Key, Ellen (1849–1926)

views updated May 14 2018

Key, Ellen (1849–1926)

Swedish teacher, writer, lecturer, and feminist. Born Ellen Carolina Sophia Key on December 11, 1849, at Sundsholm, her father's estate in Småland, southern Sweden; died on April 25, 1926, at Strand, her countryhome on Lake Våttern in the province of Ostergotland; daughter of Emil Key (a gentleman farmer and politician) and Sophie (Posse) Key (daughter of an old noble family); tutored at home; attended a Stockholm boarding school for one year; completed three years of study at Jenny Rossander's Teaching Course for Ladies in Stockholm, 1872; never married; no children.

Functioned as secretary and housekeeper to her father, an Agrarian party member of the Swedish Parliament; employed as teacher at Anna Whitlock's private school for girls and at the People's Institute; retired from teaching to devote herself to writing and lecturing (1903); traveled and lectured abroad, particularly in Germany; was a pacifist during World War I.

Selected publications:

(in English translation) Love and Ethics, Love and Marriage, The Woman Movement, The Century of the Child, The Renaissance of Motherhood, War, Peace and the Future, andRahel Varnhagen ; (in Swedish) other books, numerous essays of literary criticism and social comment, voluminous correspondence.

Ellen Key was always a figure of controversy. In her mature years, she called herself an individualist, a monist (she considered humankind and nature, body and spirit to be one), and an evolutionist. Her enemies called her a corrupter of youth, "the High Priestess of Vice." Feminists of various persuasions and at various times proudly claimed and bitterly disclaimed her. One newspaper article called her "the witch of Strand." Another, more friendly, paper labeled her "liberal Europe's great aunt." Toward the end of Key's long life, many in Sweden honored her as the heir of Saint Bridget of Sweden (1303–1373), "our spiritual mother."

The Sweden of 1849 into which Ellen Carolina Sophia Key was born was a conservative society with a population of some three and a half million. The country was a constitutional monarchy with limited suffrage and significant power for the king and nobility. The riksdag or Parliament was made up of a single house with representation based on the feudal Four Estates. Communication throughout the sprawling northern land was undeveloped. No railroads had yet been built nor had plans for their future financing and construction been determined. Ninety per cent of the people were country dwellers.

Fathers exercised strict control over their families and guardianship of all unmarried daughters. A daughter might not marry without her father's consent. Once married, she was under the legal guardianship of her husband. In families of some means, boys and girls were educated at home as young children. In their early teens, boys were sent away to academies to prepare them for university. Girls in their mid-teens were sent to boarding school for a year to prepare for confirmation in the state Lutheran Church, then returned home to domestic duties. Key, who detested sewing, would later write about the bright daughter doomed to stay at home stitching fine shirts for her stupid brother away at the academy.

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O God, let me be one of the radiators of the sun … a voice in the time's song about honor, peace and good will.

—Ellen Key

Key's upbringing was not in fact illiberal for her time and place. Her father Emil Key was descended from a distinguished military officer and immigrant to Sweden from Scotland during the Thirty Years' War. The clan name had probably been MacKay. Emil's given name, and that of his father before him, honored Emile, the protagonist of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's radical book on education. Emil was a graduate of the University of Lund and something of a poet. During his early 20s, he was the lover of Sweden's most glamorous young actress. Upon her untimely death, he left Stockholm and purchased Sundsholm, a country estate in Småland, where he meant to carry on agricultural experimentation.

In the reforms of 1865, when the riksdag became bicameral, he entered politics as a representative of the new Agrarian party and was, until 1883, absorbed in its activities. Public affairs and the books in his well-stocked library at Sundsholm were his passions. He did not hunt and fish like his country neighbors and, in a society where alcohol was a major problem, he did not drink or play cards. This abstemiousness and devotion to what he considered to be the public good would be repeated in the life of his daughter.

Ellen Key's mother was Sophie Posse Key , the daughter of an old Swedish noble family. Sophie's parents were not happy at first about their daughter's choice of a husband. Emil was a commoner and, at the time of his proposal, not long or solidly settled in the Småland countryside. According to family tradition, however, Count Posse at length announced that he had married for love and his daughter should do the same.

