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Written by: Dagný Kristjánsdóttir |

“Those of us who were young around the year 1874, when the struggle for independence was at its height, were full of enthusiasm, and we had lofty ideals … We challenged all forms of injustice, wherever they were found … The first injustice I experienced was the suppression of women”

It was the aging Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir (1856-1940), leader of the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association, who in this way described the Modern Breakthrough in Iceland. It is worth noting that while it is a whole generation, a ‘we’, that has lofty ideals and wishes to battle every social injustice, it is a solitary ‘I’ that defines woman’s suppression as part of that injustice.

Bríet selects the year 1874 as a turning point because that was the year King Christian IX paid a visit to his Icelandic colony. The royal visit coincided with the thousand-year anniversary of the country’s founding, and the King brought along with him a new Icelandic constitution. It was not particularly radical, but it had a symbolic value for Icelanders. Times had been hard, tens of thousands had emigrated to the USA or Canada, while those who had chosen to remain had to justify to themselves, one way or another, that they had wanted to keep living in the country at all.

Thórarinn B. Thorlákson: Phingvellir, 1906. Oil painting. Listasafn Islands, Reykjavik

There was, in the year 1874, a feeling that Iceland was at a crossroads, and a national awakening took place in the country. A new liberalism had emerged, inconsistencies in the old, stagnating agricultural community were being debated – the time was ripe for a women’s movement.

A little maiden greets
her countrymen,
young and ignorant
but not shy
searches for hospitality
amongst good people
the fatherless child
of a poor mother.

Lítil mær heilsar

löndum sínum,

ung og ófróð

en ekki feimin

leitar gestrisni

góðra manna

föðurlaust barn

frá fátækri móður.

This untitled poem forms the introduction to Júlíana Jónsdóttir’s (1837-1918) poetry collection Stúlka (Girl) from 1876. It is the earliest poetry collection to have been published by an Icelandic woman. Júlíana personifies her poetry collection as a little girl who appeals to the reader’s sympathy or compassion. But the girl is not “shy” and she does not apologise. She raises her voice and asks for a place in the reader’s thoughts, in literature and in the literary tradition.

Stúlka (Girl) was a brave work, but it did not come close to receiving the “hospitality” Júlíana asked for on behalf of her “daughter”. The book was not even reviewed. Four years after its publication, Júlíana emigrated to the USA, where she died in poverty in 1918.

In many of the poems of this collection, Júlíana attempts to initiate a dialogue with the male-dominated literary tradition – in particular with the great national poets of the Romantic period, whom she indirectly refers to, cites from, or quite simply rewrites from a female perspective. In some of the poems, she realistically describes the drudgery of the poverty-stricken women. These poems likewise engage in indirect dialogue with the male tradition, which dealt with idealised women but not their ‘servants’. Júlíana Jónsdóttir was a ‘servant’, a working woman from the west of the country, and was around forty years old when Stúlka was published.

Júlíana Jónsdóttir was the first Icelandic woman to publish a poetry collection, but she was far from being the first female poet of Iceland. Women’s contribution to the long-standing and prolific oral tradition within Icelandic literature is, as a rule, suppressed, blacked out. We know, however, that there were important female storytellers – some of them told folk stories and adventures that were written down in the nineteenth century. The best of these female contributions are distinguished by their composition, by their psychological insight, and by their sense of the dramatic, which places the texts somewhere between the expanding oral tradition and the older, written saga tradition with its strict literary form.

In addition to these storytellers, Iceland produced a series of women poets from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. A number of female lyrical poets, from the seventeenth century to the Modern Breakthrough, are known by name. But what did they write? While many peasants could read, fewer were able to write. Writing was reserved for the learned. The women’s poetry was handed down and preserved orally, and some of it was eventually written down.

The most popular poetry in Iceland for four hundred years was the male-dominated genre rímur (metrical romances; lit. rhymes). A few female poets tried their hand at this genre, but it is hard to spot their female perspective or experience in this extremely formal poetry which, both thematically and aesthetically, aims first and foremost to create idealised male figures.

Rímur is a specifically Icelandic genre, and was extremely popular for many centuries. Rímur are long, epic poems, which are tightly constructed and use a complicated idiom. They most often drew on the sagas and other medieval literature, in which the great exploits and battles of the heroes take centre stage, while the women lead a timid existence on the sidelines.

