European historians have noted the prominent role of the maternal ethic -- the idea that woman's role as mother extends into society as a whole -- in the theory and practice of German feminism from 1840 to 1914. This body of ideas, however, has seldom been taken seriously. German feminism has been interpreted as a political strategy, not as an intellectual tradition. Historians have portrayed German feminists as conservative, in contrast to their liberal counterparts in other countries who were more likely to campaign for equal rights. Ann Allen revises these views by analyzing German feminism as an attempt to create a symbolic framework for understanding the world rather than simply to attain practical results. She examines the relationship between the experiences of individual female activists and the evolving intellectual traditions of German culture and of international feminism.
Women thought their maternal role led to empowerment and ethical authority. The role gave them the legitimacy to give speeches, to organize reform movements, and to build feminist institutions. They campaigned for infant welfare and the expansion of state responsibility for the welfare of mothers and children. German feminists responded to central public issues, including revolution, national unification, and urbanization. They worked to transform both public and private worlds by extending their ethical values, developed in the family, to political and social issues.
To make her argument, Allen examines the lives and work of the women who were important to the history of German feminism. They centered their careers on issues relating to motherhood and childcare. Allen relates their stories to a broader theme: the relationship of women's experience, under specific historical conditions, to the development of feminist ideology and practice.
Allen assesses the historical significance of German feminism in the context of German history and of similar feminist movements in other countries, particularly the U.S. Allen calls for the ideas of German feminists to be judged with reference to the specific, local conditions under which they developed, rather than to essentialist notions of feminism. Some historians have identified equal rights ideologies as progressive and maternalist ones as conservative. But the women themselves did not perceive the antithesis between these two forms of ideology.