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Samhällsmoderligheten i Italien och Spanien: mottagandet och omformuleringen av Ellen Keys idéer om moderskap och kvinnlig sexualitet i en sydeuropeisk kontext (1900-1939)

Forskningsprojekt Syftet med projektet är att utröna hur Ellen Keys idéer om samhällsmoderlighet och moderskärleken som samhällelig kraft mottogs och omformulerades i italiensk och spansk feministisk litteratur under det tidiga 1900-talet.

Projektets utgångspunkt är hypotesen att Keys samhällsmoderlighet som begrepp, utgjorde en brygga för spanska och italienska feminister, mellan tradition och modernitet, under en tid av stora sociala omvälvningar i dessa länder. Detta berodde på Keys fokus på kvinnokroppen som ett etiskt nav för byggandet av det moderna samhället. Begreppet tillät en ohelig allians mellan en traditionellt katolsk syn på moderskap, och kvinnors högst kontroversiella framsteg som såväl politiska som sexuella subjekt under tidigt 1900-tal.


Elena Lindholm
090-786 52 44



2016-01-01 2019-12-31


Vetenskapsrådet, 2016-2019: 3 320 000 kr

Medverkande institutioner och enheter vid Umeå universitet

Humanistisk fakultet, Institutionen för språkstudier


Genusvetenskap, Litteraturvetenskap


Ellen Key (1949-1926) was one of Sweden’s most internationally renowned thinkers of the early 20th century. Despite this, research on how her ideas were received and developed in other parts of the world has been rather limited. Instead of continuing the biographical trail that has been dominant within research on Key, the focus within this project will be on the influence of her work and ideas. The project’s primary purpose is to investigate how the Swedish pedagogue Ellen Key’s ideas on ‘collective motherliness’ were received and reformulated in Italy and Spain during the first four decades of the 20th century. To accomplish this project, the research team will analyse material consisting of Italian and Spanish feminist literature and debate texts from the time period. The term “feminism” is here used in a broad sense, referring to literature that in different ways illustrated and problematized women’s subordinated position in Catholic Europe. Instead of studying them separately, the pairing of the two countries - Italy and Spain - is expected to be of benefit to the project’s outcomes. This is due to the shared Catholic context and both countries’ historical as well as cultural proximity, but also due to the geographical and linguistic proximity that has facilitated the intellectual interchange within the region.

The project’s main starting point is the hypothesis that Ellen Key’s concept of collective motherliness, her emphasis on the female body as the ethical axis for the building of modern society, was a notion that for feminists in Italy and Spain worked as a bridge between tradition and modernity in a time of rapid social change. It permitted an unholy alliance between traditionally Catholic notions of motherhood on the one hand, and, on the other, women’s highly controversial advances as both political and sexual subjects during the early 20th century, their demands for the right to their own bodies and desires that ascended internationally with the women’s movement (see Cook 2004; Simmons 2009). In Key’s thought, collective motherliness implies something more than biological motherhood; it is the result of a process when woman completes herself according to her “true essence”, turning natural motherliness into collective motherliness, a cultural and political force with the power to improve society. For Key, biological motherhood was not a requisite for becoming a collective mother. Rather, collective motherliness was an argument for women’s right to vote and to participate actively in politics, as women’s maternal force was expected to change society in a positive direction, entailing new approaches and new priorities (Key 1903).

The project’s aim is to deepen the understanding of southern European feminist literature from this time period by placing it in relation to Ellen Key’s works on collective motherliness and gender relations. By contributing with new knowledge about how Key’s ideas were adopted in Italy and Spain, the project contributes to the creation of a contextual frame for interpreting southern European feminist literature of the early 20th century. A broader aim with the project is to contribute new knowledge to the general charting of European feminist thinkers from the early 20th century, how they interacted, and how their ideas were received and adapted to different contexts. Women’s own ideas about women’s place as political actors in the building of modern society during this period is a field of investigation of great significance for understanding European modernity. The project’s focus on Ellen Key’s ideas is due to her central position in the debate of issues that concerned women of Catholic Europe during this time period, such as women’s social subordination, their sexual subservience and women’s suffrage.