Ellen Key was, so she would later write, "the first child of young and happy parents." Yet the Sundsholm world was a sober one. For people of their station, the Keys were determinedly democratic. The six children were severely punished for discourtesy to servants. They served themselves at breakfast and supper with milk and coarse bread and ate standing. At the mid-day family dinner table, little ones did not speak.

The young Keys lived in an attic area of the manor house removed from their parents' rooms. There they were left free to busy themselves and to settle their own childish disputes and problems. Ellen, as the first and favorite child, became "the little mother" and apparently acted as intermediary between parents and children. The brothers and sisters were instructed at home by their mother and by hired tutors. Their studies included French, German and—an innovation—English. There was no forgiveness for unlearned lessons.

In this strict regimen, there were compensations for the shy and introspective oldest daughter, who was early given a gable room of her own. She always remembered her delight in the blue walls and window looking out upon trees

and meadow. Key loved the out-of-doors, and rode and swam. She also loved her father's library and was well supplied with books, beginning in her very early years with Scandinavian myths and epics. She would later say that she was more influenced by nature and books than by people. The intense soul-searching of her childhood and adolescence she confided not to people but to her own "Thought Book," a kind of diary which she kept until her mid-20s.

At 14, Key was sent, as was customary, to Stockholm for a year's limited academic work and preparation for confirmation. Her parents were not frequent churchgoers. Rationalists in religion, they observed the outer forms of the state church. Their young daughter was deeply interested in religion but found the confirmation lessons cold and sterile. She would be only briefly an orthodox Lutheran.

Stockholm had other attractions for Key, however. When her father was elected to the Second House of the riksdag, she privately vowed to devote herself, too, to furthering the freedom which this governmental reform seemed to promise the Swedish people. She, her mother, and sisters accompanied her father to the city each winter when the riksdag was in session.

In 1869, Key enrolled in Jenny Rossander 's Teaching Course for Young Ladies which offered a three-year liberal arts course. For the first time, she encountered the natural sciences which had never been a part of her instruction at home. She studied Darwin and other scientific thinkers. Though at first repelled by evolution, she soon began to feel that she could not ignore the facts it presented.

At a "reading salon," Key met the editor of Tidskrift for Hemmet (The Home Journal), a magazine which advocated the liberation of women. In the early 1870s, she began contributing to the journal, writing book reviews, translations, biographical sketches of English writers (she was particularly attracted to the English woman novelist George Eliot [Mary Anne Evans ]), and essays about her own developing feminist thought. Key was also inspired at this time by the Norwegian poet and dramatist Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, who lectured in Stockholm. With her father, she took long trips to Europe, especially to Italy, where she discovered great classical art.

In 1876, Sophie Key was in such poor health that she could no longer accompany her husband to Stockholm. Ellen Key became her father's housekeeper and secretary. She prepared the articles which Emil submitted to Dagen's Nyheter (the Daily News) and began to write some of those articles herself, with special concern for the legal status of married women.

But Emil Key's career and the family prosperity were soon to end. Times were difficult for Swedish agriculture, and the devoted riksdag member had paid too little attention to his own estate. In 1888, the family was obliged to give up Sundsholm. Even the treasured books were sold. Compelled to find a way to support herself and help her family, Key settled in Stockholm and, having already done volunteer teaching, became an instructor in her friend Anna Whitlock 's private school for girls. Soon, she also became a lecturer on Swedish civilization at the newly formed People's Institute, where she would spend 20 dedicated years speaking to audiences of working-class men and women. Shy in ordinary social life, Key was a highly effective public speaker. She began to lecture throughout Sweden and ventured abroad, particularly to Germany where she attracted enthusiastic audiences.