One of the best known women writing within the rímur genre is Steinunn Finnsdóttir (c. 1640-1710?). Of her work, two long poems have survived, “Hyndlurímur” (The Rímur of Hyndla) and “Snækóngsrímur” (The Rímur of the Snow King). These poems are also the oldest rímur known with certainty to have been written by a woman.

Steinunn’s rímur are very long, consisting of many hundreds of stanzas, and they clearly show how well versed she is in the literary tradition. Nevertheless, she chooses to write about folk tales rather than male heroes, and concentrates on the stepmother figure in particular.

Feared, Despised, Admired

The women who wrote rímur risked being swallowed up by the tradition, but the tradition was, at any rate, respected. Other female poets were not protected by the tradition, and they received a clear message concerning the attitude of society towards creative and artistic women.

Some of the best known female poets, from the seventeenth century to the Modern Breakthrough, had one thing in common: they were all outsiders who, in one way or another, broke with the traditional female role. They occupied a societal grey area. They were feared, despised, admired by their own era – often all three at the same time. One can, in the ambivalent attitude towards these women, perhaps detect traces of very old notions concerning the affiliation of poetry with magic and madness. Poetry was, on the whole, felt to be a dangerous tool in the hands of women.

Látra Björg (1716-1784) was for a time a sailor, and lived as a vagrant for part of her life. She was a big, masculine woman, and is described as one of God’s ugliest creations. She was believed to engage in witchcraft through her poetry; Látra Björg’s nature poetry is grandiose in its use of metaphors, in particular those concerning the sea, the only “living creature” she recognises as a worthy opponent.

Christian baptism in Iceland, illustration from the seventeenth century. Illuminated initial from the Skarðsbók legal manuscript. The Royal Library, Copenhagen

It did, in fact, become a dangerous tool. The sisters from Ljósavatn, Júdit (1761-1843) and Rut (1758-1813), were for example both renowned and notorious for their spiteful poems. Many decades later, the female poet Hulda (1881-1946) described her feelings when her family discovered her secret poems: “It was terrible … I remembered the sisters from Ljósavatn who had written awful poems, and whose husbands had to pay a lot of compensation because of their inventions. This I had been told, and since it concerned women’s authorships, it had burned itself into my mind”.

If one takes Hulda’s words literally, the older Icelandic poetesses had been negative role models for the women of the Modern Breakthrough. The tales of their unhappy lives and notorious poetry had been used to terrify and warn the young, aspiring female poets. However, if one reads carefully between the lines, it becomes clear that everything concerning the female poets was of enormous interest to Hulda as a young poet. Everything they had achieved was important for Hulda, but most important of all, they had, through their poetry, established a tradition that could be followed.

Rósa Guðmundsdóttir was a poor farmer’s daughter from the north, dazzlingly beautiful and intelligent. She got married at the age of seventeen, and her matrimonial drama was proclaimed from the rooftops when her lover was murdered in 1828, and she was implicated in the investigation. At that point, she had four children with her husband and two with her lover. She eventually divorced her husband, but got married again to a man nineteen years younger than herself, when she herself was in her 50s. She became a living legend, and her impassioned poems were nationally renowned in her own lifetime.

A Literary Lady

In the 1870s and 1880s, the social and political restrictions that had held women back were broken, one after the other. Reforms were enacted: in 1882, unmarried women and widows who ran a farm got the right to vote in local elections. Only three other European countries were this quick off the mark, namely England, Sweden, and Finland. The right to education, however, was more problematic. In 1886, Icelandic women were allowed to graduate from the Learned School, the School of Medicine, and the Priests’ Seminary, but the new educational possibilities had certain inherent limitations. Women still had no right to receive grants, nor did they have access to public office.

Hans Nic. Hansen: Fra Althingesalens Tilhørerplads i Reykjavik, under en Pavse i Forhandlingerne, in: Ude og Hjemme, 66/ 1879. The Royal Library, Copenhagen

Torfhildur Þorsteinsdóttir Hólm (1845-1918) was one of those who received a relatively good education. She studied languages and sewing in Reykjavík and Copenhagen, taught for a time, and married late, at the age of 29, in 1874. Her husband died on their first wedding anniversary. Like so many other Icelanders, she emigrated to Canada, where she got an editorial position in the Icelandic immigrant community in Winnipeg, and there, in “the new world”, she began to write.

