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The Great War over Gender

Written by: Ebba Witt-Brattström |

In praising Edith Södergran and Hagar Olsson, Finland-Swedish poet Elmer Diktonius hastened to add: “I highly respect the women and their artistry, but I despise the male drones whose impotence lays the foundation for a matriarchy of the spirit.” In its aggressive ambivalence, his attitude was typical of the rivalry – often inspiring – that many great male writers exhibited in the face of female creativity after the turn of the century. Trepidation that women were about to take over was widespread. Elon Wikmark, an opponent of feminism who presented his sociological dissertation on women’s issues among the Swedish bourgeoisie at the University of Heidelberg in 1905, complained that women authors both in Sweden and on the Continent had seized control of the literary market. The worst thing was that “a deluge of works by women have brought the critics to the point of despair.” German art critic Karl Scheffler argued forcefully in his treatise Die Frau in der Kunst (1908; Woman in Art) that all art and literature by women is inferior.

But women hit back. The “New Woman” became a popular figure, particularly in books by female authors, during the first decade of the twentieth century. Their nineteenth-century counterparts had not been able to imagine that women had anything to gain by direct confrontation. Their female protagonists are portrayed as victims of the time, smuggled contraband at best, in the form of duplicated portraits of women, where the rebellious one always succumbs while the submissive one may survive.

A study by Ulf Wittrock entitled “Das neue Weib – kring sekelskiftets kvinnobild” (The New Woman – Images of Women at the Turn of the Century. Samlaren 108/1987) introduced Mutterschaft und geistige Arbeit (1901; Maternity and Mental Work), an ambitious, ground-breaking project based on an extensive international survey among women in the cultural sector (including Selma Lagerlöf, Ellen Key, Frida Stéenhoff, and Kata Dalström from Sweden, as well as Magdalene Thoresen from Norway). The editors concluded that only thirty-seven per cent of women intellectuals were unmarried, whereas seventy-seven per cent of the married ones had children.

The lustre of the Victorian feminine ideal wore off during Södergran’s lifetime. Owing to the new civil rights that had been accorded to women, along with their growing prominence in public debate and social service professions, the New Woman was an increasingly popular phrase in the 1890s. The question of whether the she was an asset or a liability to society was widely discussed when Södergran was writing her poetry. The general consensus was that gender roles were in flux, while the patriarchy reeled and men’s role was called into question, as demonstrated by popular books like Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Henry Rider Haggard’s She (1886), and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). Salome in both Oscar Wilde’s play and Richard Strauss’s opera incarnated the recurring fin de siècle terror of treacherous female desire and its fatal power. Sexuality, defined in terms of either medical hygiene or psychology, was the topic of the day. Men and women authors often stood on either side of the barricade.

Patriarchal attitudes gradually shifted from tacit misogyny to explicit anti-feminism. A war broke out over how the New Woman should be characterised. Was femininity healthy or unnatural? Was the New Woman a nymphomaniac? Or an old maid? In either case, she was Unnatural. Masculinism celebrated its first major triumphs in this thickening atmosphere of open gender war. Der Deutsche Bund zur Bekämpfung der Frauenemanzipation (German League for the Prevention of Women’s Emancipation) – formed by highly placed military officers, politicians, and other powerful men in 1912 – launched a well-organised counter-offensive.

Bibles of the Masculinists

But ideologues, psychologists, and writers had laid the groundwork even earlier. Sexologist Havelock Ellis maintained in Man and Woman (1894) that masculinity is a progressive force, as opposed to the conservative tendency of femininity. He also bewailed the fact that adoration of the Virgin Mary, which could requite women for not being men, was out of fashion in the modern age.

Neurologist Paul Möbius published the anti-feminist pamphlet Über den physiologischen Schwachsinn des Weibes (On the Physiological Feeble-Mindedness of Women) in a number of editions between the turn of the century and the outbreak of World War I. La donna delinquente, la prostituta e la donna normale (Criminal Woman, the Prostitute, and the Normal Woman) by Cesare Lombroso and Guglielmo Ferrero was translated into German in 1894. August Strindberg alluded to the book when asserting that women were inferior in all respects.