Survey of the field

Ellen Key’s contacts with, and influences on, Italian and Spanish writers and other intellectuals is still a fairly unexplored field. Previous research on Ellen Key has, in general, focused on personal biography. Several studies – all rather limited and in a popular form – have been made of her visits to Italy, since it was her favorite foreign country and she made several long visits there: for example, Siv Hackzell (1994), Anders Fahlbeck (1998) and Angelo Tajani (2012). These studies mostly concentrate on her places of residence and less on her contacts with Italian intellectuals. The reactions in Italy to Ellen Key’s ideas have been even less well studied, one of the rare exceptions being a recent study by Tiziana Pironi, professor of the history of pedagogy in Bologna, who investigates the reception of Key’s pedagogic ideas (Pironi 2010). The applicant, Åkerström, has studied and published the correspondence between Key and the Italian feminist writer Sibilla Aleramo (Åkerström 2012) and has written an introductory article about the reception of Key’s work in Italy (Åkerström 2013).

Until the present day, Spain, in contrast to Italy, has not been included in research on Key, since she never visited the country in person. To our knowledge, no scholar has studied the reception of Key’s ideas in Spain, nor her contacts with Spanish intellectuals. An exception is the applicant, Lindholm, who has demonstrated the occurrence of inter-textual references to Ellen Key’s Love and Marriage in the novel Quiero vivir mi vida (1931) by the Spanish feminist writer Carmen de Burgos (Lindholm 2013a).

Scholars who study Italian and Spanish feminist literature (e.g. Zancan, Arslan, Folli, Scanlon, Johnson) from the period in focus show little awareness of Ellen Key and her works, although her name is quite often mentioned in political and pedagogical texts from the period in question. The representations of motherhood by Spanish writers like Carmen de Burgos and Federico García Lorca have often puzzled scholars, who, on the one hand identify a feminist approach in the writers’ texts, but on the other do not manage to reconcile the depiction of women’s love and motherhood with that approach, arriving at the conclusion that there are contradictions in these depictions. In the case of Carmen de Burgos scholars sometimes attribute these contradictions to the influence of Spanish krausism (Establier Pérez 2000: 179), or speculate that she adapted her texts to the male dominated publishing business or to a conservative, feminine audience (e.g. Ugarte 1996; Bieder 2001, Bravo Cela 2003: 55; Louis 2004). Our hypothesis is that the contradictions that scholars find in these writers’ depictions of motherhood could be better explained as the influence of Key’s Nietzschean inspired view of motherhood and femininity as a force which is both corporeal and cultural and which thus tears down the barrier between the individual and society (Lindén 2002: 153-214).

In northern Europe, scholarly interest for Ellen Key’s work has increased during the last decade. Correspondingly, research has tended to change, from the biographical and pedagogical foci that have dominated both scholarly and more popular works on Ellen Key, to a new interest for her ideas on gender relations. Ellen Key was a controversial figure in her own time and is still today. Her ideas have been praised, but also highly criticized, in Sweden and in the rest of Europe. One of Ellen Key’s modern advocates is Claudia Lindén, who in her doctoral thesis (Lindén 2002) defends Ellen Key’s feminism, while other recent critics as Eva Borgström instead emphasize the ambiguity of Ellen Key’s thinking about love and relationships (Borgström 2008). In his recent and extensive study Ronny Ambjörnsson (a member of EKIR, the Ellen Key International Research network) thoroughly analyses Key’s ideas and their relations to other European thinkers (Ambjörnsson 2012), but, surprisingly, hardly mentions her influence in Italy and Spain. Tiina Kunnunen’s (also a member of EKIR) study from 2000 on the reception of Ellen Key by the contemporary German feminist movement is up to now the only thorough investigation of the reception of Key and her work abroad.

Project description

Research questions and background
The central research question concerns how Key’s ideas were reformulated in the feminist literature published in Italy and Spain during the time period in focus, texts aimed at a wide middle class audience. How did southern European authors and critics interpret Key’s motherhood ethics? From this question other questions emerge, concerning the understanding of Key’s ideas in southern Europe. Was there a particular understanding of her ideas due to the Catholic context, and, in that case, how did it differ from how they were received and spread in, for example, Scandinavia or Germany? Which parts of Ellen Key’s ideas concerning maternal love and collective motherliness did southern European feminist writers adopt, and which parts did they not? Were there differences between the two countries in question, Italy and Spain?

