Modernist Thoughts and Movements

For Further Study

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,;

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