Key, Ellen (1849–1926)

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 (1903–1906; 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. 1903–1906. Lifslinjer 1–3. 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.