In order to answer these questions, the project will focus on analysing texts that in different ways partake in debates on motherhood, women’s rights or on gender relations, and where Ellen Key’s name or ideas can straightforwardly be traced. The main sources of influence of Ellen Key’s ideas would have been her most well known works: firstly, The Century of the Child that was published in Swedish 1900 and translated into Italian in 1906 and into Spanish in 1907, and secondly, Love and Marriage (1903) that was translated into Spanish in 1907 and into Italian in 1909 (and into French in 1906, a language widely known both in Italy and in Spain). In the first decade of the 20th century Ellen Key stayed in Italy for long periods, and she became acquainted with a large number of intellectuals: the writers Sibilla Aleramo, Giovanni Cena, Ada Negri, Fanny Salazar Zampini, the feminist Ersilia Majno Bronzini, the Lombroso family (in particular Paola e Gina Lombroso) and the writer/publisher family Orvieto, among others. Key held lectures and her ideas were discussed and debated (e.g. Filippi Gabrici 1907; Vitali 1908; Wick-Allason 1909; Sighele 1913). In 1908 she was in Milan as honorary president of the Congresso Nazionale di attività pratica femminile. Ellen Key never went to Spain, but she was nevertheless studied, and her influence acknowledged, by feminist writers as Carmen de Burgos, Federica Montseny, as well as by the intellectual and writer Santiago Valentí Camp, all well-known and very active progressive debaters in the Spanish public sphere of the early 20th century. Key’s ideas were also spread to the general public through presentations of her work in newspapers and magazines.

The study focuses on a time of great changes in Europe with lively debates, in Italy and in Spain as well as in the rest of Europe, on women’s rights and open demonstrations for women’s right to vote. The material where the reception and reformulation of Ellen Key’s ideas may be identified consists of a variety of sources, such as fiction, essays, articles in newspapers and magazines and letters written by southern European intellectuals and published in Spain and Italy between 1900 and 1939. The timeframe for the project is set to begin in 1900, with the Swedish publication of the Century of the Child, the work that initiated Key’s international career. The concluding year is set to 1939 when the Second World War broke out and when the Franco regime was installed in Spain. The dictatorship in Spain with its censorship policies and persecution of political opponents, put an end to the intellectual debates on gender relations and women’s rights that had been taking place during the earlier decades. Even when Italy was under fascist rule from the mid twenties, an item such as women’s place in society was debated and the period is to be considered quite stable and uniform up to the beginning of the Second World War, and the subsequent fall of Mussolini’s regime.

Theory and method

In our analysis, it will be necessary to use and to problematize the concept of modernity and the complex intersections between women and modernity (Felski 1995: 11-16, 18) and the representation of the feminine in the texts we will study. We suggest therefore that it will be fruitful, from a gender perspective, to use the concept of “the New Woman,” as has been done previously, for example, in studies about Ellen Key and her relationships/contacts with other feminists such as Laura Marholm and Lou Andreas-Salomé (Witt-Brattström 1997 & 2007). The New Woman as a concept can help us to pinpoint the search for a new female identity in a changing society and the various forms this identity can take in different contexts (cfr Åkerström 2008). As Felski (1995: 145-149) explains, the idea of the “new” modern woman as a central element of modern progress was fundamentally a concept built on male notions of modernity, such as those of Nietzsche and Spencer. However, women such as Ellen Key, in the development of feminist thought around 1900, while adopting this concept of the new woman, transformed it in ways that helped them to conceptualize a femininity of the future.

As several studies have shown, both regarding Britain (Heilman 2000, Ardis 1990, Pykett 1992), Scandinavia (Witt-Brattström 2004), Italy (Wood 1995) and Spain (Kirkpatrick 2003: 36-46; Johnson 2003: 224-273), the different ideas of women’s place in modernity implied in the figure of the New Woman were widely treated in popular novels, written by women and directed to a female audience around Europe at the turn of the 20th century. As such, it is important for this project not to separate fiction too categorically from other genres where were women’s situations were debated at the time, such as essays, magazine articles and debate books.

Rita Felski (1995) has shown how the idea of women’s modernity in Western thought is founded on racist discourses of white supremacy. Applicant Lindholm has come to similar conclusions in studies focused specifically on Spain (2013b). Even within Europe, the linking of modernity to Northern whiteness has had consequences for the conception of Catholic Europe as European modernity’s “other” (Dainotto 2007). This aspect has to be taken into account when studying the reformulation of Key’s notions of women and modernity in a Southern European context.

The project’s methodological point of departure will primarily be reception theory developed within the field of Cultural Studies (Machor and Goldstein 2001). This understanding of literary reception entails a view of the text, not as a ready-made final product, but as constantly remediated in the socially and historically specific context where it is received and interpreted. For a study on the reception of Ellen Key’s ideas in early 20th century Italy and Spain, Stuart Halls theory on encoding and decoding (1980) becomes particularly relevant: concepts that indicate the reception of texts as a negotiation with different hegemonic, dominant or oppositional codes, within the historically and ideologically specific context where the text is transmitted.

