Ibsen and Feminism

Ibsen a Feminist or Socialist:
The question of Ibsen’s relationship to feminism, whether one is referring specifically to the turn-of-the-century women’s movement or more generally to feminism as an ideology, has been a vexed one.

The view supporting Ibsen as feminist can be seen to lie along a spectrum of attitudes with Ibsen as quasi-socialist at one end and Ibsen as humanist at the other. Proponents of the first stance might point to an amateur performance of A Doll’s House in 1886 in a Bloomsbury drawing room in which all the participants were not only associated with the feminist cause but had achieved or would achieve prominence in the British socialist movement. Looking at Ibsen’s advocates in terms of political groups, one may safely claim that his strongest supporters were found in socialist circles.

Ibsen and Women Cause:
Ibsen himself often linked the women’s cause to other areas in need of reform, arguing for example that ‘all the unprivileged’ (including women) should form a strong progressive party to fight for the improvement of women’s position and of education. Similarly, in a frequently quoted speech made to the working men of Trondheim in 1885, Ibsen stated:
The transformation of social conditions which is now being undertaken in the rest of Europe is very largely concerned with the future status of the workers and of women. That is what I am hoping and waiting for, that is what I shall work for, all I can.
The question of Ibsen’s relation­ship to socialism is illuminated by the fact that, in the nineteenth century, socialism and feminism were familiar bedfellows. The most prominent socialist thinkers of the day, male and female, saw that true sexual equality necessitates fundamental changes in the structure of society; it is no accident that progressive attitudes toward women in Scandinavia have been bound up with overall liberal trends.
Ibsen: The Humanist
At the other end of the spectrum, those arguing that Ibsen’s concerns were not narrowly feminist or political but broadly human invariably cite the speech he made at a banquet given in his honor by the Norwegian Women’s Rights League on 26 May 1898:
I am nor a member of the Women’s Rights League. Whatever I have written has been without any conscious thought of making propaganda. I have been more poet and less social philosopher than people generally seem inclined to believe. I thank you for the toast, but must disclaim the honor of having consciously worked for the women’s rights movement. I am not even quite clear as to just what this women’s rights movement really is. To me it has seemed a problem of humanity in general.
This statement is perhaps best understood, however, against the back­ground of Ibsen’s frequently voiced disinclination to belong to parties or societies of any kind. In general, it seems unproductive to regard these three ‘causes’—the socialist cause, the women’s cause, and the human cause—as mutually exclusive for Ibsen. His concern with the state of the human soul cuts across class and gender lines. Yet this is not to say that he did not at times concentrate his attention on the condition of women as women.
Ibsen views about Women cause
His speech to the Norwegian Women’s Rights League notwithstanding, the younger Ibsen made a number of claims which would indeed qualify him for the position of ‘social philosopher’. In notes made for A Doll’s House in 1878, he writes that:
A woman cannot be herself in contemporary society, it is an exclusively male society with laws drafted by men, and with counsel and judges who judge feminine conduct from the male point of view.
Bearing out this sentiment, in a speech delivered the following year to the Scandinavian Society in Rome Ibsen urged that the post of librarian be filled by a woman and that the female members of the Society be granted the right to vote in meetings. Even more politically charged was his support in 1884 of a petition in favor of separate property rights for married women; in explaining why women and not men should be consulted about the married women’s property bill, Ibsen commented that ‘to consult men in such a matter is like asking wolves if they desire better protection for the sheep.
Ibsen’s Family and Feminism Movement
A crucial element of Ibsen’s relationship to feminism is the role played by actual feminists in his life and work. Their influence began within his own family, with his wife Suzannah Thoresen Ibsen and her stepmother and former governess Magdalene Thoresen. Magdalene Thoresen, Danish writer of novels and dramas, translator of the French plays the young Ibsen staged at the Norwegian National Theatre in Bergen, and ‘probably the first “New Woman” he had ever met’, was a key role model for Suzannah, an independent-minded woman whose favourite author was George Sand—Suzannah left her mark on Ibsen’s conception of such strong-willed heroines as Hjordis of The Vikings at Helgehtid (1858), Svanhild of Love’s Comedy (1862), and Nora of A Doll’s House.
