Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Reading Elin Wägner

Since the snow fell and made Lund's cobbled streets dangerous for biking, I have been travelling by bus 20 minutes every morning. That is just about enough for one chapter in one of the most inspiring books I have reading my whole life - Väckarklocka (1941) by Elin Wägner.
Elin Wägner, picture from Wikimedia Commons

Halfway through it, I can't help but wondering what the Swedish brand of liberalistic feminism actually means for women. Wägner would argue that our society only lets women repeat the mistakes of men, without making any concessions to womens knowledge, traditions and abilities. What the earth and future generations needs is a more feminine way of life. I remember that my grandmother used to say the same thing, and I'll be damned if she is not right in the end. Because she is a mother. And mothers always are.

Wägner's idea of equality is not necessarily to treat men and women the same way. It is much more about giving equal weight to all voices in society - men and women alike. Only thus can we keep the most precious pieces of traditional knowledge while adapting to the future.

She sees pre-history as a relatively stable state of female domination, when human life aimed at surviving  without disturbing the other species in nature.The focus of this civilization was nursing, caring and respecting, not to take more than needed, and always to sustain life, not kill it.

At some point, the timing was different in different corners of the world, there was a male revolution. The entire history since we have written sources have been one of increasing male domination and a mission to conquer nature (other nations, other races, other genders...)

I don't know if Wägner would agree with me, but I read this as a struggle between ideas, not physical people. For different reasons one idea has appealed to men and another to women, but there is nothing that says that an individual of any gender should feel more attracted by one idea than the other. Men can care, women can conquer. All should care.

The book gives plenty of examples, from ancient history to the fight for universal suffrage in the early 20th century to illustrate Wägners view of history. A brief look at Wikipedia indicates that it is a debated topic still today whether a Matriarchy as Wägner describes it has ever existed. On the other hand, we generally accept the idea that a people's choice of Gods say something about themselves. People in autocratic male societies very often worship an autocratic male god - so why presume that the people who worshiped fertility goddesses were not matriarchies?

That is not really important, though, since Wägner has something to say about here and now. In her concept of motherhood, the essence of matriarchy, she unites ecology, solidarity and democracy. She also gives a coherent answer to the seemingly eternal problems - why do we start wars?, why are we so unjust? and why are we so stupid that we time after time deplete the very resources we depend on? Think Peak oil, or how the ancient Greeks cut down the forests around the Mediterranean.

How well does such a message fit into the current (Swedish) feministic debate? When I see how questions about gender equality are discussed in Sweden, I think too much emphasis is laid on the equality between individuals, and too little on the lack of values like nursing and caring. Very much is said about women's right to make a career, and very little about the downsides of a society where individuals strive to make personal careers.

Needless to say, equality between individuals is utterly important. Women has as big right as men to do whatever they please, and it is a good thing about Swedish society that it is open for untraditional choices. But that equality often generates very little freedom - a great majority of the women who try making a career face invisible hurdles like exclusion from decision making circles, discrimination if they
choose to have a baby etc. At one point in their life I think very many of them will agree with Wägner that a highly competitive labour market is a way for men to keep occupying the most important posts in society.

How do we come to terms with that problem? That has been the question for all feminists since the most disturbing forms of legal discrimination were abolished. Wägner is probably right that if we want anything to change, we must dare looking beyond this society and pay a much greater attention to the millenia of womens experience that we try to live without. We must strive for a society where equality means every individuals right to be what they are, not replace one idea of what women are - housewives, with another - career women.

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