The concept of interpretative communities, as proposed by Stanley Fish (1980: 13-17), is also relevant, due to the project’s focus on the reformulation of Ellen Key’s ideas in a Southern European context, and its focus on the collective production of meaning on behalf of reader communities, rather than on the reception of texts on behalf of individual readers. Fish also focuses on the interpretative community as a set of shared reading strategies, which explain the shared understanding of certain texts. In this project, the notion of interpretative communities serves as a point of departure for the investigation of Italian and Spanish interpretations and the reformulation of Ellen Key’s ideas, as a means of understanding shared interpretations of them, between individuals as well as between communities across national borders. It is also helpful for charting differences or disagreements in the interpretations of Key’s texts. For studying these feminist contact zones, McFadden’s (1999) study of transatlantic contacts and influences during the 19th century is a more specific source of methodological inspiration from within the field of Women’s Studies.

Project organization
The applied funding will cover salary costs and workspace for two researchers working 50% for a four year period. The time span is justified by the extensive archive research that has to be conducted, as the two project researchers will cover one country each: Elena Lindholm focusing on Spain; and Ulla Åkerström on Italy. The funding also covers travel costs for archive studies in those two countries as well as costs for yearly network meetings and conferences.
Both researcher applicants have previously worked within the field, with publications on Ellen Key and her contacts and influences in Italy and Spain. As a result, they are well acquainted with the research field and can, after some additional research in Italian and Spanish archives and libraries, start to write the projected book. They intend to use the international and interdisciplinary expertise in the Ellen Key International Research Network (EKIR), of which they are members, for discussions, input, and further ideas. EKIR normally organizes meetings twice a year, both in Sweden and abroad.
The result of the project will be presented as a joint monograph in English, together with at least four scholarly articles and book chapters. The monograph will be structured around the interpretative communities where Key’s ideas were reformulated in southern Europe. The geographical borders between Italy and Spain are not to be considered primary when organizing the monograph, even though the archival research for practical reasons will have to be conducted separately. The articles and book chapters will include one joint chapter in an anthology written together with other members within the EKIR network and edited by Tiina Kinnunen, about Ellen Key’s foreign connections. The other articles will consider specific authors or communities in either Italy or Spain. An article about the monistic notion of female sexuality related to Key is already planned for publication in a thematic issue of the Spanish journal Duoda. Another article about the influence of Key on Italian writer and educator Paola Lombroso (1871-1954) is also planned for a special issue on Ellen Key in the Italian journal Ricerche di Pedagogia e Didattica/Journal of Theories and Research in Education.

Time plan
Year 1
1st month – 6th month: early meeting with EKIR for discussions and input; research in archives and libraries in Italy and Spain. In between contacts between the applicants via e-mail, Skype and telephone.
7th month: meeting with EKIR. Draw up the lines for the book/monograph.
8th-12th months: writing. Presentation of the project at an international conference.
12th month: meeting with discussions of the written material.

Year 2
1st month – 6th month: writing, complementary research in archives in Italy and Spain, meeting with EKIR.
7th month-12th month: writing. Presentation of the project at an international conference.

Year 3
1st month – 6th month: writing, meeting with EKIR.
7th month-12th month: writing, finish the draft for the monograph. Presentation of the project’s results at an international conference or/and a seminar abroad.

Year 4
1st month, present the draft to EKIR, discuss it with other Ellen Key-experts as professors Ronny Ambjörnsson and Tiina Kinnunen. Presentation of the project’s results at an international conference or/and a seminar abroad.
The rest of the last year: finish manuscript for monograph, language editing. Present a manuscript ready for publishing by the end of year 4.

The project researchers are PhD Elena Lindholm (project leader) and PhD Ulla Åkerström, both with solid experience of archive research from earlier investigations within the field of women’s literature from the early 20th century. Both are active participants in the Ellen Key International Research Network, EKIR, initially funded by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond. EKIR will be the project’s primary research environment. The network has members from the Nordic countries, as well as from Germany and Italy, which makes it a crucial platform for a pan-European investigation of the reception of Ellen Key’s ideas.
The project leader is Elena Lindholm, who holds a position as senior lecturer in Spanish at Umeå University. In 2009 she received funding from Riksbankens Jubileumsfond for a three-year project which studies discourses of feminism and modernity in the Spanish feminist writer Carmen de Burgo’s depiction of the Nordic region. Within the project Lindholm established contacts and collaborations with several other research environments within the field of Nordic and Arctic Studies, such as Foreign North at Umeå Univeristy, Nordic Spaces at Södertörn College, Center for Nordic Studies at Helsinki University and Arctic Discourses at Tromsø University. In the area of Spanish feminist literature, her research networks cover both sides of the Atlantic, with collaborations centered around the Asociación Internacional de Literatura y Cultura Femenina Hispánica (AILCFH) in the USA and with Centro de Estudios de la Mujer at the University of Granada in Spain. Her knowledge in the field of cultural interchange between the Nordic countries and Spain, as well as her work on Spanish early 20th century feminism, are of great relevance for the contextual framing of this research project on Ellen Key’s Southern European reception.

The other project member is Ulla Åkerström, previously senior lecturer in Italian at Gothenburg University. Since her PhD thesis about contradictions in three novels of the Italian writer Alba de Céspedes (1911-1997), she has specialized in Italian female literature in late 19th and early 20th centuries and has written articles about Regina di Luanto, Sibilla Aleramo and Matilde Serao. She has established contacts and collaborations with other researchers in universities in Italy and Scandinavia. She also has conference presentations not only about women’s literature, but also about male writers like Mario Mariani, Antonio Fogazzaro and Michele Saponaro. Åkerström has organized various conferences at Gothenburg University and has been an active member of EKIR since 2010, participating in several seminars with lectures about Ellen Key and Italy. She has published a critical edition of the letters between Ellen Key and Italian feminist writer Sibilla Aleramo. Her knowledge of the cultural interchange between the Nordic countries and Italy and of Italian feminism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries complements Lindholms expertise and creates a solid foundation for the project.

The writers and debaters in Italy and Spain whose work constitute the project’s object of study, the novels, short stories, and political text where Key’s ideas were mediated to a Southern European audience, belong to a group of female writers who are generally excluded from traditional literary historiography. By focusing on their work, and by adding Ellen Key to the ideological context of their work, the project will fill important blanks in literary history, both in Italy and in Spain.

The pan-European approach, where contacts and influences among thinkers on women’s modernity across Europe are considered, is of crucial importance for understanding European feminism from a broad perspective, considering contacts and influences across the continent. Women’s ideas about their place in modern society, as both sexual and political subjects, are an aspect of great significance for understanding European modernity. The project’s focus on sexuality, love and motherhood in the reception of Key’s work, contributes to a shift in thinking, which acknowledges that these aspects need to be included in the study of women’s emancipation, alongside with legal and civil rights.

As mentioned in the survey section, the project contributes to recent trends within the field of study on Ellen Key’s life and work, moving away from a more traditionally biographical focus, towards a study of Key’s influence within her time through her texts. This research project on Key’s reception in Southern Europe, charting the different interpretative communities where her ideas on motherhood, women’s modernity and gender relations were received and reformulated, fills a need to understand Ellen Key as a central thinker, considering ideas on European modernity as viewed from the perspective of the women’s movement, as well as within the vivid European debates on marriage, sexuality and gender relations in general at the beginning of the 20th century.

Preliminary results
In scholarly articles, both applying researchers have demonstrated Ellen Key’s influence on feminist writers in Italy and Spain from the beginning of the 20th century. Applicant Åkerström (2012) has studied how feminist writer Sibilla Aleramo presented Ellen Key in two articles in the well-known journal Nuova Antologia in 1905 and 1906 before she made the acquaintance of the Swedish writer and shows how keen she was to have Key’s opinion of her novel Una donna. Åkerström has also made a preliminary investigation of how Ellen Key discussed feminist issues with Italian supporters of the women’s emancipation movement like Ersilia Majno and other Italian intellectuals, as well as how her speeches and texts were discussed in Italian newspapers and journals (Åkerström 2013). Applicant Lindholm has shown how the Spanish feminist writer Carmen de Burgos, in her novel Quiero vivir mi vida, made use of Ellen Key's maternity ethics, creating an allegorical representation of the inherent dangers of building a modern society by repressing women's maternal instincts (Lindholm 2013a). The preliminary study of Burgos and her work shows that Ellen Key was particularly influential in Spanish debates on matrimony and female sexuality during the early 20th century.

The expected outcome of the project is a broader understanding of Ellen Key’s influence in the area of Southern European feminist writing from the beginning of the 20th century, where several writers are included in the project’s source material. This would entail a charting of the ramifications of Key’s thinking on Southern European sources, considering both the reception of her works as well as the reformulation of her ideas within different genres and interpretative communities.


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