Camilla Collett and Ibsen
But perhaps even more important in affecting Ibsen’s attitudes toward women was Camilla Collett, who is usually regarded as Norway’s first and most significant feminist. Her realist novel The District Governor’s Daugh­ters (1854-5), which attacks the institution of marriage because of its neglect of women’s feelings and its concomitant destruction of love, finds echoes in Love’s Comedy. During the 1870s Ibsen had extended and impassioned con­versations with Collett about issues such as marriage and women’s role in society. His great esteem for her is evident in a letter written in anticipation of her seventieth birthday in 1883, in which he predicts that the Norway of the future will bear traces of her ‘intellectual pioneer-work’, and later he writes her of her long-standing influence on his writings.
A Doll’s House and Feminism
No introduction to the topic of Ibsen and feminism would be complete without mention of his reception. Whether or not one chooses to regard his work itself as feminist, there is no denying that much of it—above all A Doll’s House—was enthusiastically welcomed by feminist thinkers in Norway and throughout Europe. In closing the door on her husband and children, Nora opened the way to the turn-of-the-century women’s move­ment. To mention only a few examples of the play’s impact, Gina Krog, a leading Norwegian feminist in the 1880s and first editor of the feminist journal Nyltende, called the drama and its likely reformative effects a miracle. Amalie Skram, Norway’s foremost naturalist writer and the first Norwegian author to treat female sexuality, praised the play dramatically and psychologically and saw it as a warning of what would happen when women in general woke up to the injustices that had been committed against them.
James Joyce appreciation of Ibsen
Given Ibsen’s sensitivity to feminist issues, it comes as no surprise that he has often been praised for his creation of female characters. James Joyce’s evaluation of 1900 is representative:
Ibsen’s knowledge of humanity is no where more obvious than in his portrayal of women. He amazes one by his painful introspection; he seems to know them better than they know themselves. Indeed, if one may say so of an eminently virile man, there is a curious admixture of the woman in his nature.
Although the majority of Ibsen’s protagonists are male, some of his most memorable and well-known characters are female, such as Nora Helmer, Helene Alving, Rebecca West, and Hedda Gabler; Elizabeth Robins speaks for all turn-of-the-century actresses in claiming that ‘no dramatist has ever meant so much to the women of the stage as Henrik Ibsen’, The power of his female roles has continued to attract top-calibre performers down to our own day, as is evident in the homage paid him by Julie Harris, Jane Fonda, Liv Ullmann, Glenda Jackson, Susannah York and others.
Emancipated Wmen and Motherhood
Female characters are of course featured most prominently in depictions of the emanci­pated woman and motherhood. These two issues are of central concern in illuminating Ibsen’s relationship to feminism. Regarding the first, Ibsen was widely credited with virtually inventing the emancipated woman in the last Act of A Doll’s House. Because Nora’s self-realization occurs so late in the play, however, I will focus here on four other figures who may to varying degrees be seen as emancipated women: Lona Hessel of Pillars of Society, Petra Stockmann of An Enemy of the People, Rebecca West of Rosmers-holm (1886), and Hilde Wangel of The Master Builder (1892.).
These characters are distinguished by their rejection of a strict division between conventional masculine and feminine behavior, by their disdain for public opinion, and by their freedom from the hypocrisy that often accompanies maintenance of the status quo. Their emancipated status is reflected in their appearance, language and behavior. In the first Act of Pillars of Society we learn from the townswomen’s gossip that Lona Hessel, stepsister of Bernick’s wife Betty, had scandalized the town before her departure to America to join Betty’s younger brother Johan by cutting her hair short and wearing men’s boots; returning now from America, she is initially taken for a member of the circus because she carries a bag over her shoulder by the handle of her umbrella and waves at the gawking towns­people. Similarly, Hilde Wangel appears in Halvard Solness’s office dressed in walking clothes with her skirt hitched up, complete with rucksack, plaid, and alpenstock and ‘slightly tanned by the sun’ ,flaunting her dis­regard for traditional standards of feminine attire and beauty. The un-conventionality of both characters is further evident in their speech, which is dotted with colloquialisms; topics traditionally regarded as unmentionable for young middle-class women, and swear words.
Rebellious attitude of Female characters
The aggressive and forthright behavior of these female characters is shaped by their lack of concern for what people think. In Pillars of Society the townswomen disclose that, prior to her trip to America, Lona had slapped Bernick in the face when he announced his engagement to Betty; her scandalous behaviour continued abroad, they report, where she sang in saloons for pay, gave public lectures, and published ‘a quite outrageous book’. Upon returning home she shocks observers by washing her face at the pump in the middle of the marketplace. Rebecca West defies public opinion by continuing to live as a single woman beneath one roof with Rosmer following his wife Beata’s death; as Rebecca says to Rosmer, ‘Oh, why must we worry about what others think? We know, you and I, that we have no reason to feel guilty’. Concomitantly, in contrast to the traditional female of the day, she seems wholly lacking in maternal incli­nations, observing to the housekeeper that Rosmer is better off childless, since he is not the kind of man who can ‘put up with a lot of crying children’. When Mrs Solness warns the older Hilde of The Master Builder that people might stare at her if she ventures into town in her unconventional garb, she responds that that would be fun.
Higher Education of Female characters
A further trait indicative of the emancipated character of these women figures is their high level of education. Lona’s authorship of a book speaks for itself; Petra Stockmann, a full-time teacher who first appears on stage with a pile of exercise books under her arm, expresses unalloyed liking for her work. Rebecca, largely educated at home by her (foster) father Dr West, reads radical newspapers in an effort to keep abreast of new developments and shares books and ideas with Rosmer. Significantly, it is she who takes the initiative in attempting to support the impoverished revolutionary writer Ulrik Brendel by asking the radical journalist Peter Mortensgaard to come to his aid. Reportedly inspired by Ibsen’s stepmother-in-law Magdalene Thoresen, the character of Rebecca West was hailed by feminists. Gina Krog heard the ‘gospel of the future’ proclaimed in Kosmersholm: ‘Ibsen’s belief in women, in the women of his country, has never been expressed so proudly as here.’
Liberated Tendencies
In keeping with their liberated tendencies, these figures typically serve tounmask the lies which shadow the lives of other characters. Petra, a free-thinking young woman who refuses to translate a story because it defends conventional Christian beliefs, is repelled by the hypocrisy of a school system which requires her to teach things she does not believe in and declares that she would prefer to start a school herself if she had the means. She wholly supports her father’s plan to expose the pollution infecting the municipal baths, like him subordinating the individual well-being of their family to a commitment to truth, principle and the general welfare. In a similar vein, Lona Hessel favourably compares the air of the American prairies to the shroud-like smell of moral linen she encounters back home and, when Rorlund questions her as to her intention regarding their society, expressly announces her mission: ‘I want to let in some fresh air, my dear pastor’. The primary target of her campaign is Bernick, whom she finally exhorts to confess the multiple deceptions on which his business, his marriage and his reputation are founded.
Aasta Hansteen’s influence on Ibsen Feminist views
Like that of Rebecca West, the conception of Lona Hessel was inspired by an actual feminist contemporary of Ibsen’s, Aasta Hansteen. A portrait painter by profession and an outspoken suffragette who often wore men’s boots and carried a whip when she spoke in public, Hansteen achieved her greatest notoriety in 1874 by supporting the cause of a Swedish baroness who claimed to have been seduced and abandoned by a Norwegian medical student. In presenting the baroness’s cause as an issue concerning all women and in arguing for the expulsion of the student in articles, speeches and demonstrations, Hansteen succeeded in ostracizing herself. Ibsen was sym­pathetic to Hansteen and disturbed by her fate at the hands of the press and public. Her influence on Pillars of Society is perhaps most obvious in Lona’s remarks to Bernick about the treatment of women, both his own and that of society at large. When Bernick complains that his wife Betty has never been any of the things he needed, Lona counters: ‘Because you never shared your interests with her. Because you’ve never been open or frank with her in any of your dealings. Because you let her go on suffering under the shame you unburdened on her family’. Lona generalizes this observation in her famous comment to Bernick near the play’s end: ‘this society of yours is like a lot of old bachelors: you never see the women’.
New Women and Ibsen
These four female characters share many properties with the New Woman, a literary type which flourished above all in Victorian fiction of the 1890s. The New Woman typically values self-fulfillment and independence rather than the stereotypically feminine ideal of self-sacrifice; believes in legal and sexual equality; often remains single because of the difficulty of combining such equality with marriage; is more open about her sexuality than the ‘Old Woman’; is well-educated and reads a great deal; has a job; is athletic or otherwise physically vigorous and, accordingly, prefers comfort­able clothes (sometimes male attire) to traditional female garb. Yet while Ibsen’s emancipated women characters were influential for the conception of the New Woman, they cannot be wholly identified with this type. A recognition of the qualifications to their emancipation is important for an understanding of Ibsen’s position vis-a-vis feminism.
