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What is Nordic Feminism, Anyway?!


FORUM/15.4.99 Some of the most fascinating aspects of the book "Is there a Nordic Feminism" are the stories of the background struggles for the political progressivism in the Nordic countries. As an English-speaking (American) academic who happens to live permanently in Denmark, I have a general sympathy for the progressivism of the Scandinavian welfare states, and have always assumed that this progressivism extends to gender politics in the Nordic region.

Is there a Nordic feminism? If so, what is "significantly Nordic" in this project, and what is characteristically feminist? This anthology of new essays poses these questions, though it does not pretend to offer explict answers.

Is there a Nordic Feminism? is a project that began six years ago in response to a British publishers' interest. Since there have been volumes on Dutch and British feminism, it seemed appropriate to invite a volume on Nordic feminism. Thus, this project puts into focus the geo-politics of feminism: to what extent are national, regional, and cultural histories and identifications significant for feminist politics and scholarship? That they are so is undoubtedly true, as evidenced in the recent conference held in Paris to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Second Sex. In that forum, there were remarkably distinctive theoretical tangents represented by Anglo-American feminists (e.g., interested in the sex/gender debate), Nordic feminists (interested in the history of phenomenology), and French feminists (interested in de Beauvoir's personal and intellectual presence).

The goal of this book is to represent a geo-political profile that can be called Nordic feminism to an international audience. It includes women scholars from all of the five Nordic countries - Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark - in fields drawn from the humanities and social sciences. Its thematic lens is thus perhaps wider than it would be, were it focussed solely on new feminist scholarship in any of these individual countries.

Because of the genesis of the project, the primary audience for the book is an international English-speaking audience. Therefore, the question posed in the title of the book, "is there a Nordic feminism?" is posed not just in relation to internal domestic discussions of feminism, nor merely in terms of strategies for regional cooperation between these five countries. Rather, the problematic of Nordic feminism is defined in relation to the non-Nordic.

As the series editor of this volume notes, it is an attempt to make visible a body of work that "has sometimes been obscured by the writings of French or American feminist scholars." Its reception will take place on the meeting ground between the presuppositions of a non-Nordic audience and the contributions of scholars working from these five countries.

As such, I admittedly consider myself an ideal reader for the volume. As an English-speaking (American) academic who happens to live permanently in Denmark, I have neither the absorption of national identity that my children are receiving through every birthday party, soccer match, and historical television quiz, nor a scholarly expertise in the history and culture of the Nordic countries. Instead, I have a general sympathy for the progressivism of the Scandinavian welfare states, and with good reason (in terms of political representation of women in government and civilized maternity leave policies) have always assumed that this progressivism extends to gender politics in the Nordic region.

Therefore, some of the most fascinating aspects of this book for me were the stories of the background struggles for this political progressivism in the Nordic countries that were presented in the first section of the book Politics in ambiguous times. For example, Christina Carlsson Wetterberg's article Equal or different? That's not the question, discusses the political conflicts between women in Sweden at the turn of the last century, i.e., between those who struggled for better wages and the possibility of childcare facilities for women and those who sought improved "family" (i.e. male) wages.

Gunnel Karlsson, in Social Democratic women's coup in the Swedish parliament, discusses how some of the most renowned Swedish politicians, such as Olaf Palme, fought against allowing one month of parental leave for the father. In other words, some of the most progressive features of Swedish family policy were fought for by women in conflict with the decision-making channels of the Social Democratic party. Both of these articles reveal the difficult history behind the "progressive" achievements of the welfare state, as well as thematize women's complex relation to organized political parties.

Sighrudur Helga Sigurbjaranrdottir's article On their own premisses': the political project of the Icelandic Women's Alliance presents the story of women's recent political participation in Iceland. In the early 1980's, when the Women's Alliance was established, women held only three seats out of sixty in the Icelandic parliament. The history of the Women's Alliance is a remarkable story about how successful women's political participation can be when it impacts not only the content of political debate, but the form of political organization and decision-making as well.

The second section of the book Organization and contested spaces includes fascinating material about the historical and present gendered meaning of space, as in Anne Scott Sørensen's article on the literary salons in Scandinavia, and Karen Sjørup's analysis of the shifting gender dynamics of the medical profession. The final section of the book Identity/subjectivity - between equality and difference includes both material that is specifically Nordic (as in Kirsten Drotner's article on the eroticism of Asta Nielsen, Danish silent screen star), as well as material that is focussed specifically on international debates (as in Sara Heinamma and Martina Reuter's excellent article on the rationality of emotions and feelings, which argues for an approach to feelings as embodied meanings - an approach that is inspired by Merleau-Ponty).

