This essay examines the history of women's emancipation in Norway, beginning with the Nineteenth Century formation of feminist organisations and their battle for equal pay, universal female suffrage, and parliamentary representation. It then goes on to look at the question of whether actual equality has been achieved, as opposed to mere formal equality, despite the fact that contemporary Norway boasts world-record-breaking rates of female employment in elected government positions. Finally, this paper summarises recent attempts at remedying some of the remaining imbalances.
As the change from a largely agrarian to an industrial capitalist economy was occurring, women such as Fredrika Bremer were advocating 'that women should form organisations pursuing tasks which were of value to society',<4> so as to play a role in the formation of the 'new' nation. In accordance, the Nineteenth Century saw an 'extensive flora' of women's associations come into existence (for example, bible societies, temperance societies, charity associations and sections of the Missionary Society) and despite the fact that gender was the basis for these organisations, they pursued general objectives and did not actively seek to further female interests.<5> These were not seen as 'unwomanly or objectionable ... since [their] only purpose was the comparatively harmless one of organising in a more practical and planned way the charitable activities that [women] already pursued on an individual basis.'<6>
Initially, many of the women involved were trying to reassert lost control over important sections of local public life, as society transformed around them. However, 'organising to promote the welfare of others did bring women out of the domestic world and gradually made them aware of the necessity for obtaining political influence.'<7> As awareness of the need for emancipative activity increased, the natures of these societies changed, and new associations were spawned that placed the interests of women first. The eventual consequence of their mobilisation into such associations was an assertion of the right of women to take a place in the public sphere.<8>
1884 saw the inception of the Norsk Kvinnesaksforening (Norwegian Feminist Society), and a year later Kvindestemmeretsforeningen (The Female Suffrage Union), and the crusade for female emancipation began in earnest.<9> By this stage, unmarried women were entering the work force in substantial numbers as a result of the burgeoning industrial and domestic employment sectors. It was in the work force that the traditional views of gender roles, norms and associated axioms resulted in a sexual division of labour, a division which was attended by a variety of implications for the emancipation of women.
A pertinent example of the ramifications of the sexual division of labour can be found in the 1898 wage claim made by the female employees of the Norwegian Telegraph Service. An application for wage increases was signed by ninety-seven female telegraphers, and submitted for the Storting's consideration. It had been six years since their previous wage increase, despite their frequent applications, all of which were routinely and unanimously rejected by the Storting. The 1898 application however, attracted extensive attention and controversy. Both the Norwegian Feminist Union and several newspapers were sympathetic to the female telegrapher's cause, yet the director of the service himself was vehemently opposed to any wage increases. The director's opinion was that women had 'performed their work less satisfactorily when it came to operating more complicated telegraph equipment',<10> and this was a view strongly supported by the younger male telegraphers in the service, who published a statement claiming that women were 'also wanting in resolution and ability to take rapid decisions'.<11>
There was intense debate between the male and female telegraphers, despite the fact that good relations between colleagues had previously prevailed, which indicates that both groups felt their interests were under threat. In order to explain this, one must realise that these events took place amidst a restructuring of the telegraph service, in which the sexual division of labour played a key role. At the time of the 1898 debate, a new and lower category of position was due to be introduced, called the 'female assistant', which would be the first job held by women who entered the service, while the older post of 'telegrapher' with its better pay was henceforth attainable only via promotion. At the same time, men were to be trained and given access to a number of senior technical or administrative positions. 'The ladder of employment was extended downwards for women and upwards for men',<12> in effect segregating the sexes within the telegraph service. Many men felt threatened, fearing that retrenchments would result due to the fact that female labour was cheaper than male labour. However, the planned changes to the system would open up better and more extensive opportunities for male promotion, so their misgivings gradually subsided. This helps to explain the intensity of the 1898 wage claim debate, because 'the strong current of opinion in favour of equality threatened the existing balance of strength within the service.'<13> Nevertheless, the wage claim of the female telegraphers was eventually upheld.