Women’s Cause: A Close Look
Taking a close look at the figures discussed above, we see that all four are ultimately defined in terms of male characters. Lona Hessel’s ‘character and strength of mind and independence’ notwithstanding, she tells Bernick that she has returned from her new life in America because of her feelings for him, in order to help him re-establish himself on honest ground. Furthermore, referring to her role as ‘foster-mother’ to her younger stepbrother Johan in America, she observes: ‘Heaven knows, it’s about the only thing I have achieved in this world. But it gives me a sort of right to exist’. Throughout An Enemy of the People Petra Stockmann’s views are shaped by those of her father, an influence underlined by the drama’s final word: the curtain falls as Petra grasps Thomas Stockmann’s hands and exclaims, ‘Father!’
Even Rebecca West, so enthusiastically championed by contemporary feminists, reveals herself to be decidedly oriented around men. When Rosmer’s brother-in-law Kroll observes (referring to her remaining with Rosmer): ‘You know … there’s something rather splendid about that – a woman giving up the best years of her young life, sacrificing them for the sake of others,’ Rebecca responds: ‘Oh, what else would I have had to live for?’. Her visions of ennobling humanity are focused on Rosmer, the object of her love, rather than on herself; when Rosmer asks her towards the end of the play how she thinks things will be for her now, she replies that it is not important. Kroll’s comment that what she calls her emancipation is only an abstraction, that it never ‘got into [her] blood’, may be an accurate one; it is in any event supported by her confession that when she reached twenty-five she began subtracting a year from her admitted age, since she felt she was ‘getting a bit too old’ to be unmarried.
A Stereotypical Feminine
Rebecca West is also stereotypically feminine in her seductiveness, her tendency to use her wiles and great attractiveness to manipulate others. Kroll, saying ‘Who is there you couldn’t bewitch … if you tried?’, accuses her of having used his former infatuation with her to gain entree to Rosmersholm; Brendel calls her ‘my enchanting little mermaid’ in warning Rosmer not to build on her in carrying out his goals. As Kroll points out, Rebecca had succeeded in captivating the unstable Beata as well, and her removal of Beata through psychic murder – prompting Beata’s suicide by leading her to believe that Rebecca was pregnant by Rosmer and that a childless wife was in the way – hardly resembles feminist solidarity.
Femme Fatale
Directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of Beata, Rosmer and of course herself, Rebecca has as much in common with another literary type that flourished at the turn of the century as she does with the New Woman, the femme fatale. Her high degree of sensuality, characterized by as early an observer as Salome as a ‘wildness that resembles a beast of prey at rest and which hungers for spoil’, further associates her with this type. Like the conventional femme fatale, she is incapable of moderating her passion, but rather either allows it to lead her to irrational acts such as the psychic murder of Beata or represses it completely.
Ibsen’s Mother Figures
Insofar as the female ability to bear children is the most crucial ramifi­cation of the physiological difference between women and men, the issue of motherhood has been central to every feminist movement or programme. As Julia Kristeva writes, it is not woman as such who is oppressed in patri­archal society, but the mother. A focused look at Ibsen’s mother figures discloses a similar message: maternity is viewed most positively by those who are not biological mothers, whereas his actual or prospective mothers either deny their pregnancy, abandon their children, give them away to be cared for elsewhere, raise them in an atmosphere of deception, or neglect them. The victimization these un-motherly mothers inflict results from their own victimization by a powerful social norm equating anatomy with destiny; in Ibsen’s notes to A Doll’s House he conjectures that a mother in modern society is like ‘certain insects who go away and die when she has done her duty in the propagation of the race’. Hence Ibsen bears witness to a larger nineteenth-century historical strategy which Michel Foucault has termed ‘hysterization’, or the process of defining women in terms of female sexuality, the result of which was to bind them to their reproductive function.
Conclusion
Supporting the belief that a women’s mind and body are hers to control as she wishes, Ibsen’s oeuvre allies him with feminist thinkers not only of his era but of our own day as well.
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