The Language Debate in Finland
The focus of women’s works shifted from the sexual aspects of motherhood in the 1930s to children as the targets of wanton violence during the war. The time had come, they thought, to manifest the responsibility for society that Fredrika Bremer and Ellen Key had posited as women’s contribution to civilisation. The focus had shifted, however, from pleading the cause of women to that of children.The focus on children and the social responsibility of mothers was the last attempt by modern women writers to launch a new ethic of human relations and envisage a political utopia of peace. The broad-based, multi-genre effort did not dissipate until the 1960s when motherhood was stripped of its revolutionary content and redefined as either autocratic or powerless. Female characters assumed the position of helpless children in relation to men, and militant mothers were relegated to the status of frustrated housewives.
The gloominess of post-war Finland created a deep thirst for art and literature. A great deal of poetry was published and an unusual percentage of the first-timers were women, both Swedish- and Finnish-speaking. The women’s poetry, however, did not centre on politics or patriotism, but on the self, personal experience, family, home, children, the world, and humanity. Post-war poetry sought to create forms that differed from the classical approach, whose status had grown during the war. Young women, who frequently were more eager than their male colleagues to discover fresh perspectives and to emerge from the shadow of war, found their voice earliest and most naturally.The work of female poets may be interpreted as a commentary on a genre that was in flux, as well as an elaboration of creative strategies. A remarkable number of women were able to forge distinctive identities and write their own brand of modern poetry – clear evidence of their importance and strength in the shadow of the war.
Female poets of the early twentieth century discreetly described sexual experiences in terms of grass that smoulders or is flattened like a mat beneath the lovers. Eventually, the euphemisms grew unnecessary and Eros’ significance to a generation of female poets becomes obvious in the work of Berit Spong, Ingeborg Björklund, Greta Knutson, Martha Larsson, Maria Wine, Ingeborg Erixson, and Elsa Grave, among others.
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.
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.
Lyric poetry from the 1960s.
In the 1950s and 1960s a series of women writers took centre stage in Nordic literature. They stood forth as full-fledged modernists and they were greeted with ovations. They rewrite the isolation of modernism, but though they position themselves at the forefront of the literary stage, they place their literature at the service of the outsider.They write themselves into the tradition where the poet is a stranger on the outskirts of society, but they also place themselves outside this literary tradition and constantly butt their heads against its accepted definitions, symbols, and use of language. A common theme is the culturally marginalised, that which among post-war and even more among post-modernist philosophers has been defined as ‘the female’.
In the 1980s, the historical novel, a centuries-old favourite among female readers, underwent a process of serious revision. The female heroes were brought up to date. The heroines were adapted to the contemporary world, and together with the new romance literature, the new feminist historical novel captured the interest of women readers.New women writers throughout the Nordic region began to write about hidden, forgotten, overlooked, or entirely unknown women from past centuries, and the books were welcomed by huge audiences (and by reviewers) with such overwhelming interest that it began to look like just the genre for which they had all been searching for so many years.
Many contemporary women writers appear caught up in a paradox of form: on the one hand, women in contemporary literature create literary aesthetics that navigate the boundaries of genres and forms, and that do so by virtue of the subject matter and themes they work with; on the other hand, women writers are constantly evaluated in relation to relatively traditionally defined norms and expectations.Unless it is a matter of a handful of sanctioned geniuses, the most valuable literary efforts of women are still preferably accorded to their subject matter, which is more than welcome to break taboos and be daring or controversial. The aesthetic value of prose works is rarely associated with the form of the works.