There was no publishing house in Iceland at the end of the nineteenth century. The literary journals were the home of lyrical poetry and short poems, while novels were, on the whole, published privately by their author. Publishing a novel thus entailed considerable economic risk, something that was unthinkable for women who were, of course, not even economically independent. Torfhildur Hólm became a full-time writer against all the odds. She became, in this way, the first Icelandic author to be completely dependent on the market.

Torfhildur’s first novel, Brynjólfur biskup Sveinsson (1882; Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson), is a historical novel set in the seventeenth century. Later, when Torfhildur had returned to Iceland, she wrote two more long novels about historical bishops: Jón biskup Vídalín (1891-1892; Bishop Jón Vídalín) and Jón biskup Arason (1896-1902; Bishop Jón Arason). They were published in serial form in her literary journal Draupnir (Dripper; Odin’s ring in the Norse mythology), which appeared during the years 1891-1908.

Her choice of the well-known Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson (1605-1675) was no coincidence. He was not only a “pater familias”, but also a role model and father figure for the entire nation. He was one of the proudest figures of the patriarchate. His eventual fall is signalled right at the start of Torfhildur Hólm’s novel, where he is described as an intelligent but emotionally stunted young man. He brutally rejects his former sweetheart because he has heard that “tainted blood” or disease may be found somewhere in her family. Torfhildur Hólm fabricated some aspects of this episode, but otherwise sticks rather closely to the historical sources.

Torfhildur Hólm’s novel has an interesting double structure. The Bishop who, in the first chapters, is presented as hungry for power – arrogant, manipulating, and vain – becomes a national father figure, but fails in his role as father to his two children. In her account, Torfhildur shows how power over other people forms an unstable and dangerous foundation for the patriarch’s identity. Sooner or later, it will corrupt him and turn his power to powerlessness, his morality to immorality. At the end of the book, Brynjólfur is presented as a tragic figure: his little family is dead, and he ends his life as a lonely, grieving old man.

A lady of rank. Icelandic drawing from the eighteenth century, artist unknown. From: Ebenezer Henderson: Iceland or the Journal of a Residence in that Island, Edinburgh, 1818. The Royal Library, Copenhagen

Torfhildur chooses to write about the fall of the patriarch in the seventeenth century, but she addresses the women of her own time, of the 1880s. The lesson must be read between the lines. The same is true of Torfhildur’s contemporary novels and short stories, although she is more direct here than in her historical novels. She also writes better about her own time; the style of the historical novels often becomes overly rhetorical and pompous. In her contemporary work, Torfhildur Hólm tends to deal with subjects of gender politics, such as arranged marriage in the novella Seint fyrnist forn ást (1879; Old Love is Late Forgot), and male resistance to women’s education in the short story “Hringarnir” (The Rings), from the short story collection Sögur og ævintýri (1884; Stories and Tales). While Torfhildur “problematises things” in accordance with the ideology of Realism and the Modern Breakthrough, she does so in an extremely careful, tactical, and indirect manner.

Torfhildur Hólm received a small income from the journals she published, the literary journal Draupnir, the journal for children and young people, Tí-brá, which appeared in 1892-93, and lastly the successful popular science journal Dvöl (1901-1917). But these journals were time-consuming, and they were not all that profitable. Her economic situation was very poor when, in the 1890s, she received a literary grant from the government worth five hundred kroner per year. This caused outrage in the papers, and forced the Icelandic Parliament to change the award to a widow’s grant, worth two hundred kroner per year. In a letter from the turn of the century, Torfhildur Hólm wrote bitterly: “I was the first to be condemned by nature to harvest the bitter fruit of old, deep-rooted prejudices against literary ladies”.

A Fighting Woman

In December 1887, an announcement appeared in Reykjavík that a woman, Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir, would be giving a public talk, “Um hagi og réttindi kvenna” (On the Conditions and Rights of Women), in Góðtemplarahúsið. Entry fifty øre.

This notion was much discussed in the small town, with some people considering it a fantastic joke. Bríet was of course aware of what people were saying, and she was terribly nervous about the lecture, but when she finally stood on the platform and looked her audience straight in the eye, “all cowardice disappeared”.

Allegorical personification of Iceland. Frontispice from: Lord Garvagh: The Pilgrim of Scandinavia, London, 1875. The Royal Library, Copenhagen

Bríet wanted to be taken seriously, and her talk displays a sharp, analytical insight, a great deal of knowledge, and a fervent engagement with feminist politics. She describes the Bible’s and Christianity’s depiction of women, and explains the socio-economic advantages men have gained by appropriating Saint Paul’s interpretation of it. She compares the position of women at various historical periods by referring to Socrates, the Sagas, and the modern age. She argues for women’s education, political rights, and equal pay for equal employment. She has read John Stuart Mill and Georg Brandes, and she impresses the majority of her listeners.

In 1895 Bríet launched Kvennablaðið (The Women’s Paper), a monthly publication that she edited for 26 years. When she launched the paper, Bríet wrote that while there were many journals providing a male perspective on life, none of them dedicated any column inches to the particular interests of women. There must be a market in the country for a proper women’s paper.

To Bríet’s great dismay, another women’s journal, Framsókn (Progress) was launched a few weeks later in the east of the country. The first issue came out a month before Bríet’s own journal. Framsókn had, from the outset, a feminist agenda, and was a real competitor to Bríet’s Kvennablaðið. Women had a great interest in, and a need for, information as well as a forum in which to debate women’s rights and other heated issues. Small women’s groups had started up all over the country, and some of them had resorted to handwritten pamphlets in order to disseminate information. But although there was a lot of interest, the country was poor, and the market was too small for two women’s journals. The journal Framsókn folded in 1902, while Kvennablaðið survived. To begin with, Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir held to a moderate agenda, declared that Kvennablaðið was apolitical, and targeted mothers and housewives; and most of the content was concerned with issues of general education and women’s daily chores. Kvennablaðið quickly became popular and sold well.

Bríet’s husband died in 1902. She was then 45 years old and had two children, and two years later her political career began in earnest. In 1904, she went on a five-month, self-funded “study trip” to Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. She held a lot of talks, got to know many women’s rights activists, and wrote home to her daughter:

“Yes, I have had a good summer, but I have often felt sad about how far we are lagging behind other people, and about the fact that, back home, I cannot find even a third as much friendship and good faith as I have felt amongst these foreigners, these strangers. I cannot imagine lovelier people than the Swedes”.

J. Jürgensen: En Hændelse paa et islandsk Bal, in: C.E. Jensen: Caricature Album, Copenhagen, 1912

One of those Swedes was Ann Margret Holmgren, with whom Bríet corresponded for years. Nevertheless, it was the Danish Johanne Münter (1844-1921) who changed Bríet’s life by encouraging her to participate in the congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (I.W.S.A.), to be held in Copenhagen in 1906. At the same time, Münter wrote to Carrie Chapman Catt, the president of I.W.S.A., about Bríet and put them in touch with each other.

As soon as Bríet returned home from her study trip, she turned to the Icelandic Women’s Association and called for the right to vote to be put on the agenda. The Icelandic Women’s Association in Reykjavík had originally been started in order to support the founding of a university in Iceland, and even though the Association was concerned with a number of feminist issues, Bríet’s motion was too much for the board. The motion was rejected without further discussion. Bríet therefore went on her own to the I.W.S.A. conference in 1906, without the support of any association.

Back in Iceland, Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir founded the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association in 1907 and turned her women’s paper into its political mouthpiece. Countless subscribers abandoned the paper, the financial situation got worse and worse, and Bríet fought for its survival for years until, in 1921, she was forced to let it fold. She experienced this as a great defeat: “[…] like burying a dear friend”.

In 1907, married women won the right to vote in both town council and local elections; the following year a list of independent women candidates was entered for town council elections in Reykjavík; and every woman on it was elected. In 1911, women gained full access to education and public office, and they finally got the right to vote in 1917. Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir was the driving force behind all the organisations and groups that made these political victories possible. She battled with her sharp pen and wrote countless opinion pieces, articles, and lectures, but she could also be a shrewd diplomat and lobbyist when necessary.

Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir was attacked on political and moral grounds by both men and women, and she was slandered and ridiculed because of her political activities. The first road grader in Reykjavík was known as Bríet. Posterity has likewise tended to view Bríet as an iron lady, but the picture changes drastically when one reads the letters she wrote to her children, a selection of which was published in 1988.

A Mother Defeated

Tablet-weaving Icelandic woman. From: Valtýr Gudmundsson: Islands Kultur ved Aarhundredskiftet 1900, Copenhagen, 1902

Bríet’s daughter, Laufey, was born in 1890, and her son was born in 1892. In a letter to Laufey from 1912, Bríet describes her daughter’s childhood. She explains her fear that her little daughter would suffer from her parents’ radicalism and dubious reputation in town. Her daughter began increasingly to avoid other children, and was distant and cold towards her mother, who tried desperately to win her trust and love, apparently without success.

