This dissertation investigates the way that feminist resistance is expressed in two Swedish and two German so-called New Woman novels from the turn of the twentieth century: Elin Wägner’s Pennskaftet (1910, Penwoman), Gabriele Reuter’s Aus guter Familie (1895, From a Good Family), Hilma Angered-Strandberg’s Lydia Vik (1904), and Grete Meisel-Hess’s Die Intellektuellen (1911).
The theoretical apparatus is comprised by the work of Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Jacques Lacan, and Jessica Benjamin. By introducing a psychoanalytic and feminist perspective, this dissertation seeks to develop the possibilities for agency and resistance within the framework of Foucault’s theories. It investigates four textual and contextually grounded strategies of resistance that are prominent in these novels: individuality, openness, desire, and eugenics.
This study demonstrates how Gabriele Reuter, Grete Meisel-Hess, and Hilma Angered-Strandberg, inspired by the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche and Ellen Key, depict feminine individuality in relation to a scientific and philosophical discourse that specifically denied women individuality. The authors anchor individuality in a corporality that was similarly denied to women by a bourgeois and dogmatic Christian discourse.
Openness and wit function as resistance strategies in Elin Wägner’s Pennskaftet. Humorous rejoinders and narrative comments can disarm a conservative. An open attitude towards the emancipation project could also help to resolve the conflicts between different feminist positions and between different women.
Desire functions as an important resistance strategy in each of the novels examined. It is variously represented as a vital instinct, a desire for knowledge, and a sexual desire, as in Gabriele Reuter’s Aus guter Familie – or as a desire for suffrage, as in Pennskaftet, or for maternity legislation, as in Grete Meisel-Hess’s Die Intellektuellen. By formulating a notion of feminine desire, turn-of-the-century feminists were able both to seize control of sexuality from the church and to wrest morality from the grasp of the bourgeoisie. These resistance strategies could also have a biopolitical character: in Grete Meisel-Hess’s Die Intellektuellen, woman is placed at the service of humanity on eugenicist grounds, and her good qualities are seen as capable of promoting humanity’s progress.
This dissertation shows that in these novels desire at the individual level serves to reinforce feminine subjectivity. Love is seen as associated with an intensified sense of life and as a precondition of creativity. At the social level, desire also functions as the basis for a feeling of solidarity among women that instils in them courage and an urge to persevere in the suffrage struggle, this latter a highly protracted process. In this way desire acquires political potential.
A framing chapter on context provides the intellectual and philosophical backgrounds of the various strategies of resistance. It is followed by four analytical chapters, each of which addresses one novel.