How a Trip to America Inspired Sweden’s Feminist Movement

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Why you should care

After this women’s rights activist visited the United States. she demanded more for Swedish women.

Fredrika Bremer had traveled to the big cities of Europe, but there was something different about New York. Outside of the Astor House hotel on Broadway, banners fluttered, immense paintings covered the walls of buildings, and people and carriages never seemed to stop flowing up and down the street. “I merely think of getting across the street alive,” Bremer wrote to her sister Agatha. New York had more than five times as many residents as her native Stockholm. This was why she had come: She believed a trip to the United States would offer her a view into the future.

Bremer was already a literary star when she arrived in New York in October 1849. She had published her first novel, Sketches of Everyday Life, at 27; 19 years later, she had 15 books to her name. Her work was popular — when it was translated into English she was dubbed the Swedish Jane Austen — with female characters front and center. “No previous family novels had succeeded in ‘studying the essence of family life,’” writes Helena Forsås-Scott in Swedish Women’s Writing 1850–1995. Bremer’s novels also had a subversive element, a whisper of feminism at a time when women in Sweden had few rights and little opportunity. And that whisper was about to get louder.

As a single woman, she could not manage her own finances, marry without permission, attend institutions of higher education or take part in politics.

From an early age, Bremer, one of seven children, knew that she didn’t fit society’s expectations of what a woman should be. Her father owned a foundry and came from an aristocratic background, his children educated by private tutors. As an upper-class woman, Bremer was expected to marry and become a mother, but she found family life suffocating. Laws in Sweden at the time, however, left her few other options: As a single woman, she could not manage her own finances, marry without permission, attend institutions of higher education or take part in politics.

 

Bremer, who never married, began using writing to express her ideas about a woman’s place. At age 27, she wrote a reply to a sermon by the archbishop of Sweden, challenging the idea that women could only be wives and mothers. In her response, which wasn’t published during her lifetime, Bremer focused on the idea that unmarried women had value too. In her novel The Colonel’s Family, published in 1830, only the youngest sister — who is considered unmarriageable — has the freedom to express herself artistically and intellectually. Bremer’s novels offered a “far-reaching investigation into women’s need for development and fulfillment, intellectually as well as emotionally,” according to Forsås-Scott. Bremer was eventually able to gain control of her own finances, but she hadn’t yet improved the system as a whole for women.

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Fredrika Bremer

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Bremer, who was fluent in English, spent two years traveling the U.S., wanting a full American experience. She met with notable Americans, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Lydia Maria Child and Dorothea Dix. She also conversed with enslaved African-Americans, women in prison and working in factories, and girls in an orphan asylum. She wrote candid letters to Agatha during her travels. Women in Sweden were not permitted to hold many professions — a centralized government meant strict control of who could and couldn’t become a physician, for example. Bremer envied the professional American women she met, especially the doctors. 

Bremer didn’t entirely escape the mores of her time. She saw American women with careers as strong and talented but often reverted to stereotypes about femininity. Her views of African-Americans were also deeply flawed. Even though she raved about her visit to Oberlin College, where Black and white students took classes together, and she believed in abolishing slavery, she still held inherently racist views of African-Americans. “Bremer seems to experience this tension between what the dominant discourse promoted, supported by pseudo-scientific ’proof’ … of racial hierarchies, and her own (rather) positive ideas of African-Americans,” says Sirpa Salenius, an associate professor at the University of Eastern Finland.

Bremer initially thought she could write a novel about her experiences in the New World. But in the end, what she observed was too big, too nuanced, too full of contradictions. “The realities of your great country could not be compressed into a novel,” she wrote in the foreword (titled “To My American Friends”) to her 1854 collection of letters to her sister, The Homes of the New World: Impressions of America

The American women Bremer met also inspired a novel, Hertha, which was published in 1856. Its main character, a Swedish feminist, lobbies for women’s financial independence and education. The novel was a bombshell: Bremer was popular enough abroad that it was published in Swedish and English at the same time, and it took the debate about feminism mainstream.

The 10 years following the publication of Homes of the New World and Hertha saw huge improvements for women’s rights in Sweden. By 1863, women could become teachers, practice medicine and nursing, and were declared “of age” and able to control their own financial affairs at 25. Although this was part of a larger movement for women’s independence, Salenius believes that Bremer had an influence on the movement in Sweden: “She made her readers aware of the capabilities but also frustrations and problems of women. In a way, she opened the eyes of her audience that perhaps included policymakers.” And her legacy lives on: When Swedish women fought for the right to vote, they used Bremer as inspiration. Today, the Fredrika Bremer Association is the oldest women’s rights group in Sweden — and Sweden is No. 1 in the European Union’s gender equality index.

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