Geschlecht und Charakter (1903; Eng. tr. Sex & Character) by twenty-three-year-old Austrian Otto Weininger was another masculinist bible. The obituary that Strindberg wrote in Der Fackel, a Viennese newspaper, the same year paid homage to Weininger as the only male thinker who had relegated women to their rightful place – between children and men – in the evolutionary chain.

“I read Geschlecht und Charakter in a state of constant agitation,” Hulda Garborg wrote in the introduction to her notorious book Kvinden skabt af Manden. Studie af en kvinde (1904; Woman Created by Man: Study of a Woman).“I threw it down in fury, picked it up again, read a little more and exclaimed: ‘This is just too brutal. It’s crude and harsh. Before long, however, I couldn’t let myself off the hook so easily. I get hot and bothered because of my inferior education and knowledge, above all because I refused to look the truth in the eyes. For this book contains the truth.” The story of a marriage and love affair, the novel features an introduction about Weininger and an afterword that discusses the essence of femininity.

Lundh, Peter P.: Badescene fra Kullen, Skåne. c. 1911. Photo. Copyright Höganäs Museum

In conformity with nineteenth-century complementary gender ideologies, now with the complicity of medicine and psychology, the debate once again defined women as beings whose sexuality is fundamentally different from that of men. That gave women an opening gambit. If they were still uncertain about their intellectual capacity, which was natural given that they had not gained access to higher education until the late nineteenth century, they certainly were experts on their own sexuality.

Among such specialists was German author Grete Meisel-Hess (1879-1920), who championed a new marital ethic governed by women’s sexual needs and maternal instincts. Hedwig Dohm, Helene Böhlau, Frieda von Bulow, Elisabeth Dauthendey, and other emancipated women were also widely read. Die sexuelle Krise (1909-1917; Eng. tr. The Sexual Crisis: A Critique of Our Sex Life), a trilogy by Grete Meisel-Hess, sought to resurrect the chivalrous ideal of yore: “the principle of voluntary submission by the physically stronger sex to the weaker sex.” The notion, which probably appealed to Södergran, sheds light on the knight figure in her early poetry. She may have identified with Meisel-Hess’s statement in Das Wesen der Geschlechtlichkeit (1916; The Essence of Sexuality) to the effect that the disappearance of chivalry as a concept was one reason for the period of degeneracy that preceded World War I. Ellinor Melander’s doctoral thesis on Meisel-Hess argues that she regarded the war as a punishment or wakeup call. She hoped that the war would restore the sexual instinct to health and revive “real” marriage.

Strindberg’s writing might be the clearest illustration of the ambivalence that surrounded perceptions and images of women. Le plaidoyer d’un fou (1887-1888; Eng. tr. A Madman’s Manifesto) goes back and forth between glorifying women as virgins and denouncing them as licentious, daemonic creatures who imperil the human race by denying their femininity. He writes of an artist’s colony on the outskirts of Paris:

“The society that I met there was composed of young Scandinavian painters, former apprentices to divers trades, of origins as diverse as strange; and, what was worse, of women painters, without scruples, emancipated from everything, frantic admirers of hermaphroditic literatures, so that they believed themselves the equals of man. To distract attention from their sex, they attributed certain male exteriorities to themselves, smoked, got drunk, played billiards, etc., and indulged in the games of love between one another. That was the last straw!”.