At this time, the crusade for universal female suffrage was well under way, but it was not until 1913 that its goal was achieved, some fifteen years after the introduction of universal male suffrage, yet well before the introduction of such measures in any other European country, save for Finland. The primary obstacle to obtaining voting rights for women was that constitutional reform could only be achieved through men, and therefore the champions of the feminist cause had to exercise their influence by means of petitions, demonstrations, publications and through their own husbands and male colleagues who were affiliated with political parties. Despite the difficulty of this task, Norwegian women succeeded many years in advance of most other European women (even those of Britain, who had lived in urbanised and industrialised conditions suited to female enfranchisement from a much earlier date), largely due to their non-militant, cooperative methods, which on the whole sought to emphasise that the suffrage struggle was not a 'conflict between the sexes', but rather that women were mature and interested enough to take on the vote, and play an active, supportive role in shaping society.<14> In particular, it was argued that female suffrage would strengthen Norwegian democracy and thereby be instrumental in throwing off the yoke of their country's enforced union with Sweden, which remained in effect until 1905. Birgitte Weltzin Sorenson emphasised that 'the political objectives of women were peace, cooperation and justice, not, as in the case of men, war and blood.'<15> By urging the extension of their traditional duties (such as work for peace and the alleviation of illness, and support for male views) into the public sphere, women were able to gradually secure the acceptance of their demand for the vote. <16>
Securing universal female suffrage was only an intermediate step along the road to true equality with males. It took more than seventy years before women accounted for more than twenty-five per cent of the representatives in any of the political institutions.<17> Anna Jebsen Henriksen, a deputy substitute to the parliament urged; 'Surely no one can expect women to be carried into parliament, we certainly have to walk the way on our own feet. The men have given us what we have asked for - at least most of it - but we have to shoulder our own responsibilities. The initiative is ours.'<18> However, women faced several barriers against following this advice. For instance, in Bergen, although women were asked to conquer more seats in the municipal assembly, these were not to be seats already held by their male party colleagues, but rather new seats, and this turned out to be an 'impossible job'. <19>
They also faced a 'housewifely ideal', that was gaining strength between the two World Wars, propelled by Marie Michelet's Norges Husmorforbund (Norwegian Housewives' Union), a national network comprising of twenty to thirty-thousand members (a not insignificant figure, ranking it as the second largest women's association in Norway).<20> Michelet maintained that, 'the mission of every woman lies in the creation of a home, regardless of whether that mission is fulfilled in her own home or somebody else's.'<21> It should be borne in mind that this statement was made within the context of a changing society, in which industrialisation and capitalism were seeing the specialised production of new household goods. It was no longer necessary for women to produce and store goods in the home to the same extent. Domestic maintenance became substantially easier, with the advent of refrigerators, floor polishers and vacuum cleaners.<22> In this new environment, Michelet saw the role of the modern housewife as taking on a professional aspect, and worked closely with the government in an effort to make formal training in domestic science compulsory for young women, and to increase the level of state economic support to domestic colleges. Demonstrations, lectures and fairs were conducted on a nationwide basis, often with the collaboration of scientists, to educate women on topics such as proper lighting, hygienic dish washing, and in general to reinforce Michelet's ideal of housewives as skilled workers.<23> The Marriage Act of 1927 was in effect an endorsement of the gender roles and of the economic relationship between spouses that Michelet advocated, stating that, 'the wife's work within the home ... has the same value as the monetary contribution made by the husband.' <24>
Having pointed out these factors arrayed against the achievement of real emancipation, it must also be mentioned that there were some favourable conditions that were conducive to the cause of female liberation; for instance, the positive effect of Henrik Ibsen's drama. Ibsen himself disclaimed any feminist leanings, but regardless his play, A Doll's House, had as its central theme women's place in society, and it became a significant and influential piece of propaganda, gaining world-wide recognition within years.<25> Whether Ibsen set out to instigate social change, or merely to describe humanity as he saw it is not significant, because regardless he is remembered to this day as a crusader 'particularly active in the fight for women's rights'.<26> His play was effective in heightening public awareness and putting the disadvantaged position of women in society on the political agenda, and it was therefore an accelerative force towards equality for women.
Another factor that has worked in favour of females in recent decades is the growing frustration in the female population and the resultant massive campaigns aimed at increasing female participation in government and politics. 'Female coups' have taken place with increasing regularity, whereby female candidates have been swept into government by veritable election landslides, as a result of rigorous campaigning, particularly at the local council level.<27> Contemporary Norway is viewed as a highly egalitarian society, and as a role model for other nations who are striving towards equality. Currently, Norway boasts a female prime minister, a cabinet where seven out of eighteen members are women (although a previous government could claim near parity, with nine women and ten men), a thirty-nine per cent proportion of women in the Storting, and several prestigious offices occupied by women, such as the presidency of the Storting and of the University of Oslo, the commission of the Oslo Police, and the governorship of Svalbard. Norway installed its first female bishop in 1993.<28>
Despite these substantial advances towards equality, it can only be said that equality has been obtained in a formal sense. In other words, both genders receive the same basic human and political rights, and wages are based on the tasks performed rather than the gender of the person undertaking them. However, in the matter of real equality, it is still clear that 'the majority of women who work have jobs that provide less prestige, lower pay and fewer opportunities for advancement than the jobs men have.'<29> The labour market is still divided along gender lines, despite the various governments' long term endeavours to encourage women to choose educational options within typically male-dominated areas (such as engineering and medicine), and conversely for men to look towards study in female-dominated areas (such as nursing, teaching, and health professions). A healthy balance has been achieved in areas such as medicine and dentistry, but the female proportion of the student population at engineering colleges is still only seventeen per cent, and the male proportion at health profession colleges is a mere fourteen per cent.<30>
The symptom of this gender-divided labour market, is that educational options chosen by women tend to lead to lower paying, less prestigious jobs. A woman with three years of nursing training earns substantially less than a man with three years of technical education. Attempts to redress this imbalance have recently placed particular emphasis on encouraging men to enter into female-dominated areas, rather than the complementary tactic of advancing women's standing in the male occupations. Along similar lines, Norway has been a pioneer of so-called 'pappa leave', whereby changes to maternity leave legislation meant to benefit men have aimed at recruiting more men to the home front. Seventy per cent of new Norwegian fathers took paternity leave in 1995 as a result of the new legislation, up from forty-five per cent only a year previously.<31> Other measures include a shift of focus towards providing affordable day-care for the masses as a means of promoting equality. The government aims to supply any parent who wishes with a place for their child by the turn of the century.
