Women of Modernity (PhD summary)


Women of Modernity:

Women’s Education and the Construction of Gender in Iceland, 1850–1903

 This study investigates the construction of gender in Iceland from 1850–1903, specifically how ideas about the social role of women were shaped through debates on education and women’s schools. Two main questions were asked at the outset: first, what effect the discussion about women’s education and women’s schools had on conceptualisations of gender, and second, how women themselves reacted to this discussion and what impact they had on it.

A strong opposition surfaced to “impractical” and “un-Icelandic” female education, as the debate about women’s schools and education began in the Icelandic press in 1870. While on its surface this debate revolved around education and schools, it was in fact clearly about the social status of women. Contradictory messages were the order of the day, on the one hand declaring that women could manage education and public jobs as well as men, while on the other declaring that their unique feminine natures made them unsuited for this but at the same time suited for particularly feminine jobs.

The sources used for the study include lectures, writings published in the papers, and mission statements of the women’s schools which were founded between 1870 and 1880. The discourses revealed in those sources are juxtaposed with personal testimony from women’s correspondence, investigating whether or how women understood and experienced the female image and the ideas about education and social roles that were presented to them.

Early 19th-century Iceland has been described as a relatively static agrarian society, since the vast majority of this tiny nation (59,000 residents in 1850) made their living from farming. Urban areas were few and small. At the beginning of the period studied (1850), for example, about 1,100 people lived in Reykjavík, though by 1901 they had increased to 6,600. In 1850 the role of a woman was ordinarily that of a housewife or farm labourer, and formally speaking, women had no educational options other than those available in the home. While children learned reading and studied the bible for confirmation, in the spirit of legally mandated religious tradition, further education depended upon the will and wealth of their parents. Boys from more prosperous homes had the chance to attend the Latin School, Iceland’s only preparatory school, and go on to university studies in Copenhagen, but in both cases girls remained at home. However, many girls did have the opportunity of what might be called an informal education, that is, of living for a time in a so-called model home where they could train to be a housewife, as well as sometimes learning more academic subjects. This arrangement was popular until late in the 19th century, with a woman’s social role thus being substantially constructed within the home.

Although Iceland did not produce as extensive a body of conduct texts for women as many other countries, a few important early 19th-century writings did address the social status of women. These emphasised womanly Christian virtues such as humility, submissiveness and caring. There were warnings against impractical training (such as doing fine needlework or the lower classes studying books), and in keeping with the agrarian social structure much was made of a housewife’s responsibility for the welfare of the people of the household. “Woman” meant a social role, the position of a wife within a home. This may also be noted in wedding sermons, where much was made of the social status of married couples, both the woman and the man, and of the importance of such a couple working together as one. Nonetheless, the housewife was always subordinated to the husband, the head of the house. The influence of religious texts must also be kept in mind; in the evangelical Lutheran society of Iceland, the sermons of native and foreign bishops were popular material for reading, whether privately or aloud to the household. Whereas all of these texts represented the social structure as fixed, reality was often different. In the spirit of feminist theory, the study hypothesises that a reaction may be observed in some of these texts against “disobedient” women or girls who questioned the social role intended for them. The urge evident in such texts was to put them back on the right track, among other things by promoting the housewife role and feminine values and buttressing the dominant structure. One could also argue that women’s schools served an analogous role later in the century.

Starting in the mid-19th century, various restrictions, both intellectual and social, began to loosen, due in part to the influence of liberalism from abroad. Icelandic newspapers were established, academic and agricultural societies were founded, and book publishing increased. From documents such as letters, it can be seen that some women were becoming discontent and longed for more education – or for something which they found it difficult to express: “It is as if my mind was looking for something else to content itself with, though it hardly knows itself what that something is,” wrote a young girl in 1853. By 1860, women were increasingly seeking education by informal means, such as private tutoring from other women, some of whom had experienced the pleasures of Copenhagen. During this period modernity was also entering Icelandic society in the form of sewing machines. Letters rejoice over the work saved by this innovation, not to mention the potential for some women to work on their own and increase their income.

This was the situation when the lawyer and history teacher Páll Melsteð wrote an article in 1870 setting forth in print for the first time the idea of establishing a special school for female youth. Even if the reasoning was primarily that Icelandic girls should be educated for their future role as housewives and mothers, Páll also argued on the basis of justice, i.e., that girls had the same right to education as boys, hinting that women who did not marry ought to have the opportunity of becoming educated so as to have a means of supporting themselves. Although the article was written by Páll, it reflected not only his views but also or even more so the views of his wife, Þóra Melsteð, who had as early as 1860 put down ideas in writing about schools for Icelandic women and girls. Þóra was considered to be among the best educated contemporary women in the country. She had an Icelandic father but a Danish mother, and had to a large degree grown up in Denmark, where she received a better education than most Icelandic girls had access to.

The same year as Páll’s article was published, he and Þóra began preparations to found a women’s school in Reykjavík. They were backed not only by the wives of the town’s major officials but also by some other interested and progressively minded men. Support and funding from interested parties in Denmark was also instrumental. Despite all this, collecting enough money to set up the school took four years, due to common prejudices and the lack of understanding for women’s education. The Reykjavík Women’s School (Kvennaskólinn í Reykjavík) opened in the autumn of 1874 in the home of Þóra and Páll, with Þóra serving as headmistress. Ten girls enrolled that first winter. By 1880, three additional women’s schools had been established, all of them small and located in the rural parts of northern Iceland.

Páll Melsteð’s 1870 article, and still more the founding of Reykjavík Women’s School, upset conventional ideas concerning the role of women and marked the beginning of the aforementioned debate in the press on the education and social role of women.

This debate, from 1870–1903, may be divided into three main discourses: Firstly, the radical women’s liberation discourse, which demanded that women receive increased rights to education and jobs, and as this period progressed that they obtain civil rights and be recognised as thinking people. Secondly, what one might call the traditional discourse of the old agrarian society, which emphasised the importance of the housewife for the home and society. Thirdly, the bourgeois discourse on the role of women, which presented the ideas of the European bourgeoisie regarding the man as breadwinner and the woman as “angel of the home”, in the spirit of domestic ideology dominant at the time.

It was not until 1885 that the discourse of women’s liberation became prominent, upon women themselves beginning to participate in the discussion in the press. Greater opposition was awakening to prevailing ideas about the role and nature of women, and more and more women and men demanded greater leeway for women’s activities, strongly disputing dominant ideas on the restrictive natural traits of women, in other words, their femininity. This development can be interpreted as an aspect of the advance of modernism, in which the prevailing system was criticised and the structure and organisation of society were questioned. The result was that ideas took root respecting a new female image, that of the modern woman, one who had different expectations of life.

The other two discourses were present from the beginning. The agrarian social discourse built on an image of femininity that stood out in many articles and lectures of this period, the concept of “woman” above all as a social position, that of a housewife responsible for raising children and maintaining household welfare. The qualities demonstrated by such women were compassion, hard work and religiosity. The third and last discourse reflected bourgeois ideas which were better suited to the cities of industrialised countries. The virtues revered in this discourse could hardly be considered useful in the Icelandic countryside: intricate embroidery, piano playing and singing, foreign languages and drawing, un-Icelandic behaviour and customs. However, these three discourses often intermingled, producing a hotchpotch of ideas that conflicted with each other or became interwoven and thereby opened pathways for newer ideas and possibilities.

Running across all three discourses were five discursive themes regarding the role and nature of women. These themes were as follows: 1) Femininities, which was a key concept when debating the education of women and their role in society and was concerned with the sorts of work and education suited to feminine nature. 2) Women as standard-bearers of language and culture – newspaper articles often beat the drum of nationalism, since this was when Icelanders were struggling for independence from Denmark and trying to develop their own nation-state, so that the cultural importance of women as mothers and child-rearers was being heavily emphasised. 3) The dichotomy between the concepts of Icelandic and un-Icelandic, which was set forth again and again. Thus, some of the academic education for women was considered un-Icelandic, as was fine decorative needlework. The first women’s school, Reykjavík Women’s School, was commonly considered un-Icelandic because of the “worthlessness” and “gimcrackery” being taught there, and because staying in Reykjavík to attend this school also meant contact with the moral depravity and foreign influences of the urban environment. This theme was characterised by opposition to Danishness, and was thus affiliated with the Icelandic independence movement, while also being closely related to the fourth theme, 4) Rural versus urban. This is where the fear of urbanisation and un-Icelandicness crystallised, together with related fears that Icelandic nationality and characteristics would be lost, and that excessive education (particularly in Reykjavík) would make women turn their backs on rural life. 5) The final theme was the rights of women, or women’s liberation.

