l’Église, de la patrie, et de la famille: Femmes catholiques et maternité sous la III. République (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2000), 143.Google Scholar
  67. 72.
    Madeleine Vernet, “L’évolution de la famille,” La Mère Éducatrice (May-June 1928).Google Scholar
  68. 74.
    Gertrud Bäumer, “Perseus,” Die Frau (May 28, 1921): 225–235 (quotation 234).Google Scholar
  69. 75.
    Maude Royden, “Modern Love,” in Victor Gollancz, ed., The Making of Women: Oxford Essays in Feminism (London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1918), 36–63 (quotation 52).Google Scholar
  70. 76.
    Marguerite Martin, “Maman, infirmière, ou institutrice?” La Voix des Femmes, March 1, 1922.Google Scholar
  71. 78.
    Rita Kramer, Maria Montessori: A Biography [1976] (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1988), 267–340.Google Scholar
  72. 84.
    Ann Taylor Allen, “Children between Public and Private Worlds: The Kindergarten and Public Policy in Germany, 1840-present,” in Roberta Wollons, ed., Kindergartens and Cultures: The Global Diffusion of an Idea (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 16–41.Google Scholar
  73. 88.
    Madeleine Vernet, “La Femme d’aujourd’hui peut-elle rester gardienne du foyer?” La Mère Éducatrice (January-February 1928).Google Scholar
  74. 89.
    Madeleine Vernet, ed., “La mère et le foyer,” La Mère Éducatrice, February 1926.Google Scholar
  75. 90.
    Claude Noel, in “La mère et le foyer,” La Mère Éducatrice, February 1926.Google Scholar
  76. 92.
    Blanche Doupeux, in “La mère et le foyer,” La Mère Éducatrice, February 1926.Google Scholar
  77. 93.
    Doctoresse Houdré Boursin, Ma doctoresse: Guide pratique d’hygiène et de médecine de la femme moderne (Strasbourg: Éditorial Argentor, 1928), 95.Google Scholar
  78. 94.
    Dora Russell, Hypatia, or Women and Knowledge (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1925), 68–69.Google Scholar
  79. 96.
    Vera Brittain, Testament of Experience: An Autobiographical Story of the Years 1926–1930 (New York: Macmillan, 1957), 37, 63, 87Google Scholar
  80. 96.
    see also Kennard, Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby; Carol Dyhouse, Feminism and the Family in England, 1880–1939 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), 50–51.Google Scholar
  81. 103.
    Margaret Isabel Cole, Marriage, Past and Present (London: J.M. Dent, 1938), 179.Google Scholar
  82. 106.
    Humphries and Gordon, A Labour of Love 83–90; Knibiehler, Les Pères aussi ont une histoire (Paris: Hachette, 1987), 206; Hagemann, Frauenalltag 332–349.Google Scholar
  83. 112.
    Alva Myrdal, Nation and Family: The Swedish Experiment in Democratic Family and Population Policy (New York and London: Harper Brothers, 1941), 122.Google Scholar
  84. 120.
    Chrystal Eastman, “Boys and Girls,” Time and Tide, January 4, 1924.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Ann Taylor Allen 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ann Taylor Allen

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations