Gender Politics and Social Structure
Updated: Jul 16, 2019
By Callie Fabac
The era of Norwegian Nationalist Romanticism caused more liberal thinking and policy, leading to social reform for women. By 1854, women had the right to inherit property. By 1863, unmarried women weren’t viewed by the law as minors and more occupations began to open up for women. Despite Norway’s pride in enacting these cultural reforms, it was still a very classist society. Voting and government influence was limited to the wealthy aristocracy, so the country actually remained relatively conservative.
A notable figure both in Norwegian Nationalism and Feminism was Camilla Collett. She criticized forced marriages and posited that marriage should not be the sole purpose of a woman’s life in her famous novel Amtmandens døttre, or The District Governor’s Daughter. Collett urged women to discard the culture of self-sacrifice and instead to embrace freedom in their relationships.
In 1871, Ibsen met Collett, and she frequently visited him during his time in Italy. They remained in touch for 27 years and frequently spoke about women’s rights. It’s clear that Ibsen heard and heeded Collett’s message because his own relationship with his wife, Suzannah Thoreson, reflected Collett’s views. Ibsen did not want to merely live with his wife. He wanted them to be equal human beings.
However, in a speech for Norwegian’s Women’s Rights League, Ibsen himself contradicts that his work was meant to further women and asserts that it was meant to further humanity.
“I thank you for the toast, but must disclaim the honor of having consciously worked for the women’s rights movement…True enough, it is desirable to solve the woman problem, along with all the others; but that has not been the whole purpose. My task has been the description of humanity...I have never written a poem or a play to further a social purpose. I have been more of a poet and less of a social philosopher than most people seem inclined to believe. I thank you for your good wishes, but...I am not even very sure what women's rights really are.” (Templeton 28): (Letters 337)
Read more about the Norwegian Feminist Movement in the 19th Century here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03468759608579312
A woman who chose to separate from her husband in the 19th century would not receive financial support. Civil courts would take on divorce cases. Originally, only the 3 biblical reasons (impotence, adultery, or desertion) were seen as valid reasons for divorce. However, by the 1800s, the law was relaxed and secular reasons such as disharmony or dislike were acceptable. Even today, the divorce law in Norway requires that the spouses go through a period of separation lasting one year, when they live apart and are financially independent, but legally still married.
Below are quotes from articles about marriage from around the time A Doll’s House was written:
"Whatever have been the cares of the day, greet your husband with a smile when he returns. Make your personal appearance just as beautiful as possible. Let him enter rooms so attractive and sunny that all the recollections of his home, when away from the same, shall attract him back." -- Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms, 1888
It is the wife's responsibility to provide her husband "a happy home... the single spot of rest which a man has upon this earth for the cultivation of his noblest sensibilities." -- The Household, 1882
“Women who wish to play a role in society must renounce their womanhood.” (referring to motherhood/marriage)-- Laura Rӧmke, 1883
“[Girls should be brought up to be] obedient wives, lovely daughters, honest friends, sensible ladies of the house, clever mothers and educators, models of righteousness, noble citizens of the State, supports and shelters for the poor, true Christians …” This included Biblical knowledge, French, and the arts. --https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/file/index/docid/530786/filename/08.pdf