Woman’s Suffrage in Norway
Seen Through the Eyes
of an American Tourist
1916 — St. Paul Welfare League Club, St. Paul MN
Will you pardon some personal allusions? My experience and knowledge gained while touring Europe a few years ago was very instructive to me, and may be interesting to you.
I have an uncle and four cousins living in Oslo. They are well educated and speak English fluently. While entertained there I saw a great deal of their home life. I found it very interesting, from my American viewpoint, to listen to their opinions on home life and politics. A tourist merely passing through the country, and living at hotels, misses this opportunity of getting “next to” many vital questions.
One of my cousins, although she is the mother of two children of ten and twelve years, has been a teacher of many years standing in the Oslo public schools. She might absent herself for a year or more, still retaining her position, provided she employed a substitute.
In many respects the Norwegian women are ahead of us. The ballot has come to them as a natural result of centuries of honest, earnest efforts to better themselves and their children under tremendous disadvantages. The mother has been the most concerned in this struggle. Certain characteristics are always accredited to the Scandinavian race–among them courage, independence, thrift, religion, efficiency, hospitality, industry, etc. The natural scenery may have something to do with moulding character.
Norway is a very mountainous country and most of these mountains are composed of solid slabs of granite.
Toward the snow-capped peaks, when the eye visualizes the multi-colored hues of those seemingly gray rocks, the sense of beauty and artistic taste is satisfied. They reflect colors varying from the deepest royal purple to the clearest of pink and green, splashed on in the most fantastic forms and shapes. The eye traveling still further upward encounters the eternal snow, blended into a vivid blue sky. All this is reflected in the crystal-clear waters of the world-famous fjords, invariably at the foot of the mountain ranges. Can one wonder that the Norwegians are lovers of nature: that this nature brings them nearer to the pure and the good? Much of the land is rocky, waste, arid, and barren; but there are some rich valleys owned by a class of farmers nicknamed “Sofa peasants.” The majority of the men have a big source of livelihood in the waters. which are filled with the most delicious fish. Norway is the only country training her men for professional fishermen. This source of wealth is not as apparent to the tourist as the mining and manufacturing industries, the waving fields of grain, and the cattle grazing on the plains and in the mountains. The milkmaids living in the mountain chalets are extremely interesting to tourists unfamiliar with the customs of Norway. On a barren mountain side I saw a log cabin with a very small patch of green beside it. Pointing to the place I said to the coachman, “How can any one exist on so little?” In a droll way he answered: “Oh, if they have their health, they can live quite a while.”
Norway with its saga, folk lore, folk songs, and colorful history (both ancient and modern), is an extremely interesting country. It may to some of us seem a little old-fashioned and out-of-date; still it is wide awake on the questions of the day. Its natural ruggedness divides it into sections where the people become more or less factious. Hence we have so many dialects and traits peculiar to the section where they live.
Since the country is too poor and too mountainous to build many railroads and highways, they have learned to do without many large cities. The people are independent and self-supporting. The women cook, bake, spin, weave, dye, sew, knit; in fact, they make nearly all articles necessary for existence. Of them it may be said: “To live well in the quiet routine of life; to fill a little space because God wills it; to go on cheerfully, with a petty round of little duties, and little provocations; to smile for the joys of others when the heart is aching–who does this, his work will follow him. He is one of God’s heroes.”
These people are efficient and thrifty because they have been trained so, living in a country of bare necessities in most instances. Hospitable? They welcome outside news, wonder at the world at large, and salute strangers within their domain. Even with their barbarian ancestors it was a sacred duty to welcome strangers, provide shelter, and give aid. They are noted for fidelity, and Horace says: “Fidelity is the sister of justice.”
Climate and cleanliness make them sturdy and strong: frugality and religion make them physically and morally fit to combat evil and immorality. Rev. Morrill, Minneapolis, says: “The finest scenery in the world is in Norway. Its sublime seas, fragrant forests, mighty mountains, and splendid sun make it one of the most magnificent countries in the world. Its women are modest; its men honest. I found not one beggar in all Sweden and Norway, but when I came to Newcastle in England, I found more vice, begging and pauperism in one square, in one minute, than I had seen in four weeks in Sweden and Norway.”
Do you wonder that under such conditions these people have grown toward higher standards of living througout the centuries? It was the Norsemen’s spirit of democracy and fair play that worked its way into the Magna Charta and the Declaration of Independence. Norway has always favored self government, even when she had kings. In 1812 little democratic Norway took the reins in her own hands and abolished all her nobility, of which she had her European share. Norway passed a law whereby, when the titled noblemen died, their titles should die with them. She cared not for the opinions of the other monarchies. The probabilities are that all War might have been averted had other European countries followed suit and acted like independent little Norway.