The discourses and discursive themes above nurtured a variety of ideas about the role and nature of women and helped both to conserve and to revise Icelandic ideas about women and femininity.

Women’s schools were obviously not just an answer to increasing female demands for education and opportunities, but were partly intended to maintain the prevailing understanding of the nature and role of women by qualifying them better to be mothers and housewives. This shines through in the case of the headmistress Þóra Melsteð. Despite her passionate interest in women’s education, she considered the role of housewife to be the only true female vocation and believed that women who entered into the types of education and positions which had been male domains were “exceptions”.

Although the Icelandic women’s schools were small and offered a limited curriculum, they without a doubt had a strong influence on the worldview of women and how they experienced their position in society. The fact is that the women’s schools became a scene not only of social fragmentation but also of social identification, by means of an education which could either fuel or quell the minds of students. Many of the girls attending regarded their stay as an important factor in preparing them for work as housewives and showed no interest in moving beyond that sphere. At the same time, such schools provided an environment where girls encountered novel ideas, talked amongst themselves, and allowed themselves to dream of work different to that which had been available to their mothers and grandmothers. This may be seen clearly in the writings of both students and former students. Thus women’s schools produced an environment in which girls confronted and were enabled to deal with current paradoxical ideas on their role and nature.

As in other countries, it is striking in Icelandic discussions how men and women alike feared that education would lead to a rejection of the innate and normal female role: that of being a mother and housewife. While femininity was a key concept in this debate, its definition remained unclear, and what was more, the concept unfeminine was advanced more than feminine. In this way the antitype or negative image was contrasted with the desirable feminine ideal in order to lend meaning to the latter. At the same time, “unfeminine” was handy for reining in any less controllable women, since they were thereby branded as insignificant non-persons or pariahs. This study applies theories of multiple femininities, with one acquiring the status of hegemonic femininity over and above other forms of femininity, and thereby argues that in order to gain influence around the turn of the century 1900, women needed to adopt what is called emphasised femininity, a form which recognised and supported the hegemony of men and masculinity in word and deed and therefore helped perpetuate men’s power over women.

Feminist women rejected assertions that they would sacrifice their femininity by stepping outside the frame of the traditional female role. Furthermore, they made perceivable efforts to reduce the effect that the ill-defined but binding femininity propounded in their time was exercising on the lives and self-image of women. They had to struggle with the concept, however, as they tried to reconcile radical ideas about the new female social role with deep-rooted ideas about the unique nature of women – the eternal feminine. This struggle surfaced in their writings, especially in the women’s publications which were established in 1895 and played an important role in redefining female gender.

From some of the discourse examined and analysed in this study, it can be concluded that the modern woman was considered dangerous – she was unfeminine, a pariah. Not only did she assume masculine power and characteristics considered unsuitable for women, but she even threw doubt on the assumption that women should dedicate themselves solely to the traditional maternal role. The lives of turn-of-the-century women were thus full of attempts to reconcile modernity and tradition, as they groped for a context where they could fulfil society’s expectations of them as women but at the same time nurture their personal worth, assert themselves as individuals and be respected as genuine citizens.

The study presents the hypothesis that women actually had to renounce their femininity and cease being “women” in order truly to be called modern women and to demand treatment on a par with men in work and living patterns. This appears clearly in the writings of one of the most important Icelandic feminists at the turn of the century, Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir. The study argues that Bríet, whose thinking and writing were radical when she first spoke out publicly in 1885 (and who was accused of being unfeminine), deliberately toned down her radicalism for some time so as to avoid losing credibility.

It is clear that women were supposed to epitomise the unchanging and to remain steadfast in a developing, modernising world. The public redefinition of their social role tended towards constructing their gender according to this epitome, whereby women were  to serve as gatekeepers of culture and links to the past (to use concepts from nationalism studies).

