dr. Sigurður
Gylfi
Magnússon

“Modern Fairy Tales? Gender Roles in Icelandic Society." (“Kynjasögur á 19. og 20. öld? Hlutverkaskipan í íslensku samfélagi.") Saga XXXV (1997), pp. 137-77.

“Why gender history", is asked in this article which deals with learning gender roles in Iceland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century society. “Why should we make an attempt to draw attention to the mutural experience of both genders", is another crucial question which historians of both genders have not fully explored. It is argued in this article, that it could be vital for our understanding of the importance and the magnitute of the social development at this time period in Iceland, to approach the topic with the experience of both genders in mind.

The temptation of most historians to use only official documents when dealing with this time period has been all to great. The outcome has been a weak attempt to shed light on the social development, an attempt which has almost exclusively been baised on the voices of those who stood in the frontline of the political scene at the time. They all had good education and enjoyed some wealth. The history of this period has only been writen from their point of view.

In this article a special attention is payed to the myth about women in the peasant society and how it affected children who were growing up at the time. It is argued that women played a much fuller role in the family economy than the myth tends to portray, and as a result, parents did pay minimum attention to the upbringing of their children. They simply had their hands full with other and more important tasks; fighting for the survival of the whole family. Childrens welfare was most often in the hands of servants or older relatives. In fact, very early on children had to take care of themselves as they started to participate in the farmily everyday life. At the beginning, their work was often exicuted far away from the farmhouse and other farmily members. This was, for exampel, the case when they worked like shepards over the summer time. After the age of ten, they became more included in the world of adults and got much more first hand knowlage of the role playing between the gender. But it was not until after the confirmation when children came into more contact with the outside world that they fully relised the gap between the gender which was build in the formal culture of the society. That gap was in great contrast with what they had witnessed in their daily life at home. The everyday life experience had tought them that both genders attacked each task without asking whether it was appropriate for a women or a men to take it on. If it had to be done the only question asked was: who can do it?

Formal gender roles were not only experessed in laws and customes but also in contemporary debats in newspapers and journals were they were read and discussed by the general public. Discussions of this nature differ from time to time and in the late nineteenth century they were affected by the fact that the peasant society was considered to be under an attack from outside influences. To turn this development around authors of great many newspapers and journal articles encouraged farmers to have a better controle of their families and live up to their responsibilities as the masters of their housholds. These authors used the myth about women in the peasant society to strengthen their arguement and hold the myth up as a model which ought to be followed.

The continuity between the use of the myth in the peasant society and in the urban one is striking. The fast growing middle class picked up the pices in the early twentieth century and used the myth about women to force their world views upon the lower classes. In stead of working like a model for women and children the myth had a negative affect. It is agrued in this article, that the middle class mentality was so removed from the daily experience of the gerneral public that the challenge of the myth put a great burden on women of all classes and their overall social position. This is especially intresting since the greatest contribution to the creation (or the renewal) of the myth came from women who often are seen as those who stood in the frontline of the womens movment in its early days.

But how can we realy identify the importance of the myth about women in the twentieth century and estimate how effective it was? The best place to start with is formal education and the new primary school system at the beginning of the twentieth century. With compolsary education the middle class got a blank chek to fill and just as in other Western countries they used the schools to impose their standards upon the general public. When one looks at how the primary schools were structured, especially in urban areas, it is striking to notice how well they were arranged from the very start. That in it self, should indicate that the schools were in a great position to mold the gender roles of future generation.

Most historians have argued that the new schools did revolusinaze the outlook of the society at large. But the sources they have traditionally used are almost exclusively official records. Those records indicate the increas in the student population, the growth of the institution, how new buldings were used, etc. There is no wonder that this picture, which is drawn up in these studies, argue that the new school law changed the society.

In this article the subject is approached from a different angel. To be able to answer the question asked in this article one has to make an attempt to look for answers from those who enjoyed this education at the beginning of the twentieth century. The first step is then to contrast childrens school experience with their families expectations towards their work participation and their overall contribution towards the family economy. In an attempt to do this sources from the Department of Ethnology and autobiographies were used. The Department of Ethnology sent out a questionnair (which I constructed) randomly to 500 individuals who were at least 70 years old which dealt with everyday life in the twentieth century urban and rural society. I used life-course analyses to reconstruct the answers and grouped them into three categories which were baised on peoples own perception of what kind of life their families lived. The catagories are: a traditional path, a transitional path, and an emergent class path. This terminology is borrowed from the American social historian, Harvey J. Graff, and it has allowed me to use this source, which is extreamly large in scope, to illustrate the major emphasize in peoples everyday life. The results of this analysis is startling. The vast majority of people who responded to the questionnair followed the first two paths (traditional and transitional) which in essence means that work played a major role in childrens life but education did not.

When the autobiographies are analysed one soon finds out the source of childrens main attraction. The family economy insisted that every member of the family would make an attempt to do their share so there would be food on the table. The great majority of people in Icleand was part of the lower classes and life for this people was a constant struggle for survival. Children watched their mothers work constantly both at home and where ever they could find work. They soon realised, like their conterparts in the peasant society in the nineteenth century, that the family economy was a mutural task which their parents took an equal part in. The traditional division of labor between husband and wife was as much a myth in the urban early twentieth century society as it was in the pesant society in the nineteenth century. In other word, the lesson which children got in their everyday life was a differnt one from what was tought at school and discussed in newspapers and journals at the time. The lesson which they got from their everyday life participation did dominated their world view and outlook on life. The continuity between the rural and the urban society is striking during this time period and is much more important than the changes which historians have been so busy identifing.

SUMMARIES:
From Re-evaluation to Disintegration
History War
Metastories
Dreams of Things Past
Education, Love and Grief
Pieces and Molds
The Sound of Divine Revelation
Microhistory - Conflicting Paths
Brothers from the Stranda Commune
Modes of Living in Reykjavik, 1930-1940
Away. Faraway! - And to Another Continent
The Contours of Social History
Method facing a Dilemma
"I am 479 Days Younger than Nilli."...
Modern fairy tales...
Dissertation: The Continuity of Everyday Life
LINKS:
microhistory.org
The Reykjavík Academy
Íslensk heimasíða
© 2006 - Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon