Ibsen and Feminism

Despite being claimed and lauded by nineteenth century feminists, Ibsen’s relationship to the feminist movement during his life was ambivalent at best.  He publicly disavowed a feminist agenda in his plays during a speech given on May 26, 1898, to the Women’s Rights League:

I am not a member of the Women’s Rights League. Whatever I have written has been without any conscious thought of making propaganda. I have been more poet and less social philosopher than people generally seem inclined to believe. I thank you for the toast, but must disclaim the honour of having consciously worked for the women’s rights movement. I am not even quite clear as to just what this women’s rights movement really is. To me it has seemed a problem of humanity in general. (Ledger, Henrik Ibsen, 33-34).

However, Ibsen’s plays deal with a preoccupation with “the obstacles put in the way of individual liberty and freedom by bourgeois society in the late nineteenth century” (Ledger, 34) – a preoccupation shared by the Women’s Movement.  Ibsen acknowledges that his writing was influenced by well-known feminist Camilla Collett.  Suzannah Thoresen, Ibsen’s wife, was a feminist as well.  In his notes for A Doll’s House, he states: “A woman cannot be herself in contemporary society, it is an exclusively male society with laws drafted by men, and with counsel and judges who judge feminine conduct from a male point of view” and, indeed, many of his plays present “emancipated” and well-educated women (Ledger 33).   Ultimately, however, Ibsen is known as a founder of Modernism in drama.  His treatment of the “women question” was part of his role as “the most fearless debunker of the idols of Western culture during a time when 'ideas, ideals, relationships unchanged since time our of mind were vulnerable to attack and open to amendent' ” (Templeton, 325).  Influenced by the Modernist thinker, Brandes, Ibsen dealt with the women question as a way of questioning the supremacy of old and established modes of thinking (such as the idea of women’s inferiority to men) as part of a larger Modernist agenda.

Pictures: Top Right: Suzannah Thoreson, sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suzannah_Ibsen;

Lower Left: Camilla Collett, Nasjonalgalleriets Norske forfatterportretter, 1993, Norwegian painter Johan Gørbitz (1782-1853).