The love and care of dumb animals is very noticeable to the tourist. At every unusually steep incline on the main highways are signs: “Passengers are requested to walk up the hill.” The coachman stops in front of the sign. Some Americans traveling in Norway who paid first-class fare were put into the same coach with second and third class passengers. At first they grumbled at this seeming injustice to them, and did not feel right about it until, later in the day, when they came to a very steep hill, the coachman stopped and said: “First-class passengers keep your seats; second-class passengers get out and walk; third-class passengers get out and push.”
Two-thirds of the emigrants from Norway are men, leaving a majority of women in the homeland. In Oslo there is a majority of thirty thousand. With a clear consciences and healthy bodies the women have forged ahead. Their love and fidelity to home and children are striking characteristics. They teach the children at home, as well as in school and it is a disgrace to fail in examinations, either in secular or religious education. The result is only 2 per cent illiteracy. How does that compare with our country? The women have always been respected and honored, but it was not until 1850 that the women demanded recognition. The innate dignity of the Norwegian women prevented them from taking part in demonstrations typical of the woman suffrage movement of some other countries. Although they have been more reserved, they have been more independent than many of their sisters. Their method of propaganda has been almost entirely along literary lines, creating public opinion in an interesting way. Several famous women have spent life and strength in efforts to emancipate the women of Norway. At first the greatest concern was woman’s spiritual and moral growth; then the privilege of educational advantages; later, an equal standing with the men in social, economical, political and judicial life.
Camilla Collet was the first to broach this new thought of “Better opportunities for women.” In 1850 her novel, “The Superintendent’s Daughter”, aroused the whole nation, and Struck consternation into all hearts. Ibsen and Bjørnson did much to crystalize the sentiment in favor of equal suffrage, although it was not a paramount issue. The people of Norway are great readers, and, next to Iceland, Norway has the smallest per cent of illiteracy in any European country. Even the peasants receive great advantages by reading soul-inspiring books by great writers. During the next thirty years Camilla Collett wrote many books, all of which treated various phases of the subject next to her heart. Every one read the interesting stories and their thoughts unconsciously were turned to the cause they championed. Other writers soon followed, as Amalia Sorum, Aasta Hansteen, Gina Krog, and others. The first victory came in 1854 when the law placed the daughters under the same inheritance law as the sons. In 1864 women were legally allowed to enter the business world. In 1882 the university opened its doors to women, and as a result, in 1884 they were allowed to take a commercial examination. In 1888, twenty-five years after the first law of privilege to the unmarried woman, the married woman received the same and additional privileges. In 1889 they had the privilege of being elected on the school-board; in 1894 they were allowed to be active partakers of social meetings; in 1900 they were elected on the board of charity; in 1901 they received a very restricted ballot; in 1902 they served on the jury; in 1903 they were given a ballot in church affairs; in 1903 the first woman took her degree as “Doctor of Philosophy” at the University of Christiania; in 1904 they were allowed to practice before the bar of justice; in 1906 the first woman was named as Adjunct; in 1907 they were given a State Ballot, and in 1910 full suffrage or Universal Ballot.
Women of Norway are now allowed all avenues of industry except military services; all positions except preachers in the State churches. They are busy in all affairs, and serve in councils, juries, boards of charity and education. At present Norway has one woman judge, and one member in the Storting. They count many doctors, lawyers, teachers, barbers and shopkeepers. About one-third of the business houses in Oslo bear women’s names.
The temperance question has never been of any great political significance; the men recognize women’s rights almost without protest. Apparently, suffrage has not caused the slightest neglect of home duties. The man is the head of the house and the authority in the household affairs. The Norwegian woman recognizes this, and her domain is an institution where strict discipline prevails and where she holds the sceptre under her husband. She has come to her heritage; her influence is felt far and wide. She will soon push ahead for greater things; accomplish wonders undreamed of.
Norway, known as “a triumph of modern democracy,” is harnessing her wonderful waterfalls and water powers to her factories and other industrial plants. She has enough natural water power to run every wheel of industry in Europe, but this hydro-electric power has until recently been unused and wasted. In Norway today prosperity abounds; trade flourishes; navigation, agriculture, art, science, everything testifies to the fact that Norway of today has come into her own. We her daughters in America rejoice with our mother country. We love her with filial love and devotion. We are willing to share with her in order that she may prosper and grow. We thank her for the sacrifices she has made by sending to us in America her stalwart sons and noble daughters. As a son loves his mother, we love Norway. As a husband loves her whose hand rocks the cradle of his child, we love our own United States.
Source: Alma Guttersen, “Part of Suffrage Speech Given Ten Years Ago at the ‘Welfare League Club,’ St. Paul, Minn.,” in Norse-American Women, 1825-1925: A Symposium of Prose and Poetry, Newspaper Articles, and Biographies, Contributed by One Hundred Prominent Women, Ed. Alma A. Guttersen and Regina Hilleboe Christensen (Minneapolis: Lutheran Free Church Publishing Co), 1926, pp. 114-20.