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Gender equality behind the Nordic welfare state

The Nordic countries implemented a radical modernisation of marriage legislation in the early decades of the 20th century. The rest of Europe waited until the 1970s before following suit. Now a recent Nordic research project shows how equality within marriage was the foundation of the Nordic welfare model.

KVINFO's webmagazine FORUM reviews the book "Not a Word about Love – Marriage and Politics in the Nordic Countries c. 1850-1930".

  Roskilde Library

FORUM/13.12.2007 During the last decade, the Nordic cocktail of many women in the workplace and the political arena plus a high birthrate has proven to be something of an eye-opener for the international community. The Nordic model not only places its member states at the top of the international equality league table, it also leads to generally increased prosperity.

Four leading gender historians have now thrown new light on the Nordic welfare model and point out that success is not only due to the Nordic countries’ handling of equality in the public forum, but also comes from initiatives reaching far into the private sphere. The message is that the family enjoying parity of status is the very foundation of the Nordic model. Kari Melby from Norway, Anu Pylkkänen from Finland, Bente Rosenbeck from Denmark and Christina Carlsson from Sweden have therefore investigated marriage legislation and published their findings in the book Not a Word about Love – Marriage and Politics in the Nordic Countries c. 1850-1930. From 1909 until 1929 the Nordic countries collaborated closely on the implementation of a reform programme that challenged the matrimonial patriarchate; the project was so radical that the rest of Europe did not achieve the same levels of equality until the 1970s.

Equality – a winner
The title of the book is apposite. Here there are no feel-good tales of mum, dad and the kids. On the other hand, the main characters in the book are lawyers and doctors, parliamentarians and lobbyists, for whom the family is a professional and political project – and equality is a matter of cool cash. The reform process got its skates on because the patriarchy had become a liability to the economy; the decision-makers took action by means of marriage legislation reforms that had secularisation, liberalisation and equality as their ongoing refrain.

Equality was undoubtedly a significant but definitely not the only argument in support of reform. Legal practitioners were also keen to introduce more consistent guidelines than the then current mess of different rules for married and unmarried women and the discrepancy between divorce procedure and the actual legislation.

Politicians were particularly interested in the possibility of introducing improved safeguards vis-à-vis provisions for women and children in the welfare state that was on the drawing board and which had a solid foundation in reform of marriage procedure. All the interested parties were in agreement that the nuclear family had to be protected. Around the turn of the 19th-20th century there was already widespread apprehension that marriage was being undermined because it was not an attractive proposition for the modern woman. And thus equality looked like a winner from every perspective.

Beginning with an outline of marriage legislation development 1100-1900 and the emergence of Nordic collaboration, the authors go on to chart the reform process. Firstly, by means of detailed analyses of the regulations for entering, living in and dissolving a marriage, we learn how the laws were pieced together. The study goes on to monitor the debate in Sweden and Denmark in order to show why the laws were configured as they were. On this solid base, the authors then tackle the relationship between marriage reforms and the ‘pro-women’ Nordic welfare state. The book concludes by following up the loose ends left by the reform process.

A contract between equal parties
In 19th-century democratic Denmark, the man was still the head of the family with full authority over his wife’s property and income. On entering marriage she had to promise obedience to her husband and she had no part in ‘parental power’, the contemporaneous term for parental custody.

The reforms made marriage a civil contract between two equal parties. Legislation introduced in 1851 allowed people who were not members of the Danish national church to be married at a registry office. Everyone could now choose freely between a church and a registry office marriage. The possibility of breaking completely with the religious concept of marriage as a sacrament was mooted, but in the end the proposal to make civil marriage a legal obligation and church wedding a private matter was rejected.

Divorce and marriage legislation also underwent thorough modernisation in a number of other respects. Various ‘marriage impediments’ were removed: for example, the ban on consanguineous marriage up to the seventh degree of kinship and with people who were part of the family’s close social network; it was henceforward legal to marry a cousin, niece, uncle or father’s mistress. Divorce was similarly liberalised, making it possible to be separated upon application and then divorced after a shorter or longer period of time depending on whether or not the parties were in agreement.

Hitherto, the grounds for legal divorce – virtually the only grounds – had been matrimonial misconduct, primarily adultery, and the injured party had received a form of damages in the division of property. Divorce now became a civil right and, as a standard rule, property was divided equally. The authors of the book place great weight on this shift from the traditional assumption of guilt to the modern ‘no fault’ principle in marital breakdown, where the right to divorce is independent of its cause. But, as was also the case with the marriage laws, this was a compromise between old and new. Ruling on the custody of the children, and on maintenance allowance, still took into account which of the parties was (most) guilty.

The reform process also did away with a number of male privileges. Custody of children and economic control were split – two huge steps forward which removed women’s fear of losing their children in a divorce case and the humiliation of receiving housekeeping money as a form of charitable handout. Furthermore, providing for the family, which had earlier been the duty of the husband alone, was now to be shared between husband and wife. For this to have any real meaning in a society where very few married women had paid employment, financial provision was to be equated with provision of care. An actual ‘wife wage’ was on the agenda, but any ultra-radical measures were again eschewed.

The legal age of contracting marriage was put up – in Denmark from 16 to 18 for women and from 20 to 21 for men. In the book this is classified – in literal terms quite accurately – as a tightening of the law. In feminist terms, however, the picture of a 16-year-old bride corresponds more to an image of compulsion than one of freedom of choice. Swedish marriage legislation made it mandatory for women to take the man’s surname, but in Denmark this was still a private matter.

All in all, the authors’ argument that the reforms both relaxed and tightened marriage legislation is not persuasive. The claim is mainly based on the fact that eugenics was introduced into the Nordic countries in connection with the reform of marriage legislation, and that a number of doctors warned about the social consequences of people with hereditary illnesses getting married and having children.

But medical impediments to marriage are standard issue. Impotence and other physical disabilities hindering reproduction could, along with venereal disease, other infectious diseases and mental illnesses, lead to the dissolution of marriage, and the reforms did not significantly change that.

Real feminist men
Lawyers, unlike medical doctors and ministers of religion, had plenty of opportunity to put their fingerprints on the legislation. They were surprisingly progressive. The authors highlight two: Johan Castberg, the Norwegian Minister of Justice at the time of the appointed of the Norwegian marriage commission in 1909, and Professor Viggo Bentzon, chair of the Danish commission.

Castberg was the prototype of those politicians who carried through the early equality legislation. As an MP in the Norwegian parliament, he was an active supporter of women’s suffrage and the rights of married women; the modernisation of the Norwegian divorce law that he carried out as Minister of Justice triggered off the reform process in all the Nordic countries.

Castberg’s Danish colleague Svend Høgsbro was emphatically feminist and from1884 to 1900 he sat on the executive committee of Dansk Kvindesamfund (Danish Women’s Society), the membership of which was, around 1900, one-third male. Høgsbro was also the driving force behind the 1899 law pertaining to married women’s age of majority, although it far from fulfilled his and the organisation’s agenda. When Høgsbro became Minister of Justice in 1908, the Danish Women’s Society promptly submitted a proposal for New Regulations Pertaining to the Financial Circumstances of Married Couples and the Custody of a Married Couple’s Children, which was favourably received and had a great impact on the reform work.

The marriage commission could draw on a network that had been built up since 1872 through the tri-annual meetings of Nordic lawyers. Marriage legislation had been on the agenda at these meetings from the very outset, and it was here that many of the strings to the women’s movement bow were tuned. Around the turn of the 19th-20th century a handful of women graduated in Law; the progressive approach of this milieu was exemplified by the fact that in 1915 one of these women – Norway’s first female lawyer, Elise Sem – was appointed to the commission.

When Høgsbro died in 1910, Viggo Bentzon was ready to follow in his footsteps. He immediately established a hotline to the women’s movement by asking the Danish Women’s Society to nominate members of a family law committee who could act as consultants for the commission. Bentzon was one of the key speakers at the 1914 second Nordic conference on women’s issues; here he launched a plan for the nomination of female commission members. His scheme was put into operation shortly afterwards.

The reforms did not meet much opposition. The authors are obliged, a little reluctantly, to note that the “women advocates of feminism were not the instigators of reform” (p. 118). These women objected when Bentzon, with his steadfast equality logic – “impassive parity” in his own terminology – opposed the rule that mothers should always be awarded custody of children under the age of two, and also insisted on equal rights for children regardless of whether they were born within or out of wedlock.

