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You’d Have to Be a Mummy Not to Be a Revolutionary

Written by: Ingeborg Nordin Hennel |

At the age of twenty-two, Frida Wadström (1865-1945), the daughter of a Stockholm pastor, married the physician Gotthilf Stéenhoff, and for some years around the turn of the century the couple settled down in Sundsvall. This city had become the centre of Sweden’s then greatest industrial district, with an extraordinary population explosion and with a furious industrial and financial activity as a consequence of the great expansion of the timber industry.

This gave rise to a maelstrom of changes, in which the old world and values collapsed and new were established. And it seems as if this transition period, during which Frida Stéenhoff lived in close vicinity to the bed-bug ridden shacks of the sawmill slums, provoked a desire in her to comment on the situation and show that the road to a new and better order had to go through the gender-equal and classless society.

From her platform in the Swedish provinces, Frida Stéenhoff was to present some of the most progressive and radical contributions to the period’s debate about women, and they were highly inflammatory. Under her pseudonym ‘Harold Gote’ (Harold the Goth: the Gothic/Nordic herald), she became “the timber owners’ and the wholesalers’ bête noire”. There is no doubt that her candid plea for what might be called a liberated femininity was something of a bomb under the patriarchy’s family principle.

She launched her crusade with the play Lejonets unge (The Lion Cub), which was performed in Sundsvall in 1897. The play, which, in an outspoken and naked manner, both questions the institutionalised marriage and is a bright utopia of free love, caused a great hubbub and was regarded by the city’s conservative circles as an incredible provocation.

The Swedish newspaper Sundsvalls Posten notes in its review of the opening night of Frida Stéenhoff’s play Lejonets unge (The Lion Cub), on 2 February 1897, that Saga, the female protagonist, was not wearing a corset: “Already in the absence of this intimate garment there was something characteristic of her freedom from established customs.”

Saga embraces the free relationship and motherhood. The twentieth century is “the century of the child”, she asserts in a line that, three years later, was to become the title of a much-discussed work by Ellen Key.

During her years in Sundsvall, the author subsequently published, at remarkably high speed, four further plays and a novel, as well as a number of pamphlets based on lectures held in her hometown and in Stockholm. In all of these texts there emerges a fearless social reformer who focuses on topical feminist issues and challenges prevalent ethical concepts and ideas.

In Frida Stéenhoff’s second play, Sin nästas hustru (1898; Thy Neighbour’s Wife), compassion and fidelity are called into question as absolute values in themselves, whereas in Ärkefienden (1900; The Arch-Enemy) she directs her criticism towards the Catholic Church, which she considers a covert symbol of a choking and oppressive patriarchal system in general.

However, Frida Stéenhoff’s wish was not only to expose the period’s sexism in her texts. It was just as important to her to formulate strategies that would bring about change. One of her main points in connection with this project was that motherhood can only be harmonious if the woman is able to support herself. The first time this motif explicitly turns up is in her play Det heliga arfvet (1902; The Holy Heritage), which she reworked into a novella the following year.

Tyra Kleen: Sommarnattsvaka, undated, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

Frida Stéenhoff returned to this progressive programme the year thereafter, when she gave her first public lecture, entitled “Feminismens moral” (The Morality of Feminism). She thought that the conventional trinity of the moral law, “weapons, ceremonies, and bank notes”, should be opposed by the “justice, truth, and kindness” of feminism. These unconventional ideas were repeated in an address from 1908, in which it says, among other things: “The woman of today has understood that it is not possible to be morally free without being materially free.”

In the lecture “Feminismens moral” (The Morality of Feminism), Frida Stéenhoff argues that she can detect a qualitative change in the women’s movement at the turn of the century:

“From having been the woman’s struggle against the man, it is now a struggle with men and against other women and men. It is no longer a struggle between sexes. Nor between classes. It’s a struggle between souls.”

According to Frida Stéenhoff, the faith in the free will of each individual, the focus on this life, and the belief that human beings are ends in themselves, is an expression of the “intersexual morality” of feminism. At the end of the lecture, she declares herself convinced that “there is no surer way to become a feminist than to study the idea of marriage”, a support institution based on legitimised slavery.

When Frida Stéenhoff spoke and wrote passionately about “love liberated from money”, she also brought up, over and above her criticism of “the marital love trade”, her condemnation of state-regulated prostitution. This issue, which had been put on the agenda by the end of the 1870s, had again, in 1903, become the topic of the day, thanks to a committee that was appointed to investigate the spread of venereal diseases. In agreement with the British, Continental and General Federation for the Abolition of Government Regulation of Prostitution in the 1880s, Frida Stéenhoff sides with the prostitutes and demands, for humanitarian and gender-political reasons, that the man be monitored to the same extent as the woman.

Concurrently – and with indefatigable reformatory fervour – she wrote the novel Öknen (The Desert) and thereby turned the spotlight towards the prostitutes’ antithesis and negation: the unmarried upper- and middle-class girls. These “slaves of asceticism, who may be just as pitiable as the slaves of voluptuousness”, are also seen as victims of the tyranny of an unjust sexual morality.

Yet, it was with “Humanitet och barnalstring” (Humanity and Procreation), a lecture she gave in Stockholm in 1905 at the invitation of the Sällskapet för yttrandefrihet (The Society for the Freedom of Speech), that Frida Stéenhoff attracted most attention and caused the greatest scandal. Public interest was extraordinary, and she gave the address two more times, whereupon it was printed in the exceptionally large number of 23,000 copies. Her lines of thought are inspired by the ideas of neo-Malthusianism, and her bold point of departure is that life is not valuable in itself, but only under certain conditions. This influenced Frida Stéenhoff’s view on childbirth: “Giving life when you are ill and when you are in distress, that is a crime.” She thus advocates for a selective restriction of reproduction, the goal of which was to ensure that parents be adequate, from a hereditary point of view, and that they meet the financial requirements to take care of their children. The woman, Frida Stéenhoff continues, must be informed about contraceptive measures in order not to become a mother against her wishes; this she sees as the “most important emancipation” of the woman.

Regardless of political affiliation, the reactions to the lecture were very varied. From Conservative quarters the reaction was negative in so far as they were keen on ensuring a growing population. Anarcho-Socialists such as Hinke Bergegren shared Frida Stéenhoff’s views, whereas others in the Social-Democratic circles found her ideas questionable. They regarded contraception as amounting to charlatanry, and they also believed that a social restructuring was more likely to be precipitated by an abundance of children and ensuing mass poverty.

The prominent Swedish Socialist Kata Dalström explained, for example, in the spirit of Ellen Key, that motherhood was a holy calling that developed and ennobled the woman.

Frida Stéenhoff’s relationship with parts of the Social-Democratic movement also became strained on account of her lecture “Hvarför skola kvinnorna vänta?” (1905; Why Should Women Wait?), which was a contribution to the women’s suffrage debate. In the lecture, she emphatically rejects the Socialist tactic of extending the men’s suffrage first; at the same time she underlines that the women’s fight is no longer a war between the sexes but rather a conflict between two kinds of women and men. In this way, however, she also finds herself in opposition to those among the female suffragists who emphasised the aspect of the war between the sexes.

Frida Stéenhoff’s works of fiction bear resemblance to the programmatic pamphlet and the predictable one-party plea, and this is to the detriment of its aesthetic effect. Nevertheless, her fiction and her pamphlets form an important link in Nordic women’s literature. Thanks to her avant-garde voice, these works helped to advance the woman’s position, and Frida Stéenhoff became one of the leading feminist theoreticians around the turn of the century. To a great extent, she continues the tradition from the years of the Modern Breakthrough. But compared to her female predecessors, she is bolder and more outspoken in her message, and she does not confine herself to passing on the arguments of others but steps forward herself in order to directly address the public.

“Down with soldiers and bureaucrats, down with the whole military and police regiment! […] It is the middle-class state with its class distinction and narrow views that must go. It is, all of it, so rotten to the core that you’d have to be a mummy not to be a revolutionary”, Frida Stéenhoff writes in the play Stridbar ungdom (1906; Pugnacious Youth). The production became the first-ever pacifist theatre event in Sweden.

An explanation for this candour may be found in her own private writing situation, which certainly was very favourable. With her lower school certificate (the so-called ‘lilla studentexamen’), she had received a good education for a woman of her time, and she never had to write for a living. She succeeded in combining her work as an author with what appears to have been happy motherhood, and from her husband she received whole-hearted support in a relationship that was deeply rooted in their common interest in social reformation and women’s emancipation. Furthermore, in Sundsvall there was, alongside a middle-class public forum, a Socialist forum that greatly appreciated her. Finally, she returns, time after time, to the conviction that insightful men were joining forces with her.

On top of this comes the fact that Frida Stéenhoff made her debut as an author at a time when the taboos that surrounded female sexuality began to be broken down, and in that regard she is both a typical and a forward-looking representative of a more open discussion of this hitherto forbidden issue. In this respect, there is a kinship between herself and the most radical groups in the German women’s movement around 1900, headed by Helene Stöcker (1869-1943) and Grete Meisel-Hess (1879-1922). Frida Stéenhoff actually met the latter in Dresden in 1911 and, inspired by her, in the same year founded the Swedish chapter of the Association for the Protection of Mothers (‘Föreningen för modersskydd’). Likewise, she shared a number of interests and concerns with, for example, the liberal-minded Swedish doctor and pedagogue Anton Nyström.

Like Frida Stéenhoff, the German feminists aimed at reforming sexual morals and creating an institution to help and support mothers and their children. They emphasised the woman’s claim to both motherhood and work, and argued in favour of the woman’s right to her own body. In their view, virtue was not identical with sexual abstinence; on the contrary, they considered sexual freedom as a requirement for human dignity.

By contrast, Frida Stéenhoff differed from her friend Ellen Key with regard to the latter’s strong emphasis on motherhood as the centre of the woman’s life. This nevertheless did not prevent Ellen Key from naming Frida Stéenhoff – who has also been called “the red wife of a doctor” – a “liberator of slaves” in her fight for the woman and against moral double standards, hypocrisy, and dogmatism.

Translated by Pernille Harsting