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Re-Writing the Script: Gender and Community in Elin Wägner by Helena Forsås-Scott (review)

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 86, Number 1, Spring 2014
pp. 116-120 | 10.1353/scd.2014.0010

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Elin Wägner, Ellen Key, and Alva Myrdal are iconic Swedish feminists of the early twentieth century. Most often we perceive them as rebels for the same feminist cause—gender equality for women. In her book, Re-Writing the Script: Gender and Community in Elin Wägner, Helena Forsås-Scott tests that perception and shows through her meticulous—indeed Herculian—research and analysis how Wägner’s texts actually present different gender constructs and examples of alternative communities, which make her differ remarkably from her two fellow feminists.

To present her own interpretation of Wägner’s radical gender roles Forsås-Scott has conducted a careful reading of the author’s voluminous oeuvre. In fact, her readings include not only Wägner’s prose fiction and over six hundred articles in the journal Tidvarvet, but also her published essays, opinion pieces, and radio plays. Much has been written about Wägner since the 1970s, which Forsås-Scott acknowledges and comments on in her introductory chapter. She suggests that although many have written about Wägner, their works present Wägner’s texts within a limited set of perspectives: biographical, feminist, or political. In contrast, Wägner’s own contribution of gender and community constructs is primarily based on Mieke Bal’s theory of narrative as a “cultural attitude” (pp. 19–20). Hence, Forsås-Scott’s work places Wägner’s many different texts in a complex matrix where not only the actual gendered role play is important by itself, but it is also important in a larger Swedish and European socio-political context.

Clearly, Re-Writing the Script is a work that has demanded many years of research and thought. Although not particularly large in size, the book is heavy as a rock, and each paragraph, if not line, is filled with valuable information. Wägner is naturally the focal point. However, to present the “cultural attitude” of its time, Forsås-Scott also includes much information about trends in Swedish and other societies in the first half of the twentieth century. Her book is divided into two sections: “Part I. Suffrage and Beyond, 1907–21” (pp. 47–195) and “Part II. New Communities: A New Society? 1922–47” (pp. 199–369). Each section has an introductory chapter that presents the dominant economic, political, social, and cultural trends in Sweden and Europe during the respective period. Many literary, social, and philosophical critics serve as analytical tools. Needless to say, the methodology is as complex as the topic itself, yet Forsås-Scott explains it all clearly in the first chapter, which is appropriately titled “A New Approach.” The book also includes a detailed “Chronology,” and a “Select Bibliography” that presents not only the regular bibliography but separate detailed lists of unpublished and published Wägner texts.

Regarding Key and Myrdal, Forsås-Scott underscores how Wägner differs from her contemporaries by exemplifying how both Key’s and Myrdal’s seemingly radical feminism still agreed with the male-influenced value system of their time. For example, by focusing on Key’s main ideology about women as educated mothers, Forsås-Scott declares that Key wished for women to be “samhällsmoderliga,” that is, to use their motherhood as a vocation according to her ideology in Missbrukad kvinnokraft (The Abuse of Woman’s Power; Bonniers, 1914) and the essay “Samhällsmoderlighet” (Social Motherliness) in Kvinnorörelsen (The Woman Movement; Bonnier, 1909). Thus, Key encouraged women to change society through being good educators to their sons, rather than becoming instigators of a new society themselves (pp. 70–1). Accordingly, Forsås-Scott suggests that Key’s women still abided by the dominant male order in society. In a similar manner, she presents Alva and Gunnar Myrdal’s work Kris i befolkningsfrågan (Bonnier, 1934; Nation and Family, Harper, 1941) as one that aimed to strengthen the family unit within the newly established social democratic “Folkhemmet” (Peoples’ Home) rather than helping to emancipate women further. Years later, Myrdal herself acknowledged that “the old debate on married women’s right to work was turned into a fight for the working woman’s right to marry and have children” (p. 222...

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