Around the time of the millennium, a new generation of female Nordic authors had their debut. Their signature style was perfomative experimentation with a splash of humour and irony. The authors were building upon a gender-conscious literary tradition and taking inspiration from contemporary gender theorists such as Sara Ahmed and Judith Butler. Leading voices of this generation include Christina Hagen, Kristina Nya Glaffey, Mara Lee and Trude Marstein.
A number of social and ideological features became prevalent in the European transition from eighteenth to nineteenth century – the establishment of the middle-class family as culture-bearing and the Romantic idealisation of woman as partly the mother of God and nature and partly the unconscious and alien aspect of the man’s humanness. These features contributed to a union of the previous periods’ female types, the housewife and the salon hostess, in the woman of the Romantic intimate sphere. In this way, Romanticism gave the woman a cultural position by virtue of gender alone – a position which she had not had before and would soon lose again. The Romantic intimate sphere was, unlike the salon, a home, but not therefore simply a (petit) bourgeois nuclear family. It was a community of the sexes, which would realise the Romantic philosophy and religious attitude to life. By absorbing and conveying inspiration from the wider European movement, women’s literature played a key role in structuring this new identity of the intimate sphere.
Elsa Gress’s pen is, in her own word, heretical. The root cause and partial explanation for the repeated theme of being left out is a reflection of her personal experience of feeling like the odd one out, of feeling misunderstood, of speaking but not being heard. In her books of memoirs, the enforced feeling of otherness during her childhood and adolescence is seen as the background against which she establishes herself in the role of “professional outsider”.Her writing career is characterised by the clash between wanting to maintain a marginal position – being an outsider, who sees more clearly – and wanting to be heard and understood. That a woman writer, and particularly a woman who participates in the public debate, will be subject to prejudice is, in Elsa Gress’s view, a fate common to women who pick up a pen.Her own works were either praised as being “just as substantial and perceptive as a man’s” or she was called “acutely malicious as only an intelligent woman can be”. As castigator of society, culture, and gender, she certainly made sure the readers were “listening” – but she did not get them to toe her line.
The lustre of the Victorian feminine ideal wore off. 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.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. And the women hit back.
The number and quality of treatises discussing women’s talents or lack there of was high sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe. The works were divided up by genre and were available in both printed and handwritten form. It is an established fact that readers in the Nordic countries were familiar with European concepts such as “Feminae illustres” (illustrious women), “Feminae doctae” (learned women), “Musa decimal” (the tenth muse), and so forth. Awareness of “feminae illustres” or “feminae doctae” seems to have been linked to the Renaissance period. There were, of course, earlier examples of learned women, but the desire to count them and classify them, and even promote them, would seem to have been a Renaissance inclination that surfaced among the progressive male learned circles.
Female writers of the Romantic movement did not have the academic training in literary tradition enjoyed by the majority of their male colleagues; this did not, however, mean that they approached literature with no prior aptitude whatsoever. If anything, being voracious readers they were stuffed with the male writers’ descriptions of the world and of themselves. They had an overwhelming urge to supplement and correct these pictures of women and the world according to their own minds. The female writers displayed a strong sense of having something new to tell.They were, naturally, aware that they were inscribing themselves in a literary institution that neither bid them welcome to the profession nor accepted their texts as authoritative. It was not easy to win readers for the images of woman and world that the female writers were attempting to project. Furthermore, the gender dualism and idealisation of intimate sphere-femininity of romanticism meant that the women writers struggled to integrate their writing self in their female self-image.
“Gynaeceum” is Greek and means ‘women’s chamber’. In the Renaissance the word was used as a genre designation for a literary historical category: a catalogue of women who were notable by virtue of their writings or some other form of artistic or intellectual activity.The gynaecea typically had a systematic or alphabetic structure, making them suitable as reference works. By looking up a famous woman’s name, the reader is introduced to her family via a few laudatory adjectives and her own intellectual achievements. The information is often kept brief.The Nordic region has an excellent collection of home-grown gynaecea. The genre is particularly well represented in Denmark. This small collection of Swedish biographies, and the quite numerous Danish and Norwegian biographies included in the Danish gynaecea, makes for a picture of active artistic and intellectual circles of women in these Nordic countries during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. And we can only presume that the same could be said of Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Finland. And that there were women in the Nordic region who considered themselves members of the European ‘club’ of cultured women.
Ellen Key put focus on complexity. not only in connection with the women’s cause but in general with regard to the relationship between tradition and modernity. It was in connection with her efforts to reconcile the contradictions between conservatism and radicalism into something more complex that Ellen Key became a controversial figure. Her writing became a medium: it did not point inward, towards itself, it did not produce works of fiction; rather, it served as a melting pot. Her works display an immense cultural receptivity and at the same time her works stand apart in their originality, in her visionary, unifying approach. Tradition is not contrasted with modernity but is understood in the light of her commitment to day-to-day politics. The women’s cause, the working-class movement, popular education, and the modern divide between natural science and religious attitudes are an ever-present context in all of her works. Ellen Key became an organic bond between the Modern Breakthrough and the new century’s modernistic currents.
Whereas Mary Wollstonecraft was a radical Romanticist in her writing as well as in her life, the Nordic female authors found it more difficult to rise above the prejudices of what was suitable for women. In Sweden at least, a patriarchal religiosity sanctioned a widespread oppression of women at all levels. To this must be added the male-chauvinist profile of the Romantic writers.The passive female ideal, propagated by Rousseau and dominant on the continent, was what the female English, French, and German authors tried to escape from by going into exile, both metaphorically and literally. In Scandinavia this way out was seldom used. The great Swedish exception is Fredrika Bremer.