Although Norway is seen as a role-model for gender equality, largely due to its success in increasing female participation in government, it is clear that true equality has not yet been attained. Nevertheless, it is also evident that a great deal has been achieved since the question of female suffrage was first put before the Storting with a view to constitutional amendment in 1890, and similarly societal and cultural views have progressed to the point where the arguments against suffrage offered that day now seem to be positively archaic:
Aberg, Ingrid, 'Revivalism, Philanthropy and Emancipation. Women's
Liberation and Organisation in the Early Nineteenth Century',
Scandinavian Journal of History, vol. 13, 1988, pp. 399-420.
Blom, Ida, 'Nation - Class - Gender: Scandinavia at the Turn of the Century', Scandinavian Journal of History, vol. 21, 1996, pp. 1-16.
________, 'Women's Politics and Women in Politics in Norway Since the End of the Nineteenth Century', Scandinavian Journal of History, vol. 12, 1987, pp. 17-33.
________, 'The Struggle for Women's Suffrage in Norway, 1885-1913', Scandinavian Journal of History, vol. 5, 1980, pp. 3-22.
Gjerset, Knut, History of the Norwegian People, AMS Press, New York, 1969.
Griffiths, Tony, Scandinavia, Wakefield Press, Kent Town, 1993.
Hagemann, Gro, 'Feminism and the Sexual Division of Labour. Female Labour in the Norwegian Telegraph Service around the Turn of the Century', Scandinavian Journal of History, vol. 10, 1985, pp. 143-154.
Larsen, Karen, A History of Norway, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1970.
Melby, Kari, 'The Housewife Ideology in Norway Between the Two World Wars', Scandinavian Journal of History, vol. 14, 1989, pp. 181-193.
Morkhagen, Pernille Lonne, 'The Position of Women in Norway', at http://odin.dep.no/ud/nornytt/uda-147.html, 1996.
<1> Blom, Ida, 'The Struggle for Women's Suffrage in Norway,
1885-1913', Scandinavian Journal of History, vol. 5,
1980, p. 3.
<3> Melby, Kari, 'The Housewife Ideology in Norway Between the Two World Wars', Scandinavian Journal of History, vol. 14, 1989, p. 183.
<4> Aberg, Ingrid, 'Revivalism, Philanthropy and Emancipation. Women's Liberation and Organisation in the Early Nineteenth Century', Scandinavian Journal of History, vol. 13, 1988, p. 400.
<6> Ibid., pp. 401-2.
<7> Blom, Ida, 'Women's Politics and Women in Politics in Norway Since the End of the Nineteenth Century', Scandinavian Journal of History, vol. 12, 1987, p. 19.
<8> Aberg, pp. 401, 420.
<9> Blom, 1980, p. 7.
<10> Hagemann, Gro, 'Feminism and the Sexual Division of Labour. Female Labour in the Norwegian Telegraph Service around the Turn of the Century', Scandinavian Journal of History, vol. 10, 1985, pp. 145-6.
<11> Ibid., p. 146.
<12> Ibid., p. 149.
<13> Ibid., p. 152.
<14> Blom, 1980, pp. 8-14.
<15> Ibid., pp. 16-7.
<16> Ibid., pp. 18-9.
<17> Blom, 1987, p. 23.
<18> Ibid., p. 26.
<20> Melby, p. 184.
<21> Ibid., p. 181.
<22> Griffiths, Tony, Scandinavia, Wakefield Press, Kent Town, 1993, p. 133.
<23> Melby, pp. 183-6.
<24> Melby, p. 183.
<25> Larsen, Karen, A History of Norway, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1970, p. 471.
<26> Morkhagen, Pernille Lonne, 'The Position of Women in Norway', at http://odin.dep.no/ud/nornytt/uda-147.html, 1996.
<32> Blom, Ida, 'Nation - Class - Gender: Scandinavia at the Turn of the Century', Scandinavian Journal of History, vol. 21, 1996, p. 5.