The only chapter, aside from the introduction, that explicitly addresses the question, "is there a Nordic feminism?" is Bente Rosenbeck's closing chapter, Nordic women's studies and gender research. Appropriately, Rosenbeck problematizes the question of the "Nordic" in relation to Benedict Andersen's theory that a nation is "an imagined political community" (344). Thus, if there is a meaning to "Nordic" in Nordic feminism, it is not an identity based on historical, geographical or cultural givens, but is one that is in a process of construction.

Rosenbeck gives some of the history of this construction of the Nordic, both in terms of public discussions about sexual morality, and in terms of specific Nordic associations, universities, research councils, and journals, of which this volume could be viewed as an offshoot.

The book is an attempt to profile Nordic researchers in gender and women's studies, who have not had the cultural-intellectual prominence associated, for example, with "French feminism". But as the de Beauvoir conference in Paris made clear, "French feminism" as it is known in the English-speaking world, is also a political construct that favors certains writers (e.g., those associated with psychoanalysis and deconstruction) and excludes others (e.g., those interested in sex-class analyses of work and ideology).

What can be gleaned from the way in which this volume constructs Nordic feminism?

To their credit, the editors shy away from imposing any unified theoretical profile on their contributors. Both authors and editors emphasize the diversity of women's positions and the diversity of methodologies - diversity itself being a buzz-word internationally for feminist theory in the last decade. Any attempt to appeal to a unity of Nordic feminist scholarship might run the risk of achieving this unity by relying on certain ideologically-imbued images, such as J.F. Willumsen's famous painting of the emancipated Scandinavian woman.

So if there is no internal unity for Nordic feminism, on what basis can Nordic feminism be constructed? Here, the volume marks an ambivalence towards the concept of Nordic that is evident in non-academic discourse as well. On the one hand, Nordic (in this case Nordic feminism) is viewed first of all as meaningful in relation to the outside, to that which is non-Nordic (e.g., English, Dutch, or French feminism). On the other hand, Nordic is taken to be a concept that meaningfully marks out a trans-national alliance that is based not on common identities, but on a "family resemblance". This family resemblance may consist in similar political structures (the welfare states), legislation (domestic relations bills) and in cultural coalitions.

Just as it is difficult to specify Nordic characteristics, so it is also difficult to specify what is common to feminist scholarship from this region. The scholarship in this book ranges from empirically-based studies of the history of party organizations and women's efforts to transform the political process, to analyses of postmodern forms of organization (Sjørup), to philosophical debates about the nature of emotions and feelings (Heinammaa and Reuter). Consequently, one must accept a certain de facto characterization of Nordic feminist research as that which is carried out by women researchers in these five countries - research that reflects both the specific history of the Nordic countries, but which also engages in the main currents of international intellectual debate.

Acknowledging the difficulties in presenting Nordic feminism points to the complexities of the problematic, not to weaknesses in the book. The editors have done an outstanding job in weaving together common and overlapping themes, and in focussing not on just one Nordic feminism but on its many faces. As such, the analytical organization of the volume by themes, instead of by discipline or nationality, is on the whole a successful strategy for unifying the volume.

Nonetheless, the English-speaking audience will no doubt come back asking for more. How is it, as Anna Jonasdottir and Drude von der Fehr claim in their introduction, that one of the streams of Nordic feminism that "focuses on the organization of everyday life, on dialogical or interactive individuality, on the importance of ethics in the formation of gendered individuality, and on ontological realism" can be viewed as "significantly Nordic"? In what ways do Nordic histories, cultural debates, philosophies, have particular sympathies, for example, with "ontological realism"?

These claims sets up a trajectory of analysis that is more ambitious than can be fulfilled in this one volume. But by whetting the reader's appetite, the volume has also taken a long step towards its ultimate goal of profiling the problematic of Nordic feminism for an international audience.


Robin Schott, Ph.D., is feminist philosopher based in Copenhagen. She has recently recieved funding from the Danish Research Council for a major research project. She has contributed articles to numerous anthologies, the latest is Philosophical Reflections on War Rape in "On Feminist Ethics and Politics", ed. Claudia Card, 1999.

Is there a Nordic Feminism? Nordic Feminist thought on culture and society Edited by Drude von der Fehr, Anna G. Jonasdottir and Bente Rosenbeck. London: UCL Press, 1998. (366 pages)

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