Gunhild Kyle på bänk utanför Ågrenska villan

Portrait: A pioneer within women’s and gender history

2016-02-29 14:15

Gunhild Kyle, a pioneer in Swedish women's studies, has died. She was 94 years old and her passing ended a long and eventful journey as northern Europe’s first professor in women’s history, appointed on the International Women’s Day 8 March 1984.

Gunhild Kyle was born in 1921 in Gothenburg. Her parents encouraged her to stay in school and continue studying, and as a result she became the first person in her family to complete an upper-secondary degree. She obtained a teaching degree at the university and began working as a secondary school teacher at an all-girls school in Gothenburg.

She eventually rexfoto_184x260_Gunhild_Kylesumed her studies at the university. She had small children but nobody who could take care of them, so she went on leave and began studying history of ideas. After writing an essay about the all-girls schools in Gothenburg, the professor in history of ideas encouraged her to write a PhD thesis on the history of the schools, which at the time had never been explored.

In 1972, Gunhild Kyle completed her PhD with a thesis titled Svensk flickskola under 1800-talet [Swedish girls’ schools in the 1800s]. Applying both gender and power perspectives, she pointed to the differences in what and how much girls and boys were expected to learn.

Her thesis project sparked her interest and involvement in women’s history research. Her subsequent research was based on the question: Why this inequality in a formally equal society?

In 1979, the research report Gästarbeterska i manssamhället. Studier om industriarbetande kvinnors villkor i Sverige [Women as guest workers in a male society. Studies of the conditions of female industry workers in Sweden] was published in book form. In the report, Gunhild Kyle explored the development of industrial work after World War II and was first to recognize the gender segregation in the Swedish labour market.

After that, Gunhild Kyle returned to teaching as an upper-secondary lecturer, which at the time required a PhD degree and was one of the driving forces already in the work with her thesis.

‘Gunhild Kyle was a feminist researcher in the sense that she investigated power relations. She was not interested in women as a group in general, but rather in the power relations between the sexes and between social classes,’ says Ingrid Holmquist, professor emerita in gender studies at the University of Gothenburg.

A bridge between research branches

In 1987, Yvonne Hirdman succeeded Gunhild Kyle as professor of women’s history. Yvonne Hirdman stresses the great importance of the extensive empirical material in Gunhild Kyle’s research for the development of research in the fields of women’s history and gender studies. She became a bridge between the two genres.

‘The gender theory of the 1990s was based on the empirics of women’s research. Without those and the stories about women’s situation, it wouldn’t have been possible to formulate a theory about subordination,’ says Yvonne Hirdman, who is the scholar behind the concepts of gender and gender order.

In the early 1980s, mainly historians got involved in women’s studies and Gothenburg had several positive role models. The women’s history collections that Asta Ekenvall and Rosa Malmström created in 1958 were available at the university library. Gothenburg was also home to the women’s history seminar developed by Professor Gunnar Qvist – a meeting point that has been of great importance to women’s historians and gender researchers.

She was not interested in women as a group in general, but rather in the power relations between the sexes and between social classes.

Yet Gunhild Kyle encountered traditional male power structures at the department of history. When she was appointed professor in 1984, she was the first woman ever to hold a permanent position at the department. There had never even been a female senior lecturer.

‘Women’s history didn’t gain much respect and there were continuous attempts to belittle the field,’ Yvonne Hirdman remembers.

Gunhild Kyle met compact structural resistance and concluded in retrospect that the years at the department had been tough. While the historians were perceived to be involved in science, the women’s historians were considered to deal with politics. Similarly, the women’s history seminar, which Gunhild Kyle administered and developed, was considered to be of less value than the general seminar.

Many people remember Gunhild Kyle’s sense of humour. Yvonne Hirdman was also impressed by her way of dealing with the subordination.

‘It was an elegant form of implied irony. People often didn’t understand how vicious she could be.’

An educator at heart

Gunhild Kyle was an educator at heart who took the outreach task of higher education very seriously. She wanted to truly reach out with her research. To make her work comprehensible also to laypeople, she was a strong opponent of academic jargon. She was also involved in the feminist folk high school Kvinnofolkhögskolan in Gothenburg, which opened in 1985. Kvinnofolkhögskolan became a venue where she could share her research results, but also get inspired to ask new questions.

In the same year, she did the Swedish TV programme Vad mannen gör är alltid det rätta [What men do is always the right thing] together with Yvonne Hirdman. And in the early 1980s, she did a radio programme together with Ingrid Holmquist about the women during the French Revolution. The collaboration marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

‘I felt that I developed together with Gunhild. She was an unusually intellectual person with a broad interest in everything that was going on in society. Because of that, we always had such interesting and fun conversations,’ says Ingrid Holmquist.

Author Birgitta Weibull
Photo Portrait of Gunhild Kyle, photographer unknown, and Gunhild Kyle at a reception hosted by the Secretariat in 2001 on behalf of her 80th birthday, photographer: Bosse Parbring.
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