In her new and independent life, Key was important to "young Sweden," the new liberal intellectual and literary life of Stockholm. She did not join the feministFredrika Bremer Society, but she greatly admired Bremer, author of Hertha, Sweden's first feminist novel. Key formed close friendships with the novelist Victoria Benedictsson , "the wild bird of Skane," and with Sophia Kovalevskaya , the Russian novelist and mathematician who, denied higher education in her own country because of her sex, fought her way to an academic degree in Germany and received an appointment at Stockholm University. As a liberal, Key defended the right of free speech for the controversial dramatist August Strindberg and for less gifted rebels. She applauded Nora, the heroine (based on Laura Kieler ) of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, whose abandonment of husband and children signaled a search for personhood.

Key's views, expressed in a steady flow of articles, literary criticism, and widely translated books, opposed the views of the majority of Swedes. Citizen of a monarchy, she disapproved of royalism and proclaimed herself a lifelong democrat. A politician's daughter, she came to feel that politics corrupted. In a society which was 95% Lutheran, she retained her love of Jesus but rejected Christianity. Eve's fault was not tasting forbidden fruit but betraying her sex, Key declared. Christianity, with its doctrine of original sin, was a religion without hope or backbone. Influenced by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who foresaw a superman, Key preached a religion of faith in life. A stronger and finer race of human beings could be created, she wrote, through the care of loving parents and a new and wiser educational system.

Although a believer in Scandinavianism, Key supported Norway's break from Sweden in 1905. She initially supported women's suffrage. There was no reason why a woman's hands should be more soiled by a ballot paper than by a cooking recipe, she said. Yet she came to regard suffrage as too narrow a goal, diverting attention from the larger task of developing woman's true individuality.

Benedictsson, Victoria (1850–1888)

Swedish novelist. Name variations: Ernst Ahlgren. Born Victoria Maria Bruzelius in Skåne, Sweden, on March 6, 1850; died in Copenhagen, Denmark, on July 22, 1888; daughter of Helena Sophia Finérus and Thure Bruzelius; married Christian Benedictsson (a postmaster), in 1871; children: two.

Selected works: Från Skåne (From Skåne, 1884); Pengar (Money, 1885); Fru Marianne (Mrs. Marianne, 1887); Stora Boken (The Big Book, 1978).

Victoria Bruzelius moved from her childhood home, where her parents' relationship was volatile and her father refused her permission to study art in Stockholm, to an unhappy marriage with Christian Benedictsson, a widower 30 years her senior. During their marriage, Victoria added two children to her husband's five with his previous wife. Though their union was businesslike, providing little emotional warmth, it left room for the artistic existence Benedictsson had longed for as a teenager. Under the pseudonym Ernst Ahlgren, she wrote gothic thrillers for the daily newspaper and began writing novels in the 1880s. Benedictsson kept a personal journal, published in 1978 as Stora Boken, which documents her friendship and romantic liaison with Danish critic Georg Brandes. In 1888, following Brandes' rejection of her and his negative review of her work Fru Marianne, she checked into a cheap Copenhagen hotel, where she committed suicide by slitting her throat. Stora Boken was republished in the 1980s in its multivolume entirety.


Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall, 1992.

Steinberg, S.H., ed. Cassell's Encyclopedia of World Literature. London: Cassell, 1973.

Zuck, Virpi, ed. Dictionary of Scandinavian Literature. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1990.

Crista Martin , freelance writer, Boston, Massachusetts

Despite wide-ranging interests, Key devoted most of her attention to three major issues—the need for a new and free relationship between men and women, the importance of motherhood, and the demand for a new educational system. In The Woman Movement, Key wrote: "Now marriage has become only an affair of custom, a common death or comatose condition, because neither party needs trouble himself to keep the love of the other." Key looked on sexual life as essential to human happiness. Sexual love should be given freely without legal or other motivations. Individual needs change with time. The love which is compelling at 20 may not be a love which will satisfy at 30 or 40. Divorce should be available, since individual fulfillment is the prime consideration. Key also fought against labeling the children of unmarried mothers "illegitimate."

Paradoxically, so it seemed to some feminists, Key, the advocate of "free love," regarded motherhood as woman's truest vocation. A woman should have the right to reject motherhood, but most women would and should choose family life. A mother should have state financial support. At least during the first important years of her child's life, the mother should not seek work outside her home since "No woman has ever been at the same time all that a wife can be to a husband, a mother to her children, a housewife to her house, a working woman in her work."

Yet "motherliness is not a spontaneous natural instinct, but the product of thousands of years not merely of child-bearing, but also of child-rearing and it must be strengthened in each new generation by the personal care which mothers bestow upon their children." To further this end, the year's military service which the state required of 20-year-old men should be balanced by a year's training for young women in economics, household matters, hygiene, child care, and eugenics (then a fairly new and not yet discredited school of thought).

Key called the Swedish educational system of her time "soul murder," and thought that its sterile religious instruction should be abolished. Kindergartens should be abolished, too; young children should be taught at home by their mothers. Later, in school, they should be placed in small groups so that the teacher could know the personality and individual needs of each pupil. Studies should not be routine but made attractive to children.

No child who was old enough to remember should ever be struck. Corporal punishment was illogical, teaching violence and creating resentment, deception, and a gulf between children and adults. Key wrote feelingly of the little boy who was spanked—only once, she assured her readers—and that evening prayed that God would tear out his mother's arms so that she could not beat him again.

Like John Ruskin, the English writer whom she admired, Key believed that competition in school should be eliminated. In The Century of the Child, she insisted that "Every contest decided by examination and prizes is ultimately an immoral method of training."

Not surprisingly, Key paid a high price for her views. Rumors about her personal life spread. In a book which one critic declared should never have been written, Strindberg caricatured her savagely. Others insisted that she had borne an illegitimate child. In fact, she had no child and never married. In 1876, she met and fell deeply in love with Urban von Feilitzen, a Swedish literary critic, whose ideas attracted her. The 11-year affair was in considerable part conducted through letters on literature and social issues. Feilitzen was married with children and in the end was unwilling to leave his family.

From her girlhood, Key had rejected casual relationships and social life. She was unwilling even to take part as a lady bountiful in charitable events. In her Thought Book, she called herself "ugly." Photographs of Key suggest that to have been an overly harsh judgment, but she was not a beautiful woman and always wore austere clothing and a simple hair style.

After 30 years in Stockholm, Key left her teacher's life to devote herself full time to writing and lecturing. She determined to leave Sweden. Like Ibsen, who exiled himself from Norway for 25 years because of the hostility of his compatriots, Key may have been in search of a more congenial world. Abroad, she lectured widely and was received cordially by such noted writers as the German Gerhard Hauptmann and the Belgian Maurice Maeterlinck. But Sweden haunted her, and after several years she returned.

In 1910, the state granted her property in a government park reservation on the shores of Lake Våttern. It was a beautiful site near the old Alvastra Cloister, founded long ago by Sweden's Saint Bridget. There, Key built Strand, her long-dreamed-of home, which looked down from its slope through oak and beech and elm to the waters of the great lake.

With its red tile floors and snowy white walls, its frieze of the same red and green wreaths which had decorated her books and the reversed motto from Goethe "Remember to live" placed above the entrance door, Strand offered an hospitable welcome to friends and refugees in need of shelter. Among the guests were some of the Tolfterna or "dozens" which Key had first organized in Stockholm to bring women of different social classes together. During World War I, Key, a pacifist, used her home as a clearing house for correspondence from both sides in the long conflict. She died at Strand in 1926, willing the house to the use of working women who might need a temporary retreat for creative work. Years later, when conditions in Sweden changed, Strand became a haven for impoverished university women.

Ellen Key had never been an organization woman. She had joined no major feminist groups, held no high office, and won a problematic fame. Though, for a time, some of her contemporaries ranked her with Strindberg, Ibsen, and Bjørnson, she was never offered membership in the Academy of Letters, Sweden's literary "establishment." Fame and fortune would not seem to have been her goals. She struggled rather to be a prophet of "the religion of love," to become, in the words of her own youthful prayer, "one of the radiators of the sun … a voice in the time's song about honor, peace and good will."


De Angelis, Ronald William. Ellen Key: A Biography of the Swedish Reformer. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Connecticut, 1978.

Key, Ellen. The Century of the Child. NY: Putnam, 1909.

——. Love and Ethics. NY: B.W. Huebsch, 1912.

——. The Renaissance of Motherhood. NY: Putnam, 1914.

