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  • Karen Blixen on Feminism and Womanliness:"En Baaltale med 14 Aars Forsinkelse"
  • Marianne Stecher-Hansen

Kvindens Virke er at udvide hendes eget Væsen. Det kan brede sig meget vidt, som et stort Træs Krone, men det har stadig sin Rod i hendes eget Jeg.

(Blixen, "En Baaltale" 80)

Woman's function is to expand her own being. It can spread very wide like the crown of a great tree, but still have its roots in her own Self.

In the introduction to "En Baaltale med 14 Aars Forsinkelse" (1953; "Oration at a Bonfire 14 Years Late" [1979]), Karen Blixen muses that the original invitation to speak at an International Women's Congress in Copenhagen in 1939 may have been given "under forkerte Forudsætninger" (72) [on mistaken assumptions] and adds slyly that these feminists "maaske alligevel ubevidst kaldt paa noget som de kunde bruge" (72) [may nevertheless have evoked from me something of which they may make use]. In her oration of 1953, given fourteen years later, Blixen relates that she had informed the chair of the committee, Mrs. Estrid Hein, that "jeg er ikke kvindesagskvinde" (72) [translated as "I am not a feminist" (in Daguerreotypes 66)]. 1 As a [End Page 191] consequence of this somewhat imprecise English translation as well as the author's deliberate ambivalence, feminist and other critics since the 1970s have indeed found in Blixen's fiction much "of which they may make use," to borrow the author's own words. In other words, critics have often plucked Blixen's statement out of the polemical context of the essay and overlooked the nuance in the original Danish text, "jeg er ikke kvindesagskvinde" [literally, "I am not a woman of the 'Women's Cause'"]. Whether Blixen's views on women, on the feminist movement and on gender roles remained consistent or "static" throughout her life and literary work, whether these views evolved or whether they became increasingly conservative as the author aged are questions that have been addressed by other critics although most often in a cursory manner. The general consensus is that Blixen's views on feminism grew increasingly conservative as she matured so that by the time she wrote the Bonfire Oration in 1953 she had reached a position that contradicted the convictions of her letters of the 1920s. Judith Thurman, for example, writes in Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller (1982) that Blixen's "views [on Feminism] had grown considerably more conservative since her letters [from Africa] on the subject to Aunt Bess, when she had called feminism the most revolutionary issue of the nineteenth century" (348). In Det Umenneskelige: Analyser af seksualitet, køn og identitet hos Karen Blixen (2001; The Inhuman: Analyses of Sexuality, Gender, and Identity in Karen Blixen), Dag Heede maintains that "kønsforestillingerne" [gender representations] gradually "stivner" (173) [stiffen] in Blixen's work, so that she eventually rejects the conception of constructed gender roles evident in her early work.

Yet in a letter of 26 May 1926 to her maternal aunt Mary Bess Westenholz, the forty-one-year-old Karen Blixen articulates views on feminism and the Women's movement that were to prove remarkably consistent throughout her life and literary career:

Jeg mener da, at "Kvindesagen" ... vistnok overhovedet maa betragtes som det nittende Aarhundredes mest betydningsfulde Bevægelse, og at den langt fra i dette Øjeblik har "done with" de Omvæltninger, den vil bringe; thi den har ikke naaet sit måxl med at have gjort det muligt for Kvinder at blive Jurister, Læger, præster etc., med en ny Ægteskabslov og lige Arveret for Kvinder som for Mænd; alt saadant er kun Udslag af den langt dybere liggende Bevægelse.

(Breve fra Afrika 2: 42)

I consider that "feminism," ... should probably be regarded as the most significant movement of the nineteenth century, and that the upheavals it [End Page 192] has caused are far from "done with" at the present moment; for it has not reached its goal by having made it possible for women to become lawyers, doctors, priests, etc., by the a marriage law and equal right of inheritance for women and for men; all these things are...


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