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Female Citizenship in Scandinavian Literature in the 1840s


For Scandinavian women in the 1840s, suffrage was still far ahead in the future. They were, in Kathryn Gleadle’s words, “borderline citizens”. Yet, female writers insisted that women’s contributions to the nation were as important as men’s – they claimed women’s right to citizenship, using the one public arena to which women had access: literature. This article examines the construction of female citizenship in the Finnish writer Sara Wacklin’s (1790–1846) One Hundred Memories from Österbotten (1844–1845), and in novels by the Swedish writers Fredrika Bremer (1801–1865) and Emilie Flygare-Carlén (1807–1892) as well as the Norwegian novelist and author of a famous cookbook, Hanna Winsnes (1789–1872). However, male writers were also engaged in the debate over women’s citizenship, as a short comparison with the Swedish Carl Jonas Love Almqvist (1793–1866), the Finnish Zacharias Topelius (1818–1898) and the Norwegian Henrik Wergeland (1808–1845) will make clear. Since contemporary ideas about femininity were intimately connected to the nineteenth-century distinction between the private and the public spheres, the question of content must be approached through spatialization: in order to clarify what the notion implies, it is imperative to ask where female citizenship is enacted, and how practices transform space.

The theoretical point of departure is political scientist Ruth Lister’s contention that the notion of citizenship as status needs to be complemented by one of citizenship as practice to do justice to women as political actors. Nevertheless, I argue that in order to grasp Bremer’s nineteenth-century idea of female citizenship, citizenship as status and as practice is insufficient, as she makes a vital distinction between the act committed and the inner attitude towards the act. This construction of citizenship as morality is comprehensible against the backdrop of the Lutheran idea of general priesthood and rests on an explicit connection between the individual home and “the great home of the world”, distinguishing between on the one hand a non-political devotion to individual, private life, and on the other, a political devotion to humanity through the individual. The idea of citizenship as morality is shared by all the female writers in the article, but has been obscured by modern feminist theories after Simone de Beauvoir, focusing exclusively on the public sphere as liberation.

The differences in constructing female citizenship are brought out in relation to the transition from household economy to market economy. Whereas Winsnes relies on older ideals of the “useful”, economic citizen, defending the household economy as a power base for women, Wacklin, on the contrary, clarifies how the household economy entails a lack of legal and economic rights as well as societal recognition. Flygare-Carlén portrays the capitalist market economy and an individual income as the only way to become an autonomous citizen, although selling one’s body on the labour market does indeed imply putting the moral economy at risk. Furthermore, the article shows that the male writers Almqvist, Topelius, and Wergeland, in favour of women’s rights, primarily promoted legal reform by means of utopian and visionary imaginings of a future female citizen, whereas the female writers arguments for citizenship made visible the contributions made to the nation by contemporary, ordinary women.

Finally, female citizenship in Scandinavian literature of the 1840s is not only enacted in the kitchen, on the farm and in the school-room, but also in the public space: on the labour-market, and, in Bremer’s novels, on the concert scene and in the wilderness. Regardless of the economical model, the female citizen transforms the public space into a place for the production for morality – into a home – and conversely, the home is portrayed as a political site, which brings about societal change. In order to do justice to nineteenth-century female writers’ ideas about female citizenship, we need to recognize citizenship as morality.