One thing is certain. Bríet had great ambitions for her daughter. She was prepared to fight all and sundry on her behalf, to change the law, to transform the world. Laufey began studying at the Reykjavík secondary school in 1904, and that year her mother concentrated her energies on fighting for the right of women to take the school leaving examination. That right was granted in the same year. Laufey graduated in 1910, and a year later a law concerning women’s rights to exams, grants, and public office was passed. That same year, Laufey moved to Copenhagen to study languages. In the correspondence between mother and daughter, a mutual love and intimacy developed, aided by the distance separating them: “My dear little Laufey”, the mother begins her letters. “I think about you every single day, and when I have gone to bed I pray for you. My greatest wish is for you to become everything I myself longed to be ”.

She is quite open with Laufey about political intrigues, victories, and defeats, and indicates her economic worries. She is preoccupied with the good impression Laufey shall make and writes for pages on end about clothes, sends her swatches, discusses styles and fashion, and advises her about what to wear to important events. She does not want her Laufey to be “a Cinderella amongst all the fine ladies of Copenhagen”.

“Dear mother”, Laufey writes, and tells her about her new and exciting life in Copenhagen, about the intellectual and sensory overload of the city, about lectures at the University, and about friends and acquaintances. She comments at length on her mother’s political activities, supports and encourages her, and sends her her diary.

Young woman in “upphlutur”-style national costume. Sigurður Guðmundsson, 1852. Oin painting, in: Simon Jón Jóhannsson and Ragnhildur Vigfúsdóttir: Islandsdætur. Svipmyndir úr lífi íslenskra kvenna 1850-1950, Reykjavík, 1991

During the autumn of 1913, Bríet becomes seriously worried about her daughter. She rents out most of her little house in Reykjavík, slaves away to make a living, and is, for almost three years, forced to swallow her pride and beg for money and grants for Laufey’s education. She is well aware of her daughter’s bohemian nature, which is as different as could be from her own – but she cannot believe that, sooner or later, Laufey will not pull up her socks and complete her studies. The tone of her letters becomes sharper, she runs through Laufey’s various plans and promises during her years in Copenhagen, and says:

“I do not wish to judge you, my dear child, but I ask you rather to think seriously about things. Stop being so caught up in the moment. Keep to your plans. You must deny yourself every kind of pleasure this winter. Serious work cannot be put off any longer. It has already been put off for far too long”.

The daughter’s letters become shorter and more impersonal. She clearly suffers from a sense of guilt, she isolates herself, and she tries to spend as little money as possible. Her brother discreetly writes that she does not feel well.

Bríet’s son, Héðinn, studied economics in Copenhagen while Laufey was there. In contrast to his sister, he was a model student. His education was funded by his uncle, and his mother does not appear ever to have been worried about his economic situation or his studies. Her daughter was Bríet’s number one priority.

Bríet sends a very grave letter to her daughter. She is extremely worried about her psychological condition as well as her excessive self-criticism, doubt, and vacillation. She implores Laufey to be candid about her studies, and asks whether she can be of any help. No answer is forthcoming, and the mother’s next letter is ice-cold. She regrets this letter and writes a new one four days later, in which she excuses her previous letter on the grounds of her tiredness and constant worries:

“Forgive my last brief, unpleasant letter, and continue being my own hard-working, hearty, and happy little daughter. Your loving mamma, Bríet”.

She receives a short letter in reply, and Bríet’s next letter is equally short and grumpy. She tells about the freezing cold spring of 1914, and about her loneliness and emotional indifference:

“I cannot myself understand how your father’s death and the struggle to support us could have changed me so much. I often feel I am frozen right through”.

Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir is an experienced politician, and she is well aware that she has lost the battle. The letter from Laufey that arrives at the end of May confirms this. Laufey is on her way home, she has moved out of her halls of residence, and she has withdrawn from university. She has a lot of confused plans, she tries to comfort her mother as best she can, she tries to cheer her up, but she knows full well that she is her mother’s worst and most painful political defeat.

This “epistolary novel” by Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir and Laufey Valdimarsdóttir marks the transition from the nineteenth-century women to the new generation of Icelandic women. The old obstacles had been removed, but although the pioneers knew that this was just the beginning, they had not foreseen the new obstacles that replaced the old ones – for their own daughters.

Translated by Brynhildur Boyce