Female Unruliness

Laura Marholm (1854-1928), whom Strindberg referred to as Frau Blaubart (Bluebeard), is an example of what the gender debate in literary circles could do to a woman author. She was a German-speaking Latvian of Danish and Norwegian descent who became a Swedish citizen through her marriage to Ola Hansson. Proceeding initially from the nineteenth-century view that the responsibility of a woman is to be her husband’s better half, she ultimately concluded that the patriarchy is an unmitigated disaster for women. As 1900 approached, she was read more widely than Ellen Key or Lou Andreas Salomé, her celebrated contemporaries. The bitter feminism that she exhibited in her final phase ensured that no publisher would touch her. Marholm first became interested in the psychology of the modern woman around the time that she moved to Copenhagen and sat at the feet of Georg Brandes. Her advice to women was that they affirm their integrity and their maternal instincts. Like her friend Ellen Key, she lamented the fact that the women’s movement had enticed its followers into taking men’s jobs and relinquishing their feminine qualities, thereby impoverishing social life. Her most famous book, Das Buch der Frauen (1895; The Book of Women; Eng. tr. Modern Women) – which has been translated into Swedish, English, Norwegian, Russian, Polish, Dutch, Czech, and Italian – argued that a woman’s life derives meaning from her love for a man. What was new and daring about the book, as well as her second best-seller, Wir Frauen und unsere Dichter (1896; We Women and Our Poets; Eng. tr. We Women and Our Authors), was her insistence that there is a strong female sex drive. Ellen Key draws on Marholm for her well-known definition of female unruliness in Missbrukad kvinnokraft och kvinnopsykologi (1896; Female Psychology and the Abuse of Women’s Power):

“One woman has uttered an infinitely profound word – that both the best and worst aspect of the female character is its unruliness, an essence deeply allied with primal nature, which culminates in selfless devotion among superior women and criminality among inferior ones, but always manifests itself as an inability to accept the constraints of the culture in which they find themselves.”

Wir Frauen und unsere Dichter urges women to stop accepting the role models that male authors have created for them and find a personal means of expressing their femininity. The core assumption of such books, which were highly popular at the time, was that the female experience somehow involves knowing more or being closer to the ‘truth’ than men. Sigmund Freud’s Studien über Hysterie (Studies on Hysteria), which was published in 1894, contained only female cases, reinforcing the notion that women’s bodies are beset by mysterious ailments while stressing the importance of listening to them if one wants to learn more about the human psyche and its inner workings.

Marholm, who was occasionally referred to as the prophetess of hysteria, raised few eyebrows when she had a nervous breakdown and was committed to a mental institution following a series of setbacks that she and her husband suffered. Re-emerging after the war, she wrote an article for Folkets dagblad Politiken (1919) ruing the fact that women had not joined forces across race and class lines to prevent its outbreak. But things were going to be different from now on. “For the first time women belong to themselves and are their own mistresses,” so why should they return to the confines of the home when they finally had access to the labour market? As Susan Brantly points out in her monograph on Marholm, she had denounced Sonja Kovalevsky twenty years earlier and ascribed her premature death to her unnatural life as a professor of mathematics, but was now a full-blooded feminist who would have been perfectly happy with restoration of matriarchy.

That sabre rattling by masculinists would drive women to adopt ultrafeminist positions may not be particularly surprising. Striking back with every means at their disposal was perfectly logical. As Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar maintain in No Man’s Land (1988), a warrior is the extreme version of the modern female ideal.

The female warrior in “Violetta skymningar…” (Eng. tr. “Violet Twilights”) from Södergran’s first collection of poems summons her comrades-in-arms in the war of the sexes:

Violet dusks I bear within me from my origins,
naked maidens at play with galloping centaurs …
Yellow sunlit days with gaudy glances,
only sunbeams do true homage to a tender woman’s body …
The man has not come, has never been, will never be …
The man is a false mirror that the sun’s daughter angrily throws against the rock-face,
the man is a lie that white children do not understand,
the man is a rotten fruit that proud lips disdain.
Beautiful sisters, come high up on to the strongest rocks,
we are all warriors, heroines, horsewomen,
eyes of innocence, heavenly foreheads, rose masks,
heavy breakers and birds flown by,
we are the least expected and the deepest red,
stripes of tigers, taut strings, stars without vertigo.

“Violet dusks …” in Dikter (1916; Poems).

Translated by Ken Schubert