The professor who surveys the history of women’s movement
Ulla Manns is a groundbreaking historian of Swedish women’s movement in the nineteenth century. The subject suffered from a dearth of research when she first started out. As an historian of ideas and a professor of gender studies, her passion these days is exploring the mechanisms by which the feminist past is constructed in academic literature. Whose voices are heard, who is left out and what does it mean when sources are silent?
– Social movements typically gloss over past internal conflicts to project a more positive image. Individuals who were seen as uncomfortable at the time, may fall by the wayside and facts that shun the light of day lie buried in the archives.
The courtyard of Södertörn University glistens in the spring sun as students hurry between lectures. Ever since January, Professor Ulla Manns has been the Deputy Vice-Chancellor in charge of research issues. As a scholar, she investigates the dynamics that have informed the writing of the history of the nineteenth century women’s movement in Western countries. She focuses on generally accepted narratives about women’s emancipation and other aspects of the struggle. The project is part of Time, Memory, and Representation: A Multidisciplinary Program on Transformations in Historical Consciousness, an interdisciplinary programme carried out by twenty six researchers in 2010-2015.
How is history constructed and produced? We live in the present but are always carrying the lessons of the past on the way to our next sojourn. How do we relate to this multi-layered temporal perspective?
– The central question was society’s understanding of history and the past. What is it all about? How is history constructed and produced? We live in the present but are always carrying the lessons of the past on the way to our next sojourn. How do we relate to this multi-layered temporal perspective? And who are the producers of history and historical consciousness?
According to Professor Manns, the identity of individual historians, political context and a number of other variables determine how the past is described in the literature. The history that is constructed influences the way that society views the world and the trends that shape contemporary life.
– How do various cultures create and articulate memory? What do museum’s exhibit, what power structures do they sustain?
The programme also looked at the role of cultural heritage. In Professor Manns’s view, identifying those who construct and produce history is an urgent matter these days. The Sweden Democrats, the fastest growing party in the country, stress their concern for heritage, for “preserving the core of national culture.”
– In Sweden, discussions have been about the need for a national canon to pass down national values from one generation to the next. But what are national values? Who would be included and who would be ignored? The imagined communities are based on the concept of affinity, which embraces only certain groups of people.
Women’s movement wrote its own history
Ulla Manns was born in Boden and her family lived there until she was seven. They moved to the outskirts of Örebro when her dad, who was in the military, obtained a new position. She began studying history of ideas in Stockholm in 1982. As fascinating as the subject struck her, it wasn’t long before she grew infuriated that the education was only about men.
– When I pointed it out to one of the professors, he said, ‘Which men do you want us to eliminate and which women do you want to replace them with?’ I bit my tongue but said later that we could at least read what Aristotle, Rousseau, Plato and other philosophers had thought about women.
Her bachelor thesis was when she began to delve deeply into the Swedish women’s movement. Her idea was to write about the women’s pavilions at the late nineteenth century world’s fairs in the United States.
– I read that the Fredrika Bremer Association had set up the Swedish exhibit at the 1893 exposition and set out on my quest for more facts about the time. I found one lonely book, and it had been written back in 1933. My first thought was that my research techniques were lacking, but I soon realized that there was almost nothing to find.
Professor Manns’s doctoral thesis was the next step in her journey. The original topic idea was a comparison between the socialist and non-socialist factions of the women’s movement, but it turned out that the subject was too broad. She narrowed the subject to the Fredrika Bremer Association, the first Swedish group devoted to the entire cause. Her work on the thesis revealed that the leaders of the movement had been great fans of history.
– They clearly realized that it had been constructed to uphold gender norms. They conducted their own research to regain control, not to mention their thirst for knowledge about the lives and circumstances of women.
The fin de siècle movement wrote chiefly about famous women, most notably Bremer, their great source of inspiration. Professor Manns has come across many important works that they penned.
People who learn that part of their past has been hidden from them generally grow curious. Recording your history helps you understand where you come from as a means of more fully integrating your sense of yourself, your motives and your goals.
– People who learn that part of their past has been hidden from them generally grow curious. Recording your history helps you understand where you come from as a means of more fully integrating your sense of yourself, your motives and your goals.
Wants more queer readings of historical sources
The history of women’s movement is a collectively produced memory. Among the relevant questions that emerge in this connection are how the selection was performed, who was included, who was omitted and what tools contemporary researchers have to explore the process. Professor Manns never ceases to be captivated by these issues.
– The history that these women chronicled helped shape the politics of their time. Will I view the source material differently if I take the world they inhabited into consideration?
Many lesbian couples assumed leadership positions in the nineteenth century Swedish women’s movement. Ellen Kleman, editor of Hertha, and Klara Johanson, a literary critic, lived together. Selma Lagerlöf had relationships with Sophie Elkan and Valborg Olander, just to mention a few examples. According to Professor Manns, contemporary researchers know a lot more about those alliances than appears in the history books.
– It’s not surprising that activists didn’t write about it at the time. Homosexuality was not a matter for public discourse, and there was a popular prejudice that the movement consisted of lesbians, misandrists and enemies of family values. But why hasn’t that information been incorporated into analyses of the turn-of-the-century women’s movement? What would happen if it were?
Professor Manns, who is writing an article on the subject under the working title of “Dykes on Deck,” would like to see more queer readings of source material. Such an approach is common among literary scholars but not much for gender historians.
Looking at the material from that point of view could reveal queer leakages and set the stage for more informed critiques of heteronormativity.
– Looking at the material from that point of view could reveal queer leakages and set the stage for more informed critiques of heteronormativity.
The sound of silence
Professor Manns argues that the nineteenth century women’s movement avoided to question the discourse that women possess special maternal qualities that benefit both the family in particular and society in general. Many women who lived outside accepted structures were reluctant to speak up. They remained silent.
– What can we understand from this silence? Presumably they disagreed but saw no opportunity for dialogue.
Professor Manns refers back to the Time, Memory, and Representation programme. The big question is the manner in which people think history.
– I examine the process of reproducing history while leaving out various facts that appear in the source material. Just because these women were silent doesn’t mean they wanted to exclude or marginalise anyone. Maybe they were smart enough not to talk at all.
Photo Anna Hartvig