From 1850–1903, the construction of gender in Iceland took place much as it had for centuries: inside the home, within the church, and through education, whether such education occurred at home or in school. In the last three decades of the century, newspapers were introduced and added still more possibilities for self-expression. More voices emerged to express opposition, questioning the validity of any discourse which relegated women’s sphere of work to the home. Increased education and book reading also had an impact. Finally, one must not forget one of the most important factors, one which plays a key role in this study: the letters. In the pages of their personal correspondence, women got an opportunity to express themselves, put their ideas into words, and even engage in their own tiny rebellions, even if only in a letter to a brother. All of this contributed to a sense among women that new possibilities lay right around the corner. It was not always clear what these possibilities were, but many women obviously desired freedom to decide and shape their own future. By engaging in discussion, women became agents in their own lives and had a role in re-examining society’s accepted conventions.

Concerning the main question posed by this project, as to what impact the debate on women’s education and women’s schools had on conceptualisations of gender, the overall answer is that this impact was considerable, as had been expected at the beginning of the study. The precise reason turned out to be that establishing women’s schools prompted debate and reconsideration among women and in society generally.  The schools became a locus of conflict, ideas and fresh consciousness. Documents illustrate how the schools had an appreciable effect on the self-image and psyche of the students, not only following older ideas about the role and nature of women but also mixing in some radical feminism and opposition. As time went on, new ideas about gender, some of which had actually been shaped within the women’s schools, exerted further impact on the schools and their activities, because there was a continual need to re-examine what ought to be taught in conjunction with new goals and trends, as well as women’s rights. The project’s other main question concerned how women reacted to the notions of gender which were presented to them, insofar as this may be interpreted from their letters, writings, and articles. The answer to this question is more complicated, because the voices are numerous and express opposition as well as support. Women, including the radical ones, were clearly able to appreciate what was being taught to them at the women’s schools. Certainly no one wanted to renounce being a “woman”. On the other hand, women definitely felt they were being hemmed in, since they lacked the opportunities for education and work which they desired and believed they were capable of. For these reasons, they both hoped and believed that society would improve for 20th-century women.

What is then the final conclusion of my study? What was the effect of lectures, published debate, personal letters, women’s schools (involving both formal education and informal schooling through the girls being together), women’s associations and the female images which women and girls alike saw around them? How was gender being constructed and how had it finally been redefined as the 19th century drew to a close?

The conclusion cannot be simple, because women were bombarded with conflicting messages about their role in society: what they ought to do and what they were allowed to do, what they could do or could be. Were they even really individuals or not, and could they become independent people at all, with the pertaining rights and responsibilities of citizens in Icelandic society? The role of the housewife, that of the loving, constantly working, god-fearing mother, was the image being held up to every women as an ideal. She was permitted to be energetic and active, but if she went too far in testing the flexibility of the hierarchy on which gender was built, she was in danger of being denounced as the antitype, a masculine woman and a pariah. In spite of the militant newspaper articles and lectures of those women and men who wanted to cast away the image of the perfect housewife so that women could be recognized as thinking human beings and fully-fledged social individuals, and in spite of flesh-and-blood role models, women still found it difficult to escape deep-seated convictions that a woman’s vocation was the role of mother.

Thus we see women acting in two different ways simultaneously, as they both accepted emphasised femininity and rejected it. In other words, they resorted to diverging and conflicting ideas from the three main discourses mentioned above, those of feminists, foreign bourgeoisie and Icelandic agrarian society. While rejecting femininity on the one hand, they made every effort to prove that no woman could ever lose her innate female qualities. They disrupted traditional ideas, whether consciously or unconsciously, by at times adopting characteristics of the antitype, but later retreating a step so their voices would still be heard. In this manner, the feminist discourse gradually gained influence, and the antitype, together with the unfeminine, became a force for change because it called on reactions – some type of response.

We thus perceive a past full of opposing and scattered self-images which can be seen as they are reflected by an observation and provocation in a personal letter, expressed even though the writer’s life otherwise remained conventional. Femininity was declared to shackle women but at the same time to be innate and impossible to lose; women’s schools were purported variously to be imperfect, superficial institutions or institutions which taught far too much. The complete picture is a patchwork, and it is not without seams; its patches are of different sizes and colours, and the seams are rough.


Translation: Lingua / Norðan Jökuls ehf., by K. Connor Martin and Philip Vogler