Family Forms: Equality, Difference and Individual Rights

Processes of modernisation have changed gender relations in all European countries, but the north-western part of Europe had an historical advantage due to a specific pre-industrial family and household formation that gave married women a relatively strong position. The north-western European marriage pattern was characterised by a high marriage age for both men and women, marriage by choice and independent housing for the married couple and their children (Sandvik 1999, also based on the British historian John Hajnal’s studies). In this family form, the married couple and the nuclear family constituted the centre, in contrast to the patriarchal control in extended households that were dominant in other agrarian societies. A consequence of the high marriage age and the many who remained single was that many young people, including young women, would work in other households to earn their living before marriage. This gave access to a period of youth outside the direct control of their parents. Hence, the life conditions for young women and men were not so different, and when they married, they had both become adults and brought property and productive resources into the family (Solheim 2012). However, it is also important to note that the types of work that were seen as specifically feminine had lower status than the masculine ones. Married woman did not have any legal capacity (in Norway not until 1888); it was the husband who legally represented the household and who had the right both to economic disposition of the joint property and to keep discipline in his family. The north-western European family model was definitely not an egalitarian one, it was based on both gender differentiation and gender hierarchy, but married woman had economic responsibility and could, depending on the circumstances, have a strong position and authority in the household.

The development of industrial capitalism during the nineteenth century led to a change in the bourgeois family that split private and public domains and redefined the family as a sphere of intimacy instead of production (Hagemann 1999). This ‘modern gender revolution’ (Solheim 2012: 45) laid the foundation for the two-sphere model implying radical sex differences with regard to both tasks and assumed personal traits and capacities. It represented a gradual change from economic partnership to a complementary gender order, where women lost influence regarding the family’s property. However, the old family model maintained a strong position in Norway, which in the nineteenth century only had a very limited and not very wealthy upper class. In spite of the gradual restructuring of the economy during the nineteenth century, the vast majority of people still lived off farming, fishing and forestry, and they continued to do so into the twentieth century. In this rural population—from where many of our informants in the oldest generation came—the traditional family model based on economic cooperation between the spouses continued without interruption (Melby 1999; Crompton et al. 2007). Small-scale farming was often combined with fishing and forestry, which meant that the men had to leave for longer or shorter periods. This also kept up the necessity and importance of women’s work and their co-responsibility for the family. Quite a substantial number of women were directly involved in economic activities by the end of the nineteenth century, especially those in the working classes, but also to an increasing extent in the growing middle classes where unmarried daughters often had to seek paid work, for instance, as teachers. Due to the many widowed women and huge emigration mainly of men to the USA before and after 1900, there were a high number of unmarried women. These women either stayed in their families helping out or worked to earn their own living.[1] In addition, many married women took part in the enterprises of their husbands in addition to taking care of the home. In most bourgeois families it was also necessary that the wives took responsibility for the household, although they were assisted by domestic servants. Generally, then, Norwegian women continued to work in or outside of the family, including after the bourgeois gender revolution (Hagemann 1999).

Norway’s route to modernisation has some special traits. The country was part of Denmark until the end of the Napoleonic Wars and was then in a union with Sweden until 1905. This delayed industrialisation compared to Denmark and Sweden. Norway did not become a modern industrial society until after independence in 1905. By 1945 half of the population lived in the cities, whereas a third still worked in agriculture and fishing. At the same time it is also the case that Norway ratified its first constitution in 1814, which was one of the most radical, liberal and democratic in Europe at that time. Among other things, it established freedom of the press, the separation of legislative, juridical and executive power, and abolished the nobility in the country. During the nineteenth century’s union with Sweden, which mainly concerned foreign policy and defence, Norway gradually developed as a nation state. This meant that the emergence of the Norwegian state apparatus and the process of modernisation took place under fairly democratic conditions, at a time where most of the population could read and write, and under the impact of a blooming economy during most of the nineteenth century. In addition to a fairly homogenous population in terms of religion and ethnicity where a majority were independent farmers and fishers, and the lack of both royal power, nobility and a large or rich bourgeoisie, these traits laid a solid foundation for an egalitarian culture. This is also seen in the influential role of popular and social movements, agrarian enlightenment and an increase in the level of general education in the second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries (Melby et al. 2008: 5). As a result, egalitarian values, self-determination and emphasis on social inclusion rather than differentiation along the boundaries of public and private became part of the Norwegian national culture. The same traits are, with minor differences, seen in all the other Nordic countries. As the Nordic historians Melby, Ravn and Wetterberg describe it: ‘The Nordic model is distinguished by individualism combined with state responsibility for the common welfare through social reform and intervention ... a political culture in which it was a state responsibility to reform society, relying on the active participation of the citizens’ (Melby et al. 2008: 5).

The relatively egalitarian character of the Nordic societies and family structure, and the interaction between the state and civil society, may explain why the Nordic countries became engaged in policies of gender equality earlier than other European countries:[2] ‘The democratic integration of women in civil society was a hallmark of the Nordic political culture, as much as women’s agency is one among several factors that explain this culture’ (Melby et al. 2008: 5). New marriage laws were adopted in all the Nordic countries during the first decades of the new century. Unlike legislation in the rest of Europe at this time, these laws recognised married women as individuals in their own right by granting them the right to take up gainful work without the consent of their husbands and by establishing economic equality in marriage. Husband and wife were made jointly responsible for family provision and were also established as independent, formally equal owners of their respective property. Melby et al. (2008: 8) argue that this could actually be seen as an early ‘modified dual breadwinner model’. However, it was also a model based on unquestioned ideas of gender differentiation, as women’s unpaid work in the family was equated in principle with men’s maintenance by money. In this way the law bridged the economic partnership of the old family model and the new male earner/female carer family, based on the bourgeois family model. Tax legislation clearly encouraged the latter model and continued to do so in Norway until 1959. However, one might say that the emphasis was more on the principle of gender differentiation than on a belief in gender difference (Melby et al. 2008: 1). What united the old and new family models was the focus on family functions more than on gender identities or naturalised gender norms. This again contributed to tension with the principle of equal rights.

The economic decline in the 1920s and 1930s and the difficult conditions in the labour market that followed gave an advantage to the principle of gender differentiation. The numbers of housewives increased in the inter-war period. The farmer women became fewer, more working- class women could afford to quit their job and middle-class women lost their domestic servants. In addition, women married at a younger age than before and had fewer children.[3] Since there was still a high number of unmarried women until the 1930s, there were also many women in paid work. But the absolute majority of married women were housewives and could now spend more time on housework, which in this period was professionalised through research and information campaigns (Melby 1999; Hagemann 2010). During the Second World War, Norway was occupied for five years by Germany. This meant that there was no general draft in those years and thus no need for women to step in for the men in factories and other workplaces as was the case in many other countries. The male earner/female carer family policy was continued in the first decades after the war where the Scandinavian countries saw almost two decades of social democratic majority governments. Due to the economic boom and the need for women’s labour outside the family, family policy in the late 1950s became engaged with the idea of ‘women’s two roles’ as mothers and workers, but from the 1960s this changed into an equality- oriented discourse about women’s right to ‘freedom of choice’ (Melby et al. 2008: 11). Thus, regarding the old tension between gender differentiation and individual rights, the latter now gained ground. Melby argues that the historically short period of the ‘housewife era’ mainly functioned as a makeshift to curb the increasing conflict between the old values of collective moral and work and the new values of individualism, which by itself triggered further modernisation and individualisation—including undermining the gender order itself (Melby 1999: 230).

These features of the Nordic countries have fostered a specific blend of equality norms and individually based rights in contrast to family rights that have had a stronger position in other welfare states in Europe. The longstanding aim has been to make every individual, including married women, economically independent, something that has contributed to weaken both patriarchal and parental authority. The orientation towards egalitarianism and individual rights is seen with regard to children as well. Norms of child-centred upbringing and a view of the child as a self-contained individual came earlier in Scandinavia than anywhere else (Therborn 1993). Corporal physical punishment, for instance, was banned in Norwegian schools in 1936 and in the family in 1972, and state-provided sex education was introduced early (de Coninck-Smith 2003). The Nordic countries were also the first to adopt individual legal rights for children (Therborn 1993; de Coninck-Smith 2003).[4] Generally speaking, Scandinavian children enjoyed a relatively anti-authoritarian upbringing from the early 1950s, a free and relatively child-centred school system and less gender-stereotyped discourses than was the case in other European countries and the USA (see, for instance, Breines 1992; Jamieson 1998; Lawler 2000; Brannen et al. 2004).

  • [1] In 1900 20 per cent of men and 30 per cent of women between 30 and 49 years of age wereunmarried or widowed (Hagemann 1999).
  • [2] Women gained the right to vote in 1906 in Finland, in 1913 in Norway, in 1915 in Denmark andIceland, and in 1919 in Sweden.
  • [3] Between 1900 and 1930, statistics show that 40 per cent of married women in Norway wereregistered as housewives. After 1930 it increased rapidly and in 1950 it was 53 per cent. The year1960 saw this figure peak before it started to decrease. These numbers also include farmer womenand women who worked in family enterprises. Only 4—5 per cent of the married women wereregistered as having paid work in 1900 and in 1950. However, the statistics did not include parttime work before 1920 (Melby 1999: 234, 270). Occasional small and informal jobs, which manywomen took to improve the family economy, are not registered either.
  • [4] In Norway children born out of wedlock gained the right to inherit from the father and carry hisname from 1915. The state also supplied economic support if the father of the child did not pay(Melby et al. 2008: 10).
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