——. The Woman Movement. NY: Putnam, 1912.

Meyer, Donald B. Sex and Power: The Rise of Women in America, Russia, Sweden and Italy. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1987, 1989.

Nystrom-Hamilton, Louise. Ellen Key: Her Life and Work. NY: Putnam, 1913.

suggested reading:

Anthony, Katharine Susan. Feminism in Germany and Scandinavia. NY: Henry Holt, 1915.

Key, Ellen. Rahel Varnhagen, a Portrait.


Ellen Key Collection at the Royal Library in Stockholm includes books, newspapers, letters, journals, etc. (well catalogued, extensive and accessible).

Margery Evernden , Professor Emerita, English Department, University of Pittsburgh, and freelance writer

Key, Ellen (1849–1926)

views updated May 08 2018

Key, Ellen (18491926)

Ellen Key, a feminist writer and pedagogue, grew up on an estate manor in southern Sweden. Her father was a liberal politician and her mother came from an influential aristocratic family. She received a thorough education at home, which was completed with a journey to the Continent, accompanying her father who was undertaking a study of nursery schools and houses of correction in Germany. As a teenager, Key founded a Sunday school for the children of the estates' servants and laborers; she also served as the school's first teacher.

Her main interest, apart from teaching, lay in literature. She was a voracious reader of English literature in particular and wrote essays and articles on George Eliot and Elisabeth Barrett Browning in the feminist journal Tidskrift för hemmet (Home journal). She also functioned as her father's secretary during his terms in the Swedish parliament and familiarized herself with liberal politics, although she later developed strong sympathies for the burgeoning workers' movement. In 1880, she began teaching at a private girls' school founded by an acquaintance. Here, she introduced new methods of teaching and attempted to organize the staff into large blocs. Throughout her life she maintained a critical attitude toward the established tradition of teaching several subjects in one class simultaneously.

During the 1880s and 1890s, Key lectured at the Stockholm Workers Institute, a Swedish variant of the Institution of Mechanics, founded by a liberal writer and physician. Her subjects dealt mostly with European literature and the history of ideas. Key nurtured a vision of a society consisting of citizens capable of discussing political and cultural matters in an atmosphere of full intellectual freedom. She also regarded aesthetics as an important part of any society. Inspired by John Ruskin and William Morris, she developed ideas about what she termed "the beauty of daily life" (vardagsskönhet ), which would not only produce a happier population but also a more morally refined one. In Key's mind, unsightliness eroded the ethical character of human beings. An understanding of aesthetic beauty needed to be learned, and to this end Key published several pamphlets on home furnishing and arranged exhibitions, addressed directly to the working class.

From 1900, she earned her living as a writer and lecturer. Her main works are Barnets a rhundrade (1900; Century of the child) and Lifslinjer (19031906; Lifelines). The first book met with a rather skeptical response in Sweden but was received as a success in Germany, being republished in seventeen subsequent editions by the time of her death. According to Key, the twentieth century would prove to be the century of the child. Children would be the focal point of political reform and their status in society would change dramatically. Key had a utopian perception of the coming century and projected her own ideas and ideals into the future. Each child has the right "to choose its parents," Key wrote, meaning that the child has a right to a good home and a proper education. In Key's view, a proper education was one that encourages children to develop their own "personalities": "Let them have their own will, let them think their own thoughts." She felt the school must not be allowed to "murder" the individuality that is inherent in every child.

In her second book, Lifslinjer, Key described the changing family structure to which she looked forward. In the future, she stated, women will enjoy the same rights as men in both the family and society. And, she argued, women must exercise these rights in order to turn society in a more nurturing direction, since women have a natural capacity for care and nurturing that men often lack. Part of the ideology of the Swedish welfare state was inspired by Key's perception of society as an extended family.

The theoretical basis for Key's feminist ideas, as well as her pedagogy, is comprised of evolutionism in its nineteenth-century form, having closely studied Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer. In the theory of evolution, Key thought she found (especially in Spencer) a solution which met the requirements for creating a secularized morality. According to this philosophy, the individual's aspirations must be judged after taking into consideration the effects these will have on the lives of future generations. Like Spencer, Key was convinced (incorrectly, it would prove) that characteristics acquired by the individual during his or her lifetime would be inherited by future generations. The lifestyle adopted by the individual would determine its future.

