Why a History of Women’s Literature?

The History of Nordic Women’s Literature online is based on the five-volume printed work which was published in both a Swedish and a Danish version between 1993 and 1998: Nordisk kvinnolitteraturhistoria and Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie.

These five volumes were the end result of meticulous work undertaken by a number of Nordic literary scholars over a good ten year period. This is the story of its genesis.


By Elisabeth Møller Jensen, chief editor

A Grassroots Project

Section "The I", Vol. 3. Copenhagen Women's Gymnastics Club, 1909. Danske Kvinders Fotoarkiv

In 1981, the Danish publisher Merete Ries had the idea of publishing a history of Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish women writers – three volumes written by women literary scholars from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, overseen by Scandinavian editors. Her idea became a reality in the five-volume print work, published in Denmark and Sweden between 1993 and 1998. Besides covering the three Scandinavian countries, the publication also looked at women’s literature in Iceland, Finland, the Åland Islands, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and Sami regions. The original pla

housand years is told in relation to Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Faroe Islands and Iceland – most fully accounted for in the three Scandinavian countries, but a good start is made with Finland, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland.n to produce three separate accounts from the three Scandinavian countries had gradually been replaced by an ambitious vision of an overall account of women’s literature in the entire Nordic region, starting with the Icelandic sagas and leading up to the late-twentieth-century emergence of written culture in the Greenlandic and Sami narrative traditions. The story of Nordic women’s literature during the intervening one t

The idea for a history of Nordic women’s literature originated in the study of women’s literature at the universities and the keen interest in reading works by women writers. As the Nordic women’s movement grew in strength during the 1970s, a need arose for new narratives about women’s lives and for re-publication of out-of-print texts by women writers.  A completely new synergy emerged between the women’s movement, the female reading public, and the many young and youngish women at the universities who, inspired by the times, were immersed in narratives written by women and in new literary theories on gender and literature. The print work has thus been written and edited by university scholars from the whole Nordic region, but the process from idea to publication was in many ways more of a grassroots project than a streamlined academic one. Normally it is professors of literature who take on the writing of literary history, but in the case of Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie / Nordisk kvinnolitteraturhistoria the majority of editors and contributors had no fixed affiliation with the universities in terms of tenure. Having its origins beyond the confines of academia turned out to be of benefit to the project, because the idea would probably never have got off the ground without deep commitment to the values of the women’s movement. There was a flipside to the grassroots model, however: all the stumbling blocks that popped up en route because the project was a ‘learning by doing’ process without the support of academic institutions – and this was a venture that has proven to be one of the biggest and most successful Nordic research projects in recent times.

A Wealth of Hitherto Neglected Material

All the editors and writers involved had experience of conventional literary history – an almost unbroken list of kings, with the occasional exception in the shape of a queen to confirm the rule that a major writer is a major male writer. We had all studied literature at university, and regardless of where we had gained our qualifications, in the one country or the other, we had been taught the works of male writers. This was a tradition that most of us had challenged in our own teaching activities, taking up women writers, researching into and publishing their work. Having acquired this utterly invaluable expansion of our own horizons concerning the nature of women’s literature and what it has to offer its readers, we wanted to share our findings with future generations. Never again, we reasoned, will national histories of literature be written without due regard for the contribution made by women writers; now we will tell the world about the wealth of material that has hitherto been neglected, underrated or as of yet not understood or analysed. Without the strong collective feminist commitment with which the venture was imbued, successful accomplishment of the project would have been unlikely.     

Following the initial preparatory meeting in 1981, an application was sent to Nordiske Samarbejdsnævn for Humanistisk Forskning (NOS-H; Joint Committee for Nordic Research Councils for the Humanities and Social Sciences), which responded with a flat rejection. However, during a Christmas party, the Permanent Secretary at the Danish Ministry of Culture promised funding for the first writers’ meeting, held in January 1982 at Schæffergården, a conference centre north of Copenhagen; this first significant breakthrough was the starting point on a long road towards financing the project. In the following years, the group of editors and writers held yearly seminars where drafts and ideas were presented for discussion. One step along the path to the five-volume print work was publication of the anthology Lysthuse (1985; Pavilions, published by Rosinante), which met with a positive response from the reviewers. Another step in the right direction came in the form of recommendations from some of Denmark’s most prominent male professors of literature; in 1984 they provided individual statements backing an application for funds from NOS-H, initially to finance employment of a part-time secretary. For many years afterwards, NOS-H ensured secretarial assistance and funding for the annual writers’ seminar, supplemented by a number of Nordic foundations and grants. Finances were nonetheless so limited that editorial meetings relied on private accommodation and great creativity, such as the time we suggested to the Nordic Folk High School on the island of Biskops-Arnö, Sweden, that their summer seminar the following year should be on the subject “Writing the History of Nordic Women’s Literature”. The suggestion was accepted, and in that way many third parties and institutions helped the project on its way. It goes without saying that any thought of fees to anyone other than the paid secretary was out of the question. The project only succeeded because committed and professional grassroots activists and organisations, motivated by an idea that was greater than the individual, decided to embark on the project regardless of whether or not there was a financial basis to do so.

Catapulting out of the Academic Tradition

The greatest challenge, however, was not the money at all – even though creative lobbying, applications and budgets loomed large throughout the project – but how to deal with material that had never been read on its own terms before, how to integrate Nordic themes, how to create an interrelated narrative that lives up to an academic tradition while breaking with the traditional norm for writing the history of literature? A nostalgic browse through the archive back to 1981 bears witness to the many discussions and stages along the way. The very first proposal in January 1982 clearly displayed the close links to the 1970s’ women’s movement both within and outside the university. The suggestion, which was challenged and only in part survived the first meeting, was centred on the women’s movement and change in women’s lives throughout history. The overriding ambition was to rediscover the significance women and women writers have had in Nordic history as a whole.

Rather than seeing the female context within the family as secondary in relation to the male-dominated communal public domain, we wanted to read and understand women’s literature as central, creative testimony to and pictures of women’s lives and the terms on which they lived those lives. We also wanted to throw critical light on the tradition of literary history that blows its own horn by excluding women writers from the writing of our shared story. Much thought went into the first draft of a framework for the projected publication, conceived as a radical alternative to existing histories of literature. Instead of periods, genres, and biographies, we wanted to organise the material according to the “places”, “consciousnesses” and “energies” in which women’s literature comes about. The idea was to arrange the material by means of “compass readings”, “where there is movement of an aesthetic, written nature manifesting a quest for understanding of the world and the self”. An ambitious idea, yet no more abstract or unrealistic than enabling us to define a sequence of chapters with titles such as “Convent”, “Study Room”, “Prison”, “Stage”, “Salon”, “Parlour”, “Nursery”, “Double Bed”, “Madhouse”, “Body”, and so forth.  The only fixed proviso was the decision to follow a progressive chronology.

It was not without a sense of disappointment that we eventually had to abandon this very atypical methodology. The material had other ideas. One of the earliest decisions was to reject the easy solution, which would have been to scrutinise existing literary histories, noting all the women writers who had either been omitted or, at best, lumped together as secondary characters in sub-chapters, and then fill in the missing pieces. We came to rapid agreement that this method could never do justice to the particular contributions of the individual women writers, but would only accommodate them within an already fixed norm. We therefore chose to patiently await the framework that would gradually emerge as the work progressed, and allow the material to determine the structure of the finished publication. The result was a mixture of tradition and innovation. We ended up asking the completely banal question: when did something new happen in Nordic women’s literature – and the answers determined the structure, independently of where in the Nordic region the new initiatives transpired and the way in which they broke through. In our attempt to pursue free and unencumbered thought, we endeavoured to forget everything we had learnt at university about literary periods and chronologies. And yet the result still resembled a ‘proper’ history of literature to such an extent that we were truly delighted when a German professor, listening to a presentation of the project, opined that we were catapulting ourselves out of the academic tradition. The comment was absolutely not meant in a positive sense, but we took it as confirmation that our ambition to write a new form of literary history on the texts’ own terms was nonetheless coming to successful fruition.

Liberated from Abnormality

The resulting print work presents a completely different kind of literary history: for the first time, the women writers are the pivotal point and the basis for the historical narrative. It also turned out that the Nordic angle handed us a hypothesis that was a great help when we were working out our methodology: from time to time in Nordic women’s works written during the same era, it is possible to identify the very features that have isolated a woman writer nationally; features that did not fit into a dominant literary norm. When looked at in a Nordic literary context, a body of work that cannot be accommodated by national conventional literary categories will sometimes seem self-evident. Motifs, themes, and aesthetic qualities interact and create new patterns in a Nordic framework. The most ringing endorsement that the project had succeeded came from the Swedish writer Kerstin Ekman (b. 1933) when, speaking from the main stage at the Gothenburg Book Fair in connection with the launch of the fourth volume, På jorden (1997; On Earth), she thanked Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie for having liberated her from abnormality.

From Heaven Down to Earth

The choice of titles for the individual volumes is a story all of its own, which as far as the first three volumes are concerned started in the very early days of the project when we wanted to take our lead from the “places”, “consciousnesses”, and “energies” whence the women authors write. The first volume, covering the period from 1000 to 1800, was given the title “I Guds navn” (In God’s Name) because of the obvious religious perspective of the texts. The second volume, which looks at the nineteenth century, was called “Faderhuset” (House of the Father), because nineteenth-century women writers – from the hostess in her salon to the good femininity of Romanticism and on to the unhappy narrative of naturalism – remain daughters in a patriarchy, which is their common lot and the basis from which or against which women write. The title of the third volume, “Vide verden” (Wide World), covering 1900-1960, was also self-evident. The right to vote, education and paid employment sent women out of the house of the father, and the women writers followed up with a new poetic self-awareness and with popular contemporary novels about the resultant new life, new choices, new departures and identity. The story of the title for the fourth and final volume of articles, “På jorden”, covering 1960-1990, is almost a whole novel in itself. When it was published in 1997, the times were so very different to the distant 1970s that had in a way been the launching pad and inspiration for the project. The first optimistically mobilising title for volume four was “At forandre sproget og bevæge verden” (Changing Language and Transforming the World). But the women’s movement had long since lost its power for social change, and in much Nordic writing the costs of living a modern woman’s life took up so much space that at one point we changed the title to “I tabets tegn” (In the Shadow of Loss) – not to be understood as modernity being a loss, or that Nordic women writers depicted it as such, but in the sense that many of them actually wrote in the shadow of loss. That title was also rejected in favour of the open term “På jorden” (On Earth), which was also a secular reference back to the religious outset. We ended up using all the titles that had been proposed: “Changing Language” was perfect as a chapter title for 1960s’ modernism; “Transforming the World” was similarly a title made for the story of 1970s’  women’s literature; finally, Kirsten Thorup’s literary production was described under the title “In the Shadow of Loss”.

The first four volumes of the print work economised on biographical details about the writers because the whole was planned in relation to the texts they wrote. The fifth and final volume compensated for this order of priorities: “Liv og værk” (1998; Life and Works) provides brief biographies of the writers, their principal works, and the key studies of their writing.

Last but not least, great attention was paid to the design of the books. From the very beginning of the project, publisher Merete Ries made it quite clear that this was to be a visually attractive publication. And that objective was fulfilled in five large format books, printed on good quality paper, with an original lay-out and, not least, a creative use of illustrations telling their own story alongside the text.