A Motherly Society: Scandinavian Feminism and a Culture of Sexual Equality in the Works of Ellen Key, Elin Wägner, and Alva Myrdal

Annika Ljung-Baruth


As a key polemic figure in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Ellen Key (1849-1926) established the concept of "collective motherliness" ("samhällsmoderlighet") and extended the meaning of motherhood from a biological category defined by the birthing of a child to a female societal force, thus bringing forth (or giving birth to) a new and better society.1 A few decades later, Swedish author and activist Elin Wägner (1882-1949) developed a theory of matriarchy in her pivotal work Alarm Clock (1941), and that same year, Swedish sociologist and politician Alva Myrdal (1902-1986) proposed government policies that would promote the welfare of mothers and their children in her book Nation and Family: The Swedish Experiment in Democratic Family and Population Policy (1941). These three Swedish feminists—Ellen Key, Elin Wägner, and Alva Myrdal— influenced the cultural landscape of Sweden in the late-nineteenth and early-tomid- twentieth century, and helped create a foundation for the Swedish welfare state. My aim is to show how their works contributed to the Scandinavian culture of sexual equality and respect for motherhood (and by extension parenthood). I also aim to elucidate the lasting relevance of their work. This article is part of my ongoing book project on Scandinavian feminism. It is, therefore, open to constant revision, rethinking, and rediscovery of the impact of Key, Wägner, and Myrdal.

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We are grateful to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) for its ongoing support of the Journal of the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement.