Childhood Studies Ellen Key
Hedda Jansson, Luisa Ceccarelli
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0200


Ellen Key (1849–1926) was a Swedish teacher, adult educator, philosopher, writer, and social and peace activist who claimed freedom of speech and press. She was one of the first women in Sweden to promote women’s rights of property and dress reform. She prophesized in her lectures and pamphlets that the 20th century would be the century of the child, just as the 19th century had been the century of the woman. She was actively involved in promoting what she outlined as the “evolution of mind and culture” through education. Her name is linked mainly to her famous collection of socio-pedagogical essays called Barnets århundrade (The Century of the Child) (Key 1900, cited under Pedagogy), which was first published in 1900 and soon became an international bestseller, translated in sixteen languages. The title has been quoted in many essays and became a label for designing the 20th century child pedagogy. Key called for the protection of mothers and children and promoted a natural approach of childrearing, along with the belief that children should be treated as individuals. She stood up for the freedom of expression and with her original new ethics model she intended to improve the child’s well-being and the education system. From 1899 to 1910, she traveled unceasingly throughout Great Britain, Central Europe, and Italy to visit new places, hold lectures in feminist circles, build cross-border friendships, and develop a cosmopolitan world view. After she retired to her house in Sweden, which she built with the proceeds from sales of her writings and lectures, she continued to care for her international relationships through massive exchanges of letters. Her archive, preserved at the Royal Library in Stockholm, contains around ten thousand letters, one hundred notebooks, and a wide array of manuscripts. She wrote about fifty books and pamphlets and held hundreds of lectures during a period of fifty years. Main topics of her theoretical framework are the promotion of a new ethics based on love and a philosophy of life she defined “livstro” (life faith), as well as the spread of a natural approach of childcare based on the enhancement of the mother–child relationship and a child-centered pedagogy. She also highlighted the importance of beauty and freedom for the education of children and adults and gave input for social welfare policies in the Nordic countries and later in the rest of Europe during the 20th century.

General Overview

A few general overviews, mainly anthologies, have been published in which Ellen Key’s work and ideas are presented. Most are the results of networking among Ellen Key researchers, for example, those in the Ellen Key Institute (EKI), the Ellen Key Society (EKS), and the Ellen Key International Research Network (EKIR). In En bok om Ellen Key (1919), an early collection of essays are compiled as a tribute to Ellen Key for her seventieth birthday and includes contributions of international celebrities, such as Georg Brandes, Havelock Ellis, Selma Lagerlöf, Romain Rolland, and Madeleine Z. Doty. Ambjörnsson 1976, written by a professor emeritus in history of ideas and the leading Ellen Key expert in Sweden, introduces the main texts of Ellen Key, which followed his doctoral thesis that had been published two years earlier. In the first edition of the anthology Ellen Key för alla (2014), in 1999 the Ellen Key Society celebrates Ellen Key’s 150th birthday with contributions by several leading Ellen Key researchers, such as Ronny Ambjörnsson, professor of literature Birgitta Holm, and professor of pedagogy Ola Stafseng. In a similar way, Hackzell 2000 asked authors to contribute to the anthology Ny syn på Ellen Key: 32 texter av 23 författare, including Claudia Lindén, PhD in history of literature; Thorbjörn Lengborn, PhD in pedagogy; Agneta Pleijel, author; and Ronny Ambjörnsson, professor emeritus in history of ideas. In 2009–2010, the Ellen Key Institute held a series of seminars, which were documented by journalist Lis Hellström Sveningson; summaries of the lectures were published in Hellström Sveningson 2011. Lecturers included Ronny Ambjörnsson (Ambjörnsson 1976), author and journalist Ulrika Knutson, author Anneli Jordahl (who had published a novel about Ellen Key, Jag skulle vara din hund: Om jag finge vara i din närhet, in 2009) and professor emerita in history of literature, Lena Kåreland. In 2013, the EKIR published Ellen Key: Creating a European Identity (Planefors 2013), which was the summary of a project by the same name, supported by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond (The Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences). In 2015, the EKIR was invited by editors of the Italian journal Ricerche di Pedagogia e Didattica to write articles about Ellen Key for an online edition of the journal. This was published in December 2016, with contributions by six researchers from Sweden and Italy.

  • Ambjörnsson, Ronny. “Ellen Key: Miljö, liv, idéer.” In Hemmets århundrade. Edited by Ronny Ambjörnsson, 7–59. Stockholm: Bonniers förlag, 1976.

    The book contains extracts from Ellen Key’s main works, such as Skönhet för alla (1899), Barnets århundrade (1900), and Lifslinjer (1903–1906). In a short introduction, Ambjörnsson explains Key, her life, and the context in which the texts were written.

  • En bok om Ellen Key. Stockholm: Albert Bonnier, 1919.

    Ellen Key’s immense influence on contemporary intellectuals of her time is highlighted in this collection by the rich variety of authors. Her sometimes controversial stands are discussed, such as the influence of Key’s thoughts in England, her view on women’s emancipation, and her fight for a new kind of ethics beyond Christianity.

  • Ellen Key för alla. Mjölby, Sweden: Förlaget Futurum, 2014.

    Originally published in 1999 as Ellen Key, 1849–1999: En minnesbok. This anthology includes Key’s views on different topics from pedagogy and aesthetics to feminism and emancipation and discusses Key’s European travels as well as her ideal of beauty as expressed in Strand, her house in Östergötland, Sweden, built in 1911.

  • Hackzell, Siv, ed. Ny syn på Ellen Key: 32 texter av 23 författare. Stockholm: Bembo förlag, 2000.

    In this anthology, editor Siv Hackzell includes articles on and by Ellen Key previously not highlighted, such as the contemporary discussion on her role as a leading feminist, her extensive travels in Europe, commemorative words published after her death in 1926, and the debate following the decision to erect a statue of her in Stockholm.

  • Hällström, Catharina, Hedda Jansson, and Tiziana Pironi, ed. “Ellen Key and the Birth of a New Children’s Culture.” Ricerche di Pedagogia e Didattica 11.2 (2016): 1–25.

    English title: Journal of Theories and Research in Education. This special issue of the Italian journal analyzes the ideas of Ellen Key and their impact on the development of childhood pedagogy in Europe during the 20th century, with special focus on her book Barnets århundrade (1900), as well as the influence of Key’s ideas in creating a new childhood’s culture. Contributors come from several disciplines, such as pedagogy, literature, theology, and language.

  • Hellström Sveningson, Lis. Ellen Key mitt i världen: Från Strand till strand till strand. Göteborg, Sweden: Folkuniversitetets Akademiska Press, 2011.

    This summary of a series of seminars held by EKI in 2009–2010 were documented by journalist Lis Hellström Sveningson, who then published these topics concerning Key’s struggle for the freedom of expression and her emphasis on availability of reading material for everyone, for example in public libraries.

  • Planefors, Per-Inge, ed. Ellen Key: Creating a European Identity. Ödeshög, Sweden: Alvastra förlag, 2013.

    This book presents some of the leading Ellen Key researchers in Sweden and Europe, shows the width of Key’s legacy, and represents six different disciplines to show the interdisciplinary and international approach to Ellen Key’s world of ideas. Contributors include Finnish professor of history Tiina Kinnunen and Italian professor of history of education Tiziana Pironi, among others. The collection of texts is a valuable introduction to the importance of Key’s European influence.

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