Portrait: Ulla Wikander

2001-03-25 11:36

"Why not subsidise pizzerias, if we are going to subsidise household help? Both could be regarded as aid for stressed-out households." "Or, are we subsidising household help in order to create new jobs? If that is the case, there is a lot of work to be done in the public sector. Or we could subsidise the laundries that take care of people's wash, that would probably create more job opportunities."

The question of giving tax deductions for having a maid makes Ulla Wikander, Professor of Economic History, ignite, and her elegant Southern accent takes on a belligerent tone.

Sometimes, there is a certain calm in monotony. Today is such a day: slush, university buildings, long corridors, all dirty grey like the melting snow in town. But on the ninth floor, at the Department of Economic History at Stockholm University, something catches the eye: next to an office door, pictures of well-known feminists have been mounted. The door is Ulla Wikander’s.

Professor Wikander has recently published two books: her own Women’s Work in Europe 1789-1950: Gender, Power, and the Division of Labour (Kvinnoarbete i Europa 1789-1950: genus, makt och arbetsdelning), and Woman Against Woman: The Difficulties of Sister­hood (Kvinna mot kvinna: Om systerskapets svårigheter), co-edited with historian Christina Florin and economics historian Lena Sommestad. Woman Against Woman is an anthology presenting twentieth-century Sweden through the conflicts of feminist politics.

Even though it may be important to elevate something that has been looked down upon, an emphasis on women’s culture and biological functions will not lead to better conditions.

Complicated question

Historian Lisa Öberg writes about the long debated and complicated question of maids. Only in 1971, when maids were almost a thing of the past, did they earn the right to an eight-hour work day, 40 to 50 years after all other work groups. The question of household help, an issue related to gender, class, and ethnicity, is more charged than ever. We thought the exploitation of servants was a thing of the past in our society. Are immigrants, black market labour, and women to take care of our homes when professional women no longer have the time or energy? Is it fair that some women can have careers while other women clean their homes? Shouldn’t men assume more responsibility in this respect? Ulla Wikander is far from happy that our society, with Minister of Commerce Mona Sahlin at the lead, seems to be giving in:

“As a maid, you are in a feudal work situation. Being employed by a family, you become dependent on it. A minimum request should be that one’s employer is located outside of the work situation. Rotating schedules and the option of avoiding difficult families are other demands.”

Looking at the labour marker from a historical perspective, however, Professor Wikander fears that house­hold work will continue to be women’s work even if the forms of employment change. In Women’s Work in Europe, she describes occupational segregation or the division of labour according to gender as having been to women’s disadvantage, while salaried labour in general has given women more power and possibilities.

Paradoxes and conflicts

For a long time, separate legislation regulated women’s position in society; arguments from biology, science, and religion were resorted to in order to keep women in their place.

“The history of women’s employment is full of paradoxes and conflicts. Separate legislation may seem fine in the short run, but in the long run it creates problems. A recent example: several European countries give single mothers with small children a subsidy corresponding to the minimum wage so that they can stay home with their children. In the short run, this is perhaps good, and it is surely a cheap solution for the state. But in a longer perspective, women become dependent on the state as a kind of breadwinner for her family, unless she moves in with a man, in which case she immediately loses her subsidy from the state and has to ask her new man to support her and her children. If she is encouraged to stay at home with her children, she loses her professional competence, which makes it even harder for her to find work when the children have grown up. She becomes isolated from and loses contact with the labour market.”

“Sweden has chosen the policy of work instead: a woman is expected to support herself and her children. This is tougher in the short term, but the woman retains her independence. In addition, her chances of finding a new partner increase since she is neither isolated in her home nor in need of a breadwinner. The result is that after a divorce, Swedish men and women rarely remain single for very long.”

Woman Against Woman looks into conflicts between women – a sensitive topic in feminist circles. Prejudice has it that women are prone to quarrelling, and this has made it even more important to emphasise sisterhood and to present a united front. This, however, has had the effect that some women have not felt at home in the feminist movement.

“I think it’s important to look critically at the women’s movement, not least to be able to evaluate strategies and to weed out the less successful methods.”

A genderised division of labour

The first time I ran into Ulla Wikander was at the newspaper The Workers’ booth at the Gothenburg Book Fair in September 1999. We soon found ourselves in a conversation about sociobiology and difference feminism. The following day, she gave a lecture on her research on women’s work in Europe in which she demonstrated how salaried work has given women resources and freedom. Yet, even today, the very division of labour in the work market with some areas for men and other areas for women, maintains gender inequalities, despite all the progress made during the twentieth century. In conclusion, Professor Wikander described how ideas of gender difference have contributed to the creation of a genderised division of labour. Later the same day, we met again at a debate, and it was not long before we were delving into the topics of women’s culture and gender differences once again.

In her own chapter in Woman Against Woman, Professor Wikander describes the women’s movement of the late 20th century as divided into single-issue groups and networks at the same time as so-called state feminism was developing. The last uniting issue concerned the right to abortion. Today’s conflict concerns ideas of difference vs. equality. The pro-equality ideologues point to gender power relations and to the different social and political conditions under which men and women live, emphasising the social construction of inequality.

What sociobiology and the notion of a women’s culture have in common is that they underline sexual difference, says Wikander, something that led to a decline in second wave of feminism at the end of the 1970s and to the transformation of the women’s movement into single-issue groups, such as the women’s hotlines.

Controversial opinions

Wikander’s opinions and descriptions of history are controversial, and she has been accused of subjectivity concerning the concept of a women’s culture.

“Indeed; you should have been at my lecture at ABF in Stockholm recently. Many of the women’s culture advocates were there, and the debate became quite polarised.”

“I remain convinced that, even though it may be important to boost that which has been looked down upon, an emphasis on women’s culture and biological functions will not lead to better conditions for women. Such an emphasis has not led to higher salaries or status for traditionally female work tasks, and few men have shown any desire to take on women’s work. I also find the maternity cult curious – as if motherhood were the ultimate proof of being a woman. The ideology of sexu­al difference also looks back to women’s past achieve­ments. Today, however, women are accomplishing completely different things, which are not being praised as feminine, such as office work.”

“Sometimes I think that this celebration of ‘the feminine’ only leads to a legitimatisation of women’s continued household work and caring. Instead of problematising occupational segregation, one speaks of women’s individual choices even when these choices happen to coincide with traditional women’s work.”

In newspaper articles, Ulla Wikander is sometimes described as a belligerent feminist, and for some people she is better known in that capacity than for her professorship in Economic History.

“It is hard to pinpoint exactly when one becomes a feminist, since this is a process. When I grew up, it was seen as natural that I and my two sisters would get an education, and women in the family who achieved things were held up as exemplary. My paternal grandfather’s mother, for example, Cecilia Wikander, founded a haberdashery store in Lund and raised four boys by herself.”

“I first seriously experienced being excluded from the male world at the beginning of the 1960s, when I wanted to participate in the archaeological work on the regal ship Vasa in Stockholm. I was studying archaeology and had sufficient experience from digging, but I did not get the job. Among other things they said that women do not want to get dirty, and that there was no shower or toilet for women.”

“After high school, I first studied history. I loved this subject, but a future as a history teacher made me panic. It seemed to encompass a package solution fitting the conventions of the time, which included a husband, two children, and a row house. I figured that I would reach all this by the age of 24, after which life would be completely staked out. It seemed so murderously dull that I turned to my interest in film instead, and applied to the film cutting program at Swedish Television in 1963.”

“This was a most exciting time, what with the films of the new French wave. We had excellent teachers, among them the first cutters who worked for Ingmar Bergman. When we got out into production, however, things were not as interesting. The producers were often journalists who lacked a sense for images. After a few years, moreover, I noticed that my male colleagues were being promoted. For me, the road to the top seemed closed.”

Financially responsible

Ulla Wikander went back to the academy, this time to the history of economics. When the time came to write a dissertation, she wanted to write about the early trade unions for women, such as the Women Glovers’ Association in Lund.

“I began without any financing at a time when I was financially responsible for my family, which was why I turned instead to a dissertation topic that was part of a financed project. This increased my self-confidence, and the work went fast.”

The dissertation was The Match Monopoly of Ivar Kreuger 1925-1930: Five Case Studies of Market Control Through City Monopoly (Ivar Kreugers tändsticksmonopol 1925-1930, Fem fallstudier av marknadskontroll genom stadsmonopol). She found reason to return to the women’s perspective in her next project, which investigated the changes in industrial work over a hundred year period. The object of her study was the Gustavsberg porcelain factory, a so-called integrated factory with about 40 percent women and 60 percent men. The results of the study were published in Women’s and Men’s Work at Gustavsberg 1880-1980: The Genderised Division of Labour and Degradation of Work in a Porcelain Factory (Kvinnors och män arbeten: Gustavsberg 1880-1980. Genusarbetsdelning och arbetets degradering vid en porslinsfabrik).

“Since then, I have concentrated on women’s labour market and history. One could say that research on women has become my single-issue thing. I was awarded a six-year position in economic history specialising in women’s situation by the Swedish Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSFR). For a brief period, I was Acting Professor, substituting for Yvonne Hirdman at the Department of History at Gothenburg University.”

One might surmise that Ulla Wikander’s present position is a professorship oriented towards questions of gender, but such is not the case. With her credentials in gender studies, Wikander was awarded a completely “regular” professorship.

“At the same time, I was awarded a professorship at Uppsala University. This indicates that there is a rather unusual openness in the field of economic history, where women’s history no longer is seen as marginal. In part, this is thanks to state feminism, but also to the active research on the history of women and gender.”

Author Maria Jacobson
Source The portrait was originally published in Gender Research in Sweden, 2001
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