In Edith Øberg’s literary novels, women’s relationships with each other increasingly come to the fore as men recede into the background. Øberg is most interested in women as creative subjects of their lives. Her later novels, which exhibit an unmistakable interest in psychoanalytical concepts, offer penetrating insights into issues surrounding female identity.Her examination of the unconscious roots of sexual needs and conflicts is particularly fascinating, placing her in the thick of the cultural debate about modernism during the interwar period. Her in-depth studies of fragmented female psyches, breeding grounds for repressed conflicts due to puritanical upbringings, traumatic childhood memories, and guilty erotic ties challenge the view perpetrated by male vitalists of women as uncomplicated instinctive creatures. Her first four novels touch on taboo subjects.
Coming-of-age novels by women after World War I often have a significant lesbian theme. The role model is frequently a single, independent career woman, described as attractive, strong, efficient, and intelligent. Coming out of the closet was not without its risks. Homosexual acts were criminal offences and Swedish psychiatrists regarded homosexuality as a disease until 1979.Finding a means of describing and expressing a sexual orientation that had been outlawed and suppressed for centuries – and that had been defined and discussed by male medical, psychiatric, and literary ‘ experts’ only – was no easy task. What the ‘new women’ of the inter-war period needed, besides visibility, was a language capable of reflecting female sexual desire and experience outside the domain of men, of describing an existence beyond the ken of traditional sexual categories.
Karin Boye’s most inspired poems are born at the juncture of “the world of appearances – a world that depicts”, and “the other world, the heavy, transformational world that did not ask for superficial flourishes”. Their tension oscillates between “that which breaks” and “that which bars” and is instantaneously released in a euphoric cry of freedom, for “fear can live no longer”, and the ego surrenders unconditionally to “the trust that creates the world”.Her suicide in 1941 has affected the way that people look at her life and her art. She has been portrayed as “tragic” and “consecrated to death”. Her work has been interpreted throughout as that of someone who struggled heroically against her “death wish”. Her writing often resides between sleeping and waking, an unreal kingdom in which dream and desire reign, a place that human beings never completely leave and always yearn for deep within.
Much of the literature written by women after World War I bespoke a reaction to a new trend in sexual morality. The new age, the new woman, and the new sexuality echoed throughout its pages. With her “sex appeal” and “professional” relationship to traditional femininity, the new woman hovered around or simply crossed the line between the “good” and “bad” girl as defined by the old system of morality.Marika Stiernstedt’s prolific output reflects the temper of literature in Sweden in the first half of the twentieth century. She was a pacesetter in the 1920s. Her first twentieth-century novels examined infidelity and double standards in the spirit of Ellen Key. Relationships between women and men grew more complex in her later works.Her final work, Kring ett äktenskap (1953; About a Marriage), gives a no-holds-barred account of her infamous marriage to author Lubbe Nordström. The punctilious recital of the decline of an alcoholic and sexually ambivalent genius is unsparing in its directness. What good is freedom to the new woman if the new man turns out to be a cross between a hypocritical patriarch and a helpless child despite assurances of an egalitarian companionate marriage?
On Literary Sexual Politics in the 1930s
Sweden was the first among the Nordic countries to allow women access to a university education. Female students ostensibly lived under the same conditions as their male counterparts: they shared ideas, instructors, visions of the future. In reality their situations could not have been more at odds. Men were the beneficiaries of longstanding traditions and the innate right to public support. Like extraterrestrial creatures, women found themselves in an alien world. Women asked themselves whether they should try to blend in and focus on what they had in common with men or accentuate their own special qualities. In the 1880s and early 1890s, any term or concept suggesting that they somehow deviated from the norm was scrupulously avoided. Just before the turn of the century, they switched strategy, placing ‘femininity’ in the spotlight and adding the notion of ‘difference’ to their repertoire. The tide turned in 1896, the year Ellen Key published Missbrukad kvinnokraft (Misused Female Power). Demands for emancipation and equal opportunity were supplanted by the concept that women should enrich society and culture with their unique qualities. Love and emotional liberation took centre stage. Women acquired a fresh sense of dignity, as well as new responsibilities, by virtue of their gender. And the women academics of the time did not remain unaffected.
On the threshold to the twentieth century, the doors to the world stood open. At last the individual had the prospect of liberation from the restrictive bindings of religion, class, and gender. With the new world picture as its mental sounding board, the new century opened up for a progressive process of integration.Women and ordinary people gained access to bourgeois written culture, and they then of course made their mark on this culture.While male writers and scientists were shoring up their threatened masculinity by categorising “Woman” under “primordial Nature”, the women were surely and steadily gaining ground in the men’s bastions of power.