This theory of the heredity of acquired characteristics was to revive interest in problems of upbringing. For Ellen Key, who had been interested in questions of upbringing since her youth, evolution in its Spencerian form provided a stimulus for continued involvement in the subject. The individual was "fashioned" by its environment. But upbringing was concerned with more than the fashioning of one individual; it also created characteristics which were to be inherited by generations to come. When choosing how to live, the individual must consider the future, since each choice confronts the individual with the task of formulating his or her own utopia.

The problems which evolutionism raised would become particularly important for women. According to Key, women lived in a period of transition, in the gap between what she called two "consciousnesses." If women chose to enter the labor market under the same conditions as men, there was a risk that the woman-type might change, become more "masculine," which would be devastating for future society. Key was very critical of the women's rights movement in Sweden. She formulated her criticism in a widely debated book, Missbrukad kvinnokraft (1896; Misused womanpower), criticism which later recurred in her great writings of the turn of the century. On the one hand, she accused the women's movement of not being radical enough in regard to sexual and political freedom for women, while on the other, she limited the female labor market by advocating special "natural workfields" for them, mainly consisting of the teaching and nursing professions.

Ellen Key spent her last years in Strand, a large home she herself designed and had built on the shores of Lake Vättern in central Sweden. Having earned quite a reputation through her works, she was constantly visited by European writers and critics. In her will, Key left Strand to female workers, to be used by them as a place for retreat and study.

See also: Age and Development; Child Development, History of the Concept of; Education, Europe; Social Welfare.


Hacksell, Siv, ed. 2000. Ny syn pa Ellen Key: 32 texter av 23 författare. Stockholm. Essays about Ellen Key.

Key, Ellen. 1896. Missbrukad kvinnokraft. Stockholm.

Key, Ellen. 1900. Barnets a rhundrade. Studie av Ellen Key. Stockholm.

Key, Ellen. 19031906. Lifslinjer 13. Stockholm.

Key, Ellen. 1976. Hemmets a rhundrade: Ett urval av Ronny Ambjörnsson, ed. Ronny Ambjörnsson. Stockholm.

Lengborn, Thorbjörn. 1976. En studie i Ellen Keys tänkande främst med utgangspunkt fran Barnets arhundrade. Stockholm.

Ronny AmbjÖrnsson

Key, Ellen (1849–1926)

views updated May 21 2018

Key, Ellen (1849–1926)

Swedish teacher, writer, lecturer, and feminist. Born Ellen Carolina Sophia Key, Dec 11, 1849, at Sundsholm (father's estate), in Småland, southern Sweden; died April 25, 1926, at Strand, Ostergotland; dau. of Emil Key (politician) and Sophie (Posse) Key (dau. of noble family); completed 3 years of study at Jenny Rossander's Teaching Course for Ladies in Stockholm, 1872; never married; no children.

Began contributing to Tidskrift for Hemmet (The Home Journal), a magazine which advocated the liberation of women, writing book reviews, translations, and biographical sketches of English writers (1870s); functioned as secretary and housekeeper to father, an Agrarian party member of Swedish Parliament; when family suffered financial reversal, was employed as teacher at Anna Whitlock's private school for girls; also became lecturer on Swedish civilization at People's Institute, where she would spend 20 years speaking to audiences of working-class men and women; retired from teaching to devote herself to writing and lecturing (1903); traveled and lectured abroad, particularly in Germany; a figure of controversy, devoted most of her attention to 3 major issues—the need for a new and free relationship between men and women, the importance of motherhood, and the demand for a new educational system; was a pacifist during WWI; writings include (in English translation) Love and Ethics, Love and Marriage, The Woman Movement, The Century of the Child, The Renaissance of Motherhood, War, Peace and the Future and Rahel Varnhagen.

See also Louise Nystrom-Hamilton, Ellen Key: Her Life and Work (Putnam, 1913); and Women in World History.