Nor do the authors make it easier for themselves in the way they mix up gender and profession when it comes to the main players: “lawyers”, “politicians” and “women”. As mentioned, professional women had wind in their sails; the majority were involved in feminist issues and were obvious candidates to take office in their various fields. Elise Sem was joined on the family commission by the doctor Estrid Hein and teacher Emilia Broomè. Female politicians in Denmark and Finland were involved in processing the reforms. And, as we have seen, it was men who accounted for the most forward-looking profiles.

It is a classic aspect of feminist history that women, by organising, achieved considerable political influence before they achieved formal political rights – against fierce opposition because the men would not relinquish their power. Recent studies of the early equality legislation have questioned this gender struggle paradigm, which has its roots in the separatism and anti-parliamentary stance of feminism in the 1970s. As this study also documents, it is more a case of a consensus on equality policies based on terms set by the women’s movement. A women’s movement, that is, of feminists from both genders.

After the victory celebrations
On March 24 1925, the Danish Women’s Society celebrated the marriage legislation reforms at the last in a series of victory festivities that had been launched with the right to vote procession of 1915. And then the morning-after feeling kicked in – what kind of equality had women achieved? Women’s representation in the Danish parliament and local authorities bumbled along at a couple of percent. Growing division of work by gender eroded the equality legislation. Married women were given the sack.

Fake equality, housewife-contracts and reactionary discriminatory feminism, most would say – as instructed by Yvonne Hirdman, who, on the basis of studies of modern Swedish history, has introduced a – in a Nordic context – ‘key’ theory on gender and power.

At the centre of Hirdman’s “gender theory” is an informal gender-contract, shaped and changed via continuous negotiation on all levels from governmental offices to living rooms. She attempts to capture change and continuity in one frame by means of a double-exposure of feminist triumph and the tenacity of patriarchy that demonstrates how the fundamental patriarchal structure pops up in new guises every time feminists believe they have exorcised it. Housewife-, parity- and equality-contract are the names Hirdman gives to the gender-contracts developed successively following the introduction of voting rights for women – and after, that is, the reform of marriage legislation.

The housewife-contract is tailor-made to describe the complexity of the reform process, and to explain why gains in terms of equality have no counterparts in terms of changes to division of work and power – and how it is possible to abolish gender discrimination in total agreement and in the full glare of publicity, only to realise later that direct discrimination was merely the top of the iceberg and that indirect discrimination is far harder to eradicate.

But the authors do not consider housewife-contract to be an adequate description. They suggest it should be, if not simply replaced then at least supplemented by the term equality-contract. Unlike Hirdman, they adopt the definition of equality which the players at the time used. They take the legislative parallelisation of provision of money and provision of care at face value, and play with the thought of back-dating the dual-provider family to the 1920s.

It is hard to disagree with the book’s manifesto: “Equality can only be understood in an historical context. Concepts of gender equality are continually constructed and reconstructed in an historical process” (p. 321), but, once that is said, the troublesome issue of parity feminism and discriminatory feminism remains. Different definitions of equality implicate different strategies, and this reviewer thinks, in agreement with Yvonne Hirdman, that the route to real equality goes via provision of money and that discriminatory feminism is a detour.

Community with wide differences
The Nordic approach provides obvious comparative advantages, and even though the crux is harmonisation of legislation, interesting differences are also exposed. The authors draw both an east/west axis with a common Danish-Norwegian profile versus a Swedish-Finnish profile, and the south/north axis familiar from EU policy, along which Denmark follows its own path.

But the approach is exacting for the reader as it can be difficult to navigate through the legislation of the individual countries – and so much more given that the book is not equipped with a subject index, chronologies or other short cuts to, for example, the legal age for marriage in Denmark or rules about surnames in Sweden.

The research project itself is used as an illustration of Nordic community. The group emphasise their collective approach to the work, and chapters are not assigned an author. But as the language used alternates between Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, the authors have left their signature anyway. It could have been interesting if they had also reflected upon their different basic premises.

The book also tells a story of great disparity in the levels of gender history in the Nordic countries. There are far more Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish studies to build on, and it is no accident that Danish Bente Rosenbeck’s main contribution is to be found in the theoretical section.

Despite, by virtue of its wide-ranging objectives, the book being somewhat inaccessible and not always easy to navigate, Not a Word about Love is a fascinating contribution to an understanding of the Nordic approach to the welfare state. With its mapping of the significance of family legislation, the book is a very welcome supplement to the history of equality, which has otherwise predominantly focused on education, waged work and politics.

Translation: Gaye Kynoch



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